Chapter 4 - Ra Bourbon and people
I first lighted upon the glowing afflatus while removing myself from my then girlfriend, Shenya Goldfinch, who was housed at the Scott dorm at UNC-Charlotte. Bourbon too had a lady there, and he was only just arriving. When he walked, his hair waved in the air like flames licking the breeze for oxygen. My hair was tussled and pillowflattened at the crown, a fate worse than hathead, especially in the 70s, when this all transpired. In full form, I resembled a bumpkin Gino Vanelli, afros and subcasual being the order of the day. Disco was just beginning to take root.
As I walked through the doors, which opened before me the fresh world, I thought I heard something that sounded like a cat, only at a distance, and high above me. Maybe it was a dirigible or some sort of insect. I heard it again. Then, looking ahead, I noticed that I was about to run into this princely young man who was about to make his ingress.
As I stepped aside, from out of the sky fell this kitten, who had been dangling from a tenth floor window ledge, but had lost her grip. But just before hitting hard ground, her fall was broken my Ra Bourbon’s hair. And face. Sadly coming to rest on his nipple, where frantically the cat’s outstretched arm found anchorage.
Blood was pouring down the stranger’s face in tiny rivulets. I stood in shock looking into the eyes of this stranger who was suddenly stricken manic by this inauspicious turn of events. Kitty was strangely nonchalant.
Thinking quickly, I pull some rolling papers out of my suede leather jacket pocket and started dabbing the facial wounds, an activity which lastest about, oh, one second.
“What the hell are you doing? Are you a nurse?”
The stranger struggled over to the pay phone, and began feeding it nickels.
Feeling bad, but not knowing really what to do, I walked to my beetle and sputtered home.
A year or so later, I was having lunch in the Central Piedmont cafeteria, which was quite a social venue at the time, as was the legendary Jimmy’s Restaurant, which was the other place the local intelligencia would gather and discuss existentialism and neo-Platonism and such.
I saw some people gathered around a table not far from where I was sitting, and recognized one or two. But another face was among them. It was the guy who had bad luck with cats, Ra Bourbon.
I decided to play a trick…
“Nonny! Hey what’s up, man?” CB, or Cool Breeze as we called him, had the most laid back manner. I think he was on downers.
“Nuttin much. Fartin’ around. Hey, who’s yer bud?” I pointed toward Ra Bourbon.
“Oh Sh*t! Nonny, this is Ra Bourbon. He’s a poet and a musician.”
“And photographer!” Ra Bourbon interjected.
“Cool!” I said. “Now let me guess some other stuff about you.” I squenched my eyes, and put my hands to my temples as if concentrating really hard.
“You are from up north.”
“From, uh, Ohio?”
“Well yes! You can tell by the way I articulate.”
“Damn. Who is this guy?”
“And you live near the university.”
“I’m getting the willies.”
“Who are you? Somebody…” He looked around to see if anyone was snickeringly betraying conspiracy, but found none.
As usual, I couldn’t contain myself, and blurted laughter from the frontal regions of my head.
“Cat. Scott dorm.”
“My God. Was that you? You bastard!” We both broke into laughter as we recounted the surreal moment of our meeting. And so it was that Ra Bourbon and I met again. This time we hit off a lasting friendship. And for a few hours that day, we sat around and talked about music, philosophy and women. And a little genetics. But that was expected.
What was unexpected was that Ra Bourbon and I shared a few friends, unbeknownst to either of us, or them for that matter.
He and Tom Bleever had spend their childhoods together, and he had participated in some of Tom’s high school orgies. They even shared a girlfriend or two. But, at least according to theories, they did not share each other. Not that it would have mattered. Charlotte has long been in the southern vanguard when it comes to tolerance. In fact, my very alma mater, at one time, was ground zero for the experiment of busing, integration, desegregation. And while there were race riots, there was also a general cooperation and shared feeling among most that we (those who were thrust into the ratmaze) could overcome out differences, and learn to love and respect one another. And that chapter of my life, and the people involved in the healing, I like to call…
Lions of Peace
West Charlotte High School was, at one time, an all-black high school. It was THE all-black high school. But that ended in 1970, when busing was ordered from on high.
On the first day of school at West Charlotte, I found myself being the only kid on a bus that should have been filled. But many parents played tricks in order to have their kids sent to more respectable schools – meaning white schools. And other parents simply would not let their kids go. Kept them at home. Safe in their white prison.
Some parents would take their white kids to school, and not let them ride on the buses, out of fear, I suspect, that they would what? Be asked to sit in the back of the bus?
Anyway, my folks saw no danger in allowing me to travel across town, even if I were the only white representative. They have always believed in ambassadorship, having done some of it on their own, in places like the old Soviet Union and communist China. I even believe that they, and their gentle, friendly, open demeanors helped to thaw much of the ice that had built up between the US and these other peoples. And too, I suspect they figured I might yet have such an effect in thawing the black/white dichotomy that had divided the south for so many years of its history.
I don’t think I did such a bad job. But some of the kids at school really went out of their way breach the gap, and their efforts were so successful that within my three years at West, we began sending ambassadors up to Boston, where race riots had sprung up, over similar issues. And these ambassadors helped the good folks of Boston to overcome their racial unrest.
I first met Ginger L. the night we won the Pulitzer Prize. It was also my first day at the paper, so no, we didn’t win it because of anything I had done, although, at first, I thought the party was about my arrival there. I was wrong, however, as I have been on at least one other occasion in my life.
As the shift ended, and the time to party neared, I sauntered over to the desk of Ra Bourbon, who was getting read to bolt. Suddenly a pretty young reporter walked up.
“Nonny, this is Ginger. She went to Princeton.” He then turns to her, “Nonny’s a Harvard man.”
I guess Ra figured that since they were both Ivy League schools, we should know each other. We didn’t. I didn’t know most of the folks at Harvard. I stupidly thought it was the books and not the people that was important, and so while others were padding their Rolodexes, I was attending the longest sustained period of sobriety in my life. I knew, from experience, that I had a history of sabotaging my goals right at the last minute, often in a sort of O. Henryesque reversal of fortunes.
To combat this tendency, I foreswore drunken revelry, and nights around the hookah, and buried my head in books, lectures and art…of which Harvard and Boston had the Lion’s share.
Ginger L., unlike yours truly, was a Legacy. Her dad had also gone to Princeton. To her, it was probably not all that big a deal. For me, it was a big deal. My own father had gone to the Harvard of the South, Chapel Hill, and so I thought it only fitting to try to attend the septentrional counterpart.
Had only I gone and looked at Chapel Hill beforehand, I may have wished to go there instead. It would certainly have been a less hectic, challenging life. But back then, I welcomed challenge. Now I prefer the paring of the nails. So relaxing.
“You can tell a Harvard Man…” Ginger L. said. “…but you can’t tell him much.” She had heard the wise old saying, which may well be said of any number of other places, but certain not Hahvahd! I mean we were 98% ear, weren’t we? Absorbency itself?
“Princeton, huh! Probably THE best institute of remediation in all of Jersey!” I spoke in Hahvahdese, which I had not yet shed. And which often caused my parents to look at me like I was an alien creature, since, after all, I am a product of the South. Charlotte is still in the South, last I head. Lost, lonely and Blue, mind, but still within the frame.