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“You like funny stories?”
Picture a brown box, unassuming and unpretentious in its presentation, but massive and statuesque on the corner of V and 9th streets northwest. You would never know what goes on inside unless you already know what’s going on inside.
That’s what you get from this DC landmark. It’s a building: no signage, no windows, no impression that it even wants anything to do with you… Until it opens up and lets you in.
Now on the inside… well, that’s another story. Because inside is a story, decades in the making. It’s history, romance, drama and action all packed into a big brown box. Today, it’s a Washington monument, right up there with Ben’s Chili Bowl and The White House.
It’s the place Alanis Morissette would rock when she was testing songs that ended up becoming Jagged Little Pill. Where Dave Grohl wasn’t the Dave Grohl when he first blessed the stage, but just another kid from down the street, who eventually got his shot with Dain Bramage, which was before Foo Fighters, before Nirvana, hell even before his Scream days. The place where Public Enemy gave a sneak preview of their eventual hit, “9-1-1 Is A Joke” (because, you know, only in 1989 was that the case).
So there I was, standing in front of the general manager of this epic place, putting forth my best effort to try and become a part of this history. What better way to get on a person’s good side than to tell them a story, especially one that contained something in it for them at the end. People in power always like it when there’s something in it for them.
And so that’s why I asked: “You like funny stories?”
I didn’t wait for her to reply before I went on: “I don’t mean funny ha ha. I mean funny like serendipitous, meant-to-be type funny. The kind of funny that makes you believe that someone somewhere is looking out for you.”
She gave me her attention through squinted eyes that actually kind of made me a bit nervous. She might’ve been older than 50, but looked active. She was tall, and I wouldn’t be surprised if I found out she’d been a decent basketball player at one point in her life. The music geek in me naturally thought of Sue Sylvester from Glee, which didn’t help the intimidation factor. But I took a quick breath and refocused on my story. It was a good story–one with the kind of ending that might earn me a lifelong friend in this woman!
I proceeded with confidence, head up, shoulders back: “So last night, a car was driving along Lime Kiln Road in Leesburg, Virginia when suddenly it smashed into a deer. Or a deer smashed into it. Either way, there was an accident. The driver wasn’t hurt. Thank goodness. In fact, he got out of the car when he realized it wasn’t going to move because of the carcass trapped underneath it…”
I felt her impatience looming as she started to take a deep sigh.
“Wait, it gets better,” I interrupted. “So apparently someone called the cops. They got there and immediately caught the stench of alcohol emanating from him with every breath. He was less than a mile away from his house and they arrested him for driving under the influence. Can you believe that? By the way, the deer didn’t die from the hit, but the cop had to put it out of its misery–”
“Got about 90 seconds,” she cut in.
“The driver… was 23-year-old Jim Nightengale,” I revealed, fighting the urge to smile as she stared at me for a moment before dropping her head with a deep breath.
She obviously already knew what I was telling her, but now she knew that I knew. But I finished anyway, you know, for good measure:
“Oh, yeah, he was also driving on a suspended license. So. Can’t leave the state of Virginia anytime soon. Now here’s the funny part. Not ha ha, but the other funny. Gavin Degraw is going to be here this weekend–”
Without warning, she started walking away from me. But I felt like I had her on the ropes now! I was this close to getting what I came for, so I followed, walking closely behind her, still talking.
“And since Jim Nightengale is obviously going to be unavailable–”
“How the hell do you know all that about Jim?” she barked as she stopped and turned back to look at me.
Her gaze caused me to miss a breath, but I quickly recovered and came back with a body blow, dealt with a smile that showed absolutely no signs of weakness: “I know a lot of things. Like, I also know that Gavin Degraw is going to be in Chicago the same day for another event, and according to my sources, the earliest he can get to DC would be 6 pm. Reagan, Dulles or BWI–no matter which airport he’s flying into, there’s no way he can get off a plane, get here and be on that stage by 7 o’clock.”
And for a split second–she probably didn’t even notice it, but I did–she looked down, and that’s when I knew I had her. All I had to do was go in for the knockout:
“And that’s with perfect traffic,” I said. “You need an opener and Nightengale is out. But someone somewhere is looking out for you…”
I couldn’t read the look on her face, but I chose to think it was one of admiration. She was a woman of power. I was on my way to being her coeval someday. I had played this whole thing flawlessly, so I stood there refusing to break eye contact as I waited for something like an old, “Atta girl,” given my approach to solving a problem for her that she didn’t even know I knew she had.
Now, I’m not usually this smug, so let me provide you with a bit of context so you know how I got here…
Sometime during one of the golden ages in music… an aspiring music mogul–who we’ll just call “Tom”–fresh out of grad school at Berklee, planted his feet firmly onto the Yellow Brick Road. Or better, the gum-stained asphalts we call the sidewalks of New York.
It wasn’t long before Tom was embracing life in a quaint, overpriced Manhattan apartment. More nights out than in with the city that never sleeps. And embracing his new gig as an A&R rep at… let’s just call it, “Big Music Company.”
Those nights out on the town were part of the job as an A&R guy: go to a few clubs, listen to a few voices… He was on the lookout for something with what he simply called, “it.”
“It” could come in any form: boy, girl, tall, round… Any form, of course, except old. He never worked with anyone over the age of 26.
So let’s say he found your typical cute, white, guitar-playing 19-year-old Joe Schmoe on the stage in some dive bar getting panties thrown at him–literally and figuratively, doesn’t matter. If Tom liked him and thought he had “it,” then he figured you’d like him.
So he’d invite him to his office, introduce him to a few other “Toms” like himself. Then he would offer him coffee or water along with a recording contract.
He may or may not say the exact words: “Sign this. It’s the only way anybody’ll care about your music,” but that’d surely be what he meant.
So, Joe Schmoe, smitten by the idea of being a star, now has Big Music Company working for him with all its money, its power, its respect. Their job? To make sure you not only know Joe Schmoe, but that you BUY Joe Schmoe.
For ages, this was just the way business was done–the proverbial blueprint to music success.
That is, until technology changed everything. Making music no longer required millions of dollars, thousands of hours and hundreds of people. In fact, folks no longer even needed stores to sell or get a-hold of it.
So, after one album that achieved the sales equivalent of plastic rather than platinum, Big Music Company would see no reason to continue working with Joe Schmoe.
Because here’s the thing: by the turn of the century, with just a few hundred bucks, a few hours, and the help of a few friends, the same thing Joe signed his life over to Big Music Company to do? Could be done out of an apartment.
In fact, with so much of the business being done in apartments, dorm rooms, and coffee shops… Big Music Company eventually saw no reason to keep their offices staffed with so many “Toms.”
Welcome to the age of digital supremacy–where vinyl records are more popular than ever, yet record stores are mere folkloric myth.
And with that proverbial blueprint to doing business in music having long since crashed and burned, independent musicians continue to find ways to exploit their talent all by themselves. But to be successful, amateurs do need something–some kind of business or people, or team of business people–that can take care of all that other stuff while they’re out rapping and singing and playing all over the place.
If only there were such an infrastructure specifically for this kind of thing…
Enter… me! Equipped with a 3-year-old laptop I just finished paying off three months ago, 400 square feet of my father’s basement that I hijacked four years ago, which doubles as my home and my headquarters, armed with not much more than sheer will and a go-getter mentality. Believe it not, I am Tom’s dream.
Now, back in the day, being signed to a record label would’ve meant that an artist had to sign their lives over to a big company. But today, this–the 3-year-old laptop, the 400-square-foot room, the girl with nothing but hustle–is the new “Big Music Company.”
What Tom had–the money, the power, the team of other Toms imposing their will? Yeah, I don’t have all that.
No big office building, either. And I also don’t have the luxury of being in the Music City. And around here, the lights are out and doors are locked by 2 a.m., so we can’t proclaim to never sleep. Ladies and gentlemen, I give you… Washington DC.
The White House, monuments, museums, memorials, politics… I know: not exactly what comes to mind when you think of music. In fact… I really don’t have any of the things I need to make my job easy.
Then again… whoever said it was supposed to be?
I have big dreams for my little company to be great someday. And not just dreams, but plans to get it there.
I know what you’re thinking: another typical millennial, all career and no love life. And, well… you’re right. Shut up!
But it’s not my fault! Seriously, I have the perfect explanation for why unfortunately my plans for success in business don’t apply to dating. Here’s the thing that most people don’t know: the Nation’s Capitol has the lowest marriage rate in the country but the highest number of same-sex couples.
DC literally is the gayest place in America! So, in order to find love, a single girl might have better luck finding–well–a single girl.
So those of us who prefer our mates be from Mars, might actually have to start going there to find them. ’Cause when it comes to the game of love? The most powerful city on earth… is a forlorn underdog.
All of this makes great fodder for my often self-indulgent social media rants where I chronicle my life’s two greatest hurdles: music and men.
It makes for even better lunch conversation, especially when the players are my closest friends.
I must warn you before I introduce them that I have never met two more contrasting figures before in all my life. Even my divorced parents weren’t as opposing in personality as these two, although somehow, Ty and J manage to remain very close and relatively civil. Perhaps it’s because they’ve never had to live together.
Today’s lunch takes place at our favorite mutually agreeable place to both eat and take in the view of DC’s array of similar hipster, artsy Black folk: Bus Boys and Poets. It’s a restaurant/coffee shop/bookstore aptly named after Langston Hughes, who before his acclaim as one of the great American poets, worked as a busboy at the Wardman Park Hotel. It’s the kind of place you find people who care whether their coffee is fair trade and their food is organic, sustainable, hormone free, and local. So I will neither confirm nor deny whether it had anything to do with the gentrification of the U Street corridor on which it’s located.
“Really, I haven’t completely given up. I’ve just, I don’t know,” Ty tried to explain, searching for the words as if they were somewhere on the plate of salad on the table in front of her. “I’ve just changed my perspective a bit, I guess.”
The subject was the non-date dinner she’d had last night with a guy from the building where she worked. Things had gone… nicely. Not bad. Not great. Just… nice. But not nice enough to do it again.
Like I explained: DC is a difficult place when it comes to finding love, and like the very liberal town that it is, said difficulty does not discriminate based on race, religion, or creed.
There are “Victims,” a category under which I’d file Ty.
Full name: Tylia Elise Aldridge
Birthplace: Lagos, Nigeria (but calls Naples, Florida her US home, since she grew up there)
Ty has one of those faces that make you feel special when you’re around her. It’s her natural attentiveness coupled with her bright, cheerful eyes that appear as if they’re smiling at you even when she’s not. They sit on a face that’s covered by brown sugar-colored brown skin–the kind of brown that’s golden in the right kind of light.
Neither tall nor short, neither slim nor obese, she’s the epitome of an American girl, down to her origins being in another country.
She’s the youngest of her parents’ three children, and the only girl. And I’ve joked with her on many occasions about whether she’s an actual princess. Yes, it is her father’s nickname for her, but I have reason to believe he means it literally when he refers to her that way. And, perhaps in jest, she has never formally denied my allegations, only acknowledged my inquiry with a snicker that makes me feel silly for even asking.
Nevertheless, she gives off an aristocratic vibe that could come across intimidatingly if she wasn’t so southernly gleeful. Despite her very traditional and conservative upbringing, she’s the most loving person I know, which makes it easy to talk to her about anything because she tries her best not to judge, but rather to understand. Armed with an Ivy League education from Princeton, she was now a postdoctoral fellow, so her chosen profession as a psychologist was a perfect fit for this natural skillset.
So, what made her a victim? Well, she met a guy just out of undergrad, dated him for a few years, said, “Yes,” to his proposal while in med school; I was a bridesmaid at their beautiful midsummer night ceremony in Rock Creek Park. Now, nearly 3 years to the day, she was reclaiming her maiden name before she was able to add the title of “Doctor,” having just signed next to the ‘X’ at the bottom of the divorce papers.
“Even with all that’s going on,” she continued, “I can’t bring myself to give up on— Jesus, would you stop staring at my head?”
I’d been caught. I had just seen her the day before when her hair was normal. At least, normal to how I was used to seeing her. But now? Gone. All of it, except for about a half inch or so. I couldn’t help but stare.
So I said: “But it’s gone. All of it—”
My observation went ignored. “My point is,” she went on, “the statistics just aren’t in our favor. And there’s only so much space in this city. After while, we’re going to find ourselves dating guys we ruled out just to have something to do on the weekend.”
“I beg to differ,” said J, of course, sitting behind a burger and fries (concentrating on those fries though).
Now, J was one who never had a problem finding something new to do on a weekend. In fact, she routinely met good-looking, successful, available men with whom she shared common interests. The most common of interests almost always being sex.
J would be in the category: “Perpetrators.”
Full name: Jesenia Lorena Llaureano
Birthplace: Chicago, Illinois
I can admit–some women just have it. And J, well, she is one of those women. She isn’t just pretty, she’s actually striking. And she’s the kind of girl who walks into every room as if she owns it and everyone in it—head up, shoulders back and a strut to rivals Naomi Campbell’s. Whether it’s true or not, she knows that every man wants her, and that every woman… Well, this is DC, so the women might want her too!
She’s slightly taller than the average woman by about an inch. She has soft, curly hair, which always varied in style—lately she kept it on the shorter side–and skin almost the color of roasted peanuts. She’s a slightly darker version of her mother, an El Salvadorian immigrant who found love in a hopeless place when she fell for a married, Black dentist, whose office she managed in Chicago.
Fashion and style comes effortlessly to her, and she always looks “put together” even during her down time—even without a drop of makeup, which she rarely dons anyway.
Although Ty is a more of a textbook “big sister” type, I actually looked up to J a little more. I’ve always admired Ty, but—though I have never said this aloud—I’ve always been enamored by J. Perhaps part of me wishes that I were more like J in some ways.
“Perfect example,” J explained, “this guy I met the other day—”
“At Trader Joe’s!” Ty exclaimed, cutting her off to explain this apparent absurdity to me. “She doesn’t even cook. She uses the grocery store as her own personal meat market.”
J carried on without a hitch: “32-year-old single professor from St. Louis. Georgetown University brought in him and five more just like him to fill a void in their liberal arts department. We’re hooking up tomorrow night-”
“Seriously? Is that all it’s about?” Ty asked, although I had a sneaking suspicion she already knew the answer.
“My point is that men are coming and going all the time.” And perhaps to amuse her, J continued with: “I just like to meet the ones coming so I can cum with them.”
Ty snuck in an eye roll, sigh, and headshake all in one gesture before: “I can literally still feel your eyes on my head,” she said to me.
“I’ll be honest,” J said as she finished chewing. “I’ve been checking for a motherfuckin’ dragon tattoo for the last 10 minutes myself.”
With another roll of the eyes, Ty said, “It’s just hair! It’s not like I cut off an arm.”
Which started a back and forth between them: “Yeah, but it was your hair,” J said.
“But I am not my hair.”
“No, but it was kinda you—”
“Well, it’s gone now, okay?” Ty said with a laugh that kept her position in the debate light and playful rather than defensive.
“Hey, is it weird that I don’t even think about dating?” I asked out of nowhere.
And this was perhaps the one thing they both could agree on: “Yes!” they replied in unison.
Now, I had no clear-cut category in which to place myself. I wasn’t a victim. I wasn’t a perpetrator. In fact, I was too green to have any role in the game at this point.
Full name: Kenya Shaw
Birthplace: Washington, DC
I was just… me—the girl who hadn’t been on consecutive dates since diving head first into my dream of owning a record company… four years ago.
Time is the key to knowing me—a commodity very few are willing to invest. The ladies sitting across from me were two of only a few to ever earn my dividends, while the world is left trying to describe the details of a book that it may never take the time to fully open; the cover is all that’s used to go on.
But still, you go on, telling your friends what you know, which usually starts with the obviously—my hair—‘cause it’s big, and it’s curly, and it’s not like hair you always see, so you stop and you look, and you want to ask if you can touch it, but you probably won’t. That’d be rude or just weird. Because even though it’s hair in its purest state, you deeply want to believe that there is a “process” to getting it natural like it is.
So then you’d tell your friends about the sienna earth tone that covers me from head to toe, and how it seems like a mismatch to my eyes, which lack much visible sclera—eyes that are more “common” on people from the Far East. Like you, your friend will wonder and maybe even have the nerve to ask if I have anything “in” me that brings about this contrast in expected appearance.
My answer—maybe or maybe not so politely—would be Yes!
I am all kinds of Black, with blood that was boiled on the land of Mother, then smeared across this green ball, east to west, up and down, in and then through. Blood that made hair, skin and eyes all textures, shades and shapes—that made me harder, bigger, faster, stronger. So if you think something else is in me that makes my eyes narrower than others you’ve seen that are my shade of brown, I’d tell you, you got it backward. Nothing is in me. Rather, me is in every damn thing!
A girl uninterested in the interests of the world, but obsessive about her own interests, which are not the typical interests of a “girl”—and expresses this interest with an unmoved, undeterred passion—is usually called a nerd.
If her interest goes a step further by moving into competitive, male-driven industries, she is then referred to aptly as a Tomboy.
And to take it even further, if this interest of hers is then pursued passionately in the competitive, male-driven domain with a level of assertiveness that says to everyone that she’s in it to win it, she is then thought of as “probably a lesbian.”
I’ve been called it all—nerd, Tomboy, “lesbo”—and I accept this compliment. I might actually be a nerd. What the fuck is a “tomboy,” really? And some of the most powerful, most interesting, most successful women I know are, in fact, lesbians, so if I’m mistaken as part of their group… Thank you.
That, I suppose, is the plight of the modern woman—she’s got to be “figured out” by the world or risk being labeled.
What you need to know about me, though, is simple: I love music, I have a penchant for creative and administrative details, and I like to win.
My approach to this life as a future music mogul is like that of an athlete on the road to greatness—I show up early; I stay up late; I study “game film,” which is to say, I study my opponents, and I research my potential partners, as I like to always know my position in the game.
So, I ask you now: is it weird that I don’t even think about dating?
Ty and J both thought, “Yes.” And as they laughed—not at me, but at their first agreed upon opinion ever—I refused to join them as I dropped my head in playful shame.
And then I attempted to explain something to the two people who knew me best in this world, which meant they already knew this: “Look, it’s not that I don’t think about men. I do. It’s just… I don’t know what to say to the ones I want to meet, and it’s never the ones you want who approach—”
“So true!” Ty agreed.
“Which is why I go after what I want,” J said, not revealing anything new. “Don’t leave it to them. Shit. This is two thousand and-”
“That requires way too much… transparency,” I said. I used the word “transparency” instead of the word I should’ve used, which was “confidence.” J had the confidence. “Plus I don’t even know where to start-”
“Well, you can’t start in your father’s basement, that’s for sure,” Ty said.
“Aye, why don’t you come with us?” J asked. “I’m taking Ty with me to this networking thing…”
J proceeded to describe this upcoming event that she thought I should attend, even though I already knew I wouldn’t be joining them.
As a writer, J’s main outlet was FACE, one of the country’s top female-focused lifestyle magazines—often referred to as the lady GQ—so if there was a place with even the slightest hint of eligible bachelors, J was sure to be on top of it… pun very much intended.
Ty said with a sigh, “Yeah, I don’t know why I let her talk me into going to this thing—”
“She needs to get her mind off this divorce paper signing shit and have some goddamn fun. You should come too.”
“Yes! You should,” Ty said. Misery sure does love company. Before I could respond, she said, “And don’t say—”
“I can’t,” I said anyway. “Look, I have artists that have dreams, and they look to me to make plans for those dreams to come true. That means I got work to do. Which reminds me: Cleveland…”
I had forgotten to put this upcoming meeting in my phone calendar, so I was doing so now.
“Fuck is in Cleveland?” J asked, with seemingly half that burger in her mouth.
“Not the city. Cleveland Avenue in Arlington,” I explained. “I have to meet a guy there about getting Lucas on this club card.”
“Jesus. You’re still trying to get Lucas on that stage?” Ty asked.
She had heard my war stories about this. Three times previously, I had met managers or booking agents whose artists were doing shows there and asked if we could join. All three times, the answer was, “NO!” Of course, they didn’t know me, so with one in every two people calling themselves a musician, if there were an opening, they’d likely just give that opportunity to someone they knew.
But then there was that time a few months ago when I got a “yes” from the manager of a supposed boy band (something that almost never works on an indie level because it requires too much money). However, the show got cancelled the day before because, of course, they broke up.
And now, the perfect opportunity–the perfect person for my artist to open for–was coming to town in two and half days. I had information that would make my plea a slam dunk to get on the card, but I still had no clue who to even talk to.
So when Ty asked if I was still trying, I replied, “Yes. And preferably with a check. When my artists get paid, I get paid. And I need to get paid.”
“You need to get laid.”
And for the second time at my expense, they shared a laugh. Yeah, J was probably right, but… she didn’t deserve the satisfaction of knowing that.
+ + +
The truth was that my line of work put me in direct contact with men all the time. Granted, they were mostly rappers, singers, and wanna-be rockers; hence, the reason why I almost never had second dates.
And then there were guys like him–the reason for my lack of first dates. The “him” I’m referring to was the owner of the two most beautiful brown eyes I’d ever seen in my life, which I found myself staring into as he helped me to retrieve the mess that had fallen out of my bag and onto the floor of the Apple showroom.
After lunch with the girls, I hopped on the Metro and headed across town in the direction of my afternoon meeting. Instead, I found myself loitering inside the electronic superstore before I suddenly and mindlessly collided with a “Genius” running by, spilling my entire bag onto the floor. The smarty-pants didn’t even stop to help gather my things.
The aforementioned “Him” with the deep brown eyes, the skin like Godiva, the beard (and I have a thing for beards), and the curly hair was a customer waiting to be waited on. I hadn’t even noticed him until he was already down on the floor in front of me, helping to collect the CDs and other junk that had fallen out of my bag.
This could’ve been it–my chance to be “transparent.” But it was as if all the possible words I could’ve said had also fallen onto the floor too, and I was having trouble picking them up. It felt like an eternity down there with him on the floor, blanketed by silence. I kept wanting to find those beautiful brown eyes of his again and again, but I forced them to focus on the floor in front of me.
After the five seconds or so that it took, I stood up first and then he followed, handing me one last disc. I realized right then that I must’ve also spilt my breath out onto the floor when I dropped my things, because my lungs were empty.
I somehow managed to graciously mumble, “Thanks. Thank you.”
And as usual in situations like this, I had no idea what to do. What to say. Or what to do with my hands. I clumsily leaned onto an iPad or something, causing it to make a noise, which then caused even more anxiety as he smiled and gave a quiet, “You’re welcome,” just as a saleswoman approached, saying that she could help him.
I watched him walk away, wanting to still say something and wishing that I already had. I even started to come up with little scenarios in my head, like, what if I waited until he was finished and accidentally-but-not-accidentally bumped into him again outside, only this time I would—
“I’m all done. You ready?” interrupted Soloman, my good friend (who I didn’t think was so good at the moment) as he stepped right in front of me, blocking my view of the guy who I will—from this point on—refer to as “Dream Guy.”
Reluctantly, I nodded yes, that I was ready to go, because I now had no real reason for being in that store. But as we walked toward the exit, I certainly wasn’t going to leave without getting one last look at him before I left.
“Needing a new motherboard and fan, economically made more sense to…”
Soloman went on and on, justifying why he had just purchased the new laptop he was carrying as we strolled down a bustling, rush hour street in Arlington, just across the bridge from DC in Virginia. When I told him that I’d be in his part of town that evening, he insisted I meet him for tapas or coffee. Or both.
“The last thing I wanted to do was spend money on a new laptop, but they couldn’t save my old lady, so I had to pull the plug. Sales guy was happy to introduce me to something new.”
He glanced down at the bag he was holding.
“She’s much thinner, and she’s fast and easy. Just like I like ’em,” he said with a smile.
At first glance it’s hard to tell whether he’s nerdy or just nice. But in fact, he’s both.
Soloman Dyal was actually one of DC’s genuinely nice single guys–a successful non-profit tech entrepreneur, whose company just secured its second round of financing, but whose unsuccessful love life perpetually kept him caught between a rock and a bunch of women used to making bad choices. Yeah, a very hard place.
Women immediately noticed how attractive he was as soon as they met him; the thing is… he didn’t know it. He didn’t dress like he knew it–wearing khakis, Chuck Taylors and flannel shirts with the sleeves rolled up all the time, like it’s his uniform. And he didn’t carry himself like knew it–standing with a slight hunch, probably from slouching in front of a computer all the time.
He’s of a respectable height and healthy weight. His smooth brown skin, jet-black hair and almond-shaped eyes were what attracted women to him though. He’s of Indian descent, but was born in the states–Aberdeen, Maryland to be exact–to parents of very modest means. Needless to say, they were quite proud of their little owner of a successful non-profit start-up in DC, but that hadn’t stopped them from questioning him about grandchildren or the opportunity to introduce him to, and I quote, “A nice Indian girl.”
“By the way, how’re things going with… what’s-her-name? That yoga instructor you were so excited about a few weeks ago?”
He took one of those deep breaths filled with his obvious feelings, and then answered, “Let’s just say, I’ll be spending tonight trying to hit the right buttons on this little beauty. It’s so easy to figure out what a computer’s doing. And when you can’t, all you have to do is ‘force quit’ and start over.”
I reminded him, “Computers are man-made, my friend.”
“Yeah. If only—”
“Dude,” I said without even looking at him. “You know what? I swear to God, if I find out Siri is more than a friend… I’m disowning you.”
And this drew a real, hearty laugh from him. I could tell he probably hadn’t laughed like that all day.
My attention, though, was immediately taken by the music coming from across the street. It was a familiar jazz meets funk sound I had discovered online one day while listening to an indie music station as I worked. I bought the vinyl.
“You know them?” Soloman asked.
“KC Roberts & the Live Revolution. Indie funk band from Canada,” I replied. “I was just listening to one of their albums the other day.”
Now, he decided to watch too, as the growing crowd outside the place where they were playing started to get up and dance more than I think they were expecting too. At this hour, the cheaper food and drinks were the initial draw for the after work bunch this evening; they probably hadn’t planned on having a two-step to go along with it.
“Look at all these people stopping to listen. Funny how half the audience aren’t even customers at the bar,” he commented, as pedestrians were being drawn in.
It was an unfamiliar and unexpected voice calling my name. I turned to see a scruffy white guy, who could’ve been 19 or 39, walking toward me.
“I spotted you… the hair,” he said, as he stopped right in front of me.
I had met him only once before, and it was a few months ago, but immediately realized who he was when he got closer, extending his hand out for a shake.
I obliged and wasted no time getting right down to business: “Dante. I was just on my way over to Cleveland Avenue to meet up with you. Please tell me you can get us on that stage this weekend—”
“Well, I can get you the person that can get you to the one in charge…” he said as he took a folded piece of paper from his back pocket and handed it to me as he finished, “…who should be able to help you—”
“This is it?” I asked, looking at a couple of names and a couple of numbers. “You could’ve texted me this-”
“I don’t text things that might come back to bite me in the ass.”
“Ain’t nothing here but names-”
“Of the guy across the street,” he explained. “He’s your eyes. And the guy with the keys. He lets you in. Simple.”
I just kept staring at the paper as if I was expecting something else to appear there that made more sense to me.
Dante cleared his throat and I quickly looked up at him. He rubbed his thumb and his first two fingers together, an apparent indication that he desired some money for this.
“You know what? Stax got you,” I said, implicating the mutual friend who’d introduced us.
But he wasn’t having it. I guess it was like going to a store and telling them that your friend would pay for the stuff later. And after I realized how silly I looked, and that he wasn’t buying it anyway, I began searching around my pockets.
“Five bucks,” I said, unfolding the balled up one dollar bills. “It’s all I have.
He looked at Soloman, perhaps hoping he would cosign for me, but he confirmed his non-involvement by just sipping his coffee and continuing to watch the band.
Dante decided to take my crumpled five, but as he left, he made one last request: “Tell Brandon he fucking owes me.”
Soloman and I watched him walk off.
“Why the hell is everything in your business so damn sketchy? Is it supposed to be this difficult?”
“I been asking myself that for the last four years,” I admitted with exasperation. “You wanna know the downfall of running an indie label?”
“There’s only one downfall?” he quipped.
“The best indie artists can do what I do, so they really don’t need me,” I admitted.
I absolutely loved what I did, but sometimes it could feel like I was doing it in vain. This was one of those times.
Soloman responded like the good friend that he is: “Yeah, but… couldn’t I make the argument that there are some pretty great artists out there who couldn’t do anything without you?”
We found that tapas spot he was telling me about and he treated me to what could’ve been a late lunch or an early dinner had it actually been more than hors d’oeuvre-sized portions.
But I couldn’t stop thinking about what he’d said as I made my way back to the Blue Line. He had a point.
Take Taj Kamal, for instance. He was the reason I started this business of mine in the first place years ago. He had music and no idea what to do with it; I was unemployed with time to figure it out.
And as I stepped into the warehouse-looking spot that acted as a rehearsal space because of its unassumingly great acoustics, I found myself looking right at Taj Kamal on the stage with his band as these memories of our humble beginnings danced through my head.
I stood there analyzing this entire skeleton-performance–how he moved, how they played off his direction with improv, how it sounded so much like The Roots and Outkast had a love child…
It had been four years now that he and I had become a tandem. A couple albums and a couple mixtapes later, here we were—finishing LP number three and trying to figure out how, exactly, we were going to make some money with this one.
“That’s it. Alright, take five,” he said to the four other guys, all with different instruments in hand.
He hopped off the stage and started toward me, looking shorter than his usual five feet and five inches. At 28, his beard stilled hadn’t completely filled in and he’d lost hope five years ago that it ever would; nevertheless, he worked with what he had. But perhaps, if it were fuller, he might appear older. His mother was the incarnation of Nefertiti—a Baltimore-born Egyptian, who at one time modeled for a living—and his father was Don Cheadle’s doppelgänger. With those genes, Tk could quite literally have been 50, but with his flawless, butterscotch complexion and boyishly innocent eyes, the inept beard didn’t age him a day.
He got to me and stopped short of any type of physical greeting. No handshake. Not even a dab. He’s Muslim, and I learned when we first met—working at a now defunct social media start-up geared toward Hip Hop fans—that what’s considered innocent contact under American circumstances between opposite sexes was prohibited in his religion. So our initial encounters always felt very abrupt.
“Wassup?” he asked.
To which I replied, “Cardio.”
And of course, he didn’t get it.
“Mid-way through the fourth bar you take this unusually uncomfortable breath, almost like a gasp for air, and it’s because the sequence of metaphors before don’t allow for you to breathe naturally in order to give the delivery you’re going for. Yes, cosmetically, you’re in decent shape, although you could stand to gain a few pounds, but cardio-vascularly (or is it cardio vascular-wise?)… you’re unable to effectively give the performance you desire, so… cardio. Run. Swim. Bike. Half hour, four to five times a week-”
“I’m surprised you’re here and not getting cardio yourself–running around trying to arrange meet-n-greets or something for Bieber,” he says with a crooked smile.
“And you feel so much better knowing the difference, don’t you?
I was ready to move on, so I let him have that last one.
“You ever listen to that show, On Blast?” I asked. “Comes on at 8 o’clock on—”
“The radio,” he finished, “which you know I don’t listen to. Too much Bieber for my taste.”
“Well guess who they’re interviewing this Friday. And it ain’t Biebs.”
He gave me a double-take: the first glance was dismissive because obviously I couldn’t be referring to him being the one on DC’s top radio station for Hip Hop music; the second look, though, was a realization that yes, I was seriously saying that he was the one who was going to be on DC’s number one station for Hip Hop!
So, I posed the question before he could ask it: “How did I pull off getting you on the highest rated Hip Hop radio show in the city?”
The answer was: I just asked nicely.
Well, here’s how it really happened: the radio station was located inside an eight story office building that required a scanning key or combination code in order to get in before even reaching a secured entrance with a guard and another locked door. But all of that is a moot point when the broadcasters operate outside of the building, which they do on a number of occasions in an effort to connect with their listeners in person.
If you know anything about radio, I can tell you that WHET is a commercial radio station, so even though On Blast, which had a segment where they spotlighted an up-and-coming artist by interviewing them and playing some of their music, had seemingly good intentions, there was a catch. The “spotlight” was usually focused on new or un-heard-of major label artists who needed the promotion—or who could afford to pay for said promotion. There’s a system set up within the music industry to keep the little guys little, and big radio stations play a part. So someone like me with my little record label—despite anything I’d call “success”—wouldn’t exactly fit the criteria for this show.
Amelia Cruz had been on the radio in DC for just 11 months. She was originally from New York, but took a promotion that brought her here. Hosting On Blast was her opportunity to lead a show of her own, and so far the ratings said that she was doing a great job.
Amelia was Puerto Rican, had two dogs, loved motorcycles, and was a staunch vegan. This is the kind of stuff you had to really want to know in order to know it. It was not easy-to-find info that could be uncovered by scrolling through her social media account. Finding it required digging much deeper.
But why did I know all this, you might ask?
Well, despite all I know about the radio business and how it works, on multiple occasions, I had thoughts about if and how I might get Tk’s music played on that station. I can admit, it was a very trivial thing in the grand scheme, but every artist wants to feel the joy that comes with hearing themselves on a major radio station, especially one in their hometown.
I wanted to do that for Tk.
Oh, who am I kidding? I wanted it too.
So, as serendipity might have it, I was in Chinatown one evening after a meeting when I spotted the station truck, table and banners setting up near the hockey and basketball arena for a live broadcast. This also happened to be not far from one of the best bakeries in town… which also happened to be a vegan bakery… A vegan bakery that I, as a slowly transitioning vegan myself with a monster sweet tooth, happened to frequent on at least a weekly basis… which means I knew the people there very well.
It was exactly 5:59 p.m. The bakery closed at 6. The girl’s hand was just about to turn the lock on the door when I appeared out of thin air (actually, I was running) and pushed through before she could twist that key.
I saw that look on her face that comes when you find out there’s more work to do as soon as it’s time to go home. But I didn’t care. I’d made it!
But it was still a roll of the dice. People are either salty snackers or sweet snackers. Of all the research I had compiled, this one small bit of information–whether Amelia was a salty or a sweet–was not something I had learned about her. So, I had my fingers crossed, hoping that she was a sweet snacker.
I was standing at the radio station popup table with a half dozen various flavors of freshly made vegan cupcakes.
Amelia, I found, was in fact a sweet! I learned this as I watched her stand before me nearly salivating as she looked down into the box I was holding.
“Six flavors. All 100% vegan,” I said.
“How’d you know I was vegan,” she asked.
And all I did was smile.
She said, “And the best place to get these is-”
I closed the box revealing the name of the bakery she was about to say.
“They’re all yours,” I said. “I just have one small favor to ask.”
She looked at me.
“My artist, Taj Kamal… I’d like for you to feature him on the artist spotlight on your show.”
“That’s it?” she said as if my request was miniscule, while already taking the box from my hand. “Done. Just give your info to my intern.” She was eating a cupcake before I could thank her.
Tk stood there, waiting for me to give the answer of how I’d gotten him on the radio. But I figure… artists don’t need to know how the sausage is made. So I didn’t bother going into all that with him. To answer the question of how I did it, I simply said: “I have my ways.”
“But commercial radio, though?” he said. It wasn’t so much a question as it was an expression of obvious uncertainty toward the idea.
We were independent. The plan was to keep it that way–to keep everything independent of big corporation persuasion. Pursuing commercial radio was obviously not a part of the plan. But sometimes, I figured, if you see an open door, you enter it.
“I know: not a part of the plan,” I admitted. “It was a shot in the dark. I took it.”
He took a deep breath, reconciling the idea. This was how our relationship always went. He trusted me. He believed in me just like I believed in him. The bottom line was, he just wanted to make music, not business decisions, which is why we worked so well together. He never gave me any push back, so I felt free to take chances like this, even when it fell outside of my original plan.
“Will you be there with me?” he asked.
Before I could answer, my phone began to sing–the sound muffled because it was buried deep down in the messenger bag that was draped across my chest.
As I began my frantic search for the phone with Tk watching and waiting, it hit me again: I didn’t realize until after I began working with Lucas how much Tk preferred me to be monogamous with my attention. With Lucas now, my polyamory bothered him.
“Yes, I’ll be there. I gotta take this. It’s someone with some information I need about something somewhere I need to be,” I said with the phone in my hand now.
He laughed as he was walking back toward the band, and said over his shoulder, “You better answer before you end up saying too much or not enough.”
“Cardio! Is that enough?!” I said back to him, laughing as I took the phone call, which turned out to be the one I’d been waiting for all day.
So here’s how this convoluted mess of a scenario I had gotten myself into was set to go: The guy, Dante (from Cleveland Avenue) apparently knew the guy doing renovation work on the club’s general manager’s house. The handyman would text Mr. Chan when she left for work. Mr. Chan, who was also a patron of this handyman’s services, ran a small tax business across the street from the club. Mr. Chan would then text Pruitt, a building manager, who not only had the keys to the club, but was also scheduled for a visit that day. Pruitt would be the one to let me in.
The call I’d received while I was with Tk was from Dante telling me to be at the club in 20 minutes. She usually only had a 10-15 minute “down time” window at the club on show days, which was most days, so I had to be precise in arrival and my pitch.
Hey, I know it sounds ridiculous, but with of all my lack of luck with getting my guy on that stage, I was willing to give just about anything the old college try at this point.
Now… Picture that brown box again–like the ones an Amazon.com order might arrive on your doorstep in–unassuming and unpretentious in its presentation, however massive, as it stands statuesque on the corner of V and 9th streets. You would never know what goes on inside unless you already knew what was going on inside.
That’s what you get from the 9:30 Club. At least, that’s what I got as I stood on the corner looking up at it from the outside.
I had been inside before to see shows—RDGLDGN, who’s from DC, made a stop on one of their first major tours, Brother Ali and Homeboy Sandman, and I even got to see Adele here, as she released 21 and kicked off her tour in the States!
So I have a relationship with this place. But not like the one I hoped to forge that day.
As I stood outside going over the pitch I was about to give, the door crept open behind me, and quickly getting my attention was a guy who looked similar to the one who connected us. I assumed this was Pruitt, but he never formally introduced himself. Only asked, “Kenya?”
To which I nodded in confirmation. He then motioned his head, signaling for me to follow him inside.
I walked in behind him, keeping my eyes on each step I took, because the corridor was quite dark and counting steps was my way calming my nerves.
“Aye,” he whispered after looking over and noticing where my focus was. “Head up. Can’t let her think you insecure. She hate weak people.”
I didn’t bother to explain why my head was down, I just took his advice and pulled it up. And just this simple act, along with rolling my shoulders back, which inevitably pushed my chest out a bit, somehow made me feel like Superwoman.
He stopped at an opening and let me know nonverbally that this was where I needed to be before walking off without so much as a “good luck.”
Feeling alone inside the box now, I took a deep breath and stepped into the main room. The place was only partially lit given that it was about two hours before doors were set to open and four hours before the headliner would take the stage, which tonight, was a punk band out of Philly.
The first thing I noticed was that stage and all that history…
But I couldn’t allow myself to remain in awe for more than a second, because to the left stood the reason I had come here–a woman in a white Ramones t-shirt, standing behind the bar, already prepared to dismiss me before she even heard my spiel, before even looking up from her paperwork (or whatever) to at least act like she cared about the gift I was there to give her.
“Whatever it is you’re selling, I don’t need it,” she said, with her head still down.
As the competitive type, I like to figure out my opponent. But this time, the only information I had on the person in front of me was her name: Bonni. No last name, and as of only ten seconds ago, I’d also learned that she didn’t like the appearance of weakness, so I kept my head up and my shoulders back.
I made sure I was right across from her–opposite the bar–before I said, “You sure are a hard woman to track down.”
And again, with no eye contact: “Time is spent but can’t be bought. I prefer mine not to be wasted. So whatever you’re selling—”
“I’m not selling anything, I just want five minutes of your—”
“I’m outta here in four,” she offered with a deep breath.
And the clock on the wall just above her head became apparent right at that moment. It read 5:56. “Fine,” I said, “because I only need three.”
With no other argument coming from her, I took this to mean that I was on the clock. So, I started: “My name is Kenya Shaw. I run an independent record label here in DC. 16:9 Recordings.”
I had my business card ready in hand. I slid it onto the paper where her eyes were focused, so that she had no other choice but to see it.
“I have two artists. Taj Kamal is one. You might’ve heard of him. And Lucas, a singer/songwriter. He’s who I want to talk to you about.”
From under my arm, I pulled out the newspaper that had recently written a favorable article and said, “City Paper calls him DC’s best kept secret…”
And lastly, I had my cell phone ready to play one of our best videos: an acoustic rearranged cover of “Same Old Love”–a simple, one-shot video of Lucas and his guitar displaying a pure, untouched vocal.
“That Selena Gomez cover got over 60 thousand views… In one week.”
Bonni appeared to be a bit intrigued at this point. She watched the video for a moment (maybe two) before looking back to the paper at a picture of the same cute, skinny white boy with a guitar. It was making an impression, I thought.
“Congratulations,” she said, apathetically.
And that was it.
I knew that I would need something else, so I came equipped with a trump card, although hoping that I didn’t have to use it. And as contemplation set in at that moment, I subconsciously looked down. It always feels like I can find my words down on the ground when I need them. But that, of course, was the very moment she decided to look over at me, almost catching me looking weak.
I quickly looked up and right into her eyes. And that’s when I asked her, “You like funny stories?”
She didn’t give me an answer, but she did give me squinted eyes, perhaps wondering where I was going with this line of questioning. My question was rhetorical, so, I went on. “I don’t mean funny ha ha. I mean funny like serendipitous, meant-to-be type funny. The kind of funny that makes you believe that someone somewhere is looking out for you…”
Well, you know how this goes—I tell her about the car accident, that poor deer (aww), and the fact that her headliner is without an opener for the show here this Sunday.
“How the hell do you know all that about Jim?” she said, turning back to me after having begun to walk away once she realized why I was there.
Her gaze caused me to miss a breath, but I quickly recovered and came back with a body blow. Starting with a smile that showed absolutely no signs of weakness, I finally said: “I know a lot of things. Like, I also know that Gavin Degraw is going to be in Chicago the same day for another event, and according to my sources, the earliest he can get to DC would be 6 pm. Reagan, Dulles or BWI–no matter which airport he’s flying into, there’s no way he can get off a plane, get here, and be on that stage by 7 o’clock.”
And for a split second–she probably didn’t even notice it, but I did–she looked down… and that’s when I knew I had her! All I had to do was close:
“And that’s with perfect traffic. You need an opener and Nightengale is out. But someone somewhere is looking out for you, Ms. Bonni.”
Still looking at me–rather, looking through me–she turns her attention to that same clock on the wall, which now reads 6:00 on the nose.
“When you walked in here, I made it clear as crystal that I do not like my time being wasted. So as fascinating and captivating an argument as that is, you just wasted not only your time, but more importantly, mine. I’m not the person you talk to about this—”
“So I don’t organize shows, sweetie.”
“But you can tell me who does.”
And for the first time in our brief relationship, she offered me a smile. It was a pleasant smile. I even thought that she had a very nice smile and that she should actually smile more often.
But with that smile plastered on her face, she secured her papers and things right next to her ribs as she said ever so politely: “You know so much, you figure it out.
I didn’t have anything left. And even if I had, I would’ve been giving it to the back of her head because that was all I could see as she walked out.
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