I was barely a teenager when I decided what I wanted to be when I became a grown-up: the owner of my very own business. But what I didn’t know was that it would require doing a whole lot of things I don’t particularly want to do, and even more things I’m not particularly good at—and that’s just the being-a-grown-up part.
Sometimes I felt like I had to put the adult thing on hold to focus on the more important entrepreneur thing, which actually finally felt like it might be paying off after four years and seven months of toiling away at it.
The sun was particularly shiny that November morning, which coincided with the unseasonably warm—although quite typical of DC—autumn weather we’d been having. I tried never relying on an alarm clock to get me up, and thanks to the sun imposing itself on my face at 7:02 a.m., that morning I didn’t have to.
By 9:02 am, my teeth had been brushed, my hair had been combed, and I was dressed (from the waist up) in a collared blouse and blazer, prepared for my big meeting—in front of my computer camera.
“We’ve seen ah… steady growth in our show attendance as well as across ah… social media…”
I looked and sounded nervous—glancing back and forth between the screen and the paper on the desk in front of me where I’d jotted some points I wanted to cover—but I wasn’t nervous. And I wasn’t unprepared.
The event was a gala at The Kennedy Center called “DC Honors,” an annual shindig to recognize some of the city’s most talented and influential citizens: public servants, small business owners, artists, teachers—the folks who kept the place afloat. My goal was to have them feature Tk as a guest performer at the ceremony. And as much as I’d like to take credit for getting to this point in the selection process (where I was talking to a board member via computer screen), I can’t.
A few weeks ago at an open mic where Tk was testing out some new material, a guy approached me after his set.
“Excuse me, are you Taj Kamal’s manager?”
I turned around and found the bright, blue-eyed glare of an obvious fan staring back at me, waiting for my response.
I took a moment to consider my answer because although it would appear that I was Tk’s manager—because I did, in fact, do all the things a manager was supposed to do—I wasn’t his manager. I was the head of a label. But at this point in the game, this was just semantics.
So I replied: “I handle his business, yes. How may I help you?”
He stuck out his hand, and before I could take it, he was introducing himself. “I’m the Director of Honors programming at the Kennedy Center. My name is Blaine Stanfeld.”
He could see the look of slight confusion on my face, so he proceeded, “It’s an annual gala that honors DC’s—”
“I’m familiar with it,” I cut in, “I’m just…”
“Wondering why I’m inquiring about Taj Kamal’s business?”
I smiled. He’d taken the thought right out of my head.
And then he smiled, revealing clear braces that looked like they had already done the job they’d been installed to do. His freckly alabaster skin brought out the orange of his full head of hair. He couldn’t pass for 30 even if he tried, but because of the fact that he mentioned his obviously weight-bearing job title before he even stated his name, I’d bet he never had to worry about his age causing any problems.
He said, “I’d like for you to consider submitting Tk’s name to our board as one of the featured performers for this year’s event.”
I quickly said, “I don’t need to consider it. It’d be… well, an honor.”
We shared a laugh at my little joke.
“I’m a huge fan of his work. I have every song he’s put out, so I’d personally like to see him on that stage.” He pulled out a card and pointed it at me. “Email my assistant a press kit and I promise you you’ll hear back from me soon.”
I took the card and thanked him. The press kit he’d requested was in his inbox by the time he got to work the next morning, and as promised, he got right back to me. But connecting with Blaine only qualified as step one.
“Look, I’ll be honest,” said Doug Lioni, the man staring back at me through the computer screen. “We don’t usually feature hip hop for events like this… for obvious reasons.”
Step two was convincing the committee. And the inverted version of Blaine looking back at me on the screen through black-rimmed glasses—a white-haired man of 50 years or so—was the committee’s sole representative for this meeting.
So I wasn’t nervous. And I wasn’t unprepared. I was, however, mentally trying to find the right way to sway someone who had no idea why he was even talking to me, wasn’t a fan of my artist’s music, and who obviously didn’t get why his coworker, who was half his age, would even suggest adding Hip Hop to this caliber of an event when it had never been a part of it before.
“May I ask: have you listened to any of Taj Kamal’s music?” I inquired.
He didn’t say no. But he didn’t say yes either, which meant that he hadn’t.
He instead went with, “This event does reach an array of people from all walks, all ages. And we are trending a little younger this year—the 40-55 age group for both the broadcast and live show. But…” And he stopped to consider his words for a moment. “No offense, but I think there’s a certain audience that Hip Hop targets that’s just not quite what we’re going for here—”
“I understand,” I interrupted, “but with all due respect, Mr. Lioni, the Hip Hop generation is made up of people who look as much like you as they do me. The reason why we’re even in this meeting is because your director is a fan of my artist’s work. Now, the growth we’ve seen in our sales is a 200% increase, in fact, over the last 12 months, and that audience is made up of the same people that made Hamilton a hit. Young, Black kids are a segment of my customer base, yes, but again… Blaine Stanfeld is the reason we’re talking.”
He began nodding his head, and I could only hope that he was taking my words to heart.
“Your event is for and about the people of this city. What better way to honor them than featuring a musician who speaks to and for them?”
See, the thing about running a business is that it’s no different than any other aspect of life: it doesn’t come with a manual, and you’ll suck at everything at first. Until at some point… you don’t.
The John F. Kennedy Center for the Performing Arts sits right on the Potomac, overlooking the river on one side and the famous Watergate on another. On any given night, you might be able to catch a play, ballet, dance or musical performance, as it’s the busiest and arguably the most famous and prestigious performing arts venue in the entire country.
The auditorium was filled with “Adults,” evident by their fine threads and expensive fragrances—not exactly the type of faces Tk was used to seeing when he looked out into the crowd.
Nevertheless, with the help of his band, he got the entire place on their feet during his performance, and they remained there applauding after he finished.
Naturally anti-social, Tk only stayed for the reception afterward for the food. The same well-dressed folks from the audience, as well as the awards recipients were now socializing, drinking and laughing in a more relaxed setting, sharing conversations about events they frequent and the donations they make to this and other area arts establishments.
Tk finished his soda and allowed the server to take his empty plate from in front of him. For a moment, he sat there, overhearing stories of absolutely no interest to him. So after another minute of this, he figured it was time to go, so he stood up and walked toward the exit.
“Hey, man, that was an awesome performance out there.”
Tk turned to see a guy rushing toward him as fast as he could. He was somewhere in the ballpark of 60, although he looked and moved well for his age. He approached, expecting a handshake as he made it closer, which Tk obliged.
“Bob Pagano. All my kids call me Mr. Pagano.” He began laughing and shaking his head at his own words. “That was… stupid, I mean, what else would they call me?”
Tk could see that the guy was nervous, and Tk himself was starting to get a little nervous, but for a different reason. The guy was starting to sound a little creepy.
“What I meant was: I’m Bob Pagano. I’m the recipient for teacher of the year here.”
“Oh okay,” Tk said, a bit relieved. “Congratulations, man.”
“Thanks,” he said, smiling. And then to keep the conversation going, he said, “Hey, someone told me you’re in education yourself?”
“Oh. Yeah… I teach World History over at H.D. Woodson High,” Tk informed. “It’s kinda my day job—”
“Oh I totally get it. Gotta pay the bills. I just finished my tenth album myself.”
Tk wasn’t quite sure he liked what he was hearing, and the grimace that took over his face made that fact very apparent.
Reading this, Mr. Pagano said, “Check it!”
And right there, surrounded by some of DC’s finest dignitaries, Mr. Pagano busted a rhyme. He even began to draw a crowd around them who provided the rhythm for him with synchronized claps.
Everyone seemed to find his impromptu freestyle to be a charming, rather welcoming surprise. Everyone but Taj Kamal.
+ + +
+ + +
Much like the music industry, DC was changing. The perception that everything is old and gray—the buildings, the streets, the men—was being challenged. We were surviving the country’s economic slump and undergoing an entire social renovation. Things that were once old were now new again. And no longer was age a prerequisite for dominance.
In fact, women like my friend J were not above personal quests to investigate and prove the hypothesis that with youth came certain… physical benefits.
“Oh my god! His energy is ridiculous. And his mouth!” she exclaimed with a long blink as if she was remembering something right then and there. “I mean the things he can do with his teeth?! Not his tongue, but his tee—”
Cut off by the glare the waitress, a short Barbadian woman, likely 60 or so, who was giving her one of those eye-cutting, judgmental non-stares while topping off coffee for us, J stopped as the table fell silent for the moment.
There was no telling exactly how much the woman had heard before J had decided to spare her of the details that she was more than ready to give me and Ty about what had happened last night—and this morning too for that matter.
It was no longer breakfast time technically, but we all chose breakfast food in an unconscious effort to elongate our Saturday. And as much as I didn’t need a third cup of coffee, I sat there and watched the waitress refill my mug without saying a word.
She quickly finished and walked off, sneaking in another condemnatory look at J, who fortunately missed it as she was concentrating on lowering that stack of French toast in front of her.
“Anyway,” J continued, right on cue. “I wonder if using the teeth like that is a thing where he’s from—somewhere in Britain or some-fucking-where. I don’t know. But it’s a goddamn gift—”
“And he’s British! You cannot make this stuff up,” Ty said, laughing at some untold portions of this story.
“I don’t get it,” I said, looking back and forth at them, waiting for somebody to fill me in.
“Hey, why don’t you tell Kenya his name?” Ty asked J with a devious smile on her face.
But J simply rolled her eyes, holding in a blush, and didn’t respond. Perhaps the French toast was more important than this too.
So Ty went on: “His name is, get this… Mason Dixon.”
I smiled and looked at J, waiting for her say something in defense or maybe correct Ty or something. But again, food was priority.
“You’re seeing a guy named Mason Dixon?” I asked, for some reason finding that rather fascinating.
“I met him when I went to get a tattoo.”
“Wait… You got a tattoo?” I was so out of the loop.
“She didn’t get the tattoo,” Ty said, calmingly. And then she turned to J and said, “He looked young. You bother to find out how old he is?”
“Yeah,” I said, “make sure you’re not crossing any lines.”
Ty got it and smiled. J ignored me.
“You know…” J started, taking her time. “Age… is such an arbitrary thing.”
“That answer…” Ty said, shaking her head. “Seriously? Makes me question his legality—”
“He’s legal, okay,” J said, very unconvincingly.
Ty looked at her waiting for the other shoe to drop, and again, J took her time before finally saying, “He’s… 20.”
“20?!” Ty said, louder than expected. “Are you kidding me?”
J shrugged, “A mature 20.”
And I could no longer hold in my laughter.
Ty wanted to laugh too, but she refused and just looked at me and repeated, “A ‘mature’ 20,” and shook her head in disbelief at the obvious absurdity of the statement. “Would you believe she graduated summa cum laude from Howard and she’s says things like this—”
“Listen,” J said, “an 8-year age difference is nothing. If I was 39 and he was 31…”
“But he’s not 31,” Ty said. “He’s 20—not even old enough to buy you a drink.”
“Shit, he’ll be 21…” And J didn’t know when, so she went with, “Eventually.”
Ty offered nothing more than her now customary eye-roll, head shaking reaction to J’s responses.
Despite finding humor at her expense, I felt bad for J this time.
“You know… if she were a man,” I said to Ty without looking at her, “you wouldn’t even be having this conversation.”
“Exactly!” J agreed.
And with her eyebrows raised, Ty put her fork down, looked at me and said, “So you’re siding with her on this?”
“I’m just saying… Men have been dating people half their age since the beginning of time and everybody’s okay with it.”
“He’s not half my age,” J corrected justifiably.
But in response to me, Ty said, “Because it balances out. Look, men mature much later than women so a 50 year old man is really only mentally in his early to mid 30s. So if he dates a woman who’s 30, they’re actually about the same age. In this case… the guy you’re seeing, J, is only… about 6, maybe 7-years-old.”
J couldn’t help but laugh at the potential truth of that statement, but I, however, was still caught up on the part about a 50-year-old and a 30-year-old men…
“What?” Ty asked, noticing that I was suddenly distant.
I took a deep breath, not really wanting to bring this up, but I couldn’t avoid it now because it was already up.
So I revealed, “Last night… I got the chance to meet who my father’s been seeing the past few months.”
Ty and J’s eyes met without either one of them having to move their heads. I could feel that they were figuratively on the edge of their seats, waiting to hear this story.
Most nights, by the time I got home, my father was either already asleep or already gone for work. He was an emergency nurse practitioner with crazy hours, so I seldom knew exactly when we’d see each other throughout a given day. We had a system though: before sleep every night, if we hadn’t seen or talked to each other that day, we had to call and hear the other one’s voice, if only for a brief moment to say, “Love you,” before the day ended.
This was something my dad started when I went to college—even though I didn’t leave town for school—and things had begun to change in the house with his and my mother’s relationship… or lack thereof. We hadn’t had a particularly ideal father-daughter connection when I was growing up and perhaps he felt bad about that. Perhaps he felt bad about a lot of things. But Jon Shaw has always been the type of guy to make an effort to correct things and embrace change, rather than wallow in misery.
But last night, instead of coming home to a sleeping dad or an empty house, I found myself standing outside my front door trying to decipher how many voices, exactly, were coming from inside. We were the only two people who lived there, so the blend of voices was confusing me.
I carefully unlocked the door, not knowing what I’d be walking into and potentially interrupting, and immediately caught eyes with my dad, who had just stood up to make an effort to formally introduce me to the other person in the room—a well-dressed guy wearing a complimentary smile, who stood too.
“Kenya! You’re home. Finally,” my dad said, coming toward me in order to guide me into the living room to meet our guest. “I’d like you to meet Manuel. Manuel, my daughter, Kenya.”
Taking my hand before I could officially offer it, Manuel said with an undeniable excitement, “Kenya. Wow. I’ve heard so much about you. Nice to finally meet you.”
I forced a smile, but couldn’t offer up words about the finality of meeting him. I knew he existed—I knew that my father had been seeing someone for the past half-year or so—but I hadn’t heard a single thing about him. I didn’t know what he looked like—average height with light brown skin and close cut hair. I didn’t know where he came from; he had a slight accent, which revealed that he might’ve been of Latin descent. And I didn’t know that he was probably not much older than me—young enough to be my father’s son!
I was at a loss for words as I found myself still holding his hand from our initial handshake like 20 seconds in. I just kept looking at him, trying to find a way to perceive him being in his 40s, at least. But after about five minutes, which really didn’t seem as uncomfortable for either of them as it was for me, he eventually revealed that he was a surgical intern at the hospital where my father worked, and I couldn’t help but mentally do the math: 30, maybe 31.
“He’s barely older than me,” I said to Ty and J, avoiding looking at either of them. I stared into my coffee, swirling the spoon around, trying to make the almond milk blend better.
“And this bothers you?” Ty asked.
“It doesn’t bother me,” I said, too quickly.
But then, after a thought: “Okay, it bothers me,” I admitted. “I mean… first guy I meet. Not exactly what I expected.”
“Man. That’s gotta be weird as fuck,” J said, almost mechanically.
Ty looked at her in disbelief, perhaps thinking that she was being insensitive.
But I agreed, “It is. But what can I say? They seem to be really… serious. He’s happy.”
“That’s the thing about love, Kenya: it doesn’t make sense—”
“Wait a goddamn minute,” J said. “Didn’t you just harass me about dating a younger dude like five minutes ago—”
“Yeah, that’s because what you’re doing has nothing to do with love, it’s… damn near statutory rape. I’m tempted to call somebody.”
That made me laugh.
“I don’t understand though, Kenya. If your father’s happy,” J said, “then… what difference does it make?”
There was no way that I could answer that and still sound my age.
+ + +
+ + +
When I turned 18, I finally got my first car—an already six-year-old Nissan Altima. It was taupe inside, aubergine on the outside, and before I’d been the owner a full year, all four hubcaps had already mysteriously vanished, seemingly all at once. But the cool thing was: when I was really feeling nostalgic, I could pop in a cassette tape because the player still worked, although that was probably the only thing that still functioned without some kind of jimmy-rig to assist its function.
Now, I was almost 10 years older… and so was the car. I aged quite well, if I do say so myself. The car, though? Not so much. Short distances weren’t as scary, so I reserved its use for important errands like grocery shopping, where today I had lost track of time after getting caught up tasting samples of pumpkin spice nonsense and talking about it with old people.
So that afternoon, I was late for an appointment at my own house. Apparently, the wall around the property was slowly collapsing. The house was built in 1900—a Victorian row-house just blocks away from Eastern Market—so despite a few rounds of renovations throughout its lifetime, the wall had met its match with Father Time. So it either needed to be reinforced, rebuilt, or taken down all together. I was scheduled to meet an engineer at 2 to assess the damage and get the verdict, which, of course, I would give to my father.
I pulled into a parking space right in front of my house and immediately noticed the guy—with his white shirt tucked into his jeans—already walking around the wall and taking notes.
I quickly got out with an apology written on my face as I approached him, but before I could say anything, he introduced himself: “Gideon Lamar, GL Engineering,” while offering a handshake.
“Hi. Sorry I’m late,” I said, accepting his hand.
“Traffic?” he asked with a smile, before looking back at my car and saying, “Or car trouble,” condescendingly.
“No,” I said. “No excuse. I’m just… late.”
And he accepted that with a smile and said, “Don’t sweat it. Late happens.”
I was a bit relieved that he wasn’t a jerk about it.
“I went ahead and got started out here. Will the ah… man of the house be joining us today?”
I could immediately read that this question was not as professional as it might be—or should be—construed.
I answered anyway, “Ah. No. He won’t,” knowing that his question was meant to provide deeper insight that had nothing to do with a father, and more to do with whether I was single.
In those five seconds I’d known him, I hadn’t entertained the idea of whether Gideon was attractive or not until that very moment, because… Well, I’d like to say that it was because I was professional and assumed he’d keep it that way too, but that wasn’t the reason.
Gideon could’ve been 45, give or take a few years, and he was very fit, had all his hair and very little, if any, gray. But honestly… I almost never initially saw men as an attractive option when they were over a certain obvious age. Not that I couldn’t, I just never did.
But now that I had been presented with the idea of whether to consider Gideon as an option… Well, I guess he was kind of good looking. It still felt weird to me trying to see someone probably 20 years my senior in that way.
He spent the next 20 minutes explaining things to me about the integrity of the retaining wall surrounding the house, pointing out cracks and splits in the concrete, talking about weeping holes and drainage concerns, while sneaking in a few personal questions, like: Did you grow up in DC? What do you do for a living? And a collection of others that led to more specificity about who, exactly, the man of the house was, which, once he found out was my father, ultimately led to:
“Do you have an email address where I can send the quote for the work?”
“Sure,” I responded, taking the yellow pad and pen he’d been using to take notes.
“And… also, a phone number… so that I can call you to ask you out?”
Like most women, I had no idea how to avoid unsolicited number inquiries. So I wrote my number on the pad.
I watched as he went across the street to a small, relatively new pickup truck, and nodded a cordial goodbye to me as he pulled off.
With all of the age-talk lately, I was curious. I had dated my fair share of frogs… Could prince charming actually be a man of a certain age?
After I put my groceries away, I headed down to one of my favorite record stores to meet up with Stax before we headed to the movies. As movie buffs, Stax and I had always made it a priority post-Thanksgiving to see the films that might be Oscar contenders in February.
“I never discriminate based on age. I fucked a 50 year old when I was 25. It’s all the same in the dark,” he said, before looking over at me with a wicked smile, while flipping through the Classic Rock section intently, although having no real intention of buying anything.
I had told him about my encounter with the older gentleman, and of course he had an opinion.
“The key is confidence,” he went on. “The same way you go after what you want when it comes to music… is the same tenacity you need to have when it comes to guys. A woman that knows what she wants, whether she’s 50 or 15, is always a turn on.”
“You’re turned-on by 15-year-olds?”
“You’re missing the point,” he said. “Men aren’t as intimidating as you make us out to be. We’re really not even that sophisticated.”
“You’re missing the point,” I said. “I’m not really interested in older men. Not that much older, anyway.”
“How old we talkin’?” he asked.
“I don’t know—40 something.”
I looked at him for a response of some kind, but he just kept flipping through records like I hadn’t just said something outrageous.
And then he offered, “I can see you with an older guy. The entertainment business can be very demanding. An older man may be more settled and apt to understand and accept your schedule and pace.”
I’d never even thought about that.
He went on: “We become a little less selfish as we get older, I have to admit. I think an older man might be better for support and stability.”
Sometimes Stax would say things so profound and insightful that it would change my entire outlook on an issue.
“Awe, shit! Look at this!” he screamed.
He pulled the album completely out of the holder and handed it to me: “Tequila” by The Champs.
“You remember Pee Wee’s Big Adventure? Dancing in the bar…” He began doing the dance from the movie and whistling the song.
And then he would do something to remind me that he was a 27-year-old guy who still indulged in video games, and collected comic books, and preferred animated sitcoms over ones with actual people. If it wasn’t for his active sex life and full-time job, he could easily be mistaken for a 12-year-old boy.
I watched him as he stood there laughing and doing the Pee Wee dance, and I began to think: if this is what I should expect from men my age… maybe I was past reinforcing my wall. Perhaps it was time to consider taking it down all together.
While I was contemplating the structural integrity of my dating life, Ty was entertaining the thought of rebuilding hers.
She was technically a doctor already; she had her PhD—after having completed graduate school, her practica, dissertation, and internship—but she wasn’t licensed to practice just yet. She was in the middle of her postdoctoral fellowship, basically supervised training and mentorship in her field, to help prepare her for her specialty.
She worked at an office in southeast where she had quickly made nice with almost everyone who worked there, from the partners who were big-name doctors—some of whom had made the Top Doctors list for DC—to the grounds people who kept the place clean and running. She knew something about every single person working there, and they felt at ease with revealing very personal things without her even asking. She made it a point to get to work a half hour early every day because she knew she needed extra time to engage the people she crossed paths with.
So that day, as she was preparing to leave the office, she smiled as she approached the girl sitting at the front desk, Shawnice, as she headed toward the door.
“Good night. See you tomorrow.”
“Good night,” replied the girl. And then she remembered, “Oh, Dr. Aldridge? Someone left this here for you.”
She was pointing a small white envelope at Ty, who curiously walked back to accept it. She immediately opened it right there without hesitation and revealed: “It’s another card.”
“That’s the third one this month,” Shawnice said. “From Mr. Petigrew?” she asked.
Ty simply looked at her because it was, in fact, from Mr. Petigrew.
“Maybe you should call him,” Shawnice said.
“Technically, he’s a patient. I can’t fraternize with a patient,” Ty said.
And Shawnice raised one eyebrow, obviously keeping most of her thoughts about Ty’s rule to herself. But then she finally did say, “He’s also a fine-ass, single dietitian with a cute kid… who’s technically the patient here.”
Ty got the implication, smiled, and said, “Good night,” again before walking off.
I learned very early on that my job overseeing the careers of musicians often blur the lines of professional and parental.
That evening, I made my way across town to check up on Lucas. For most people, the common cold was just a few irritating symptoms and maybe a good excuse to take off work. For Lucas, it was a matter of life and death.
He rented a room in a house shared by I don’t know how many people. So after one of his roommates let me into the front door, I found myself knocking on the entrance to his room.
I heard the guitar stop and the shuffling of feet mixed with coughing coming toward the door before it opened, revealing a zombie-like version of my boy. Dressed in pajama bottoms, a tee shirt and a robe, he made himself look even more pitiful once he saw me, perhaps to draw my sympathy.
“I feel like shit, Kenya.”
He coughed away from me and into his arm, and I covered the bottom half of my face with my coat, so I wouldn’t breathe in his germs.
“Good afternoon to you too,” I replied.
“You have a key for a reason,” he said with slight irritation, having had to get up out of bed to get the door.
“Hey, I don’t know what I might be walking in on,” I said.
While groaning, he walked back over to the mattress on the floor and collapsed onto it, apparently where he’d been before I came in.
The room was more like a little makeshift apartment. Unlike all of the other rooms in the house, this one did have its own bathroom and little kitchenette, all within approximately 300 square foot space.
The place was a mess: clothes everywhere, loose papers all over the joint, food packaging on the floor, actual food on the floor…
“Have you read the ASCAP stuff I sent to you?” I asked, already knowing the answer.
The only thing to sit on was a milk crate, so I grabbed one, slid it close to him and sat down waiting for my answer.
“I’ve been writing and rehearsing all day… Man, I think I have liver failure,” he said.
“So no, you haven’t read it,” I concluded with a deep sigh, because here’s the thing: every biopic, biography and “Unsung” story about musicians have a common denominator—ignorant artists who either didn’t know or didn’t bother to educate themselves about how their business should work.
ASCAP is what you would call a performance rights organization (PRO). There are three significant ones in America; BMI and Sesac are the other two. Every artist, regardless of skill or professional level, should affiliate with one. When you hear a song on the radio or in a public place, that place is responsible for paying to use that music—that money is called royalties. A PRO’s sole purpose is to appropriately collect these royalties for the copyright owners of music, which in Lucas’ case would be Lucas because he writes his own music.
The truth is: I had filed the ASCAP papers for him months ago, but he didn’t know it. I still wanted him to go through the process. I didn’t want stupid artists who would later question whether I had anything to do with their financial situation, if of course it was a bad situation.
“You hear me? I Googled liver failure and I think I have it—”
My sigh cut him off because this was the most ridiculous assumption he could make. I reached over and used my thumb to lift his eyelid.
“Hey!” he yelled, backing away.
I then lifted his shirt to see his chest. “Does this hurt?” I asked, pressing his chest.
“No! But stop. What are you doing?”
“You don’t have liver failure,” I informed.
“How do you know?” he asked.
“Because. Acute liver failure causes jaundice of the eyes and skin, and tenderness of the chest.”
“Why? Why do you know that?!” he asked.
“Aside from my father being a nurse?” I asked rhetorically, which had nothing to do with me knowing this about his health, but made for a good argument. “It’s my job to know it when I have babies for artists who avoid exercise like it’s the plague and won’t eat what I tell them to eat…”
I picked up an empty fast food bag and tossed it at him.
“And don’t read the performance rights organization stuff that they need to sign…”
He cut me off with a sigh and said, “Aren’t you supposed to do that kind of stuff for me?”
“You should know what it is, Lucas.”
He rolled his eyes as if to say that I was annoying him.
But I went on: “You want your music on the radio, right? On TV. Clubs, bars, DJs everywhere? Well, who do you think is going to make sure you get paid when all that happens? Any worthwhile musician is with one of these organizations. We have to choose one for you, alright? I can do it, but I want you to be a part of the process. And I want to get it done today, so stop trying to diagnose yourself and get to it. Your immune system’s just depleted—”
“Do you think I need to go to the emergency room?” he asked, more concerned with that than what I’d just said.
“Oh no. I’m not sitting around there all day only to have a doctor prescribe rest, vitamin C and soup.”
I stood up.
“You’re leaving?! No! You can’t go,” he pleaded. “Kenya, please!”
“Kenya, please. You just got here.”
As I looked down into those watery, puppy dog eyes, in that very moment it became clear—even though I wasn’t a parent… I still had a baby.
“I’ll be back later. I promise.”
Meanwhile, it had been nearly two weeks since the Kennedy Center event and Tk still had not gotten that rapping teacher out of his head. It wasn’t that the guy couldn’t rap. He actually wasn’t bad. It was, however, the fact that he was well into his 60s. Something about that just didn’t seem right to Tk. And he wondered if in 40 years that might be him: Teacher of the Year, who, oh by the way, could also rap?
He was consumed by all of this mentally, while physically surrounded by the obnoxious sound of rowdy teenagers during his fourth period class, who should’ve been completing an end-of-the-semester final. Instead, they had become rambunctious and he hadn’t even noticed.
“Mr. Rahman, he hit me!”
He looked up and saw the girl who was complaining, but he didn’t respond. He couldn’t. Instead, he just sat there contemplating the question: When do you stop? When do you finally admit to yourself that you’re too old to be a rapper and just stop?
And right then, his trance was broken by the sound of the bell indicating the end of the period.
Less than an hour later, before the lunch break was complete, Principal Marx found himself sitting behind his desk, staring at a typed letter instead of the tuna sandwich that was getting warm as the smell consumed the room. A box filled with miscellaneous items took one of the chairs opposite the desk in front of him; the other chair was vacant because his World History teacher, Mr. Kamal Taj Rahman, preferred to stand during what he hoped would be a brief meeting.
Principal Marx folded the letter down back like it when he received it, took off his glasses, but did not look up to make eye contact with Tk. Instead, he kept his eyes on his desk as he said, “Kamal, you know what? I’m going to do you a favor.”
He looked at the letter again, and then he looked up at Tk for the first time since he’d started reading. “I want you to go back to your classroom. Put your things back on your desk and back on the shelves. And then I want you to go home. Hug your son. Kiss your wife. Eat the dinner she makes. Drink the water she pours. Maybe… you even make love to her tonight. Take yourself a nice hot shower. And you come in here tomorrow morning ready to educate these kids. And at the end of this month, and the end of next month, and the month after that, you’re going to pay your rent, your electric, gas, water and telephone bills. You’re going to buy food. The fresh kind, not processed. You’re going to take your family out someplace and have a nice time. You’re even going to have a little money to put into that ah… music thing you like to do. But the reality is: teaching World History enables all that. It enables it because it is a job. It allows you live and to eat and to take care of your responsibilities as a man. Rapping?” he said as if this was something utterly ridiculous, “It does not do that.”
Tk dropped his head, considering what he’d just heard. Principal Marx was someone he admired. He looked up to him, in fact. He himself was a poet, and they had shared many a lunch hour talking about the art form and its influence on the culture—not just the Hip Hop culture, but American culture. Principal Marx was the guy who gave him his first job out of college, and even hired him again here at this school. He thought Tk was very bright and could someday be where he was… if he just stayed focused.
“So tonight,” he went on, “when your wife asks you how your day was, you tell her whatever you tell her every other night. And believe me, you’ll rest assured that when you flip that light switch, that bulb inside is gonna fire up. Because the favor I’m giving you is the chance to walk out of here as if nothing happened.”
He pointed that folded piece of paper at Tk, who stared at it for a moment before reaching out and reluctantly taking it. He then picked up that box full of his teacher stuff and left the office.
Principal Marx took a very deep breath considering the bullet he just dodged and the good deed he felt he’d just done. And then he looked over at that sandwich that was looking back at him, and he finally picked it up and went to town on it before he could be unexpectedly interrupted yet again.
But Tk left pondering a new question…
And at an open mic that night, he tested out a new poem about this question. It was called, “When do you start?”
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