Authors: Paul Beatty
For Yvonne W. Beatty, my mother
YOU WOULD THINK
they'd be used to me by now. I mean, don't they know that after fourteen hundred years the charade of blackness is over? That we blacks, the once eternally hip, the people who were as right now as Greenwich Mean Time, are, as of today, as yesterday as stone tools, the velocipede, and the paper straw all rolled into one? The Negro is now officially human. Everyone, even the British, says so. It doesn't matter whether anyone truly believes it; we are as mediocre and mundane as the rest of the species. The restless souls of our dead are now free to be who they really are underneath that modern primitive patina. Josephine Baker can take the bone out of her nose, her knock-kneed skeleton back to its original allotment of 206. The lovelorn ghost of Langston Hughes can set down his Montblanc fountain pen (a gift) and open his mouth wide. Not to recite his rhyming populist verse, but to lick and suck some Harlem rapscallion's prodigious member and practice what is, after all, the real oral tradition. The revolutionaries among us can lay down the guns. The war is over. It doesn't matter who won, take your roscoe, the Saturday night special, the nine, the guns you once waved fuck-a-white-man drunkenly in front of the
kids, take those guns and encase them in glass so that they lie passively on the red felt next to the blunderbuss and Portuguese arquebus and Minuteman musket. The battle cry of even the bravest among us is no longer “I'll see you in hell!” but “I'll see you in court.” So if you're still upset with history, get a lawyer on the phone and try to collect workmen's comp for slavery. Blackness is passÃ© and I for one couldn't be happier, because now I'm free to go to the tanning salon if I want to, and I want to.
I hand the receptionist the coupon. On the front is a glossy aerial photo of a Caribbean coastline. She flips it over and her eyes drop suspiciously from my face to the back of the card, which reads,
ELECTRIC BEACH TANNING SALON. BUY 10 LIGHT BATHS, GET 1
. Underneath the promotion, in two rows of five, are ten pfennig-sized circles; and rubber-stamped in each circle is a blazing red-ink sun wearing a toothy smile and sunglasses. Today is the glorious day I redeem my free suntan. But somehow this woman, who has personally stamped at least seven of the ten smiling suns, is reluctant to assign me a tanning room. Usually she stamps my card and under her breath whispers,
, and I go about my business.
A look of bemused familiarity creeps across her face. A look that says,
Maybe I've seen you somewhere before. Didn't you rape me last Tuesday? Aren't you my son's tap dance teacher?
Finally. She pencils my name into the appointment book. I point to the sunscreen in the display case behind her.
“Coppertone,” I say.
A tube of Tropical Blend skims over the countertop like a miniature torpedo. The sun protection factor is two. Not strong enough. If the receptionist's white vanilla frosting lip gloss has an SPF of three, my natural complexion is at least a six. I return fire and send the lotion back. “Zu schwach. Ich brauche etwas StÃ¤rkeres,” I say, asking for something stronger.
Maybe mammals should be classified by their sun protection factors. Married SPF3 female, 35, seeks nonsmoking, spontaneous SPF4 or lighter for discreet affair. SPF7 Rhino Faces Extinction. I'm the Head SPF50 in Charge.
It was the SPF2ness of the whale that above all things appalled me. But how can I hope to explain myselfhere; and yet, in some dim, random way, explain myselfI must, else all these chapters might be for naught
The windowless Acapulco room has the macabre feel of a Tijuana cancer clinic. Like the liquor stores, ball courts, and storefront churches back in the old country, Berlin tanning salons are ubiquitous sanctuaries. Places of last resort for the terminally ill, the terminally poor and sinful, the terminally pale. Places where you go when the doctors tell you there's nothing more they can do. When the world tells you you're not doing enough.
A ceiling fan churns efficiently through the musty air. On one dingy aquamarine wall hang two framed, official-looking pieces of parchment, one an inspection certificate from the Berlin Department of Health and Safety, and the other, written in ornate script, a degree from the College of Eternal Harvest in something called Solarology. In the middle of the room sits the tanning bed, a glass-and-chrome-plated panacea from heaven or, more accurately, Taiwan. I undress and lotion up, leaving the door open just a crack.
After years of tanning, my skin has lost much of its elasticity. If I pinch myself on the forearm, the little flesh mound stays there for a few seconds before slowly falling back into place. My complexion has darkened somewhat; it's still a nice, nonthreatening sitcom Negro brown, but now there's a pomegranate-purple undertone that in certain light gives me a more villainous sheen. Half of my information on what's new in African-American pop culture comes from Berliners stopping me on the street and saying,
Du siehst aus wie
. . ., and then I go home and look up Urkel, Homey the Clown, and Dave Chappelle on the Internet. Lately
the resemblances have been to the more sinister, swarthy characters from B-movie adaptations of Elmore Leonard's pulp fiction.
I rent these moviesâ
Out of Sight
âand watch them while running back and forth from the TV screen to the bathroom mirror. I think I look nothing like these men, these bad, one-note character actors whose only charisma seems to be the bass in their voices and the inflection in the way they say
. Sam Jackson, Don Cheadle, the chubby asshole from
, they're always smart and dark, but never smart enough to outwit the white guy or dark enough to commit any really heinous crimes.
I often think it would've been easier to have grown up in my father's generation. When he came up, there were only four niggers he could look like: Jackie Robinson, Bill “Bojangles” Robinson, Louis Armstrong, and Uncle Ben, the thick-lipped man in the chef's hat on the box of instant rice. Today every black male looks like someone. Some athlete, singer, or celluloid simpleton. In Daddy's day, if you described a black man to somebody who didn't know him, you'd say he looks like the type of nigger who'd kick your natural ass; now you say he looks like Magic Johnson or Chris Rock, the type of nigger who'd kiss your natural ass.
Most liniments are cool and soothing, but this isn't the case with sunblock. The stuff smells like brine and has the consistency of rancid butter. My dingy skin seems to repel it. No matter how hard I rub, I can't get the cream to disappear, much less moisturize. The greasy swirls just sit there on my skin like unbuffed car wax. I silence the ceiling fan with a firm pull of the cord. If the fan has slowed down or sped up, I can't tell. One more yank. Same difference. Clumsily, I climb onto the tanning bed and raise my hand until the fan's blades skip across my fingers and gradually come to a stop. There's an oily, linty residue on my hand, which I wipe off on the wall.
I put on the goggles. The tanning bed is cold but soon warms up. Like a childhood fever, tanning heats you from the inside out. My ash-white bones become calcium coals, briquettes of the soul. Soon I'm back in my bottom bunk, the ultraviolet radiation substituting for my overprotective mother piling blanket after quilt after blanket on her baby boy. The warmth from the lamps becomes indistinguishable from that of my mother's dry, calloused hands. My own skin seems to vitrify, and while I have any range of motion in my arms I slip a CD into the built-in stereo and press play.
Music. My music. Not mine in the sense that backseat lovers have songs or fifties rock 'n' roll belongs to the devil, but mine in the sense that I own the music. I wrote it. I own the publishing. All rights are reserved. The song is titled “Southbound Traffic Jam.” It opens with a rumbling melody, ten lanes of bumper-to-bumper morning rush-hour traffic over a sampled Kokomo Arnold guitar solo. In the background, two exits away and tail-gating the guitar riff, is the intermezzo, a Peterbilt eighteen-wheeler that merges into the tune with grinding gears and a double blast of its air horn. After sixteen bars of bottleneck guitar and bottlenecked cars (no one ever gets the joke), a Japanese sedan suddenly slams its brakes. The wheels lock. The skid is ominously long and even. I can't count the number of times I've heard this track, and yet that high-pitched screech still makes me brace for impact. Steel myself for the sound of sheet metal folding in stereo. A windshield explodes and ten thousand cubes of safety glass fall to the fast-lane pavement with the digitally crisp tinkle of a Brazilian percussion instrument. Sun Ra's satur-nine falsetto bespeaks the urgency.
So rise lightly from the earth.
And try your wings. Try them now.
While the darkness is invisible
The guitar comes up, the traffic chugs on. Kokomo hums and moans. The knees of the receptionist pop. She's at the door, peeking through the crack. Staring at the bulge in my Speedo, listening to my music, and wondering why. How does it come to this?
You'd think I'd be used to it by nowâthis lack of sunshine. But winter in Berlin isn't so much a season as it is an epoch. Eight months of solid prison-blanket-gray skies that, combined with the smoky nightlife and the brogan solemnity of the Berlin footfall, give the city a black-and-white matinee intrigue. If it weren't so cold I'd think I was doing a cameo in an old Hollywood melodrama. To shake the leaden September-to-April monochrome I find myself colorizing things. Ingrid Bergman's eyes, the Polish prostitute's language, the pastry sprinkles on the
window, the patches of sky on a partly cloudy to mostly cloudy afternoon are all a false-memory shade of blue. A blue that doesn't exist in nature, but resides only in my mind and the twang of Kokomo's guitar.
On days when the skies are clear and that stark blue I'd long forgotten, I sprint out of the apartment and into the blinding afternoon looking for affection and serotonins. For an instant I forget where I am, then I notice the narrow wheelbases on the cars parked along the street with showroom precision. At the intersection of SchlÃ¼terstrasse and Mommenstrasse, dogs, dog owners, and unescorted schoolchildren, all equally well behaved, patiently wait for the walk signal. I look down at my funny-looking shoes and I remember where I am.
Berlin, yup, Berlin
The quirky functionality of the German shoe, like that of Volkswagens and Bauhaus, grows on you. If one is a creationist, the Adam and Eve of German cobblery are the bowling and nursing shoe, respectively. Shoe Darwinists such as myself believe the lungfish of the species is the three-hundred-year-old Birkenstock.