When he told me to touch the shrunken head, of course I had to. I did not want to, but he showed such devil-may-care affability that I would not be shown up. He had brought the head in his briefcase. He told me a fabulous story about how he got it, when he was in South America doing research for his PhD.
He cracked jokes about race I wasn’t sure I could laugh at until he wiggled his eyebrows and tapped my shoulder with the back of his hand.
When I say to someone, “You are so full of shit,” I mean this as a compliment. No one takes it that way. What I mean is, you are a little inside-out, for this world, saying crap you might or might not mean, because what does it mean to mean something, anyway? And who are you, anyway? And what can you joke about if you can’t joke about death and religion and sex and politics?
It means you seem to take things only as seriously as they are, and for me that means both very seriously and not seriously at all. It’s a paradox, like all great ideas.
PJ was totally full of shit.
He came to one of the arts shows I organized. He bought a drawing by a six-year-old that was on display, crouched down to meet her, and then commissioned an additional work. He was a history buff, so I was happy he got to see the house where I was sort of squatting, the house I knew the history of.
He told me about how he had to buy the whiskey for card night at the mayor’s house because the mayor, a reverend, couldn’t be seen at the liquor store.
When I wrote an anonymous letter to the school board about things administrators had said and done, he told me everyone thought he had written it, and I thanked him for covering for me.
A grandfatherly black man at an inner city black school can, as he nonchalantly admitted, do whatever the hell he wants.
He knew who he was, and he was thoughtful about how people saw him– how could he not be, as a black guy who lived through the ’60s in America and got an education?
He had an academic remove, and a personal anger, and he seemed to quite frequently enjoy himself.
He worked out with the students every day and talked health and fitness frequently. He would gladly flex his biceps for you.
He was a Vietnam vet. Every time I asked him how he was, he would say something about the Mekong Delta. A friend on Facebook reminded me in his post. It was, “I aint had a bad day, even when I was waist-deep on the Mekong.” Yeah, that’s it.
I never saw him grouchy, not really, and no matter how I was feeling when I ran into him, I left with lighter shoulders.
When I told him I was interested in family history and slavery, he bought me a book on the topic for my birthday. Along with the book, on my desk, was a bottle of wine (in a bag, thank goodness) and a card that had a joke about boobs. I loved it all.
He talked however he wanted, which was, frequently, fast and loose and ridiculous, sprinkling his sort-of asides and sort-of jokes to the kids with the “n” word, references to slavery. When he first showed up, none of us teachers knew what to make of him.
He was one of the people older than me who make me look forward to being older and getting softer and looser and more ridiculous every year.
My former students are spending today posting their remembrances and expressing their sadness. He was our building sub, and the track coach, but actually he was the school grandfather, especially for kids who didn’t have fathers or grandfathers, but even for the ones who did.
He was maybe five-six, significantly shorter than me, but he seemed taller and he always walked like he was president of the room.
He dressed like it was 1960. Blazer. Turtleneck. Straightened hair, combed back.
He did Civil War reenactments, including giving presentations as his ancestor,a slave, alongside the descendent of his owner. He taught me about slavery in Missouri, Santa Fe, New Mexico, Vietnam, anthropology, and, of course, shrunken heads.
They were in a cave, he said. They were taken there because PJ looked more trustworthy to the South American guy– that is, PJ wasn’t white.
How did he get the head through customs?
He taped it to his crotch.
I rolled my eyes.
No one suspected a thing. He could have hidden anything there. No matter how huge. Because, you know, he was a black man. And you know what people expect.