“There are some people who live in a dream world, and there are some who face reality; and then there are those who turn one into the other.”
When I was in the eighth grade all I ever wanted to be was a professional basketball player. Okay, that’s actually not true. I wanted to be Michael Jordan. But I had pretty much resigned myself to the fact that that was impossible. So I was willing to settle for wearing the number 23, leading the NBA in scoring, and playing shooting guard for the Chicago Bulls after my junior year at the University of North Carolina. That was my dream. That was my plan.
In high school I dreamed about becoming a public defender or a civil rights lawyer. I wanted to be like Morris Dees at the Southern Poverty Law Center, suing the shit out of the Ku Klux Klan and fighting for civil rights. I planned on becoming a law- yer for the good guys, on the front line of the right fight, with a shiny Harvard law degree. But then in college I realized that a lawyer’s life is one of unceasing homework assignments and busywork. Or at least that’s how I saw it. I recognized that I would probably lose my mind, and probably my soul, with all that frustrating paperwork and technical jargon. After a false arrest and the absurd process that led to my acquittal, I decided that the legal system was beyond repair, that it had been built by and for the powerful, to protect those original elite landown- ing white men and few others.
Then, after college, I wanted to be a social worker. After not very long in Harlem and the Bronx working in social services, I quickly learned that more than just the legal system in this country is in shambles. Neither arena felt like the right venue for me to share my gifts with the world or make my dreams become real. And that’s when I found myself at the end of my rope, with nothing but my art keeping me going. Lucky for me, I said yes to the path life had pushed me toward. Art became my savior and the answer to my most pressing question: How do I make the dream become real?
This book is about making the dream real. Every time I have sat down to write, I have wanted to turn “one [world] into the other.” To do that I must confront the varied selves I have been and am, and—most important of all—the man I want to be. At each step on my journey, all three versions have appeared in some form. It is often a one step forward, two steps back trek, without regard to chronology or linear progression. But that is the only way to actualize this dream: Acknowledge the full spectrum of who I am.
I am tired of men dying because they feel alone, feeling like they are destined for prison or monotony or gender role-playing or anything less than their most divine of dreams. I am tired of men hurting women and each other and themselves. I know that I am not alone in this. The men in my life have told me so.
If I accomplish what I strive to do with this book, I will give some men the license, for the first time, to be everything they ever wanted to be. Not what they feel like they should be or ought to be, or have to be, but everything they are. They will be able to open themselves to the possibility of living outside of the all-too-familiar clichéd script they’ve been handed. This book will give them the permission needed to unlock all of that magic that the world made them hide.
There are so many dreams I have had in my life—foolish ones and shallow ones, profoundly stupid ones and seemingly “deep” ones. And then there are those that I still cannot shake, some that I am afraid to say aloud. I have always been a day- dreamer. But I will not rest until one dream is made real: that we might redefine what it is to be a man, that we redefine what it means to say, “man up.”
Borrowing a line from my dear friend/poet/rockstar/genius Andrea Gibson, I hope that we might allow men to be more interested not so much in being but in becoming. Let us each embrace the full range of who we might be, instead of that con- strained definition imposed from outside of ourselves. Let us not arrive at some stagnant place, but always continue to grow. Each day. No matter what.
Ultimately, I would love to end the need for gender altogether. I would love for us to all let go of what we “should be” and finally allow who we are to breathe. Let ourselves dance and sing and move as we might. But I know the bonds of habit and culture and societal practice are so strong. Things cannot completely change overnight or even over my lifetime, but I will continue to push. I will continue to challenge myself and every single man I meet to unlock the magnificent worlds he has inside.
Let me be clear, though: This is not a dream for some utopian wonderland. Nor do I imagine this process to be clean and without fuckups and missteps and confusion. I don’t imagine it without growing pains and fear and the body fighting against the mind and heart (much like mine has and continues to on frequent occasion).
My greatest dream is to always become, to never stop growing and confronting my flaws, and, more than anything, to admit when I am wrong and make things right. I’d like to catch myself when I am being less than I am and get back on the right track. One story comes to mind that exemplifies what I mean.
Last year while I was in Toronto, I had been on the road doing shows for weeks and was completely run down. I had an early morning flight and a deadline to meet. I needed to use the Internet in my room and the Wi-Fi was down. I was already annoyed. I had wanted to work out earlier to ease my stress and take a swim, but the pool was being renovated. The fitness center was closed as well. I was tired and frustrated and not centered. I was wound up and wanted to take out my anger on someone—anyone. I wanted to project all of the negative energy inside of me onto someone else, make it their problem. I wanted to make my shit someone else’s, so I wouldn’t feel so alone.
The night manager at the reception desk was an easy target. He was the only person answering the hotel phone and working the late shift, so he had been the one I had been corresponding with through my ordeal. I stomped downstairs in a fury, after a contentious phone exchange with him, and pointed my finger in his face. I called him and the hotel liars for advertising free Wi-Fi and saying they had a pool and fitness center. He seemed livid that I would chastise him so scathingly, and our volatile exchange only built in volume and nastiness.
“How can you defend this place?” I challenged him, as though he were wearing a Nazi uniform. “It’s disgusting. It’s pathetic. You are unethical.”
His face turned bright red as he started to stammer and fumble with the two phones in front of him, unsure of how to respond to my venom. And then something clicked inside of me. I don’t have a clue why, but it did. It was like a switch had been flipped in my body by some merciful force in the universe.
I looked at the man behind the counter in the eyes for the first time and took him in. I glanced up at the clock on the wall and realized it was almost three o’clock in the morning. I glanced outside and saw puddles building on the sidewalk, another gloomy Tuesday in the coldest month of a ruthless Canadian winter. This man was working right now, all by himself. He was proud to have his job, in the midst of a recession, as he should be.
Who the fuck am I? Do I really need to meet this deadline by the morning? Are any lives at stake if I don’t just hand it in tomorrow evening?
“I’m . . . sorry, sir. I don’t know why I’ve been so rude to you. I’m not really angry at you or the hotel. I think I’m just tired . . . and lonely. I didn’t mean to take it out on you. I apologize,” I finally said to him.
He looked stunned. Almost like he wanted to get angry but might cry or laugh instead. It was like I had started speaking an entirely new language. Slowly a smile crept over his face. “It’s okay. I understand. I’m sorry too. I was very rude myself. I think I’m tired too. My wife and I just had another baby. I probably haven’t had a good night’s sleep in a month,” he said as a soft chuckle rumbled out of him.
Right there, all of the heaviness and anger and weight lifted. We both smiled, a little embarrassed about who we had just been. It felt like the rain stopped. We knew those weren’t really the men we were. They were dark shadows representing the clutter in our chests. We were projecting out the things inside that hurt. That made us tired, and we lost our patience. Or we were just fed up with everything.
I leaned over on that counter and talked to that night manager at the hotel for close to an hour. We laughed and joked and shared stories about our lives. He had come over from India with his wife. He was a trained engineer who was working this job to support his family until he could find a position doing what he really loved. I told him my sister lived for two years in Ahmedabad in Gujarat. He spoke Gujarati. I told him I visited her during college. He giggled like a schoolboy, tickled that I had actually visited his homeland. I told him I was a poet. He told me he’d wooed his wife with love poems by Tagore. I told him I’d visited Tagore’s ashram. We both laughed and shook our heads in disbelief at all the unexpected connections we shared.
An entire world opened up that night. But it took both of us adjusting on the fly, catching ourselves when we were being less than we were and being willing to say, “Hey man. I’m sorry. That wasn’t me. Let me show you who I am. Let me show you who I want to be.”
As I said good-bye, giving him a warm embrace, we shared a final smile—maybe thinking back to the unlikely way we first connected—and he said to me, “By the way, the website is complete bullshit. I agree. It’s false advertising. I would have been mad too.” And we parted ways, both laughing.
Even a year before this happened, I would have been too proud to apologize to that man and open myself up. I would have felt like I was dug in too deep. I had already disparaged him for close to twenty minutes, on the phone and in person. I had been nothing but vicious to him, tearing him apart with my words and my sharp, intense glare. I would have been way too embarrassed to humble myself and admit that I had been wrong.
I still get too proud far too often in my life and refuse to humble myself to another person when I should. It’s something I’m working on. It’s part of this man I am becoming instead of trying to be. That night, I embodied that man, in all his fragmented, complex horror and beauty. Each day, I strive to continue to become that man.I don’t aspire to be some perfect man, whatever the fuck that might mean. I aspire to continue to become, to learn from the incredible men I am surrounded by—none of them being perfect either, but incredible examples of men, nonetheless, like my father and my good friends. Like my little brother. Like themen close to me who are not related to me by blood but will always be my brothers.
I have been lucky enough to witness the dream become real on a few occasions in my life. One instance stands out more than all the rest.
Last year at Rikers Island, New York City’s infamous jail, I was visiting for an afternoon performance. It was a few days before Christmas, that time during the holiday season when prisons and jails are most violent, that dark time when the pain and solitude of being incarcerated become unbearable for many. This is also when many suicides take place; some men send their pain outward and turn violent on a cellmate, while others turn it inward and kill themselves to end the suffering. I could feel the tension in the room as I walked in, the nearly two hundred young men, ages sixteen to eighteen, staring at me as though I were another added felony charge.
I softened them up with goofy love poems and quirky lines, getting some of the guys to break through and finally chuckle and laugh. Then I read a poem about dancing at the club, approaching a girl on the dance floor and hoping she wouldn’t turn me down. Some of the guys were hooting and teasing in obvious empathetic nods to my own insecurities on a Saturday night out. I had one final poem left for them, and I wanted to make it count. As I glanced up at the four separated groups, each of about fifty, divided by burly corrections officers with guns, I suddenly felt like we were in someone’s living room, like we were in the ratty, steel-barred gymnasium where I saw my first pep rally at Northeast High School or had prom at Providence Friends School or played basketball for hours when I was in college. I was literally standing near the baseline at center court, about to do my last poem. And all I could think about was childhood and my love for basketball. I thought of all of the ways that the game I loved so much had made me into the man I was. I wanted to pick up a bunch of basketballs right then and there—let us all play a pickup game and laugh and joke and compete and get upset when we lost and try to showboat on a breakaway and miss a layup. But it wasn’t time for sports. It was time for a poem, so I read them my poem “How to Fight.” I slowly delivered the lines about creating a new way for us to fight and engage in our lives. I talked about being fed up with the ways we lash out at each other, how I’m tired of seeing all of these beautiful men, especially black and Latino men, die before they are able to even start pursuing a dream that is their own. I looked out on a room of entirely brown faces—black and Puerto Rican, Jamaican and Dominican, mixed like me—with painful stories tucked behind their proud eyes. I stared at Bloods and Crips and Latin Kings and young fathers. I stared at young writers and poets and singers and dancers and basketball players and science nerds and math whizzes and kids as bad at math as I am.
As I went deeper into the poem, the room fell completely silent for the first time. There was not a peep or a whisper, just a room full of thirsty eyes staring down at me as I read them a poem. It talks about the conspiracy against our peoples’ beauty and worth. It talks about the trickery of us ever viewing each other as enemies. It talks about the hope shining through out of our chests, in spite of the rigged game of roulette we are forced to play. As I got to the last few lines of my poem, I moved off the microphone for the first time and addressed a pensive, sensitive-looking kid right in front of me in the first row of bleachers. His tight cornrows and deep brown eyes took in my every word as I moved closer to him. My voice choked with emotion as I began saying the last lines of that poem as though they were written for him:
Hermano, we aren’t what we call each other. Hermano, we’ve lost too many of us already. Hermano, me llamo Carlos. Ya nos conocemos.
That’s Spanish for, “I’m Carlos. We already know each other.”
I’m your brother. Tú eres mi hermano.
And I moved even closer, now a mere half step away from him, slowly extending my open palm,
Let’s start something.*
I knew that if I delivered that line the wrong way, there would be a price to be paid. There would have to be, because respect in jail is everything. If someone disrespects you and is allowed to get away with it, that moment alone could cost you your life. I knew this. But I believed in the men in that room. I believed they wanted the same dream I did.
Who wants to fight and die for nothing? Who wants to not have a father or safe home? Who wants to be treated like an animal and told he’s worth shit?
As I leaned forward and put my hand out, I could feel the entire room hold its breath. My heart beat hard against my Adam’s apple as though it might break. Before I knew what was happening I felt a hard slap against my palm, as the young man in front of me clenched my fingers, pulled himself up, and embraced me in a long hug.
Everyone clapped. Everyone stood up. None of the corrections officers told them to sit down. I looked up and saw men with tear-swollen eyes and vulnerable smiles. The dream had been made real.
If only for a moment, in that room we had seen that the dream could be made real.
Excerpted from MAN UP by Carlos Andrés Gómez. Copyright (c) 2012 by Carlos Andrés Gómez. Reprinted by arrangement with Gotham Books, a member of Penguin Group (USA), Inc.