excerpted fromWhat Was Her Name?
by Nick R. Robinson
{from e-Issue #9}


Over the last several years, I had transformed from a diffident, comic-book-stashing adolescent into a young man inspired by the wise-cracking slick-talking soul brothers who were the latest movie sensations: the master lover, Sweet Sweetback; the coke-dealing super pimp, Superfly—not the mild-mannered Virgil Tibbs. Because I wanted to be like them, I had affected a garrulous irascibility that didn’t quite fit my jocular loose-jointed self. When I wasn’t looking, my book-smart-ness had morphed into an acrobatic verbosity that was the backbone of jone-ing—playing the dozens was what Pops called it—the socio-cultural art of insulting and being insulted until one of the two joners quit, from anger or frustration or humiliation (I liked to start with, “Yo’ mama so cheap, instead of a fire alarm, she hang Jiffy Pop on th’ wall.”). And, though I detested the acrid taste and smell of burning tobacco, I had taken to smoking Kool Menthols, because smoking is what cool brothers did, and cool was what I thought I needed to be.

Like those film-star heroes of mine, I was good (enough)-looking—cute was what girls called me: tall enough at 5’9, and at 135 pounds, fence-post thin, with sharp features (for a soul brother) and light-complect-ed. I’d been called Redbone or High-yella—the quintessential disparagement for the 70s black man—since I was old enough to understand an insult: insults I began to reconsider when I heard Superfly called Redbone too.

I adopted my father’s crooked smile and his indomitable swagger. Through a persistent application of vinegar and raw eggs, I “trained” my parted and brushed-flat Boy Scout ‘do into a pick-able Jim “the Dragon” Kelly–style Afro. Like my film-heroes, my few vines—my single pair of bell-bottoms and two patterned, polyester shirts—were fly; my lifted-from-Lansburgh’s eyeglass frames (with the new, thinner prescription lenses) were the latest aviator-style. I had even learned to talk with a deep-voiced lazy rhythm that affected a disdain for the perilous twists and turns of ghetto life. I told myself that I was capable—if not comfortable—mingling with the meanest of society. And, if I didn’t have the bread, the quick cash that those movie-dudes had, because of my threads, my affected style and cool rhythm, I had my share of chicks, broads—that’s what we called girls then.

This new-and-improved-me was starting to feel genuine. Sometimes—times when my new identity paid off as planned (with a new pal, a fresh chick, after bullshitting my way past an ass whipping by some tough)—I felt like one of my movie-heroes. Other times I questioned where all the blustering was taking me. Wars raged within me, mini Vietnams, battles between the still-library-book-reading-Nick and the new, fly version of myself. Despite all of these changes, however—or, maybe because of them—at almost eighteen I was desperate for opportunity, desperate for something.

. . .

Nick R. Robinson grew up in Junior Village, a D.C. government-run orphanage that was the largest institution of its kind in the U.S.   Nick went on to work at IBM and Microsoft before leaving corporate America in 2006 to write his life story. He is currently a fifth-year University of Missouri Ph.D. candidate living in Istanbul Turkey. “What Was Her Name?” is an excerpt from the final chapter of Nick’s in-progress dissertation/memoir, My Family Walks.