I’m back home in D.C. for a semester working on Capitol Hill in a U.S. Senator’s committee office. I’m the only black kid in my pre-furnished apartment on Connecticut Avenue, located about a 15-minute walk from where I went to high school, 1 million miles away from where I was from economically, and even further away from where my mind wandered.
My grandfather was dying. In fact, I think he may have died five years prior when my grandmother succumbed to cancer. He was never the same. The 6-foot-1, barrel-chested man with the slightly protruding belly, withered away from about 220 pounds down to about 150 near the end. He wouldn’t eat. He’d burst into tears thinking about her as I made him breakfast. His boisterous laughter that could captivate an entire room turned to stoic silence as I shaved him and cut his hair. He endured five years of deep depression and physical illness until he faded away completely. By April, he was gone, and in a way so was I.
After the funeral, it was me, my homies, and a half-gallon of Belevedere vodka. There were stories, and even occasional laughter, but mostly emptiness for me. The man who was there when my father wasn’t was gone forever and I had no idea what to do. It was at that moment, after downing another cup of vodka with a papercut’s amount of sanguine cranberry juice that I decided to do nothing. I said “f*ck it.”
There’s such freedom in “f*ck it.” What could be sweeter than its total disregard for consequences and the purest enjoyment of the moment? I sleepwalked through the rest of my internship on the Hill, and in the summer of 2001, a year before my 21st birthday, I decided to live my version of “f*ck it” somewhere between “drinking milk straight from the carton” and “suicide bomber” on the continuum. Every day one album was always a part of the soundtrack: Project Pat’s Mista Don’t Play.
“So High” blasting out of a forest green Chevy Tahoe at Anacostia Park. “Chickenhead” pre-gaming on a side street. “Don’t Save Her” catcalling women, and circling downtown for parking near D.C. Live on a Sunday night. “Gorilla Pimp” around my way watching cars and time pass, my disinterested slouch transforming into military alertness when an unfamiliar vehicle went by too slowly. “Whole Lotta Weed” in a hotboxed car, the bass piercing through eye-reddening smoke like lasers at a hair band’s concert.
No, I didn’t execute a series of armed robberies or have a shootout with the cops, but I did drink a lot, even by a 20-year-old’s standards. And I started smoking weed again for the first time since a terrifying experience ended my pothead career before I even finished junior high. I also didn’t work for the first time since age 14, when I waited in the mile-long line to enter 500 C Street and sign up for Marion Barry’s Summerworks program. You know what they say about idle hands? I didn’t care.
I ambled out onto my street almost every morning that summer, meeting up with my homies before making the two-minute walk down to Bass liquor store to purchase the first of several fifths of Remy Martin VSOP or Belvedere. I poured my first cup before most construction workers break for lunch, and piled into one car or another, heading to one place or another, in search of something to make me feel alive again.
I was different now. Quicker to anger. Slower to laugh. One day I didn’t even come home, which for me, was totally out of character. Now that my mom had lost both parents, she and I drew closer. I always checked in with her, made sure she was okay, and made sure that she knew that I was okay. But I wasn’t okay. So I showed up 36 hours after the last time I had seen or spoken to her, wordlessly blinking through her yelling and tears. I eked out the last droplet of empathy for her, as she was the only person who understood my pain, but there wasn’t much there. I wasn’t there.
I’m back in my Caprice alone now. As much as I love peace and quiet now, I hated being alone then. My windows are up. My A/C is blasting. And DJ Paul and Juicy J’s production, especially on songs like the high-intensity drug deal gone wrong story “We Can Get Gangsta,” are like aural pinch, reminding me that I was still alive as I drifted about in a dreamlike state, constantly hovering between hungover and drunk, buzzing and coming down. I was in a buttermilk-thick fog from April until my summer ended and I returned to campus.
The pain was waiting for me back in that Columbia, S.C., dorm room. Work, class, and responsibilities kept me busy, but the pain had all of the time in the world. As soon as I made it back into my cramped room, and the silence of the night enveloped me, I had to confront it. Alone.
I didn’t drink a drop of alcohol for the entire semester. Not when Aaliyah’s plane went down. Not even on Sept. 11. I just let the pain swallow me whole. I stopped fighting. I stopped running. I stopped going to the barbershop. I stopped smiling. I stopped. I stopped for a long time.
I finally worked up the nerve to see a counselor on campus. We talked about fear and loathing, and reminisced about my grandfather, once I could finally work up the nerve to talk about him. I saw slivers of light between the teeth of the depression that had made a meal of me earlier in the year. I started to make my way to the gym for basketball. I started writing again. I started seeing a girl. I started.
There’s such clarity in pain. What could be more jarring than watching your innocence slowly erode, and realizing that there’s such loneliness in “f*ck it.” What could be worse than feigning enjoyment of the moment, while the rest of your life waits for you like a bully outside of school at 2:59 p.m.? I never felt more alone than I did in the eight months after my grandfather died. Alcohol and an occasional drag from an Optimo were my halfhearted attempts to replace the solitude with something else.
Music was the sharp object that dragged across my skin, briefly awakening my senses and reminding me that I was still alive for the time being, but nothing mattered until I could find the strength to get back up on my feet.