Tuesday, November 13, 2007

On November 13th...

Felix Unger was asked to remove himself from his place of residence...

...you know the rest.

November 13th was also the day in 1940 that Willys-Overland (later American Motors) completed the first prototype for the Army's ultimate vehicle—The Jeep.

That same day in 1940, Walt Disney's animation landmark “Fantasia” premiered.

And on this date in 1964, our friend Steve Gilliard was born. He'd be 43 years old today.


Just...kind of had to think on that for a second.

Every day, and with every post, we—Jesse, Hubris, Sara and myself put up here—we think of Steve. And I suppose it would be quite the understatement to say aloud that we miss him. Terribly. Some of us knew him better than others, like Jen, for whom this day brings it's own particular sort of memories of a friend, and yes...heartache. But it's a heartache we all—“the regulars”, and the occasional “dip-in-ers” are well acquainted with in varying degrees as we ruminate on what was, and what might have been with the big fella.

The thing that helps me get through it all is focusing on what Steve would have wanted me...and us to focus on—namely, the dedication to doing this work and to doing it well. Back in the day, when I'd check in at The News Blog, I'd find myself simply astonished at the quality, passion and breadth of coverage that Steve managed to blast out there every single day. Just astonished! And as I read the pieces and laughed along at the crazily inspired accompanying photo choices, it didn't take long for it to dawn on me that here was someone who was flat-out enjoying what he did.

You don't put that kind of work and heart into this sort of thing and not have a love for it. Yes, there was anger, and verbal fisticuffs, and lethal keyboard-generated venom. But dammit, there was also fierce talent, and a roaring drive/creative fire burning within, and fairly shooting from every pore. I was already a professional writer, but I found what Steve was doing, inpiring.

And reading what he was doing turned on a rusted-shut spigot inside of me. A spigot I knew was there but had neglected for a time because of life's little constraints—raising kids and paying bills, and just trying to get by for a while. I was writing things—pointed political satire, comedy and drama, but I'd let that old analysis/debate/essayist spigot rust solid and unusable from neglect.

I began to comment here and there. Steve's work inspired me. Provoked me. Prodded me. And then? The rust began to flake off the old spout. The words trickled through—drips at first, then a small, steady stream. And before I knew it, I was commenting regularly, and had access again to that old, deep well of communication I used to access with ease.

The News Blog helped to unlock the full creative, thinking me again. The me that idolized Hunter S. Thompson, and Jimmy Breslin, and Gay Talese, and Mailer, and Grantland Rice and Ralph Ellison, and Baldwin and absorbed all of their work, and mixed it in with my life experiences and education till it came out as...what I would create.

Steve's freewheeling “salon” sent me all the way back to those evenings standing on the corner of 120th Street and Manhattan Avenue in Harlem as a boy of six, seven and eight years old with my dad as he and a group of men after work would debate the issues of the day...

The talk was of Nasser, and Adam Clayton Powell. It was whether Bobby Kennedy was “for real” in his concerns of the common man, and went to the folly of Vietnam, then the men's own experiences in WW2 and Korea. We discussed the comparative merits of Ali, Robinson, Louis and Marciano, then moved to why NBC's allegedly groundbreaking “Julia” was a bit of a let-down for a lot of Black folks, or why “I-Spy's“ Cosby character Alex Scott, and “Mission:Impossible's” Barney Collier (Greg Morris) never got any real romantic play on the shows—which would then lead into deep discussions on the nexus of race, sex, and class worthy of a great hall discussion at Columbia University just four blocks south.

But no, we stood there at the corner of 120th Street and Manhattan Avenue, talking, sharing, listening and learning.

Just as we did at The News Blog and as we do here at GNB.

I think back to those days when I'd sit propped against the sofa as my dad watched the news. “Hmmmmm...let's see how Chancellor covers this.” he'd say as I'd turn from Cronkite on CBS to the Nightly News on NBC.

“See? They're goin' at it different. Cronkite questioned Nixon...this guy's goin' right along with 'im. Mmmmmm-hmmm! See that?”

Media Criticism/Analysis 101 with my dad and mom and all of their brilliant street-smart friends. Classes 201 through Junior year would poke along for years. “Senior year” with thesis and dissertation would be reading and commenting at Steve's. (with an internship at my man Tony Pierce's busblog)

The post-grad/real-life application of that learning is manifested here for me every day.

And on this day, November 13th, I want to celebrate the fella who managed to get me where I am with you now. A lot of folks would ask me “Hey! When you gonna get your own blog, man?”, after a particular comment at TNB. Steve never pushed me. He let me putter along, saying this n' that, here and there downtown in Haloscanville, and sometimes bringing one of my—or anybody's he felt should be seen by more—comments up to the front page. We were in effect, all wood-shedding together—unwittingly developing the muscle to write every day about issues, while soaking up all of the good from reading an undeniable master at it.

Yes, I put Gilly up there with my other scribe-ish influences—Thompson, Breslin, Talese and the rest, because I learned from him, as I learned from them. Scanning the words, almost able to touch the passion—moving you to read more, search out more—and then absorbing that.

That's what an influence does.

And then, one day...they depart. They go where they go, and there you are. What do you do? With all you've absorbed? The turbine they helped fire up—now full to bursting with sparks and vibrating with energy—what do you do with all of that?

You do the thing you thought you couldn't. Because of time, or priorities or all of the myriad of things that keep us in a “safe space” but often hold us back from maximizing our full potential.

You go for it yourself.

That's what we find ourselves doing here every day. Going for it. Letting go those spark-filled thoughts that hammer at the insides of our heads as we ride the subway and muse, drive to work with the car radio on, boil with indignation as we watch the news while getting the kids off to school, or even chuckle at when we watch a movie that resonates with something that happened just yesterday.

On this November 13th, I can truthfully say that I'm a better writer, and a better creative soul because of Steve, and TNB, and by full extension, this place. Because I flex that creative muscle more frequently than ever before, and with more facility. I read more. I'm exposed to more brilliant people—other bloggers and you, the readers. His paving the way via the internet gives me more of a voice than I've ever had. On any given day, I can wake up and do a video, or write an essay, or create a visual that lets me express myself and maybe sends a message that opens someone else up to deeper thought—or just makes 'em laugh at an absurdity they may have overlooked while living their lives.

That's a helluva thing, to wake up and find one's self able to share that with others.

It's pretty much a dream come true.

So I'm happy on this November 13th. Happy as hell. Sad though, that the dude who ushered me into this isn't here to see it, or share in it—but I know for a fact that he did one of the things he set out to do, and that thing is to make a mark. To leave a legacy.

To have made a difference.

Hell, yes.

So no tears, folks.

Okay...a few. You can have a few. As many as you need. But dammit, think of the good. Think of what you know, now—that you didn't before, because of the dude whose birthday is today. The places you've been, the things you think, and where you are, as opposed to where you were mentally...creatively.

November 13th is a damned lucky day...'cause we got somebody on that day who brightened things up for us all.

Can't be sad about that. No way.

Thus, I'm gonna take a moment later today and tip one or two back to celebrate the big guy. Maybe pour a sip off the top to commemorate. I'll do it over the sink, so as to not ruin the hardwood floors and piss off the wife—know what I mean?

Think I'll whip up a sweet little libation a friend from Miami came up with, called a “Hyman Roth”. A “Hyman Roth”, you ask. What the hell kinda drink is a Hyman Roth?

Well...it helps if you have some Dr. Brown's Black Cherry Soda in the house:

Over a tumbler of ice, mix:
2 parts Dr. Brown's Black Cherry Soda
1 part Bacardi 1873 (now called Bacardi Solera) Rum
A splash of lime juice
One sprig of mint

Dr. Brown's Black Cherry is an old “tribe” of the Lower East Side/Miami fave. I'm gonna mix up one or two of these and celebrate a life well-lived, albeit too short. But one that blazed a trail, and sparked a bunch of folks to push themselves in directions they might have otherwise not ventured.

November 13th? Maybe a bad day for Felix Unger...but a damn good day when you look at it in terms of can-do versatility writ large (The Jeep), and creative excellence (Fantasia). Just a couple of things a certain somebody I'll always remember, very much inspired in folks.

Happy Birthday, Steve!