Tonight there are two brothers on my mind. We were friends in our inner city St. Louis high school. I remember going to their house, one of dozens of brick duplexes stretching down the block. The porches all had sofas and chairs, and I could imagine sitting there watching the city walk and drive by.
This was in the mid 1970s, and I didn’t feel strange, although it may have been, for a white boy to walk up the concrete stairs from that street. I do not remember going in the house. I was driving a 1972 AMC Hornet. Oxidized light-blue paint. Cracked vinyl seats. No radio. No air conditioning. The heat blew like a convection oven.
We went to a movie that night, at the Stadium Cinema. One screen, or two, maybe, it was across from Busch Stadium, right in the heart of the city, not far from the riverfront. Arriving late after the film started, the only seats available were on the front row. It was only after sitting down and glancing back at the full room that I noticed that I was the only white person in the room. No worries, though. I was with Vernon.
We played football together one year, but it was the music that made our friendship. It started in the concert choir, and continued in the barbershop and madrigal groups. But then we broke out of that and started singing some R & B and soft rock. I played guitar, but most often Vernon, Virgil, and I sang a cappella. They raised my soul from its sleep. It was inspiring, and my first performance experiences.
Once during college I called and went to see Vernon again. The sofas were gone from the porch.
Watching the inauguration of Barak Obama, Vernon and Virgil were on my mind. My path has led me into many cultures on four continents, but also far away from the American inner city, and absolutely removed from the life that they lived or live now. I was proud to be an American today. I am full of hope for what can happen, what should happen in these next years. But I was sad that as I return to the US after nearly nine years in Europe, I can only guess what Vernon feels today. I wish I knew.
The illusion wanes, and in time we return
to our noisy cities where the blue
appears only in fragments
high up among the towering shapes.
Then rain leaching the earth.
Tedious, winter burdens the roofs,
and light is a miser, the soul bitter.
Yet, one day through an open gate,
among the green luxuriance of a yard,
the yellow lemons fire
and the heart melts,
and golden songs pour
into the breast
from the raised cornets of the sun.
from "The Lemon Trees"
by Eugenio Montale
(Translated by Lee Gerlach)