You know, you can’t make everyone happy. You can’t be everything to everyone. You’ve got to choose. One of the sacred myths of my people is that we live in a meritocracy, right? One way we express this myth is by telling our children that maybe one day, they’ll grow up to be President. We live in America, where anything can happen, right? If you just work hard enough at it, you can be anything you want.
But forget that! At some point it’s important to decide not to be everything you could be, Army slogans be damned. There’s a process of elimination. I sure have found out I’m not going to be President of the United States, or Miss America, if you know what I’m saying. Skinny and no titties? Butch cut? Anarchafeminist? Holla.
I figured out in college I’m probably not suited to work as a chemist, and am definitely not a match for heterosexuality. Hell, the first time I tried college, I found college itself wasn’t for me, either, at least not at that moment. Of course, you see me here now, back slinging the books at the good ole U-Dub to be a nurse practitioner. Care plans in the house, bitches! But there are lots of things I’ve had to accept are not going to be a part of my life. It’s too late to be the most famous dead rock star of my generation from my little town of Aberdeen, ’cause Kurt Cobain, that motherfucker, already won that contest. And there’s other things I’ve given up on like moving to the country and starting an organic farm, or having Natalie Portman’s lovechild. That ship has sailed, or those ships have sailed.
So, yeah, process of elimination, right? I know this guy because I once lived with him in this shithole of a house in Capitol Hill, and then kept up with him when he moved out. Let me tell you a story about Nathan. I’ve told this story so many times before, always changing some of the facts to make it more true in the most general sense that I can’t tell you which of the specific facts are literally true anymore. But it still speaks to my point.
I lived with Nathan in about 1995 or so. I’m about eight years older than he is, so I figure if it’s 2004 right now, he must be about to turn thirty if he hasn’t already. I last saw him down in Fremont after the summer solstice parade a couple of weeks ago, and sometimes I’ll run into him playing capoeira. When I saw him after the parade in Gas Works park, he was sweaty and tired from leading a group of drummers and dancers from Fremont. He still looks about the same as he did back when we met: tall, white, and masculine in a soft way. His dreads are longer every time I see him, and this time, they were up in a ponytail that flowed all the way down his backside.
He must have a lot of people in his life who respect him. I know he hangs out with a lot of artistic people who admire the music he creates. He did— still does— a lot of capoeira and yoga, and he’s kinda buff as a result. In my experience as his housemate, he suffered from no dearth of people in his life who adored his physicality and style, so he did a lot of really good-looking men and women. I’m not into it because he’s packing a real live dong, but I can definitely see the charm. People feel passionately about him as an artist or adornment.
His passion, though, for all the time I’ve known him, has always been African drumming, dance, and drum-making.
In his late teens, he had attended a small residential liberal arts college. I can’t remember if it was Reed or New College or someplace else, but it was, you know, obviously some place wherever a lot of white kids were growing their hair into dreadlocks, and it was not in Seattle. It’s the sort of place I couldn’t afford to go, but this kid had the support of his parents, and they were good for it.
At about the same time he was going to college for his freshman year, he had also gone on tour with Phish because Jerry had died, gone to a Rainbow Gathering because why not, and consequently gone to a lot of drum circles with people singing a lot of words they didn’t understand. They didn’t know what “afonga alafaya, axe axe” meant then as they sang it, just as I don’t even know how to spell it now for you even today. Nonetheless, they variously thought of themselves as reproducing the loving heartbeat of gaia, community, turtle island, or the universe as they beat on the drums and bells they appropriated from the cultures they exoticized. I’m sure they were stoned out of their gourds.
When he was about two semesters into college, Nathan met a professor who became important to his life. I don’t know the professor’s name, but since he’s a part of this story I’m telling, I’m going to call him David. At any rate, David had studied folklore and ethnomusicology within the African diaspora, and was hired by the small liberal arts college largely to teach anthropology. His dissertation, not quite finished, was the fruit of several extended periods of fieldwork in Ghana, Nigeria, and Brazil. He attempted to show something– I’m not really sure– about how the Brazilian toque on the agogo was related and had descended from rhythms of those Yoruba who, as I understand it, were transported from modern-day Nigeria into slavery in Brazil via present-day Ghana.
Nathan enjoyed David’s introductory course in anthropology. And the next semester, Nathan’s fourth, he took David’s class on music in the African diaspora. It was something the mucky-mucks allowed David to do as a favor. It was not a research institution, and salaries were not that good. But to make up for it, young professors were encouraged to teach their passions as upper-level electives.
Meanwhile, outside of class, David brought talented people he knew to campus to give presentations about African drumming. Some came from far away, even continents away, for demonstrations, while others were less extraordinary, but talented, local percussionists. David the professor and the dedicated teacher-musicians from the community began a regularly-held weekly drum circle. There were loaner drums, shakers, and bells for everyone. Lessons preceded a jam that could go late into the night. Nathan danced and danced and drummed. He became more skilled than he had been at the Rainbow Gathering, the Phish lot, or the other places he had played hand drums. Schoolwork failed to animate Nathan, but Tuesday nights, he came alive.
By the end of his second year, Nathan didn’t know what he was doing at this hippie school of his, though he was supposed to be declaring a major. Not knowing what he was going to do, he planned his coursework to fulfill the last of his remaining liberal arts distribution requirements, which were something like “cross cultural competency” and “creative writing.” He signed up for a whole-semester immersion course to Ghana led by David. In planning the course, David had the help of this famous Ghanian drummer and drum-maker Kwasi Appiah– maybe you’ve heard of him? he played Northwest Folklife last year?– who was lately living in the US, and with whom the professor had formed a friendship.
So in the fall, after a week of going over some details at the college, the students, David, and Kwasi Appiah flew to Accra via Hamburg. From Accra they had a long trip to a small town which was where Kwasi Appiah is from. This town could only be reached with a four-wheel drive vehicle on a dirt track. David taught Nathan and the handful of other students on the course some basic stuff about anthropology: how to cope with culture shock, how to keep a journal, how to use a tape recorder for audio samples, how to count stuff and ask questions– or whatever it is anthropology students would do, I guess, though it’s been a long time since that one anthropology course I took. The were all supposed to write a significant piece of writing, twenty pages minimum, that either described some significant self-discovery undertaken in the cross-cultural context, or which gave ethnographic detail about a social process around music in the community.
Nathan joked with me a couple of times that he has always felt that the phrase “self-discovery” sounds like jerking off; he also told me he thinks “personal growth” sounds like a cancerous tumor. So he opted for the second option, a paper about a how the people made music.
He was fascinated by the father of the house he stayed in. This man, Jerry, an uncle of the famous musician I was telling you about, Appiah Kwasi, was a butcher and tanner. People brought their livestock to Jerry to be slaughtered. In addition to the meat, Jerry processed the cow and goat hides into drum heads. He worked with another man, a carpenter, to assemble these heads onto drums that could be sold or bartered.
In my imaginations of it, having now traveled abroad to some poor places myself, Jerry was one of a number of Kwasi’s many village kin who intimated loud accusations amongst themselves about their departed and famous member. They probably wanted to know why the man who lived in the far-off land of rich people was so stingy with his family. I can imagine Jerry commenting to the carpenter, “brother, in a land where you do not even have to work hard to get money, my nephew could remember us modest people sometimes.” I bet it was in order to appease these rumors of neglect that Kwasi recommended David put homestay students with Kwasi’s cousins and uncles, including Jerry. David probably thought only in passing about how Jerry the butcher shared a name with the country’s murderous president-by-fiat, and then assigned Nathan to Kwasi’s uncle’s house.
I don’t know how much money it was that they got for hosting the white kid, but I would guess it was a lot of money for that time and place. If it was, maybe Jerry felt obligated to show the white person from so far away whatever he wanted to know. I know for certain that what Nathan wanted to learn turned out to be how to clean a hide, how to dry it, and how to stretch it onto a drum. Nathan planned to use watching and participating with Jerry, who also played the drums he made, as a basis for his final paper about a musical social process.
Nathan told me later that he found out that Jerry only pretended Nathan’s work was helpful. In my experience, believing we are helpful to poor people is what we want when we go to these poor places to learn, and the people we meet are happy to have us get what we want. Nathan tried hard to help the man through his labor, but inevitably it was he, Nathan, who benefited the most from the arrangement. I recently discussed this pattern in my global health class. White, first-world people to go abroad looking to help but ultimately become the main beneficiaries of these international efforts.
In truth, I know very little about drums, music, or Ghana. Yet I know that completing his first drum, and playing it with Jerry’s family at a celebration– a wedding, in fact– deeply moved Nathan. Nathan compared it to beating the boss in a high level of his favorite childhood video game. In a span of just a few months, new challenges had appeared, along with the skills to surmount them.
Nathan hung around with Jerry and the carpenter constantly for the rest of the trip. He never even started his substantive writing project because he was otherwise occupied with drumming, carving, scraping, stretching, and drying. When it came close to the end of the students’ time in the village, David promised Nathan that he could receive an “incomplete” mark for the course in return for a pledge to complete the project in the spring.
Nathan did pledge to write, knowing full well no such thing would happen. He had newfound purpose pulsing through him, and he was bitter about wasted time at the hippie school. No paper was ever submitted, and I doubt that the professor ever even knew what a difference he made in Nathan’s life. I mean, Nathan is still in touch with Appiah, as I’ll get into, but I think it would take a lot for him to shoot David an email and explain things. I don’t think Nathan even knows if David is at the college he went to anymore.
Returning to the US before Christmas, Nathan knew he had already found what he was looking for. He knew what he wanted. He didn’t need any more credits from anyone, and he did not need to register for any more guided learning experiences. For all he cared, the college registrar could fuck herself with her Xerox machine and shove her raised seal up her ass. He was educated enough; now he wanted to dance, to drum, and to craft the instruments of beauty. He was determined not to let school get in the way of his education. So he loaded up everything from the college, and went home to his parents in a wealthy suburb in the outskirts of Seattle, though I can’t remember which at the moment. He declared himself done with college, a fact that caused his parents no lack of distress.
His father, Reggie Simmons, had worked his way up as an engineer and then manager for Boeing. Then, nearing forty, Reggie followed his own father, Nathan’s grandfather, William Simmons, into the family business, which was politics. Reggie was appointed to fill the last year of Nathan’s grandfather’s term as lieutenant governor back when William Simmons died in office. And when those two years were through, Reggie passed through a long stream of elected and appointed offices at the state level until he mounted a successful campaign to be elected one of Washington’s members of the US House of Representatives. He’s not our Representative over here on this side of the lake, but he’s still important. His politics are good, even though for reasons that’ll be obvious, I’m not really a fan.
Reggie was elected to Congress for the first time when Nathan was eleven. Campaign photos that featured Nathan, Nathan’s two younger sisters, and their mother helped secure Reggie Simmons’ image as a wholesome family man and former Boeing employee who cared about jobs in the faltering Puget Sound industrial economy of those years. When it was time for re-election, Reggie’s family was older, but Nathan was still a conventional-looking, non-dreadlocked, perfectly bland advertisement for Reggie’s political image.
The next campaign, after Nathan had grown out his hair and subsequently dropped out of college, did not feature the children. And Reggie worried about this blow to his image. Though still a leader in the Democratic party, he was less sure if he would be able to fulfill his ultimate goal of being elected to the Senate. He was nothing if not ambitious.
He held out hope, still, that one of his three children would some day join the family business of politics. That Nathan had dropped out of college and started hanging out with strange people Reggie did not understand put a strain on the credibility of his dreams. Reggie knew that because of gender, his daughters would have a much more difficult time winning elections than his son. Every dreadlock on his son’s head hung down as an offense against Reggie’s dream for the future, and his belief in an orderly universe.
It’s understandable, then, that Nathan did not get on well with his father— actually, I doubt they get along even now. After dropping out of the hippie college, he only stayed in his parents’ house in Redmond or Bellevue or Kirkland or wherever it was as long as he absolutely had to. He changed his sleep schedule to avoid his folks and their bullshit. He tried to be awake in the house only at night or when they were both in DC. His sisters had long ago been whisked away to different boarding schools. I think they’re in Maryland.
Cause he couldn’t stand living with his parents, he moved out the very moment wages from his first job at the newsstand in Fremont— Fremont News— amounted to enough to pay for rent. I was a shift leader at Fremont News then, which is how I first met the man. This was after I flamed out of the University of Washington the first time, but before I started stripping at the Lusty Lady. Of course, you know that after the owners shut the Lusty down, I got involved in advocacy for sex workers, especially around healthcare issues, became a nursing assistant, and finally went back to become a nurse.
I took Nathan under my wings, so to speak, because I felt sort of sorry for him. Like I said, he’s a little bit younger than me. It must have been the maternal instinct that these-a-days I’ve learned to reserve for my cats. But back then, I wanted to help all sorts of people all the time, even when it was a bad idea. He joined a mess of people, some of whom even paid rent, in a large house I’d put the deposit on for everyone.
The house was in a then-still-gritty pre-Amazon-dot-com Capitol Hill. I must admit that it was a real shithole. So Nathan lived in the Capitol Hill shithole with three other young men, me, my then-girlfriend, and our angular and asymmetrical haircuts, for it was we who paid rent. But we all shared the space also with our oversized dreams of a better world, an infinite number of random guests sleeping on the couch, the half-empty beer cans sprawled about the flat and filled with cigarette ash, occasional scabies and lice infestations, and the smell of mildew and marijuana mixing potently with the rotting vegan leftovers and dumpster-diving prizes left too long in the fridge.
He rarely spoke to his parents, and didn’t consider it much of a loss. At Christmas and a few other times in the year, I saw him travel across Lake Washington to visit. Otherwise, he returned their messages about once a month— at least when he remembered to do so. There was the time his mom left multiple messages on the house phone to announce Reggie had been diagnosed with cancer; by the time I convinced Nathan that he really should call them back, it was a week later. I watched as he found out the cancer had been resected, muttered something like “Oh, jolly good,” and hung up the phone. The entire call must not have lasted more than thirty seconds.
He made it on his own. After the newsstand, there was a season of selling random trinkets for various hucksters in Pike Place Market while working as the receptionist at a yoga studio named Vital Point Kula. When the yoga studio closed unexpectedly and sales at the craft market slowed for winter, it was about the same time I’d started working as a nursing assistant. I encouraged Nathan to take the intensive certification course at Shoreline so he could get hired at the U-W Hospital where I was working. I helped him get a job working variable, flexible hours for a relatively better wage, which turned out well for me since it helped him make rent. He scheduled work around drum circles at Gas Works Park and meetings of an African Dance club at the University of Washington. I introduced him to capoiera. He constantly practiced hand drums and percussion, sometimes annoying the shit out of us if one of us had stayed up late or had to work overnights.
He was ultimately kicked out from our Capitol Hill shithole scene after a couple of years because he wanted to use the nonfunctioning bathroom on the second floor to clean and treat hides for drums. The vegan housemates— that meaning everyone but him— were disgusted, and I had to insist that he leave. On the way out, we all had some nasty arguments about it. He called me, among other things, an “anarchist monarchist” for being so clearly in charge of a situation that was supposed to run by consensus. One housemate almost physically attacked Nathan, but my girlfriend at the time, Sarah, and I somehow managed to keep him from it.
One plot twist is that we all are meat eaters now. After a period of avoiding each other at work, Nate and I patched up our differences. He was really glad I helped him get out of his folks’ house, and find work that was steady and flexible. I was glad to be able to help. In retrospect, his comment about “anarchist monarchist” actually made me rethink my politics, and eventually move out of shared housing into something more orderly.
As for Nathan, he moved into an industrial space in Ballard, a modestly-sized and ancient warehouse, that he split with several other illegal residential tenants. They built partitions and lofts upon the Douglas-fir floors. They burned garbage in oil drums to keep warm sometimes.
Nathan made his first drum since Africa in the remaining open space of the warehouse a full two-and-one-half years after his return to the US. It had some imperfections, so he gave it away to an imperfect lover. I know this because this lover was Sarah, formerly my Sarah, who decided she did like men sometimes after all, and had been experimenting with Nathan after she, too, left the Capitol Hill house in the wake of breaking up with me. There was a second drum, then a third, then a fourth. They got better as he acquired new tools and made better connections with hunters and small-time cattle farmers. Drums two through nine he traded variously for pot, for use of a venue to hold a drumming performance, a reduction in rent, and a season of vegetables from a local farmer. His tenth drum, made in between night shifts as certified nursing assistant, was good enough that he sold it via a consignment arrangement at a folk instrument store on Fremont. As word spread about his craftsmanship, he received commissions for custom drums, and reduced the number of hours he worked at the hospital.
When he could save enough money, he visited his teacher, Kwasi Appiah, in Appiah’s Los Angeles home. A few times, he brought Appiah to perform or teach in Seattle. I went to one of these shows. His continued contact with the master percussionist, along with his own constant playing, improved Nathan’s ability to the point that he himself was able to produce an income from teaching lessons in groups and privately.
A nurse that both Nathan and I worked under at the hospital was married to a high school teacher . The teacher had heard from her husband, the nurse, about Nathan’s skill as an interpreter of a certain sort of African vibe. She got Nathan’s number from her husband, and proposed to Nathan that he perform for an assembly of all the students at the school. Nathan gathered his most talented drumming friends into an ensemble for the event, and didn’t charge. Afterwards, he was contacted by a great number of other schools and teachers, who offered to pay not-unsubstantial sums to him and his friends to come and play. Over time, this performance work was easy enough money that he largely quit working at the hospital altogether, and I saw him less and less. This was about three years ago, in 2001, about seven years after dropping out of college, which is also about five years after we kicked him out of the Capitol Hill house.
So today, Nathan has been a college dropout and disappointment to his family for almost a decade. Additionally, he’s now a well-known and highly-esteemed teacher of African drumming and dance, a leading protegé of the internationally-known Kwasi Appiah guy I mentioned. He makes his living from the drums he sells, the multiple skill levels of classes he teaches, and all the performances in schools. He also earns some money from the honor of appearing with his mentor at several large folk music festivals in the US and abroad. I have no doubt that Nathan has found his true calling.
What I’m getting to in my roundabout way, though, is that one day about a year ago, Nathan was arrested. He was driving down Aurora at night— which, you know, coincidentally is where some of the most vulnerable sex workers are, which is to say the women I most want to work with eventually— without a right taillight. The police officer didn’t really care about the taillight, but he did care about using it as a pretext to stop and search Nathan’s car. Since Nathan had a minor amount of pot on him, they took him downtown. His car was towed.
At the jail, he realized there was only one person out of all the people whose phone numbers he knew who had the cash to bail him out. His various lovers? He wasn’t sure which ones to call. His fellow musicians and students? Broke. His warehouse housemates? Behind on rent. So his dad came all the way from the posh suburb to bail his son out, despite all these years of only talking once a month, and despite being incredibly disheartened that his son, the college dropout with weird friends, was also apparently, in his eyes, a criminal.
They released Nathan early in the morning into Reggie Simmons’ care. It was awkward. Nathan told me about it one time after I ran into him at a capoeira rondo. The two men did not know what to say to each other. Nathan’s father thought about all the regrets he had in his own life, and all his disappointments he had with Nathan. They drove northward in silence for a while until Reggie could think of something appropriate to say.
“You know what this means, son?” asked Reggie into the silence of the moving car. “Naw, what?” responded Nathan. “It means,” explained Reggie, “that you will never be elected to the senate.” And Reggie never understood why his son, the tall, sleekly built young man with the long dreadlocks and the powerful hands, began then to laugh at him. Nathan continued to laugh uncontrollably at the old man until Reggie dropped him off at the illegally-occupied warehouse in Ballard. Nathan did not invite him in.