For What it’s Worth

I suppose the start of my life was to learn more about this thing we call boyhood. Then it was how to be a teenager. Then I had to learn how to be a man. Then I had to learn how to be me. It seems like most of our life is spent learning how to be something we already are.

I trace this thought back to the days when we were on corners or in front of stores, asking the so-called “Cool” looking adults if they would buy us some liquor or beer. The conversation always started out with the same, “Excuse me,” and sometimes we’d luck out. Sometimes we’d find someone who thought it was their job to educate us on life. It was enough for me to roll my eyes, thinking, “Good God, man. Just buy us some beer or get lost.”

That was the goal too. To get lost. To be somewhere else or someone else. We’d look to find an empty alley or a parking lot or a place where we could light a little fire, somewhere cool, like at an abandoned building or one of the vacant lots in town. This is the picture I think of whenever I think about my crazy youth. I think about the outfits we wore and the music that screams like a crazy anthem to our sad little rebellions.

I wore a different outfit back then. I was a representative of my crowd. I dressed differently and I lived differently yet, we all looked the same. We talked the same and we told the same jokes. Everyone was looking to find their trick and show it off to make them special. But no one ever talks about things like this. No one ever says, “Hey, what if this really isn’t me?”
No one is ever honest, except for the rarities or the deviations from the standard. We are pack animals for the most part. We are social creatures, trying to find where we fit and if we don’t fit, we reshape ourselves to make it work.

Peer pressure is real. We know it is. The social draws of status and popularity is as real as the commercialized beauty we see on television or in magazines. We are told about beauty. We are told about the standards for living. This is manhood. This is womanhood. This is what or who you are “Supposed” to love and this is how you are “Supposed” to be.

As for me, my understanding of beauty did not come until later in my life. I missed a few turns and years went by, but suddenly; almost cosmically, I saw the beauty of my life at an unexpected time and in an unexpected place. There were no rehearsals. There was no trying to prove myself. There was only love.

I can remember rehearsing what I would say to people. I remember a line or two that I planned to tell a girl. But then I lost my nerve; only to find it later after drinking from a bottle.
I found a way to create that inner sense of liquid courage. But hey, I was out of my head. I missed the class on how to win friends and influence girls, which means my intimate career did not start until later in my life. Plus, vomiting is never an attractive sight.
Ever try to get a date with puke on your shirt?
Trust me, it’s not easy.

There was something going on with me. I wanted to know how to be myself but I spent too much time trying to be someone else. I remember the rules. I remember the maps and the blueprints of how to “Be” and how to got to places in life.

You never rat on your friends. I remember the calls for loyalty. All for one and one for all. I remember the bullshit street codes, which let’s face it, there is no honor amongst thieves.

I remember my first introduction to the law. It was amazing what they knew. It was amazing that although everyone says, “I’m not a rat,” it’s amazing what people give away when they’re handcuffed to a desk.
I didn’t give anything up. I was too busy falling on my sword.
Plus, they had what they needed. I was just a stupid kid at the time.

I knew who told on me. And I knew why too. But hey, this is the outfit I chose to wear. These were the people I chose to call my friends. They were sick and so was I.
I get it.
I can remember an early morning at first light. I was sitting inside one of the county’s holding cells. I could see the sky starting to change color. I could tell the sun was about to come up from one of the windows that was opened and slightly tilted outwards. Otherwise, everything was synthetic and processed, including the air we breathed. There was nothing to see but walls and bars and the people who were locked up, just like me.

It was finally quiet. The town drunks finally stopped howling. One of them was constantly calling out for his lawyer, screaming, “You can’t do this to me” and “I know my rights!”
I could hear him periodically heaving into the commode in his cell, echoing like a terrible retch that rang down the corridor.
The month was August. I was about to see a change that I never considered. I was about to witness firsthand life from a different perspective.

Fast forward to the month of December. I was home for a visit because my Father was sick. My choice to pick treatment over prison made sense to me.
In fairness, I was too small to defend myself. All the heart in the word wouldn’t help me survive that life. Plus, I didn’t want to become the person I would have to be in order to survive in that place. Hence, this is why I chose option B. I took the program and went to treatment. 

I went through changes and different stages of realization. I saw different people in different outfits but somehow they knew. They came from different places but they felt the same way. They went through similar things. I never dared tell anyone what I was thinking. But that’s what you do in treatment. You talk. You open up. You tell on yourself to “Get honest,” which at the time, I was not willing to do. At least, not yet.

I never knew how similar people could be. I only saw us as terminally unique. I was me. You were you and never the twain could meet. Plus, what does anybody else know about me or my life? Who could possibly understand? “Just leave me alone,” I thought to myself. “I’m tired of always trying to see where I fit.”
I just needed a break sometimes. That was all. But let’s be clear, those kind of breaks lead to long, drawn out mental vacations that come with a heavy price tag and consequences.

I thought about my friends from time to time. I thought about what they were probably doing but, I was away. My name was on the shelf. That means I was in a strange state of suspension. My life in the crowd stopped but the crowd kept going without missing a beat. I thought this was so unfair.
Life didn’t stop. It changed; and whether I liked it or not, I was not willing to submit to the plan. There was no way I was walking the line or being anyone different. Besides, who else could I be and even if I tried, who would believe that I could be anything different?

I clearly recall being told that I didn’t have real friends. Of course, I argued this. I had to argue this. My ego would never be able to accept this was true. I had no choice but to defend my friends.
We were the kids from the neighborhood. I wore that like a set of stripes on my so-called uniform. This was my rank in my rebellion.
“Don’t tell me I don’t have friends.”
“You don’t have friends,” I’d say.

I can remember the night when my Father died. I was home to say goodbye. I was in my bedroom with the lights on.
Someone I knew must have driven by the house and noticed the lights on. I found this out when the phone rang. I answered it.
I can recall the look of fear on Mom’s face. She looked as if I was going to run away again; as if I was going to find myself back at the old places doing the old things that nearly killed me; as if the pain was too real and I would go back to the only way I knew how to deal with things like this, by euthanizing myself, and taking that one hit that would send me out of this atmosphere.

There were three people I knew on the other end of that call.
They asked if I was back home for good.
I explained that I was only home because The Old Man passed away.
They asked if I wanted to come out with them.
But they didn’t ask because they cared.
They didn’t ask because they knew I was brokenhearted.
Not one of  them said, “Hey, I’m sorry to hear that!”
No one said, “I’ll be right over . . .”
Or, “You don’t have to go through this alone because we’re friends.” 

No, they were calling to see if I wanted to take a trip with them to East New York, Brooklyn. And for those who need clarity, they weren’t going there to play Parcheesi or anything like that. Besides, I could hear it in their voices. I knew what they were doing. I knew what they wanted. 

Meanwhile, they knew I had a collar around my neck. I had the courts to deal with.
I just lost my Father and what were my so-called friends thinking?
They were thinking about a poison that I had been cleaned from for about four months.
No one said, “You’re doing the right thing.”
“Keep at it!” 

I guess this was one of the many things that opened my eyes. I didn’t go with them. I didn’t run away. Instead, I went back to my treatment plan. At least the people at the facility cared about me. Some of them cried for me. They talked to me. I had never experienced true friendships like this. But now that I had it, I didn’t want to go back to the cold hard facts of bullshit and street justice. 

I remember someone telling me about a person’s word.
I remember hearing “What does a person have if they don’t t have their word?”
The answer to this was, “Nothing.”
All you have is your word. 

I remember an analogy.
I was told about a person’s value in comparison to a bank account. It was explained to me that the value of a check is only as good as the funds in the bank.
I was told that my word is like a check. But like the bank, if there are no funds in my account, my words aren’t worth the paper the check is printed on. 

If you promise something it’s the same thing as writing a check.
If you go back on your word, the check bounces, which means you have no value.
I was told to be the type of person whose word is worth more than money.
Therefore, if you give your word then your word is a bond.

I do not wear any of my old uniforms. The wars from my old rebellions have died a long time ago. I still have scars and memories but I have retired my sword and the double edges which have cut me in the past. I admit to the role changes. I admit to troubled times. I was always looking to find myself; and yet there I was. Here in my own body.

I’ve worn different fashions. I have seen the corporate, white collar side and the blue collar side as well. And still, a person’s word is a person’s word.  A bounced check is a bounced check and an empty promise is an empty promise.

I have spent the latter part of my life rebuilding from old brandings and changing my personal self to reach my best potential. I admit that the process has been rough at times. I admit to falling down and failing hard. But as a result, I learned the secret of my endurance.

I can remember an idea someone told me. They said it will take about five years for me to get my brains back after I clean up. Then they told me it will take me ten years to learn how to use my brains again and by fifteen years, I was told that I’d learn I didn’t really need them to begin with. People laughed at this as if it was funny. But I never liked this joke so I never laughed. 

I rejected this idea.
As a kid, everything was about your rep. I was told how to be, how to walk, how to talk, what to say, how to act and that all of this was a representation of me.
Things haven’t changed.
As an adult, your rep is equally important. Your rep is your value at work. In life, who you are is equal to the wealth of your being. 

I was told that I’d have to be honest when I found myself at the entry of Corporate America. I say this often, too, so forgive me if I repeat myself but Corporate America is a lot of things. And honesty isn’t one of them. In fact, I’ve seen more honesty in jails and dope dens. But still, all we are is people in outfits and uniforms. We’re grownups playing dress up. Everyone is trying to find the right fit and looking for our right place in the circle. No one wants to be the one on the outside looking in.

I made a commitment to live my life a certain way. I promised that I would come here each day, honestly and openly. I made a commitment to my work and to the people I love (especially to the ones who love me back).
I wrote a check that is only worth my word. And that’s my value.
I want this to mean something because I want to mean something.
I want my word to have value because if I don’t have my word, then what do I have?
Nothing, right?

I don’t have to play pretend anymore. I don’t have to please anyone or prove myself. I don’t have to bring my report card home ever again. All I have to do is be me and reach my best possible potential. My true friends understand this.

Note: Something I’ve noticed after I made the decision to stop force-fitting myself into equations is that by constantly including myself to belong because I was afraid of being left out, I never learned the complement of being invited.
I know what it means to be invited now. I know how it feels to be included in the right places and with the right people. I have real friends these days.

You have my word on it . . . Ben Kimmel: Books, Biography, Blog, Audiobooks, Kindle

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