An aging Billie Holiday looked in the greasy, smokey mirror backstage at Emerson's Bar and Grill late one evening to apply her makeup. She stopped for a minute, and wistfully stared at herself as if reflecting over forty-four years of joy, pain, sunshine and rain. She composed herself, picked up a makeup brush, and to no one in particular, she bitterly whispered "Don't judge me! You can't handle half of what I've dealt with. There's a reason why I do the things I do, there's a reason I am who I am ........ motherfuckers!"
Many people acknowledged that Billie Holiday, the late, great jazz innovator, also possessed the uncanny ability to cold-read a person with searing accuracy. Game recognized game before it even started, and she could look right through you and call you for what you were whether you were nine years old or ninety. It's generally thought that this ability was born out of an horrific upbringing that often placed a young child in the unfortunate position of having to make adult decisions. You couldn't fool her and she didn't fool herself about the many ill choices concerning the trifling men that she continued to gravitate to, nor her failing voice, health and fading looks. In her last days, there was a luminous sadness and bitterness that always seemed to be right there staring back at her no matter how she tried to dress it up. Billie Holiday paid dearly for everything that she got - that's why she said God bless the child that's got his own. But what happened to some of the rest of us?
Ordinarily, I might be a little reluctant to do a post like this out of respect for the right people or out of fear that the wrong people would see it, but right now I'm not worried about it because they're not really checking anyway. I heard through the family grapevine that someone closely related to me recently retired after a number of years of being not-so-happy on his job. He told another family member a long sordid story of how his co-workers (and upper management) refused to sign a simple good luck card, make a tiny donation, or much less present him with the obligatory fuck-you gold watch and goodbye celebration with a cheap cake from Kroger's. He said they totally ignored him after all the years of coming in when he didn't feel like it, showing up on time and the so-called years of dedication. There were obvious traces of hurt and anger in his voice as he recanted the story.
Ever so casually, he also admitted how much he has hated them for years; he hated the white folks in upper management and the black folks who were his co-workers in the beautiful, but freako southern city in which he lives. He confessed that there was only one man who signed a card and put twenty dollars in it who told him that he respected him because he always spoke his mind and kept it real. Those of us who know him very well quickly recognize that this "speaking his mind and keeping it real" is nothing but coverspeak for his deliberately cruel and hurtful words and the sick pleasure he seems to take in enjoying putting people "in their place."
Apparently, his co-workers and supervisors recognized it, too! I'm sure they, like us, were able to see clearly beyond the mask of something less sinister like being a "straight shooter" to the real truth of his hatred and ugly insults. From a personal perspective, determining what face he wanted to show is something that I've had to deal with for most of my life, therefore, I have little emphathy or symphathy for the situation. Not surprisingly, he wasn't able to see his co-workers at all. He wasn't able to see that they were sending him a message on his very last day as to how THEY felt about HIM in return. And unlike Miss Holiday, he wasn't able to see himself because he had the nerve to be hurt. Moreover, he just kept on talking.
He admitted that he was temporarily thrown for a loop by the unexpected actions of his peers and didn't know exactly how to respond. So, he decided to step back in character just one good gottdamn last time to show them who he really was by "going to them one by one and giving them a piece of my mind." With vicious glee, he recounted how he shouted down his supervisor's attempts at rebuttal with "SHUT UP, you've been talking for years and now, IT'S MY TURN." With perverse pleasure, he saved his most vile railings for the proverbial hypocritical christians to have a blessed life despite all their own personal levels of falsity and sanctimoniousness.
And yet, he still wondered why after so many years, only ONE co-worker would sign a silly little card and only have something half-way decent to say to him on his last day. He couldn't see that they wanted his ass outta there quick, fast and in a hurry just like he doesn't know that even the threat of a visit home is enough to invoke bouts of anxiety in some family members because we don't know what we have in store - insults, thefts, and expert exercises in making other people feel like shit.
A dozen biographies, essays and the recorded memories of friends and relatives tell us what happened to Billie Holiday and it's probable that the whole harrowing truth will never be told. During her tumultuous life, Billie Holiday sang with the voice of a tarnished angel. Her tongue could be tart and vile but in the next breath she was able to mend and console, for they say she had a heart of gold. But this brotha who is a brother clearly looks through a glass darkly not fully able to see himself FOR HIMSELF. He is not alone. Aren't we all guilty on some level or another on that charge? Aren't we all guilty of judging others whether we know or care why they do what they do or why they are like they are? In those instances, when our own mirrors are clouded, others almost always see us more clearly than what we're able to see ourselves.
"But what must have happened to him?" asked my relative about the other. Well, that's a testimony that hasn't been given yet if it ever will be. But it's said that one day everything will be revealed and it seems I heard Billie say "So the bible said and it still is news."