Written by Phillip Morris
Hello. Hey, I fucked up. I did something really stupid, but I did it for the right reasons. I kept my cool with the cops too.
“I want my lawyer,” were the only words they got out of me from the street till now. Uncle Gabe, I did everything you taught me. Except that, except staying out of trouble.
It started – fuck where do I start – A few weeks back.
Professor Cole had really gotten into my head that day. We were covering enslaved people’s rebellions and at the start of class, he asked how many uprising we thought there were in America. I could think of Nat Turner and Harriet Tubman as fighting leaders knowing that there had to be many more I didn’t know. I figured about 100 uprisings.
Uprisings, not just one enslaved person killing a slaver or running away. A whole community rising up together for a taste of freedom.
So 100 seemed a good number to me at the time, but I was way off. There were over 250 uprisings. And you know why that wasn’t enough, why 250+ explosive revolts weren’t enough to make people say “Maybe it’s not worth the risk of getting my throat slit to keep black people enslaved.”? Because the slavers could almost always shut them down before they got out of hand.
Most were spontaneous, unorganized, and would fall apart if the leaders were taken down. Shoot all the men, and the women will fall back to protect their children. Then take a few of the survivors to make an example of and they wouldn’t try again… Or and this to me is worse, some enslaved person suffering from major Stockholm syndrome would warn the slave owners ahead of time. What a job they’d have to do on you to make slavery seem better than even trying for freedom. In exchange for snitching they’d move up and sometimes be made an “honorary man” among whites for being a traitor to their people.
Even if I had a kid I think I’d risk it. Even if –
Yeah, it’s a tangent but that’s what was in my head on the bus home. I’m not a fighter I know, but I felt like I’d have to fight. It felt like I was being a hypocrite though because right in this life I wasn’t even out on the streets protesting. Because what, an arrest would cost my scholarship?
Professor Cole said he would vouch for anyone arrested at a protest, but the provost and most of the board aren’t hearing it. There’s not even an African-American Studies department at the school. They wouldn’t care.
This was all in my head when I missed my stop. And the next and the next. As if not lifting a finger to fight meant I shouldn’t bother lifting a finger to go home and study more, to graduate, get a job, get married, have kids, and send them off to college to continue going on doing nothing.
If I was going to do even a small thing like getting off the bus I had to justify to myself why I wasn’t at a protest.
I went to one. In the beginning when it was easy. You know that doesn’t count. It doesn’t mean much to just do the easy thing.
My inaction needed justification. That came to this. Me here, arrested with a black eye, busted lip, and sore everything. Protesting won’t change shit because it hasn’t changed shit. People that are going to care already do. The rest… I don’t know what to do with the rest. I mean you can’t force someone to care. We already tried fighting them too. So what then?
That was as far as I got when the bus reached its final stop way down in San Pedro near the docks in some industrial part.
“Hey son,” the driver called out to me. He was an older black guy with grey streaks in his beard. “Sorry, but you gotta get off here. I go to the depo.”
In the back of my head, I was thinking the bus would just loop back. He told me I’d have to wait for a half-hour for the next bus heading north, but “It would probably be better if you walked up to the main road to catch something sooner.”
I did start walking. Having someone telling me what to do made it easier to do something. Lethargy made me feel heavy and slow but I was moving. Until I saw a bar, which was just a bit further from the stop. With just a motorcycle out front and its windows layered with dust. I could afford a cheap beer on my budget and finish it in time for the bus, so I went in.
I went in, sat at the bar, and ordered a beer. There were a couple of older guys playing darts at the back and the bartender, that was it. The guys looked like old bikers, add to that the bike out front and I figured I was in a biker bar, which I always imagined would look better than that. Cooler somehow.
The bartender didn’t say a word to me, but he gave me my beer.
No, I wasn’t there to start a fight. I really was planning to just kill the time with the beer.
One of the guys had gotten close behind me, so I could smell the cigarettes on him when he said, “You lost boy?”
I knew the line, everyone knows the line. What it means. And still, I didn’t think at all, I was on automatic smart-ass.
“I’m not a boy, I’m an honorary man.” I wasn’t looking at him. I said it into my beer as I was taking another sip.
This time I turned around and said, “Today I’m an honorary man.”
I was really expecting, not a fight, but I don’t know, to exchange some dirty looks. But he wasn’t angry. This middle-aged pot-bellied man in a leather vest was almost smiling. He called to the other guy, “Gene, he’s an honorary man.”
“Well shit then,” Gene said as he walked across the bar, “we can get a drink together.”
Gene and Roger sat on either side of me. Roger something, Something with an S. I only saw it once on a package that arrived at the bar for him. They didn’t call each other by their full names.
Anyway, that first day things were chill. They paid for my beer and we shot the shit a bit. They did most of the talking. They talked about how they were thinking they’d have to kick my ass if I’d walked in to cause trouble.
I told them I was just checking the palace out before I caught my bus.
“Lucky you found us H-man. There’s clubs out there that shoot first and ask questions later when they see a nigger.”
Those words exactly. It made my skin prickly and burn, but I kept my mouth shut. Thank fucking goodness the bus was due. I thanked them for the beer and bounced with things staying cordial. They told me to come back on Friday as I got up. I mumbled some assurance that I would as I walked out the door in time to see the bus pull off.
I never ran so fucking hard or long in my life but I caught it at the next stop.
How close had I come to dying? Where the hell did I end up? When I got home there was this anxious fight or flight energy running through me still. I mean it would be beyond messed up to spend my whole life staying out of trouble to only end up dying because I went into the wrong bar on a Tuesday.
I didn’t see any weapons on them. I wouldn’t have sat down at the bar if it was obvious. One swastika on the wall and I’d have noped on out of there. They had a confederate flag on the back wall I noticed on later visits, but it had a motorcycle in the foreground so that was the prominent feature. If I noticed that the first day it wouldn’t have raised red flags though. Bikers just have a thing for the confederacy.
That night I tried googling the bar. It doesn’t have a website or Facebook page, but you can see it on Streetview. In the pictures, it’s still a hole in the wall with a couple more bikes out front.
Since I wasn’t finding anything that way that’s when I looked into the phrase “honorary man”. I was only getting basic information on public pages and I didn’t want to sign up for the private sites or Facebook groups and risk them tracking it back to me in real life. The gist of it is exactly what you’d think, black men in this day and age who would rather be on the white side than the right side in the coming race war.
No, it’s older than QAnon.
I did check with Professor Cole. He hadn’t heard of it being a thing to be an “honorary man” post-Jim Crow when black politicians and community leaders argued in favor of segregation in places like Mississippi and Louisiana. Whatever it took to move from the slave house to the statehouse.
After that off the top of his head the only stories he had of black men willingly associating with the KKK/ white supremacists, they were doing so as a form of absurdist protest. To show the racists how absurd it is to hate someone for the color of their skin. Of course, they didn’t start out as friends hanging out. The black guys started as targets, but I guess they were numbed to racism having gone through it their whole lives. So it ended up that nothing that the racists could do to them really phased them that much.
Threatening phone calls at night were met with “Hey johnny nice to hear from you.”
Burning cross on the lawn, “Thanks Johnny let me go get some hotdogs.”
Insinuations of grave bodily harm, “Ho that’s just what I need Johny. It’ll get me outta work this week.”
And you know, it did work. It’d take a while but it would work. Eventually, the ridiculousness of the situation would wear down the card-carrying members one by one.
Professor Cole said he’d look into the honorable men more for me but I’d heard enough to put the idea in my head. Friday after class I went back. This time I stopped by home first to leave my school stuff behind and to let mom know I’d be hanging out with friends. She warned me to keep away from the protests because cops were shooting people in the head with rubber bullets. I’m sure she thought I was lying when I promised to stay away.
On the bus, I tried to make a plan and couldn’t come up with anything. You can’t plan to de-radicalize a group of angry strangers.
Gene was there to greet me when I walked in. Along with Roger, Gus the bartender, and a new guy Sam. Sam did not look happy to see me. I joined them back at their table and as soon as Gene went to get a round of beers with Gus, Sam started grilling me.
“Won’t the other coloreds miss you at the looting party?”
“I want to be as far away from there as possible,” I lied. Channeling the spirit of someone nothing like me I went on about how I was working hard, knowing my place, and how those other fucking blacks were fucking it up for me. How I was working hard to earn what they wanted to be handed to them. Sam came around to me real quick once I opened my mouth and let the shit flow. It came out easily since I was just remixing lines from rallies that made the headlines. I’ve never watched a Trump rally all the way through but I can imagine why he’s so into them. I have never had an easier time getting someone to like me, except when I got Minecraft running on the school computers in elementary.
By the time Gene was back with the beers, the topic of conversation had changed to motorcycles. I’d mentioned how nice the tow bikes out front were and how I needed to learn to ride. They told me about the freedom that comes from riding them.
“Full throttle on an open stretch of road is the closest you can get to flying,” Gene said.
Roger missed it. Something about diabetes kept him from riding for years already. The bikes out front were from Sam and Gene… Gus drove a van most days because of the bar he said. So half the guys in this biker bar weren’t really bikers. More than half if you include me, which after that first Friday they sorta did.
Even more surprising to me, race barely came up. I wasn’t expecting deep intersectional discussions but niggers, spicks, wetbacks, and fags were only ever brought up to take the blame for something bad happening, like mischievous gremlins in society’s gears, or when someone needed a punchline to a not at all clever joke. I wasn’t reminded all the time that I was black around them. Just in situations where someone had to submit, it was a given that it would be me.
When Gus had a few and wanted to keep having a few more it was on me to clean up and work the bar. Gus is the only one that’s a heavy drinker and he tended toward the harder stuff. The other guys might take a shot but most of the time they stick to beers from the draft.
Cleaning wasn’t so bad but when I was doing it they’d switch from putting their peanut shells into a bowl to dropping them on the floor. Or if they were a couple of beers in throwing them. Really throwing. Gene would be sitting at the bar chatting it up with someone and ejecting shells behind him so hard they’d end up under the pool table.
Gene and Sam talked about their bikes and tips for riding but they wouldn’t let me practice on their bike. No nigger could drive their bikes.
Gene said I was lucky to be raised above the rest, lucky enough that I got to ride bitch behind him when we went out shooting. I couldn’t ride in Roger’s Prius. Nope, I had to ride squished behind the bulk of Gene. He also insisted that I keep my arms wrapped around him so I didn’t fall off. I could be squeezed there for really fucking long rides. When they wanted to shoot something unlicensed we had to go out to the desert. I don’t know exactly where. I sorta disassociated whenever I got on the bike. Like I would check out mentally so I could know what my body was doing, but I wasn’t really a part of it.
Why? Because of Gene. He would… adjust himself in ways that made me uncomfortable. At first, I thought it was an accident because it wasn’t like it was happening at the bar. Though it would happen every time he got me on the bike so that when it was time to ride I’d check out and go on autopilot.
Those rides were up to that point the worst part of being in the group. I didn’t get sinister vibes most of the time. They were just toxicly confused men who needed an excuse to hang out. The drinking, guns, bikes, homophobia, and racism were the excuses. I started to like them even once I realized that, and could see past the bullshit.
Over time Gus had me cleaning more so he could drink more. The guys might tip me if I was serving for a long time but it was never a formal thing.
“Boy go get us a round.”
“It’s getting messy, why don’t you clean it up?”
I was shocked by how quickly they seemed to trust me. A docile black man isn’t a threat it would seem. I can’t really say it was all an act either. It was so easy to fit the mold they made for me and fall into that subservient role. In a way, I could turn my brain off and relax. As long as I wasn’t uppity the world in that group was too simplistic to be afraid of anything. They didn’t have any expectations for me beyond submission. If an opinion was asked all I had to do was side with Gene. It was easy.
I never handled money though, and when a keg ran empty Gus changed it himself no matter how smashed he was. It was one of the times Gus was hammered so I was behind the bar, and I noticed a receipt for a drink order near the register. A small order for some “cervezas”,”sake”, and “negronis”. I’d been there several weekends and never saw much of a crowd. At most maybe a dozen older white people who I don’t imagine know what sake is. I figured Gus was using his liquor license to stock his personal supply at home.
About a month into it Gene invited me to work around his house. Not invited, it wasn’t a question, but it’s not like it was a demand either. “My house needs some cleaning. Come by on Saturday.” It wasn’t a thing I could say no to. So I went, and I’d clean, and I met his half-Vietnamese daughter, Wenny.
Yeah, I didn’t comment on it. His wife left him a few years ago. We left it at that.
Him and his daughter had a weird relationship, like really weird. I was treated like a gift to her or something like it. I assume she was the one cleaning and doing housework when I wasn’t there but when I was she would just sit around with him and complain about not having a husband.
She is older than me, probably 30. Not cute and big. If Wenny really wanted a husband she’d have to move out of her dad’s house and lose some weight.
This new arrangement Gene put me in had me below her too. He’d have things for me to do, and she’d add to it. She’d also make comments on my body and Gene would egg her on. It was weird to start but it kept getting worse. then today, or no yesterday now, it just snapped. Everything snapped.
I fucked up big.
Saturday’s routine had become I’d go there, clean, they’d watch, make me get them beers, then Gene would take me to the bar.
I don’t know how this was helping. Like I said I didn’t really go in with a plan. I was hoping it would come to me. In a way it did. Fuck no I didn’t tell Professor Cole what I was doing. I didn’t tell anyone. What would I say? I was going off to play the slave?
Anyway that day it took a turn. Wenny was complaining about being single and Gene said she just needed to get fucked. Then called me over and yeah…
No. I couldn’t. Physically I couldn’t. They talked loudly and as soon as he called my name I knew what he was going to tell me to do. My chest tightened up, my blood ran hot so my skin was burning all over. I was panicking but I kept walking into the living room. He told Wenny to drop her pants and she did. I could see on her face she was just as terrified as I was. She didn’t say a word, she just did it. She always had something to say but now she was silent. Not looking at anything or saying anything.
He told me to take my pants off next. I couldn’t. It happened so fast but I knew I couldn’t. Faking it was impossible. I was soft as fuck and that…. Then the thought of him seeing my dick and touching her with it makes me want to puke. I didn’t really think I just flopped down and started eating her out. That was easier for me. There were muscles I could move so I could go through the motions.
He stayed in the room and watched. I could hear him groaning. I don’t know, my eyes were closed and I kept them shut until it was all over.
Wenny got up angry. Like fuming. She shoved me off, knocked shit off the shelves and table on the way to her room. She slammed the door so hard a picture fell off the wall.
Gene stayed laying on the couch, eyes closed with his dick put away. I knew it was on me to pick up the mess so I did. As I was cleaning up I found this small silver ring with two snake heads one eating another. On the inside of the band there was a swastika. The whole thing was covered in soot. Some of it came off on my hands as I was handling it. There were layers of it, some so old they felt permanent.
I thought about stealing it to take back to Professor Cole, or to the cops to prove Gene was part of a white supremacist group, but that didn’t seem like enough. What other proof did I have and what would be illegal about being a white supremacist if all they did was talk shit and drink?
So I didn’t steal it. When I had everything else put away I asked Gene about the ring. What else could I do besides carry on like normal? I said, “This looked important and I wasn’t sure where it went. I didn’t seem like something to just put anywhere.”
He was quite proud to tell me about how the ring had been in his family for a long time. It’s not that his grandfather was an original German Nazi or anything, but his father bought it off a guy that swore it was made from silver confiscated from the Jews at Auschwitz. It’s never been washed so the original soot is supposed to be from the Auschwitz smoke stacks. The more recent layers are from “remembrance ceremonies”.
He said, “Richard Anglin came out personally last year to thank us for supplying drinks and his was exactly the same so you know it’s genuine.”
He said those words verbatim but he almost said something else for drinks. I was trying to remember everything because I was certain I needed to end things so I never ended up back in that house. Here’s the major fuck up. I should have just kept my mouth shut and listened, but my mouth works faster than my mind when my mind has something on it. A single fucking syllable slipped out, “Who?”
I didn’t know who Richard Anglin was and I still don’t but apparently, I really fucking should have. Apparently, Richard fucking Anglin is the only white man alive capable of judging when a black or any other non-white had done something big enough for the cause to move up from animal to “honorary man”.
Gene called me every name in the book as he beat the crap outta me. Particularly a “lying fucking nigger.” He got a couple good hits in then transitioned to choking me out. All the way, I passed out.
When I came to, I was in the back of Gus’ van. My hands were tied behind my back with a plastic zip tie. Gene and Gus were talking about what to do with me. Gus was saying Gene might’ve overreacted given my time with them and how I was one of the good ones. Gene said, “We can put him with the rest for now but we gotta put him in the dirt.”
I was panicking but I knew I couldn’t stay still. I had to get out. Some of the places they went shooting were pretty secluded. No one but them would ever find me there. There aren’t any windows in the back of Gus’ van so the only light I was getting was through the partition. I could see their heads and the sky. I couldn’t tell where we were, but it didn’t feel like we were on a highway. Still, it felt like if I didn’t get out quick I was as good as dead.
I couldn’t feel anything near my hands that could help get me out. Gus keeps the van fairly clean. I could hear some things shifting as he turned. Something metal was rolling near my feet. I caught it against the side of the van with my foot and pushed it up closer so I could contort my hands to grab it without needing to move my whole body too much.
It was maybe a two-inch pointed screw! I gripped it between my fingers at an awkward angle because of the zip tie and started stabbing and sawing away at the plastic. The odd grip made my muscles start to cramp but I kept going. Just chipping away bit by bit. I’d flex my arms to try to break the plastic when I thought it was enough. It wouldn’t be so I’d go back to sawing and stabbing. It felt like it was taking forever.
I was sure I was going to die. My life wasn’t flashing before my eyes or anything. My thoughts focused on regretting that it would be in such a stupid situation that I did to myself. I never came up with a plan. Had I just not gone back it could’ve ended. They didn’t know who I was, they never asked any questions to get to know me. I could’ve just stayed home.
I flexed again and the tie snapped.
Now, the back of the van has two doors. One at the back and the sliding one on the passenger side. I chose to jump out of the side door as the van took its next stop and was lucky to only fall onto the pavement and not into traffic. I was immediately up and running. Behind me I heard the van doors open and Gene and Gus get out after me.
We were in a residential neighborhood and I felt like if I kept to the sidewalk they’d get back in the van and chase me down that way, so I started hopping fences. The first one was a short chain link fence. One of them took out a gun and shot at me before they got over the first fence. I kept running and hoped over the next fence which was taller and wooden. I pulled myself over the top then pretty much fell on the other side. The other side was an alley with nothing to cushion my fall. Gene and Guys couldn’t get themselves over that fence. They were negotiating who would boost who over, that gave me a second.
If I ran down the alley either way I’d be in the open and they could get some more shots off at me. That seemed like a bad idea. However, the fences between the yards were made of tall slats so they wouldn’t see me if I hopped the fence to a parallel yard to double back to the street. Then we’d be in the public and I could flag someone down.
I went with option number two. I ran two houses down and then went over the fence into a yard just as someone struggled over the first fence into the alley. I bolted for the street planning to flag down the first car I saw. When I got to the sidewalk there was no traffic, but the passenger door of the van was open. Then I could hear the engine running and knew that the keys were still inside. I got to the door and slammed it shut just as Gus was getting back to the chain link fence.
I never thought of myself as fast but from the alley to the van couldn’t have taken more than a minute. There was even time for me to register the look on Gus’ face as I slid into the driver’s seat and floored it out of there.
I don’t know if he had the gun.
I went straight for a couple of blocks before it registered in my head that I was in San Pedro. Then it clicked that they were taking me to the bar to keep me in the basement until they killed me. My instinct was to run home so I orientated north and started driving in that direction. But it’s a long way home from San Pedro, especially in what was technically a stolen van.
They didn’t empty my pockets when they put me in the back so I had my cell and I used that to preemptively call 911. But I hadn’t taken my foot off the gas this whole time so already I had run a couple of stop signs and a red light. By the time I connected with an operator, there was already a patrol car trying to pull me over.
I couldn’t stop. If I pulled over I’d be a black man in a stolen van driving recklessly on a city street. I needed the operator to understand the situation. She just sounded so, I don’t know, fake. Like are you really listening to me asking for help or just doing your job.
Then something else clicked. Like I said it was a long way home and having a growing number of cops behind me put it out of the question.
I would’ve stopped if the operator could’ve convinced me the cops would listen. Look at how long this took even before the cop part. I couldn’t have finished before they had me in the back of a patrol car or shot up the van.
I had to keep driving and I couldn’t drive home, so I turned to the bar. I wasn’t sure there would be anything there to make my case, but I was certain no one in that bar was ordering cervezas, or negronis. If they were going to put me in the basement then odds were I wasn’t the first one.
I was focused. I finally had a plan. I was as careful as I could be without stopping or slowing down enough that the cops could block me in. The sirens actually helped clear the way to get me there without crashing. Up until the end.
Up until I put on my seat belt and drove the van right through the brick wall of that fucking bar by the docks.
So now I’m in here for some bullshit that is just some property damage really, but all of them, all of them, everyone in that bar needs to be rounded up and locked up just like those people in the basement.
It’s fine, I can handle one night. I actually don’t feel anxious, I feel good. I did something.
Phillip Morris is a Californian living in Rotterdam. When he’s not writing dry instructions booklets, he’s likely writing colorful short fiction. When he tweets it’s @lephillipmorris.