Monday, August 15, 2011

Essay: KENNY

Most of the time I spent in the Deep South I did so putting down racists and their idiotic notion of "race superiority." Not heroic, not even radical; I just didn't like--and still don't like--stupidity. But I didn't go around trying to make "black friends," primarily because I didn't try to get "white friends" either. So the few friends or people I could relate to as friends were very special to me. Here is one of them, and I wish I'd turned our gentle fun into a long-lasting friendship.


Kenny 


He was too good for GQ. If the average GQ guy improved twofold, he’d still be in Kenny’s shadow.

I met him the summer I roomed with Steph, a 275-pound second-string tackle on the Ole Miss football team. Steph was big, black and his friends thought he was reckless or weak for accepting a white roommate. Except Kenny. He shook my hand and then ignored my blatant admiration.

Kenny was handsome. Not pretty-boy or ruggedly handsome, just plain jaw-dropping handsome. If you looked at him for a while, he didn’t seem real. Even his friends would dart sidelong glances at him as we played Spades or talked about stuff, checking his expression, maybe trying to confirm he was still there. If he hadn’t been so quiet and self-effacing, he probably would have had no friends. At least, no male friends.

Besides his looks, Kenny dressed to perfection. His clothes seemed a part of his body, an extension of his grace and style. The combinations were gloriously matched, meshing into a whole that seemed so absolutely right you’d wonder why everyone didn’t dress that way.

So being the way I am and knowing I could bug Kenny for the fun of it, I chose to bug him about his clothes. That’s right, me, the T-shirt/jeans/sneakers guy doing a Blackwell number on ├╝ber-GQ Kenny.

It was simple. He’d show up and I would pause, giving him a slow once-over from head to toe and back again, only to shake my head sadly and mutter something like “Brown belt, tan shoes. How bold,” or a mock-disbelieving “Tweed in the spring?” or “Really. Gabardine,” in a dismissive monotone.

The first time, Kenny froze, then broke into his strong, silent laughter. He even laughed handsomely, with dignity yet joy. From there on out, for the many times we saw each other, he’d break into a grin when he saw me, chuckled as I gave him the haute couture eye and then crack up as I uttered my ponderous judgment.

His dates—always beautiful young ladies—would look at us as if some white/black nastiness was going on, but Kenny would say I always commented on his clothes and I’d nod in satisfaction as the ladies would look me over like I had six legs. Hey, somebody had to keep him humble.

Kenny graduated and I saw him no more. Until one day, while ambling through Atlanta, I spied a familiar walk in front of a glass, people-filled monolith. It was Kenny, looking even better than ever in a finely-tailored suit, a shirt and tie combination that screamed class and shoes that matched the buttery leather of his slim briefcase. I stopped in his path and crossed my arms, cocking my head as if analyzing his presence on the planet. Then he saw me and instantly broke into a huge grin. I started to shake my head sadly and he cracked up, raising a hand to stop my words.

“Uh-uh,” he said, laughing through the words. “I KNOW I look good!”

Insight. And the sharing of joyous laughter as our last goodbyes.



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