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Authors: Gil Scott-Heron

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BOOK: The Last Holiday
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I found out later the guy the teacher had wanted to play the role had rejected the part, so she had asked around for ideas about other candidates who might have some musical inclinations. There
was only one play a year, and from what I understood, the guy had been a smash hit the year before. It was almost taken for granted that he’d star in
The Mikado
. I guess he was playing
hard to get. I ended up getting the lead role as the executioner who doesn’t want to execute anyone. Seemed like I was getting typecast.


I don’t know what to read into this, but there have been a lot of Jacksons in my life. I lived in Jackson, Tennessee. The guy I wrote songs with, later, was Brian
Jackson. In 1984 I voted for and did a fundraising benefit for Reverend Jesse Jackson. My road manager for a long time and a good friend for a longer time was named Earnest Jackson. And while
living in the Bronx—before all the Jackson people—I worked at a place named Jackson’s.

The place we lived with my uncle on Hampden Place looked like the private driveway for someone who lived on Fordham Road just east of the Major Deegan Expressway and the 207th Street Bridge from
Manhattan. If you continued east on Fordham Road, you faced a left turn and a sharp incline that led to University Avenue, Jerome Avenue, the Grand Concourse, and the Fordham shopping district.
Halfway up that incline on the right-hand side was an attractive-looking restaurant, Jackson’s Steak and Lobster House. A prime attraction of Jackson’s was a huge picture-window lobster
tank where customers were invited to select the lobster they wanted for dinner. Great. I saw the lobsters in the tank scrambling over each other desperately, as though they knew what fate awaited

I was not motivated by “things” that dipped into my mother’s finances. I was not worked up about my wardrobe and didn’t mind taking a little teasing on the basketball
courts because I didn’t wear Chuck Taylors—Converse All Stars were the Air Jordans of that era. I had inherited a couple of nice jackets and a good assortment of sweaters from my uncle,
but unfortunately my uncle didn’t have any Chucks to hand down; we didn’t wear the same size shoes anyway.

It benefitted my mom that I was not on her for this or that, but that wasn’t why I didn’t ask. I knew her expenses expanded when my uncle left, but I hadn’t been after her for
stuff before he left, either. I had what I needed to get by: a good selection of broom handles that served as stickball bats, a good leather basketball, an expanding collection of Marvel comics,
and a radio that kept me on the field with the Mets, my adopted baseball team.

I managed to hold myself together by hustling. I made deliveries up the hill to old ladies on my bike, the same one I’d brought along from Tennessee. It had a basket on the front where
orders from the corner grocery rode while I peddled. In the evening I met the newspaper trucks for the night editions and rolled them back to a corner candy store on Fordham Road and Sedgwick. In
those days the
Daily News
, the
, the
, and the
Herald Tribune
all had night editions that were dated as the early edition for the next day. There were no
individual deliveries to the stores. Instead, there was a central drop on Fordham Road where the trucks were met by youngsters with wagons, who hauled the various copies back to the neighborhood
shops where huddling groups of retirees waited for them. Between what I covered with the wagon and peddled up that hill, I kept pocket money that I often doubled by betting on stickball games at
the park in the afternoons.

But then came a job. Or rather,
job. That was when I was called to replace the man who was the dishwasher on the night shift at Jackson’s. I was actually too young to work
there, too young to be in a place that sold cocktails past midnight. But while laughing, I had smeared some of my mother’s eye shadow across my upper lip where there were so few hairs I knew
them all by name. The owner knew I was too young. The manager knew. Not how young I was, but how old I wasn’t. But they called when they needed somebody suddenly.

At times I might do an 8 p.m. to 1 a.m. shift, their heavy time. The time when I would ordinarily be studying or listening to the radio or working on one of my stories about a private detective
with a comic book name and five pages to catch his man. Instead I was in the “pits,” in the elbow of a dishwashing machine that mostly moaned and groaned as it trudged along on a
conveyor that mostly conveyed how hot and how tired and how thick with grease everything was.

From the moment I walked in there, it felt flat-out awful. I went to the back, through the swinging doors that separated the dining area from the dying area. It was hot, unnaturally so. You dig?
The kind of heat that changes your mood and your attitude. A nondiscriminating hope-to-God-some-cold-beer’s-waiting-that-I-can-bathe-in hot. Like a combination microwave and a dame with big
tits on Spanish Fly rubbing up against you like she wants to melt you hot.

It had something to do with the combination of heat from the grill, with all the burners blasting, and the steam at my post, the dishwasher corner where these two flaps were located, reminding
you of the tunnel of love. When I raised a flap to my right, I could shove a wooden square about my size into the darkness that always roared over the sweating dishes. To the left the dishes
emerged with a whoosh of steam that literally seemed to smack me dizzy every one and a half minutes.

There was a young Italian waiter who came through our work area as though he was on roller skates with some customer’s lobster, headed for a huge pot of scalding water, always singing,
“That’s your fucking ass, baby!”

At Jackson’s, I came to understand the term “sweatshop,” though this wasn’t one and they never treated me bad for even one second. But I also came to understand why they
have child labor laws wherever they have them.

At about 11 p.m. it was as if the Spirits whispered my name to the manager just as the big hand of the steam release struck me full in the face and made me so nauseous that my knees literally

“How ’bout a steak, kid?” the manager asked.

“Right through your fucking heart,” I croaked back.

And everybody howled and somebody slapped me on the back and I almost vomited. I stumbled and bumbled my way to the back window, where the change in the taste of the air, the smell of it, the
feel of it against my face and chest like water after a desert trek, made me feel nearly ecstatic.

I praised the steak and potatoes and veggies the cook fixed especially for me. He was a gigantic Jamaican who always sang off-key and could handle a half-dozen orders at once and still keep his
grills spotless and his platters looking as if he pulled them from an ad in a magazine. I ate every bite of everything, finishing with nothing but butter on my fingers from the rolls.

I soon learned how to beat the heat by walking to the open door after every second tray of dishes, about once every five minutes. I learned how to flog the smog, joke about the smoke, and to
pour a cool glass of water over lettuce leaves and put them in my hat. I made it through every shift because my mother and I needed that money. The five hours I put in should have earned me about
seven-fifty, but they always gave me ten bucks. The men I worked with called me “man,” and they treated me like one, so I went back every time I was called, usually once or twice a

After finishing junior high at Creston, I had to decide which of two Bronx high schools to attend. Benjamin Franklin or DeWitt Clinton. After a year of all-boys education at Creston, I had sort
of figured I’d go to the coed Franklin. I was not aware of any intellectual advantage professed by Clinton. The basketball team there was good, but there were no girls.

My mother did not weigh all factors, I’m sure. She had heard some derogatory comments about Franklin, and that convinced her that I was not going there. Based on where I was not going, I
ended up enrolled at Clinton, an education factory of eight thousand boys who attended classes in three shifts: 7:30 a.m. to 1:30 p.m., 9:00 a.m. to 3:00 p.m., and 10:30 a.m. to 4:30 p.m. My first
semester I drew the middle shift.

Registration for classes at Clinton brought my greatest fear of New York—being swallowed alive. In my mind I had seen myself as one of thousands of people stampeding down a boulevard like
a human tidal wave, unable even to break stride, running both one step ahead and one step behind the next person. The worst aspect of this was that it wasn’t an emergency, not an escape to
anywhere away from anything. It was just everyday survival.

I felt as if I was signing up for work on an assembly line. I felt like I had imagined New York would make me feel: a struggle against becoming
. That was the difference I should
have been able to express from my first stay in New York. I had been looking for that at Creston, but walking or riding to and from school with other guys from the block had calmed that strangeness
I dreaded. It was back at Clinton. It came back on the registration line; I was an insignificant cipher, a six-digit dimwit with no connection to this concoction, with no place that was mine. In
Jackson I had been somebody, recognized and respected. Maybe my problem was ego. Maybe my problem was being spoiled. But I felt otherwise, I felt that how successful you were depended on how
comfortable you were. Some people were just small town people, and there was nothing wrong with that.

In the middle of that afternoon’s line of fires I felt completely anonymous, as though I was being erased, as though I was losing contact by making contact, resigning by signing in. By
joining I became disjointed; by taking a number I became one. I was in New York because my mother wanted this. She was here because she wanted it for me.

I had all kinds of problems at Clinton. It’s no good to point at a general malaise, like a depression, feeling stressed or full-court pressed by a crowd in New York—it’s too
common. So I attributed it to the teachers.

“It’s the teachers’ fault,” I told my mother. “I can’t relate.”

She blew up. I could talk about serious things with her for as long as I needed, but Saran Wrap problems, problems she knew I should have seen through did not fly.

“You don’t like your teachers? Awww, that’s too bad. The teacher isn’t there for you to like her. If you do, that’s all right. But that’s not what she’s
there for. What you need to do is read the books she read. Just ask her about supplements she would recommend, added to her syllabus. And remember to take your weakest courses in the morning and
your strongest classes in the afternoon. That means for you the math and science is in the morning and English and history are late courses. Right? Right.”

That was an important conference, and the suggestion she made about when I should sign up for which subjects was crucial. The next semester I decided I would sign up for a last period English
class, which was how I met Miss Nettie and got the opportunity to go to Fieldston. And I almost blew that.


During that first semester of high school, my mother and I headed to Alabama with Aunt Sammy to see the Hamiltons. And we stopped in Jackson, Tennessee, on the way.

The visit came at a time when I was really desperate, unable to get comfortable in the Bronx. I went through periods of time when it was all right to be in New York, and other times when I just
knew I didn’t belong there. That perhaps nobody did. I thought during those times that I belonged in Jackson.

Arriving back in Jackson felt curious, a revelation I needed. After following the Smoky Mountains down, past the point where Bristol, Virginia, bellies up to Bristol, Tennessee, we came into
Jackson on Interstate 70, which now cut a five-hundred-mile, eight-lane diagonal route across Tennessee. The completion of Route 70 had brought about major change in Jackson: there had been growth
I could see from the highway. Industry, jobs, money.

We pulled in to the house of a friend of my grandmother after midnight. I hardly slept before I was up at what the Amish would call early. I bathed and was dressed to go out immediately. I was
anxious to walk on
my streets
and breathe
my air
. It was midweek, a school day, and I made my way out to Merry High School, the Black high school, and arrived just after the opening

All of my old gang was there. Even Glover, my best friend and lifelong rival, the guy who had integrated Tigrett Junior High School with me and Madeline, was there. I found that he was king of
the hallways. I had grown in the eighteen months since I’d left, but he was still an inch taller and about ten pounds heavier. And now he wore a social maturity that made me feel like I had
been left way behind. Perhaps I had been. Glover said he’d had sex. I still had only ambition. But what I really envied was how loose and comfortable he was. They all were. They were home. I
hadn’t been comfortable since I left. I wanted to feel that way again.

The real joy, what I thought I missed most, was seeing and talking to girls. They felt good even without touching. In New York I spoke to girls with a mouth full of doubt, trying to see the
words I spoke and sap the drawl off of them. This morning all the girls were as pretty and soft as I remembered, but now with added bulges in their blouses and hips that made skirts dance as they
walked. I used a month’s worth of New York smiles as we strutted around and I threw “Hey” and “Hi’ya doing” every which way like a politician.

I went back to join Aunt Sammy and my mother for dinner and eagerly reported on my day as a celebrity from New York City. After dinner I got cleaned up and dressed up to go back out to Merry
High for the Southern Serenaders, a school-wide talent show with students singing the latest tunes. I knew I would have been doing something solo or with a group if I had still been around. I
wasn’t doing any singing at Clinton.

Something strange happened. Somewhere near the end of the show, it all got tired. Jackson. Merry High. The Southern Serenading. Even the girls. They were still soft and cute, yes, but that was
what was wrong with it. They were the same. I imagined that in twenty years I could walk in and nothing would have changed at all. Without leaving my seat and while the music played and somebody
sang, I imagined myself back up the highway in the Bronx. And I wasn’t called “country” anymore—or not without a smile. And everything I could imagine in the world was a
subway ride away.

BOOK: The Last Holiday
4.66Mb size Format: txt, pdf, ePub

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