Friday, November 6, 2015

Out on the Streets for A Living: On Love, Loss and KISS

I didn't cry when they told me.

I didn't cry, or yell or protest. I didn't make a scene or do any of the other things that they probably expected me to do.

I took the news like a man: the department I led was being dismantled, my position was being eliminated, and I was losing the only job I'd ever loved.

In a career that had so often been marked by anxiety and frustration, this was - by far - my most painful experience as a professional. I believed in my work, and I was more proud of it than anything that I'd ever done in my life. 

I helped people in need for a living. It brought me true happiness.

And, then, on a sunny September afternoon, the job disappeared. It was heartbreaking. It was humiliating. It was crushing, disorienting and invalidating.

But through it all, I didn't cry. 

I leaned forward, listened closely and asked the right questions. And, given the choice of going home for good that afternoon or finishing out the week, I chose to finish out the week, tie up loose ends and leave as the best professional I could be. 

A lot of people stopped by my office that week. And a lot of them cried. 

I did not cry.

They told me I was crazy to keep coming to work. They asked me how I could stand being there, knowing my job was being taken away from me. But the truth was that I loved the work, and - more importantly - I loved the people I was there to help. And I thought that they deserved better than to have me vanish with no explanation.

One of those people was Mark. Mark was a native Washingtonian in his early 50's. A talented artist with incredibly eclectic tastes, we bonded over music. I loved his stories of what it was like to be the only black kid in Anacostia listening to Alice Cooper in 1976, or how he hitchhiked to Landover, MD as a teen to see Earth Wind and Fire in concert. We'd talk about Parliament Funkadelic, Jimi Hendrix, Judas Priest. Anything. 

But mostly we talked about KISS. 

We both loved KISS. We'd argue about which songs were on Destroyer vs Love Gun, debate the merits of Music from the Elder and laugh about how amazed we all were by the band's theatrics when we were kids.

Sometimes, when I was having a bad day at work, I'd talk to Mark, and immediately feel less isolated and weird. I'd like to think that he walked away from our conversations feeling the same way.

On my last day, Mark approached me. He was with Bianca, the beautiful art therapist who worked closely with him most days.

"She tells me today is your last day," Mark said, nodding to Bianca. I looked at Bianca, who had a sad smile on her face.

"It is," I replied, unable to hide the sorrow in my voice.

For an awkward moment, all three of us were silent. And, then, reaching behind his back, Mark produced a 9x12 canvas. On it, he'd created a mixed media interpretation of the first KISS album cover. Without saying a word, he bowed his head, and offered it to me. 

I remember every split second of that moment. My mouth going ajar, the small gasp I drew in and the inevitable burning in my eyes.

I remember my inability to find any words.
very time I took a breath to say something, I found myself holding back a choke.

"It's yours'," he said. 

I looked at Bianca, who was still smiling. Too overwhelmed to even make eye contact with Mark, I stared at the painting.

"Listen: I don't sell my art; I give it to people if I know they'll appreciate it," Mark said. "I want you to have this, because I know you always loved it."

He was right, of course. That painting was the conversation piece that had sparked our entire friendship.  

I reached out and accepted the gift. "Thank you," I whispered -- because my voice was quivering too much to speak out loud. 

"No," he said. "Thank you. Thank you." His voice became gentle. "Sometimes when people say goodbye, they forget to say thank you. So, thank you."

I didn't cry. 

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