A Conversation With Carlton

by Rick Beck

Part 4

Driving toward a restaurant, where Carlton was taking me to eat, we began talking about Carlton's story. I was curious about the man, and how he got where he was, when we met.

"I did what I was expected to do. In my culture, following expectations is the easiest way to go. In my culture, the father is in charge of his family. You know to do what he tells you, and I did."

"You seem to have done OK," I said.

"Don't get me wrong. I have a good life," Carlton said. "I should be grateful for that, but I dream of other things. It's not important."

"But you'd rather have had the option to do it differently. Had things been different," I said.

"Yes, you might say that. We each have a cross to bear. I wonder how things could have been different, but they weren't."

"I suppose," I said, not doing anything I didn't want to do.

"You are without a cross?" he asked, looking at me as he spoke..

"I suppose," I said. "None worth talking about. I get along OK."

Carlton turned left at the next intersection.

We stopped at a red light. Carlton turned his head away from the street we were on. I knew he was looking at me again.

I didn't know what he was looking for.

"You are observant. Why did you think I was there?" I asked.

"I gave Roy Rogers,' he said, taking the time to smile at the sound of his name. "Five bucks in the hopes I'd find out."

It was my turn to smile.

"I wasn't sure I would get into your car," I said.

"Neither was I," he said. "But you did. When I stop for someone, I'm aware that after seeing my face, There's a better than even chance, they'll walk away."

"Because you aren't lily white?" I asked.

"I assume it's why some guys walk away. I don't ask, and they don't tell," Carlton explained. "When you are a person of color, even a lovely sweet caramel, you can't know why people do what they do."

"You get that a lot in New York City?" I asked.

"No, hardly at all. From time to time, I suspect someone reacts the way they do because of my color," he said.

"I've traveled in the South. Have you been down South?" I said.

"No, I haven't done a lot of traveling. We've been back to the Philippines a few times. We go to New Hampshire to visit my aunt. We've mostly been in New York City. We started in the Bronx."

"Let there be no doubt in your mind, Carlton, there are most definitely two Americas. I figure there are four or five, at least. I took a bus to visit my grandparents in Florida once. I had to wait for a bus in Macon, Georgia. I'm nosy. I like to see where I am, and what's going on. If I never see Macon again, it'll be too soon. The black people sat on a bench outside of the bus station. Rain, shine, 100 degrees or five below, the black people sit on their bench and don't dare venture inside, or say anything, because if they say something, and piss off some racist son-of-a-bitch, they could end up in jail, or worse," I said. "In Macon, Georgia, if you're black, you don't want to encounter any of Macon's finest, because, if you do, you might not live to tell the tale."

"Seeing that in Macon, and seeing how those black children had police dogs sicked on them by Bull Connors, having fire hoses turned on them, in Birmingham, was all you need to know about the South. Hearing about the civil rights marchers, being beaten by the police, on the Edmond Pettus Bridge, because they are going to register to vote, is all you need to know about the South. The white people who allow that, are missing the empathy and compassion genes. You keep your lovely sweet caramel skin where it is, Carlton, That's my advice."

"I saw some of those pictures. Gives new meaning to man's inhumanity to man. I will definitely keep my brown ass in New York."

"You aren't equating being a person of color with being gay, are you?" Carlton asked.

"It's all part of the hatred white people have for so many of us, but no, there's no way to equate how black people are treated, how the indigenous people were treated, with how gay people are treated. We're all just as dead, when we are killed by hateful people, but each group has its differences," I said. "Doesn't make me feel all warm and fuzzy by being forced to work around hateful people, when I know, if they knew my secret, they'd hate me."

"And you don't have a lot of friends," Carlton said.

"By choice, I don't have a lot of friends," I said.

"And here we are, not a mile from 42nd Street, and having a meeting of the minds, and your friend is till there," Carlton said.

"He's not my friend. No, I'm hungry," I said. "You wanted to go eat. It was the right offer at the right time. I was thinking about going to find a place to eat when you pulled up. I'd have walked over to Broadway to eat, once cowboy got picked up. Your offer was timely.

Carlton smiled.

"An honest man," he said. "I'm glad we had this talk. I feared you might ask to get out."

"I feared you might ask me to get out."

Carlton laughed.

"I'm not devious. My mind doesn't work that way. Did I enjoy what just happened? I loved it at first. I couldn't have planned it better. I didn't like the way it made me look to you. I do feel sorry for Johnny, but I can't help him."

"An honest man, and a conscience too. An admirable combination," he said.

"I learned young, to get caught in a lie had dire consequences."

"Sounds serious," he said.

"More serious than you can imagine," I said. "You said you were expected to take over the business from your father."

"Yes, he wasn't quite sixty, when he died. Taking over left me with no time to do anything but work. I didn't have time to adapt."

"You don't look like you're doing too bad," I said.

"That's true, but I never feel like I'm getting the entire truth. There are undercurrents that I can't figure out. Most of my employees were in place, when my father ran the company. They act like they're entitled, and maybe they are, but there are strange vibes when there is a crisis that puts the company in jeopardy. It's uncomfortable."

"You need someone you trust, and who only reports to you, on the ground, where the donuts are made," I said.

"Donuts?" he asked.

"Your company does something. You need your own man, not a man who was loyal to your father. He keeps his ears open and he knows what's going on inside your company," I said. "Loyalty doesn't transfer from fathers to sons. You need someone who is loyal to you. People might feel reluctant to talk to you, when he might have marched right into your father's office to speak his mind."

"How would I put someone loyal to me inside the company?" He asked.

"He's probably already there. Someone you were close to before your father died. You said you worked in the company. You made friends, and one of them you trusted. You find the right guy, and you're the boss. Put him where he can be your eyes and ears." I said.

"Why do you say that?" he said.

"If there are vibes you can't identify, and if that troubles you, you need someone to tell you what it means. When you took over, you should have brought your own man with you," I said. "Those people are loyal to your father. They may be as loyal to you, as they were to him, but some may resent your taking over, once your father died. You indicated it was an unexpected passing."

"I thought leaving things as they were, not making changes, would be the best way to go. I worked there since I was a teenager. Everyone knew me. No one objected to me," he said.

"You're the son of the boss. No one was going to object to you, but once your father was gone, you needed a man of your own working with the other employees. He can tell you what the strange vibe means," I said. "It's probably nothing, but you should find out."

"It was my father's company. I guess it still is. I'm just the guy who signs the paychecks. I've let the company continue on as if he were still in the front office."

"Which makes you the man," I said. "It is your company, if you sign the paychecks, it's definitely your company, Carlton."

"Let's go back to talking about your friend. That's an easier subject to talk about, and it takes the heat off me," he said.

"I think we've worn that topic out," I said.

As we drove deeper into the city, silence took over for a few minutes. I was sure Carlton was giving some thought to my opinion of the story he told me.

Trusting people, something I had little experience with, meant giving up some power to them. Trust was a difficult commodity to come by, and an easy commodity to lose.

As he was prone to do, he glanced in quick turns of his head. He was a good driver, but he was still checking to see who I might be. Once he reaches a conclusion, he kept looking straight down the avenue.

"If anyone was cramping someone's style, it was he who was cramping yours," Carlton said. "As for putting you out, you're the most interesting young man I've met in ages. I shan't be putting you out. I'm looking forward to seeing you get a wonderful dinner."

"And to think, if I hadn't been a nice guy, and brought Johnny up here to hustle, we'd both be alone now," I calculated.

"I know the feeling," Carlton said. "But we aren't alone. Not this evening."

"A friend brought me here for the street fairs. I love the city."

"Did you by chance sample Filipino food?" He asked.

"I thought you were Filipino," I said. "It seemed crass to ask someone such a thing. Do you consider that Asian?"

"You actually reasoned that out?" Carlton said. "You thought about whether or not to ask me about my origins?"

"I actually did," I said. "I decided against asking you."

"You are a considerate young man. Most people blurt it out. 'Are you a Filipino?' No, I wouldn't have found the question out of line. I am from the Philippines. The Philippines are Western Pacific. We are Pacific islanders. Asia is the Asian continent. My origins are Spanish and native Filipino," he said.

"Spain claimed our islands as their own. The U.S. claimed ownership, after the Spanish American War. By that time, the native population thought of itself as subjects of Spain. It's all they knew. As with most colonial countries, the bloodlines become blurred, in time. You forget how you became owned by another country," he said.

"The conquerors subjugate the conquered, using them as free labor to steal any resources available for the taking. The Spanish made a lot of Filipino babies over the centuries," he said. "The Americans were more than happy to pick up where the Spanish left off. Consequently, I might have American blood mixed in with the Spanish and Islander blood. I became an American citizen at fifteen. Either way, I'm American now."

"Once the U.S. took over the Philippines, there was still a lot of hanky-panky going on?" I asked.

"The Americans occupied my country for a much shorter period of time than the Spanish, but they managed to leave a significant number of babies behind. It's what conquerors do. They say they're there to liberate you, but they take what they want. If you protest too loudly, they shoot you, or lock you up. That's how they liberate you."

The feeling he put into his words, had me believing that he knew what he was talking about. I'd never heard the result of the Spanish American War broken down into those terms before.

The history of the Philippines I knew, was when Gen. MacArthur left there, in the face of a Japanese invasion. He proudly announced, 'I shall return.' as he waded into the water to be rescued by an American submarine.

He did return, after the Japanese were encouraged to leave, as a revitalized America fought its way across the Pacific. After reaching Japan, Gen. MacArthur was put in charge, as World War II came to an end.

The question I never asked in American history, but should have; why was Gen. MacArthur in the Philippines in the first place?

I didn't know that the Philippines were a territory of the U.S., after Spain, who claimed ownership of the Philippines, sold them to the U.S. as part of the resolution to the Spanish-American War.

Carlton knew his country's history, and he was about to explain the answers to the question I didn't ask, because I didn't know, and wasn't told about America's occupation of the Philippines. My impression was that the U.S. acquired Cuba and the Philippines to give them their freedom, because the U.S. is all about freedom.

"While the American government may have thought they'd gotten a real bargain, when they purchased the Philippines for peanuts, Filipinos weren't as thrilled about exchanging one colonial master for another, and my people did what a lot of colonized countries began doing. They fought gorilla wars to take their countries back from more powerful colonizers," Carlton said.

"Why anyone thought they should own someone else's country, I can't say. It became popular in Spain, France, and England, once they understood the vastness of the world," he said.

"As major European powers, skilled at making war on each other, invading, and occupying, countries without weapons of war were easy peasy, lemon squeezy, and warring powers were delighted to spread their lust for power and greed around the world."

Some countries left gold and silver laying around in plain sight. What European power could resist the temptation. People who had no desire to take something that didn't belong to them needed to be taught a lesson. Finders keepers, losers weepers," Carlton said. "The moral of the story, don't leave anything of value in plain view, when white Europeans come calling, and once they called, they stayed."

"After World War II, a lot of country owning ended. Countries that were once claimed by other countries, were ready to fight for their freedom. The major powers, being sick of war, saw the wisdom in letting their colonies go," he said.

"The gorilla war, between the Philippine people and the U.S. went on, until the Japanese forced the Americans out. Then the gorilla war was turned against the Japanese. The U.S. took it back as they fought their way to Japan, but in 1946, my country was given its freedom."

"The War for my country went on for decades. My father's brothers died fighting the Yan-Kee'. He saw immigrating to America as a way to gain his freedom. Of course he brought his family with him."

"I'm sorry," I said. "I mean, about your uncles."

"I don't remember them. My father talked about them. He was the youngest son, and he never went to fight. He had a head for business, and a desire to go to America," Carlton said.

"I didn't know we fought in the Philippines, once we bought them from Spain. American history goes straight from Teddy's charge up San Juan Hill, victory in Cuba, and Teddy's rise to VP, and then, McKinley's assassination, and Teddy's president. Then, he joined Washington, Jefferson, and Lincoln on Mt. Rushmore. Quite a guy. I was an excellent student in history and current events, and I am unaware of the story you told about your country."

"That makes a much smoother read, than they fought for nearly fifty years, trying to colonize the Philippines. Gorillas went from fighting the Americans, who took a powder when the Japanese invaded. The gorillas went right to fighting the Japanese. They helped the Americans evict the Japanese, and no one doubted, if the Americans tried to take over again, the gorillas would fight them."

"I remember MacArthur's comings and goings from your country, but not in history class. I wasn't clear on the ownership. I had the impression that we bought the Philippines to set them free. The only fighting, was the fighting during World War II," I said.

"It was a bit of an oversight if you are interested in the truth," Carlton said. "My family immigrated here before World War II. I hardly remember my country. I have vague memories of talk about fighting the Yan-Kee' from time to time."

"I'm good with history, but our textbooks didn't cover the part about the gorilla war, after we bought the Philippines. The Spanish-American War only got an honorable mention. They had to explain how Teddy got his face up on that mountain," I said.

"When the winners write the history, and American history is a collection of heroic stories about men who beat the odds and made Manifest Destiny a reality," Carlton said. "But if you want the truth, you need to dig for it. The winners will bathe themselves in glory."

"I know we took the land away from the indigenous people, and we used slaves to build the economic juggernaut we became. My problem with our history, how did Europeans manage to get all that land away from the people who were living on it at the time? How does anyone get off thinking they can own other people? I know slave labor was used to build the White House. Gives new meaning to audacity. It seems, freedom had its limits, when it came to the Indians and the slaves, but the white people were free, but white people are only a fraction of the people in this world."

Carlton laughed.

"There are a lot of questions that remain unanswered, when you rely on history from textbooks. The story of heroic men, building America with their bare hands, is a grand tale of perseverance, irresistible, if the truth doesn't read quite as heroically," he said.

"Manifest Destiny is the easy way to frame it. The truth is a bit more brutal. I find that when I read history, or even stories about the founding fathers, I ask myself, what does this author want me to believe. Once I know that, I take his prose with a grain of salt, especially if the yarn he is spinning glorifies or demonizes the subject matter. No one, no thing, is all good or all bad, and any author worth his salt, won't portray anything as all one way or another. It is the shades of gray that makes a story worth reading," Carlton said.

"That's a very intelligent way to look at it," I said. "It could be why I don't like reading some stories. They don't ring true,"

"I want to know both sides of a story. I want to know the truth. For instance, did Colonel Custer stumble into an encampment of 5,000 Native Americans, fighting gallantly to the death, or did Custer arrogantly ride his men across that river, thinking the sight of him would have the Indians on the run, because the Indians always ran at the sight of Yellow Hair?" Carlton said. "The truth hardly measures up to the legend, and Custer got his entire command wiped out, because he was arrogant. He believed his own press and it got him killed. History bathes the boy general, who died a colonel, in glory. The truth doesn't read nearly as well, and Custer's death sealed the fate of the American Indian."

"What did the Europeans do about the people who were living on the land they wanted? Couldn't they set aside one state, where the Indians could practice their culture, hunt, fish, and roam to their heart's content. Did we really need all the land? Wouldn't 47 states do. It doesn't speak highly of the settlers who came to stay," I said.

"Does make one wonder," Carlton said.

"It seems that truth can be a sticky commodity," I said. "Depending on whose truth it is. If you ask yourself, what is the author trying to get me to believe, you can't go wrong. Once you read his opinion of truth, you are free to search for more. If his narration reads one sided, you can be sure there is more to the story."

"When looking for the truth, you can't take the first thing you read as a true account of an incident. When the source of the information has an agenda, something he wants the reader to believe, whether or not it is the whole truth, it prove his point, and nothing more," Carlton said. "But is there another side to be considered?"

"Everything I do will be seen through the lens of me being a queer. In this society, I'm unwelcome, and my being a faggot is all they need to know," I said.

"You'd be accused of having an agenda, no matter what you say.

Because you are judged so harshly by the powers that be. Nothing you have to say has meaning to people who have already judged you, and there is no telling how much genius is lost, because the people with the power are willing to judge so many people harshly."

"That's another way to put it," I said. "Do I really want to join a society that has no use for me? Only to the extent I can't avoid it."

"Harsh," he said. "But true."

"I know where I stand. I have no agenda, because I have nothing to prove," I said. "They can call me anything they like. I could care less. I wasn't welcome here, when I got here, I sure as hell don't care what they call me. I prefer being what I am. They can go to hell."

"But you can hope for change."

"Get real, Carlton. White people are the chosen ones. They don't have to accept anyone that doesn't please them."

"You don't really believe that, do you?" he asked.

"No, but they do," I said. "Look at history. It ain't pretty. It tells you all you need to know."

Carlton seemed to think that over.

"You don't wish to achieve anything?" He asked.

"Achieve!" I said, laughing. "I want to achieve nothing. I expect to accomplish nothing. I know where I stand. I'd like to help people like me; my people."

"Your people? That's an interesting concept," he said. "I've never thought I might have people who feel as I feel."

"We are queer people! I'll stand with my queer brothers and sisters. I won't stand with hatred or violence against other people."

"You have brothers and sisters?" he asked.

"I have one biological brother. My earth family includes all queer people. Those are the people I'll try to help," I said. "Those are the people I want to be with."

"I get that, but everyone should aspire to do something in particular," Carlton said. "Don't you want to accomplish something?"

"I'd like to find a way to help my people. After that, I'd like to help boys who came up hard, like I did," I said. "Offer boys some acceptance. Try to make them feel better about themselves."

Glancing at Carlton, I wasn't sure how what I said sounded, and I kept on going, because I'd never put it into words before.

"I see," he said, not sounding like he did.

"Nothing, is probably the proper answer to your original question, Carlton. I'm blowing smoke, now. I expect to help no one. I can hardly help myself. I've actually only been alive for ten years. It's not enough time to figure out how to help anyone," I said. "I don't know how to do much."

Carlton looked at me quizzically.

"You can't throw that on the table and retreat. What does that even mean?" Carlton asked. "I've told you my story. You've told me enough that I'm intrigued. You can't just stop there."

"It's a long story," I said.

"What, you have a bus to catch?"

I looked at Carlton. I liked him, much more than that, I felt comfortable being with him. There was no risk in telling him my story. There was far more risk in living it, but I hadn't thought about it.

Why think about it, after all is said and done?

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