It was Washington, D.C., more than 30 years after my mother decided not to marry Rev. C.L. Franklin, and more than 20 years after his daughter Aretha, my old Detroit neighbor and schoolmate, finally switched from Columbia to the Atlantic label, slipped down to Muscle Shoals, Alabama, and cut that unstoppable hit, “Respect,” that was still filling the sunny May air of a late Sunday afternoon on my way, this time by taxi, to National Airport, which is actually in Arlington, Va.
Leaned forward in the backseat, watching the querulous, lanky driver’s eyes connect with mine in the rear view mirror, I was thinking about Leon Russell’s line from “A Song for You,” the one that goes: “I love you in a place/where there’s no space/or time.” That so many years had already passed and that I’d soon be landing again at Chicago’s O’Hare Airport in the time it would take to listen to a Leon Russell and an Aretha Franklin back to back had me thinking in rhythm and patterns and clusters and slices. If, for example, I were ever asked for some reason to draw one of those demographic, statistical pieces sliced up to indicate how I’d spent my time on earth, there would have to be one thin, barely forkable sliver of pie to represent the entire 1 percent of my life I’ve spent making plane connections at O’Hare.
But this was National, a departure, and I wasn’t in any hurry to be anywhere except perhaps at home asleep, for it had already been one of the busiest springs of my life. I could’ve sat in the back of that taxi for hours and listened to Aretha’s earthy, life-affirming tones. The driver must’ve sensed this too.
“Where’s home?” he asked.
“California,” I said.
“No, up near San Francisco.”
“Must be wonderful,” he said. “I got some cousins out there. I’m from Brooklyn, but I been here a long time.”
“Yeah. I had one of them mothers in Brooklyn don’t too many people know about. Most people don’t, but black people do. I had the kind of mother who raised four kids on $75 a week. I don’t know how she done it. She was a good-lookin’ woman too. Coulda had herself a sugar daddy, but it wasn’t till I was 15 that I ever seen a man kiss her on the cheek.”
He zigged and zagged through traffic the way Aretha’s voice was cutting through the heated lyrics and back-beat of “Respect” and, as he blew his story to me, it didn’t take too much high I.Q. to figure out the height and shape of the volcano rumbling inside of him.
“Told her,” he began. “I told her, I told that woman, ‘If it wasn’t for God, you wouldn’t be here. No, you wouldn’t be here, ’cause I’da been done killed you!’ Coulda taken all day to do it too. And it was all on accounta them three dogs. Yessir, God kept me from killin’ that woman, man. Fifteen years ago I was over in Vietnam, where it was my job to kill people. I got back here and people didn’t treat me or any of the soldiers all that good. But that’s just the way it is; I could understand where they were comin’ from. But I couldn’t understand where this Humane Society woman was comin’ from. You catchin’ this? I mean to say, I get tireda these people sit up and look at television and think and actually believe that’s the deal.
“All she could say to me was: ‘You were unkind to your dogs.’ She kept sayin’ that till I thought I was gonna scream! And check this, man; she wanted me to clean up my act and get myself together inside of two weeks. Two weeks! I used to be the kinda guy would go through $7,500 wortha drugs in six weeks, and she wanted me to do drug and alcohol rehabilitation in two weeks! You know? I’d just lost my mother, and I couldn’t get her back, so maybe I could get my loves back. I loved my mother. I loved my dogs too.
“Listen, man, some woman, a neighbor, filed the complaint with the Humane Society. They broke into my place, broke the door down while I was out, and took the dogs, all three of ‘em. I mean, I wanted to kill that damn Humane Society woman so bad it was all I could do to strain and hold back ’cause I was ready to spend the resta my life in prison just to teach her about respect.
“You know, here they are callin’ themselves the Humane Society, and tellin’ me: ‘You ain’t takin’ good care your dogs, so we gon’ kill ‘em.’ I know that’s all they wanted to do was gas ‘em. That’s all I had — them dogs and my mother. I didn’t have no father. I mean, sure, I had one, but all I have are about four picture memories of my old man. He was killed in the Sixties.
“My mother, so she was all I had. Like I say, she coulda had her a sugar daddy or turned tricks, but she respected us kids and was lookin’ out for us. I loved my mother, man, and I love my dogs. Sure, I didn’t treat ‘em all that well, and that’s all that Humane Society woman could see. But, hell! Look what I was doin’ to myself!
“So the Humane Society wanted me to clean up in two weeks, so I went over here to St. Elizabeth Hospital and got myself cleaned up. Then the woman said she couldn’t locate me, couldn’t find me. Well, man, you know, St. Elizabeth is in the phone book! Then she said she didn’t like my apartment where I was keepin’ the dogs; said it was too small and messy. So I got another apartment, a whole new thing — six rooms — and she still wanted to take my dogs and kill ‘em.
“If it hadn’t been for me lovin’ my mother so much — oh, man! That’s the only thing kept me from killin’ that woman from the Humane Society. I called the city to find out what I could do, and they said wasn’t nothin’ they could tell me ’cause they didn’t have jurisdiction over the Humane Society. So then I called the mayor, and the mayor told me wasn’t nothin’ he could do ’cause he didn’t have jurisdiction. I said, ‘Then, tell me, who in the hell does have jurisdiction over them people?’ And he said, ‘Hey, it’s a national organization and way outta the reach of anybody in the District of Columbia.’
“Man, I mean, sir, the last time that woman come out to my place, wasn’t nobody there but me and my girlfriend, and I know my girlfriend woulda got her told. But I wanted to kill her! She wasn’t showin’ neither me or my dogs no respect.
“So I’m tellin’ you: All these people that lay up and watch TV and think life’s the way it is on TV, they are sick! Life’s more complicated than that. These people on television be solvin’ they problems in 30 or 60 minutes or maybe, at the most, in a coupla hours or in a few nights on a mini-series. You know yourself life is deeper than that. I loved my dogs, not as much as I loved my mother, but I loved ‘em just the same. I was attached to ‘em, even though at the time I didn’t have myself together. I was sick. But do you suppose that, even for one minute, you think she respected that?”
I flew back into Chicago, thinking about all the molten feeling that had erupted from the volcanic action of that taxi driver’s soul; human connectedness in a way I’d never thought about it before. And when, on the connecting jetliner to the Coast, I remembered my own departed mother’s favorite adage — “Never forget that everybody is somebody’s child” — I knew I would never be able to listen to “Respect” again without thinking about human connectedness and mutual respect, the glue of it all, in a light — the kind of light you only see from a car window crossing the Potomac at sunset — I’d never felt affect my solar plexus in quite the same way. Now when I hear Aretha singing “R-E-S-P-E-C-T/Find out what it means to me/R-E-S-P-E-C-T/Take care of T-C-B” — well, I’m ready to R.S.V.P.