This morning: cut to me, bourgeois, slicing an avocado, piling it with egg, garnishing with tomato – sitting in my kitchen, nibbling cornbread, telling myself enjoy your food, Hennen, don’t just wolf it, this is your problem, you want everything to be over so quickly, the only solution is to slow down – a pleasant revelation, and I’m enjoying it, when something says wait, hold on, and I realize: it’s the first day of school, and Phil, my friend, is still dead.
I’m talking Philando Castile, here, whose beautiful and frequently-misspelled name is now something people chant on streets around the world. Everyone knows him, unless they’ve gotten the facts mixed up with the facts of another young black guy shot by police (I can forgive them, because there are so many): stopped for a taillight, reaching for license, conceal-carry, girlfriend’s video went live, covering everyone’s news feeds in the video of him in a white shirt that got redder and redder as he died. Horrible, but it’s true, the world has seemed to move on rather quickly. I myself have been able to ignore it some days, to believe him to be fading into memory, a famous dead man I knew once. I can walk past posters with his name, fashionably-writ, just fine. I thought this was just how it would be, because I have another job now, and we are no longer coworkers.
But still –
Across town in a windowless cafeteria, another guy is putting trays of baby carrots in the salad bar as children gather at the door. His hands shake on the tongs as he casts back a stray piece of lettuce – everything’s got to be perfect. Like Phil, he’s gotten up at 4, fully aware of the weight of the day. Probably for a time this morning he’s been able to lose himself in his own tiredness, in the awkward routines of a new cafeteria. But now the children are here.
The St. Paul Schools – they wouldn’t just toss someone brand-new into this, wouldn’t they? Or someone who looked too much like Phil – someone six feet tall with dreads that barely fit under the shower-cap-like hairnet? Someone with glasses? Someone with slow speech and a slow smile? It’s a problem, to look too much like Philando Castile, and so probably they’ve found some white guy. Or maybe a woman – maybe they’ve drafted Vanessa, who’s usually in back, ladling out the portions and sprinting back and forth from oven to tray-line. Surely it’d be a comfort to the children to see someone they know standing in his old spot – someone who can hug them as they pass through the line and say, I know, I know, I’m sad too. Still, what would it do to her to have to stand there and push buttons – when this isn’t her place, when it’s wrong, all wrong, when he should be here, when he isn’t?
But lunch must be eaten. The moment is here. The children are waiting in the door.
The new guy doesn’t know the way. There’s been nobody to train him in: his predecessor was shot in his front seat two months ago, reaching for his license while saying in that slow voice that he was carrying a handgun, saying it in his slow voice so that what ended up happening wouldn’t happen. It was on Larpenteur Avenue, where it happened, the same street as the State Fair – on my way there yesterday I passed a banner that said “WHAT WOULD PHILANDO CASTILE HAVE WANTED TO COME OF HIS DEATH?” What a question to ask – as if he could have predicted this. But he had; he’d been stopped, what was it, thirty or three hundred times. He knew what people saw when they looked at him. He couldn’t wear the hairnet everywhere, after all, or be surrounded constantly by a crowd of adoring kids.
The new guy looks to the door. There, clustered, are the children. The new librarian – not me, I was just filling in, I was only ever meant to be temporary, but I did think I could come back and visit everyone, only now it turns out I can’t, not everyone, at any rate – doesn’t know what to do. The answer: do what Phil would have done, which is to raise one hand, like Neo in The Matrix beckoning Agent Smith, and to grin, and say, “Come on.”
Whatever else I am wrong about, I do know this: that there must be a moment on this first day of school in which everyone waits, uncertain, for someone who must, surely must, know what to do next.
But it’s hard, because nothing anyone can do would be enough.