Of Hip Trips, Garbage-Runs and Journeys Through My Soul

| February 23, 2012 | 1 Comment

Soul Train Fever Photo: by Ocean Morisset


There is a lot to be said for the reflective solitude of my country life, even as I am conflicted about the great amount of time spent alone. It is an old conflict that has nothing to do with my address. Sure, I’ve known relief from it, but only temporarily. Being alone is what is most familiar. As an anxious teenager, with longings I had yet to acknowledge, let alone understand, unsure of where I belonged, I found relief in the flickering images on a television screen. There I discovered Soul Train and Don Cornelius.

Death brings reflection for me. Not all deaths. Some speak to me more than others. I have survived many and try to carry their lessons into my day-to-day living. The grotesque media tsunami over Whitney Houston’s death gives some idea of the weight she bore in life.  But Don Cornelius’ suicide, so quickly swept away, was also a shock.

I never met Don Cornelius, and hadn’t thought a great deal about him or Soul Train for years. Still, news of his death struck me as if I’d lost a family member. Being from Chicago, I vividly remember stumbling upon those early black and white shows on WCIU-TV Channel 26. Settling in after school in front of the television to take in that wonderful music, the performers (lots of local hit makers: Ruby Andrews, The Lovelites, The Chi-Lites, Leroy Hutson, Gene Chandler, Jerry Butler, The Emotions, Curtis Mayfield) and the dancers from high schools on the south and west sides of the city. Soul Train was must-see TV and its move to Los Angeles and color broadcasts, the talk of my sophomore English class, was like a thunder-clap. “You Made A Believer (Out Of Me).”

But, that was a very long time ago.

So much has changed since then; not the least of which is my now living in the relative quiet of New York’s Catskill’s mountains. I was home when hit with the news of Don Cornelius’ death. I was both shaken and surprised that the loss struck me as it did. Why should his death matter this way? Why should his death feel so close? I didn’t actually know him? What does it mean? The violence of it, a self-inflicted gunshot wound to the head, underscored a sense of despair too painful to contemplate.

Soon after, I found myself downloading lots and lots of 1970s soul music: The Stylistics, Phyllis Hyman, The Ojays, Curtis Mayfield, Chic, Barbara Mason, The Chi-Lites, Marvin Gaye, Sisters Love, Sylvia, The Moments, Al Green, Teddy and others. For days after, the quiet was filled with unabashed romanticism, sensuality, and longing: a quiet collision of my youthful anticipation and lived experience — in stereo. “When Will I See You Again”

Meanwhile, Soul Train fever appeared to be quickly spreading. Any number of Don Cornelius/Soul Train remembrances sprang up on Facebook, Soul Train marathons were being broadcast coast-to-coast, VH-1 aired and re-aired its Soul Train documentary and Time-Life bought space on several cable stations to hawk a DVD box set of the show’s record 35 year run. I quickly placed my order. In New York City, a “flash-mob” staged an amazing Soul Train line in Times Square. Living outside the city, so far from the crowds and that energy, my experience of this tragedy could be limited to what I allowed through my computer, iPhone or television screen. I wouldn’t have to be reminded that he killed himself.

That first February Sunday, after the news of Don Cornelius’ death, I awoke to a bright sun and blue skies. Wiping the sleep from my eyes, I grabbed the remote ready to settle into my news shows. The comfort didn’t last long, however, when I suddenly remembered it was garbage day. In my small town, there is no regular garbage pick-up, which means periodic trips to the dump.

I threw on sweats and an old pull-over, headed downstairs, got the coffee brewing and proceeded to organize my garbage: plastic containers, glass jars and bottles, separating those with a deposit from those without, aluminum cans, mixed paper, newspaper, corrugated cardboard boxes left over from Christmas, and, of course, everything else that just fell under the heading of plain, old, everyday garbage.

I hit play on the iPod to beat back this mundane chore and add more color to the air. The unmistakable falsetto of The Stylistics’ Russell Thompkins, Jr. filled my home, “Hurry Up This Way Again…,” and I got in my two cups of coffee between bagging, boxing and bundling. There were a few things on the front porch to be consolidated for this particular trip which turned this effort into a bigger haul than I had anticipated. When did I accumulate all this crap? Still, a large load made the nearly 4 mile trek worth the effort.

When I stepped out onto the porch, the winter breeze washed over me like a cool drink. It wasn’t sharp and biting as I had expected, instead, there was something surprisingly refreshing about it. It cleared my head. And, I am not one who appreciates the cold, unless it is in a glass. But that morning was different, I enjoyed it. Even with the tedium of a garbage-run ahead of me, I felt energized.

After reviewing all the organized bundles, and arranging them on the porch before moving them into the car, I took a quick walk-through to make sure I hadn’t forgotten anything. Then something strange happened. I felt as if something cracked open inside of me. Literally. I stood in the middle of the kitchen and felt a kind of cleansing flow through me, a warm internal flushing. It moved through me like a Pepto-Bismol commercial in fast-forward, coating all of my insides. A distant but familiar sensation opened in my body. I hadn’t felt it in a long while, but it was unmistakable: I was in love. It wasn’t that first moment of recognition type of love, and there is no particular person I could attribute it to. No. It felt more like a clear knowing that love is in my life and had been for a long time. It was a reminder. Love, not as a concept to be debated or deconstructed, but a deep feeling that I realized, in that moment, had been missing in me. And I stood there simply loving that. Call it wishful thinking, sense-memory, or a visit from the Holy Ghost, all I know is it felt good. I felt good. Of course, too, I suddenly felt quite horny. “Come here sugar and get to this…” Yeah, I hear you, Marvin.

That initial rush quickly gave way to my critical inner voice that turned a very bright light on my very pronounced singleness. Yet, this oh-so-welcome feeling filled me as if that pesky detail didn’t matter. I liked it. I like myself in love. I laugh more. I miss that. I laughed at myself and proceeded to run my internal inventory that might explain what had actually happened here. Maybe that second cup of coffee just kicked-in. Whatever it was, it was more than just wanting another person here, another set of hands to help in loading all this crap into the car – or exploring my body.

Perhaps immediately recognizing the feeling as a cleansing is the key for understanding what it was that I felt. Maybe, as I prepared to make a garbage-run, I was flushing out some of my personal, dammed-up, garbage: financial concerns, family issues, aging, professional challenges, struggles with loneliness, insufficiently mourned grief, social limitations, varied and sundry stressors, and those ugly unnamed things that rock my sleep and recede with the sunrise. It was a crack in my own ice, a hint of a Spring thaw, a break in the dam. Whatever it was, it was hopeful, healing, without any odor of despair. And wasn’t it considerate that the feeling, whatever it was, left me with love – and sex on my mind? I turned the music up

I am not so far removed from the person that I was when I discovered Soul Train. Wiser and more experienced, perhaps, but that sensitive core remains. That is what Don Cornelius’ suicide exposed for me and why the music that now fills my home brings such comfort and joy, again. Those early black and white broadcasts were a welcome refuge from the separateness I felt. Don Cornelius’ unflappable cool, while playfully mocking cool, in that rich baritone, invited me in when I was anything but cool. It was a kind of shelter until I could claim something of my own footing.

Sometimes our inner narratives get too heavy to carry. They stop us, they drain the blood from our dreams and we grow, quite imperceptibly, comfortable in our own emotional mire. If nothing else, the stagnation is familiar. That is when we begin to die. I may never truly understand the inner desolation that is a harbinger of suicide. That prospect terrifies me. Suicide screams out loneliness, lovelessness, hopelessness. I hope to never understand. Just as I hope to never lose track of love in my life. So, in parting, I wish us all, “love, peace and soul.”

And, hey, turn up the music. That’s my jam and I feel like dancing!

Rest well, Don Cornelius.


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Category: Entertainment, MUSIC, PERSONAL ESSAYS

Allen Luther Wright

About the Author ()

Born on the Westside, raised on the Southside, lived on the Northside, only side left was East, but that was the lake. Allen Luther Wright left Chicago for New York when he fell in love with a man from Harlem. His work has appeared in several publications and he co-wrote Kevin’s Room Part 2: Trust and Kevin’s Room Part 3: Together, the provocative and educational television productions of Chicago’s Department of Public Health, also featured at numerous film festivals. Allen now lives in the Catskills town of Liberty, New York.

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  1. Fabian Thomas says:

    this resonates with me on far too many levels to express here….thank you Allen for feeling, sharing, baring this…..

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