I will say the first year in Missouri was a bit of confusion. For one, I was trying to start a business in which I had no experience. I was also distracted. Here I was, in what I would call a foreign land. One foot in it, but one foot also clearly still in LA.
Anywhere I went, I felt like people were staring at me. Not only that, I felt like people also kept saying “Hello” to me. And “How are you?” Of course, at first my ego got the best of me and I actually thought all of these people were recognizing me because they had seen me in some random magazine. After all, I hail from Los Angeles! So clearly I’m well known in Missouri. Then I began to wonder if I just stuck out like a sore thumb. I had never been more aware of the fact that my standard costume was a a big fedora, sunglasses, and sometimes a scarf.
This wasn’t necessarily what my new neighbors wore on a regular basis.
Many months later I would go to a few stores and pick up a flannel, Levi’s, red wing boots and a baseball cap and ask one of my new friends in Missouri if I looked like I “fit in.” He would say it was a nice attempt but I looked “too clean.” Ouch.
The bottom line, the scarf and the hat, and the jeans and the flannel had and have nothing to do with it. Everyone was saying hello to me and asking how I was doing…because I was in the Midwest! In Missouri. They were being polite. Perhaps even genuinely nice?
We must not also forget that my father had extended the invitation to move. Which I would later come to find out came with its own set of pressure. It never once occurred to me that, in a smaller place, with a slower pace, where my father owned a business, everyone might potentially know him! Nor did I grasp the expectations that come in a place like this when you have a father who is very well respected.
This was all a bizarre adjustment from L.A., where at least I had become used to being trapped in my car. In traffic. Alone. And when I wasn’t in my car, all I did was avoid eye contact with people, which I felt they were doing as well. And the last thing I felt any of us would do is actually say hello to a stranger! What purpose would that have? It would be a huge invasion of personal space. And of course, no one knew my father in L.A.!
Moreso, I was concerned and curious about what it meant that I was Black. That was obvious by looking at me. And would that hinder my progress or would it be a strength or would it not matter at all? Was that even possible? How had I really not thought much about being Black until now? Of course I knew I was Black, but I truly had not been hyper aware of it before. But also strange was, at least at this point, I was the one making myself hyper aware. I had never experienced this feeling.
And the growing question in the back of my mind, that I had never even considered on a daily basis in Los Angeles or NYC was: What would it mean to be gay? Of course I had asked myself that in middle school, when I thought I was going to be found out as I walked the halls trying to mask my homosexuality. And yes, I briefly wondered it in Alabama, but I was in theatre and I felt protected.
What would it mean to be gay in Missouri? What would it mean to be gay and run a bar? And not a gay bar: just a bar that happened to be run by a gay Black man? And ultimately, what would it mean to be gay when I walked around with my hat and my sunglasses and my scarf?
At this level of overthinking, you can understand why a simple “Hello” had me spinning out.