About ten years ago, I was pawing through the LP bin at a Disabled American Veterans thrift store in Milwaukee when my car was broken into. I had left a cheap pair of Koss headphones on the back dash and someone had broken the rear wing window out of my car to get them. It wasn’t a big deal.
At the time, I had a sort of loose conception of fate. It’s hard to nail down the actual beliefs of the person I was a decade ago, but I know that I tended to favor the idea that things happened for a reason, that, undergirding the phenomena of the universe, there was a vague force that favored equilibrium. This faith-like set of beliefs informed a lot of my thinking at the time, and it led me to make the decision that, instead of, say, going home and looking up a window repair service, I would drive around Milwaukee, hitting every thrift store in town, until I found some incredible piece of vinyl that would make up for the broken window.
Looking back now, this strikes me as absurd—it’s naive and solipsistic, and, frankly, embarrassing. Remarkably, though, it worked.
In his 1924 book The Nature of The Physical World, Sir Arthur Stanley Eddington elucidates the nature of, among other things, time and how it is perceived by the human consciousness. First, he provides a visualization of the relationship between the here and now with the absolute past and absolute future. It looks something like this (I have redrawn the figure and simplified it a bit):
“Father Time,” Eddington writes, “has been pictured as an old man with a scythe and an hourglass. We no longer permit him to mow instants through the world, but we leave him his hourglass.”
Later Eddington explains how to understand the direction in which time moves:
Let us draw an arrow arbitrarily. If, as we follow the arrow we find more and more of the random element in the state of the world, then the arrow is pointed towards the future; if the random element decreases, the arrow points towards the past. That is the only distinction known to physics. This follows at once if our fundamental contention is admitted that the introduction of randomness is the only thing which cannot be undone.
I shall use the phrase “time’s arrow” to express this one-way property of time which has no analogue in space.
Later, Eddington positions the location of cause and effect, in relation to time’s arrow:
Cause and effect are closely bound up with time’s arrow; the cause must precede the effect. The relativity of time has not obliterated this order. An event Here-Now can only cause events in the cone of absolute future; it can be caused by events in the absolute past; it can neither cause nor be caused by events in the neutral wedge, since the necessary influence would in that case have to be transmitted with a speed faster than light.
Regarding chance coincidences, Eddington has this to say: “...chance can deceive us by bringing about conditions which look very unlike chance. [...] This threat to our conclusion is, however, not very serious.”
A year or so before the broken window, I was working as a waiter in a jazz club called Panache. Milwaukee is one of the most segregated cities in the country, and the club was in a predominantly black neighborhood. I had found out about Panache from an ad in a mail circular. It looked interesting, and I needed a job, so I called to ask if they were hiring. Erin, one of the club’s owners, answered the phone, and we talked for a while. He asked where I lived, and I told him the East Side. He asked if I was white, and I told him I was. “You know we’re on 40th and Good Hope, right?” he asked. I told him I did, and he told me to stop by that afternoon. We met in his office, and he hired me on the spot.
Erin really liked me. He liked me so much that the other servers gave me the nickname “Golden Boy.” Given the demographics of both the staff and the customers, the moniker glinted toward something beyond the simple privilege of favoritism.
Months later, when I sat down in the office to deliver my resignation, Erin looked at me with a sort of half smile and said, “You can’t go. You’re my white boy.” I was quitting Panache because I had been offered a job at the wildly popular, albeit unfortunately named, Sake Tumi. Sake Tumi was an upscale sushi bar that sold $50 pieces of toro and Kobe beef burgers to young professionals. I had to borrow $300 from my mom to buy the designer jeans that were part of the uniform. They fired me three months later.
I drove from thrift store to thrift store with that broken window, until I found myself in a part of town I had never been, at a thrift store run by the American Council of the Blind. At the time, I only concerned myself with LPs, but, for whatever reason I was drawn to the 45s, and for whatever reason, I hit the jackpot.
A blackjack player once tried to explain to me how to count cards. The only thing I really retained is that the card counter is waiting for a deck to become hot—meaning there is a high proportion of face cards in the deck—and when the deck becomes hot, the card counter knows to bet big. When I’m looking through records at thrift stores, where there is often hundreds of unsorted, mostly junk LPs, I tend to think in these terms. If I come across a grouping of a couple good records of the same genre or era, I imagine they came from the same source, the same box in the basement, crate in the attic, etc., and I think to myself the deck is hot, and peruse thoroughly.
When I started seeing 45s with Stax’s iconic finger snap logo, I figured the deck was hot, but I didn’t exactly know how hot, because I didn’t really know what I was looking at. This was back before cell phones were connected to the internet, so I called my roommate who was at home, and I read him names off the labels that were unfamiliar but promising, and one by one, he looked them up on his desktop. Over the phone, he read me William Devaughn’s bio from allmusic.com, which I remember distinctly for its reference to Curtis Mayfield:
Singer/songwriter/guitarist William DeVaughn had a million-seller the first time out with his inspiring "Be Thankful for What You Got." Those who first heard the smooth track thought it was a new record from Curtis Mayfield.
I ended up with a stack of nearly 200 45s, which, even at only 50 cents apiece, was out of my price range. So I negotiated with the manager. Or rather I lied and said I was an art student. I told her I needed the records for a project but couldn’t afford to pay for them individually. She looked at me and said, “Seven dollars.” And that was that.
In the essay "Unpacking My Library" (see also WAF #1), Walter Benjamin whimsically implies that collectors are “interpreters of fate.” As fate had it, after my car’s window was broken, I found myself the owner of a modest collection of funk and soul 45s. I became enamored with the specific combination of genre and format. I wanted more. In the years that followed, soul 45s became the object of my collector's passion. So, five years later, when I found myself in Memphis, the first thing I did was find a record store that sold 45s.
My time in Memphis was fraught. My partner Zoe and I had been living on the road for over two months, we were nearly out of money, and the car, a high-mileage 1995 Corolla, packed to the ceiling with our belongings, was becoming more and more erratic, stalling out unexpectedly at inopportune times. Winter was looming and we were hoping to find some place warm where we could find jobs and refill the coffers, but we had yet to solidify any plans. We were waiting on a phone call regarding a job that would determine whether we went onward East or double-backed West. In the meantime, we were stuck waiting in the middle. Also it was my birthday, which doesn’t really hold any significance other than it seemed to add an ambiguous weight to our not knowing what the fuck we were doing. For the first time on the trip I wanted to go home, a desire that was immediately met by the realization that I was home, that my home was nylon and tent poles, my home was a hand-me-down Toyota. And I wondered, I even said aloud at one point, “Why are we here?”
Along with Detroit and Chicago, Memphis was one of the major epicenters of soul music in the 1960s and 70s, and the record store I found there was like a dream. There were thousands of untouched old-stock 45s representing all the legendary Memphis labels. While I dug—a bit anxious about my lean checking account—the owner told me stories about the collectors who had come from all around the world to shop in his store.
While I was there, though, it was just me and him—two white men in a private vault of black music. He played me some incredible, albeit prohibitively expensive, 45s and then asked if I was going to visit the Stax Museum. I told him I was planning on it. He gave me a coupon for half off admission and then said, “Be careful. They carjack people in broad daylight.” He then paused, and lowered his voice, and asked me if I knew who he meant by “they.”
Later, Zoe and I wandered around the touristy areas of Memphis. We ate “soul burgers” and drank High Life at a bar that was a block from the motel where MLK was shot dead. The place was empty, and the bartender gave us a tour of the upstairs, which, at one time, was a hotel/brothel. He showed us a room that Ray Charles once rented. He told us he was sure the place was haunted.
I live in Portland now—the land of record stores and bike lanes and craft beer; there is a redwood grove, the world's largest independent bookstore, and some of the best coffee in the country, all within walking distance of my apartment. It’s a playground for people like me.
Oregon is also the only state to have been admitted to the Union with a constitution that banned black people from living, working, or owning property within its borders. This is, no doubt, one of the reasons why black people comprise only 2% of Oregon’s population, compared to, say, Milwaukee, which is roughly 40%. This is by no means to imply that Milwaukee is a beacon of racial harmony; on the contrary, Milwaukee was recently declared the worst city in America for African Americans to live, based on statistics such as unemployment and incarceration rates. A recent study found that nearly 1 in 8 black men of working age in Milwaukee County had served some jail time—the highest incarceration rate for black men in the entire country.
Here’s another way of looking at it. In Milwaukee County about 86% of second and subsequent marijuana convictions resulted in felony charges, and 86% of those charges were against African Americans, who (in Milwaukee County, which is a larger, whiter sample than the city proper) make up only 26% of the population.
Here in Portland, I work in a cafe in an affluent neighborhood. The median price of houses recently sold in my zip code is over half a million dollars. The cannabis dispensary down the street from where I work doubles as an art gallery, and sells only the finest, locally grown, artisanal pot, that has been lab tested for mold, pests, and potency. The dispensary owner is one of my regular customers. I make him coffee, I make hot chocolate for his kids, and sometimes I buy his weed. I’m sure his job comes with its share of social stigma, but, from what I can tell, he is a well-respected man in the neighborhood—a small business owner, a husband, a father.
Maybe what I’m trying to say is that white liberals like me, i.e., the overeducated valuers of multiculturalism, are very good at creating bastions of white liberalism for the benefit of white liberals like me. I realize this has little to do with William DeVaughn. But this is where I’m writing from. Where I consume the culture that I consume.
Capitalism, by virtue of mechanical and digital reproduction, has the ability to transmute culture into commodity. The 45 rpm record, a small piece of vinyl with one song on each side, seems to be the perfect illustration of this sort of commodification—it is, in essence, one basic unit of culture. Through the lens of race, it makes for a strange economy, particularly when the piece of culture being considered is called soul.
What I think is particularly remarkable about “Be Thankful for What You Got” is that it uses capitalism’s best trick against it. It’s in the hook, the iconic chorus:
Diamond in the back
Diggin’ the scene
With the gansta lean
Taken on its own, out of context, it seems like a slick and satisfying ode to wealth and material comfort, but actually it’s not. Or rather it is and it isn’t. The gist of the song is that you don’t need those things—a fancy car with all the embellishments—in order to “stand tall.” But the song itself manages to harness the pleasures of capitalism and appropriate it for its own means.
In other words, if you only heard the hook, you would think the song is another 1970s blaxploitation consumption fantasy à la Shaft-era Isaac Hayes. (Hayes’s unbelievably tricked out gold-plated Cadillac Eldorado now lives in the Stax Museum, and, during the aforementioned trip to Memphis, happened to have been gawked at by Yours Truly, by the way.) But, when you actually listen to the lyrics, you realize the song is more or less the opposite.
“Be Thankful for What You Got,” is a song about being confident in yourself despite economic conditions. What the song’s brilliant hook manages to do, so beautifully and paradoxically, however, is to use the image of a slick, ostentatious player in a way that's as satisfying as any other celebration of decadence.
William DeVaughn wrote the song while he was working for the government as a draftsman. He spent $900 of his own money to record it. The song got the attention of the studio’s owner, who shopped the recording around, and ultimately secured a contract for a proper release in 1974. The single sold over 2 million copies.
I bought my copy of “Be Thankful for What You Got” along with nearly 200 other 45s on the day my car window was broken. When I play it, the quiet conga rhythm that opens the song is almost inaudible beneath the harsh crackle of the scratchy record. The sound of damaged vinyl cuts at me in a nails-on-chalkboard way, and I feel a pang to lift the needle, but then the the song starts to build: a muted bassline colors in the groove while an organ plays a simple progression; it’s subdued at first, but then the organ swells and punches through the noise, a wah-wahed guitar drops in, a floor tom thuds on the back beat, and William DeVaughn begins to sing. Under the surface noise of the damaged record, DeVaughn’s voice is smooth and self assured, confident in the optimism of his own lyrics, and the song rolls forward like a breaking wave.
I dislike the the platitude, “Everything happens for a reason.” The problem is the linguistic implications of the word for. I believe that everything happens because of a reason. It’s causation, it moves one way, it’s time’s arrow. For example, my car was broken into, which caused me to have the idea to try to find something that would effectively make up for the loss, which caused me to acquire a large number of 45s. Or, simplified:
Car is broken into→Idea to find something of value→45s found
Causation moves in one direction. If I were to reverse the direction of causation, it would look like this:
Car is broken into←Idea to find something of value←45s found
In this statement, the chain of causation starts on the right side of the sequence and moves left. You would read it as: I acquired a large number of 45s, which caused me to have the idea to try to find something that would effectively make up for the loss, which caused my window to be broken. Clearly, that’s not how it works.
The other reason why I dislike the platitude, “Everything happens for a reason,” is that it implies a universe centered around the observer. It implies that someone risked criminal prosecution in order to break into a car for a $20 pair of headphones, and this happened for me; that someone spent years curating a collection of soul 45s, in service of the fact that they would ultimately be donated to a charity thrift store so I could own them; that two black entrepreneurs opened a jazz club in a black neighborhood that hosted black music for black audiences and it was all for me.
So then, if nothing happens for a reason, what is left? What have I got? I’ve got the sum of everything that I have ever had or experienced (that has not been lost, forgotten, corrupted, etc.) leading up to the here and now. This collection of assets includes my own consciousness, which, despite the one-way nature of time’s arrow, allows me to move backwards through the impression these past experiences left on me.
The absolute past is the absolute past, but I have a collection of analogues—memories and recordings—that exist within the here and now. Which is how I can get back to Panache. Before I knew who William DeVaughn was, before chance brought me to a copy of “Be Thankful for What You Got” on 45, I heard a live cover of the song at Panache. The band was a regionally famous blues band and they played “Be Thankful for What You Got” as both their opener and closer. It was amazing. It’s one of those songs that makes you crave the chorus; it’s drug-like, and hearing the song twice in one night was euphoric.
The memories, like vinyl, are imperfect, flawed, but they’re what I’ve got. Some nights at Panache, after we cleaned up and locked the doors, the staff would sit at the bar and drink. Sometimes we would stay there all night, talking and drinking past sunrise, though there’s nothing particularly remarkable about this fact. When you’re a waiter at a restaurant, that’s just something you sometimes do after a shift: you sit at the bar, you count your tips, you drink with the people around you.