Virgil Abloh, rest in peace, grew up just a few minutes from where I did. Rockford, Illinois. A fairly unkempt Rust Belt city near the border with Wisconsin. Abloh’s story is more remarkable than mine, so I won’t touch it in the space of this little thing—which is just a riff on something he said throughout his career: that to make a really meaningful change, you only needed to make a 3% difference.
That is to say: to achieve his fame, take an existing operation and alter it by just 3%. Take a shoe, change the color of a stripe. Take a shirt, reduce the hemline by half an inch. Take a tried-and-true novelistic formula—say the romantic comedy—and give the woman a debilitating allergy.
Abloh’s is a hopeful statement. It makes me more confident in my art.
Rockford could take solace in it, too. Rockford at most was 3% different from other cities of its ilk: Akron, Gary, Toledo. Jane Addams lived here in the early twentieth century. Our Peaches were the most famous girls’ baseball team around. Otherwise we are a carbon copy of those other cities. Like them our primary industries were restaurants to fill tummies and hospitals to cure the resulting diseases. Our streets looked the same; our rates of crime and poverty eye-to-eye. We had a newspaper in the same font which carried the same stories and took the same lukewarm takes.
Maybe Abloh saw the 3% as operative because of his surroundings.
Read through Filipino history and you shall find an attempted 3% deviation from America. My father tells me this as a kind of joke. In the 80s the US elected Reagan and the Filipinos decided to have their own movie star president, the wretched Joseph Estrada. But when the Americans impeached Clinton the Filipinos cast Estrada off in turn. In the 2000s both sides of the Pacific enjoyed a generational level of incompetence; for those under Macapagal-Arroyo, there was, at least, miserable company. Indeed GMA and GWB were quite good friends. Look at the two of them together: Western-educated scions of political dynasties. Even with their profound physical differences—one short and brown, the other tall, white, and all-American, they might said to be just 3% off. 5%, at the most.
To talk about minor deviation is itself a kind of privilege. On Saturdays and Sundays and usually Friday nights we gathered with other Filipinos. When you are a Rockford Filipino the struggle is to only be 3% off white Americans. 97% was aspirational indeed. It was a struggle to get to 90%, and depending on how dark you were even 80%; for their accents and their habits, your parents were always hopelessly stuck at 60%. Escaping their grasp got you at least to 70%, thank God. If you were born here and did not learn the old languages you could get to 85% at least—but to fill up the remaining 12% was an altogether different struggle.
I tried my hardest and peaked at the low 80s; Ariella was a girl my age who was superbly good at getting to the mid 90s. Our difference increased with time. Mostly because she went to a private school, and did important percentage-boosting activities like drama (an enterprisingly multicultural teacher cast her as Belle in Beauty and the Beast). She dressed in Abercrombie and Fitch. She received high marks in math and English but did not stress out about either. She smoked cigarettes twice to be polite; she nursed a beer at the parties she was always third or fourth to arrive at.
But her coup de grace was when she started bringing a white boyfriend to our parties. He was a real champion. His name was John. His parents owned a furniture store with an Italian name. We had bought a sofa there once. He and his three older brothers brought the furniture politely into our car. There was no spark of camaraderie as we made our ambitious purchase, and he did not remember it when I brought it up.
Now he was dating Ariella and was stiffly enjoying an afternoon with the pinoys. He did not speak much—and how could he, when everyone was speaking at him, mining him for their proof of 3%? He nodded along, and gratefully took a paper plate on which he put a measly half-paddle of jasmine rice (far too white, paradoxically, for his health-conscious mother). He did not, as is proper, eat rice with the viands he had safely chosen—the fried butterfly shrimp, newly unfrozen from Kroger’s; the two or three cubes of pork adobo; and of course the tiny lumpia with nothing unfamiliar in it. Daringly some strands of pancit filled in the edges of his Dixie.
John said it was very good, though he only ate 25% of the red sauce that Ariella’s mother encouraged him to try. Mostly he and Ariella stayed on their phones. She said she was tired and tried to look unsmiling. He said that he had a basketball game.
Near the end of the party everyone took a picture together. John was four humans to the right of me, the butt-end of the back row intended for “tall” folk. But he made it five, for when everyone leaned forward and in, so that the camerawoman could fit us all in at once, John kept upright. To do otherwise would have indicated a frightening 0%. No, better not—better be 3%. Holding Ariella’s hand lightly, remaining, as Abloh said, innovative.