A Passing Likeness
He looks familiar, but I can’t place what it is that’s familiar about him. When I stare at his image I'm struck by a vague memory buried deep inside my imagination. It is like when you see someone on the street who reminds you of a character actor from an old television show who’s name, even face, you cant quite remember, and it haunts you for the rest of the day. Who is he? Who was he? His first name is John, and that is all I know. I don’t know how old he is. I don’t know what year this picture was taken. I don’t know his last name, where he lives, or what kind of person he was. When I try to explore these curiosities I find myself in the clear blackness of ignorance, trying to ask questions I don’t have the answer to. I'm left with just one conclusion. He simply looks familiar.
He is dressed casual and comfortable, without a hint of flash or offense. A quietly fashionable, conservative and, I would argue, timeless look. A light jacket, navy blue with a zipper and spare on pockets, and a plaid shirt, mostly red and white, tucked into his jeans. He has a light brown canvas belt holding it all together. His left hand is in his pocket. There is a small but prominent cleft on his chin. His expression is one I recognize all to well, that of a person who is uncomfortable in front of a camera. Afraid to stretch his mouth into a full smile, yet not committing to the dignified look that comes with a frown. He wears a half smirk, forced on, as if it were up to him, he wouldn’t have even faced the lens. One can almost hear the person behind the camera pleading with him to smile, then resigning themselves to capturing what little they can get.
After studying the picture longer, I've determined it was indeed taken in San Francisco. At first I was unsure. The bland architecture, non-descript and hidden in the dirty urban grays of downtown, Anywhere, USA, left the location a mystery. Then in the corner of the picture, obscured behind the silhouette of a man at a water fountain and partially blocked by the bushy limbs of a tree, I noticed the thick orange and white stripes that could only be a MUNI bus, San Francisco’s ever-reliable public transportation system. Then the pieces began to fall into place.
It is downtown, in the Civic Center, where most of the cities government buildings were built. The courthouse, main library, mayor’s office, and one other structure make a square with a large, park like area in the middle. He is standing in that area, with that hesitant look on his face. That please-get-this-over-with look on his face. If San Francisco was the same then (and judging by the model of cars that are a faint blur in the distance, it is the mid ‘70’s), than the man in the background is probably homeless. The homeless congregate in that park a lot. I think it’s because there are a lot of shelters in the area, though it could be because the well-manicured grass is softer and the trees help protect them from the sun and rain.
None of this answers the question though, who is he? The picture was sent to me by an aunt, my mother’s younger sister, who I barely know at all. I've met her two times in my entire lifetime, once when I was 5 years old and she was still in college, and once when I was 25 years old, after a decade long silence between the rest of the family and I had been lifted. It was one in a series of images that were attached to a letter. Most of the pictures were of my mother, when she was younger, in her twenties, vibrant, beaming, and much healthier. But two were of this man who looked scared and confused. The letter had one sentence that shed a light on who he might be, but it left me more mystified than if nothing had been said at all. After a polite greeting, some rhetorical inquiries, and a brief update on her career as a photographer, my aunt explained, succinctly,
Here are some pictures I found of your mom. And one or two I found of your dad. I hope you enjoy them.
My Dad? Really? I knew absolutely nothing of the man and can honestly say I didn’t have much of a desire to learn anything about him either. I wasn’t bitter. I held no grudges. I had just lived for so long without him, I simply wasn’t concerned about his presence. Life without him always was and always would be. This didn’t bother me. But suddenly, from the depths of my history, there was a picture in my hand. A picture of a white man with an awkward smile and a sentence, casually delivered, as if I should have known all along, that he was my father. I tried to remember what my mother had told me of him. I thought back to every story, every comment, every word she’d ever uttered of his existence, and a dull grief swelled inside of me and I let out a sigh. She had told me nothing, and what she did tell me, I didn’t believe.
There are three conflicting legends I've learned about my father, and these all through heated exchanges with my mother. One time she told me, in a bitter, venomous tone I rarely heard from her, that if a guy named John ever told me he was my father, then he was lying and I shouldn’t believe him. When she told me this I just nodded blankly and grunted, “Uh huh.” My indifference towards him was anything but passive. I disn’t know where that had come from or what train of thought had led her to bringing up a man she apparently had nothing but contempt for, but I’d picked up by then not to trust most things people said out of spite, and didn’t care either way. Another time, she, in the middle of a vicious argument we were having, asked if I wanted to know who my father was. Up until then I hadn’t, but the opportunity to gain such info teased me to no degree, so I answered yes.
She stared at me and, noting the genuine curiosity in my eyes, replied, “He was an asshole. Just like you.” And that was that.
The third story is my favorite, and because of its exaggerated romanticism I've grown fond of it and sometimes, when asked who my father is, relay this particular yarn, including more and more details with each retelling. When she told it to me she was of pretty sound mind, so I've always wondered if it could possibly be true.
The story begins in the holiday season of 1974. To start the New Year, my mother, this guy John, and another couple they were friends with, decided to visit Brazil for a few weeks. While down there, it was told, my mother had an affair with a local Brazilian man (in past recitals of the story I've said he was a bartender, owned a bar, lived on the beach, and, once, feeling especially creative, that he owned a small hotel. But here I will just relay the facts as I received them). John was oblivious, and it is unclear if he ever found out, but the consequence of that affair was yours truly. Nine months later I was born. So it is possible I am the bastard child of an illicit love affair. Fair enough, I thought. I can live with that.
And I have, and I was fine with it, then I got this picture. Could he really be my father? Why then, is he absent? What kind of man is he? Why has he not tried to make any contact? Did he ever try? Was it one of his attempts that inspired my mothers cryptic warning that, were he ever to tell me he was my father, it would be in deceit? Was she afraid he would get through to me? Possibly to take me away? To where?
(Mind you, the irony is not lost on me, that even though I possibly have a white father, I was still another black kid with no male parental unit while growing up. As if with my skin color, I am predestined to a life of statistical stereotypes.)
Studying the picture once more I notice again how shy he looks, and also that he is not wearing glasses. Everyone, and I mean EVERYONE, on my mothers side wears glasses. Even the younger generation. My generation. Everyone but me. Maybe I got my eyesight from him. And my fashion sense. And the awkward feeling I get when taking a picture. Maybe I didn’t though. Looking at the picture I can’t tell. When I look in the mirror I can see the strong, dominant features I get from my mother, but cant recognize the soft edges I may have picked up from my father. And all I see when I look at the picture is a young man in San Francisco with his hand in his blue jeans and squinting from the sun. I know his name and I know the city and I know he and my mother tried to make life work with one another, but I still ask the question, who is he?