by Glynn Pogue
We first saw Joe Smokes Wisdom on Howard University’s infamous yard, a square of jade green grass bordered by brick and ivy buildings of academia. For decades, this holy land, with its cracked cement walkways and grand old trees painted with sorority and fraternity insignia, was where a community often on mute made loud political–and fashion– statements.
It was April, and we could feel the frost melting. Anonymous architecture students who’d spent the winter locked in their studios emerged in khaki cut offs. The law students had Ray Bans perched on the noses they’d finally raised from torts textbooks.
And then there was us: Me, my hair short and newly natural, and my roommate Zoe in a flannel shirt and Poetic Justice braids. The year before, Zoe had called her parents and told them she was switching her major from marketing to film, a personal and political statement of her own, directed mostly toward her parents and their expectations. She wanted creativity and passion and didn’t care if it’d take her two more years and twenty grand to get it. I don’t know if she really knew it, but I admired her for that.
We were seated on an old sheet at the center of the grass, sipping on ice tea, and then some, from an Arizona can. For Howard, we were committing the ultimate faux pas. No one actually sat on the grass, just stood post around its perimeter. Can you blame them? No one could get a good look at your outfit if you were sitting down, and six-inch heels would sink into the ground. But we didn’t care. When a couple of girls rushed over to ask why we were perched there, claiming “Sitting on the grass is for white schools,” we laughed it off and stayed put on our private island, watching a sea of sameness, never once thinking to get on the boat.
And then we saw him. Shirtless, his coco-brown chest adorned with a big gold rope chain and spirals of black chest-hair. His kente-cloth patchwork pants, flat-top hair cut, love ring on his right hand, hate ring on his left, boom box on his shoulder. He was a real live Radio Raheem. Zoe and I exchanged sly glances. This guy, like us, looked like the type to bend the rules. We were intrigued.
It was senior year, and Zoe and I were sharing a townhouse on Flager Place with Alyson, a guy’s girl, who wore Nikes, blasted 2 Chainz at high volumes, and thought we were insane. Zoe and I dominated the living room. She tacked flowers she’d stolen from our neighbor’s garden onto the walls and left them there long after they’d shriveled up and turned brown. I strung Polaroids, money from foreign lands and discarded Metrocards across the ceiling. And on Wednesday nights, friends came flocking to share poetry, thoughts, stories and songs. We’d all sit in a circle, clutching our Moleskins, composition books and iPhones, and we purged. We wanted love and relationships but were too immature to maintain them, so the topic of our pieces was often heartbreak. We swirled $7 Malbec around in our mismatched set of Target wine glasses to see the legs, while we explored esoteric thoughts with the hand gestures of an old Italian grandmother, filling awkward pauses with “essentially,” somehow under the impression that word made us sound smarter–a technique I’m still convinced is quite effective.
There were soul-seekers in that living room. There was Lex, who’d saunter in with a big African drum in a bag slung across her shoulder. She’d play a few haphazard beats to get us started and co-signed anyone’s passionate rant with one loud bang. And Caleb, who sat on the floor, lanky legs crossed, smoking cloves and sipping Stellas. There was Tayleur, a good friend, who came early to set up and stayed late to clean up. And Kai, whose reputation preceded her but was nothing like the boys said.
And soon enough there was Joe. After months of watching him walk by, Zoe finally approached him and began casting him in her student films. One Wednesday, after a few invitations to our rendezvous, he showed up. He waltzed in with dramatics, shuffling like George Jefferson, a haze of what I could swear was purple fog in his trail.
“Hey ya’ll, I’m Joe Smokes Wisdom,” he said, his eyes sparkling.
We nodded cool “hellos,” none of us bothering to question his moniker. Those days we all had aliases. My Facebook name was Glynn Vogue.
“So, uh, this is like an open mic, yeah? I’ve got a new piece I’ve been working on that I’d love to share with ya’ll,” he continued. I could hear his DC native twang.
“Please! We’d love to hear it,” I urged.
We were enchanted. There he was, 5’9″ in a top hat and suspenders. From our position, he looked like a magician, and he was. He stood before us, snapped his suspenders, pulled a piece of crumpled loose leaf from his breast pocket, and began to weave a tall tale sprinkled with fairy dust. He spoke of his lover and himself, trapped in hell, where they’d been sent for the sins they’d committed against each other.
Meanwhile, my living room was a kind of purgatory–a confusing yet comforting place somewhere between childhood and adulthood, far removed from Howard’s campus where seniors were lined up at the job placement office with stacks of business cards in their backpacks. We wanted to hang in this living room, this limbo, forever, because together we found solace. In that living room, it felt okay to be fucked up, to be young and creative and not have it all figured out. As the weeks progressed, Joe, with his toothy grin, became our Peter Pan, faithfully guiding us away from responsibilities. Silently and often quite loudly, he urged us to “take a walk on the wild side.” He never made plans, and, so far, it had served him pretty well.
“I accept the universe’s gifts, man,” he’d say, pushing up his rose-colored glasses.
And I was thinking, Shit I can do that. Joe lived his life on a whim, stalking the streets of DC by day, sans cell phone, stopping wherever and with whomever, including Howard’s campus, where he wasn’t even a student. His best friend was Rita, a homeless woman who begged for change on U Street, but his charm had earned him many friends to crash with and had even landed him a free meal with Kim Kardashian that one time.
We never really knew when he’d show up. One evening I was at home with Zoe, drinking mint tea in our living room. Tayleur was over too, fresh from her internship on Capitol Hill. She was standing in the corner, kicking aside the gray skirt suit at her feet and pulling on a pair of jean cutoffs. She stared into the cracked mirror above the fireplace and tied a silk scarf around her Afro. Looking like Jimi Hendrix, she lay beside us on our beige carpet, stained from many a keg stand gone awry, and bitched about her day at the office.
“If I have to make one more fucking copy,” she sighed.
Suddenly, there was frantic knocking. I opened the door, and there was Joe, all smiles, in a ground-skimming trench coat, waving at an old Cadillac slowly pulling away. His day’s journey had led him to us. It felt like Christmas morning.
Lately Joe had been stylistically channeling Mr. Big–straight-up middle-aged baller status. He never had more than $5 in his pocket, yet every morning, he awoke in whatever random home he’d laid his head the night before and dressed himself, as dapper as ever in thrift store finds.
“Thanks Thomas!” he called out, holding up the black power fist. “I’ll be spinning these soon.” The guy in the car saluted.
I looked down, and neatly lined up on our stoop were ten milk crates filled with records.
“Can you believe it?” he gasped. “I met this guy on 14th who was getting rid of all of these gems. Like, who gets rid of Harold Melvin and the Bluenotes?! These are gems, man. Serious gems,” he continued, smoothly straightening his collar and coming inside.
“Help me out with these will ya?” he motioned, struggling a bit with the first crate. I rushed to his side. Moments later we were back on our beige carpet, a mass of records splayed out before us. There was Marvin Gaye, The Temptations, the Stylistics, Rufus, Phyllis Hyman and a shit ton of others I’d never even heard of. Wiser than his 27 years, Joe knew them all, and sang an iconic line with base and precision as he unearthed each record.
He pulled out Michael Jackson’s, Off the Wall.
“I wanna rock with youuuu,” he crooned.
“All nightttt,” we chimed in, falling into a fit of giggles. We laughed at the retro covers, the big bellbottoms, the even bigger Afros. We reminisced about the good old days. The way Marvin would fill our homes on Sunday mornings when we were kids. We could almost smell the salmon cakes, taste the cheese grits and see our parents getting old school themselves, as they danced the hustle. It felt good to retreat to the past.
“Yeah man,” Joe said, sitting back with a sigh. “As soon as I leave here, I’m bringing these to my baby momma’s house. My kids are gonna grow up the same way.”
We went quiet. None of us knew Joe, a big kid himself, had the biggest responsibility of all, kids of his own. I wondered if everything he’d said before was bullshit. How could he float through the world when he had little ones to provide for? Was he really as wise as his name implied? Sure, I was feeling free-spirited, but I was 21. I knew some day I’d figure it out, especially by the time I had wild-haired babies running around, right? Inspired by the raffish bohemia of his lifestyle and his ability to make it work, Joe had been my guru. What was I going to do now? Who would I look to?
The class of 2013 graduated a month later. We walked across the stage, our blue robes just as heavy as the stale smell of alcohol on our breaths from the party the night before. Our frantic blend of excitement and palpable numbness hung in the air alongside “Congratulations!” banners. Some had job offers in their back pockets like trump cards, others had plans to apply for every available barista position on Craigslist. And then there was me, boarding a flight to Cambodia thirty days later to start my Peace Corps service–my way to make a difference in the world and buy myself more time, a decision surely made with Mr. Wisdom’s carefree mantras in my subconscious. I posed for photos and gave champagne toasts like a pro and the next day drove away from Flagler Place in the U-Haul my mom had rented, waving goodbye to a living room full of super seniors with red-rimmed eyes.
A year would go by before Joe and I would speak again. In that time I made a home for myself in Cambodia. While my friends had begun to make their real-world ascensions, I loomed silently in our group chats, reading the texts they sent about their days at work, with no similar stories to share. Some part of my heart ached to chug an iced coffee as I rushed to the office, but the main valves were overwhelmingly filled with the fascination of a new land.
On New Year’s Eve, a few Peace Corps friends and I took a small boat to an island off the coast of Cambodia for a weekend of tanning and tequila. From the moment we docked, I was convinced it was my haven. Feeling like Leonardo DiCaprio in The Beach, I looked on as boho babes with seashells in their hair strutted across the sand barefoot and slim guys with top-knots strummed guitars as they swayed in hammocks.
My first sun-drenched afternoon on the island found me falling easily into their lifestyle–adding my vocals to their jam sessions, getting in on games of volleyball. I casually picked their brains, wondering what had brought them to this Eden. They were people from all parts of the world and all walks of life, who’d flipped society the finger, and moved to Cambodia, for good, not just for 27 months like me. They hadn’t needed some organized program to bring them there. Working odd jobs on the island as bartenders and waiters, they earned just enough for room, board and their vices. Joe had nothing on them.
That evening I emerged from my bungalow in my most flowy dress to meet my new friends for drinks at a beach bar. Although only 8pm, I was apparently too late for the party, because they were long gone, several rounds into whatever they’d been consuming. I searched for the magic I’d seen that afternoon behind their bleary eyes and within their slurred speech, but there was none to be found. When I left, no one even noticed.
The next morning, while taking an early jog, I saw them again, incoherent, slumped and strewn across the shore like clumps of seaweed. My dreams shattered, I wanted nothing more than to board the first boat out and get back to my village, where teaching had begun to make me happy and my students made me laugh.
A few months later, an email with a big, bold “HEY QUEEN” popped up in my inbox from “Malachi.” It was Joe, and, as usual, he was right on time.
“Oh, Glynn,” he wrote. “I have never been so effective…or worked so hard in my life.
Everything I had, I didn’t need, and I now recognize me and my purpose … my mission … my message … and I will prevail.”
The ellipses-filled paragraphs went on to speak of his recent stint living in a small town in Puerto Rico teaching and reciting poetry and of raunchy romps on beaches under the cloak of an inky, star-dotted sky. His words captured me as they always had, but what struck me more was his sudden identity change.
“I’ve finally decided to stop running, Glynn,” he wrote. “My mother named me Malachi, and I am taking strong control of it. I’m letting go of the whole ‘Joe Smokes Wisdom’ life, but the story will live on through me forever…I hope that makes sense.”
While he was shedding the name, and the reckless abandon that came with it, the last line of his email assured me that his inherent, often childish, Joe Smokes whimsy wasn’t going anywhere. And suddenly, I saw things clearly, realizing a true state of limbo, the good kind, is not about action or inaction, it’s about spirit. It’s the difference between spending yourself carefully and loving fearlessly. It’s sitting on the grass when they tell you not to.
Glynn Pogue is 23-year-old writer and dreamer from Brooklyn currently residing in Cambodia, where she eats fried tarantulas and bargains in the local market like a pro. Her prose has been featured in Essence Magazine and Roving Brooklyn, and her travel and lifestyle commentary has appeared in Eat Your World, Travel Noire and DC Magazine. She begins her MFA in Creative Nonfiction at The New School this fall. For more visit glynnpogue.com.