I dropped out of college a lot before I finally earned my degree. When I finally crossed the stage in 2007, I got an empty diploma holder that remained empty for seven more years until I finally completed a math class. I cheated my way through the class and still only got a C, but it was enough to pass and my expensive (and largely useless) History/Philosophy degree came in the mail two weeks later. Of all the times that I dropped out, the first one is the most memorable.
I was 17.
I am abnormally intelligent. The kind of smart that is part-genetics, part-weird. I was an only child of a poor, single mother and I grew up across the street from a library. It was the one place in the world where I felt safe and special. I could be alone with “my” books, and I read my way through the juvenile section by the time I was 12. The librarians said that if I brought a note from my mother, then I could start checking out adult books. But mother was in the throes of a 2-year depression that she doesn’t really remember. So, I forged my grandmother’s signature, because hers was easy to replicate and checked out Stephen King’s IT that weekend.
My reading skills had always been advanced. When I was six years old, the administrators at the private school located in the basement of my church wanted to put me in the sixth grade because that was my reading level. My mother was too poor to raise a genius, so she raised a slightly smarter girl instead allowing them to skip me one grade. I spent one week in first grade before starting the second.
So I graduated from high school three weeks after my 17th birthday, and I decided to attend college 700 miles away at Clark Atlanta University. It wasn’t the right decision, I was too young and far too immature to be so far away from home, but my mother has never been able to say no to me so come August, I packed up my stuff and moved into Room 101 of Holmes Hall.
I ended up dropping out a few weeks into my second semester after an older girl, jealous of the tiny bit of popularity that I had scraped together, framed me for credit card fraud. The campus tribunal and Atlanta police eventually cleared me of any wrongdoing, but my reputation and self-esteem were destroyed. I was moved to a dorm at the far end of campus and my friend/fellow outcast, Felicity and I decided that if these were going to be our last few months together that we would live them on our own terms. We were on some Thelma & Louise shit. I was a “criminal” and she was a “slut.” So we skipped classes, smoked weed, and fucked townie boys. At least, she fucked townie boys. I was fat and nervous around guys and I had no idea what an orgasm was, but I figured it probably hurt like hell. So I stuck to weed smoking and wingmanning.
We discovered a small record store near the soul food restaurant where she worked as a waitress. I would walk with her to work, she would sneak me a container of macaroni and cheese and I would head over to the record store where the older Jamaican guy who owned it would allow me to sit behind the counter reading. No one ever bought records, and the phone never rang. Instead, there was a regular group of guys who hung out there and smoked from the seemingly endless stash of weed they kept in the back room.
They were a rap group and for the life of me I can’t remember their name. I can only remember a piece of one song, “These are the rules of the motherfucking game/and if you can’t hang/then your parents are to blame/but don’t try to blame me/or my crew/cuz we had to motherfucking hustle too.” That’s a truism I still live by.
One of the rappers was named Machete. I was fascinated by him. He stood 6 feet, 5 inches tall with long blond dreadlocks. He wore a kufi hat that made him at least 3 inches taller. His eyes were blue and he was soft-spoken with a Jamaican accent. He had already graduated from school and was married. His wife was completing a degree in sociology from Emory University, and had recently given birth to a son. Machete was fascinated with knives, hence the rap name. He frequently walked around Atlanta with a machete tied to the belt loop of his camouflage pants. He only ate with knives, I once watched him eat a salad with a just knife. He is still the only person that I’ve ever seen do that trick passing one of his blades quickly through the spaces between his fingers. He was like a character in a book, but he was real and kind. He called me by my real name.
One day I arrived at the store with my macaroni and cheese in tow to find more guys than usual standing outside. I didn’t ask what was going on. Instead I was greeted with the customary smiles and pats on my head. I was a cute, chubby little mascot, and by this time the store owner was fucking Felicity. I blended into the background and listened to them tell the story again from the beginning.
The night before, Machete had left a recording session (there was a studio in the back of the store) and headed to the Omni Hotel which was next to a burger spot that boasted the best turkey burgers in the city. He was only slightly aware of the increased police presence dead-set on getting his dinner, listening to rap music on a Sony cassette Walkman. By the time he noticed that the men in dark suits approaching him, it was too late. He was stopped and frisked. The police found over 20 knives on his body and a small .32 handgun. He was detained on suspicion of attempting to assassinate Bill Clinton, the President of the United States of America.
The next morning as we stood around talking about it, he was still in jail. For attempting to kill the President.
“For attempting to kill the President?” I repeated aloud.
That night, I lay in my dorm room on the phone with my mother as we both watched the ABC Nightly News.
“An Atlanta man was detained today for breaching a security perimeter. He was armed with dozens of knives and a gun. The FBI and Secret Service are working diligently to determine if, and why, he was attempting to assassinate President Clinton.” said Peter Jennings.
“I know that guy,” I said to my mother on the phone.
“You know him?” she exclaimed, then she wailed, “What kind of people are you hanging out with???” Gone was the girl from the library. It was my first year of college and I had already been arrested, kicked out of my dorm, and was now cavorting with assassins. It was true. I felt a bit of power in it too. I was still a nobody, but I was a nobody who knew somebodies. It would be the narrative that would follow me most of my adult life.
After four days, Machete was released. The Secret Service ultimately determined that a 22-year old Black man with a college degree, a beautiful intelligent wife and a newborn son had no reason to try to kill the President. He was just a weird guy who wanted a turkey burger. He didn’t come by the store as much any more after that. I think he stayed away to keep the heat off what was, in retrospect, a marijuana distributor.
Felicity and I kept hanging around, going to local rap shows, and carrying crates of records on Marta. But come May, with a last container of macaroni and cheese, a few blunts and a 1.17 grade point average I took a bus back to Detroit. I was a brilliant college dropout who had learned more sitting behind the counter of a weed spot than I ever have in class.