I've been an Unemployed Negro for almost a month now. I spend most days sitting in front of the computer in my red upholstered swivel chair. The chair--a relic from some 80s office that I bought at a used furniture store--looks modern in a retro kind of way, but the upholstery is like a heat magnet. It's this coarse yarn, almost like burlap, that absorbs all the heat from the 150 watt track lights above my desk. When I job search or surf the Web for more than a few minutes, I break into a light sweat and eventually a medium-light sweat, which grows into a peculiar funk that, fortunately or unfortunately, is concentrated between my legs. Unemployment really stinks.
So does my apartment. Lately this weird smell has been emanating from the pipes. The air is stale because I never go outside. And because I can't afford to set the thermostat too low, the Texas heat creeps in through the crevices around the windows and doors. The funk bakes, and in case you didn't know, hot funk smells much
worse that room-temperature funk. It would drive Any Negro toward complacency.
Last Friday, I mustered up the conviction to cross the threshold to the outside world. Unemployed Negro had to make a Post Office run. I needed to mail a couple of job applications that I'd completed, and I wanted to send copies of my first ever cover story to my folks in Atlanta.
It was a journey of smells. I stepped outside my apartment, and for an instant I could smell the Houston outdoors. On my second breath, however, the Houston heat seized my olfactory senses--the air was too hot to breathe or smell. All my nose hairs fell into my hand. I almost died of asphyxiation walking to my car, but as I drew what could have been my last breath, I fumbled with my keys, got in the car, turned on the engine and blasted the A/C. Ahhh, the smell of rank air coming off the old filters.
I don't rememder what the Post Office smelled like. It was probably the nondescript odor of the federal government. I moved through the line quickly and was called to the counter. I gave my underarms a quick, surreptitious sniff before approaching.
An Older Negro Woman whose name tag read "Sharon" was working at the desk. She wore so much make-up and foundation that her face was a strikingly different color than her arms, which her Post Office-issue short sleeve shirt left exposed. She also wore a deep nutty brown wig, cut just above her ears. (It shone the way synthetic hair does.) Despite it all, she was an Attractive Negro Woman with a classy demeanor. I smelled just a hint of perfume.
Ms. Sharon had wisdom in her voice, if you can imagine that. She helped me select an envelope large enough to fit four copies of my story, and then, in a friendly way, asked me why I was mailing so many newspapers.
"That's my name on the cover," I told her. I held up one of the papers for her to see. "I'm sending the issues home to my parents in Atlanta." She suddenly beamed with pride. She asked me how long I'd been a writer, where I was from, if I had siblings. When I expressed dismay over my unemployment, she encouraged me to stick with it.
She was proud in the way that Old Negroes are proud of the accomplishments of their grandchildren--the way that So Many Old Negroes are proud of the accomplishments of All Young Negroes, kin or not. It's Negro Pride. It's something that, sitting at home in my hot funk, I'd certainly lost touch with.
Toward the end of our conversation, Ms. Sharon asked if I'd like to take a look at some commemorative stamps. I'm usually resistant to all forms of salesmanship (especially now that I'm a Broke Negro), but I offered to take a quick look. She opened the binder to the Negro section and showed me a sheet of Paul Robeson stamps. Robeson was indeed a Great Negro. I bought the stamps without thinking twice and thanked her for the conversation. She offered her hand, and I shook it. Then she promised to look for my name in print.
When I got back to my car, I smelled my crotch and my underarms. Maybe unemployment doesn't smell so bad after all. I smelled the Paul Robeson stamps hoping to somehow connect with that Great Negro. The stamps smelled like paper.