Everybody is a Star
Madlynn HaberI remember how young he was back then. Tall, sturdy and strong, he had smooth chocolaty skin, an off kilter grin and sleepy eyes. There was an awkwardness in his demeanor. I can’t quite place what it was, something about the way his words came out, with some hesitation with some awkward spacing. Some words were rushed, others slow, held back a bit. It wasn’t just how he spoke but also what he said. The out of left field quality that startled us and led to a head jerking “where did that come from” reaction.
There were a lot of things he knew from over two decades of inner city living and quite a lot he didn’t know. Basic common sense kind of things were missing. There was the time he decided to cook dinner and put hamburger patties directly on the oven rack, like it was a grill, with no pan underneath. As they cooked and the grease dripped down bursting into flames, he set the table, sipped on a beer and sat back waiting to surprise me with dinner.
For his twenty-third birthday he decided to make himself a party. He bought paper plates and matching cups, napkins and plastic silverware. He bought a couple of cases of beer, chips and snacks and a cake in a box. I think there were even some balloons and decorations. The one thing he neglected to do was invite anyone to come. Somehow that aspect just slipped his mind.
I showed up at his basement apartment that day not really by coincidence. We lived several blocks apart and if he didn’t come over to the coop house I shared with friends, I’d go over to his place and look for him. We were coworkers and also discreetly, secretly, lovers. Even so, he hadn’t mentioned the plans for that party to me either.
When I opened the door, I found him sitting, forlorn, at the end of a table with all the party accessories laid on it, smoking a menthol cigarette. That image stays with me like a photograph viewed in an emotionally evocative exhibit in a small gallery. It fills me with sadness and longing.
It was long before we had cell phones to connect us but I did manage to communicate with some folks and wrangle a few friends over. That was the day Carl gave his never to be forgotten speech. Carl was dark skinned and sometimes wore a brooding expression. Thin and wiry he moved in swift jerky motions. He had studied poetry and theater and had a dramatic presence, speaking loudly or softly with maximum emotional intensity no matter the subject or location.
After we made our way through a good portion of the beer, Carl pulled a chair up right in front of the birthday guy directing himself to him with much flair. He spoke for a good while in whispers and shouts, in rhythmic musical tones, in echoing loud clashes of words and more gentle whispering. His face was animated, his hands moving freely, his white teeth flashing in smiles and grins from his ebony face. He was a verbal artist, a performance artist long before such shows were common.
We all listened intently. The only line I really remember, the one repeated every few sentences, was “Everyone is a star in their own life!” It was Carl’s deeply felt belief that everyone is a star. He was determined to make sure each one of us there that day was convinced that every life is a story worth telling and every person, no matter how ordinary, small or plain, stars like sparkling glitter in their own heroic legend.
Carl above all radiated the qualities of a star as he lavished his attention and focus on this young man at his self-made birthday party, shining out to him like a beacon over a dark sea from a distant light house. My man stayed quiet through Carl’s speech. He nodded. smiled with closed lips and nodded some more. They both smoked cigarettes, passed a joint back and forth and sipped their beers.
The idea that everyone is a star in their own life became like a mantra that stayed with us long after that day. It forced us to consider that the people drawing our attention, those upon whom praise came in buckets, those who are honored with awards, prizes and degrees, were merely playing out the roles prescribed in their lives. Roles that are no more important than those that have no words to speak, those that stay silent like the lone fellow curled up asleep in a doorway late at night, the woman rearranging her belongings in plastic bags in the bathroom of the library, the person who never responds when someone asks who will go next or the girl who slips away from the team tryouts before anyone notices she is there. They too are starring in their own lives, stars in their own light. Carl left us questioning forever who matters to us and why.
That night when the party was over, I helped the birthday guy clean up and we went back to my room. My room was in an attic with the bed on the floor next to an awning window. Curled up together, we looked out at the night sky, seeing the vast universe of stars in a whole new way.
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