Failure draws at my life like a sucking well under troubled water; therefore, every journey I’ve ever taken is likened to a desperate breath I need to take, or an escape. With madness, I’ve sought out ways to circumvent my identity upon reflecting on what brought me to certain dark moments in my life. I wonder if I regret them and the things that ensnared my arrival. Only, I’ve arrived at a position of admiration for my shortcomings; that it is possible for me to understand failure as a journey that doesn’t blossom a new persona but new beliefs.
Summertime 2007. I was 22 at the time. I’d been anxious all day because I had a long journey ahead of me that night. It’d been a hot morning, and the heat continued into the afternoon. The forecast was that night would be hot too – perpetually for the rest of the week – carrying over from the week before. I was born in Texas, so it was just another summer for me. I folded and packed my official FedEx shirt at the bottom of my black backpack so it’d be clean when I got to work, some bottled water, but decided against packing my grandmother’s bible at that moment. I had a few hours before I needed to set out, and reading the Word was the best I was going to do in terms of taking my mind off things.
Olean passed in 2003, and her handwriting, sometimes not entirely legible, was in the margins by her favorite verses. I wasn’t just reading her Bible. I was reading it all the way through. Such a deliberate act was me telling God, come see about me. In doing so, I discovered that in the Old Testament, the best you are going to get in terms of a happy ending is: so and so lived to be so many years old, and then died. When I think about the journeys I’ve been on, the testimonies of the apostles come to mind. I think about how through their eyes and words, the excitement by which they account the history of Jesus and the miracles he toiled, seem good, and how could anything possibly go wrong? You still know the way it’s going to end. I find that riveting – albeit morbid. I don’t consider the resurrection a part of the same journey because, unless you are Lazarus, death is always the end of everyone’s story before another one begins.
I lived not far from where the Houston Texans play football, 8383 El Mundo. My destination was 6905 E. Orem. I heard things about Sunnyside and South Park, the neighborhoods I’d have to divide, mostly in rap songs from Houston’s hardest rappers. Thank God I wouldn’t have to go into Cloverland. One night, I was at a club and two girls were about to fight. One yelled to the other, “Bitch, I’m from Sunnyside!” and that was as far as things escalated. Despite what warm perceptions its name may entice, it’s the hood. I lay in my bed reading with the weight of the world on my shoulders; accepting an ultimatum that if I was going to make it to work on time, I’d have to walk through the middle of Sunnyside at midnight. It would be a 4-hour journey into the heart of darkness. The thought of traversing these territories on foot is what kept me up that night. There stood very specific blocks I put an “X” over on the printout of my map. I don’t entirely accept the motto, “take the road less traveled.” Sometimes, it hasn’t been traveled for a reason. Life has a way of challenging us with the thing we didn’t prepare for, and I wasn’t prepared to be shot. After packing everything for my journey, I lay in bed partly clothed and read the relic until I found my 40 winks.
I was at a point in my life where I could only see the meekness of my mortality and the limits at which my happiness would never reach: An American standard of wealth, a college education, and true emancipation from oppression. To be happy with a perpetual state of failure, one must realize certain confines in life, and in the face of those constraints the capacity to reason with one’s disabilities. In doing so, I find humor; though, we all can also find humanity. My humanity – I’d rather say identity – is not a measure of elevation, but a marathon of heart, a maze of existence and circumstance. I may have only come to this conclusion because I cannot escape it. I find myself reasoning that my mother is a failure, father too; how can I leave a better legacy if I feel that failure is my birthright?
The best job I could find with my experience, no degree, and on such short notice after being fired from Office Max, was at a FedEx Freight warehouse 9.5 miles away, graveyard shift, part-time from 4 a.m. to 8 a.m. loading trucks. Everything about the job was problematic. For one, I didn’t have a car. It was a graveyard shift, and Houston’s transit system didn’t start running buses until 6 a.m. I didn’t have enough money to pay rent, so the part-time paycheck, if I could be on time for the next two weeks, was going to net me zero – nothing extra.
The day before, my first day of work, Ralph, my cousin with whom I lived my first few years in Houston, woke up at 3 a.m. to pick me up and give me a ride. Not long into the drive he spoke. His voice was like a worn green dish pad, “I’m already getting tired of this.” He cleared his throat after he said it. It didn’t startle me until I realized what he said. A lot was on my mind even before he said it. After, I became even more aware of which mistakes put me there. I told him “OK” because I felt him. I honestly didn’t like sharing my failures with other people, and his words made me realize the extent of my ignorance and the overreaching implications of my inevitable ruin. At work that first day, my training consisted of my manager, a hyper middle-aged dark-skinned black man, about my complexion, reinforcing his no excuses to be late policy. While I was the understudy, he was loading the truck. Just before we loaded the last package, he waited for me to look at him and said, “I’m still doing interviews.”
It was just after 11:45 p.m. before I walked out my door. I said a prayer with Olean’s Bible in hand before I pack it away. I knew I’d be way out of my comfort zone – like Peter walking on water from Matthew’s account. Matthew testified that when Peter saw Jesus walking out on the Sea of Galilee, realizing only God can grace a man and make him more than he is, this would be the perfect time for Peter to see if Jesus was the true Son of God or just another sorcerer. He told Jesus to stop, “Lord, if it be thou, bid me come unto thee on the water.” Peter’s lunacy speaks directly to the failure in me because that’s the problem with miracles. You can ask for them, see them, and still believe wholeheartedly they aren’t even there. As Peter walked, overcoming the fact that man has no place on the waves, except for; partly submerged, struggling, and for a short time, his steps became more unsure until he slipped. Jesus caught him and said, “O thou of little faith, wherefore didst thou doubt?”
Dressed in all black, I walked out of my gated apartment complex. I listened to the night. I needed to be part of the ether. My paces needed to stop when the crickets stopped and able to pass close to them still chirping. El Mundo is a curvy road with apartment complexes on both sides. I stayed on the bricked, luxurious side. The only luxury I could half afford at the time was that tiny apartment. Being unemployed for three weeks had put me “eviction notice” behind. North from my apartment, I walked the curving manicured grass shoulder. Once I reached the end of El Mundo, I headed east a half-mile down Holly Hall over the overpass that stretches across Highway 288 then dips into the parking lot of a business strip mall called PLAZA Park. There used to be a DaVita Dialysis center that stayed busy during the day. I passed by the print shop, and other businesses looking to take advantage of low rent. That night, I looked up into the parking lot’s security camera above the corner of the last storefront. It was to calm my anxiety. I imagined the detectives from the TV show First 48 retracing my steps and understanding I was just trying to get to work. Maybe he would filter the image enough to see the worry on my face and be that much more motivated to catch the killer before time runs out.
The end of the PLAZA Park parking lot leads to the westbound feeder of Loop 610. Walking on a freeway is never smart, so I stayed close to the curb or knee-deep in the shrub, bending the weeds with the heel of my shoes. Each stride was a deliberate effort to trap any creatures beneath the fold. I stayed in the thick so cars could pass by going the opposite way. It was after midnight. Houston’s humidity steams. Even at night, it’s 90 degrees. The hot moisture makes your clothes uncomfortable no matter what you’re wearing. Warm humidity has a way of enhancing every smell; even hot rain doesn’t smell fresh. The steady roar of midnight traffic pollutes the night’s quietness; and sirens, there are always sirens. With the spaghetti junction sprawling above me, I crossed the feeder to pass underneath the concrete exchanges, where it smelled like hot urine. The kind that hadn’t been filtered from a single drop of water. The mustard square bridge light above me moaned. I took a knee and the opportunity to check my map alone. There were no homeless because I was too close to the underserved ghetto, and cops don’t patrol certain corners after hours. On the eastbound side of the freeway, I needed to take the first road I came to. Cannon St. I looked back to see if I could still see the Monopoly-style rooftops of my apartments beyond the pasture, billboards, and 18-wheeler trucks passing by – the brief flash of yellow caution lights – red and green exchanging at the intersection, their black slopes were silhouetted by the glow of Reliant Stadium. I was only a couple blocks from my apartment, but it felt like I was a long way from home. The block ahead, the pavement on Cannon Street is cracked, brittle, and black. There’s a solitary streetlight at the end of the block. The road splits a pair of loading docks for a warehouse that never responded to my resume. The weak lamps above every dock are swallowed by the darkness and don’t reach far into the street. The block after, Cannon passes between two undeveloped lots with tall weeds that reach upward into darker parts like trees. The train tracks come after that, marrying Holmes Road for a stretch into nothing, until they split and do their own thing. In the median, there was a bloated dog, its limbs and collar hanging out of a busted trash bag. In the still of the moment, the city spoke to me. It told me I was alone and that this journey had just begun.
By my Harris County map and the dead dog, the intersection of Holmes and Cannon signaled that I was on the fringe of dangerous parts. I stayed on Cannon across Holmes to Redbud, Stassen Street, and Shelby Circle. I had emphatically drawn an “X” over all three, then decided they were the quickest routes to Scott, and I’d have to take one. I knew it was best to avoid secluded streets when you know nothing of their creeds. I chose Stassen, even though it sounded the most gangster out of the three. The map showed it had a church at the end of the block with the same name as the one Olean took me to as a child, True Light Baptist. I figured if I got gunned down on the street that had a church with the same name as the one I was brought up in, I was meant to go. She’d be waiting on me. I walked down the small avenue under a canopy of oak leaves rustling in the humid hot summer breeze. The pavement sparkled under the moonlight streaking through. If I stared only at the street, I could imagine I was on a beach of sorts, hearing the waves wash the firmament. When I reached the end of the block, I realized the church had been torn down and replaced with a Pepto-Bismol-colored nightclub called Super Star. It took a few seconds for that to digest, and how naïve my perceptions of protection were.
The muddy parking lot behind me and the florescent light reflecting off the orange brick of the Scott Food Store showed me there was a sidewalk down Scott Street. Sidewalks in the hood are always out to get you: inconsistent, unkempt, and broken like a bad relationship, littered with trash, overgrown with weeds that feed on random puddles that lie like lakes in the heat. But I didn’t cross over as planned to follow Stassen down to Cullen. I circumvented the mud holes in the gravel parking lot of the grocery store to walk down the sidewalk instead. Walkers listen for cars coming constantly. It’s when you become pensive that you forget to look back or far enough ahead. You stay guarded anyway, floating past puddles on your tiptoes like a butterfly, elbows tucked, face covered whenever you can’t avoid the street rain so the water only hits your back.
Traffic was light until I walked up on the Texaco. The gas station sits on the opposite side of the intersection at Bellfort. I crossed the street just before the crosswalk then decided to cross the street again to not walk past the crowd of dope boys outside. I was too green and in too much black to skirt by unnoticed; without being tested by those who stood at odd hours outside a gas station that never closed. I crossed back over later, keeping notice of the shadows behind me until I reached the Burger King at the intersection of Cullen.
1 a.m. Three miles down, another six to go. Cullen would be the longest stretch. All the blocks I’d traversed and had yet to come to were nefarious for Southside Bloods, crackheads, and homicides. But I was most afraid of a White cop. The fact that I had avoided the laundry list of troubles was a reassurance God had kept me this long. If I were in a white neighborhood, I’d be dead already. For once, in this territory, my blackness was protecting me. I still needed to be vigilant. At this hour, there are more dangerous things out than people looking to rob me or the bad apples in HPD. I felt it. There’s no melody at night. There’s no pleasantry to the creatures that sing. The twilight is but a black sea imposing a sense of drowning. If the Valley of the Shadow of Death was a place, it isn’t a location, but a specific time, in any space.
No rocks. I don’t need no rocks calling out for me – that’s the entire phrase. These dogmas in the belief of miracles are problematic for me because, for one, there is no middle ground. It is a fixed dedication to believe in something no-matter-what. One must trust in the unimaginable impossible to say, “I have sufficient faith.” For example, the story goes as Luke testified, that when they returned with the colt that had never been ridden, that Jesus told them to go get, everyone that followed Jesus took off their clothes and made a saddle for Him to sit. He descended Mt. Olive into Jerusalem on the colt’s bespoke saddle, but the people also didn’t want the colt to walk on bare ground. Therefore, the same people took off the rest of the clothes they had and made a path for him to go by. They made it a celebration. When they ran out of clothes, they started tearing off palm leaves. They were loud, singing and dancing, carrying on until the Pharisees said to Jesus, “Master, rebuke thy disciples!” Jesus answered them by saying, “I tell you that, if these should hold their peace, the stones would immediately cry out.” I laughed, knowing that what Jesus threatened them with was unimaginable and impossible, and a blatant if not boastful critique on what they thought was offensive. I also know what happened next even though Peter forgot to write about it. Somebody heard this exchange and shouted, “I don’t need no rocks crying out for me!” And continued on with a shout. I know because Black folks go around saying it today in the same fashion. Rest assured, any individual with this logic does not partially prescribe to miracles. Just as the first time it was shouted, it will always be a simultaneous confession of joy and fear – a praise to accept that which is illogical and freeing. I never understood how I was ever going to relate to this philosophy until I went snorkeling a decade later. It was all giggles, playing in the lagoon, until our snorkeling guide took us over the underwater ravine into the ocean, where beneath me, I witnessed wonders no man could create. I gawked upon the darkest blue, blacker than any night. My imagination commissioned fathoms of fears. All at once, I felt so fortunate and so nescient swimming with an anchoring question as the waves kept lifting me into a blue so bright, it became clear, accented with sunlight.
1:30 a.m. I had been walking for just over 2 hours. The world had lost perspective with itself, and it showed. The world needs a process like any other living thing. Humans have become negligent to anything step-by-step, like walking something through to the end. I’m kicking the heck out of this rock too. The more we advance technology, the more savage we become. We are sprinting without rest to the end, with no time to perceive the beauty it takes to get there. Walking – different than running – you don’t hear your body screaming at you. You hear all your demons. They prepare themselves at a table before you. Especially, when you are alone with no one watching. In those modes of inspection, in some aspects, you hear how awful or repulsively reasonable you sound.
At 2 a.m., a half-mile down Cullen Blvd, it was not hard to imagine being the last human left in the world. I was in the very heart of Sunnyside. I surveyed the block with a curious mix of wanting to get away but, also wanting to explore for the sake of understanding a place that both called out to me and distanced me simply because of how it looked or what I’ve heard about it. Regardless of if I wanted to be there, at 2:30 am, it was exactly where I needed to be. When I crossed the bright parking lot of the McDonald’s at the corner of Reed Road, I wondered why there were so many cars in the drive-thru at this hour. The dirty sidewalk of the Cullen Walgreens forced my attention to the other side of the street at the iron gates of one of a few dozen restaurants called The Original Timmy Chan. That’s whenI heard a car engine slow down behind me at some distance away. I thought nothing of it, until half a block later,when it finally caught up to me. By then, my eyes were locked across the street on the mannequins standing in the windows of the Fashion House, but my peripherals were keeping the two things I was worried about in sight. I was certain I was a solitary pedestrian on the street. The car was slowing down for me. When you are walking, you know this. It’s like a sixth sense, like a pack of lions hunting another creature, and to your horror you realize you are no longer invisible, and they are hunting you. I kept walking at the same pace – looking over my shoulder – investigating but keeping my destination in mind. No other cars came by. Nobody else in the world, just this shadowy figure behind the windshield and me. I couldn’t discern the make or model. The engine was in an idle that gurgled from the low speed. It creeped, barely, behind me. The roll and squeak of its tires kept a slightly faster rhythm alongside my longest natural stride. We’d passed all the entrances to the strip mall of the Fiesta together. The end of the block was coming up. The car’s bright lights finally passed me. The square hood of the decrepit scrap heap crawled into my view as I looked straight ahead. I could see why I didn’t recognize the vehicle’s model. Nobody could. It was a rusty bucket with large rough patches at the hinges with only one person inside. It was still hot, but that wasn’t the reason all the windows were down; why shadows pooled in the seats like occupants. The driver leaned under the passenger window so I could see them smile. One hand on the steering wheel, the other moved methodically to the back of the seat between us. The shadows cloaked the stranger’s face from the streetlights in lazy waves as we continued. The shadows stayed eerily stagnate and refused all light. We didn’t speak, but the bloodshot eyes enticed me to ask for a ride. The longer I didn’t, that smile continued to widen as if I was grossly unaware of a looming catastrophe. It eventually seemed unnatural – murderous even. We sauntered, looking at each other until the street sign for the next intersection came into view. That’s when they drove away. I watched the glow of the unfamiliar rear lights disappear into the distance.
When I got to Penderson at the end of the Fiesta’s parking lot, I looked at my watch. I intended it to calm my beating heart; however, the more I looked – calculated – I became insanely suspicious, if not reasonably doubt, that I, was not going to make it on time.
It was not an instant epiphany; the belief in miracles, took me finding the humor in biblical text (if you believe there is such a thing) to see the difference between the divine and random remarkable concurrences. For example, Luke recounts when they were all headed to Jerusalem through Samaria and there were 10 lepers some distance away. When they called out to Jesus they said, “Jesus, Master, have mercy on us.” He heard their plea and healed all ten of them – told them to go tell the priest that they had been healed. As they believed leaving, headed to the priest as instructed, the further they ran, they were cleansed of their leprosy. In their haste, they ran off into the horizon and never looked back. The story goes, one did come back, found Jesus, fell on his face at his savior’s feet and glorified the Son of God by thanking him. The first thing Jesus said while looking down upon the man wailing was, “I thought there were 10 of you.”
I passed over Sim’s Bayou on Cullen, looking at my watch every 15 steps, the panic still rising, but I’m talking it down with a confident reassurance that I had taken no missteps. Airport Blvd was my calculated halfway mark. I remember those next 15 steps crossing the intersection onto the sidewalk. I looked at my watch and finally accepted the truth in my suspicion. It was minutes before 3 a.m. I was supposed to be turning down E. Orem no later than 3 a.m. At that pace, E. Orem was more than 30 minutes away.No matter how I reasoned it, I could not, for the life of me, figure out how or where I had lost that much time. I weighed my options with a heavy breath. Then I ran. When I passed Apache Auto Parts, I was sprinting. Their junkyard is still surrounded by an ungodly towering tan wall. As cars passed me, a fine layer of soot and sand caked to my exposed skin and made it harder for me to breathe. It didn’t help that I was crying. I raced the last mile or so of that whole middle leg flat out until I was convinced that I was exhausted. Which was also the precise step I lost faith in ever getting to work on time. I think I was still crying with every intention to never stop when I looked at my watch. 3:29 a.m. The last 4 miles to go in 31 minutes. Impossible. I had made it to the edge of Schnur Park. The tears running down my face meddled with snot tasted like rubber and dirty salt. I stopped; walked two steps back home and stopped again; then two more steps across the street to catch my breath and to wait the next 2 hours for the first bus to come by; then two more steps toward E. Orem just to continue the journey anyway, but going that way felt stupid, and it made me angry. I threw my hands up in rebuke to ask why. Why rent was past due? Why had I come all this way? Why was I even born to go through shit like this? One last look at my watch to let the defeat cement, the green and white E. Orem street sign against the night dangling between two red lights. There was a donkey that lived in the pasture across the street from Schnur Park beside the Faith Tabernacle Church. That’s where I was imploding when the donkey, He-hawed as loud as a bull horn as if he knew the predicament I was in, found it amusing, and wanted everyone to mock me too. It just made me even more frustrated. On top of realizing what an embarrassment I was, I began to doubt, everything. Just as I turned to face defeat, the last leg of the journey I’d never complete, I looked toward the church and saw a bright light, so bright I could not ignore it. It was a miracle or rather the invitation to believe in one. THE LORD WON’T GIVE YOU MORE THAN YOU CAN HANDLE. As soon as I read it, I laughed. Loudly and full of breath. Sir, for one, I’m not about to split 4 consecutive sub-8-minute miles, and if I did, I would end up dead – not at my destination. Secondly, Sir, you know I’m a failure and the easiest thing for me to do at this moment is to deal with the ramifications of my fate. Furthermore, how do you know what I can’t handle? I had just crossed that threshold. I’m already useless – already hopeless.
Sure, I believed in miracles before that moment; people walking on water, bringing the dead back to life, but there was no way I was going to get to work on time. My rationale was sound; yet, invocative of the very essence one must believe in if they believe in miracles. If you believe in miracles; essentially, you cannot have doubt. This was that; no-matter-what scenario. Not fast but, pacing and looking at my watch tick second by second, for no reason other than waiting on something unimaginable to happen, felt maddening . My panic tying to puzzle out the powers of God. I was walking on water at this point. The waves uncertain beneath my feet. The doubt suffocating the belief. That didn’t stop me. My life had made me acquainted with failure and the feeling of it. If anything, I was approaching an affirmation of what I already knew my life to be. Walking in the dark down E. Orem, I hit the beginning of Colina Homes, a stretch of houses that border one side of the street that also duck off into deeper parts. A sub-audible voice spoke to me, Hold on, help is on the way, soft and omnipotent, schizophrenic. Then, ask for a ride. It was almost 4 a.m. Nobody was around. I didn’t question it; that would have been clinical. When I’d given up listening to the voice, I only had 5 minutes left. I looked up and saw the burning cherry of a cigarette underneath a porch awning behind blackness. I yelled out to the darker shadow of the man, ‘Hey!’ He jumped as if I’d scared him. ‘Hey—hey! I don’t want any problems!’ I stepped into the orange silo under the streetlight with my hands raised above my head when the man, shirtless, finally perceived me. Only then did his hand move slowly away from his lap.
What do you want?
Just wanna know if I can get a ride to work. I’m running late. Maybe you can help me?
Where you work?
FedEx. Over the bridge down E. Orem. The man took another drag as I kept my hands raised.
Hell, why not? I can’t sleep anyway, been up all night. Jump in the back of the truck. When do you need to be there?
I looked at my watch, In 4 minutes.
I gotta get my keys. I’ll have you there on time.
It was an old farm truck, one of several cars parked in the driveway, the last one to pull in. I could tell he’d just cleaned it earlier that day. I took my sweaty shirt off and wiped the grit away from my face and arms, and with it – my tears. Climbed in and sat on the hump of the wheel until he came back out. He came out and started the engine without us speaking again. I laid down on the empty bed for a second shirtless. My naked back on the warm metal. As he pulled out and drove off, the rushing air cooled me. As we climbed over the E. Orem bridge going 90, I put my work shirt on, watching Sunnyside rise and sink beneath a black horizon.
That journey was spiritual just as much as it was physical. It made me realize why I’m a failure. Why my mother was and why I’ve never seen her give up – or give up on me. I realize living in failure allows one to see the real magic in life. No rocks, I say. I never saw the dark stranger or that man who gave me a ride again. I don’t even remember the house. Time made its changes. Faith Tabernacle closed. The miracle sign was torn down. McDonalds stayed poppin’. I kept that job until I found a full-time one during normal transit hours, but it took me walking for 9 months straight, 6 days a week. Yes – even in the rain.
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