I’m in Houston. I am employed but not employed. It is the summer of 2022. I say that I am employed because I am an adjunct professor, but there are no classes for me in May and June. At first, this felt like a strange sabbatical. I caught up with family and friends, caught up with acquaintances, caught up with lovers, caught up with life. After the entirety of a month, my savings began to significantly decrease. The strange sabbatical turned into a strange survival. Gas increased, and so did the relentless urge to leave the room I rented. You see, I had made a gamble. I used to teach in Brownsville for a unique shelter for immigrant children called Southwest key. That is another essay altogether, but I decided to continue my education career and moved to Houston to teach at Houston Community College. That meant I moved greatly depending on the money I had saved up until then.
With the glaze of summer comes the actual reality of a hot scorching sun. I survived working part-time thanks to the savings I did not know I would depend on for survival. After the trips to Galveston beach, nightly outings to bars, dates, kickbacks, my days dwindled down to finding a part-time job. There’s only so much you could do to distract yourself from the rising waters of worries, especially with a budget. Day after day, I applied online to Tutor positions, Substitute positions, until finally I began to look into working at movie theaters until classes began again.
On one of these days, I was in my small room staring at the only window I have. In between the blinds and the glass, there stands my English Ivy plant in a blue pot next to a snake plant that my sister had sent me from Brownsville, Texas, as a house, or should I say, room-warming gift. The plants stand there looking out, and when I am staring at the window from my desk, all three of us observe the daylight pass.
It was on one of those days that I felt I needed to go back on James Baldwin. I had just finished reading Albert Camus’ The Stranger. It was time to decide now on which book I was to spend the rest of my summer on. It is a difficult choice to make, to choose your summer companion.
I had read Giovanni’s Room a year before. It was then that I fell for James Baldwin and his words. I found his entire life fascinating. Moments like how he had legendarily won a standing ovation in his debate against William F. Buckley made it astounding to know that an individual like him existed before. The fact that he was able to do this as a black man in the 60s when white supremacists did their absolute best to stop that from happening was incredible, but that also he was an openly gay black man was downright titan-like.
I shamefully must confess that as a gay man, I do not read much gay books or short stories. I write them, but there are so many books and so little time. And there is also the unforgettable fact that we are still being banned and pushed down across the country. Giovanni’s Room, though, was one of the first books I read where I found us to exist in the pages of a book.
It is through Baldwin’s writing that one can sense the giant cross he was born with. The cross he carried for the rest of his life. The pain and suffering of being a civil rights and queer rights activist. The pain and suffering of simply being born Black and being born gay. Ever heavier, when the FBI had the nails and hammer patiently waiting to crucify. From 1963 to 1973, Baldwin was harassed by Hoover and his racist, homophobic FBI.
More and more, one can begin to understand why he moved to France. And things have not changed much. We want to move out of this country still with what we’ve witnessed recently. After January 6. After the Don’t Say Gay Bill. After Uvalde. After the planned overturn of Roe. Vs. Wade.
But I digress, I was in search of Baldwin again. I did not want to buy a Baldwin book from Amazon because I was reminded from a podcast that it is now more important than ever to support our local bookstores.
The next day I headed first to the free HIV clinic in Montrose because two weeks prior, I had unsafe sex with a young man in the neighborhood where I lived. It happens. Sometimes you trust a partner enough to have unprotected sex. Yet, there is always that duty for yourself and others we must maintain, to keep ourselves informed in all aspects. That goes for the heteros too. There is power in knowing.
The clinic was full. I waited on the only available chair. There is something about the summer that has everyone waiting for STD results at the AHF Wellness Center, an STD clinic centered to LGBTQ but open for everyone. Straights. Queers. Everyone was there that hot summer morning like some sort of coalition rally.
After thirty minutes and an altercation between a woman and a man giving the receptionist a hard time because of “service,” my number was finally called. Number 27.
The man and women were together. I walked past the girlfriend who was explaining to the agitated man to relax, that it was a free clinic, that they didn’t have insurance, something along the lines of beggars cannot be choosers. I agreed with her in my mind because I too didn’t have insurance. We know the deal, but I can understand where the young man was coming from. It was probably his first time here, from what I was hearing. All his life used to non-queer establishments, non-queer clinics; he had options if the “service here sucked.” It is hard for him to see the help that these LGBTQ clinics offer, other than free unstigmatized HIV and STD screenings. A place where our natural existence is not seen as abnormal, where we are known, where we are seen and not denied. Baldwin would have been happy to see the day.
There is silence as I take a seat in the nurse’s room. He’s taking out the rapid antibody screening test. I stretch out my arm, and as he is pricking my finger to draw the blood, I stare at his brown arms, then my eyes go towards his until I look away. Every time, I begin to imagine the scenario in which the test comes out positive. Every time, I know that in a couple of minutes, my life could change. It could change, I remind myself, but not be destroyed. I begin to play random facts on my mind, how HIV status is no longer a death sentence, how there is a pill that allows you to be undetected and live a long normal life. What would I tell my mother and father who do not know these random facts?
I don’t look at the little square where my drop of blood was dropped. The nurse is waiting to see what color it will change into, indicating a positive or negative. I don’t look because there is a vague superstition that if I pay attention, it might affect the color.
“Alright, you’re negative,” the nurse says and begins to input something into the computer.
I feel I had been off somewhere and got back to my own body. Always there is this feeling of gratitude, of having a burden taken off, but an inescapable thought follows too. There are others after me and before who will walk out of the clinic with a positive. It almost feels like a crime to smile after my results, at least until I leave the clinic.
After all of this, finally I continue my quest for Baldwin. I headed first to the nearest bookstore, Quarter Price Books, the self-called “Headquarters for Thinkers”. The name intrigued me. Also, the thought of buying a used book is far more interesting than buying a new one. The knowledge is passed on, the history of the object continues, lives another life. I was welcomed by an old white gentleman sitting behind the counter. I thanked him and continued into the small maze of tall shelves in which every level was tagged by a sticky note detailing the genre, the topics, the subject—from psychology, coffee table books, to fiction and nonfiction. It was not until I arrived at the fiction aisle that I was confused. I passed the Horror sticky notes, the Sci-fi, the World’s Greatest Books, Fantasy, Drama, Essays, all the aisles. No sign of Baldwin. Then that confusion alighted lightly into disappointment like a fine mist. No Hispanic or Latino authors. No “foreign” names in the spines of the books other than Tolstoy. I walked again by the entire maze of books. How is even, novelist, essayist, critic, James Baldwin not housed in the Headquarters for Thinkers. I took a deep sigh and observed the other people walking in this maze. Were they also searching for something “other”?
“Thank you,” I nodded to the old man as I walked out empty-handed.
My search continued. I went to the other bookstore in the vicinity, Murder By The Book. I was welcomed in again. I approached their bookshelves, scanning for Baldwin until I made my way into the largest aisle of the store. The American section. What can be more American than a novel by James Baldwin. Finally, I found a book that said James on the spine but ended with Patterson. The search for Baldwin now became a search for my own people in this ‘American” aisle or anything other than white writers. I looked book by book, donde esta nuestra gente? Mexican American? African American? Asian American, AnyEhnicity-American? I got excited when I saw the word Cartel on a book, but it was written by another white writer. I looked around me. I could have asked the man at the register, but I don’t know why I felt shy. He seemed nice, but I was afraid of the answer. If I had asked him, “Do you have any ethnic writers? Or Do you have any James Baldwin books?” I didn’t want him to know the bookstore had failed this customer; for some reason, reluctant to disappoint him even if I had been the one disappointed.
I noticed most of the books they sold here were new or newish. I tried looking for Sylvia Moreno-Garcia, and her Mexican Gothic or Velvet Was the Night. I went to their Staff Picked bookshelf. I found something similar but not quite. The Hacienda by Isabel Canas. I touched it, held it in my hands. It was nice to know that at least a staff member had put us on display. Next to the staff-picked shelf, there was an actual Foreign bookshelf. British writers. Spain. French. German.
I nodded at the man at the register and said thank you as I walked out. The next bookstore was Brazos Bookstore. I grudgingly went in just because it was on the same street. The books immediately on display–brown writers, black, white, gay, lesbian, queer, an actual rainbow coalition of books. I felt this was it. This bookstore had an actual sense of reality. Sylvia Moreno-Garcia’s Velvet Was the Night was there like fresh air. I made my way to the older sections, and behold, James Baldwin’s Fire Next Time displayed singularly in a section. I had been looking for a James Baldwin novel, but that did lift my spirits. I did not buy it because I had already read it, but the store reminded me that we were real, that I was real. I was too tired to continue the search.
You are going to hate me for this, but I ended up buying the James Baldwin Early Novels & Stories from Amazon. At least, Baldwin is there in all his forms, readily available for those who search. I understand that it is not solely the bookstores’ fault in our close to nonexistent presence on their bookshelves. Unfortunately, the publishing industry hardly takes bets on us. It is still under the notion that what will sell are white stories, and sure it made profits in the beginning, but now it is time to adapt to the times. That’s the thing; it has always been time since the inception of the publishing world, but better late than never. Perhaps, this late adaptation to reality is also a great factor in fixing the decline of the industry. We are seeing this shift in movies and television as well, but even there on the screen can be found this fear as in the publishing world, this resistance to inclusion in all things that are considered the ‘other.’ We don’t have to look so far; simply pay attention to the fandoms of Star Wars, Marvel or DC when a movie is suddenly perceived as ‘woke’ merely on the basis of including a brown or black character, especially if that said character is part of the LGBTQ community.
Still, even after Baldwin, the fight never ends. Bookstores take a gamble with other white archaic books and writers, and still, there is no gamble in anything else. Maybe the publishing world needs the forces behind the inclusion in the new Marvel and Disney films. Black Panther: Wakanda Forever, I’m talking about you.
As I continue to patiently wait to start teaching this semester, the solitude is not lonely with James Baldwin. After this, if I am looking for a new book, I will skip my trail of disappointment and head to los brazos habiertos de Brazos Bookstore or if in emergencies, I’ll make the capitalist beast of Amazon work for me.
Photo by Steve Johnson on Unsplash