Rembert Explains America: This Is the End, Based FriendRembert Browne
The kids are back in school, so it’s time to wrap this up. Instead of the original plan of writing a sixth grade–style manifesto titled “This Is What I Learned This Summer,” here are five stories that happened along the way. Think of it as a Captain’s Log for someone with zero nautical knowledge and a penchant for injecting himself into stories. That’s it. Thanks for reading all summer.
A Based Breakfast in Berkeley
My friend Jesse was going on and on about this place called Ann’s Kitchen. I really wanted to get on the road, but a good meal before a ride up the California coast from Berkeley to Oregon sounded perfect.
We were greeted by a standard breakfast spot with long-table cafeteria seating lining most of the restaurant. Standing in line, I glanced to the right and froze.
I froze because all I could see was the back of a man’s head, and I knew exactly who that man was, but it didn’t seem like anyone else did.
And only 10 feet away from where I sneakily took pictures of him, he ate a very large pancake while reading a book about green energy.
I didn’t know what to do. All of my “I never get starstruck” feelings had swan-dived out the window. I tried to take the perfect picture when he faced me. I even considered asking him for a photo with me.
As I let people cut me in line, so as to not lose my angle observing The Based God, he looked my way, staring directly at me, and said — to me and only me — “How are you?”
I shoved my phone in my pocket and nodded my head. “Good, thanks.”
Throughout this, Ann’s Kitchen was operating at a respectable coffee shop volume. He smiled and put his head back down. I got back in line, embarrassed that I’d even pulled out my phone in the first place. But I was still completely blown away by this guy having such a normal morning.
I tried to see more specifically what he was reading. And then, again, he looked up, right at me. I knew he knew that I knew who he was. Wait, is he offering his seat to me with his eyes? Maybe he knows who I am? I have, after all, written many things about him over the years. Or maybe it was just the tie-dye shirt that was luring him in. Hold up, what are my legs doing? I did not instruct them to move. Rembert, where are you going?
And just like that, I was suddenly sitting in the chair across from Lil B, beginning one of the most interesting 15-minute conversations of my life.
All he wanted to do was ask me questions. He asked what I was doing in Berkeley, I told him about the road trip. He asked me how long I’d been on the road trip, I told him a few months, which caused him to ask where I’d stopped along the way. My answer involved the naming of a few festivals, which caused him to ask what type of music I was currently listening to. It went on like this.
It was amazing. The two friends I had come to breakfast with ordered, got their food, and sat right next to us. At the time they had no idea who I was talking to, and I hadn’t the first care in the world that I was ignoring them.
After our conversation, Brandon (which is how I addressed him from time to time) said in a meek, calm demeanor that we should exchange information. And that I should let him know next time I was in Berkeley.
Suddenly, just like that, he and his green energy book were gone and I was finally ordering breakfast, with Lil B’s cell phone number and e-mail address in my pocket.
Life is weird. As you get older, you’re typically disappointed by your heroes and most fascinated by the oddballs who prove to be shockingly normal. The latter was certainly the case in Berkeley that morning, over pancakes and green energy textbooks.
Proudly Regressing in Chicago
A fat tear fell from my eye. Because I was hurt. But also because I was triumphantly cackling as if I’d just struck oil.
For the past 30 minutes, I’d barricaded myself in a series of bathrooms on Michigan Avenue in Chicago, attempting to get a Lollapalooza wristband originally intended for a petite woman around my four large fingers and suddenly very opposable thumb.
It’s the pass-back. This concept is not new, most likely created by a 16-year-old some 800 years ago, used to share means of identification and gain access to places that you were not invited to or permitted to enter. I’d like to think we’ve all done it, but hopefully with a decreasing necessity as we get older.
This Saturday, however, all that stood between me and a fun-filled afternoon at Lollapalooza was the wristband equivalent of fitting a rhombus into a circle.
Each establishment required the same intro: walk in, buy drink, ask bartender if he’ll watch my stuff, run up to bathroom and try to use lubricating substances to slide wristband over hand, fail, pout-walk back to bar, chug drink, pay, leave. In the fourth bathroom I tried, there was no lock on the door. It was a big restroom with multiple stalls and sinks.
I knew I needed to get this on before someone walked in. This bathroom had both liquid soap and lotion, and I knew if I couldn’t make it work with these tools, I’d just give up, return the wristband to my friend, and take a long nap in the grass outside of Grant Park while the floaty sounds of Ellie Goulding reverberated through the air.
After a few minutes of struggle, it seemed to be working. The wristband was sliding down my hand. At that point, of course, someone walked in, looked at me confused as I dipped my arm into the sink, and then made his way to a stall. Right then, once his door closed, I pulled down on the wristband as hard as I could. I knew, based on how hard I was yanking, that it would either work — potentially dislocating my thumb — or the wristband would tear in half.
Screaming into my biceps, I pulled. And somehow, it made it over the last hand hurdle. It was on my wrist.
I couldn’t move my thumb, and the backside of my hand looked like I’d pressed it against a cheese grater for two hours. But it was on.
As I walked back to meet my friends, a phrase was repeating in my head: “How old am I?” I was giving myself some serious maturity side-eye, but I was also prouder than ever.
Snap Back to Reality
We’d had a fairy-tale trip for two young black men driving through the South and Southwest. In Louisiana, we were right at home, soaking up everything that the Essence Music Festival had to offer. And in Texas, we were met with little to no resistance, except for the occasional stares in Dallas’s wealthy Highland Park Village and the hamlet of White Settlement, some of which were rude and others completely warranted.
By the time we arrived in New Mexico, we genuinely felt as if we owned America. We’d developed a very real sense of belonging, even as visitors. We were doing whatever we wanted, however we wanted, continuing to dress and talk in the way that we always did, which, again, was exactly how we wanted.
My friend Graham and I were privileged to be years past the code switch, attributed to years of highly integrated schools, organically diverse friend groups and work environments, a certain degree of success in myriad social situations, and a dash of ego. It’s one of the things that brought the two of us together over the years. So in driving around the country together, we were pleased to know we could continue to be ourselves, even in some historically unfriendly areas.
Leaving the International Space Hall of Fame in Alamogordo, New Mexico, I pulled out of the parking lot and headed to the highway. About a minute into the drive, flashing lights appeared in the rearview. I groaned but quickly pulled over. And for the first time in my life, I wasn’t scared. In part because I wasn’t alone, but also because the high that we were riding convinced me that everything would be all right.
We sat in the car, joking, as the police officer walked up to the window. He didn’t seem happy but he certainly wasn’t upset. Apparently I was going nine miles per hour over the speed limit. He asked where we were coming from and where we were headed, and I explained to him the complicated nature of the trip and asked him for directions to our next stop. He outlined the best way to head to the White Sands National Monument and simply told us to slow down, because the speed limit was low all the way there.
And then he let us go.
As he walked back to his police car, Graham and I gave each other a Well, that’s never happened look and slowly drove all the way to our destination. Somehow, our high got higher.
After hours of frolicking in the dunes of the White Sands, we headed to our nighttime destination, Albuquerque. To that point, we’d done a great job of avoiding night driving — one of my only rules of the trip — but the sun was rapidly setting and we still had a few hours left.
In the passenger seat checking Twitter, Graham saw that the verdict in the Trayvon Martin case would be announced at any moment. We turned off the music, flipping to a news channel for the first time on our trip, and began listening.
George Zimmerman. Not guilty. All charges.
We sat in silence, listening to the verdict over and over again. We couldn’t speak. Because there was nothing to say. Without asking, I knew we had the same thoughts running through our minds — getting pulled over hours earlier, the way we were dressed, frequently walking at night in unfamiliar places, being black and male in this country. Immediately, everything about our trip had changed.
The high was gone. The carefree existence was no more. The stares were harder to shrug off. The suspicion grew. And the confident and friendly banter with anyone and everyone was temporarily put on hold.
It brought us back to earth, two grown black men who, when we shave, don’t look much older than Trayvon. Who knows if it was the reality check we needed. But it’s the one we got.
Completing the Scavenger Hunt
The idea of a scavenger hunt was simultaneously one of the smartest and most deceptive things I’ve done in some time. This list of items, all of which I’d love to have, were really never that important to me. Yes, in the beginning, I did think there was a chance I could get everything. But within a few days, I knew that wouldn’t happen. And that was just fine. Because regardless of the items actually acquired, the real function of the hunt was working: meeting the type of people who would have said items.
It’s hard to facilitate random meetings. Not impossible, but challenging. Thankfully, through a series of hunt-and-trade exchanges, I found an organic way to make some real connections.
Trading my beloved VHS of the Michael Jordan vs. Martin and Charlie Sheen television special for a 100-plus-year-old “Key to the City of Memphis” with Jason Wexler, the COO of the Memphis Grizzlies, led to a two-hour conversation about urban renewal and the developmental history of downtown Memphis.
Brad had a ’96 Olympics snapback and shirt, which I gladly accepted in exchange for a complete set of mid-’90s NBA stickers. It was a great exchange overshadowed by our hour-long brunch in Madison Heights, Michigan. It started with laughs and ended with mostly laughs, but also with a necessary conversation about the reality that is feeling lost in your twenties.
My guy Greg brought his Jodeci shirt to work in hopes of just giving it to me. He wound up returning to his desk with a baby-blue three-piece mesh outfit that I’d worn at Essence. Again, I was floored to now own this shirt, and he was taken aback by the amount of barbecues he could now walk into like a king. But the items were overshadowed by our initial encounter, when my excitement over seeing him on the corner caused me to hop out of the car, forget to take the car out of drive, and nearly run over my leg. And then we laughed about it for the next 15 minutes.
These random meet-ups — some planned in advance, others coming together just minutes before they took place — were one of the ways I dealt with a degree of intense, often debilitating loneliness I may never encounter again. Like going to a Brad Paisley concert with a couple I randomly met on Twitter that day, and then continuing to keep up with them for the remainder of the trip. Or challenging the city of Nashville to a tennis match, and then winding up across the net from Michael Retta, member of the Vanderbilt men’s tennis team, who proceeded to run me from side to side, eat dinner with me and some of his boys, and then give me a Vandy tennis shirt that I wore twice a week for the remainder of the trip.
Or simply taking some of those Internet relationships offline, and actually finding out if that Twitter rapport you’ve developed over months and years can translate when you’re sitting at a bar together.
And loving the fact that it often does. Sometimes it even exceeds expectations.
It became clear that it wasn’t the items I was after. It was people. Good people. And while sometimes hard to find, they’re everywhere. Sometimes it just takes a Bobby Hurley jersey or a Jodeci shirt to lure them your way.
Real World: Back to New York
Being this age and this complexion, with these clothes and that car, often alone but sometimes with even more eyebrow-raising company, made for an interesting summer. I left New York in June sort of hoping to find a reason not to come back.
It was the four-year itch. After high school and college, we’re conditioned to think it’s time to do something else after four years in the same place. And here I was, leaving for the summer, right at the end of my fourth year.
I was running away. Because I didn’t know what else to do.
But then, three months later, after 20,000 miles and 43 states, I was on the train back to New York City. For good. For now.
I don’t know why I’m back just yet, and I’m not entirely sure I’m happy. But I know this is still where I need to be. I’m not done with her yet. On that train, after existing in habitats that offered a far more reasonable quality of life, I was picking out New York neighborhoods where I could find a one-bedroom apartment. After reconnecting with “driving a car” in a serious, almost relationship-esque way, I was antsy about the prospect of riding the A train from West 4th to 125th Street, timing the warp-speed nature of the trek like I always had. And even though a summer away really makes it clear which people in your life you actually miss — rather than the ones you text out of some sense of required dialogue — I was ready to be back in this sea of humans that I mostly love.
Seeing it all, and then moving back to New York. That’s probably the one thing I can’t come close to explaining about my time in the United States of America.
But with the running away, the search for people, the hesitation of growing up, the loneliness — I knew I’d left New York looking to fill a void. Now that I’m back, it’s time to figure out what that was.