Departures, Cont.

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Doors.jpg

III. Samedi

I woke up this morning, wrote, took a long shower and then dressed. I walked to a pâtisserie, ordered a pain au chocolat and a coffee (it's becoming a ritual) and thought mostly of my wife. I was watching the people come and go. I was watching the children here, lost in their strange freedom unlike anything I've ever known. They range the city--embracing, grazing, laughing.

When I was a kid in West Baltimore, the cops called this loitering. Childhood was a suspect class always bordering on the edge of the criminal. You play football on the traffic island and the cops chase you off. Never mind that it's the only long patch of green in your neighborhood. You fly your kites from the second level of Mondawmin Mall and the les gendarmes are in effect. Go back to watching the Wonder Years and dreaming. You nail a crate to a telephone pole, because all the courts near you have been stripped. The city doesn't send people to repair the courts, but to tear down your crate.

Perhaps somewhere in Paris it is the same. But what I have seen is a place with a different sense of the Public, with children loosed in such a way that I have not seen even in wealthy areas. In America you structure the lives of your children, or they will be structured by the hands of all you fear. A child's mind is naturally devilish and needs correction even more than safety.

But I was in the pâtisserie thinking of my wife, who beat me here by seven wise years because she is a woman whose vision sends me to sonnage. I have always been a simple man, and left to my devices, my guiding principles would revolve around warm snugglies, Word of Warcraft and intravenous pizza. Except that I have never really walked alone. Instead, I've been surrounded by people who insisted upon other languages. When I was nine my mother remanded to the tender clutches of a man who taught swimming out in the county in his back yard. On the first day I learned to hold my breath. On the second I floated. On the third I front crawled. On the fourth, I cried as he tossed me into the deep end over and over. And on the fifth, I crawled in the deep end, and it was all I ever wanted.

I think now that violence is my first language, the one I truly respect and understand. Learning through immersion is a kind of violence, a humiliation, a shaming which you must embrace as sure as I had to embrace what looked to me like infinite depths. I earned everything I have under the gun, or with a foot in my ass. My older brother and my father sent me out in the streets. They would not live me alone with D&D and my collection of X-Factor. I had to know the culture of the community in which I lived. And I acquired it violently. I came to West Baltimore illiterate, and came out -- not a poet -- but fluent just the same.

When I was 17 mother forced me out that fluency, out of Baltimore, into the Mecca of Howard University. Why should I want to go? What was out there but strange people, wild customs and gruesome words. But they pushed me and I learned that Black is a country--that there is West Baltimore and there is Jack and Jill, that there are two South Sides of Chicago, that there are Trinidadians with their own rendition of blackness, and Ghanians with another, and though none match mine, all are real.

Being shaped by the deep end, it is perhaps natural that I would spend the lions share of my adult in the company of a woman who pushes. I never wanted to come to New York--a city which I knew was the pinnacle of discomfort and interpersonal low-grade war. But Kenyatta, worn down, as black girls will be, by closed minds and bourgeoisie orders, by Chicago in its jheri curled and high yellow Vanity years, had long dreamed of getting out. This is the difference between us I was always pushed, but never rejected. The people I grew up around never looked at the color of my skin and thought "You're not good enough." If anything they looked at me and thought "Why aren't you better?"

This sense of rejection powers most of my New York friends. They come to the city fleeing home, looking for some place that will accept them in all their weird ways. I don't know how this happened, but in Baltimore I felt both weird and accepted and so I missed the wisdom that comes with being outcast, with having a burning need to strike out. And so I came to New York uncivilized, with my wife seeing things which I could not, and me falling in love with things which she'd discovered at half my age.

She went to Paris in 2006. I had no interest. Why? More strange people. More strange words. But she came back with these pictures. The pictures were of great doors -- wooden doors, painted green, blue and brown. Their sheer size made you wonder what was inside.

I thought of her while sitting in the pâtisserie at the corner at the corner of Boulevard Raspail, wondering how she felt here, watching the knowing people come and go.

"You will love it," she told me. "Because you love old things."

"You will love it," she said. "Go."

So I am here now, far from home, an iPhone my only tricorder, on a planet with no regard for the comforts of Class M. I do not love it anymore than I loved New York, than I loved learning to swim, than I loved learning to write, than I loved my folk. I hate being alone. I hate the unfamiliar. I want burgers, fries and beer. And I want it English. Somewhere, I am convinced, that there is a man who lives just like that. But all my baptisms are bloody, and I know now that whether I love is pointless. I know that I could, because I've loved difficult things before. Even now part of me is blooming, leaning toward another language, angling against home.

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Ta-Nehisi Coates is a national correspondent at The Atlantic, where he writes about culture, politics, and social issues. He is the author of the memoir The Beautiful Struggle. More

Born in 1975, the product of two beautiful parents. Raised in West Baltimore -- not quite The Wire, but sometimes ill all the same. Studied at the Mecca for some years in the mid-'90s. Emerged with a purpose, if not a degree. Slowly migrated up the East Coast with a baby and my beloved, until I reached the shores of Harlem. Wrote some stuff along the way.

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