This is the story of Francisco—pejoratively called Frankie, unbeknownst to him—the middle-aged, denim-jacketed, long-haired pseudo-revolutionary Executive Director of a small NGO singing songs and playing guitar with his little makeshift band of false rebels, primary among them the incomparable minion Sonya de la Torre on tambourine, the pride and joy princess fresh out of community college with fresh red lipstick and caked make-up, no one on harmony, just a couple other drifters in the room, together butchering “Blowin In The Wind” rather than engaging in budget negotiations that would keep the organization and its programs afloat while our “engagement specialist” sat at his desk trying to tune all that out-of-tune clanging. What can we do? Frankie’d (always) say (about every fucking thing). What more can I say, I ask, you, now? Some, seems, so I will.
I say “our” engagement specialist because I worked there, ostensibly for Frankie, but mostly against, eventually, after eight months or so of trying and trying and trying to work with. Frankie wasn’t much one for leadership, though I think he at least knew it’s a three-syllable word, the lea, the der, and the ship. I can’t say the same for the hype man who introduced this city’s notorious (now former) mayor—Daley—at a speaking engagement held in the beautiful banquet room of the Chicago Cultural Center, an engagement at which I was in attendance, ostensibly as part of my “job” “with” Frankie, as our organization had an interest in civics, you might say, dealing as we did in education and various types of programs for immigrants and refugees. The hype man, after some cursory adieu, told the small audience that (the then current) Mayor Daley could be described in “one word, two syllables: leadership.” I always thought that moment was something of the zeitgeist of my time with, for, and against Frankie.
Anyway, I say Frankie wasn’t much for leadership because he made it his very personal mission to avoid leading (two syllables). Or making decisions (three). And I don’t mean decisions about whether to have birthday cake in the “office”—some rented space in a church, basement (or basemant, if you asked Miss de la Torre to spell it; I could see basemint, maybe, but basemant?) and part of the first floor—when Nohemi, the janitor, a truly kind and benevolent woman of forty-fiveish, say, had a birthday. That much he would handle. No, the decisions from which Frankie curtly and inelegantly abstained were decisions about what to do. I mean what really to do. With and for (and apparently against) the organization under his charge. Strategic and financial and leadershipy things to ensure we had money to buy a birthday cake for poor, sweet Nohemi, and the poor, sweet rest of us, so bright-eyed and bushy-tailed about saving the world, not to mention saving basic shit like our jobs.
Frankie had bigger fish to fry than jobs, though. Bigger and better as in what he could do to make people think he was smart and cool and interesting, maybe even like him, since he had the distinct redolence of someone who most people in his life hadn’t. Was he misunderstood? Perhaps. Misfit? Surely. Misunderestimated, in the Frankie-esque vernacular of the U.S. President in office at the time? Absolutely. But not due to any complexity or aloofness or misidentified extraordinariness. The truth of the matter, and it pains me not at all to say this—only to have known him—was he was dull, dim, fearful yet prideful, ashamed yet arrogant, socially conscious yet completely oblivious, and childishly argumentative. It was all about him, in one way or another, the savior-confidant-captain, though more like a petulant child than a Sonya-princess, riddled with contradictions of the sort that just never could manage to color themselves endearing.
Once, for instance, I used the word “reprehensible” in an email to him one night describing how his failure to even seem to care about managing his budget led to several people not receiving paychecks. Without notice or explanation, these people just didn’t get paid, and he made no haste in rectifying the situation, telling them that these things happened, which apparently they did if you worked for him. But the thing that got him wasn’t being called on the issue at hand, as you might think, it was the word I used, and I later wondered what he thought it meant. So he wrote me back the next day (while working from home) with something to the effect that if I ever addressed him that way again, Our Great and Fearless One, my job may very well be in jeopardy. I thanked him, because it already was.
Just like I thanked him when we threw that little bday bash for poor, sweet Nohemi, instead of talking to the staff about the coming layoffs in what had been billed and arranged as a staff meeting. He simply dodged the issue as we all sat down together and sang a disjointed, uninspired “happy birthday” at that stupid little table in the stupid little makeshift kitchen, not so much pretending nothing was wrong as, I think, shrinking from that fact. He chatted and laughed awkwardly and avoided eye contact, made dim remarks about the cake and masticated cow-like in uncomfortable silences, enjoying his sweets like a scared little boy whose mother always got him out of situations with bullies or neighbors or his father, anyone who picked on him. I knew what was going on, and he knew I knew it, I know he knew it deep down, and for that he hated me.
So I said you know what, thanks, Frankie, this is some lovely cake we’re having instead of talking about important stuff like people’s jobs, working as we do for a social service organization, I’m glad we’re serving each other some cake. Social cake, maybe socialist, maybe communist (his proclaimed ideal socio-economic state was Cuba, presumably Castro’s). He did not take kindly to my remarks and only glared at me, or tried to, saying nothing, his mouth clenched, his dull eyes like they wanted to roll back into the dark caverns of his head. I was infuriated, enraged at the injustice, the ineptitude, the ignorance, the selfishness, the petulance, his stupid ponytail and denim jacket, Sonya’s lipstick, everything, and I left the room in a quiet inner boiling fury that this little nothing of a man was ever in charge of anything, even that little nothing of an organization with its nothing programs and nothing work. Thanks, Frankie, great cake. And that right there was my own little loss of perspective, because he was right where he belonged, doing precisely what he was born to do: nothing. I was the misfit.
So perhaps it shouldn’t have come to me as any flavor of surprise when I heard him downstairs clanging on his guitar and butchering Bob Dylan, no rhythm and completely off-key, even getting the lyrics wrong, with the incomparable Sonya de la Torre on tambourine and a homeless man Frankie thought “had insights” on harmonica and that odd dude from Nepal who had his own organization and was very pleasant but strange as fuck and sometimes for all intents and purposes shacked up in the downstairs wing of our lavish offices doing who knows what, probably smiling. I shouldn’t have thought it at all bizarre. But I did. What the fuck, I said to my office-mate and compatriot in astonishment, the Lebanese woman with whom I shared then-secret feelings. What the fuck is that imbecile doing now. Is he really down there singing that, with them, now, on a Tuesday, as we all secretly prepare to lose our jobs? Yes, she said, he is. And he sure as hell was.
“Yes’n how many times can a man turn his head / And pretend that he just doesn’t see….” I count twelve, and that’s probably being generous, especially with regards to the pretending—some people don’t see shit. Any more than twelve, though, and you’re just hiding, like Frankie did soon after we all lost our jobs. He even left the state, the dumbfuck. And where is he now? Surely not leading, not changing anything, just blowin in the wind and chang-changing on his trusty guitar, pouring out his revolutionary soul to all the vagrants and impressionable young princesses he can find, doing exactly what he’s meant to do. Which reminds me, makes me think: if soul can be said to be “nothing more metaphysical than the sum total of one person’s affect in the mind of another,” as Zadie put it, then perhaps he really has some, perhaps the soul question is not one of whether someone does or does not, not even the quality, but the nature of what they do.
God bless you, Frankie, you and your affects on the minds of others, good and bad. Here’s to inadvertently showing me something useful. I only hope you learned something too. No, no, that’s not true, it’s just an ending.