He has a mixtape in 1986 because cassettes never felt right to him, not after records, whose motions you can feel and control. The dual spin of spiked wheels that stretch on into eternity whether you want them to or not, it doesn’t sit right with him. He hasn’t left New Haven in years, for acclimation saps enough energy without having to deal with reentry. He doesn’t go back to the Bronx. Cadillac said would pave the way to the final frontier and he did, in a way, with the quietest handhold on the hip hop recording industry in the five boroughs: all home grown artists, boys, and girls even, making strides, on his own terms, and isn’t that a kind of pioneering?
He doesn’t go back to the Bronx.
After half a year in traction and another ten years pinned beneath medical debt, because getting clipped by a train is no small goddamn feat, Dizzee hauls himself up and back into the black just in time for the Crisis to hit the village, where he and Thor shared a life for the past fifteen years. Still in a gut trap flophouse that sixteen year old Thor squatted in when his stepdad said no faggot offspring of mine will live under this roof, but now Dizzee and Thor have made it a home with hot water and proper furniture and Sunday evening dinners open to one and all. Boo Boo begs them to fly out to the Caribbean and stay with him for a while, but Thor refuses to leave the home that took him in when he had no one and Dizzee refuses to leave the home that he chose even when he had everyone. They weather the storm together, watching their friends dwindle and the hedge fund predators snatch up vacant apartments barely cold from their owners’ graves and by the time the nineties and the yuppies roll in, their neighborhood no longer resembles the village they knew, but where else would they go? Still on Pier 34, now surrounded by galleries and glass boxes in the sky filled with lackluster art and computers, but their art stays. Thor has his galleries and Dizzee is in his, but their couch always remains open to any new orphan.
He doesn’t go back to the Bronx.
New Haven is cold and sterile; concrete and marble. He buries himself in studies and calls his Aunt Wanda. He doesn’t think about Shaolin. He studies for midterms and joins the crew team and calls Mylene and has his appendix out and scribbles a mixtape on the back of a hospital tray while the morphine wears off, which he smuggles out under his coat and doesn’t touch again until senior year, dusting it off in the back of his closet while looking for spare typewriter ribbon because his thesis is due tomorrow—
There's a campus radio station at the far edge of the grid. Bribing the DJ (who doesn’t deserve the title) is easy, at 4am, and he pours out his soul and doesn’t think about Shaolin and apologizes to Papa Fuerte for missing his funeral the year before, but heart attacks they come and go, like the one Zeke had last year when Mylene showed up at his door ( I have two days off before the Asia tour!) and the other when Mr. Kipling had a stroke and now uses a cane to punctuate the words that the left side of his face won’t support, and then it’s 8am and he runs home to finish typing the bibliography and slide his thesis under the door of his advisor’s office. He’s being dramatic. He could’ve opened the door and dropped it off in person. But the tape in his pocket is burning a hole through his heart. He stuffs it and the hospital tray scribbled with lyrics in the bottom of his suitcase and doesn’t think about Shaolin.
He doesn’t go back to the Bronx.
Because Ra Ra is in real estate and now owns half the old neighborhood, he keeps tabs on things. He doesn’t give Zeke shit for not coming home, but he won’t pass up a chance to let home come to him. Even when Zeke goes out to Berkeley for a doctorate where he splits time between Mylene’s Malibu home and his shitty grad student dorm in Oakland, he comes home on his birthday to find his common room chock full of Kipling siblings and spouses and, in Boo Boo’s case, children. It’s a stupidly fun night. Zeke spends most of it blinking back tears while everyone else exchanges money for how many times will Zeke cry bingo. Thor is so thin that they worry he's got it but it’s just the flu, but Yolanda is diagnosed with cancer the next year and Zeke spends most of his weekends in the waiting room of the chemo place with a pile of books across his knees, ostensibly searching for scholarly data but really scratching rhymes in the margins of moldy paperbacks. Mylene takes the day shifts with Yolanda, recording her solo album during nights. Regina is on her third husband and fifth cabaret contract. She moves out to Vegas the next year for a solo residency gig with everyone’s blessing, though he suspects there’s bitterness that will never truly heal— but the girls still go out there every New Year’s, so what does he know. What does he know of bitterness. Ra Ra tells him obliquely of Shaolin’s doings — Les Inferno burned down, but a second location opened up under new management, L’asphodèle — there’s a new DJ coming up in Yonkers — Cadillac never collabs with anyone north of Van Cortlandt but it seems he’s willing to make an exception. Zeke graduates as a Doctor of Political Science and crosses that stage in his ludicrous robes and thinks of being on another stage with Shaolin.
He sends his demo off in a manila envelope that night while he’s still drunk off celebration shots, before he loses his nerve. Mylene calls him from Hong Kong. We’ll celebrate next month! He surprises her with a trip to Hawaii. They conceive their first child there (he thinks) and get engaged (she cries). For once, he’s not the one crying. Boo Boo cries the loudest, later, on the phone, and overnights an entire nursery set. He sends a polaroid of the guest room in his house he redecorated with a crib. Dizzee’s congrats are milder, a veteran parent who’s raised no less than fifteen homeless fledglings with Thor at this point, but no less meaningful as Zeke blurts, What if I’m bad at it? to which Dizzee responds in his dry way, You’re too brave to be bad at it.
He doesn’t go back to the Bronx, even when Fat Annie dies in 2006, after clawing her hateful self through ten years of a bedridden vegetative state. He lights a fucking effigy in dishonor of her finally leaving this goddamn earth, and doesn’t call Shaolin. Ra Ra tells him that Cadillac’s top DJ never records with the same MC twice. Ra Ra tells him, You come back to Manhattan at least once a year, what’ll it hurt you to cross the river but it will hurt. Leon’s gone, Wanda’s in Jersey with her sister, Yolanda’s living in Vancouver with her wife and obstetrics practice. Zeke’s run over a dozen political campaigns, because he never quite expects the MC thing to last—like someday he’ll just wake up and it’ll all be curling up in flames on a dime, like Shaolin’s first record collection. But he’s been on the scene so long now that kids are sampling his rhymes and putting new beats on them on streaming sites —
Isn’t that something?
He’s doing another show at MSG, so routine now that he forgets what year it is: the same mounted TVs in the dressing room with the ticker tape crawling along the bottom of CNN, the same outrage over the rich fucking the poor, the same pundits arguing over who deserves rights and who doesn’t, and he finds himself on the 2, now graffiti free inside and out, same orange seats in a different arrangement, same windows that let the sunlight stab in once they emerge aboveground. His feet know where to go, thanks to Ra Ra’s relentless reconciliation campaign that’s spanned over thirty years. Zeke and Boo Boo are both funding youth programs up here now (no unpaid internships), but it still makes Zeke itchy under the collar. He drops change into every busker’s cap along the way. He’s only recognized a couple times. One bold young girl asks for not his autograph, his advice to which he tells her to be all heart, except when you need to follow your head.
He knocks on the door, less boldly than he’d like to admit. It’s a decent neighborhood now. The building’s nothing special, but clean and full of families. The door opens without a chain catching nor leaving time to look through a peephole — at this point, who does Shaolin have to fear? — and his watch beeps 3pm on the dot.
Shaolin regards him for a moment, eyes traveling up the expanse of several lifetimes. “I listened to your tapes, man,” he says.