Bernie Ebbers and the Temptations.
If you don’t give a heck about the man with the Bible in his hand. . . .
No. Not those temptations.
I mean The Temptations. And I am not talking about whoever is touring under the name today. I am talking about Melvin Franklin, Otis Williams, Paul Williams, Eddie Kendrick and David Ruffin. The real Temptations.
Having all, except for Otis Williams, moved on . . . .
I wonder if Bernie Ebbers, frowning and dour, white beard and cheap, stained raincoat, pushing his way past the TV cameras on the Manhattan sidewalk; I wonder if Bernie maybe just for a split second heard a street radio, that great bass line holding up the introduction so well that the tune immediately gets ingrained in your soul so deeply that you don’t even know how it got there; I wonder if Bernie heard the same song I did when I learned he’d been convicted and pronounced guilty on all counts; I wonder if Bernie heard:
“I got sunshine, on a cloudy day!”
And as we walked through the throng, his lawyers clearing a path, I wonder if Bernie looked up into the narrow band of New York City Sky; and saw all five original smiling Temptations on a floating Motown stage that hovered just in front and above Bernie Ebbers head, an unseen orchestra playing as the Temptations came alive above the packed and vibrating New York City street. Bernie watched them dance:
And when it’s cold outside.
I got the month of May.
I guess you say
What can make me feel this way?
As Bernie looked up, not really sure what he was seeing or why he was seeing it, he thought: “Nothing can surprise me now. I didn’t now it would all turn out this way. But nothing, nothing can surprise me now.
And who exactly are these five black men, all smiling, dressed in fine white silk suits?”
Bernie didn’t really even hear the shouts of the reporters and they all bounced into some unseen and unknown compartment in his brain. A compartment he kept locked. Forgetting long ago where he had hid the golden key. But he could hear the Temptations sing and he marveled at the unity in their dancing moves.
I got so much honey
The bees envy me
I got a sweeter song
Then the birds in the trees
I guess you say
What can make me feel this way. . . .
He watched the dancing spin like flowing silk. He was entranced that there was such unity. It was as if the dance and the tune and the words were all the same. Coursing like blood through some sort of larger life force, some sort of life force in the way those five men smiled and moved on that floating stage that hovered just above Bernie’s line of sight. He heard and watched them sing:
Talking bout my girl!
And as we was jarred into a back seat of a big black car, the 5 men who sang and danced with a unity of some sort of spirit Bernie had just never known before, the 5 men vanished---Bernie closed his eyes and heard only the sound of the bass—the lines “My girl” fading and then the bass rising again to a newer, even more powerful line.
The newer bass line rose into a groove that was even deeper, not loud---but deep. it was as if this single bass line packed the power of a locomotive, a brutal black metal, coal fueled fire box locomotive just like the one that ran between Winona Mississippi where Roebuck Staples was born in 1915; and Clinton Mississippi where in the late 1990’s most everyone worked for Bernie; a locomotive bass line, that just shook the earth---not from its noise---but from its simple power. And then the voice of old Pops Staples asking Bernie:
If you disrespect every body that you run in to
How in the world do you think anybody’s s’pose to respect you?
Bernie opened his eyes and the back seat of the New York town car was gone.
He was in the back yard of an old grey stone on the south side of Chicago. It was summer, lots of smiling. And on those two tables, heaping platters of fried chicken, ribs, and sausage, burgers and greens. Sweaty pitchers of lemonade. Kids shouting and that same song playing:
If you don’t give a heck about the man with the Bible in his hand
Just get out the way and let the gentleman do his thing.
Bernie shook his head, closed and then opened his eyes.
He could do this. He was good with new crowds. He could always sell. Always had. Always would.
That song kept coming:
You the kind of gentleman who want everything his way
Take the sheet off your face boy
It’s a brand new day.
Respect yourself. . . .
Bernie approached the wise old man who seemed to be at the center of all this. “Mavis” the man was shouting, “Cleotha, Yvone, come over here now!”---he was smiling, motioning over three women who Bernie guessed to be his daughters.
But as Bernie began to walk towards the man everybody was calling Pops, Bernie realized that no one could see him.
He reached out to pat a small, running child’s head and the child didn’t even look up! He said, “Good afternoon sir,” to a man drinking a cold beer and the man looked right through him!
Bernie tapped Mavis Staples on the shoulder where she stood listening to her father speak and Mavis didn’t even turn around!
Bernie Ebbers, totally alone.
He smelled the burgers on the grill. He could see the smiling, laughing people in what was a legendary Chicago back yard picnic at the Staples, he could hear that song (Respect yourself! Respect yourself!)
He was completely alone. No one knew he was there.
Bernie Ebbers felt himself began to break. He heard the bass line---
Bernie Ebbers thought he had known every kind of pain there was to know. He thought he’d faced the worst. He thought, none of this was really my fault.
But in that back yard on the south side of Chicago: realizing that, no one could see him. That he had no idea where he was. No idea how to get home to Mississippi. No notion of what do next.
Bernie Ebbers kept hearing the song (Respect yourself. Respect yourself) and he felt himself breaking into a shame that was new. A shame that came from no one being able to see him, No one even knowing he was there. Bernie Ebbers knew he would break and he would never even really know why.
He reached out his hands in shame, in terror and in total aloneness and he began to cry.
And just when he did:
Pops Staples handed him a heaping plate of chicken and burgers, beans and greens, looked at him with deep sad eyes and said,
“Son, respect yourself.”
About the Author
Roger Wright authors the Blog CHURCH FOOD.
He connects things in very strange ways.
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