My first serious boyfriend was a guy named Pookie. Pookie wore a shoulder-length Jheri-curl shag — the ’80s black dude version of the mullet — and drove a Datsun 280ZX. Few things were as enjoyable to Pookie as an ice-cold 40 (or several) at the end of a long week.
I didn’t know him as Pookie, though. Pookie was his childhood nickname, the name only his mother and sisters called him at home. When I was around, his sisters, knowing how much “Pookie” embarrassed him, would try to call him by his given name, though they inevitably would slip up. But his mother would call out “Pooooo-kieeeeee!” as soon as we entered his parents’ house, whether she was on the top floor of their split-level ranch home, or standing three feet away from us.
I knew Pookie primarily by his government name. To preserve his privacy, I will refer to him as J. J was my main high school crush starting my freshman and his sophomore year of high school, but we didn’t begin dating until after I graduated, just before I entered the University of Michigan. J was an engineering major who earned money to pay for college by working weekends in his dad’s plumbing business. He had the technical skills to become a master plumber, and a passion for customer service that would have made him a great business owner. I used to ask him if he had ever considered taking over his dad’s business, instead of working as an engineer. But he hated having dirty fingernails. It was his one true sore spot. He said he felt embarrassed when we went to high-class places — places he wanted to take me — because his nails were perpetually filthy from plumbing work, no matter how much he scrubbed them. He wanted clean nails and a desk job.
Dressed in his plumber’s work clothes, his dirty fingernails resting comfortably on the label of a cold 40, my Pookie looked less like a college engineering student, and more like the “Pookie” of stereotypes and jokes — the nice guy on the corner who looked out for you when you were in third grade, then tried to holler at you when you walked past that same corner in sixth grade; who cussed you out for not smiling when he told you to when you were in eleventh grade, and who hits you up for a little bit of hopeful conversation (and maybe a little bit of change) when you pass by that corner now.
I’ve often joked, “I used to date Pookie,” because in many ways I did — and not just in name only. My Pookie didn’t hang out on the corner, but sometimes he would meet up with the fellas on the block and drink 40s. His block in northwest Detroit was much like the block I grew up on — transforming, as we grew up, from solid, working class black families to people dependent on government assistance as auto industry jobs moved overseas. And if you saw him on the block, in his plumber’s work pants, with his dirty nails, his curl and his 40, you would think “Pookie” and your mind would automatically fill in the rest.
J knew that.
During the years that we dated, J graduated from college and became an engineer. He outgrew the Jheri curl, but due to the nature of his job, he still wore work pants on occasion, and his nails were still sometimes dirty at the end of the day from the chemicals he worked with. To the unknowing, he could still present as Pookie. Once, he came to my office job still in his work clothes, and reeking of 40. He was a little loud, a little belligerent, a little inappropriate — a little too Pookie for that setting. One of my white male co-workers quietly pulled me aside and asked me if I was sure it was safe to leave with him.
“I’m not letting him drive,” I assured him. “We’ll take my car.”
When I saw the look on his face, I realized I had misunderstood my co-worker’s concern. He wasn’t worried about J driving while intoxicated. He was concerned about me leaving the building with what he perceived to be a Big Scary Negro. The moment gave me a small glimpse into J’s world. No matter how many degrees he got or how many nice cars he drove, for some people and in certain settings, he would always be Pookie.
I broke up with J while I was in law school, and lost contact with him after that. But whenever people joke about Pookie and his boy Ray Ray — and I have to admit, I am often the teller of the joke — I later find myself reflecting upon the men I grew up with: men like J and his father, my father and my brothers — the men who lived in what whites disdainfully refer to as “the ghetto” and elite blacks, with equal disdain, refer to as “the hood.” The “hood” of my childhood was a mix of solid, working-class families like my family and J’s families, whose kids were upwardly striving kids like J and myself — and their trifling ass cousins, Pookie and Ray Ray.
I knew those Pookies and Ray Rays. They were guys who stayed trying to put a couple dollars together — usually to get high. They were guys for whom the hustle was a way of life, who might get a piece of a job here or there but not keep it for long — but who were still decent enough to look out for the elders on the block, like my mom. Pookie and Ray Ray could be annoying, but they were the ones who would run to the store to play my mother’s Lotto numbers for her, or shovel her walk and her driveway when it snowed.
The Pookies and Ray Rays of my childhood were flawed, whole human beings who loved and worked and failed and succeeded, in big ways and small. They were, and are, complete people — not just shameful stereotypes.
It would serve us well if we stop acting ashamed of the Pookies in our community, or treating them as if they exist solely for our amusement. Perhaps we would have more compassion for these men, and be less embarrassed by them, if we embraced them and invited them to tell their own stories.
I’m sure some of you are wondering what happened to J. I wondered, too. I’d been Googling J for years, without success. Tonight, I believe I located him. In the interest of protecting his privacy, I won’t say where he is or what he’s doing. But he appears to be doing very, very well.
And I’m sure his sisters still slip up on occasion and call him Pookie.