At Coventry High School in the early 80s we had the pleasure of knowing of, but not knowing well, a handsome black student by the name of Kippy Wills. I do hope he wouldn’t mind me talking about him, as everything I say about him will be in the superlative. Kippy was the only black kid we had at Coventry High School. I don’t know that I managed to look up from my own navel-gazing long enough to honestly assess that, but I do remember joking about it later with friends. We had one black guy at school and his name was Kippy and he was adored by everyone, not just because he was so unique but because he also possessed the finest social skills I think anyone had seen at that age. Kippy was like a celebrity politician, his smile was winning, his behavior always marvelous. I have to admit that I didn’t really interact with him, as he was a bit younger, and he was a sports kid.
Full disclosure here, for me, high school was a kind of unmitigated torture. I hated it. I had breezed through all my schooling until about half-way through my senior year when it finally occurred to me that it didn’t matter. No one really seemed interested in what I was doing in high school. I started quoting Woody Allen movies and reading Kurt Vonnegut books. I especially saw myself as a lone human in a world of featureless robots, just like something out of Breakfast of Champions. Looking back on it I wish I’d used the time to learn some social skills, or a horn or something, but we lived far from the school and the bus trip was long and arduous and no one had rides for us if we stayed for band practice (which I’m not even sure existed) or entertained the idea of playing some form of sports (which I knew existed because the pep rallies were mandatory). I never went to a game. I never interacted beyond a tiny group of similarly preoccupied acquaintances. Indeed much of high school really only seemed aimed at the kids who lived in the well-off Wood Estates housing area the high school had been built in the midst of. Despite this, somehow, very briefly, I had the thrill of love from a sparklingly pretty girl, but it only lasted about ninety-six hours. We managed to get a lot written to one another, but she drifted away rather quickly. I remember her saying something about enjoying being lied to. I wasn’t lying enough. The poor lass needed dreams, perhaps her Wood Estates upbringing was draining her spirit. There was something of an existential break-down for me there, but we were all soon over it, and being a teen is pretty much an endless break-down of one sort or another. And, finally, we were surrounded by pretty girls, and it was easy to day-dream about any or all of them.
If Kippy Wills had his heart broken, or forgot to join a club, I doubted he moped over it. I imagined his day being one of entirely good-natured affection from all directions. Everyone knew him because it was so ludicrously easy. I imagined that that common recognition he endured daily could be a torment as rich and distracting as being entirely alone. If Kippy had also won the mega-bucks lottery or became the first high school student in space his local fame could not have been much improved. But if I were he, I was certain, I’d be paralyzed with outrage. My favorite costume was anonymity, make of that what you will, but Kippy had no chance of that.
Sitting on the front porch with my grandfather, who had spent most of his life at the Narragansett brewery—indeed my very existence might arguably be a result of beer-he mused that Bill Cosby, then very popular with his Cosby Show, had done well for himself. I mean he’s a nigger, he can’t help that, but he still managed to do well, Grandpa added pragmatically, and possibly through an alcohol buzz. There seemed to be no particular ill-will, just a callous, back-handed admiration. And perhaps a lesson in perseverance. I was stunned by his use of the pejorative. I was at that age when my grandfather was transforming from the idealized grandpa to a man of his era. Now that I was grown, grandpa freely cussed and told Milleresque WWII tales of packing willing French damsels into duffle bags as they moved camp with their howitzer. I went to the fridge to replace his beer, dreaming of getting a girl into a duffle bag—did their feet poke out? Grandpa polished off the beers, he referred to the empties as dead soldiers. Despite this old man’s achingly absurd racist tone I never absorbed any of it, never recognized a whiff of it until I was an adult.
Most hate in New England had historically been aimed at Catholics, and the rudiments of the KKK in our history were ancient rallies from the 1920s that were discussed with glowing excitement in the newspapers of the time, kind of like the way old National Geographic magazines gloriously depicted seal hunts (a caption on a photo of the baby seal referring to it as a “brute”). Personally, I’d never much thought of my own heritage as meaningful in any way. I was raised on hotdogs and mac and cheese. Television was my culture, just as it was for every other kid I knew. By the time we had Star Wars we were united in our devotion. I never thought there was anything particularly praiseworthy about my life. I went fishing. I cut wood. I read Hemingway (and hated it). And while this lacked anything like a route toward developing identity (whatever that means), perhaps it acted as a solvent for washing away irrational tribal hatreds.
Around this period of The Cosby Show ruling the airwaves, I was standing in an East Greenwich Seven-Eleven trying to select between brands of jerky when I heard someone call my name. Looking up, I was stunned to see a smiling Kippy Wills. Hey Kippy! We chatted very briefly in the common superficial way. How’s Craig? He wanted to know about my brother who I hadn’t spoken to in a while as he was in the army. He’s great! I’m sure I spouted. And that was it, Kippy Wills had proven his sincerity, he actually knew and remembered us, and I was astounded. How is it possible? How could he remember us?
It still amazes me. I hope Kippy is well, and his life everything he dreamed it would be.