Real Roles: Michael Wharton

1. What’s your name? Where do you live? How old are you?

My name is Michael Bernard Wharton. I live in the South of Market district of San Francisco. I am 17,743 days old (as of 5/2/12).

2. Where did you grow up and how would you describe your childhood?

I was born in Washington, D.C. and lived there until I was 5. I moved to Georgetown, Guyana to live with my grandparents and returned to D.C. when I was 12. I remained there until I was 16. I then moved to Loomis, a small town in Northern California near Sacramento. I graduated from high school there and ended up at Berkeley.

My mother and father were not able to agree on marriage, so my mother and I ended up in what was then known as the Linda Pollin projects in Southeast D.C. once she was no longer able to earn because she was pregnant with me. She was also in school since she was the last of her siblings to attend college, even though she was eldest. My grandfather was fond of military history. So my mother was the fifth column, sent into the enemy territory of the United States to create a safe space for her five brothers and sisters who went on to become, respectively, a surgeon, pediatrician, dentist, architect, and an engineer. Her sister Lucille went to school in France. 

When I was 5, my grandparents visited us in D.C., smelled the tear gas, saw the riots, and took me back with them. One day I was throwing rocks at a tank, because it was 1968 and that was how things went. The next day I was being eaten alive by mosquitoes as big as bats in a land with no television and soon, no mother. My family was not that familiar with the concept of safe porting, so I was shocked to learn that I’d be staying but that she would be returning to America. 

I grew up in a foreign (to me) and adult world and I’d describe my childhood as fairly rootless in its rootedness. I had to learn how to relate to the aforementioned adults in order to get the basic attention I needed as a kid. This influenced forever how I negotiate social space. My maternal grandparents were teachers. Their first family business was the Moravian School. There they trained many of the people who would later run the country after independence. My grandfather was a 33rd Degree Mason, active in the World Council of Churches and somehow capable of getting people from a country most people can’t find on a map into American and British colleges. He later helped found the People’s National Congress party that ended up running the country for decades. So my childhood was an affluent one full of reading, always being taught a lesson in every moment.

I remember being blindly, blisteringly happy at times—but countered with the terror that comes with growing up in a system that encouraged corporal punishment. I was a rebellious kid and they were loath to spare the rod—so physical fear was a vivid part of my childhood. But I did well in school and passed Common Entrance in the top 100 of the country. 

That was when my mother and the powers that be decided I should return to the United States. It threw a wrench in my plan. I was going to attend Queen’s College just as my grandfather and uncles had, then try to go to school in England. I’d worked for four years to do well on the test. Instead of following this path, I found myself inside a two-bedroom apartment at the corner of 14th and Military, back in D.C. I went from having a chauffeur, cook, maid, and laundry person to having to ride either the S2 or the 74 to school in Silver Spring. I was darker in complexion than was popular and I had an accent and little skill at basketball or American style fighting. I’d say my childhood was one of frequent uprooting combined with moments of deep and genuine happiness or terror depending on the day and the continent.

3. How would you describe your current family and close support community?

My current family is my mother and myself. There are others, but she and I are a team. My close support community is my home, 1080 Folsom, which is an intentional community of about 40 people. It was founded by Nicole Daedone, author of Slow Sex: The Art and Craft of the Female Orgasm. The house started as a dorm for people in the OM coaching program. They began taking other tenants when rooms opened up. I dated someone who lived here and eventually moved in myself. I can’t imagine living alone now—it’s so convenient to have someone else shop for and cook food far more deliciously than I ever could. My housemates are an amazing lot of highly educated entrepreneurs, seekers or just workers from all over the world who are focused on living consciously. Most important, one doesn’t realize how lonely average life is until one escapes it. 

4. What are some of the things you do on an average day?

On an average day I awaken, run, eat, shave, shower, visit my mother, come home, write, eat, maybe check out the girl at the restaurant she manages, or see my boys at the bike store on the corner or the pizza place on the other corner (which is where we seem to congregate). I was in school until recently when my mom took a health tumble, but now am taking a break to focus on her for a while.

5. What do you do to pay the bills?

When I first moved back to San Francisco I was a bartender at an itzakaya (think Japanese tapas) in the Marina District to pay the bills—until I was laid off. Luckily I got the maximum unemployment amount right around the time my mother needed my attention, so that’s my gig for now. A friend is opening another bar quite soon and I think I’ll have a spot there should I wish it. Other than that, I read, write, and do one day at a time.

6. Does your life look like what you imagined it would when you were young?

Certain aspects of my life very much resemble what I’d imagined when I was young. I’m in great shape. I write every day. I perform from time to time, as do my friends, and I’m very—how to say it—social, when I wish to be. But I do not have my own family. I would have thought I’d have done that by now. I think that growing up with a single mother, I did not understand the theory and practice of planning for and creating a family the way some of my friends from traditional families did. We were so busy trying to do what we needed to do, that may have been one of the passed-on values that fell by the wayside.

7. What is the greatest challenge you’ve faced in your life?

The greatest challenge in my life was leaving D.C., or rather, not coming back when ordered to do so by my boss at the time—thus guaranteeing me being fired and returning to the service economy. I did not know how damaging a badly handled transition could be. Or, rather, I was a tad overconfident about my prospects here. I knew I’d be a much better earner if I stayed on the East Coast. Everybody wants to live in San Francisco so Princeton grads sometimes apply to work at Starbucks here. But I knew my mother was getting older and that I wanted to live more and work less, and that a recession was going to hit my sector hard. So I bailed. It was beyond difficult.

8. Have you made any decisions or choices that have surprised those around you?

Choosing to be a bar-back at my age and level of experience shocked a few people. But I was writing and working in one of the world’s best jazz clubs with people I loved—so I had a life full of joy and magic. I think people who knew me in D.C. found that a bit out of the ordinary.

9. Who have you looked to for inspiration while creating your life? What have they taught you?

I looked to people like (pre-pederasty) Woody Allen (when I began to perform), Joan Didion, my grandfather, Robert Reuben Baird, Greg Tate, Anatole Broyard, David Foster Wallace, Bill Rogers, Abebe Bikila, Cassius Clay (not Mohammed Ali), Bruce Lee, my brothers in the Broun (sic) Fellinis. Keith Yancsurak—or Kount (sic) Yancsurak, as I call him. 

Woody Allen showed me that telling jokes on stage was not enough. You had to write, master the forms, and move up. Joan Didion showed me the beauty of the detail. My grandfather was my model of male strength. Greg Tate is a former columnist for the Village Voice whose weekly work was like a light house to me as I tried to wrestle with the culture of me. Anatole Broyard for being black even as he passed for white—enough so he called out to me from the New York Review of Books for reasons I cannot define. David Foster Wallace for the collection of essays entitled “A Supposedly Fun Thing I’ll Never Do Again”—specifically the one about tennis. Bill Rogers for elevating himself from being an out of shape English teacher in Boston to being the marathon champion of the world. Abebe Bikila for winning the Olympic Marathon barefoot. Cassius Clay for pretty much defining the explosive potential of black male beauty and power when he knocked out Sonny Liston. Bruce Lee for Jeet Kune Do and the way it can serve as a lens through which to view so many other situations. David Boyce, Kevin Carnes, Ayman Mubarak (first bass player), and now Kirk Petersen (the second bass player) for showing me what it is like to work and sleep and eat with other black men in concert and harmony. Keith (Kount) Yancsurak, our sound man, for being a friend to me above and beyond the call of duty. 

10. What TV shows, movies, music, or books have been particularly formative or important in your life?

Original Star Trek, the Prisoner and Monty Python are some of the TV shows that influenced me. They provided a gateway into my first community of friends here, and helped me assimilate. I learned to speak and act by watching shows like The Brady Bunch, Father Knows Best and Good Times—seriously. I had no idea how social life here worked and television was like a clinic on how to be a Yankee. Channel 26 in D.C. would run classics like The 400 Blows, Seven Samurai, Casablanca, and the like, which is how I discovered classic cinema. And WTTG would run more modern but great fare—I remember seeing Lawrence of Arabia one Sunday morning with my mom, being blown away, even on our small screen, by the epic sweep of the story. I discovered music by listening to WHUR late at night—I remember when the Quiet Storm was a radio program, not a radio format. I also liked NPR, of course. 

As for books, The Hobbit, Dune Trilogy, all the Isaac Asimov, Ray Bradbury, A.E. Van Vogt, Theodore Sturgeon, Samuel Delany, H.G. Wells, and Michael Crichton you could shake a stick at—I was heavily into science fiction at first. Then I discovered the other stuff, but my first magic experiences with books were spent dreaming of life among the stars. I wish I could say I learned some big lessons, but I think I learned quite a few small ones about how to stay alive in alien territory, how not to be culturally blind or inept—I learned how to survive from those books. 

11. Are there any stories not told in media that you’d like to see represented?

The story in media most in need of illumination is the radical reduction in the possibility, for most people, of American life. We are undergoing a shrinkage—all of which seems to happen offstage. Aside from the Occupy movement, which was a tempest in a teapot, there is little or no concern, outside of Facebook status updates, about a revolutionary diminishment of the dream space. It’s weird to see it happen so silently.

12. How often do you think about gender roles and whether your life matches what others might expect from your gender?

I don’t often think about gender roles. Rather, I am called to do so by the casually expressed expectations of my peers. At these times I find myself defending my particular brand of manhood. Perhaps my lover compares me to a housemate who is much handier with pipes, wires, and such. I reply that I was taught that one ought to be able to figure out how to do this or that task, but that one should have the kind of life where that sort of thing did not come under one’s notice. Or I see how the strain of living up to being a traditional provider causes my friend Nick to age as though he were President just so he can give his wife the chance to be a stay-at-home mom for their two sons. Finally, being my age without a family makes one automatically worthy of suspicion—as though that aloneness were proof of somehow being bad goods.

13. What wisdom have you gained in life that you think other people would benefit from knowing?

I think it’s important to try and be here now. It sounds so simple, but so many of us spend nearly all our time in either the imaginary past or the imaginary future, all the while missing out on the infinite present.

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