Originally published on BookTrib, January 2018
I believe it was a birthday gift, but I can’t be quite sure. I know I got it around my birthday and I know it was a gift, so I suppose my mind has lent itself to believing that’s what it was all these years later. What I do know, for sure, is that it was given to me between 1984–1988. This I am certain of because I remember lazy summer days, laying across my bed reading it — or maybe just looking at the pictures — and I can remember what the wallpaper on my bedroom walls looked like; it was custom designed by me and made of pictures I had collected from magazines over the course of a year. Every inch was covered, much to my parents’ dismay, but I didn’t really care; I liked it that way and it was my own haven in New Haven, a town that very few saw as a safe place in the 1980’s. My bedroom was mine and the same holds true for me now, even as an adult.
Everyone who knew me back then, knew I loved Prince. I liked him okay in 1982–1983 because of Jill Jones (which is a whole other story for another chapter of my life), but I became a fan one weekend in May of 1984 (also another story for another time). Everyone knew, especially one of my friend’s at the time.
Her name was Rhonda and, like me, she wore glasses. She was probably a bit more disciplined than I because she wore hers all the time and I had to be blackmailed with the promise of contact lenses when I turned 14. Rhonda was about as much of a Prince fan as I was and I think it was because she knew me and understood how I connected with his art that she gave me that gift (which I am more inclined to say was a birthday present now that I am writing this, but don’t ask me which one). The gift was a book, Prince: Inside the Purple Reign by Jon Bream. I held onto that book for so long. I guess I never saw it as the collector’s item it is today, it was just one of those things that I kept in my safe space and took with me for comfort when I had to leave that space for college.
But I lost it.
Sometime between college and grad school, in my move from Connecticut to Nashville, I lost that book and with it went some of the security I had most of my life. I guess it was apropos for the time because even though my years in Nashville were among the greatest in my lifetime, leaving home and going 900 miles away, where I didn’t know anyone was scary. I did find other sources of comfort, like the friendships I made there, but I was still hurt by the loss of that book.
About a year after Prince died, I went on a hunt to find that book — which has long been out of print — again. I thought of it as a birthday gift for myself since the original had been a birthday gift to me. I found a copy I could afford in early September of last year, just in time for my birthday. Buying that book triggered another memory I had not expected, not as happy as the first in its ending, but definitely one that gave me an understanding and clarity that has made its way into my writing in the months since.
Kyle Nalley went to school with me from kindergarten to fourth grade and then from seventh to eighth. He and his mother lived down the street and around the corner from us in a development, just near the top of Eastern Street in New Haven, CT. He was a silly kid, what you would call a class clown, but he was also very smart. Looking back, I can see that Kyle was like so many other little black boys I went to school with — rather than finding new ways of challenging his intellect — teachers wrote off his mischievous nature as a behavior problem, labeling him a “bad kid,” when the truth is that he was probably just a bored kid.
Kyle was that one teachers were told was so bad he could not sit in the classroom among the other children. They shared this information with one another before he even got in their classrooms, so he never really had a chance to prove he was more than the stigma they attached to him. Every teacher, every grade — since we were in kindergarten — always placed his desk near the teacher’s at all times and held his hand as we walked down the hallways. I don’t know that this approach ever worked because when teachers had to address the rest of the class and stand in front of their desks, Kyle would be there behind them, making faces and acting out of sorts and it was funny. He was really funny!
But there was something that was also very sad about him because he could be given something really challenging to read and he would be so focused or in music class, he never acted out and, oftentimes because they figured he enjoyed music so much, teachers would punish him for misbehaving in class by not let him go. No one really ventured into his mind to see what would work, what his interests were and I don’t think any of them really cared to, either.
I wouldn’t say I ventured into his mind, not deliberately; it kind of just happened that one day in spring of 1987 on the school bus home when we were in seventh grade, Kyle came and sat by me and asked if I had gotten Prince’s new album, Sign O’ The Times, yet. Naturally, as all children who beg, are spoiled or just have parents who do understand what motivates their children, I did. He asked if he could come listen to it. I never had a boy in my bedroom and I knew that wasn’t going to happen — not with my parents — I just told him to come by and he could borrow it. Now, I knew this wasn’t something I should ask my parents about first because it was a double album and more expensive than most and I just got it, though I think the grooves were nearly worn on the second album by then. But, I wasn’t thinking and I am glad, now, that I hadn’t been.
Kyle came to our front door and rang the bell. My mother answered and he politely asked if I was home and if I could come outside. Now, understand that my mother had been a teacher in the same school system and she taught high school, but she also knew most of the teachers at my schools and they talked, as all teachers do. But, if you ask her about him coming to the house, even to this day, she says how polite and kind he was; just a good kid who was misunderstood.
I went to the door, album in hand and behind my back, because Mom was standing there. Believe me when I say, at 43 I am aware that I wasn’t getting away with anything because she had already seen what Kyle had in his hand, but still. It was 1987, I was 12 and I didn’t know much.
When I went outside, standing there on the front porch, Kyle handed me copies of Prince’s Dirty Mind and For You albums. They were the two back albums he knew I didn’t have in my collection because I told him I couldn’t find them. I took them, handed him my Sign O’ The Times and asked why he brought two. He said, so matter-of-factly, that it was only fair since I was giving him two with the double album set.
I can still hear the inflection in his voice because he did have a very unique voice.
I thanked him and he told me which were his favorite songs and warned me to listen to Dirty Mind with headphones. About an hour later when I was listening to it with headphones, I learned why and if you don’t know… just go listen to the album, remember I was 12 and know that it is one of my favorites ever.
We talked for a little while longer and Kyle mentioned that he didn’t have some of the other albums I did by Prince, the proteges and the wannabes, but he did have a ton of magazines and 45s I didn’t. So we did what broke kids from neighborhoods like ours do. Every few days, Kyle walked up to our house and he brought me a magazine or a 45, sometimes both and I lent him one of my albums.
We did this for about three years and one day, I don’t know why, I lent him my book, something I never let out of my sight back then. Kyle must have known I was nervous about that, as I had never been nervous about the albums, because he brought it back the next day having read it from cover to cover. I should have known better because since kindergarten, he and I had been in reading groups together and I should have remembered how focused he was when it came to reading and music, so reading about music was a breeze for him. When he gave it back to me, he just smiled and said, “I’ll see you on the bus tomorrow,” and he walked home.
I never got to ask him why he liked Prince, even though we talked about the nuances of the music — note for note. Those conversations were like going to school and he opened my ears to ways of hearing the music that I hadn’t experienced prior, but have continued to since. I wish I could go back and ask him — and yes, I said ‘back’ because like Prince, Kyle isn’t here anymore, either. He died in 1998. He was 23.
I look at that book everyday, now. It sits on my desk, in my bedroom where I write. Where I began writing this. No matter where I go in my room, as it was when I was a kid, it’s never out of my sight. Now, thankfully because of this writing contest and Kathleen Hill, who challenged me to use my love of books to remember my past, neither is Kyle.
I suppose there is a reason for everything. In my interview with her, Kathleen Hill told me, “It is amazing how the past returns to us, it’s always there but we don’t always access it. Be alert to the things that actually take you to the experience.” I was moved to write this and publish it this week for reasons I was never clear about, nor slowed down enough to be alert to. As I was looking for a picture of Kyle, which I could not find, I learned that his birthday was this past Tuesday, January 23, 2018. He would have been 43 and with that, I found my reason.