High Wire Blues
A lot of people wonder, what is the blues? Well, I’m gonna tell you what the blues is…
It’s asscrack of dawn early and you get to the train station just as the first ropes of sunlight are
tying back the curtain of clouds.
You remember that this area around the station used to be called the Harlem of the West, with
nightclubs and just got paid finery lining both sides of the street. Marques had blasted Billie
Holiday, Big Momma Thorton, Al Green, and Aretha Franklin in bright white lights and the
boogie from this street had kept swinging time for the whole city.
But that was years ago and this morning’s show is just starting. Overhead on the tracks a high
wire act is unfolding into a full scale production of police and panic.
A man—skinny as a wire hanger—has climbed onto the platform and is hanging over the side of
the railing. One of his arms slices through the air like a conductor. The other is wrapped around a
pole. He leans out from the railing like a crooner, dangles over the orchestral pit of sky towards
the audience beneath him.
The crowd is all gasps and open-mouthed amazement. They’re all pointing fingers and clicking
their phone cameras. The police are all swarming. They’re unraveling yellow tape and
conferencing in small huddles. They’re bullying their way through the crowd with one hand on
You recognize this crowd and the hunger for the public flailing of black bodies. It’s the same
audience that gathered for your cousin after he swallowed a shotgun three summers ago. You
walk closer and join the familiar congregation.
You raise your eyes enough to make out the man’s profile. Notice how he looks like a younger
you: the sharp stones of his cheeks, slight frame, white tee, close-cut Caesar, and the crack of his
ass peeking from his low-slung jeans like a grimace. Like some mad face he wants to make sure
the world notices.
He reminds you of JB, with his crooked grimace and impossibly long arms. How he could be
dunking on fools on the Northside while still sitting on his couch in the South. How he’d bag
rocks and pontificate on what he’d do once the world recognized his “genius wit and undeniable
You remember how even his genius wit and whisper-thin body couldn’t dodge the revolver
rounds that paralyzed him from the waist down. How even his millionaire smile faded as he
nodded out in a wheelchair on his mom’s front porch the last time you saw him.
You think about the long tradition of suffering as performance. You look at the crowd with their
judging and the man dangling above and can’t help but remember those not-so-old photos of
hangings in the Deep South. Of the bodies that burned and the audiences that watched.
You think of the spectacle that is your body and the high-wire acts you’ve had to perform to
make it this far. You remember the ones who fell off. The ones whose feet weren’t quite as
quick. Who couldn’t dodge their troubles long enough to hear the glorious soundtracks their lives
had once promised.
You think of Vance, who loved attention, who was the president of every club and got killed in a
parking lot much like this one after saying the wrong joke about the wrong thug, the one who
just got out on probation a few days earlier.
You think of your uncle the painter, dying in a small room on the other side of the country, the
cancer whipping him clean like the old canvases he recycled for portraits.
Find me playing till sunrise for 50 cents and a sandwich.
There are lives we value and ones we don’t. There are spectacles we pay money for and
tragedies offered freely for our entertainment.
You consider what we only care about when it disturbs us.
You stand beneath the tracks and consider the different types of dying.
You consider the lies you’ve been told:
-That all that really matters is a close up of your grill and a knot of hundreds in your
-That the best way to go out is with a big bomb and an audience.
Now remember how many bodies you’ve buried.
Consider how many men you’ve known that would’ve rather had a warm blanket than a bomb.
How many just needed an afternoon alone in a still room with tall windows, a bottle of dark
liquor, a stack of good jazz in the corner, and a rope of afternoon sunlight bathing their faces
from the open curtains.
But here above you now, on a platform tall enough to die on, this man who looks so much like
you is becoming famous. Becoming enshrined in a tradition older than your memories.
There are reporters and flashing lights and the man has become a news blurb.
He asks for cigarettes and shots of dark liquor and the cameras start rolling.
He asks for someone to call his mother and the request becomes a trending topic.
He shields his face with his hands and looks up to the clouds and the image becomes the most
viewed of the day online. The opening line for lunch break small talk.
“Hey, did you see the thing about that guy on the BART tracks this morning…”
When I die, they’ll bury the blues with me. But the blues will never die.
-John Lee Hooker
You know that this area used to be called the Harlem of the West, until the performance ended
and this very train station paved over the neighborhood and hung the ghosts of the music that had
been born here from its steel tracks like bodies after a lynching.
You think of the lives that we value and ones that we don’t. You think of the spectacles that we
pay money for and the tragedies that are offered freely for our entertainment.
You hear the ambulance sirens approaching in the distance. And you press your eyes together
tight and concentrate on the ropes of sun and not the spectacle. On the lives lived, and not the
ones watching the fall. And then the sirens level out into a honeyed alto, then a familiar melody.
A tune that sounds almost, but not quite, like freedom.
Kwan Booth’s work focuses on the intersection of media, culture, and technology. He’s had journalism and creative writing published in The Guardian, Fusion, “CHORUS: a literary mixtape”, and “Beyond the Frontier: African American Poets for the 21st Century” and developed media projects for organizations including Facebook, the Knight Center for Digital Media, and The International Journalism Festival in Perugia, Italy. His awards include a Sigma Delta Chi Award from The Society of Professional Journalists and a Pushcart Prize nomination for fiction. He smokes too much, drinks an unhealthy amount of caffeine, and posts occasional updates at Boothism.org.