by Paul Ford


I used to tutor this guy, I’ll call him James. I was about twenty, and this was twenty years ago. He was a guy about ten years older than me at the time. He was getting a graduate degree in counseling and was dyslexic. I was just about to graduate with an English degree.

James would come to my apartment and we’d work on his papers. I was paid minimum wage to work with him. It was pretty good work, because I liked him and I’ve always liked helping people write, and I also got to see what people learn in graduate psychology classes.

We were in a tiny town in upstate New York. The town was totally white, and the campus was extremely white, and James was black, and about six-foot-three, so he really stuck out. I remember when OJ Simpson was found not guilty, James saw me and he said, “Paul, white people are heated! Heated!”

I said, “Well, I mean, OJ probably did it.”

James said, “But Paul, I didn’t do it!”

One day we were typing up some notes from a visit he did to a prison. The notes were pretty fascinating. James would interview the prisoners about their problems. I asked David, who is serving a five-year sentence, what he liked to do to relax and he said that it was ‘smoking crack and having sexual intercourse,’ and then I asked David how he felt he could improve his life after prison and he said, ‘I need to stop smoking crack before sexual intercourse.’

James had rough handwriting, and would replay conversations from memory later. He had a great memory, for obvious reasons.

I was finishing up my English degree and writing a thesis on the hegemonic literary canon; James was talking to prisoners about smoking crack and getting his MS in counseling so he could be a social worker. We would type up his notes at my place — I’d use WordPerfect on an old DOS machine that someone had given me. Then we’d go out and drink.

One day James got bored with our work and went to the mirror in my apartment and began to pat his hair down and nod.

“Look at that ugly son of a bitch,” I said. Which was a normal thing for me to say to him, or vice versa. We were both giant dudes and we made fun of each other all the time.

And he got a tiny bit serious-looking right then, and didn’t turn his head, just kept looking in the mirror, and said, firmly, “That’s a beautiful motherfucker.”

“Right,” I said.

“But look at this,” he said. “Just look at this beautiful motherfucker. Paul, that is an absolutely beautiful motherfucker right there.” He made a “hmm” noise, like he’d just eaten something wonderful, as if his beauty were delicious.

He kept saying it, three or four more times, beautiful, beautiful, beautiful, beautiful. As if I weren’t in the room. Until finally I said —

“Yeah, yeah, I got it. You’re a beautiful motherfucker. Let’s get back to work.”

“That’s right,” he said, and we got back to work.

I think about that conversation. I’ve been thinking about it these last few weeks, and for the last twenty years. Sometimes things feel very out of control. I have too much to do, I have children, I have a whole life that keeps sliding out from under me as I try to stay on top of it. You are allowed to do this, though: You can go to the mirror and say, “Just look at that beautiful motherfucker.” People can be telling you the opposite, in a million different ways, you can be telling yourself that you are the opposite of a beautiful motherfucker, but they can’t actually stop you from standing there and putting your hand on your head, repeating those words or words like them. Until the other party gives up and just lets you say it, and then you can get back to work. Also remembering that the only reason James protested his beauty on that day was that I had told him that he was one ugly son of a bitch.

Photo by Les Chatfield

Save Yourself is the Awl’s farewell to 2015.