“You finna take me home?”
It’s a beautiful, sunny Saturday afternoon in Squirrel Hill, a neighborhood in Pittsburgh. I’m sitting with emerging author Brian Broome. In just a few days, Broome’s debut memoir, Punch Me Up To The Gods, will be released (It was released today!). The book has already garnered a ton of buzz and praise, including glowing words from the likes of Augusten Burroughs and Kiese Laymon. But that’s not important at this particular moment. Broome is worried about how he’s going to get home after this interview and is asking me a question he has asked me numerous times before. You see, we used to work at the same restaurant and I received this question in some form almost every shift he worked. Most of the time, I said no. Brian lived clear on the opposite side of town than me and I was usually tired after work. Sometimes, I wasn’t even at work when I was asked for that ride. And whenever I would decline his request, Brian would board a city bus or two and make his way home. Today, though, I am nothing but glad to give him a ride home.
It’s been said that life is a journey. Well, for most of Broome’s journey, someone else has been behind the wheel and he’s ok with that. “I like being in the car if I’m in the passenger seat,” he tells me, as we sit outside enjoying some tea. “I like being on the bus. I like public transportation. It’s like my muse.” That’s certainly true. Brian has written many a creative Facebook post about the P1, an express route that takes people from the eastern neighborhoods of Pittsburgh to the Downtown region of the city. He also had a previous story published by Creative Nonfiction magazine that was entitled “79” and was based on another Pittsburgh bus route. “I like writing on the bus. I like that sensation of moving but not moving. You’re in a stationery room but the room is moving. When you’re on the bus–it sounds weird, but there’s a story and you’re just moving through it. It has always turned me on,” Broome explains. “So, yeah, I love the bus.”
Punch Me Up To The Gods opens with Brian waiting for his muse at the bus stop. While there, he observes a toddler named Tuan and his interactions with his father. They all board the bus together and head Downtown. As the bus ambles along, Brian continues to observe the duo and lets their actions inspire a trip down memory lane. Seeing this young child in the early stages of his journey makes Brian analyze the entire road that got him to where he was at that exact moment. What follows is a series of essays where Brian explores his experiences as young gay black boy growing up in Ohio and then a young gay black man discovering himself (and drugs and alcohol) in Pittsburgh. He speaks about familial relations, sex, addiction, insecurity and racism in a powerful, gut-wrenching and oftentimes hilarious manner. It truly is a stellar read.
What’s really spectacular about this book, though, is the fact that through this bus ride that’s being controlled by some faceless driver, Brian actually took control of the wheel of his own life for the first time. “I started this book in rehab,” he explains. “I was literally like, ‘what do I do now?’ And I just started writing. Being in recovery, I think you learn to take a good, honest look at yourself and not to flinch from it. My biggest regret is the way I treated people when I was in active addiction. Writing this book was a way for me to get it all out there and try to start over…that’s where the marker for this book is, and going forward I hope to do better, for myself and for other people.”
As I mentioned before, I used to work with Brian. I’ve actually known him for over a decade. We met when he was still an active addict. I’ve seen his recovery journey. I’ve watched him clean up his life and get multiple degrees and win multiple awards for his writing. And we’ve talked, argued, joked and laughed all along the way. But reading this book, I realized that I really didn’t know Brian at all. I also didn’t know how similar we were. So many times while reading this book, I had to ask myself if Brian was telling his story or mine. Apparently, I’m not the only one who feels that way about Punch Me Up To The Gods. “For me, it was like a confessional. It was kind of cathartic, in a way,” Brian tells me. “I hoped that people could relate to it but I’ve been really surprised by how many people from different walks of life, not just black gay men, have said they totally relate to this idea of just being ashamed and living their life under this pall of shame.” I believe that’s where the true power of this book lies. It can make you feel less alone in this world and inspire you to get up, find safety in numbers and turn your bus around and set it on a better route.
“What happened to my napkin?”
Our interview is wrapping up. As Brian finishes his sandwich, his napkin blows away. We share a few inside jokes and loudly guffaw. I pay the check and then we walk to my car and I drive him home. Like I said earlier, I’m happy to do it. It’s the least I can do after the journey Punch Me Up To The Gods took me on. Do yourself a favor and let Brian Broome take you home too.