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Write Your Story, Babygirl

Sep 18 2017
Photo by
Essence Carson
Photo by
Essence Carson
Essence Carson
Los Angeles Sparks
Sep 18 2017

I t seemed like nobody knew his real name. People just called him Picture Man.

Paterson, New Jersey, where I grew up, is the hood … the inner city … the ghetto … whatever you want to call it. And a lot of people have nicknames in the hood — funny nicknames, mean nicknames, really stupid nicknames, nicknames that make no sense at all, gang nicknames, everything. Picture Man got his name because he was always taking photos. You’d see him riding around on his bike. He’d stop to snap a picture of a fire hydrant, a street sign, a family cookout or whatever, and then he’d ride away. It was kind of unheard of, in our part of town, for someone to be into photography like that, so Picture Man was seen as a weirdo. A loner. “Different.” We loved him anyway. He was so mysterious to me, like there was a whole world about him that I didn’t know. To this day, I don’t think I ever learned his real name.

But I’ll never forget where I was when I heard the gunshots that ended his life.

I was 12 years old. I was in my grandparents’ house on the east side of town, where I lived, right around the corner from the barbershop on 17th avenue. I ran outside and saw Picture Man lying motionless in the middle of the street. His bike had fallen on top of him, and his camera, still hanging from a strap around his neck, was lying on the pavement next to him. My grandmother had gone outside to see everything, too. She couldn’t believe what she’d seen … but she could. She was sad and shocked, and so worried.

I still remember — so clearly even today — how his body was limp but his eyes were wide open. The shots that killed him weren’t the first gunshots I’d ever heard. But this was the first time I’d seen a dead body outside of the funeral home. The pool of blood forming in the street was so fresh it looked black.

I just stood there and watched. I didn’t run away. I didn’t try to help. People were screaming and coming out of shops to look, and sirens were going off everywhere. There was a lot of commotion. People were saying that Picture Man had gotten caught by a stray from a drive-by. Wrong place at the wrong time, that kind of thing.

When the ambulance showed up, I was still standing in the same spot in front of the barbershop. Cops were telling everyone to go home, but I stayed around for a little while longer, watching the paramedics place a black tarp over his body. Then I walked around the corner to my grandparents’ house. When I got in the door, I was stopped for a second. I don’t know what I felt. I wasn’t sad, honestly. It was like I didn’t know what was the right thing to feel.

I went to the basement, like I did most nights. I sat at the little upright piano my grandma kept down there, and I just played for a while.

You know how sometimes you have the strangest thoughts at the strangest times? In my 12-year-old head, I just kept thinking about the same thing as I played. I kept thinking, What’s gonna happen to all his pictures?

Jed Jacobsohn/The Players' Tribune

Up until a few weeks ago, I hadn’t thought about Picture Man in years. But one night this summer, it all came back.

I was in my apartment in L.A., recording some new music. I’ve set up a little home studio, and I’ve been working on a new album, which will be my third solo record. Suddenly I was 12 years old again, standing in front of the barbershop, face to face with Picture Man’s lifeless body. I don’t know where it came from. Music has a way of doing that.

I don’t get to spend a lot of time in Paterson anymore. Not as much as I’d like to anyway. After high school, I left to go to college and play basketball at Rutgers, and after that, basketball gave me the chance to see the rest of the U.S. and the world. Then I was fortunate enough to make it to the WNBA, playing first for the Liberty and now for the Sparks. Last year we won the title. We’re in contention again this season.

I don’t talk much about Paterson these days, either. It shaped me, no doubt — but when I get asked about Paterson, I usually just say a few words and cut it short. I’m quiet, that’s one reason. My teammates could tell you that. I was even more shy when I was a kid, so I’m actually better about it than I used to be. (Don’t laugh, Alana. I am trying!)

But it’s more than just being quiet. There are a lot of stereotypes about the hood. Some are true, but most are just some surface-level b.s. It’s like, I do want to tell you the truth, but I don’t know if you want to hear something that may not fit into your stereotype. If I tell you about my life I want to give you the full picture. It’s like the way I approach creating music — my ultimate hope is to communicate something real and to make people feel something real.

I was a cool nerd.

Let me tell you what I mean by that. My two loves as a kid were basketball and music. I loved to play music, so that made me a nerd. (I was all about my schoolwork, too. I loved school.) But I was cool because I played basketball. I would go to band camps … nerd. But again, I could ball. When I got bigger I could hang with the guys, too. So that gave me cred. See? Nerdy but cool. A cool nerd.

Essence Carson

Music came first. One of my earliest music memories is listening to my grandma play the piano. It was a little upright piano that was all broken down and falling apart. It was ugly, but it worked. My grandma only knew three songs … and she used to play those same three songs over and over. When I was eight, I learned to play all three … you know, her full repertoire. Eventually I got bored and wanted new material. I wanted to try the drums next. It was pretty funny — my grandma said no — because drums “were for boys.” So I was like, “O.K., then I wanna play the saxophone.” She said that was a boy’s instrument, too. My grandfather and grandmother went back and forth about it, and then eventually, they let me try the sax. I joined my elementary school band. Two days a week, I lugged that saxophone back and forth to school. It was in a big, hard-shell, rectangular, not-cute saxophone case. I was this tall, thin little kid. I looked ridiculous. At that age, you’re corny if you’re in band. But I liked music, so I didn’t care. I hated carrying that case to school, but once I got there I was good.

Music was always in the background growing up, playing on the record player in my grandparents’ house. My grandpa had a big vinyl record collection. He loved all of the old acts — the Temptations, the O’Jays, the Commodores, Otis Redding, Stevie Wonder, Ray Charles, I could keep going. Wynton Marsalis, Najee, Grover Washington Jr., and  B.B. King were a few others he played over and over. There was some Kenny G in there once in a while, too.

One of my favorite memories is laughing with grandfather while we listened to Ray Charles. I would be sitting at the piano mimicking Ray Charles — playing with my eyes closed. But I would mess up all the notes because I wasn’t looking down. I eventually got it down, of course! Man, I still smile thinking about those times.

My other love as a kid was basketball.

And I was drawn to the game for the same reasons I was drawn to music, actually. I believe sports is how a lot of kids in the inner city get their creativity. We gotta create something out of nothing all the time. All of the time. When you have less, you create more.

Paterson didn’t have a lot of indoor gyms, so we had to play outside. We didn’t have leagues for lacrosse or hockey or things like that. It was whatever sport you could play outside in the street with just a ball. Anything that could be considered a basket, my friends and I made into one. The cool thing was, we didn’t know we were being creative. It was normal to us. We’d find a garbage can — there’s our hoop. Trash in it? Pour it out onto the street. We built our own baskets, too. That milk crate lying around at the bodega? Steal it and use a hacksaw to cut out the bottom of it … then nail it to lamppost or a tree. Now you can ball. We grew up like, “Hey, this is how you’re supposed to play basketball.” When you’re young, you don’t know what you don’t have. I thought I had the world. I thought I had everything.

Jed Jacobsohn/The Players' Tribune

At first, my grandmother hated that I played basketball — because it reminded her of my dad. My dad was a great athlete when he was young, but by the time I was born he was starting to get caught up in the drug lifestyle in Paterson. He died when I was really young, and I’ll tell you more about that later. Anyway, my grandma couldn’t separate basketball from what happened to my dad, so she was real reluctant to allow me to play. She would yell at me a lot because I used to stay out late playing in the street. When the sun went down and the streetlights came on, she always wanted me to come back inside. She’d say, “Don’t go to this-and-that part of town.” She had every right to be afraid for me. I knew that. But I would sneak off and go play anyway.

Up until he died, my dad was always in and out of the picture. He’d be gone for a while, then he’d reappear for a few weeks or months. He made a point of calling me regularly and telling me that he loved me. I’ll never forget those calls. But he wasn’t there in person on a regular basis.

That’s one reason I lived at my grandparents’ house. My mom took care of me the best that she could, but she worked two jobs. Without my dad around she needed a babysitter, but she couldn’t afford one. So my grandparents filled in — eventually I was over at their house so much that I just moved in.

In 1997, the year my dad passed away, I was 11 years old. Before I tell you the circumstances of how he died, I really want to tell you how my dad influenced me in so many good ways … how I wouldn’t be who I am today without my dad — even with all the pain he may have caused.

It’s complicated. I looked up to my dad for so many reasons. Before he got in deep with the wrong things and the wrong people, a lot of people in Paterson looked up to him, too. My dad was a really intelligent guy, outgoing and popular. He was a school teacher and a former athlete — a local star in basketball, football and track. Like my dad, I wanted to be a great athlete. I wanted to be really smart, too, because everyone would always says, “Man, your dad is just so smart!” They would always say that. Overall, he was just a handsome guy, intelligent, athletic. What else can you want from a guy, right?

Essence Carson

But Paterson wasn’t good for him. Or maybe he wasn’t right for Paterson, I don’t know which. Whatever it was, he started living another life. He partied. He got addicted to drugs. He was seeing other women.

It was confusing for me. I was young. I was naturally quiet, so I mostly observed the things around me, which probably just made understanding everything even harder.

My first memory of basketball was with my dad. I don’t know where it was, but he took me to a gym. There were a lot of people there, and I remember him dunking. I don’t know how old I was, but I was really little. I was sitting on the floor. I remember how electrified everyone in the gym got when they saw it. It was a damn good dunk.

I wanted to be successful in sports like him. I wanted to be really smart and well-liked, too, just like my dad. But then on the other hand, I remember thinking to myself, even at the age of eight or nine, I can’t be like him. I don’t want to do drugs. I don’t want to have the types of friends he has. I want to be better than that. There’s more to life. There has to be.

I was lucky, in that sense, to have my grandparents. My grandpa would always say, “Whatever you do, I don’t care what it is, try to be the best at it.” He and my grandma both instilled in me the importance of being good in school. They supported my music. They taught me that you can make it through anything — to persevere and be strong. A lot of kids in the hood don’t have stability, and it throws everything else in their life off track. I was lucky to have stability with my grandparents.

Essence Carson

I’m hoping that all this stuff about my childhood isn’t boring. But even more so, I hope this isn’t going to be received as another feel-good story about a poor kid who made it out of the hood. No one’s story is all great or all bad. When you start peeling back the layers of any life, it’s never like a movie, with a clear script. I had a lot of happy moments in my childhood, but a lot of shit went down, too … things I’m still trying to figure out years later.

Throughout it all, the highs and the lows, music was always there.

My dad introduced me to hip-hop. It was during his last year or two of life. He was already getting sick, but I didn’t know it.

The first hip-hop record he ever played for me was called — of all things — Father’s Day. The artist was Father MC, and the first song my dad played for me off of it was called “I’ll Do 4 U,” featuring Mary J. Blige. I remember my dad’s exact words — he held up the album, smiling, and said, “You don’t know nothin’ about this!”

He put it on a record player and I just fell in love with hip-hop.

My dad put me on to artists that my friends weren’t listening to yet: Busta Rhymes, Naughty by Nature, Q-Tip, Biggie, Junior M.A.F.I.A., Bell Biv DeVoe, Boyz II Men, LL Cool J, Tupac and on and on.

I wish I could go back to that time … just to hear hip-hop again for the first time.

How can I even explain how it felt? How hip-hop felt to me as a kid?

It just sounded … unbelievably … COOL. When I heard it, it made me feel like it was about where I was living, if that makes sense — it sounded like the inner city. It had the inner city swag. You know? No other music has ever made me feel like that, and that’s not knocking any other genre. Every genre makes you feel like something different. Hip-hop felt like this fresh, new, real, hip, down-to-earth style of music that told stories about environments like mine.

Looking back now, hip-hop deeply influenced the music I create today.

It was also the soundtrack to the last months of my dad’s life — because around the time my dad was getting sick, hip-hop was on heavy rotation on my Walkman. Today, there are certain songs and albums that will instantly trigger memories about my dad.

Jed Jacobsohn/The Players' Tribune

Right before the end, it was weird — he seemed to be doing well for the first time in a long time. Everyone thought my dad was finally back to his old self. A couple years before he passed, he had actually started to recover from his addiction and remove himself from that lifestyle, and was just trying to live a clean life. It lasted for a little while, but then he started getting weaker and weaker. I didn’t have all the details, but he got diagnosed at some point with ALS.

Soon my dad was in a wheelchair all the time. He moved in with my grandparents and me. Less than a year later, doctors were afraid he would lose his ability to speak, which is what ALS does at the end, and they did a tracheotomy.

I did some of the caretaking — like if my dad needed something in the middle of the night, I’d get up. We had to step up, that’s what my grandparents would tell me. That’s what family does, they would say. I learned that family members have to take care of each other no matter what the reason is. Even when you don’t want to. Even when it pains you. It would be like one o’clock in the morning and my dad would be coughing and he couldn’t really breathe. I’d have to wake up and help him clean out his tracheal tube. Usually, I’d just sit with him afterward until we both fell asleep again.

We didn’t do a lot of talking in the last few months of his life. He was too weak to talk. I was too shy. When he couldn’t talk at all anymore, he started to write little notes on pieces of paper and give them to me. It would take him a long time to write a short sentence. His notes usually said he loved me and things like that. And I never knew what to say in return. I didn’t know how to express myself, or I didn’t want to, or something — I didn’t know how to deal with that type of emotion. So, I said nothing. Sometimes I think about all the times I sat with my dad and said nothing. Every wasted moment. Wasted breath. Wasted because I refused to use it. After that, for many years actually, whenever anybody tried to express any type of emotion towards me, I would shut down.

Leon Bennett/Getty Images

My dad passed away in November 1997. This year, it’ll be 20 years.

Wow, I just realized that as I was writing this — 20 years.

In the two decades since, my two loves — music and basketball — have grown and grown. Around age 15, I asked my mom for turntables, and she got them for me. I put them in the basement— my first “studio.” I remember I wanted to become a producer, but of course I had no clue how to do that or what it even meant. I knew how to play several instruments — that was my strength — but I had to learn all the programs and technological aspects of music. I would sit down and study and study and study until I figured them out.

I kept producing music in college and throughout my 20s. I practiced and I composed. I met a couple of people in the music world, too, and they helped get me a foot into that community. Back in 2010, I did some work with Ronnie James Tucker, who everyone knows as Ro James. I call him Ronnie now. He became a friend, as did other people, which I’m really thankful for. In fact, watching him grow as an artist became inspiring. We recorded together in my home studio in Harlem. Now he’s a Grammy-nominated R&B–soul crooner.

At some point — maybe at around the time I was playing for the Liberty and living in Harlem — I remember thinking to myself: Hey, you’re really actually doing this, and yesterday you had no clue what the hell you were doing. And nobody taught you anything. Would you look at that.

November 2013 was a big month for me (there’s that month of November coming back again): I released my first album, Broken Diary. It was my way of opening up to the world.

There’s a song on it that I wrote called “Runaway Memories.” It’s about my dad and different girlfriends he had. The song has three verses — the first two are about girlfriends who were in and out of my life when I was a kid, and the last verse is about my mom.

Here’s a few lines from the last verse:

Didn’t think about leaving her scarred
Never thought leaving was hard
’Cause you made it so easy ’cause all of the cheating she saw
Five-eight, dark skin, long hair natural
Carried her feelings in satchels, but still stronger than statues
And from my eyes she seemed to match you
God sent an angel down to bless you, ah-choo….
But I guess my momma fell in love with a runaway

Jed Jacobsohn/The Players' Tribune

In 2016, I put out a mixtape called No Subz, which I self-produced. Since this summer, I’ve been working on something new.

Now that I’m on the Sparks, I live in L.A. The West Coast is new and it’s a little weird. My bad — it’s different. L.A. is a long way from Paterson, and my life today feels pretty far from how I grew up. I’m still getting used to the vibe out here. I like how chilled out it is and I’m trying to incorporate that into my music. Evolution is good. It’s great. It’s a vibe.

Like I said, even my teammates are going to be surprised by how much personal stuff I’ve shared here in this story. I don’t even share a lot of my music with them. I don’t really know why. I think it’s just that … I guess I feel that my story is still unfinished.

Sometimes I wonder what a young girl — maybe she’s from the hood, maybe she’s wondering how to go after her dreams — would think looking at me today.

I know what I hope she would see. I hope she’d look at me and say, “Whoa, where’d that girl come from?”

That would make me smile, definitely. And I know what I would tell her.

I would tell her: “I’m from Paterson.” Then I’d tell her all about what I told you today, all the good and the bad and the in-between.

Because hey, maybe she’ll become a musician some day. Or a basketball player.

You never know, maybe she’ll become both.

Whatever it is, write your story, babygirl.

Essence Carson
Los Angeles Sparks