- Susan Norton
Reuben Jackson is best known to Vermonters as the velour-voiced host of "Friday Night Jazz" on Vermont Public Radio. The 60-year-old native of Washington, D.C., is a jazz scholar and aficionado; he worked for 20 years as curator of the Duke Ellington Collection at the Smithsonian Institution and has critical bylines in numerous prestigious publications. He's been a high school teacher. He's a well-regarded, published poet. He's in love with his cat. He follows sports avidly, without necessarily rooting for a particular team. Jackson is a man of myriad passions.
But never mind his illuminating meditations on the works of Thelonious Monk and Miles Davis, his brilliant poetic scribbles, or his predictions about the Seattle Seahawks' chances this season. Lately, Jackson's friends — at least those connected with him on Facebook — want to know about Amir.
"It's like when your parents come to visit, and they're not really there to see you," says Jackson over coffee in Winooski. "They want to see the grandkids."
Amir Yasin isn't Jackson's grandson. In fact, he's old enough to be a grandfather. Over the past few years, Jackson has served as an online proxy for the man he describes as a Detroit-based barber. He posts near-daily updates from this mysterious, tech-averse friend. And Jackson's Facebook pals have fallen in love with the man.
"They're like, 'I don't care about your Facebook posts. I want to hear what Amir is up to,'" says Jackson.
Indeed, Amir's musings and observations on everything from politics to race to love to the minutiae of daily life are captivating and often stirring. Through Jackson, he speaks and writes with a simple, lyrical quality. He's insightful, wistful and sometimes dryly funny. Witness Amir's dispatch from July 11, 2017:
Jayden [sic] Smith
is Frederick Douglass'
And like Tupac,
Their new single will drop
like an acorn in September.
Black Eyed Peas."
Jackson's Facebook followers have gravitated toward Amir without quite knowing who he is — or even if he's real. The Amir posts often elicit more likes and reactions than Jackson's personal posts, which doesn't seem to bother him. If anything, he's touched by people's interest.
"People stop me on the street and remember things he said in 2013," says Jackson. "People care, they worry, which is really sweet."
Like Jackson, Amir has a poetic streak. That's especially evident when he waxes gooey on his favorite subject, a woman named Khadijah Rollins. Quoth Amir recently:
She is a buoy
in the harbor
Dawn is a blues song
after the sound of night rain
and Khadijah's sighs.
"He's a bit of a curmudgeon and sorta funny," says Jackson, attempting to explain Amir's appeal to total strangers. "I think, now that he's seeing somebody, that's more of interest to people."
Jackson's assumption is proving correct. As Amir's relationship with Khadijah has blossomed, so has the intrigue surrounding him. But that curiosity has given rise to speculation.
"Some people want to know if he's really me," says Jackson with a coquettish grin.
Jackson is a gentle, sensitive man with a poet's sympathetic eye and a jazz musician's melancholy soul. He's a born teacher, patient and generous with his philosophical insight, and he's an unabashed romantic. But when the mood strikes — say, when he ruminates on being a black man in lily-white Vermont — his comments can cut to the bone.
Come to think of it, Jackson does sound an awful lot like Amir.
"He's kind of outgoing and shy, which is why a lot of people figured he was me," says Jackson. "If Superman is here, where is Clark Kent?" he says facetiously.
"If people want to speculate, that's fine," Jackson continues, then concedes, "It's a funny relationship."
So why doesn't Amir — assuming he is real — simply get his own Facebook account?
"I've asked him this many times," says Jackson. "I'm guessing it's the contradiction. Like in The Wizard of Oz: 'Pay no attention to the man behind the curtain.' I think he likes the adulation."
The going theory among skeptics is that Amir is a creative writing exercise, a vehicle through which the typically demure Jackson can express more profound, revealing emotions than he otherwise might. Here's Amir in the wake of last month's acquittal of the Minnesota cop who killed motorist Philando Castile:
The other night
as I was driving home-
I reached my free hand
across the passenger seat.
I imagined you holding it
before the light changed,
then I returned both hands
to the wheel.
I found a parking space
two blocks from my apartment
beneath a huge maple
(Lord I love this city)
and turned to kiss you anyway.
If Amir is a fiction, then Jackson has crafted a rich and detailed backstory for him. Reportedly, Amir is in his mid-seventies. He's a world traveler but belongs, heart and soul, to his native Detroit. The city is as much a part of Amir as Washington, D.C., is of Jackson.
For 30 years, Amir has worked at the HangTime Barber Shop. (Googling barber shops by that name in Detroit turns up no results. But there is one in D.C. Hmm...)
"He's the barber emeritus, the storyteller, the griot," says Jackson.
Amir has an adult son in Portland, Ore., but doesn't talk about him often. He refers to himself as a "fallen Muslim" and a "spiritual mutt." He has been a teacher, like Jackson, and was an ardent civil rights activist in the '60s and '70s, an era Jackson believes Amir has never quite left.
"He's kind of stuck in the past," says Jackson. He adds that you're likely to find Amir sporting a dashiki and humming Marvin Gaye or Johnny Cash tunes as he sweeps hair from the floor or takes out the trash.
Amir is also a jazz head. He was a friend of Jackson's late older brother, Al. Jackson claims he met Amir at a jazz festival in Motown in the 1970s.
Jazz led Amir to Khadijah. One afternoon he was sipping tea in a café while an old Eric Dolphy album played in the background. "She was whistling the solos in this ballad 'Glad to Be Unhappy,'" Jackson says of Khadijah. "So he introduced himself and asked her out."
Their romance surprised everyone, Amir most of all.
"He told me, 'What am I doing feeling like this at 75?" recalls Jackson. "I said, 'What did you assume, that at a certain age you don't feel things?' And he said, 'I'm a walking slow jam.'"
Amir's friends, Jackson included, say they've noticed a change in the typically crusty barber since he met Khadijah, who now also sometimes speaks through Jackson on Facebook.
As they began dating, Jackson explains, "people at the shop started remarking, 'Amir's not as salty as he usually is.' It has kind of softened him."
"He's a lot more comfortable with his vulnerability and what's in his heart," Jackson continues. "He's a mess. But he's a mess in the best way."
Jackson believes Amir's increased openness is part of what draws strangers to his secondhand musings.
"I learn more about him on a daily basis," says Jackson. "When I was a kid, I looked for men who were not afraid to be, among other things, more honest, vulnerable, tender, even. He's inspiring, though I'd never use that word with him.
"He's a teacher for me," Jackson goes on. "I see him risking these things, and I go, 'Oh, my God, that's the real stuff about life.' As a romantic, I do admire his heart and his vulnerability."
The admiration is mutual, as Amir reveals via email — responding through Jackson, of course.
"I have always respected Reuben's abilities as a poet and as translator of other people's experiences — you ever hear his radio show?" Amir writes. "I'm both a semi-Luddite and someone with a lot of heads to take care of." Revealing his dry humor, he adds: "Reub also has a pretty sizable Facebook following (LOL)."
The old barber is amused that people question whether he's a figment of a poet's imagination.
"People can be so literal-minded, right?" he writes. "I am Reuben's friend, his seventysomething mirror. We are joined at the heart, but I would never trade my beloved Detroit for the Green Mountain State."
"I'm the chronicler," Jackson insists. "I just write what they tell me."
But the arrangement is beneficial for him, too.
"I think he pushes me, even as a chronicler," Jackson says of Amir. "It makes me consider how much I'm pushing myself in my own stuff."
Jackson says Amir texts and emails him frequently, and they talk on a landline once a week about pretty much everything. Well, almost everything.
"I don't push him about whether or not he's in love," says Jackson. "Because he would just say, 'Fuck you.' Which would tell you, of course, that he was."
"People say I seem more optimistic, that I smile more, whistle more Luther Vandross ballads around the barbershop," Amir admits. "I don't think they are lying. The rest is in the poetry, Brother Bolles."
Yes, it is:
I'm writing Reuben
from the couch.
Love's a multi-movement
When a brother waves
on a mild spring afternoon
my old heart blossoms.
Jackson says he's frequently asked what's next for Amir and Khadijah.
"How would I know?" he says, a coy smile belying his exasperated tone. He winks and adds, "What's next? We'll find out."