Sounding for Cool is about self-transformation, about growing up on one’s own as a product of contemporary America, and about how to become not just a man, but a contributing adult in society. Donald Morrill presents the day-to-day lives of seven young men (white, black, Hispanic, immigrant, middle-class, thick-headed, poor, and smart), who for various reasons have become homeless. Placed in a Transitional Living Program facility (TLP) by the courts, these men must learn to navigate in the world of “normal” values and reasonable rules. Streetwise and callow, trained to seek shortcuts or to make excuses, they struggle with the structures and assumptions inherent in living a law-abiding, bill-paying life. While sorting out their souls, they learn how to connect with others.

In turn, Sounding for Cool scrutinizes the staff of the TLP, one woman and three men, who variously come to terms with their lives by settling accounts from the past. As a TLP volunteer, Donald Morrill often finds himself bridging the gap between staff and client. In the process of telling their stories, he chronicles his own journey to understand the past. Ultimately, Sounding for Cool asks the enduring questions, “Who am I in the world and what can I become?”

© 2002
277 pages

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I sit in the office of the Transitional Living Program and ice my busted lip. During basketball–the residents’ group activity of the week–I reached too far in on Andre, just when he drove for the hoop. His elbow in my mug. I deserved it, more than twice Andre’s seventeen years, secretly proud of a purported instinct for the game, pitiable feet slower now than ever.

Andre said nothing about the wound. A pro forma “sorry” doesn’t lodge in his repertoire. I didn’t expect one. Still, his shyness from such niceties, his awkwardness about such a simple exchange, astonishes me and enlarges his foreignness.

The iron tang in my blood. And I think, again, about Andre holding the gun to the woman’s head while his father rifled her purse. He told me that he was ready to pull the trigger, there in that dim parking lot behind a grocery store in his Tampa neighborhood. Andre and his father had watched the woman go to the ATM, had waited, patiently, for her to return to her car. Andre told me that his father always preached to him that a man must help himself, must watch his own back. He recruited his son for this robbery–this man, now in prison on other charges, who fights his war against the world that spits into his black hand rather than shaking it, who spits into his own palm as well, into the lifeline there, the undressable and malignant wounds.

I try to envision Andre with the gun to my head. But I can’t quite escape from thinking of him on the basketball court–tall, his muscular abdomen rippling like a leather shoe tongue no longer banded by laces. All of him so lean: the wing of an ultralight plane. This boy-man with lint pills in his hair after a nap. Hardly ominous.

That woman who felt the hard tube of the barrel jammed against her skull, however, would disagree, no doubt.

What did she think when she heard Andre’s father tell Andre to keep the pistol on her, and then heard this man say “I love you” to his young partner?

“That’s the only time my old man ever said anything like that to me,” Andre told me one afternoon. “He never had no time for me, ‘less he had a job for us . . .”

Frank, the staff resident of the TLP, says Andre’s record contains some B&E’s, some car thefts, some drug arrests, but no violence of this sort. Andre could not have been admitted to the program otherwise. But, then, Andre’s records are incomplete, as are the records of all the TLP residents–as are all our records.

And maybe the robbery is Andre’s invention, his true tale: The Pistol of My Father’s Love. Tales of every sort echo in this place, mostly the stories which the self tells the self. Some of them are worthy lies.

Everybody has a story, people say, meaning (when they’re talking about teenage males with damned autobiographies) get over your tale, and don’t bother (us) with it. And it’s true that more horrific narratives than those of the TLP residents emanate from the daily media. Too many. But who can escape his story?

I daub my lip and think again that soon, our tribe–adults–will not excuse Andre any longer for his fortunes. A few years, or months, from now and that will be the end of our indulgence, our patience and public compassion. He will have passed the age of forgiveness for his follies, if he hasn’t already. The clock is ticking for him and the rest of the TLP residents, and who among them knows that, really? With them, we adults are nearly always in the position of the audience of some Greek tragedy brimming with dramatic irony. Don’t go in there, we cry to each of them, our doomed protagonists. Do this. Want this. Think this.

Andre glances toward me on his way out of the office. Checking on me, maybe. Frank might not be telling me the whole truth about Andre’s record. He’s taken a shine to Andre. He sometimes slap boxes a little with him on the steps. Or he swoops across the green in the center of the TLP and wrestles Andre to the ground like a lion bringing down an impala. Andre grins sickly and happily as he tries to deflect these playful assaults. Though he doesn’t say it, Frank believes that Andre has a good chance to succeed in the program, even though–like Galvin, Salim, Quovonne, and Matt–he’s still in Phase One, has been here only a month.

I’ve been here longer than a month–hanging around since the inception of the program nearly two years ago. Yet I’m somehow also in Phase One, of my own devising. Andre and the others are, as the TLP material says, young men “unable to live with their families as a result of family conflict, or for whom there are no safe alternatives.” They have come here for nine to twenty-four months to “achieve self-sufficiency and avoid long term dependency on social services by gaining employment skills through educational assistance and life skills training.”

In other words: to grow up . . . at least enough.

They used to call me “the book guy” because I was introduced as the man who wanted to write about them. I had proposed this self-involved idea. But the months yielded no coherent pages. Like many men, I don’t understand what I’m talking about when I talk about men of any age or sort, though I believe I know them, beneath articulation. That’s probably why I’m lingering over this adventitious blow from Andre like some rite of passage, and why I’m unduly affected when Matt, say, or Galvin or Quovonne draws close or allows me near. It’s also inescapable that while I’m childless by choice, encounters of this latter sort have, more than once, caused a tear to rim my eye, that stinging. And I blink this effusion to the periphery of things, where, I suspect, most of our crucial matters remain within our vision, if we will notice.

One day riding in the back of Frank’s pickup, another of the residents, Tim, joked about me, “He’s not writing any book. He just wants to hang with us.”

Not entirely false.

I’d like to know them. I’d like to help. I’d like to understand, also, the nature of that tear, its source, how it connects–as intuition insists–to the ocean of human longing and necessity, to others.

About his purpose at the TLP, Andre once told me, “I know this is my last chance.”

“Which last chance is that?” I asked, sensing that he believes he should console adults with such platitudes from time to time.

He squinted off like a homesteader facing his agonized crops. Courtesy of his fastidious iron, a sharp crease ran down the front and back of each leg of his starched blue jeans.

“To get myself right,” he said, turning suddenly toward me. “At least here I don’t have to worry about no crooked cops and good cops and gettin’ shot.”

In their faces, I sometimes sense I am looking into our age as into a broken mirror. Accurate shards, distorted angles, flawed lights, with the cracks like a web, a mesh holding the whole together. From where did the impact come that shattered and rearranged the reflection?

And what reflection do they see in me, in all adults, here at the last chance?

I go out with the final sliver of my ice and sit under the oak tree edging the little green between the two facing banks of white-washed rooms that comprise the TLP: once a parking lot and its motel, built just after World War II. Andre tends coals on a grill donated by the local neighborhood association–decent, anxious citizens with children and property values to protect, most of whom still want to do what’s right and helpful for the Delinquent Youth of America.

Chops and burgers and chicken sizzle as some of the residents gather around the grill. Ghostly smoke. Frank banters with Andre about his jump shot, and I remember another of Andre’s unofficial tales.

One night he rendezvoused to sell crack to another teenager, a dealer, in his neighborhood in Tampa.

“The dude looked all crazy,” Andre told me, “His face buggy, whirlin’ dark. He didn’t have no money, I guessed, so I was fixin’ to split. No reason to be hangin’ on no dark corner with a weirdo.

“Then he comes at me. I think he’s got a knife. I don’t know.

“I grab this brick and hit him in the head. And his eyes go white, like he’s blind, or somethin’, and he falls on the curb.

“I’m runnin’ and not lookin’ back, man . . .

“My friends told me the dude died. I done looked in the paper, but there wasn’t nothin’ I could find ’bout it. I wasn’t askin’ around at the police or the hospital. No way.

“I had some nightmares ’bout that dude’s eyes all white . . . . He was crazy, that guy. I know it was him or me. I know . . .”

All the residents but Quovonne reach for cigarettes. (Smoking is banned everywhere on the property except under the oak.) Showing off, Matt and Tim flip out lighters. Matt opens his by snapping his fingers. In one motion, Tim shakes his as though tossing something away and rakes it down his thigh until it fires. Perfected, by practice, for this moment.

“So, you’ve taken up smoking,” I say to Tim, teasing. He’s in Phase Two and, at seventeen, might still be mistaken in the evening light for a cream-cheeked girl.

“Yeah, black and sweets,” he replies, pinching a cigarillo, sounding for cool.

“He be thinkin’ he a G funk pimp daddy,” Salim declares, putting on his parodic basso thug-voice, and he laughs mockingly.



“. . . is a beautifully, thoughtfully written book. Morrill never writes down to us, never tries to spin easy answers to intractable problems. It’s an important look at what Morrill calls the American “craving for progress” in our lives and the failure of that myth of redemption in the lives of these young men.”
— Keith Ratzlaff, author of Dubious Angels
“Bracing in its honesty, compulsively readable, Sounding for Cool is, finally, transformative in the way good writing should be transformative but rarely is: slowly, incrementally, it forces us—by its unwillingness to accept facile answers, by the force and beauty of its prose—to see the world, and our place in it, differently.”
— Mark Slouka, author of War of the Worlds and Lost Lake