Distancing #52: Sign o’ the Times - Believer Magazine
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Distancing #52: Sign o’ the Times

by Rob Dozier
September 23rd, 2020

I hate going to the pool. Any body of water that isn’t the ocean, if I’m being totally honest. For a long time, the thought of taking my shirt off anywhere besides the shower or my bedroom triggered a fight-or-flight response, but once I lost the baby fat and puberty was done with me I realized how silly that was. Really what I hate is the water. Not just the stench of chlorine that lingers on your skin long after the heat of the sun dries you off, nor the way it carries the invisible filth that bodies leave behind, though I admit that’s part of it. It’s the risk. I’ve prided myself on my independence since I was young—more because adults complimented me on it than because I really thought it about myself—but the deep end of the pool has no regard for pride. 

We all have to accept some level of danger; we weigh the threat, the same way we do when we drive a car or try a new barber. Maybe that’s what makes it fun for some. Maybe that’s why it’s never been my thing. Poolside, there’s a web of explicit social contracts that mitigate the danger. Adults look after kids, older kids look after the younger ones. Lifeguards enforce the cardinal rules: no running, no diving. Everyone looks. Everyone is looked after. All to stave off the inherent threat. When you’re drowning though, faith is all you have. Faith that someone, anyone, will notice. Your own body isn’t enough. You need someone else’s strength to lift your head above water.


It’s summertime in the Bronx, the time of year that everything comes alive. All the matters relegated indoors during the colder months start to happen out in the open again. It feels like everyone is in the streets. Block parties pop up every weekend. Fights too. 

But things are different this year. I don’t leave the house too much these days, and when I do it’s usually because I have to. To get to my favorite grocery store on East Tremont, I have to pass the public pool at the end of my block, one of the pandemic’s many casualties. It sits empty now, leaves and dirt caked at the bottom, the gate padlocked. The block-long lines of kids accompanied by parents or grudging older siblings are somewhere else, passing the time some other way. 

There are only a few intentionally communal outdoor spaces in my neighborhood, but my neighbors make do, the way you do when you don’t have a choice. Sidewalks take the place of front yards, building courtyards serve as meeting places, and it’s not unusual, even now, to see a couple of old-timers posted up on the corner or in the park with their portable speakers, listening to bachata or old soul records. A global crisis couldn’t change that. But it’s undeniable: my neighborhood has changed. The sounds of ambulances transporting the sick are long gone, and what’s left is an uncharacteristic silence. The pool sounds that normally score the season, at least for me—the lifeguard’s whistle, the slosh of the water, the laughter and screams—haven’t left anything in their place. 

I don’t like the quiet, so I’ve been listening to music to fill it. Not in the way I did before, carefully crafting playlists to make my commutes into Manhattan more bearable; I now listen with less intention, lying in bed or cooking or showering. I pop in a CD and zone out, or let Spotify’s algorithm serve up whatever it thinks I want, or even look up an album I used to love and swim in those memories. In a way this has been helpful. Despite how stuck I feel, it reminds me that time still stretches out in front of and behind me. 


Prince occupied a place in my imagination long before I had a relationship with his music. His experiments with gender, the silky blowouts and the eyeliner, excited me and terrified me and stirred me to assess my own identity in ways I hadn’t previously considered. In high school I started consuming his records with the zeal of a recent convert, going through every album I could get my hands on, watching live performances, interviews, award shows, trying to glean whatever I could. How could I conjure the same self-assurance, the confidence to refuse definition by anyone else, that he wielded so fiercely? Maybe that’s why I’ve felt compelled to revisit him now, when I once again feeI I have so little control over the circumstances of my life.

I recently returned to Prince’s 2004 Rock & Roll Hall of Fame induction ceremony. His performance is both casual and captivating, in a way only he could pull off. He’s decked out in a pearly white suit, with an asymmetrical coat and a microphone shaped like a pistol. He performs a few of his biggest hits, but it’s “Sign o’ the Times,” from his 1987 record of the same name, to which I’d never paid much attention until now, that sticks out to me. He wrote the song in 1986, but it feels particularly prescient now. 

I like to imagine Prince feeling like I feel now while he was working on the album, searching for an answer to the question of how to continue. In 1986, from what I can imagine, the world was in a similarly catastrophic state. The HIV crisis was fastening its grip on the world, the crack epidemic was claiming cities across the country, and so was a wave of violent crime—with Black Americans at the center of all of it. The threat of nuclear disaster also loomed, even more than it does today.

The title track is the only place on the album Prince directly addresses this state of affairs. Over a repetitive synth sample and a sparse drum pattern, he paints several vignettes: a man and his girlfriend contract HIV from intravenous drug use, his cousin gets hooked on drugs, a group of kids form a gang, a woman kills her child out of desperation and poverty. At first, on the studio version, his delivery sounds removed, like that of an omniscient narrator. But as the track continues, his voice gives way to weariness. The weight of this knowledge, of the abject cruelty and disenfranchisement that persists against Black and other marginalized people, sounds almost too much to bear. There’s an urgency to his pleas for an answer to the question of how one can find peace while also knowing these things to be true.

Is it silly, no? when a rocket ship explodes
And everybody still wants to fly
Some say a man ain’t happy, truly, until a man truly dies
Oh, why? Oh, why?

Sign o’ the Times is not an explicitly political record; the rest of it is mostly clever songs about relationships and sex and love, an instruction manual for having a good time. Still, the worldview illustrated on the album has been particularly enlightening to me. On “Play in the Sunshine,” Prince’s message is clear. Pleasure is a priority, maybe even the most important one:

We’re gonna play in the sunshine, we’re gonna get over
I’m feelin’ kind of lucky tonight, I’m gonna find my four-leaf clover
Before my life is done, some way, somehow, I’m gonna have fun

Sex and partying are usually cast as indulgent acts of escapism, but Prince’s gospel of hedonism is not opposed to political action. Rather, he asserts that the pursuit of love and connection and joy and pleasure is inextricable from wanting to live in a better world. They’re both pursuits that require hope and action and presence. Salvation isn’t some ideological clarity that we’ve yet to reach; it’s the freedom to explore and be recognized and live in harmony with our truest selves. And it can be achieved only through connection and communion, be it on a dancefloor, at the altar, or at the pool.

Walking to dinner the other day, I passed a group of kids playing around an open fire hydrant, their parents watching from across the street in lawn chairs arranged in a circle on the pavement. Their music and laughter echoed up the block as I turned the corner of East 180th. When summer ends, I hope the silence ends with it. 

— Rob Dozier
The Bronx, day 170

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