Rembert Browne is a writer for Grantland Magazine and an exiled native of Atlanta, Georgia. Follow him for existential tweets, despairing tweets about Atlanta sports teams, and links to very good writing.
I only follow a few hundred people on Twitter. Many of them are largely silent and of those who tweet regularly, their opinions about the world vary, but I like them all. I don’t have time to hate-follow anybody.
So assembling this list was tricky. Ultimately it was people who had taught me something, people with authentic personalities, those who interacted with other people with kindness – it was all way too intuitive to call it a system. If you click here, you’ll find a link to the live Twitter feed of #IRLProject participants, and there’s a chance that if you see Rembert Browne’s tweets, you’ll be tempted to think they are stream of consciousness murmurings and not the crumbs he is dropping to lull you into a false sense that you know exactly who he is—the life of the party, the point guard who can’t go to his left, the kid from Atlanta. But I have read too many of his words, and between the lines of too many of those tweets. I think Rembert Browne in fact, is Inigo Montoya; that at some unknown day in the future he will gleefully announce, “I am not left-handed either,” and proceed to rip every false notion to shreds. He’s the guy who wrote a 65 day Countdown to Season 2 of the insanely hilarious and raunchy, “Broad City” and the author of a thinkpiece about the #1 album from rapper LeCrae that was practically theology, it was so on point. A sociology major who wrote for the Dartmouth paper and is holding steady at half a Master’s degree in Urban Planning.
I think Rembert Browne in fact, is Inigo Montoya; that at some unknown day in the future he will gleefully announce, ‘I am not left-handed either,’ and proceed to rip every false notion to shreds.
Of all the weird and uncomfortable this project makes people feel, Rembert had a right to feel the weirdest and uncomfortablest. He’s the same age as my oldest son and while I’ve got plenty of friends that age, it’s because my children chose to share them with me, not because I was out looking for them. When he emails, he apologizes for the belated response, and then fires off my favorite line, “I don’t really understand it, but I’m in.”
So it’s funny that he’s the first New Yorker I meet. The weather is terrible and I’ve been inside all morning when he emails and says, “What does today look like?” Last minute arrangements are my home planet, so I could not be been more pleased. He says he works near Lincoln Center and can get away from the office for a bit so we agree to meet at a nearby bar at 4:00. I walk in (late) and spot him immediately. He’s quietly talking on the phone rather than laughing uproariously like his profile picture but it’s definitely him, so I ask the hostess for a table. He hangs up and gives me a hug and at that moment I am homesick for every kid who ever walked through my front door who is now an amazing young adult.
I know he’s on the clock so I get down to business quickly. Also, I think this might help things feel less weird. There is a part of me that wants to say, “So are you dating anyone? I know several great girls…” but I resist that and move on, because that is just too mom-presumptuous even for me and also, as odd as it might seem, Rembert Browne and I have three significant things in common and I want very much to discuss them.
Two are things I could talk about with other people, but the third is one that has left me flailing and which I couldn’t have known until the week before, so I bring it up before I’ve even taken off my coat.
“I have to know, did that road trip mess with your head?” The road trip in question is: Rembert Explains America, an extended project he undertook in the summer of 2013 for his employer, Grantland Magazine. I loved the series at the time, thinking it a perfect vehicle (pun intended) for his strong voice, particular humor, and politely subversive way of reporting hard truths. But I’d never considered what it would feel like to be on the road for that long. I’d only been out for 13 days and I felt like someone had thrown me into a Tilt-a-Whirl and demagnetized my compass. It was traumatic and it was painful and I have very little language to describe it.
He nods sympathetically and talks about his own experiences (I went back and read this piece afterward, feeling for the first time, the discomfort in the midst of his hilarious descriptions) but he also shares an additional detail that is as close as I can come to illustrating Rembert Browne in one story. He tells me he pitched a road trip piece to his editors at Grantland who liked it and suggested a one-month journey. He countered with three.
“I have a great job,” he says without any artifice or false humility, “I’ve gotten to do some amazing things because of it, but I never want it to seem, to my friends or to readers, as if all I do is cool stuff. It’s a job and it should feel like a job. When I suggested three months, I knew it would be hard. I knew there would be days when I wanted to quit, and that seemed about right.”
I knew it would be hard. I knew there would be days when I wanted to quit, and that seemed about right.
I’m slack-jawed. I want to go home every single day and know how lonely it must have been. I know how hard it is to work in a cool place and not take it for granted. A solid work ethic is always a thing of beauty—in a young person the effect is trebled.
“It’s funny to think about it now because it feels like such a long time ago,” he adds with a smile, “Like hanging out with my friends this summer, I realized I missed all of that last year.”
I wonder how I will feel about this trip in retrospect; considered yesterday what it would feel like to tell future grandchildren about it. The people of the #IRLProject are its greatest reward—the road its greatest expense.
Our food arrives. After discovering a shared love of oysters on the half shell and my complete disinterest in figuring out what I want from the menu, Rembert Browne has requisitioned jalapeno grits and Brussels sprouts and I don’t ask a blessing for the food, but oh I am so grateful.
We’re well past the oysters and nearly through the grits when I ask about agenda item number two, because on the same late Monday night, and from opposite sides of the country last summer, we’d both decided to visit Ferguson, Missouri. Why did you go, I ask.
He tells me he was in a bar, that it was two days after Michael Brown’s death and as he read the Twitter feed on his phone, he felt compelled to see it for himself. He is a son of Atlanta, and it feels like the civil rights movement is in his blood, but still he did not tell his mother he was going beforehand. His account of the experience should speak for itself, a tribute to his own courage and that of other journalists who were willing to go in before it was a story. My reasons for going were similar and yet my experience—a day without violence—couldn’t have been more different. And here, I believe, is a crucial truth of challenging stories in this country. Like all of life, there is no one narrative that can be captured in a sound bite. Neither of us trusted the news we were being fed, and both of us came back with stories we hadn’t imagined. The only difference was a big one—I never once feared for my life.
We’ve gone over our time, but I’ve still got one question left. Of all the pictures Rembert has tweeted, at Coachella, or South by Southwest, Burning Man or some incredible sports event, the image that most sticks in my mind is him sitting on a yoga mat with an upturned cardboard box as a desk. I ask about it, wanting some reassurance that this ridiculous leap of faith I’ve taken will somehow turn out all right. He tells me about coming to New York after graduating from Dartmouth, nearly broke after a post-graduation trip. About getting a good job and then losing it when he told his employer that he planned to go to graduate school in the fall.
His undergraduate degree is in sociology and the master’s program was urban planning and when I register some confusion because he is a writer of sports and pop culture, he shakes his head and says, “I know.” He tells me of feeling like he’d made the wrong decision, and how halfway through that first year, the only thing he knew was that he could maybe write his way through it. There were 500 days of graduate school left and on January 1, he committed to a blog entry for every one of them. He talks of writing into a void, having no idea whether anyone is reading and how that shapes your thoughts, frees you in a way, to know what is important. I nod because in all the time I sporadically wrote for my blog, this was the only way I knew to write. If no one was reading, I at least could go back years later, and have some truthful record of my life.
After 100+ days, he got an email from someone at Grantland asking if he’d like to freelance and a few months after that, Bill Simmons had offered him a job when he graduated. Upon learning that the offer was also good immediately, he talked to his mom, quit grad school and never looked back.
“Here is the thing I know,” he says, “I might not be the smartest and I might not be the best, but I will always work the hardest. I knew it would be ok.”
I will always work the hardest. I knew it would be ok.
It’s more than ok. He’s got a good job with health insurance and dental benefits, the hottest accessories of the 21st century. He’s got an apartment in Williamsburg and a close circle of friends, many of whom are writers. His Twitter feed is mostly silliness, which he freely admits, but he is also a generous tweeter of the work of these friends, as they are of him. I ask about this characteristic I so often see in much-maligned Millenials – their eagerness to tout the good work of their peers, closed rank competition a thing of the past.
And in his answer, I see that Rembert and I have one more thing in common. He is the OG of the #IRLProject.
“If there was someone I followed whose work I liked, I reached out and said, ‘let’s meet up.’ And even though we mostly work for different sites and companies, we’re sort of like colleagues, sharing ideas or asking for help in getting stuff out. Yeah, there are times when I’m like, ‘Man I wish I’d written that,’ but it all comes around.”
Yeah, there are times when I’m like, ‘Man I wish I’d written that,’ but it all comes around.
Our waiter brings back the boxed up remainder of our second order of grits and brussel sprouts and I hand them off, along with an admonition to visit Kansas City and the Negro Leagues Baseball Museum. He thinks this might be a good trip to make with his mom. He’d told me earlier that she was the one who taught him about this crucial part of our history.
We walk to his building and say goodbye. It’s not till I see him tweeting later that night from the Stevie Wonder concert that I realize he never once gave me the impression that he had somewhere he needed to go. What I want more than anything at that moment, is to text his mother and say, Here is your son when you aren’t looking—your fingerprints are all over this good human. Way to go.