I recently finished Man in Black by John G. Hartness. The series is getting better and better and I read it in one sitting. In this installment, our boy, Jimmy Black, is now the top vampire in Charlotte, NC. He’s come a long way, baby. Jimmy has had to grow up in a hurry and figure out how to get serious about his new responsibilities. It’s not easy being the head honcho in the first place, but on top of that, no one is taking him seriously. Not the other vampires, and not even the very human crime boss of Charlotte, Marcus Owen, despite his own deficiencies in the paranormal department. And while Jimmy feels confident in his inherent superiority to a mere mortal, he is not prepared for the effect of Owen’s outsized presence. When Jimmy meets Owen for the first time, he is surprisingly overwhelmed.
As Jimmy learned, presence is an interesting attribute. One either has it or they don’t. And while it might be possible to dampen one’s presence for effect or necessity and grow in presence over time, one cannot amplify a quality that isn’t … present.
But man, oh, man, when it’s there, presence is a force of nature. Have you ever seen Bill Clinton in person? He electrifies a place. President Obama has his fair share as well. Many politicians do. Preachers too. Rock stars and A-list actors may have it more than anyone. When we meet someone with the gift of presence, we know it. They are the ones towards whom all heads turn when they enter a room. Sometimes it’s a function of physical beauty, like Marilyn Monroe or James Dean (if you’re an old movie buff, as I am—think Margot Robbie or Chris Pine if not). But even when the person with presence is beautiful, it’s something more than that. Personally, I think it’s chemical—even when you haven’t actually seen this kind of individual walk into a room, you know they’re there because your lizard brain senses it. And if we become the object of such a person’s attention? Oh, Nelly, things get hot. These people have power.
Power is itself an attribute or sign of presence. Powerful people often feel like they also have great presence. The issue is, which came first, the chicken or the egg? Did Nelson Mandela have presence before he acquired power? Did Elvis Presley? What about Anna Wintour? If we looked at their high school yearbooks, would all of these folks have “Most Likely to Succeed” labels under their awkward teenaged photos (and yes, I understand that Nelson Mandela likely didn’t have a yearbook photo). I suspect that presence of the inherent, chemical variety is a prerequisite for presence of the powerful variety and that the second enhances the first—but can’t necessarily make it stick. Look at Bill Gates; not much presence there, just s geeky guy with enough smarts to change the world. His achievements confer power, and the power bestows a titch of presence, but not really. Bill Gates just doesn’t have it, despite his smarts, his wealth and his power. That’s a great trifecta, but it’s not the same as having presence. Ask Hillary Clinton, who hasn’t “caught” any presence from her husband, which is a shame, because she could use it against Trump, who, unfortunately, has quite a bit of presence.
Presence conveys an illusion of competence, trustworthiness and strength (there could be truth below the illusion, but not necessarily). When a man or woman of presence tells us something, we are apt to believe it. It’s almost like being mesmerized by a vampire. We want to believe this incredible creature who is telling us things with great confidence and weight. We yearn to believe. In fact, depending on the level of personal presence someone has, and the degree to which we consciously or unconsciously want to give up our will, we do believe. It’s an authority and obedience thing.
Presence conveys authority. Which is scary. I remember going to a Michael Jackson concert in the 1980s at a huge stadium in Florida. And as I was looking around at all of the delirious fans, I had the unpleasant thought that if Michael asked his fans to jump up and down squealing like pigs, they would. If he asked them to turn to the person next to them and land a sucker punch, my fear was that way too many would jump on that bandwagon, just because Michael asked. The authority of presence can certainly be abused. We’ve seen that too, all too often.
Presence is a quirky concept. Like pornography, we know it when we see and feel it, but we may not be able to describe it. But it’s hard to ignore when it’s there. I suspect that as overwhelmed as Jimmy was by Marcus Owens’ presence, and as underwhelmed as Marcus was by Jimmy’s, Jimmy Black, Master of Charlotte will grow in presence as he settles into his powerful job. And if that happens, the seeds of that presence were always there. I guess that John Hartness has been waiting quite some time to let Jimmy’s inner badass out. And I also suspect that we will all take notice. Because it’s a big deal when Elvis has left the building.