July 16, 2011

I Came for My Tux...

  January 16, 2010

After sneaking a few spoons of Irish oats from my son's bowl, I started my Saturday with a trip to the drycleaner. I always enjoy these brief visits with Park, the owner, because he is on my list. You see I keep a mental list of people that I enjoy talking to because they always impart some wisdom, some jewel that I tuck away and unfurl when the time is right. So you don't walk away from this questioning yourself-yes, you are on the list. It is actually a working document made up of all of the people that I have met, will, and hope to meet before it is said and done, but that's not what this is about.

When the normal pleasantries were dispensed with we got down to business. I normally leave with a bit of small business advice, a parenting note or piece of information for the file, but there was no time for that. "Can you believe what happened in Haiti?" he asked. "No", I responded. "It's really incredibly sad and hard to fathom. I mean, how much can one people stand?" He went on to tell me that while he lived and operated a business in Florida he gained immense respect for the Haitian community there. "Really hard working people. They keep to themselves and work hard," Park said, qualities any hard-working and honest immigrant would appreciate. He went on, and the shoe dropped. "I like the Haitians, but I have no respect for the Jamaicans. They are all into the drug selling, and they steal." He might as well have added "They smell and talk funny," all things I heard about any group of people that migrated to the New York borough of Queens I grew up in. When my family moved from Brooklyn to Jamaica Queens in the early 1970's, my new neighbor Ms.Iboni still rushed through the vacant lot next door after a rain to collect the snails that appeared and made wine in her basement. I mean she "made" wine. There was a small wooden pit down there that she actually used to crush grapes with her feet. I bet we smelled funny to her, because she smelled like grapes and the corner market to me, but again, I digress.

In 38 years I have learned to welcome moments like this instead of run from them. I let Park finish, pondered a moment, and responded. "You know not all Jamaicans steal and sell drugs. As a matter of fact, I'm Jamaican." Before he could respond or apologize, something the look on his face told me he wanted to do, I continued. "Well, I'm not from Jamaica, but my grandmother was." I went on to tell him about Ruby Hyacinth Duncombe, born in Kingston in 1897, and migrated to America around 1917. I told him how proud I was when I found her name in the Ellis Island online logs, and how she cooked and baked the best black cake and royal white icing you could buy, all to support herself in a Harlem that doesn't look much like the one that stands now. The bell rang and the door opened for another patron on a Saturday morning pick-up mission, but I was on a roll. I told him about my immigrant Guyanese grandfather, Edward Adolphus Rufus Lord, a member of the freshman class of 1918 at Howard University. He was the first black doctor in Bainbridge Georgia circa 1935, and both brave and fool enough to believe the town needed an NAACP chapter. His death went down on the books as an accident. I also invited him to visit Lord Avenue in Bainbridge if he got the chance, and let him know that if there are any drug dealers on the block, I don't know them.

I paid for my clothes in silence, but we smiled, shook hands, and parted with the relationship in tact. The conversation left me with much to think about, as I pray it did him. On the eve of a national holiday that was fought for to commemorate the life and works of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., and in the midst of a tragedy of mind and body but triumph for the soul in Haiti (yea, though Haiti and her citizens are bowed, they are not broken, and the world's response nourishes the soul) when will we ever get to "the content of one's character" and deal with the individual versus some misplaced stereotype? Can we ever? Can we as Black people acknowledge that we too suffer with color and class consciousness issues and move forward? Why can't we respect and enjoy each cultures individual contribution to the word, without infusing our individual assumptions and opinions? Why are people so damned scared to discuss race in this country?
Dr. E.A.R. Lord

June 19, 2011

Get in the Game!

During a recent phone conversation with my friend and mentor Chris, I began to outline the frame of a business idea I have been mulling over for a few months. In true Chris fashion he cut me off in the middle of my elevator pitch, laughed, and said,” Let’s do it.”  Before traces of the old me could surface and I rambled on with a Letterman’s Top Ten List of why I wasn’t ready for the opportunity, he went on. “Not only do I think that’s a good idea, but at the end of this month I’m speaking in front of a group with 800 members that work with what you just outlined. Make sure you’re there and I’ll introduce you to some people. You’re a pretty smart guy, don’t worry. Just get in the game and you’ll figure the rest out. ”

     Today on our leisurely Sunday excursion (where I kidnap the family after church and drive around Georgia while my son gives in and falls asleep in the back and the wife just hums and waits for the car to give out of gas) the Mrs. was reading the paper.  After a chuckle she said, “Henry Winkler showed someone a picture he took and they gave him a book deal.” What?! What do you mean? I know self-published authors that hawk their books whenever and wherever they can not only to move units, but in the hope that someone will get them in at a large publishing house or if all the stars are aligned get their work to “Oprah” (insert heavenly harp music here). Not taking anything away from Winkler’s talent, but that had to be one hell of a photo.  She went on to read the passage. Said Winkler, “I was at my oldest son’s wedding in the Bahamas, and I took a picture of the beautiful sky. I showed it to everyone at the table, and fashion designer Cristina Ferrare suggested I meet an agent she knew to discuss a book of my photographs.” In his description of the work Winkler said, “It’s a book of photos I took on the river, in the river, and getting to the river, along with life lessons I learned from the river.” Wow. Deep, right?  C’mon son! 

     Again, no disrespect to Winkler, but what separates “The Fonz” from the guy hawking hand painted scenes of the Caribbean island you visited last, or the vendor at a fair whose booth is chock full of his life’s work? How about the guy at the park that takes black chalk and weathered paper and captures nuances in your face that are so subtle you never noticed them?  I’ll tell you what. Henry Winkler was in the room, at the game, and they weren’t. Here is my humble advice for the day. Take stock of the people you spend most of your productive time with and creative energy on. Are they poised to get you in the room and a ticket to the game? If not, something needs to change, and chances are they won’t.

     Go get in the game. You’re all pretty smart, I’m sure you’ll figure the rest out.

Knock-Knock: A Two-Minute Father's Day Read

         When he would come to my apartment to visit, collect the rent, or say hello, he was never empty handed. The Old Man always managed to bring a book or record with him. He would offer it up at the door with the simple but meaningfully layered instruction to “Check this out.” Some evenings we would sit and talk about the last thing that he delivered. “Did you listen to that Fela album?” “Yeah, I did.” That was usually the last word I got in as he provided the background on whatever or whoever the topic of discussion was.  “Fela brought Afrobeat to the world. Do you know what that is?”  I pretended to answer, but knew the question was rhetorical. As expected, before I could offer a response he interrupted with, “No, I bet you don’t, but you listen to it. I hear it in that ‘house music’ you jump around to.”  This would on occasion go on for hours, especially after he would put on whatever record we were dissecting on his old Champion stereo. The old dinosaur record player was supposed to be portable, but after moving all of my things in I didn’t have the energy to heft that relic to the storage room. I think he was glad I left it in the corner. 

One Saturday morning I heard the familiar gait across the weathered hardwood upstairs, making way to the door of my rented but oh so familiar haunt. “Knock-knock,” then a chuckle and Cheshire cat grin I could imagine through the door as he caught his breath. “Who’s there?” I would answer in a bland and robotic tone.  “It’s your daddy boy.  You look more like the mailman but I fed you all these years so I claim you.”  He would laugh heartily because after all of this time he still thought it was funny. I laughed for the same reason.  After proffering a weeks worth of mail and my rent receipt (he insisted on cash), The Old Man found a seat.  From under his arm protruded a thick book and an album cover I couldn’t see.  I glanced at the worn spine- “The Miseducation of the Negro by Carter G. Woodson.”  Without speaking I made my way to the bachelor’s kitchen he put in before I moved back home and began making coffee, fruit salad and pancakes for two.  Behind me I could hear him working the Champion.  As Coltrane’s “A Love Supreme” danced through the air and mixed with the smell of cinnamon and over-ripe oranges we ate in silence, both of us respecting the solemnity of the moment.

When years of unfiltered Camels, Chivas Regal, and the acute loneliness that only a widow knows caught up with The Old Man we had a simple but well-attended service.  He would have liked that. Two weeks later at the reading of his will (who knew he had a will?) I received the key to his old canvas and leather packer trunk and an envelope. When I got home I sat in silence for what seemed like hours before opening the sheath. In his thick but legible script was written “Knock-knock! Between the lines and notes you will find your truth.”  Fingering the well worn key I opened the trunk.  Inside was the deed to the house sandwiched between every rent payment I ever made. That gift was undergirded by scores of albums and books: from Brahms to Billie Holiday, Mozart to Miles Davis. There was Shakespeare, Khalil Gibran, and distinctively dog eared copies of the Bible, Koran, and Torah. Books and records formed a parallel pallet from the floor to the ceiling of the trunk, some leather bound hardcover and some paperback. Others were wrapped in plastic or thick patterned and colorful material that looked and smelled like the men at the corner market (“We Sell Halal”).  

Brought to my knees by the realization that my friend, mentor, and father was gone, I pulled a record I had never heard before from a haggard sleeve, turned on the record player,and cried myself to sleep.