Some Things I Never Thought I'd Do (4 page)

4

O
SNE OF THE PROBLEMS BLACK
folks have is we're usually so busy making history that we don't take the time to record it. We keep forgetting that the one who shapes the story defines the hero and the hero defines the best of what a people can be. What's that African proverb about the hunter always being the good guy until the story is told by the lion? That's why Beth is donating Son's papers to Morehouse and why she's so frustrated at their seeming inability to put things in order.

The day of my arrival, Beth was scheduled to be in Macon, about an hour up the road, so we made plans to meet the next morning for breakfast. I scheduled a meeting with the Morehouse folks so I'd have an idea of what we're talking about without having to depend on Beth to give it to me straight.

Son was, in many ways, a perfect role model. He worked hard, graduated top of his class at Morehouse, and passed the bar only one year after graduating with honors from Emory Law School. It was Son who encouraged Beth to write her book and financed the whole operation so she could hold on to the rights and the profits. It was Son who started raising money for Morehouse scholarships and mentoring high school guys while Beth concentrated on the girls. It was Son who recognized the political potential of all those single mothers looking for a chance and told Beth they should have a voter registration table in the lobby wherever she spoke. It was also Son who wanted to start his own program for the brothers because he said it didn't make much sense to have a whole lot of enlightened women looking for love in the arms of a whole lot of unenlightened men.

There couldn't be a better place for Son's legacy to take shape than at the very institution where Martin Luther King Jr. first encountered the work of Mahatma Gandhi. It all sounded good on paper, but what I was encountering this afternoon was not Gandhi, but the reluctant admission that Son's Legacy Project was going nowhere fast.

“I can't believe there's been no progress at all,” I said, following the Morehouse archivist down into the bowels of the old library building.

I'm sure my tone reflected both my incredulity and my displeasure, and Mr. Freeney, a dapper little man carrying a hundred or so extra pounds on his small frame, ducked a little like he thought I might revert to universal school-yard behavior and smack him right on the back of his round, brown head.

“The college agreed to handle this months ago,” I said. “How can you tell me now you haven't even gotten started?”

“Budget cuts. There is no archival staff left,” he said gently as we came to a halt in front of a door marked storage. “There's just me. They let everybody else go. I don't know what's going to happen when I leave.”

He reached into his jacket pocket and brought out a giant ring of keys of all sizes and began searching for the right one among the many unmarked others. He tried a key that didn't fit. Tried another. No luck.

“I'm sorry,” he murmured. “I've been meaning to label these.”

The next key he tried finally fit, and he turned it with visible relief, opened the door, and flipped on the light switch. There, haphazardly stacked in brown U-Haul boxes were all that was left of Son's thirty-five years on the planet. Inside each box, I knew, were speeches, articles, letters, trip journals, smiling photographs with beaming young mothers and their sons or equally delighted corporate donors handing over the checks that made Son the college's top fund-raiser five years in a row.

But none of this was in any kind of order. The boxes hadn't even been opened since Beth's staff packed everything up and sent it all over. At this rate, there was no way anything was going to be ready for the public by the first week in May.

“All right, Mr. Freeney,” I said. I wasn't here to fuss. I was here to
fix it
. “I think we've got some work ahead of us. Do you have a suggestion for how we ought to proceed?”

The dusty air in the windowless room was oppressively still. The radiator hissed and rattled, and, even with the chill in the air outside, it had to be ninety-five degrees in that room.

“I do, I do,” he said, ushering me back out into the hallway. “I think
you
should take over the processing of the Davis Collection.”

He must have seen the surprised look on my face because he rushed on without stopping for breath like he wanted to get it all out before I said no.

“That would simply entail going through all the materials and producing an overview of what we've got. Then, later, we can separate the professional from the personal, arrange them chronologically, cross-reference for names, events, and public honors.”

“I'm not an archivist,” I protested. “I'm here to pull the program together. This is not my responsibility.”

The idea of walking around in Son's life for the next six weeks did not appeal to me. People say that stuff about letting sleeping dogs lie for a reason:
it's true.

“Mr. Freeney,” I said, “I don't think that this is a workable solution to our problem.”

He nodded slowly. “Of course I understand, but may I speak frankly?”

“Please.” “I knew Son Davis. I respected him and what he was trying to do. I went to one of his Brothers Only workshops and it changed my life.”

Mr. Freeney took out a spotless white handkerchief and wiped his face from forehead to fat little chin.

“He believed in something, Ms. Burns. He stood for something. Now those papers in there don't tell the whole story—how could they?—but they're a beginning and who knows what young man might find something there to change his life just like Dr. King found something in Gandhi and became someone who could lead his people toward freedom.”

Mr. Freeney reminded me of the movement people who were my parents' closest friends. They were still waiting for a leader to arise who would pick up where Martin and Malcolm and Medgar and all those unnamed martyrs left off. The possibility, however remote, kept them from becoming cynical, which is always the greatest threat to failed revolutionaries. Son seems to have done that for Mr. Freeney, just like Beth did it for me for a little while, and I know it's worth a lot. Cynicism is as deadly as cancer. It just takes longer to kill you.

He saw me wavering, and his voice was gentle. “I just think that his papers can be useful in a way that a big ceremony just can't. I think the legacy that truly honors Brother Davis is sitting right there in those boxes.
Waiting.

I didn't say anything to that, and we walked in silence back up the stairs to his office. I was mentally trying to calculate how many hours it would take me to go through all those boxes.

We reached Mr. Freeney's office and he pointed me toward a delicate antique rocker with a tapestry seat cushion. He eased himself into an equally delicate old swivel chair squeezed behind a classic rolltop desk. Overflowing bookcases lined the walls, and a fat calico cat was snoozing on the well-worn oriental rug. He was waiting for me to say yes or no to his proposition.

I closed my eyes, remembered the weasel, and resigned myself to the inevitable. “If it's my job to pull this collection together, then that's what I'll have to do.”

Mr. Freeney sighed with relief. “Can we shake on it to seal the deal?”

“I'll need to move the papers once I get settled,” I said. “Move them?”

The idea made him nervous. Archivists like to keep things locked up so they can't wander off.

“I'll get Ms. Davis's permission.”

He rewarded me with a smile. “Of course, of course. You can't very well work in the basement, can you?”

I shook his hand again, promising to let him know as soon as I finalized my living arrangements. We had settled the big questions. The rest of the details could wait until later. It was time for me to find a place to live.

5

I
WAS LOOKING FOR A PLACE NEAR
the campus so I could walk to meetings. I had rented a car, but I like to walk. My own car had been traded away for dope a year ago, and I haven't had the money to buy another one. At first, it was horrible. I bitched and moaned every time I had to leave the house and walk the three blocks to the mass transit stop. I bummed rides and tried to borrow my friends' cars until they made me stop asking.

After a while, I had no choice, so I resigned myself to it, complaining mightily all the while. Then I started seeing the same people at the station every day and started speaking to them. Before I knew it, I was enjoying the chitchat we'd exchange until the train arrived.

After a few more weeks, I even started enjoying the walk. I'd take the long way instead of the shortcut, and, pretty soon, I even started recognizing my neighbors. After I got out ofrehab, they all welcomed me back like I'd been away to war. The little old ladies around the corner actually baked me a pie and brought it over covered with a clean white dish towel like they were going to the county fair. That's the kind of community I like—a bigcity neighborhood with a small-town sensibility—and it's just like the neighborhood that surrounds this campus.

A few years ago, the idea of taking an apartment around here by choice would have been problematic at best and foolhardy at worst. The Morehouse campus, like a lot of black colleges, was then a small oasis in the midst of an area plagued with crime, drugs, homelessness, and unemployment. I never lived in this neighborhood during my five years in Atlanta, but the stories that made the news about it did not inspire confidence.

But then things started to turn around. The crime went down, and the spirit went up. The mall reopened, and restaurants were always full of paying customers. Trash on the street disappeared, and community gardens dotted the landscape. Kids walked home from school in safety, and women moved around at night without looking over their shoulders.

Ebony
and
Jet
had both done stories, and the
Washington Post
hailed the area as a model for African American urban communities. I remember being struck by how vague the articles all were when it came to answering the obvious questions:
How did this happen? What was the catalyst for this kind of dramatic change?

More police? The city says no change in routine patrols. Better sanitary services? City trucks come every week, just like always, but nothing extra. None of the official explanations fit here. It was a mystery and one that had intrigued me since I first heard about the transformation. If somebody has figured out a way to get a neighborhood full of black folks to live together like they have some sense, I was more than a little interested in how they did it.

There was no denying the neighborhood had undergone a startling transformation. Gone were the boardedup crack houses and overgrown vacant lots. The streets were clean of litter, homes and lawns were uniformly well tended, and garden plots, lying fallow until next month's spring planting cycle begins, were fenced off and identified with signs proclaiming their membership in the West End Growers Association. It really did have the feel of a small town, even though you could look over your shoulder and see the skyscrapers of downtown Atlanta less than ten minutes away.

I left the campus with no particular destination in mind and just walked around for a while. I wasn't nervous. I've been living in the black community all my life, and I'm very much attuned to its specific pleasures and equally specific dangers. One of the first things my mother taught me was how to tell the difference between
hostile
and
crazy
. This is an important distinction in all black environments since the insanity of American racism is too much for some black folks to handle, and we will
go off
, but in different ways and with different consequences for those who find themselves in close proximity at the moment of madness.

It is important to know, for example, that the guy who quotes Scripture at the top of his lungs is startling, but probably not dangerous like the steely-eyed shadow boxer who never says a word and squints at each person he passes as if deciding whether or not to throw a punch in his direction. The only ones who really scare me are the young hoodlums who claim as many corners as they can hold, sell as much as they can of whatever drugs we're buying, and make the streets a minefield not easily negotiated by the faint of heart.

Last time I drove through here four or five years ago after a late-night meeting on the campus, there were hardeyed young predators on every corner, and I locked my doors for fear of being carjacked before I could get back on the freeway. This time it didn't feel dangerous at all. It just felt
alive
.

I stopped for the light before crossing onto Ralph D. Abernathy Boulevard and looked around. The rapid transit station nearby was receiving and disgorging passengers who seemed to be a mix of students, young mothers, and working people. The presence of dreadlocked T-shirt and incense vendors, all hawking their wares with great enthusiasm and equal charm, gave the street the feel of a busy third-world market. The absence of aggressive panhandlers or dope fiends asking for spare change was a pleasant surprise.

There were, in fact, no bug-eyed addicts or angry beggars at this busy intersection. Only three young brothers in dark suits and bow ties offering
Muhammad Speaks
or bean pies, depending on whether you were looking to feed your head or your face.

The mall across the street was a bustling beehive of activity with people moving in and out in a constant stream. The Krispy Kreme doughnut shop was flashing a sign for “Hot Doughnuts,” and people in business suits, baggy blue jeans, and all manner of apparel in between were coming out with the long, flat box that meant they had just bought a dozen.

I turned down Abernathy, the area's main commercial strip, and kept walking. After the Krispy Kreme, I passed two men's clothing shops, a barbershop, an African import bazaar where you could also get your braids done, and a tiny Chinese take-out place. The West End News was nestled between a flower shop displaying a huge arrangement of birds-of-paradise that would have driven Aunt Abbie crazy, and a twenty-four-hour beauty salon that claimed expertise in touch-ups, blow-outs, wraps, perms, braids, waves, and weaves.

The windows of the newsstand were frosted so you couldn't see inside from the street, but next door I could see a few sisters in various stages of the hairdo process. One was under the dryer with her eyes closed and a peaceful look on her face. One was being combed out by her stylist, and two others were waiting patiently for their turns under those little heated caps that put the
hot
in hot-oil treatment.

I had never seen a twenty-four-hour beauty salon, and while it seemed like a moneymaking idea, I wondered if the women didn't get nervous leaving at four o'clock in the morning and walking to their cars all alone. On the other hand, if they felt safe enough to do that, maybe these days this neighborhood was the peaceful haven I had been led to believe it was.

Running off of Abernathy were a series of quiet, treelined streets, some with lovingly restored Victorian homes, some with multifamily dwellings, and a few small apartment clusters that housed the area's more transient populations without seeming to change the surprisingly serene atmosphere of the community as a whole.

I was strolling down one of those streets whose almost unearthly calm seemed a thousand miles from the bustling energy of the commercial strip. Not that there was no activity here. In fact, there seemed to be brothers in motion all over the place. Over there was a man working on his car. Two doors down was another man repairing a screen door. A little farther on, a man was raking leaves in the yard of a brightly painted cottage with a gaggle of pink plastic flamingos stationed along the driveway like sentinels.

Several of the men inclined their heads slightly to acknowledge my passing by, but otherwise they were all about whatever task lay before them. I realized how good it was to see men around visible and working.
And how rare.
When I heard the voice of Bob Marley coming from the open windows of a house at the end of the block, it seemed the perfect sound track for the serenity of the street.

“Don't worry about a thing
,
'Cause ev'ry little thing gonna be al-right …”

I love that song. I played it so many times when I first got out of rehab that it's permanently etched on my brain. I stopped in front of the house where the music was playing and listened to it like they were playing it just for me.

The building was a four-unit gray stucco with a perfectly manicured lawn and a bright blue front door. The large lot beside it had a sign that identified it as one of the neighborhood's many community gardens and boasted three rows of the prettiest winter collard greens you ever saw. Too bad this building doesn't have a vacancy, I thought. This would be perfect.

That's when the blue front door opened and a man came out wearing a black cashmere overcoat, a black homburg, and sunglasses. He looked like Michael Corleone in
The Godfather
when the boy finally embraced his destiny and became a sho'nuff gangster.

He walked straight over to me, smiled pleasantly, and removed his glasses, rendering me temporarily speechless. “Can I help you?”

It was his eyes!
This brother had the bluest eyes I've ever seen in my life. They were even more shocking—and that's what they were,
shocking—
because he was so perfectly dark.
Africa dark.
His skin was the kind of soft, velvety black you don't see over here much anymore now that we're all so mixed up and miscegenated like good citizens of the twenty-first century. As if in defiance of the Middle Passage, and despite the complicated racial mixtures that define the diaspora, this brother's skin was
original black
.

Did I say he was also fine as hell? He looked like a painting of an African warrior king on one of those black history calendars, except for those eyes. Not baby blue, or gray-blue, or cornflower blue. His eyes were turquoise like the jewelry they make in the Southwest because that's the color of their sky at sunset. Turquoise like the water around the Caribbean islands where all you want to do is drink rum and make love.

I knew I was staring, but I couldn't look away. I took a breath and tried to collect myself. I don't rattle easily, but I hadn't expected Aunt Abbie's vision to kick in quite so fast.

“Do we know each other?” He was still smiling.

“I … I was just listening to the music,” I finally stuttered. “Bob Marley.”

“My painter is a big reggae fan,” he said. “I hope it wasn't disturbing you.”

“Oh, no. Not at all. I'm … I'm a reggae fan, too. Old school.”

His eyes actually seemed to twinkle at me. “Are you new to the neighborhood?”

“I wish,” I said, wondering when the big black Lincoln had pulled up soundlessly to the curb behind me. “There don't seem to be many vacancies around here.”

He looked at me for a long moment, which was fine with me because it gave me an excuse to look back. I wondered if those eyes ran in his family. I could just picture them all sitting around the dining room table, twinkling at one another.

“This place has a vacancy,” he said.

“It does?”

He took off his hat and extended his hand. “I'm Blue Hamilton. I own this building.”

I didn't have to ask why they called him Blue. His hand was cool to the touch, but not rough.

“Regina Burns.”

“It's the unit on the left, straight up the stairs. It's freshly painted, reasonably priced, and you'll be completely safe.”

“How much is the rent?”

He smiled. “Why don't you take a look at it and, if you're interested, come by my office at the West End News. I'm sure we can work something out.”

“All right,” I said, remembering the newsstand with the frosted windows. Did he own that, too?

“Aretha can show you the place and answer any questions you have. If you like it, you can pick up the key this afternoon. How's that?”

“Wonderful,” I said. “The truth is, I was standing here hoping there was a vacancy in this building just before you came outside, so your timing is perfect.”

“That's my job,” he said, as the man standing at the curb opened the rear passenger door. “I'm pleased I could be of assistance.”

Then he bowed slightly, walked over to the car, and disappeared into its black leather interior. The man at the curb closed the door, got in behind the wheel, and eased the car on down the street before I could even say thank you.

I felt like I had fallen through the rabbit hole and come out into a peaceful place filled with thriving black businesses, industrious black men, a twenty-four-hour beauty shop, and a blue-eyed gangster with a house painter who likes Bob Marley.

There was only one thing for me to do. Go upstairs and introduce myself to Aretha.

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