I'd like to say thank you to everyone who has supported me on my journey to completing my first novel. To those of you who don't know me or my work and are visiting this page for the first time, welcome.
Over the next few weeks, I hope to share with you a little of my progress as I begin research on my new book -- a yet-to-be titled historical novel, set in the 1920s and involving the founding and establishment of The Brotherhood of Sleeping Car Porters, the predominently African-American labor union, led by A. Philip Randolph. Sleeping car porters worked on the railroads, cleaning and preparing sleeping cars and acting as valets and waiters for passengers. The union struggled for more than a decade before they received recognition and equity from the Pullman Company.
As part of my research, I'll be traveling by train from Oakland to New York City, following the path of those porters from years ago. This trip will include a visit to the A. Philip Randolph Museum in Chicago. Along the way, I'll be sharing with you what I learn and experience. Thank you for coming along.
Monday, August 6, 2007
Chicago Blues Shuffle, p. 3
(Whatta You Gonna Do? – Louis Armstrong) How could I screw this up? I planned this entire trip just to get here. How did I miss this? Why didn’t I call? Because I had been checking the website.
Now I was certain that this was a mistake. Obviously, the heat and the lack of food had diminished my hearing, so I called back (If anyone is recalling what my dad said about insanity, just shut up). I get the same message. I don’t know whether I should cry or bitch but since I am facing certain dehydration, I elect bitch.
So I called my friend – in New York because I figured she was at home, at a computer and maybe a sympathetic ear. Thankfully, she answers the phone. She patiently listens to me wail the blues. I ask her to check the website because maybe I made a mistake. I thought I knew the dates when the museum was open. I feel some vindication when she tells me that nowhere on the site does it mention that the museum will be closed; (she even called) however, this small comfort was doused when she asked why I didn’t call. (Don’t Explain – Billie Holiday)
Pick a reason -- I assumed (erroneously) that the website information was current. I lived out-of-state and I was cheap. A telephone call seemed obsessive. I’m shy. (Arrgh) Regardless, I was still hoping that I could salvage this excursion. I was going to go to the museum anyway. (Look, I still had to get back to the Metra station.) With any luck, (though I don’t know why I’d begin to have any now) someone might be around. I could leave a note and maybe get a contact as a result. Also note that the entire time that this exchange is taking place, I haven’t stopped walking. I still don’t see anything remotely looking like Maryland Avenue, so I give my girl the number of the nearest address and she uses MapQuest to get directions. She tells me that I have over a mile to go to get there.
I was hungry, hurting and lost. Worse, I needed to go to the bathroom. (Baby, Please Don’t Go – Big Joe Williams) I pass the Gwendolyn Brooks Academy and though I was in too much pain to rejoice in signs, I’m glad to see it.(Gwendolyn Brooks Academy is also the former site of the public school built by George Pullman in 1915.)
I first read Gwendolyn Brooks at U.C. Berkeley in a class with the great Barbara Christian as my professor – a course that introduced me to many other writers. Most of my life, I knew very little about black writers, less about black women writers. I suppose the first inkling I had had was when The Color Purple (the movie) generated so much controversy. I read The Bluest Eye for the first time as a senior in high school. My parents had taken me to see A Soldier’s Play, I suppose, when I was in junior high. After all of those experiences, I lay awake in my bed, replaying words and scenes in my head, feeling kinship to these characters, maybe more than the authors. Their lives, maybe their interior lives more than their surroundings, echoed mine more than the cartoony images I saw on television. They were complex and contradictory, the way I knew myself to be, yet felt wasn’t allowed.
(Nobody’s Blues but Mine – Bessie Smith) Most of my adult life I spent doubting my ability to create stories that combine emotional honesty and art, simply because I was afraid to fail. Completing my first novel was a triumph over the fear that dogs me. I also know I’ll face those fears all over again as I create this novel. This wild excursion might be a metaphor for that creative process. Don’t we always begin with enthusiasm and a plan and find ourselves sidetracked and taking unexpected detours, always struggling to get back to that original vision… or maybe it’s just me.
I had finally gotten to the Metra Station and turned onto Cottage Grove. I’m at 111th and I have to get to 104th. I was almost there. I pass this construction site, unidentified but I feel certain that it must be the former site of the Pullman factory, being torn down for development. There are no signs, indicating what it was or what it will become. Even looking at the maps, it is difficult to identify the specific building I was passing. Only a few more blocks, my feet were swollen and I was dehydrated, I distracted myself by looking at the housing, I’m sure George Pullman built. How would he feel -- seeing black folks in the utopian community he tried to build and watching the empire he built being slowly dismantled until all that is left is the name he gave it? (Lord, if that would only happen to Donald Trump. Kidding…I’m kidding, sort of).
After a few blocks, I approach the building and my minute hopes sink when I see an empty parking lot. The building three stories tall, surrounded by a high wrought iron fence, looks empty and lonely. The windows, though, uncovered are darkened. I can’t even get close enough to peek through a window or slip my card under the door or in a mailbox slot. Or go to the bathroom. I take pictures. It’s all I can do.
It’s been almost four hours since I left the hotel. Over a week since I left California and it appears that I’ll return to both empty-handed. I leave after only a few minutes and begin the pilgrimage back to the station, trying not to think about my feet and trying not to feel humiliated. (This Bitter Earth – Dinah Washington)
It would take me another hour to get back. The 111th/Pullman station was a local, so several trains passed by without stopping. The station, itself, had neither agent nor bathroom. Mostly it was a shack and a platform. From there, I had a panoramic view of the world that was and is Pullman, re-inventing itself. It crossed my mind to walk to the 115th, where I began but my feet couldn’t take it, so mostly I sat, listening to my iPod and contemplating the blues.