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.

Sunday, October 28, 2007

To New York

My uncle drops me off at Union Station and its back to the dungeons for me. (Why are all train stations in major metropolitan areas named Union Station?) It takes me a while to navigate the twisting bowels of the train station, which I realize is now a Frankensteinian labyrinth of the older train tracks, the Metra and the city's older system. Unlike the architecture above ground, this is an uneasy design of old and new. The new is glistening modern, like an underground mall, while the old is cold marble, with towering columns and intricately carved ceilings, a hiccup in time where hobos still slept on wooden benches waiting for a free ride to somewhere more prosperous. These changes are abrupt, patched together so that I walk from one setting to the next, like a time machine.

Luckily for me, Amtrak has a lounge available where I wait, eat what remains of my Chicago-style pizza, call my sister and watch the conclusion of Flight Plan, with Jodi Foster and I wonder if it’s the train company's not-so subtle way of discouraging air travel. When I finally board the Cardinal for New York, its evening and the dank yellowing lights are even less illuminating than when I arrived. I've reached that funny place that we all reach when we travel, when you know that the end is coming soon. Like reaching a certain age and you realize while there is a great deal of the journey left but more is behind you than ahead of you.

I've enjoyed train travel much more than I thought I would. I think a little about what I will write about Chicago one day and about when I will return. Mostly I hope I will do justice to this city and its people. I had this idea in my head and now it’s been erased and I have to, in some ways, start again. It’s okay because I haven't really started yet and this is what the trip was for -- discovery.

We pull out of the city into the countryside. The sights become less urban soon and grayer and darker. It starts to rain. Dribbling raindrops on the window of my roomette and far-off flashes of lightning punctuate the thunder. It’s been a long time since I've seen storms like this one. Always liked the sound of raindrops on windows, it easily puts me to sleep.

Sunday, October 21, 2007

Winding Down the Windy City

My last day in Chicago and I realize that I will miss it. I get up early; though, I still feel disappointed in myself and my feet still hurt, I want to be out and walking the streets and I love cities, like New York and San Francisco, that seemed to be made for walking. I've always loved the early mornings because its the time when you believe that all those things you plan to do are really going to get done and before you realize you were just kidding yourself. I check out and scout out the location of Garrett's for some caramel-cheese popcorn I had promised myself I'd send to my friends in Colorado.

I walk into the bookstore I had passed the night before, which had the air of frat house on Sunday morning. I expected to see an emptied keg, discarded shoes and other debris lying across the bookshelves, instead it was the remnants of streamers, posters, balloons and candy wrappers being picked up by clerks who dragged themselves about as if recovering from a hangover. Three young girls, mostly identically, sat in a row at the counter of the coffee shop; their auburn heads bent at 45 degree angle, eyes downturned towards the latest addition of Harry Potter. I nodded. How could I forget?

I need a little time to myself. I have a date scheduled with my uncles -- uncles I don't know very well. Uncles, I don't know very well, at all. They are my father's half-brothers, born after my grandfather (a man I knew not at all) and my grandmother split up. They had grown up in Chicago, away from my father and his brothers and had only discovered each other after my grandfather's death. This was no deliberate subterfuge on anyone's part, just the result of distance, income and resentment, I think.
I am surprised when I see them later to see how much they resemble my father and my uncles, (the ones I grew up with) -- not just in looks -- (short statures, light almond colored skin and dark hair with a tendency to curl, if they still had it) but in manner: the way they laughed (which they did loudly and from their bellies) the way they spoke (with the same cadences and gestures) and what they spoke about(politics and race). The experience of sitting with them, of talking with them is like being in a house of mirrors, seeing distorted and skewed images of the familiar. I see my father in them and my uncles, but also my cousins, my sister and me and I realize that I was really seeing my grandfather. I wondered about my grandfather, a man I had only seen twice in my life and how much of him was in me. I try to lift those traits we have in common and create a picture of him, this man I never knew, except through my father's and my uncles' stories. So I asked them about him. Their answers, I think, were vague and unsatisfactory, as if they were protecting him or me. Or maybe, because they don't know him either. Maybe it is too intimate a question.

I find myself changing the subject and asking about Chicago. What was it like to grow up there? How has it changed? How is it different or special? Their answers don't surprise. They are proud of the city, proud of its history but frustrated by its racism and politics. As I listened to them argue, first with each other and then with me about various topics-- Harold Washington, economics, immigration, Oprah -- I realized that my story is here. The novel that I intend to write needed to be set in this city. It’s hard to say why but life does happen between the right and the left coasts, one even I failed to fully appreciate and I think I should know better. There was a history here that I need to know and part of it is my own.

My uncles escorted me around various parts of Chicago, including their Walk of Fame and the tomb of Stephen A. Douglass, president of the Confederacy. (Yes, honey, THAT Confederacy!) It was over quickly and I had another train to catch but I could leave Chicago, with a sense of satisfaction, knowing that I was coming back.

Sunday, October 14, 2007

Getting Home Blues (for Betty)

Getting back to the hotel took up the rest of the day. My feet were swollen; I was hungry, hurting in body and spirit. When I returned to my room, I simply put my feet up and my head down. The trip wasn't quite over yet, but I was leaving the next night on the train for New York without getting what I came for; so, for all intents and purposes, it might as well be.

A friend of my sister's, who lives in Chicago, came by and showed me around the city. Her parents grew up here. We drove, not around the Magnificent Mile, but to Bronzeville into neighborhoods where redevelopment was taking place. My tour guide pointed out the changes being made in the various neighborhoods and how gentrification was pricing out even middle-class people, like her. Chicago, again, reminded me of St. Louis, where I was born and my parents were born -- crumbling stone buildings, next to empty overgrown lots and trees dying without grace or growing without attention. Some of these now had been bought and remodeled. Stripped of stonework and wrought-iron, some looked embarrassed, as if they realized they were being made over into something that they were not. In-between, new growth, new buildings, some mimicking their older neighbors, like awkward younger siblings. Their lack of wisdom and experience was painfully obvious. Other times, buildings were restored, as close as they could be to their original appearance and then I could see the neighborhoods that became home to hundreds of black folks, escaping the oppression of southern racism.

We stopped to attend the gallery opening of a friend of a friend, Rosalind McGary at the Steelelife Gallery. The gallery is on the second floor in a small loft-like setting -- wood floors and exposed brick, much like you would expect from a artist-owned space. Rosalind's work is tremendously detailed and meditative. Their power seems to be in their ability to convey both movement and stillness simultaneously. In looking at them, I find my restlessness and my frustration waning. From a distance, her work is deceptively simple, just an interplay of texture and lines; even the mediums upon which she chooses to paint, wood mostly, add these layers of texture and depth. Then you step up to them and you see that in some of these paintings, these patterns have been created by the tiniest dot of paint, each one painstakingly placed to create this mosaic effect. So when you step up to it, the effect is three-dimensional, as if this image is floating off the surface and reaching out to you. The ethereal becomes real. I was a little stunned, both by the effect and the work that I realized went into each piece. I asked Rosalind how long it took her to do one of those paintings. She told me, "I try not to think about it. Depending on the piece, a year or more." Suddenly, I felt a little ashamed of myself. My little setback was nothing compared to the time and commitment she had made to a single painting, even the commitment to her vision of her work. Surely it would be easier to do it another way, but she doesn't.

That is the way it is with all things I think. The BSCP spent ten years, a decade, working to get recognized as a union and that seems like such a long time, when giving up seems so much easier and sometimes, it seems sensible and responsible. That's how treacherous our minds can be. When our lives tells us that our commitment to the truth is an indulgence, a luxury that we can't afford and we believe it, we lose.

Now I was never going to give up but I often wonder why I bother, especially when the rewards seems so out-of-reach. The writing I do, because it requires research, because it is a novel, occurs in a vacuum. I am alone there, in the world created in my own head and though I'd like to invite people in, I can't. Not yet. Its too fragile. I'm the guide and I don't know my way. Yet.

I am really reminded of this when later, after some famous Chicago-style pizza, we pass a bookstore, full of people, streaming out the door with their excitement spilling into the street. Harry Potter and the Deadly Hallows will be released at midnight. Say what you will about commercialism, but that woman spent over a year on public assistance (British version), writing in a cafe, stretching out her cups of coffee and writing her story. Her setbacks, far greater than mine, and the list of reasons to stop far longer than the list to go on. She didn't.

DailyLit: What I'm Reading Now


© 2008 L. Rebecca Harris