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 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.

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