Black History Odyssey: Malcolm who?

Earlier this month, I leafed through a visitors guide while waiting for luggage in the Omaha, Nebraska airport. Our group had flown from Salt Lake City, where we'd had a show the night before. We were headed into a day off and I was determined to make it memorable.

My eyes grazed over the map. Museums? Check. Parks? Great. Bluffs? Promising. And then there beneath the bold letters of NORTH OMAHA I saw: Malcolm X Birth site. Get out of here.

"Did you know Malcolm X was from Omaha?" I asked Neil.

"No wonder he hated white people," he replied.

"Damn," I said, one of my stock reply when I don't know what to say. (Others being "Wow" or simply laughing indecorously.)

"Well, he was. It says right here," I said. We wondered if his birth site memorial was big like the MLK, Jr. compound in Atlanta or small like the Black History Museum in Boise. We made jokes about there being just an X spray-painted on the ground and then we felt bad.

Like it isn't bad enough that Malcolm got past the racial violence inflicted on his family in childhood, got past his own crimes and years in prison, got past his years as a leader of the Nation of Islam, pissing off the US government and freaking out white people, got his ass to Mecca and got transformed by the potential of interracial unity, started speaking more positively and hopefully, and THEN got gunned down?

Considering I'm a shit who only knows who he is thanks to three incredible people: Ms. Harriet Russell, high school teacher; Spike Lee, filmmaker; and Alex Haley, author, I probably shouldn't make light of the fact that he might not be recognized fully for his importance as a leader in the history of civil rights?

The next day Matt and I called a cab from the hotel and told the driver that we wanted to go to the Malcolm X site. The driver said okay, pulled away from the curb, paused a moment, and then asked us if we'd ever been there before.

"Nope!" I said.

"I have to remember how to get there," he replied. "It's been about two, three, years and maybe it's changed but there wasn't much there then."

"There isn't, like, a...museum?" I asked. Matt and I looked at each other.

The driver called his dispatch and asked for directions. A few minutes later dispatch called back and said she couldn't find the Malcolm X place on her computer. They had a screechy radio conversation back and forth about the address and he mocked her.

"She just learned how to use the internet...."

Matt and I looked at each other again. We pulled into the parking lot of a convenience store.

"You've GOT to be kidding me," I said, thinking it was the birth site.

"This isn't it," the driver said. "We're just stopping for directions."

While he was inside, Matt and I ran around, stretched, and confirmed with each other that this was not looking good. We were not feeling the Malcolm X/Omaha pride. It seemed like maybe someone should have taken a cab to his birth site in the last few years. I'd seen it on the map with my own eyes and I remembered there being a corresponding website (that I had neglected to check). Why were we so lost?

"Got it," the driver said. "I know where we're going." We jumped back into the backseat, slammed the doors, and wound through the North Omahan streets until we came to the corner of 36th Street and Pinkney Street.

When I realized that the empty weedy lot with the NO DUMPING sign was our destination, I asked the cab driver to please wait while we walked around. Then I believe I unleashed a whole lot of damns and wows and indecorous laughter. Not because anything was funny; I was just floored.

Having since read more about the corner lot, where the Little family lived shortly with their son Malcolm before they were violently threatened and run out of Omaha by the KKK, I can see why the city doesn't identify particularly strongly with their famous local.

The empty lot has actually come a long way in the years since the owner of the land, Rowena Moore, realized in 1970 whose land it once was and since it was listed on the National Register of Historic Places in 1984. While I didn't think NO DUMPING or the cardboard box or the discarded tire were especially nice touches, it has evidently been a lot worse.

Someone must care. There was a garden in the yard that someone looks after. The lot and surrounding acres belong to the Malcolm X Foundation now and they are planning a future community center on the land. They just, like most non-profits, don't appear to have any money. And it would not appear that the government or anyone else is really hooking them up.

I just keep picturing all those "rangers" I recently saw working at the MLK, Jr. site in Atlanta. There were tours of his home that were too packed for me to get onto and a museum and a gift shop. Maybe the contrast between the two men's memorials is as sharp as the contrast between their styles but I wouldn't go so far as to include their impact. And maybe I'm just naive but I'm still amazed.


Richard Serra

Look, you need to go to this.


If you are in New York, stop what you are doing, find 53rd Street, go to the Museum of Modern Art, and walk though the sculptures of Richard Serra.

Walk the inside perimeter and follow the lines as they sway and swerve and curve.

The edges meld as you move and your depth perception has to work to keep you upright.

It's BIG.

It's cool.


You're not getting in my pants

In New York I face a thicket of emotions as dense as the city itself.

I love its buzz and its edge. The city has the ability, with or without my permission, to suck my marrow through and leave me spent, and in some ways I love this, too, though it's also the reason I left.

I love the vertical height of the city and the moment when I realize I haven't looked up in days because I'm too busy absorbing everything happening on the ground floor. When I do look up, I smile and remember that there is SO MUCH MORE.

I love that I can cross the street whenever and wherever I feel like it and I'm not going to get a ticket and I love that if someone thinks I'm an asshole, they will tell me.

Yesterday I took the A train to 168th Street to visit Jocardo in Washington Heights. I thought about my first time on the subway, how I watched people. I tripped out on how different we all looked from each other. Packed tightly together, different-colored arms and legs and feet pressed against each other, all making our way somewhere. All the skin hues made me think of Benetton ads and the United Nations, but with less eye contact and fewer fake smiles.

Last night I also remembered how it felt sometimes to take the train in the middle of winter, not excited about where I was coming from or where I was going and not having any food at home and stopping for greasy Chinese takeout and carrying the drippy plastic bag the last six blocks through a biting wind. Spilling hoisin sauce on my boots, I used to glance into plate glass windows of restaurants I couldn't afford and saw beautiful people sharing small tables in intimate corners saying clever things to each other. Sometimes I just wanted to cry.

Yesterday Jocardo and I ate together at a restaurant called Jesse's Place in Inwood. My blood sugar had dropped so I felt temporarily shaky and humorless. When our waiter asked for our drink order and Jocardo, instead of answering, cracked a joke involving the lyrics to whatever song was playing in the background, I stared at him with a look that said IT'S TIME TO FOCUS, MY FRIEND and said, "Yeah. Beverages. Mimosa or Bloody Mary?" Jocardo, who is familiar with what happens when I don't eat, was chastened enough to zip it and answer sweetly, "Mimosa, please."

He added, "You know that waiter is thinking, wow, if that's their first date, he's BOMBING," and I agreed. "You're not getting into my pants."


roach in cowboy hat, riding grasshopper

Why WOULDN'T there be a Roachhill Downs diorama at the Indiana State Fair od roaches at the race track, hanging out in bleachers, reclining in lounge chairs, listening to tiny boomboxes, and waiting in line at the teensy weensy ticket booth?

Oh, and riding grasshoppers.


Love! Dad

My dad rarely speaks in exclamation points, much less writes them, since he is a very mellow individual who carries himself with exactly the opposite vibe than that of a 13-year-old girl. But he just sent me an email from Japan signed Love! Dad.

This is SUPER enthusiastic coming from Bob Roncker.

So he's either all keyed up because one of his employees from Bob Roncker's Running Spot is one of the best runners in the whole world and is competing in the world track and field championships that my parents went to watch. Or he just really likes 1000-year-old Japanese temples.


Mattress Factory

The last time I was in Pittsburgh, on a whipping cold day in January, I thought about plunging headfirst into a depression because everyone I passed on the streets looked so sad. The downtown blocks surrounding my hotel were sleet grey and winter dingy, full of un-remodeled drugstores, fast food restaurants, and jewelers whose signs were missing a letter.

Today, however? Warm and cloudy with slightly less flash flooding than yesterday.

Yesterday I sat at a table by a window and watched it start to rain. I drank a glass of pinot grigio and I ate portabello soup and I didn't even once want to pull out a book or make a phone call and share it with anyone or think about anything else because the sky was a perfect shade of blue-grey dusk turning to storm. I just needed to watch.

When the three ladies sitting at an adjacent table turned their conversation from migraines and favorite shows on HBO to comparing American Idol to High School Musical, I smiled and concentrated even harder on the gathering clouds.

Today Leila and I went to the Mattress Factory, a contemporary art museum that's in a building I'm just guessing used to be a mattress factory. It was, as Leila would say, frakkin' cool.

I'm not so proud that I won't admit that I came very, very close to wetting my pants due to a primal fear that snuck up on me while we walked through a dark installation.

"I don't care if you bungee jump over parking lots in Vegas, you are still the little girl who cries when she wakes up from naps."

The work, by James Turrell, was about dark and light and took some walking through the pure black of enclosed corridors and rooms.

When we stepped off the elevator, we read the map and tried to follow its directions about turning corners and standing still and walking slowly forward and retracing steps and turning other corners.

But it was confusing and basically what happened is that as soon I couldn't see anything, I grabbed Leila's shoulder and buried my nose into it while taking baby steps behind her and stepping on the backs of her shoes. She handled this really well.

At one point, after leaving the room with the ultraviolet light box, which also made me inexplicably nervous, we took a left and inched forward slowly, slowly, slowly, and crashed straight into a wall. This is where I had to lean over with my legs crossed. Just for a minute.

When I recovered (no piss, or not much), we bravely continued, AFTER staring confused at a dimly-lit elevator and wondering if it was art before deciding it was just an elevator.

In the Pleiades room, I did my best to sit in a chair and let my eyes adjust to the pitch darkness long enough to see the image projected in front of me. I made it close to the recommended 15 minutes. Only about 9 of those minutes were spent thinking, "WHAT IF SOMEONE HAD BEEN SITTING IN THIS CHAIR WHEN I FELT AROUND FOR IT IN THE DARK? How deeply would I have lost control?"

Back outside, in the garden installation by Winifred Lutz, I admired the sexy-looking stone thingie on the wall and the other sexy-looking doodad on the ground.

According to the Mattress Factory, "The viewfinder at the end of the water trough is in the form of two intersecting circles which occurs as a symbol in Christian art. Symbolizing overlapping concepts, in the most basic sense it represents the profane and the sacred."

Sure, absolutely, that's pretty much what I thought right away, too.

Later, I walked across the Smithfield Street Bridge, right after getting caught under an awning during another downpour and watching the riverboats and summer storm and hills and graffiti that seem so familiar and remind me of home.


Giant Corn Dog

Today is the fourth day in a row of state fairs (Indiana, Kentucky, Missouri, Iowa) and I'm starting to think the Midwest is fucking with me. Like the whole on-a-stick thing.

Besides the obvious, corn dogs, which are so institutionally ON STICKS that you don't have to bring it up, it is implied by the fact that someone somewhere decided to deep fry a hot dog in cornmeal batter and it's now just common sense.

But a deep fried Pepsi ball on a stick?

I want to say, "Universe. Dude. What is your deal?"

We had been making jokes about soup on a stick but I've now seen a beer on a stick sign so that concept seems suddenly attainable, if not incredibly attractive.

Here's a guy making corn dog batter with a drill. Yum!

But not as delicious as this.

Because I will not TOUCH poopcorn if it has any trans fat in it.


Black History Odyssey: Atlanta and Boise

I didn't intend to embark on a Black History Odyssey this summer but, unexpectedly, I have. It began on the first Idol tour day off in Atlanta. The previous night, I'd wandered into the office of our promoters John and Andrew who are devoted to creating spectacular days off. When everyone else is drooling over the side of the hotel bed and going to the mall, Andrew and John will be on their way to see the local interest, be it history (ex: of Aviation, of Spam), pretty places (ex: nature) or oddities (ex: Cockroach Hall of Fame).

One of them suggested the Martin Luther King, Jr. National Historic Site to me when I said I wanted to have a memorable day off. Run by the National Park Service, the site is in the Atlanta neighborhood where MLK, Jr. grew up and includes the church where he and his father preached, ranger-led tours of his birth home, a visitor center with a museum-quality exhibit, video theater, and an international world peace rose garden.

I went there after catching up on sleep and arrived too late in the afternoon to get on a tour of MLK, Jr's birth home but ended up spending the afternoon in his church. And it was good. The amount of energy and money that went into this tribute to Dr. King was evident and I left feeling chock-full of peace, love, and big hugs.

The fact that our tour started in the South and stayed there a week before heading to Texas and California contributed to my accidental Black History Odyssey. The morning of our show in Little Rock, Arkansas, I planned to visit Central High School, the site of where, 50 years ago, the Arkansas National Guard escorted nine black students to their classes through a mob of angry segregationists.
Unfortunately a downpour of rain started RIGHT when I stepped outside the hotel and I immediately turned into a big baby and went straight back to my bedroom to crawl under the covers. Perhaps not one of my shiningest moments. Anyway.

After we made it out west, our buses crept up the coast and took a right. The day that I walked around Boise in search of a two-headed calf and found so much more (a hippie festival and a LIBRARY!) took me through Julia Davis park, home of the Idaho Black History Museum, where I performed an extravagant double take.

Idaho? Black History?

I went closer to the little building to make sure I was reading the sign correctly. I'd been walking around Boise for several hours and had seen maybe two people of color. It was Sunday and there were people everywhere and they all looked like me. I mentioned the museum to Neil and we checked out its website. We learned that the Idaho Black History Museum is the only African-American history museum in the Pacific Northwest. It's open five hours a week, on Saturday. The current exhibit is called "The Invisible Idahoan: 200 Years of Blacks in Idaho."

Here Neil offered that the only other Black people he'd seen in Boise were the four stagehands out by the loading dock. We asked the local runner about that and he said that those four were about ten percent of Boise's Black population. I'm sure he exaggerated for our benefit since we were by then fairly wound up on the subject but invisible, indeed.

The museum is in the former St. Paul Baptist Church and exists largely because of Dr. Mamie Oliver, a woman who became Boise State University's first African-American professor in 1972 and whose research and teaching is the foundation for Black History awareness in Idaho.

Thanks, Mamie Oliver.

Next stop on the Black History Odyssey: Omaha, Nebraska.


Jamecia doesn't mince words

It's funny when you haven't seen someone in a year and the first thing they say to you is, "What's going on with your hair?"

And then later, when you're thinking about that comment and giggling and you go find them to ask them what the hell kind of question that is,  they take it one step further and say, "Well, it's just that you USUALLY get it right."


I didn't know Casey even had shoulders

I was psyched to discover in Chicago that I still had an unexpired CTA public transit card in my wallet. I asked the hotel concierge for directions to the closest blue train and walked three blocks to Clark and Lake, feeling majorly crushed out on Chicago. On the subway platform, my crush intensified.

I loved the punk rock girl with the bullet belt. And the people with suitcases who made their way to O'Hare airport. I liked the thug who stared at the third rail, nodding to the beats in his earphones. Most of all, I felt something special for the guy I overheard talking about the barbeque he was headed to.

Because CHICAGOANS KNOW A BARBEQUE. It's not even seasonal, either. I personally saw Shane throw sausages on the grill during an especially unholy stretch of winter. After shoveling two flights of steps on the back deck in his puffy coat. Shane, being from Chicago, is committed enough to do what it takes to barbeque, whatever that might be: crampons, ice shelter, etc. So now? In the thick heat of August? You know it's out of control.

I got off the train and walked down Damen Avenue to Casey's house. And the entire walk, I felt just as I did in third grade when I got glasses and suddenly saw all this stuff in the world that I hadn't before:

The trees! So green! So blue the sky! Outdoor tables! Full of people smiling, laughing, and wearing sunglasses! All that skin! So tan! Chicago summer, finally! At Casey's apartment building, I rang her doorbell and she buzzed me in.

"Do you like my sandals?" She asked me before I'd fully rounded the corner from the steps to her doorway.

"Wow," I said. "WOW. Where'd you get those? Payless?" Which, looking back, is a pretty bitchy question.

Luckily Casey thought it was funny since the whole reason she'd said anything is because she thinks they are terrible to look at. But comfortable. And she won't wear them outside, even though I told her I think they are totally appropriate for the pool. If you are my grandma.

"Casey," I said. "You look different. It's not just the elderly sandals that you bought online."

The last time I saw her was in Chicago, right before I left for LA. It was March, so she was still wearing the knee-length down jacket that she had on every single other time I saw her last winter. Now she's sporting this Panamanian skin everywhere, on her shoulders and arms and legs. I hardly recognized her.

What I did recognize was the HOMIES collection displayed around Casey's apartment. Here you see not only Homies but the Caucasian types in capes who are representing, I don't know, the Middle Ages of Europe? Maybe they're wizards. I seriously have no idea. Lisa, my former boss at the Feminist Press, gave them to me. They used to sit atop the computer in her office. Now they are holding up the weight of homeboy who appears to be wearing a robe. I passed them on to Casey as a going away present when I left Chicago.


save it for your therapist

Earlier today, my boss Geoff gave me a button that says SAVE IT FOR YOUR THERAPIST, ASSHOLE and I was all, 'Ha ha that's funny. That sounds like something I'd say even though I'd have to be super pissed off and provoked to go there but if I did go there I'd be real deadpan and mean like that about it, ha ha.'

But now I'm wondering if Geoff was actually saying that to ME.