The Chopstick Girl

December 10, 2014

Date: Jan 25, 2010 10:54 AM
Subject: “The Chopstick Girl” from Rolling, a novel by C.J.Coleman (Jan 8 to 25th)

“Do you always eat with those sticks?” he asked me once we were alone in the room. “not really” l half lied, “l am quite terrible at it but l am trying to conserve waste” I added between bites of quinoa and peas.

He looked at me with his head tilted, trying to figure me out. I was in the posh lounge but so was he. I would later learn that the lounge where we stole cat naps and ate lunch rapidly had been created for instructors, not “the help”. But in this Zen PC existence, no one has the nerve to tell us we’re not allowed in there.

I work on one side of the counter and he on the other. We are both brown but have years and continents between us. We are both new. But the playing field will never be equal. I carefully choose my words as l feel this awareness. And l feel myself fumbling. I got caught off guard and feel a bit rusty in suddenly switching gears from bonding with the instructor who has just returned to The States after living in Hong Kong for 6 years to talking to a boy young enough to be my son about eating with chopsticks.

Chopsticks l have purchased fancy and lacquered that never touched my lips or any dish, as for years l only used them to hold up buns and braids on my head.

The first time l tried to use chopsticks l was on a rebound date with the substitute red head. Sushi. He fed me eel even though l insisted that raw fish does not agree with me. My stomach hurt all night afterward but l think it was more nerves than the food. Everything was awkward and new. I missed my ex-boyfriend. He was on vacation in New York buying records and enjoying his new-found freedom. I was on my first date since our break up with a fun and cute, new guy and yet somehow felt more alone than ever.

Remember when we went to that industry party and they gave us those cool Puma chopsticks? Another thing l put away for a special day or ocaision. Now l can’t find them, of course.

I saw him again tonight. I was moving the gates around. The manual labor part of my job. So we were on common ground for a moment.

The problem is that everything “normal” AKA “pedestrian” has been adopted, co-opted, misappropriated and exoticised to the point that now kids are afraid to be curious about other cultures.. I can still remember what it was like…… Trying to seem cool and act like l knew what everything was. Yet too nervous to try anything new that l might not understand which would thus make me look foolish or weird. Oh how l tried to fit in, so focused upon it that it never occurred to me to wonder what precisely l was trying to fit into. And that playing field would never be equal either. My family left the city for the rural suburbs the Summer after l finished 1st grade so my social fate was pretty much doomed from the jump start. The slang, the clothing, the outings and adventures were all fast, cool and mature beyond my sheltered years. I became book smart and street naive. And no matter how tightly l pegged my jeans or pulled back my ponytails, l stuck out like a sore thumb. Then l opened my mouth to speak in class only to be ridiculed by snickering and chants of
“she thinks she’s White”. There were rumors flying around that my family was rich because l “talked all proper and lived in Jefferson County”. Didn’t they know we ate beans and cornbread every night like everybody else ?! Being a Straight A Student only added nails to my social outcast coffin.

The year we started school in Okolona was not an easy transition. I had never been the only black kid in class before. Up until then l had only had one white friend in school, and in a twist of fate that same girl from Engelhardt Elementary would end up attending the same middle school as me years later as her family also relocated to Okolona. I missed my friends downtown. I missed walking around on wide sidewalks and our little alley street. A pack of wild girls to play jacks and hopscotch with. I missed ripping and running my little legs trying to keep up with my long legged older cousin who was cooler
than cool, wore mustard colored high top Converse tennis shoes, taught me how to dance The Watergate and knew everybody in the neighborhood. In our school that first year there were only about 5 black kids total, and two of them were me and my brother. We would nod to each other in the hallway, lined up on opposite walls. Then get on separate buses to go home. The same way Daddy and Mama would blow the horn and wave to other black folks on the road once we left the gates of Cinderella. Recognize.

Before 1st grade, I had also never had friends who were girls before. Having all brothers and mostly male cousins, ;it took a minute for me to understand how to navigate the politics behind choosing a best friend, writing and passing notes, talking on the phone, play dates and the like. When we lived on the farm and even when we moved to the city, we had never had our own phone before. On the farm we had a coal-burning stove
and an outhouse and no neighbors around for miles. Suddenly we lived in a brick house in the tract housing suburbs with a telephone and central heating. It was like we had fast forwarded into the future.

I didn’t like riding the school bus though. l was able to walk to all three schools that l had attended in 1st grade. The school bus was rowdy and the driver drove so fast it always made me nervous. There was a small slope in the road we always sped over and if you sat in the rear rows you would bounce off your seat like a roller coaster ride. That was where the cool older kids and bullies sat though so l would just watch them from the corner of my eye, pretending to look out the window. My brother was a natural comedian and had no problem making friends on the bus. Or in general. He had a big smile, loved to laugh and could tickle anyone to stitches and tears with his charm. So convincing was he that l vividly remember him nearly getting me to believe he was 4 years old and l was 3 years old when the opposite was true. He was a master of flipping words to make them sound bad or dirty and also great at inventing insulting nicknames for people which he kept in a mental arsenal , loaded for a quick flash verbal retaliation at any given moment. Sharp wit.

The first time l ever tasted Asian cuisine was at a sleepover at my best friend’s house. She was the middle child in a trio of sisters Mama babysat after school during the week. Only one year younger than me, we became inseparable. Her mom had to work the night shift at the electric plant so her dad was watching her and her 2 sisters. We watched The Muppets while her dad cooked. I remember thinking it was odd yet cool that a man was cooking for and looking after a gaggle of little girls. Sometimes Daddy might make us lunch on a Saturday if Mama was visiting a neighbor for coffee or in the garden. And on Sundays he did make big breakfast while we all sprawled on the front room floor reading the Sunday paper, a tradition my youngest brother has carried over with his own children. But babysitting girls on a Friday night, never! First of all, Mama wasn’t allowed to work outside of the home, so there was no reason for her to not be watching us kids. And secondly, Friday was his time. He came home from work, paycheck cashed, took a bath, ate dinner. Shaved and picked out his Afro, put on a fresh suit and headed downtown. I don’t think he even knew what The Muppets were, let alone what time they were on.

So their dad made Chung King which was a really popular home-style Chinese food brand back in the day. A meal I will never forget. Pepper steak and rice. It was delicious. It made me want to move to China. I ate my first water chestnuts that night too. And it was my first time ever eating rice as a savory dish instead of a dessert or cereal. So many firsts. When it was time to go to bed we got to sleep in their parent’s room that night. They had a big round purple velvet bed with a brass headboard, matching lilac walls and purple carpet. I don’t remember any other furniture in the room. We dragged a record player in and listened to Elvis all night.

Sent on the Sprint® Now Network from my BlackBerry®
Dedicated to Bobbie Jo Hale, whose mother Darlene Devore passed away this week, R.I.P. 12/9/14

“The Soho Punks”

August 30, 2010

It’s New Years Eve and l am crashing in your room.
You called me to say “why’on’tchu quit takin keera dem white folks babies and come move ovah heah in Brooklyn wit mee?!” And your omen did manifest as I soon lost my au pair job and found myself on the sidewalk in Union Square.

Your room is a beautiful sky blue and canary yellow extravaganza of Home Beautiful circa 1973, with these two pastels battling it out to dominate the contrast on the crown molding, floor times and marbleized pattern on the vinyl chairs of the dinette, all set off by cornflower blue carpeting and mustard chenille bedspreads on the twin beds in each corner.

You made corned beef with over easy eggs. I had never had either before and l was impressed. Years later anytime someone would open a can of corned beef l would think of you.

“l met someone at the shop today, really cute, from the Midwest, interesting. I invited him out tonight”, you announced between triangle cut bites of egg. “oh really?” I responded, half awake, while Billy Bragg strummed on your boom box.

It was dark in the club but he definitely stood out, as the first thing l remembered was that he had on a loose brown leather aviator style vintage looking jacket in a sea of black. He had already had a few drinks by the time we arrived so my immediate impression of him was “this lush is the guy we rushed here to meet?!” who then proceeded to salt my game of flirtation with the tall hazel eyed homeboy from Paris who loved my braids and called me his ragga-muffin girl.

But you were in Big Brother Mode and insisted that we escort him home to Brooklyn because we were neighbors, it was New Year’s, he was new in town, and a host of other reasons. I didn’t want to leave the party or the French boy – that night was the beginning of the return of my life in New York – I wasn’t ready for it to end. I was secretly or not-so-secretly livid but obliged. He lived on a quaint tree-lined street. The kind of street storybooks and children’s television shows are based upon. The kind of street where you could sit on a stoop and break into song while someone played catch and someone jumped rope in the background, just off to the side of the black and white television screen. To this day his block remains my favorite street in Brooklyn.

That night christened my love affair with Brooklyn.
I think it snowed the next morning. It was always snowing that Winter. And we wee always out walking in it. Walking across the Brooklyn Bridge at night in the snow. Walking in the morning to get to work. Catching falling icicles from the heavy trees in between Boerum Hill and Ft. Greene. Cold feet and warm hearts.

The three of us were inseparable. I have never spent that much time with anyone before or after as we three did with each other. Completely open, fearless, creative and just down. Every day was an experiment in designing the lives we wanted. Designing our dreams. It spoiled me forever and I will never forget it. To know you both again now is like fitting a missing piece of my life back together. Our bodies may be heavier and less limber but our spirits are still connected in a way that will never change. I will always remain a SoHo punk in my heart, to the grave. From those days when Soho was still a ghost town at night. When you passed a gallery window and the owner caught a glimpse of that fire in your eyes as you walked by on the street on a cold rainy Winter afternoon, and invited you in to view the latest collection and learn about the artists. A time when these passings became less random and more planned. When the elder curators took us under their wings. When they could feel our respect and awe and were neither threatened nor condescending. When we were so happy to be allowed entrance into their world that we held our own and kept complete control.

No one could figure out who we were or what we wanted and it both confused and intrigued everyone we met. We didn’t boast about ourselves. We didn’t ride any coat tails. We were just there to breathe in and absorb. It was a rich and invigorating time to be under-aged and unemployed. All we had was time and our hearts.

So many basic things I don’t remember ever doing like buying groceries or going to the laundromat. Even riding the subway was a luxury – we walked most everywhere. The street was safer for us anyway – looking like we did. Sometimes I still feel that way. But when I did ride the train alone I would always carry a sketch book and draw people. I made a lot of friends this way and it broke the ice, thus eliminating the potential harassment factor. It could still feel shocking sometimes, riding in that rattling metal moving box, feeling the stares and questions. But we were so excited about where ever we were heading at the time that the temporary unpleasantness of stepping outside of our trio world was a passing feeling and soon forgotten once velvet ropes opened and red wine flowed.

I didn’t set foot into a punk or rock club until I had a guitar strapped on, and more than a decade later. I lived to dance – we all did. And New York City was a big dancer’s candy store – pick a sonic flavor – Gotham had it. Some clubs even had different themes on separate floors. But most had theme nights that changed by the day. And then there was House Music. And House Music parties. In someone’s house. A piano in the corner of an apartment with someone playing alongside the DJ in the Bronx. Undercover Lesbian Freestyle speakeasies in East Harlem. New York had it all. I lost my natural mind in the best way possible.

If anyone asks me what my favorite time was I say without hesitation, 1987, New York City. It wasn’t perfect, but it was ours. It changed my life forever.

Sent on the Sprint® Now Network from my BlackBerry®

“Baton Rouge-Red Sky”

February 8, 2010

“Baton Rouge-Red Sky”

When we drove into Louisiana the air took on a heavy thickness. I remember how black the road seemed stretched out ahead of us against the stark hood of the 63 Valiant. The faint glow of lights on the highway as we passed each of them. The bright white broken line dividing the lanes.

One hot Summer evening not unlike this one, roughly a year, earlier I had sat in my room downstairs in the warehouse where I lived down by the sake factory, inching closer and closer to the fan which had been tilted on an angle in attempt to move some imaginary breeze around. Sure there was no humidity in Berkeley and the floors were cement, but there was also no cross ventilation to speak of. I was listening to KALX radio, drinking instant sweet tea, lying on cool sheets in a dark rayon slip, not quite napping yet not quite awake. A lovely cajun folk song came on the radio, in which a woman was singing longingly about Lafayette. I love the way she pronounced the word – really stretching out the ” a ” to sound like “fee” before the “yette”. Just as she reached the chorus a second, yearnful woman’s voice came in to harmonize behind her. I closed my eyes, moving my head closer to the fan. Little did I know I would be reading the actual Lafayette road signs in a year.

I had never heard such an orchestra of insects before! Not just secadas and crickets. Worms with wings and other pre-historic looking creatures.It was a din of sound. It did not cease even as the sun rose.

We pulled into the Baton Rouge camp grounds, grateful for a cool breeze that was beginning to settle.

Baton Rouge. It sounded like someplace from another time. More than just a pit stop on the way to New Orleans, then New York. Our lives lay ahead of us on that long, hot, black road. But tonight we would stretch ourselves out and rest.

In the morning I woke up early and grabbed my tape recorder.
First I recorded the sounds of the morning insects and passing traffic. Then I grabbed my guitar from the trunk and found a tree to sit under. It was my first time playing outside. Leaning against a tree and strumming a former tree. Then you woke up.

It was so hot that day that when we did our laundry and laid it out flatly on the cement, it dried in ten minutes. I felt myself slowing down in the heat. What did I used to do with my Summer’s? There was really nothing much to do in this kind of heat. But try and manage to find a cool spot of cement in the shade to rest on between walking and running around. Tension slowly left me. Replaced by anxiety. But I tried to enjoy the journey nonetheless. My only regret was not having a camera. Or any money for postcards. Or anyone’s address for that matter. We just kept driving. New Orleans was on the horizon.

I wanted to spend more time in Louisiana. But the money was running out and the idea of doing everything on credit was making me nervous. Still, it was a trip I had never taken before and never would again. It was my first time across country on the ground. We were a team.

Sometimes a door opens in your life and you’ve just got to look at yourself in the mirror. Then pick up only what you absolutely need in the moment and take it with you when you walk through that door. I had my guitar and a suitcase. The guitar survived the fire so I took that as a sign that we had a few more molten pits to walk through together.

America is so vast it overwhelmed me. How could we possibly see everything in only a few weeks? We even drove an extra 1000 miles first South then eventually East, and yet still missed some major cities and states. But we did it. And I eventually I got out of my shell a bit. I learned to need less. And to see more. Really observe. Maybe I was still in shock. So much so that I had no idea how stunned everyone was when I had left California so abruptly. But I was dying inside there week by week and this trip brought me back to life in a way. I was young and you were even younger. I knew things would change for us both once we hit the city. This was our time for now.

When I moved to the East Village a year later, my commute every day involved me skateboarding down to SoHo on Lafayette Avenue. I was eating cajun food weekly at Baby Jakes then ACME then Baby Jupiter’s. When I go to Paris nowadays, I stay with a friend in Port D’Orleans. Louisiana has stayed with me 17 years.

I rooted for The Saints even though I didn’t even turn on the television to see the results of the Superbowl today. Partially because spending a day in their city also touched my life. There I was , sitting with you, having a real begnet at Cafe du Monde, a place I had grown up dreaming about from the illustrations on my Grandmuh’s chickoree coffee cans. And then we took the car on a ferry ride to a little side island. Drove through dirt roaded streets of brightly painted houses that felt tropical despite their erosion and dilapidation. After living in Northern California a few years it was definitely culture shock to immerse ourselves in such a rich yet intensely impoverished city, but it was beautiful at the same time, like technicolor film you could breathe in and touch. You had dyed your hair jet black that Summer and caught a lot of sun during our road trip so most folks we came across assumed you were latino or bi-racial. We were left alone in peace, floating from scene to scene. Taking it all in.

New Orleans was almost my city, too, in a dream I had had with my girlfriend – the dream we dreamed out loud to each other about moving there – buying big cheap houses with porches that stretched around the corners, big yards, Mimosa trees…dreamed before she had the baby and before I started working in Europe. Her husband at the time researched the insurance and crime climates of New Orleans and the verdict was we could not move there because home owner’s insurance was non-existent due to the flooding and hurricanes. Plus he was not happy about the crime statistics. Some friends of mine from Brooklyn had re-located to New Orleans and were doing quite well. But alas, our relocation dreams were pretty much shut down in the timespan of about a week.

Then years later, Hurricane Katrina.
I was unfortunately already stunned to a point of near numbness when the hurricane happened. First 9/11, then The Tsunami. Now this. It felt like the earth was trying to shake us off and that didn’t work so now she was pouring a bucket of dirty water on us.
I am thousands of miles from New Orleans but pieces of me are scattered there, in the leaves and soil on the campground in Baton Rouge. On the cobblestone streets of the French Quarter. On that ferry boat.

The Saints football team were established the year I was born. But they had never won a SuperBowl before now. Historic. The symbol of New Orleans, like Louisville, is the Fleur de Lis (“Lily”). While our cities are not sisters they share a historic French tie. And that tie could hold some possibility to how at ease I felt there.

I also rooted for The Saints because they lost their home like I lost mine (in the fire),
Only they stayed and kept going. Granted they had to borrow other stadiums (“couch surf” so to speak) but they kept it together despite the terrible loss of lives and spirits.
Had I not left after my own loss to take a leap of faith and follow my spirit, I would not have found the courage to even pass through their city, let alone experience the vivid memories still with me so many years later.

RED SKY

Some people say that a red sky
doesn’t necessarily mean goodbye
Some people say that a red sky
doesn’t necessarily mean goodbye

Don’t take my hand unless you
are going to take me somewhere with you
Don’t take my heart unless you
are going to give me your heart, too

Some people say that a red sky
doesn’t necessarily mean goodbye
Some people say that a red sky
doesn’t necessarily mean

goodbye

Baton Rouge, Louisiana
July 1993

excerpt from ROLLING
a novel by C.J.Coleman
© 2010 all rights reserved