I moved to Pittsburgh after three years of living outside the United States. During that time I would come home to New Jersey periodically but never for more than a few weeks at a time and never actually at a place I really knew as home. My mom was juggling in a circus of two properties. She was working hard on getting everything together from her bedroom in Montclair. I liked the Montclair place. I had spent my high school years there and I could climb around that neighborhood just as well as I could climb the open globe jungle gym at the local playground. Montclair was easy. It was also where an elegant Nigerian man had unraveled everything from my interest in cultural anthropology to my espadrille laces. He could not reassemble me. It wasn’t his job. And yet there I was a piece of work with a swelling belly rolling around looking for a father or a stone. I tried to stay in Montclair but my belly wouldn’t let me. Newark was my alternative. My real home. Where my books and paintings were. Where my brother was staying in one room and my cousin in another. Where Erykah Badu’s Live album stayed on in the background while we cooked, played cards, or watched comedy on BET. The Newark house was where notices about collections huddled in the corner of the doorway. Daffodils lingered past their expiration dates drenched in summer rain pointing the wrong way down a one way street. The Newark house tiptoed along the edge of Vailsburg being careful not to fall across the East Orange line. Vailsburg was Newark and East Orange and Irvington and simple but not easy. Vailsburg was where a delicate quiet man who had a Grammy on a shelf in his mom’s basement pressed his nose to my cheek and asked me to stay a little longer. His masterpiece of a song about unity and his lure to spend a little time with him and the Fugees should have been enough for me. I slipped around him and that corner of the city like I was whooshing backwards around a super polished wooden roller rink. The Grammy man reached for me and caught only the wind of my roll across the sea of disco rainbow. At the Newark house my micro braids behaved themselves and pointed straight downstairs at neighbors who were out of line. The downstairs neighbors were part of my reluctant step family and a step away from driving my mom out of her mind. After living in Haiti and then Oxford and then Haiti again, I knew I had to leave all that step blame and belly shame behind. That was not home.
In the meantime, the belly became a baby who became a smiling ball of light who became my motivation and my altar call. I carried her around on my breast or hip as she grew into something not so small. She started to notice me. Her eyes seemed to be asking me what I was doing. And not just like what was I doing with her teething ring but like mommy what are you really doing? She was cute. She was acute. So I brought her to this Pittsburgh place where I had spent a few weekends here and there. I brought her to the Highland Park neighborhood because I wanted her to have a park at the top of a glorious hill where she could wrap her Black girl beaded braid dreams around the sky and live forever. I had friends in the area. I created responsibilities; created roots. It was all going so well until I hungered for the music and the card games and a more familiar life that I had not found in this new city. I searched and found tiny flashes of what I needed on a web site called okay player dot com and a radio station that looked like way mo but was actually wham oh. I was working night turn, raising my daughter, working on getting my mom settled, encouraging her to move here too, and still paying the past due balance of my undergraduate education. So when I heard that D’Angelo was going to unleash his falsetto, keys, and brown sugar eyelids on this city of wheel spoke roads and bridges to absolutely nowhere, I got my tickets so fast that I actually can’t recall how. Maybe from the okay, maybe from the wham oh. It wouldn’t have mattered. I just knew I needed those tickets, a crop top, platform shoes and a date. Wellllll maybe not a date. No. I just needed a babysitter and a willing participant in my plan to truly try to work a root on myself that night and turn my Pittsburgh life into the kind where D’Angelo and at least a million other cats like him would just suddenly appear in Highland Park or Stanton Heights or East Liberty or ok fine the Home Depot parking lot. Sigh. It was at the I.C. Light Amphitheater and a million was such an over reach. I got a babysitter and a not date.
My willing participant was my lovely friend Greg. He was a housemate from my days at Oxford who just so happened to be originally from Pittsburgh. I used to laugh at the fact that this worldly bookish philosopher of a man had begun his ascent to Bodleian library shushing academic stardom in a place named for squirrels on a street named for a Mr. Wight Man. I mean this was a man who would grab up obscure recipes from read-here-only library books and cook vegan feasts with asafetida despite the fact that I told him it smelled like ass-and-feet-ita. This was a man who cuttingly defended his little sister’s love for Brittney Spears while he dug into his wallet made of duct tape to pay for a Nas CD I needed him to hear. Greg used to play “Highlander” with me when we lived in Oxford. I was Duncan MacLeod and he was MacGregor (whoever the hell that was) our grown asses had toy swords and fought in the street. Sometimes we even rode around on a bike pretending to be I don’t know was it pretending to be on horseback? Greg was fun, quiet, warm, present. Greg is still the friend I call when my mind is mean to me, loud, cold, windy and far off into the past or future. Greg is an anchor in my life.
So when lacy panties sailed past his head on the sea of cowgirl hats and head wraps crowning waves of sunlit Black girls surfing hazy blunted concert breeze, Greg just looked at me and belted out over the Electric Lady noise “are you sooooo happy?” I was. Everything about that show from Amel Larrieux’s bubble tone opening to Questlove’s afro pick standing a little higher right before the Voodoo crooner himself twisted the mic off the stand and swung it with him into the bass horn thump of Spanish Joint…everything was perfect. I looked over at Greg’s smile stretching from one corner of his glasses to the other as he searched my face for confirmation. And in that moment I was holding on to the last moments of a shining gold truck jewelry and cowrie shell summer lifted by the scent of Lancôme perfume riding oily incense over baby locs not yet old enough to fight back against the label of unprofessional. That moment was indeed untitled and how did it feel? It felt free. Yes, Greg. I was so happy.
I began following you when Brian Broome posted your blog about him. You are so talented!!! I hope only the best comes to you!!! (I live in Highland Park, too.)
Wow. Thank you so much. All the best to you too!