After the concert, we hang out on Sixth Street, but when I return to my car, I discover a flat tire. Vicente calls his AAA, but it’s 2:00 am before I get back to my room In the morning, I’m getting ready to head back to Houston with a stopover at Sears, when I stumble on Leal’s Tires in East Austin on Cesar Chavez Street. I eat breakfast at Mr. Natural across the street, while my tire gets repaired.
As I eat the hottest and most spicy migas I’ve consumed for some time, I ponder over how my worlds are circular; the wonderful bnb which I stumbled upon after a search on airbnb, belongs to Diana Soliz, an ex-Houston resident who used to follow VBB while she lived in Houston, and was familiar with my voice on KPFT; we also have a mutual friend through my past life when I used to teach in East Houston, where I’m now based. And Mr. Natural was one of my favorite eateries when I was in grad school in Austin.
All in all, despite the flat, my trip is a wonderful, easy experience – reconnecting with friends and spaces, as I ponder about personal history.
Today, on our way back to our house, Minal points out to laundry laid out behind some bushes right off the freeway, as we enter Pierce Elevated, heading south.
“Those belong to the woman that lives under the bridge,” she tells me. “You know, the one that has the shopping cart…”
Before entering the freeway, I glance as the red and checked cloths hanging off a rudimentary clothesline. I would never have noticed on my own.
“They always hang clothes there,” Minal tells me.
Minal explores leaves, sawdust and tree bark in our patio and serves up some vegetarian meals that substitute as art installations.
Driving together is when I hear Minal’s wisdom. Perhaps this is when she slows down and has time to respond to the world around her.
Today she says: Ammi, I think the kids of today will save the world!
- What do you mean?
- When we grow up, we’re going to discard money and go back to trading like the Indians did and we’ll plant more trees. And also we’ll save animals and homeless people.
Hosted by a graduate art student, Erica Thomas, I spend two nights in Portland, visiting Harrell Fletcher’s graduate program Engaging a Community Through Art project with Portland State University, where students select artsits to visit their campus and respond to an informal question and answer session as well as offer a student workshop.
To listen to my session click here.
- Why do women work so hard here? Minal asks me over dinner.
- What do you mean? I ask.
- Because women are always working and they don’t seem to get paid well – and it’s the same in Pakistan and here, she replies.
We talk about the global struggle for gender equity, and she reminds me of the homeless woman, who lives under the I-45 bridge at the edge of Houston’s downtown. Sometimes on the drive back to our house we see her, all the way on the top of the cement, and we wonder how she climbed up the slope. Her shopping cart always sits at the bottom, inches away from the freeway.
I’ve written many blog entries about airport security, but this afternoon at La Guardia Airport is surreal. The first time my red carryon goes through the security checkpoint, the guard calls for a fellow guard to open it out and examine my content.
A woman security guard, who happens to be Indian, goes through my bag and then runs the carryon through the radar again. The man at the screen flags the bag again and the woman restarts her search through my belongings. This happens three times. And each time, the guard flags my bag.
“Yes, we know you have to catch your flight but we can’t let you through until we find the item in the bag that causing a problem.” says the woman guard who scrutinizes my clothes, books and dirty socks.
In her third search, she opens out my makeup bag and fiddles between my lipsticks and lipliner. With two fingers, she draws out my four-inch Hashmi kohl container. “Is this kajal?” she asks.
Holding back my anger, I nod.
“You can go now.”
Lights flash as we approach the rectangular building sitting alone in the desert amidst hot land and cactus. Wearing green pants & shirts, they stand: We are border patrol.
Their dog checks our car as we answer standard questions:
- born in the United States?
- naturalized? When?
- where were you born?
And then, with smiles, we are waved away. Glad you enjoyed the park, they tell us. Have a good drive!
In my backpack’s pocket, I press the pink and purple beads purchased from the decorations spread amidst cacti along the mountainous trail on this side of the Rio Grande. And we wonder if the woman will ever make it across the water to collect the $5 I stuff into the bottle.
I stare at at bedcovers, rugs, saris, and other fabrics that I’ve been collecting and wearing for years. Even today, a week, later, I haven’t found the energy to unravel the cloth and rugs or to pick up the wisps of grass flitting on our floors.
It takes me an hour to collect all the fabrics, rugs, cushions, curtains, and saris from my home to pile them into my car so I can take them to Freedmen’s Town for VBB’s Homes and Histories production. At 10 am, Shadi, Carmen, Ariana, Angela, and i begin winding the materials. Just when I think we’ll run out of fabric, Yunuen arrives with her saris and bedcovers. My stack, combined with hers and some African cloth from VBB’s fall 2011 production are just enough for the 23 foot dome that arches higher than 14 feet high.
The production, packed with activities, ends fast, and at 4:30 pm, we start stripping the fabric and monitors so the dome can return to its skeletal form of iron rods that are then dismantled; I wasn’t there at 4 am when Jim, Eric and JJ began assembling the dome so we could decorate it. On the streets, Paul, Pruitt and Michael strip the photos. Residents on Wilson street want the photos to remain on the ground, while those on Cleveland want the “rubbish” cleared.
For more images go to VBB’s Flickr site.
Photos by Burnell McCray
Another Minal-ism: So everything you read in the news isn’t the truth?
She’s been listening to René and me talk about western news coverage of he Israeli bombings on Gaza. When I was eight, I wasn’t so astute.
I spend the first part of the morning talking with Catherine Roberts and Lue Williams on KPFT Pacifica Radio 90.1 FM. We kick off the Open Journal Think Global – Act Local! with a question, When is history history?
In 2012-13, I’m serving as Artist-in-Residence at the Mitchell Center for the Arts (University of Houston). I’ll be working on a project called Borderlines.
Check out my new blogposts on Poets & Writers. My blogs will be appearing online for the month of October.
Armed with a key to a townhome, I show up at Kenny’s home with collapsible chairs. By the time, Autumn, Pruitt and Kaneem arrive, I’ve already set up the chairs and am getting ready to Skype with Babette.
“This is going to be a different living room art,” I say, after the preliminary introductions. “We’re going to use the street as our space and we’ll also be doing something in the daytime—unlike other VBB living room art productions that take place at night.” I explain my rationale and everyone agrees. Even though Freedmen’s Town lies between Montrose and Downtown Houston, no one turns into the grid.
After we sign off with Babette, we walk down the street to see my friend’s driveway and also to revisit the Rutherford B.H. Yates Museum.
At the corner of Andrews and Mathews Streets, Pruitt to tell us that this was the spot where he and his family once lived. “Everything is completely different now,” he says.
I’m trying to find a home to host VBB’s next living room art production, but even though I’m talking to a lot of people, no one’s offering his or her house. Either people live in new homes, which they don’t want to showcase, or else, older residents are living in small spaces, which are already full. When we create living room art shows, we look for homes that are sparse, so we can transform them without having to strip all the walls and clear out a lot of furniture.
Also, as I walk the streets, experiencing the old bricks, I have more time to take in the history of the neighborhood. My mind is spinning. Perhaps this VBB production will be different – maybe we’ll do something on the streets. I’m also realizing that most people won’t want to drive into Freedmen’s Town at night.
Even though I can’t find a home for the production, I do manage to find a neighborhood space for an artist meeting; Kenny hasn’t rented out his space yet, and when I call him to ask if we can meet in his townhome, he immediately offers it to me. “It’s not rented yet…” he says. “I’m still painting the walls.”
Early Monday morning, Ms. Beckham welcomes me inside. But when she notices where I’ve parked my car, she signals to me to park in front of her home.
When I step inside, I ask her why she invited me to move my car.
She shakes her head. “It’s not safe… those young men… “ And she clicks her tongue.
I had noticed two or three men standing outside, close to where I was initially going to leave my car and we had just nodded hello to each other. Once we go inside, I ask her again about what the men are doing outside, but she doesn’t want to say more. Certainly, during my own movement through the neighborhood, I’ve noticed how many people sit outside and the number of police cars that circle the streets.
Once we get comfortable on the sofa, someone else knocks on her door. Ms. Beckham welcomes her friend Edward inside and introduces us to each other and we begin talking about the neighborhood. Things have changed a lot, they tell me.
“This neighborhood used to be the Harlem of Houston,” Edward says. “There was music, stores, restaurants. Always something happening. But over the years, things began to decline. More drugs started coming in. And the black community was pushed out…”
After our morning together, I walk with Edward back to his home, a duplex around the corner. Inside, multiple family members reside and there’s little room to walk.
Terry works in a house that serves as a storage unit for the church. The building contains painting equipment and other construction supplies. I park my car on Cleveland Street, walk by some boarded homes owned by the church toward where Terry works. A woman sits on the outside porch. I nod hello to her and she nods back. Before I can call out Terry’s name, I hear his voice through the netting. “There you are!” He steps out into the porch and we exchange Tuesday morning niceties.
But instead of being interviewed himself, Terry wants to take me to meet Jackie Beckham. I know the name – Catherine Roberts has also mentioned Ms. Beckham to me; she’s one of the oldest residents in the neighborhood.
We decide to walk over to Ms. Beckham’s home, five blocks west. Up until now, I’ve mostly been driving around the neighborhood, but today the temperature feels comfortable. We turn on Andrews Street along the brick street, passing by the Yates Museum as we head west.
Terry points to the old bricks and the tram line. “These bricks were burned by the freed slaves,” he tells me. “But now they want to tear them down.”
Ms. Beckham’s house has a historic marker on it and metal fence closes off the front entrance. She steps out soon after Terry calls out her name.
When I tell her I’m interested in interviewing her, she nods. “Well, you can do that. But not right now…” Her daughter is getting married soon and that she has a lot of work to do. Noticing that both Terry and I are sweating on the street, she invites us into the house. We chat a little more with television news in the background and by the time we leave, we have pinned down a time to talk.
Today I head back to the African American Library at the Gregory School to speak to Mike Moore, the Community Liaison. He tells me he’s been working hard to connect with the neighborhood residents.
“So many people who live near the Library don’t even know of our resources,” he tells me. “But in the evenings, many students camp out in the benches outside our building. We have free wi-fi, you know…and many of them don’t have the service at home.”
Later on in the afternoon, he sends me a link to an oral histories archive that the library has been collecting.