Story: My Mother’s Island

I have decided to hold myself accountable for keeping my creative writing muscles from atrophying by posting some work here. Feel free to comment and provide constructive critiques!  – Holly Edgell

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MY MOTHER’S ISLAND

Even alive, Mother left little trace of herself.  She sort of wafted through the day in a protective bubble, one that allowed her to smile at me and express polite interest in my activities, but mostly float out of my reach.

In my teens, frustrated and – frankly – obsessed with grasping something about my only parent, I resorted to detective work.  I rifled through the drawers of her desk, a dainty thing at which she wrote letters to about half a dozen pen pals around the worlds, tallied up household expenses, and did the crossword puzzle each Sunday.  I searched through her dresser drawers and closets.

Mother’s intimates were inscrutable:  white or beige, unadorned, and folded neatly. It was coming across those cool, neat bras, slips and panties – the closest things to her skin – that convinced me Mother was unknowable.  This was just before I headed off to college.

My grandmother was always vibrantly present and more or less my best friend.  It was Noni who tucked me into bed at night and saw to all the tender deeds and chores that come with caring for a child.  She championed my every interest and activity: stamp collecting, the Boy Scouts, drama club, college.

“There’s my handsome genius!” Noni’s wide smile and outstretched arms greeted me after school almost every day, as if we’d been apart for weeks.

Even my grandmother’s second husband showed more enthusiasm for me than my own parent.  With earnest kindness, Mr. Davy taught me to ride a bicycle and gave me the “talk” when the time came.  When I decided to write a book that imagined a man’s search for his father, he edited the manuscript and persuaded a friend in the publishing business to read it.  That book launched me: A bestseller for a first-time author. More bestsellers to come.

“You know, young man,” Mr. Davy said at the launch party Noni threw for me. “I couldn’t be prouder of you.”

Mother’s reaction to the book: I remember her sliding a hand down the cover of the autographed copy I gave her. After turning it over and glancing at the photograph of me on the back, she gave a half smile, walked over to a bookshelf and slid it in between “How to Win Friends and Influence People,” and “The Sun Also Rises.”

And yet, after losing first her and then Noni within the space of seventeen months, it was Mother I found myself thinking of the most.  Then, after my second divorce two years later, I fell into a mild depression.  It was not one of those incapacitating depressions, the kind that prevents a person from getting out of bed in the morning.  It was more like a film of lethargy and disinterest over everything.  I couldn’t get any work done and – since I didn’t need the money – felt no sense of urgency to shake off the funk.

A small discovery

With Mother increasingly on my mind, I decided to go through her belongings.  She had owned very little.  We, Mother and I, had lived in a cottage on Mr. Davy’s property about one hundred yards behind the main house.  Everything in it save our clothes and my boyish possessions – the furniture, plates, rugs, lamps, the books – belonged to him, and later Noni, and later me.

After the funeral, my grandmother (showing no sign she too would soon be gone) packed up Mother’s clothes and a few other items.  They fit into five plastic storage containers, the flat kind that you can slide beneath a bed.  I remember feeling giddily triumphant when I came across an envelope containing a few yellowed photos of Mother as a little girl.  Why had she never shown them to me? (I spent the better part of a day brooding about that).

I realized they must have taken in the country where she was born, an island in the Caribbean.  The shots were all outdoors, and she – a ten or eleven-year-old girl? — always seemed to be squinting into the sun or half-concealed by shade, head cocked to one side and hands behind her back.

With the desperate glee of someone who sees a lifeline dangling within reach, I hit on the idea of going to Mother’s island.  Her father had worked there as a civil servant for the colonizer.  When he died, Mother and Noni came to the United States. There was no family left there that I knew of; still, I had some notion I would connect with Mother, find clues to her inner life, or learn of a childhood event that marked her forever.  I had nothing better to do, and the idea of travel was the first thing that had gotten my blood pumping in a while.

The country is one of those ridiculously pretty islands with an aquamarine bay full of bobbing boats.  There are white sandy beaches fringed with palm trees upon which brown skinned children frolic, and pink skinned adults repose – either exposed to the sun or protected from it by enormous umbrellas.  I took a room at a blindingly white “ye olde” hotel on Front Street and passed the first couple of weeks there drunk and sunburned.  I rarely left the waterfront and mostly disported myself among the tourists.  A few of them recognized me, and I found myself a little too pleased by this.  Two elderly ladies asked me to autograph my latest hardcover.  An attractive woman of flirted with me at the hotel bar two nights in a row, but I couldn’t muster any enthusiasm for her.

Inevitably, I began to be depressed by the hotel and the waterfront.  It was all too sunny, too pretty, and too soft.   I wasn’t ready to leave the island, so I began making inquiries about finding a place to stay among the locals.

My new place

The hotel bartender, whom everyone called Brick, told me there were widows in the better residential neighborhoods who rented rooms.  These women, Brick explained, were unwilling to part with their large homes, so they took in boarders to pay for upkeep.  It was becoming quite a trend for foreign businessmen to take what was called a “widow’s room.”  Brick had a cousin who knew someone.

Settling into my new digs gave me a pleased and placid sort of feeling.  I had not done anything in the way of exploring my mother’s roots.  Still, I felt comfortable in my “widow’s room,” and began to actually do some writing based on notes I had brought along.  The quest for clues about Mother seemed beside the point.

My widow was Mrs. Chambers, a slight woman of pale brown complexion and gray eyes with thick white hair cut in a pageboy.  She spent most of her time sitting on her cool, deep verandah. She was heavily into reading magazines, crocheting doilies, and gazing toward the sea.  She liked a good chat, and often had visitors: ladies of middle or advanced age from the neighborhood.  She couldn’t get around very easily due to a variety of ailments, so people came to her, sometimes sitting with her on the verandah, sometimes calling up greetings and gossip from the gate below.

My landlady’s son Reg was deaf and mute.  He could, however, read lips extremely well and used a pencil and notebook to write notes when he wanted to communicate.  He was a very handsome man:  tall and brawny, with his mother’s gray eyes and brown curly hair.  I guessed he was in his mid-thirties.  I suppose some people might describe a man like Reg as “of indeterminate race.”  To me he looked like an Italian or Greek Tom Selleck, complete with mustache and roguish charm.  Soon enough, Mrs. Chambers told me the story of her romance with Reg’s father, a much older Englishman who had married her only a few months before he died.

“We were together, like man and wife, for a long time, you understand,” she  explained my first evening on the verandah.  “I told him we should marry for the sake of Reg.” Mrs. Chambers told me this story a few times, never elaborating much on this basic story line.  Always I had the impression that getting her husband to marry her had been the signal achievement of her life.  Reg, if he were with us, would roll his eyes and press his lips together when saw that his mother was launching into the story.

Reg devoted most of his time running the household.  There was a nurse who came in the morning to help her bathe and change Mrs. Chambers and administer medication.  There was a fortyish woman my landlady referred to as “my hair and nails girl” of who visited once a week to wash and style the widow’s hair and manicure her fingernails.   A quiet, thirtyish woman named Mari cooked and cleaned. Mrs. Chambers described her – somewhat dismissively — as “Spanish,” since she came from South America.

The neighbors

Next door to the Chambers home lived Mrs. Ferrer and her grown daughter Gloria, who seemed to be about Reg’s age.  Unlike my own landlady, Mrs. Ferrer was pink, stout and spry. She was forever tottering around her garden, directing workmen or handymen, or gossiping over her gate with some neighbor or another.  I often saw her strolling with her daughter in the evenings.  When mother and daughter passed by the verandah of an evening Gloria would call up:

“Goodnight, Miss Maddy,” and the pair would keep moving.

My landlady would call out:

“All right then, Gloria,” and lift her hand in a half-hearted way.  Mrs. Ferrer neither called out nor looked up.

Gloria had a small upper body and an enormous rump and thighs.  She was a redhead and as pink as her mother.  I never saw her outside without a wide straw hat and sunblock smeared over her exposed arms and calves.

The Ferrers had a swimming pool, not large, but excrutiatingly inviting.  Early on I thought of asking either Gloria or Mrs. Ferrer if I could take a dip occasionally, but I felt awkward about doing so sensing Mrs. Chambers might not like it.

The Ferrers also had a boarder, a small man of East Indian descent named Sam.  I learned from Mrs. Chambers that Sam was an accountant with a wife and children on one of the other islands.  I never spoke to Sam, but he would always nod or raise his hand as he zipped along on his motor scooter if he saw me in the Chamberlain yard or on the verandah.

My new island routine began with a morning walk along the sea wall, followed by coffee and toast in the Chambers kitchen.  After that I would sit at my laptop for about two hours and later walk down to the harbor front for lunch at one of the hotels or cafes, always avoiding the hotel where I’d originally.  In the afternoons I napped luxuriously:  two or three hours at a time.  There was usually a cool breeze coming off the sea, and the coconut tree fronds rustled sweetly outside my windows.  Evenings I took tea with the Chamberlains on the verandah.  Some nights we watched American television shows, or listened to local radio serials.  It was all profoundly good. I hardly thought about my original reason for coming to the island.

One night after I’d been in the Chambers home for about three weeks, I woke up perspiring; the air was still and the moon was shining on my face. A very subtle sound that I recognized as a splash drew me to the window overlooking the Ferrer pool.

There, in the moonlight I saw an incredible thing:  Sam, the Ferrer boarder, was seated at the side of the pool, with his calves in the water.  His head was thrown back, his mouth slackly open.  In the pool, with her face buried in Sam’s groin, was Gloria.  I immediately got an erection, which surprised me; there had not been much going on in that area for months.  I watched Sam and Gloria until it was over.  Sam climaxed with a stifled gasp.  Gloria vanished into the pool for a second or two and resurfaced.  I saw then that she was not wearing a bathing suit. Presently Sam got up, deftly wrapped a towel around his waist and went into the house.  Gloria commenced to swim laps.  The moonlight shone on her massive buttocks.   I found myself wanting to see her naked body, so I waited.  After about ten minutes, she pulled herself out of the water on the shadowed side of the pool.  I couldn’t see much more than her basic outline.  Then she was wrapping a towel around her.  She disappeared into the house.

It was hard to sleep after that.  Sex.  Images of Gloria and Sam.  Then images of Gloria and me instead of Sam followed by images of me and the pretty woman who’d flirted with me a few weeks earlier.  There was still no breeze. Every movement I made in an attempt to make myself more comfortable made me sweat as if I were doing calisthenics.  Finally I positioned myself with my feet at the headboard, and my head under the slowing moving ceiling fan and willed myself to stay still.  Sometime later I heard drops of rain hitting the palm fronds outside the window and I felt my eyelids grow heavy.  Then, sleep.

Tropical wave

In the morning I woke cranky. It was pouring rain and cool when I shuffled down to the kitchen. I found Mari there, laying out my breakfast things.

“I am sorry your breakfast is late,” she struck me a newly alive, vibrant.  “The nurse did not come today so I was helping Mrs. Chambers with her bath.”

I was astounded and hoped it didn’t show.  I’d assumed Mari didn’t speak much English.

“No problem.”  My voice was a croak.

“These island people think of rain as some kind of plague,” said Mari still smiling. “Everything but the essential stops when a rain like this comes.  They call it a tropical wave.”

I nodded, still slightly unnerved.

Mari began assembling teacups, toast and marmalade on a tray.  I gulped down coffee as if my life depended on it.

“You are surprised I speak English,” she said.  Her accent was pretty.  I made protesting sounds, but she brushed the air with her hand.

“I was an English teacher in my country.”

“Ah.”

“Do you know I make more money doing this than I did at home in my profession?”

“Crazy,” I said.

“Yes, crazy.”

Reg came into the kitchen then.  He and Mari exchanged small, solemn bows of the head as she handed him the tea tray.  He winked at me and left the kitchen.

“Well, I will leave you to your breakfast,” Mari said.  I raised my coffee cup to her as she left the kitchen carrying a broom.

Later I found Reg and Mrs. Chambers on the verandah staring out at the sea through a sheet of rain.  Mrs. Chambers’ crochet things lay in her lap.  Reg, feet propped up on a stool, was flipping through an old National Geographic without looking down at the pages.  When he saw me standing beside him he picked up his notepad and scrawled a quick note.

“Tropical wave,” I read aloud.  “Yes, Mari told me.”

There was a stack of magazines at Reg’s feet, so I pulled up a chair and began to read ten-year-old copies of Time and Good Housekeeping.   We about an on the verandah, with Mrs. Chambers sighing intermittently and the rain coming down unremittingly.  Finally, I went back to my room where I spent no small amount of time trying to figure out why I was still feeling out of sorts.  I ruled out the rain, since I am partial to downpours, providing I have nowhere to be.  I flashed back to the night before and the scene between Sam and Gloria; the image no longer struck me as erotic but rather mildly disgusting.  I stared down on the pool next door, now slopping over its edges.  It occurred to me then that I had been thinking of the island as a place of innocence, a blameless place.  This line of thought delivered me to that old saw that things are not always as they seem.  From there it was only a few moments before I started thinking about the nature of secrets, which of course led me to thinking about Mother.  An idea struck me then and propelled me down the stairs and back onto the verandah, where my landlady was still sitting, now with a throw across her lap and an ancient Ebony magazine in her hands.

“Sorry to interrupt you, Mrs. C.”  I knew she liked it when I called her that.

“Not at all, young man.”  She knew I liked it when she called me that, and we both knew she preferred a chat to reading.  I sat down in the spot where Reg had been.

“Do you know of a family named Greene by any chance?

“Greene?  With an ‘e’ on the end?”

I nodded.

“Of course…  Old island family.  Why you asking?”

“My grandmother was a Greene.  She grew up here.  My mother was born here.”

“Is that right?”  Mrs. Chambers gave a sideways look that was rather appraising.  “You never told me.”

“I never thought to.”

Again, came the sideways look, this time with raised eyebrows.

“So you’re a Greene, with an ‘e’ on the end.”

I asked her why the spelling of the name so interested her.

“Because there are white Greenes – with the ‘e’ – and black Greens.  Or “colored” as some might say.  They don’t have the ‘e’ on the end.”

Mrs. Chambers set aside her magazine and called out for Mari who appeared in what seemed like no time at all.

“Bring us some tea, child.”

Mari favored the two of us with the vast smile I had only discovered she had that morning.

“That girl love a good rain,” said Mrs. Chambers.  “She never happier than when she going along the road with her big umbrella.  What a thing, eh?”

I agreed that it was quite a thing.

“So what can you tell me about the Greenes with an ‘e’?

“With or without….  All of you all are related.”

I pulled me chair closer and moved it around so that my landlady and I were face to face.

“Related?”

Reg delivered the tea tray, and raised his eyebrows at me over his mother’s head.  I took this to mean something like: Good luck, friend.  You’ll be stuck with her for a few hours. He left the verandah.  I told Mrs. Chambers my grandmother had been named Nancy Greene, and she told me more about my family in the next hour than I’d ever known.

“When I was a girl,” she began, “the Greenes were still big around here.  Owned lots of land, you understand, and some kind of importing business.  Mr. Bob Greene was a known figure.  I believe he gave one of my uncles a job once….”

Mrs. Chambers supposed that Bob Greene would have been my great-grandfather.  I said I didn’t know.   I did have an idea that my grandmother had been an only child.

“That sounds right….  And, I remember there was a bit of a scandal.”

I raised my eyebrows.

“Yes, my dear.”  Mrs. Chambers was now warming to the storyline.  “Don’t hold me to the details…  You will have to check. But I do believe Miss Nancy Greene wanted to marry Dr. Dickenson.  Colored, as some might say.  Used to tend to the poor people them.  And those upper class people who might have… a condition they didn’t want their own doctor to know about.”

She took a sip of tea and I felt ready to crawl out of my skin.

“Handsome man.”

My mind had already leapt forward to wondering if Dr. Dickenson was my grandfather.

“Anyway, somehow or another Miss Nancy found out Dr. D. had a wife in England.  He had studied there and married a Jamaican.  Something like that.”

Then Mrs. Chambers asked me what my grandfather’s name was.

“Spencer.  Henry Spencer.”

“Yes.  Very sad.  The suicide.”

She must have seen the confusion on my face.

“Oh.  You didn’t know?”

I shook my head.   Mrs. Chambers said she could remember reading about it in the newspaper.   Now she leaned toward me and placed a hand on my knee.

“Miss Nancy and her daughter were together when they found the body.  Hanging.”

“Are you sure?”

“Of course!”  She withdrew her hand and leaned back, indignant.  You don’t forget something like that.  An Englishman working for the government, married to a Greene? You don’t forget something like that.”

I told her my understanding was that my grandfather had died of some species of tropical disease.  She sipped her tea and then told me if I didn’t believe her I could go down to the library and look up the old newspapers.

“And you should go over to Salus Court.”

“Salus Court?”

“Not too far from here.  Reg can direct you.  When the rain stops.”

“What’s at Salus Court?”

“That’s where they all used to live.  Some of your black family still living there.”

The idea amused her and she cackled.

“So how exactly am I related to the…. other Green family?”

“Same old story, I suppose.”

I suddenly felt rather brain-tired, the way I feel when I’ve been writing for too many hours.  Reg reappeared then with the cordless telephone, which he handed to his mother.  I went to my room and slept for twelve hours straight.

Cousins

The next morning Reg sketched a map to Salus Court for me and I walked there.  It was as if the previous eighteen or so hours of rain had never happened.  There was very little standing water and the sun blazed down from a cloudless sky.  The humidity was intense and I was sweating and panting when I fetched up at my destination, a small dead-end lane off of Bellinger Road.  There were four houses on either side, long low-slung shotgun structures that were common around the island.  They were painted in pastel colors and all had dark green trim, from jalousie windows to door frames.  At the end of the street sat a large white two-story house, much like the Chamberlain home with a deep verandah and plenty of pretty Victorian architectural detail.   The street and sidewalks were brick, like some of the touristy areas near the harbor.

It was very quiet as I stood there looking at what I realized was a connection to my past.  On the verandah of the big house an enormous woman dressed in white was helping a small elderly lady into a rocking chair.  No sooner had the two women sat down, than I found myself surrounded by a swarm of children in school uniforms.  They surged around me, an army dressed in bright white shirts and navy trousers and skirts, squealing laughing and staring.  There must have been more than a dozen:  little kids to teenagers with every shade of skin imaginable except white.  Two of the older boys nodded.  One of them said:

“Afternoon, sir.”

The children surged past me and into Salus Court as a body, then split apart on the bricks, a few of them heading for each of the small pastel houses where adults stood waiting on front verandahs.  Then, without consciously deciding to do so, I began walking toward the house.

“Good afternoon,” I said, pausing at the foot of the steps.

“Who come to me, Nurse?”

“A man, Miss Doreen.”

“Of course, it’s a man.”  Miss Doreen was like a small brown bird, and snappish. “Who?”

Nurse, shining and very black, exhaled loudly.

I introduced myself.

“Come up and sit, young man.”  Miss Doreen beckoned in my general direction.  “No point standing in the sun hot when there’s shade right here.”

Nurse continued silent.

“How can I help you?  You lost?”

“No, ma’am.  I’m here because my grandmother was a Greene.  I think she lived here.”

“A Greene you say?”  Miss Doreen turned to her companion.  “Is a white man?”

“Very white,” she replied, examining her fingernails.

“Then you must be Miss Nancy’s grandson.  No?”

I said I was.

“Well, my Jesus God.”  Miss Doreen’s voice was a low croak.  “Nurse, bring two glass of lime juice.  With plenty ice.”  Nurse heaved herself out of her snugly fitting rocking chair and went inside, allowing the screen door to slam behind her.

“My Jesus God.  You sitting down, young man?”

I said I was.

“I remember your granny very well.  A good girl, a lovely woman.  Such a shame. She was children with my children.”

“Is that so?”

The old woman nodded.

“Lived in this same house.  We colored families lived out there.”  She gestured to toward the street with her chin.  “How she keeping?  And your mama?”

I said my mother and grandmother were both dead.

Miss Doreen paused, but did not offer condolences.

“You know, I don’t believe your mother ever came back here after her father passed.  Mr. Spencer.”

I said I thought that was probably the case.

“Your granny came, though.  I remember.  She came for her mother’s funeral. Miss Gracie.  One or two days after that old Mr. Bob died. Your great-grandfather.”

Nurse returned, bearing three glasses of juice on a tray.  She wrapped Miss Doreen’s hand around one of the glasses with exaggerated care, handed me the second, and took the third for herself. Now that I was in her chair, she lowered herself onto the top step, her upper body in the shade and her legs exposed to the sun.

“Miss Nancy didn’t come back for Mr. Bob’s funeral.”

The old lady sipped, then pressed her lips together and closed her eyes.  I looked away and watched a little boy still in his school uniform dash across the bricks from one house to the one opposite, where an even smaller girl handed him an exercise book.  He was in no hurry to return home, standing and fanning himself with it. This made the girl giggle.

“Haul your backside, Cedric!”  A woman was waiting for the boy in the doorway.  He turned and headed back, proceeding brick by brick.

“Boy, don’t make me come out in this heat.”

The boy skipped along and disappeared into the house.

When I turned back to Miss Doreen I saw her head was nodding.  Nurse rattled the ice cubes in her glass.

“I think she’s asleep,” I said.

“Probably so,” she sighed deeply.  “She does come out here every afternoon self.  Even in this bloody heat.”

I looked into my glass for something to do.

“She likes to hear the children them.  Coming in from school.”

“That’s very sweet,” I said.

“Sweet?” Nurse made a dismissive sucking sound. “They don’t pay her no mind. Waste of time.”

I tried to think of something to say.  What is an uninvited guest to do when his host suddenly nods off?  Then Miss Doreen made a sort of gurgling noise and her head snapped up.

“Eustace.”

“Eustace?”

“Eustace.  My son.  He would remember your mother and your granny.  Come back Sunday.”

Miss Doreen called to Nurse.

“Come, child. Help me up.  This heat getting to me.”

The visit was over.  I would have to wait two days to learn anymore about Mother.

Family trees

That evening it rained again, but not like before.  The drops came intermittently, landing gently on the roof and vegetation, tapping instead of pounding.   I sat at my laptop after tea and typed up everything I’d learned about the Greene family so far. I described Salus Court: the houses, Nurse, Miss Doreen, the children, even the lime juice. Then I got into bed and fell asleep to the soft music of the rain.

A sound roused me a few hours later.  At first I thought it was low thunder, but listening more closely I realized it was a series of grunts.   Looking down from my window I saw Reg and Gloria having sex .  Gloria was leaning against her side of the low cement wall that divided the two yards, so that I was more or less looking at the top of her head.  Reg was behind her thrusting and groaning, his hand gripping her breasts through her wet shirt, his face buried in her neck. I watched until they were done.  Reg pulled up his shorts and Gloria smoothed down her skirt.  They nodded to each other and then Reg swung his legs over the wall and disappeared into the house below me.  Gloria stood there leaning against the wall, her back to the Chamberlain house.  I moved away from the window.  There had been no erection for me.  The scene struck me vaguely sad.  Listening to the rain I found myself thinking back over my own romantic history, dwelling with especial melancholy on my two ex-wives, both happily remarried.

When I finally fell asleep I dreamed about Noni and Mr. Davy.  They were dancing close together in the living room of the House (it was always capitalized in my mind), and I was watching them from the Cottage (also capitalized, the outbuilding where my mother and I lived), even though in real life there was no view of that room from our place. They were smiling at each other:  Noni, radiantly happy and Mr. Davy indulgent.  I called for Mother to come watch the dancing couple, thinking that watching them would teach her how to be happy.

On Sunday I waited until early afternoon to go back to Salus Court, not wanting to disrupt any morning ritual the denizens might have or find the place deserted while everyone was at church.  As I turned into the little street I could see a man I took to be Eustace on the verandah of the house.  Various children were playing on the sidewalks and in the street itself.  Many stopped what they were doing to stare at me as I made my way toward my destination.  The whole thing had the feeling of a red carpet.

Eustace stood as I approached. He was at least six feet tall, with honey brown skin and a shiny bald head.  Dressed in crisp white, he might have been any age between fifty and seventy.  If he’d known my grandmother he would have to be closer seventy at the very least, I figured.

“I’ve been waiting for you.”  He was squinting at me and seemed to be saying I was late for a specific appointment.  We shook hands and I saw he was holding a bulging manila folder secured with rubber bands.

“I didn’t know exactly what time to come,” I said.  “Didn’t want to come too early on a Sunday.  Sorry.”

This seemed to mollify him.  He gestured to a chair and we both sat.

“I have all the proofs here,” he said slapping the folder.

“Proofs?”  I wondered if he were talking about photographs.

“Documents, deeds, title to the property.  We got it all fair and square, as you might say.” Eustace spoke with authority, reminding me of a school principal spelling out the rules to an unruly kid.

“I am sure you did.”  We sat there for a moment or two, missing each other by a mile.

Then it dawned on me.

“Do you think I’m here to…. Get something from you?”

“You’re not?”  His sideways look reminded me of Mrs. Chambers.

I shook my head.

“Mama said you were Miss Nancy’s grandson and wanted to speak with me.”

I told Eustace that it had been his mother who suggested he might be able to tell me about my family.

“I don’t want anything except information.”

Eustace raised his eyebrows and pursed his lips.  Then he seemed to relax.

“Your granny was much loved here in Salus Court.  Your mama, too.”

This was the stuff.

“Miss Nancy was older than me…. About ten years or so.  She and her parents lived here in this house.”  He gestured behind him with a thumb and gazed out at the children running to and fro.  I thought he might be casting his mind back until he barked:

“Leila!”

A pretty girl of twelve or thirteen years old peeled away from a clutch of other adolescents and trotted up the verandah steps.

“Yes, Grandad?”

Eustace handed Leila the folder.

“Put his in the top drawer of my desk, child.  Mind nothing fall out.”

“Yes, sir,” Leila blinked in my direction.

“And bring us two glass of lime juice, with plenty ice.”

Leila walked carefully around us, holding the folder before her like some sacred tome. She went through the door and did not allow it to slam behind her.

“Are all of these kids your grandchildren?”

“No, sir.  Some are great-grandchildren.  Some are the grandchildren and great-grandchildren of my brothers.”

He looked at the kids again and barked.

“Frankie, how many times I tell you not to stone the ball so?”

A scrawny little fellow stopped in his tracks and turned toward us with a basketball in his hands.

“Next time I keep that ball, young man.”

“Yes, sir!”  The boy sounded like a soldier responding to a drill sergeant.

Leila was back with the same small tray Nurse had used and two tall glasses filled to their brims.  She handed the tray over to Eustace and flew down the stairs to rejoin her little gang.  Eustace and I sipped.  I was bursting to ask questions, but I didn’t want to blow anything by seeming too pushy.

“Anyway,” Eustace said after draining about half of his glass, “Your grandmother was older than me, but she always had a kind word for the children in the yard here.  We black Greens lived in the bungalows, you understand.”

“I see.”

“She always seemed to like us more her own kind, you know.”

I said nothing.

“She was to marry a colored doctor, a Dr. Dickenson.”

I murmured that I’d heard this.

“Turns out he had a wife in London.  From Barbados or somewhere.  No one here knew. People said your great-grandfather dug it out, investigated, you know.  So that Miss Nancy wouldn’t marry a black man.”

I sipped my lime juice in order to have something to do with my face.

“Your people never mixed, you understand.”

“Ah.”

I asked Eustace what he could tell me about our family tree.

“Well, the old people used say there was two brothers name Greene. Greene with an ‘e.’ They came from England after slavery days.  They bought up land that the slave owners were getting rid of.”

“Like Salus Court?”

Eustace nodded.  There was also property at the harbor front and in the hills, he explained.

“One brother, Walter Greene, he brought his wife.  They would be your ancestors.  The other brother Cedric Greene was a bachelor.  He took up with various colored ladies.  They would be my ancestors.”

“Ah,” I said.  “So you and I are related.”

“Distant,” Eustace didn’t seem to like the notion. “Very distant.  Somewhere along the line we dropped the extra ‘e.’”

I sipped again.

“These bungalows are the latest version of the houses Old Cedric built for his women and his children. Built these in 1940 or so after a fire took the originals.  Just renovated last year.”

“I see.”

“Yes.”

Eustace and I sat in silence for a moment or two.  With two clumps of children screeching at each other I expected him to bark at the offenders, but instead he continued his talk.

“Miss Nancy left Salus Court when she married your grandfather.  He was from England, worked for the governor.”

I nodded.

“In fact, my father and I, we helped move her effects and clothes and so on… Daddy drove the mule and cart to her new house.  Gone now.”  Eustace took a long pull at his lime juice.  “She rode with us, I remember that.  Mr. Bob didn’t like it.  I remember that, too.”

He chuckled.

“She used to come here every Saturday, never missed. Her mother was sickly, you know.”

I said I didn’t know.

“Yes.  From England.  You would scarcely see her outside.  The heat, you understand.”

I agreed that the island was very hot.

Eustace wiped his brow with a handkerchief.

“Miss Nancy and Penny.  Every Saturday self.  Never missed.”

I felt a small jolt in my middle of my chest when Eustace said my mother’s name.  Noni had always called her Penny.

“Penny was the star when she came around, my friend.”

“The star?”

Eustace looked me in the eye and smiled.

“We used to have races.  Boys teams and girls teams.  Then the fastest boy and fastest girl would race.  Penny was the fastest girl.  Sometimes she would win.”

I tried to picture the grim girl from the old photographs running up and down Salus Court, but could not.

“She was quiet you know. Shy.  If you saw her at her own house or on the street.  But here in Salus Court?”

Eustace leaned back in his chair and laughed.

“I can still see her, man.  She used to wear a what-you-call-it bandeau in her hair.  And she would have on boy’s short pants under her frock.  Soon as she finished paying her respects in the house, she was outside and kicking off her shoes.”

He shook his head.

“Old Mr. Bob didn’t like it.  Neither did Mr. Spencer.”

Unbidden, Leila trotted up the stairs then and removed our empty glasses and tray.  I marveled at this.  My own impression of children (based on the offspring of my friends) was of rudeness and mayhem.

“The children are very…. Mindful.”

Eustace raised his eyebrows at me again.

“We don’t tolerate any nonsense ‘round Salus Court.”

I murmured my approval.

“Miss Nancy had a mind of her own.  After Dr. Dickenson brought his wife here, she invited them for tea at her house.”

Eustace smiled at the memory.

“My father and I went to pick them up, in Mr. Spencer’s Daimler.  Your grandfather didn’t like it, but what could he do?  We carried them back home afterwards, too. Neither of them spoke a word going or coming.”

“Do you think my grandfather knew about my grandmother and the doctor?”

“He knew, yes!  Everybody knew.”

“Boy.”  I didn’t know what else to say.

“And then,” Eustace paused dramatically.  “And then.”

“What happened?”

“She began to assist Dr. Dickenson in his office.  And go ‘round with him on house calls, and so on.”

A dark theory about why my grandfather killed himself was beginning to establish itself in my brain.   I pushed it aside.

“So I suppose I am the last of the Greene family… with an ‘e.’”

Eustace pursed his lips and looked at me sidelong again.

“Not exactly.”

“Not exactly?  My grandmother was an only child.”

“Not exactly.”

I am sure I was goggling, but Eustace kept his counsel for a moment.

“I don’t like to spread gossip,” he said licking his lips.

I told him I didn’t consider family history to be gossip.

“Well, then.  If you are sure.”

I told the man I was sure.  He stood and told me he would be right back. I paced the verandah, noticing that the sun was still blazing and that my shirt was stuck to my back.  How long had Eustace and I been talking?  Only the littlest kids were still playing in Salus Court now.  In fact, they were racing up and down the short street, boys and girls all together.  I imagined Leila and the other older kids reluctantly bending over unfinished homework inside the little bungalows.

Verde

Maybe it was the heat and the stories colliding in my head, but I had a sudden and strong feeling of empathy for Mother, or rather for the younger version of my mother that Eustace had described.  It carried the sensation of an almost pleasant shock.  I could see Penny Spencer running toward the verandah, her bobbed hair flying straight back, a look of triumph and delicious freedom written all over her face.

Eustace was back, the screen door slamming behind him.

“Sorry, friend.”  He settled back into his chair.  “Was checking on something.”

I returned to my chair, willing Eustace to pick up where he’d left off.

“Anyway,” he cleared his throat.  “Mr. Bob had what we call an outside son.”

There was the sidelong look again, complete with pursed lips.

“The mother was a Venezuelan… She had a boarding house on Front Street.”

“How do you know this guy was Mr. Bob’s son?”

“Well, he never claimed him in terms of name, you understand.  But everyone used to called him Verde.  That’s green in Spanish.”

I nodded waiting for more evidence.

“To this day I don’t know what his real name was.  We all called him Verde.  Even the children them.  I remember he used to come here to Salus Court every other Sunday for his maintenance.

“His maintenance?”

“Money.  Mr. Bob gave him money in an envelope.   He was a proud boy, not too much older than me.  Never used to look left nor right when he came.  March straight up to the front step and call out: ‘I come Mr. Bob.  I come.’”

Eustace looked grave and examined the palms of his hands for a moment.

“Poor fellow.  Must have hated coming like that.  And Mr. Bob would make him wait sometimes.  He would sit on the bottom step there and wait.

Eustace examined his hands again.

“When he finished school, Verde went to work for Mr. Bob.  He was like a handyman you might say, fixing up the family’s rental properties around the island.  Later on he collected the rents.  Half of the wives in those houses were his girlfriends… He was a handsome fellow.  Looked liked Cary Grant or one of those.”

“Were he and my grandmother ever close?”

“I don’t think so, you know.  Don’t really remember.”

“So what happened to Verde?”

“Hah!”  Eustace slapped both hands on his thighs.

“What a thing, my friend.” He clapped once and chortled before continuing.

“As I say, Verde used to collect the rents, every end-of-month.  One day he just took the money, jumped on a boat at the harbor and gone!”

“Where?”

“To Venezuela.  So they say.  His mother had left a few years before.”

Eustace clapped his hands once again.

“That was quite a thing.  Mr. Bob vex!  We all said it served him right.  He was a real so and so.   Never a smile.  Tight with his money.  Would curse anyone out –reason or no reason. Man, woman, or child.”

Eustace’s amusement receded at this thought.  We both looked out on Greene Court, which was now completely empty of children.

“You don’t want to know how we Greens came to own all this?”  I was surprised to hear him ask me a question.

I said I was curious, but didn’t want to pry.

“Pry?  You done know practically everything else, man.”

I felt my face redden.

“Here’s how the thing gone.  After you grandfather em….. passed away, your granny and mama left for the States, right?”

I nodded.  Clearly, Eustace wanted to spare me the tale of my grandfather’s suicide or assumed I already knew.

“Old Miss Gracie took very sick after a few years.  Cancer. Mr. Bob spent plenty of money sending her back and forth to England.  She refused to go to America.  I remember my pa saying she could have been healed twice over if she would have listened to sense and gone to Miami.  Meantime all of that was going on Mr. Bob lost his mind.  He began to sell land and he began to drink.  Stopped going to the office to stay here with Miss Gracie.”

I saw that Eustace had a pained look on his face.

“You know, as bad as Mr. Bob was, he was part of the scene, you understand.  A fixture, so to speak.  We hated to see him go down so.  He sold off some properties, gambled others.  Until only Salus Court was left.”

We both looked out at the short brick lane, neat sidewalks, and bright bungalows.

“Your granny came back for her mother’s funeral.  She stayed for a few weeks, right here in the house.  By this time now, Mr. Bob wasn’t doing too good.  He died the day after she left.  She didn’t come back for his funeral.  I remember it was just us Greens and a few business associates at the church.  Dr. Dickenson was there, if you can believe it.”

Eustace shook his head.

“We all wondered what would happen to Salus Court.  I was a grown man by then, of course.  Married.  Had my two sons already.  All of us in here, we just went about our business for a few weeks.  We figured someone would come and tell us to move.”

“So what happened?”

“Well, two lawyers came one Friday morning.  They asked for my father.  He was the oldest of the Greens, you understand.  They all went into the house here.  The rest of us, we all gathered in the street.  I remember my mother comforting some of the other ladies.  Everyone thought we would have to go.”

Eustace stopped and folded his arms over his chest.  He looked down at his feet and pressed his lips together.

“I will never forget it.”  His voice was low.  “Daddy called all of us into the house.  For some of the family it was the first time inside, you understand.  It began to rain.  I remember that.  We all crowded into the parlor.  Daddy stood with the two lawyers. White men, you understand.  And one of the men said that Miss Nancy had signed Salus Court over to Eustace Cedric Green, Senior, in trust.  That was my father.”

Eustace looked at me, arms still crossed.

“It sounded beautiful, the way the man said my father’s name.”

“Wow,” I said.  “That’s a great story.”

“Yes,” said Eustace.  “Yes, it is a great story.”

We sat there on the verandah for a few moments more.  I realized he had not asked me anything about myself, nor had he invited me into the house.

“Well, I will have to say good afternoon to you now, sir.”  Eustace stood abruptly and extended his hand.  “It was a pleasure to meet you.”

“Thank you for talking to me,” I said.

“Take care,” said Eustace and disappeared into the house.  I wondered if he’d wanted to make a quick retreat in case I asked to have a look inside his massive manila folder.   I walked out of the Salus Court feeling a little like a woman had cut short a date that had been going well.

At last

There were no signs of life from any of the little bungalows as I passed by.   I wanted to linger, to savor the image of Mother as the child Penny, kicking off her shoes and plunging into a pack of brown-skinned cousins.  Instead I walked down to the harbor and headed for the hotel where I’d stayed upon arrival.

Brick was on duty at the bar and remembered me.

“Is the writer-man, come back again at last!”  He grinned as his wiped a glass. The place was empty.

“As you can see, we are very busy this evening, boss,” he laughed. “Don’t tell me.  You want a rum and coke, easy on the coke, with two slice of lime.”

I complimented Brick on his memory, took my drink and found a table near one of the open jalousie windows.  My face was hot and no doubt red from walking in the sun.   The breeze from the harbor felt good and the drink went down easy.  Brick appeared with another before I had even formed the intention of ordering.

The story of my family was now laid out neatly in my mind’s eye, more or less sequentially.   I had a notion of why Mother was as she had been. At the same time, I was conscious of a coolness toward Noni, an entirely new sensation. My grandmother had ridden off into the sunset, found new husband and lived a comfortable life.  Mother had arrived abruptly in a new land bewildered and probably afraid.  How long did the image of her father hanging by his neck linger?

There’s no telling how many rum and cokes I drank that night.  At some point Brick  put me into a taxi, because the next thing I remember was arriving at the Chambers place and handing over a wad of money to a grinning driver.  I couldn’t move, so the cabbie  decanted me onto the gravel drive.  It was dark, but I have no idea was time it was.  Reg appeared, peered into my face and shook his head.  I thought perhaps he’d been watching for me and felt so moved by this notion I began to cry.   He more or less dragged me up to my room.

As I began to pass out, I remember thinking it was time to go home and write another book.

© Copyright Holly Edgell 2018

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Who gets to say who you are?

“Race” is really not a thing when it comes to human beings, explained the professor. This revelation came in a required college science class. It was an amazing thing to hear at age 21. I wondered, why has no one ever told me this before?

In June 2000, about a decade after the class, Craig Venter, a pioneer of DNA sequencing, confirmed what many scientists had long suspected: “The concept of race has no  genetic or scientific basis.”

Venter and others who mapped the human genome deliberately gathered DNA from people who self-identified as specific races. It turns out all human beings are closely related. Physical characteristics, language and cultural practices vary, but basically we all are part of the human race.

And yet we persist in defining each other based on an assessment of physical characteristics. And, once we identify a person visually, we then go on to make a wide variety of assumptions.flag

In the United States, visual identification always been complicated–and for different reasons. For example, if you look white you are accepted as white in the absence of contradictory evidence. (I often wonder just how many people of color have “passed” in order to escape discrimination and racism).

Then there’s the “one-drop rule,” which decrees that even the most minute amount of African blood makes a person black.

Many Americans proudly claim some degree of Native American heredity, while simultaneously describing themselves as white or black.

One person may look to another like they’re black, but person “A” actually identifies as Hispanic.

And so on. Like I said, it’s complicated.

So what are we to make of people who want to be accepted as a certain “race” (or category of human, if you prefer) when there is little or nothing to support their claim?

Elizabeth Warren, seeking to prove she does in fact have Native American roots, had her DNA tested. The results: “‘strong evidence’ she had a Native American in her family tree dating back 6 to 10 generations.” If Warren was hoping to convince people, the secretary of state for the Cherokee nation has some news for her:

Chuck Hoskin said “a DNA test showing that Sen. Elizabeth Warren has Native American ancestry is ‘completely irrelevant to the process” of determining her tribal identity.

Related | What is “blood quantum” anyway?

The Cherokee Nation also said:

“Using a DNA test to lay claim to any connection to the Cherokee Nation or any tribal nation, even vaguely, is inappropriate and wrong. It makes a mockery out of DNA tests and its legitimate uses while also dishonoring legitimate tribal governments and their citizens, whose ancestors are well documented and whose heritage is proven. Senator Warren is undermining tribal interests with her continued claims of tribal heritage.” (Read more from Slate.com)

“The racial categories included in the census questionnaire generally reflect a social definition of race recognized in this country and not an attempt to define race biologically, anthropologically, or genetically.”

– US Census Bureau

You’ve probably never heard of Ralph Taylor. In 2014 he began to insist on his blackness. Why? Simply put, he wanted to make money under a system designed to help minority- and woman-owned businesses win government contracts.

Taylor had his DNA tested to show how black he was: About 4 four percent, it turns out. That’s not enough for government officials, who pointed out he looks white. Also, they concluded, there was “little to no persuasive evidence that Mr. Taylor has personally suffered social and economic disadvantage by virtue of being a Black American.”

Related | Hooray! Rooting for roots, DNA points to far-flung branches of my family tree

You probably have heard of Rachel Dolezal. She passed as black for many years. She believes herself to be black. To much skepticism and ridicule, “she is not only identifying with black culture but also actually feels ‘trans-racial,’ born with the wrong skin color as much as a transgender person feels born the wrong sex,” as Clarence Page of the Chicago Tribune explained it.

Page refers to the recent documentary about Dolezal in which her son asks her to drop the whole “I am black” thing. To which Page responds:

“That’s too bad, since I find Dolezal’s challenge to America’s ancient racial conventions to be her most interesting narrative. This, after all, is the land of opportunity and reinvention, a place of unbridled ambition, except when it comes to our racial caste system.”

So, in fact, who gets to say who you are? I don’t know. I’m inclined to the view self-determination should carry the day. Still, there is something cringe-worthy about people with natural privilege laying claim to the identities of people without.

———————————-

Shameless plug: I am the editor of Sharing America, a public radio collaborative at the intersection of race, identity and culture. If you are interested in these issues, check us out:

Exploring St. Louis: Blockbusting, redlining and segregation

It’s a rabbit-hole, yes. But one that’s well worth going down in as I immerse myself in the racial past and present of St. Louis. It’s fascinating. It’s depressing. It’s a must.

As the editor of a new Corporation for Public Broadcasting-funded “diversity” coverage initiative, I am based at St. Louis Public Radio and supervise a team of four reporters: One is here; the others are in Kansas City, Hartford and Portland, Ore. While the paperwork for the CPB grant says “diversity,” I feel like this whole initiative will be more about identity: About how Americans think of themselves and about “the other,” in their communities.

In this regard, the issue of where St. Louis people lived and live looms large. The scars of redlining, blockbusting and segregation seem to be everywhere–once you know where to look. Could Ferguson have happened as it did elsewhere? Yes, certainly. But it happened here–how and when it did–for reasons that have to do with both race and place.

So here’s what I’ve been reading, watching and listening to:

SPANISH LAKE – Race, Class and White Flight in Missouri

Clayton was once home to a thriving African-American neighborhood. Now, it’s little-known history.

Pruitt–Igoe (The Wendell O. Pruitt Homes and William Igoe Apartments)

Kinloch connection: Ferguson fueled by razing of historic black town

St. Louis: A city divided

We Live Here: Out of The Ville

We Live Here: White Flight and reclaimed memories

St. Louis Is Growing More Diverse—Just Not in the Black Half of Town

These Maps Of St. Louis Segregation Are Depressing

VICE Abandoned St. Louis Schools

What else should I read, listen to or watch? 

stlmap
Credit: Wompum via Reddit

Dateline St. Louis: Sometimes you just need to stop

ST. LOUIS–It’s a strange thing to be unemployed. Or partially employed. Even if by your own choice. There is both freedom and fear. A sense of excitement and moments of panic. There is time for naps. There is too much time to think.

I had to stop. I had to figure out what I was doing and, more important, what should I be doing. So, I did.

Scary, to say the least. I just knew that I could not continue doing the same thing and expect different results, to paraphrase a famous quote.

I applied for at least one job every day, even long shots. Even things I really didn’t want to do. I told people I trust about what I wanted. I had lots of coffee with people, made lots of phone calls and sent lots of emails in the name of networking. (It would pay off).

I wrote a ton of cover letters. I received a number of “Thank you, but…” responses. I came very close to accepting a job in an outrageously expensive city that someone I respect and I care about is preparing to leave (in part because it’s outrageously expensive). There was a close call with a job outside of journalism: The horror!

Then, I saw a job posting that really resonated; I mean from head to toe.

It promised a completely different direction, but one I was qualified for. I wrote the heck out of the cover letter. I applied. I heard nothing. I chalked it up to another one of those, “It would’ve been nice, but….”

Here I should say that this whole time (July to present), I’ve been encouraged, buoyed up by, given reality checks by, and received cheerleading from, my family. Not everyone has the kind of support system that allows them to keep their sanity while in transition. Also, there are friends who continued to think highly of me, even when I did not think highly of myself.

And then, after about two months, it came: A phone call about that job posting that really resonated. I could hardly believe it. Stars aligned. Things started to move. Interviews. Reference checks. More interviews. The offer.

So, I start on Dec. 11. Ain’t life Grand? (That’s a hint).

THANK YOU! Mom, Dad, Randy, Emily, Geraldine C., Kurt G., Allison H., Brian J., Jim S., Neil R., Eric K., and (for reals) LinkedIn

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Meet me in St. Louis. Under the Arch.

Don’t look now, Twitter: The world is turning to WhatsApp for news

Remember when Twitter was everything? It’s still got more than 320 million monthly active users, but it’s no longer the hot social media platform. While Facebook, Pinterest and Instagram continued to grow between 2012 and 2015, Twitter stagnated starting in 2014 (Pew Research Center).

RELATED: 24 slightly depressing stats on the ‘fall’ of Twitter

I recently heard a colleague describe Twitter as a kind of “echo chamber,” for journalists, pundits, news junkies and assorted fans of assorted sports teams and pop culture icons.

Hello, WhatsApp.

WhatsApp_logo
Source: WikiMedia Commons
When I spent six months in Belize last year, I began using WhatsApp to send free messages and make free phone calls to family and friends in the U.S. I also found that Belizeans use WhatsApp quite heavily to message and talk to each other within the country.

If you are unfamiliar with WhatsApp, here are the basics:

So, now you’re asking: How does WhatsApp, which sounds like a utility, qualify as a social media platform? How do people get news from such an app?

Percentage of people using each service at least once a week

Stats

Source: Reuters Institute Digital News Report 2017

While in Belize, I was invited to join a WhatsApp group called Newz@Ur Finga Tipz. I wasn’t sure what to expect, but I was intrigued. Soon, I saw that the curators and users of the group were sharing details about car accidents, severe weather (flooding and tropical storm activity especially), missing persons, and other tidbits that you might normally expect news outlets to report.

newz

In Belize, where newsrooms are not always staffed to keep ahead of breaking and developing news (especially on weekends), Newz@Ur Finga Tipz was delivering information in a timely fashion to a group of “subscribers,” if you will. There were rumors bandied about, but the group’s curators and members took pains to debunk and/or confirm and then spread the news.

My job in Belize involved public relations and marketing for the nation’s leading cultural and historical institutions, including the Maya archaeological sites around the country that provide employment for Belizeans and draw tourists and researchers in (for Belize) huge numbers.

In the wake of August 2016’s Hurricane Earl, I jumped on Newz@Ur Finga Tipz as one channel for providing updates on which archaeological sites were closed due to storm damage, and which other venues (e.g. the Museum of Belize and Bliss Center for the Performing Arts) had been affected by the hurricane.

In Belize, WhatsApp is free way to inform and communicate, but the platform is even more widely used for sharing news and views in other countries–countries where tweeting or posting a news item could get you into trouble with government officials, religious authorities and others with the power to make lives uncomfortable.

Just take a read about how China has WhatsApp in its censorship sights.

WhatsApp is private. So, as long as you know and trust people you connect with, it’s a safe means for connecting.

For its latest Digital News Report, the Reuters Institute For The Study of Journalism worked with YouGov to survey people in across Europe, the Americas and Asia. The study was sponsored by the BBC and Google among others. A total of 71,805 people were questioned in January and February to generate the data.

Key findings

  • Facebook is still the most popular social media and messaging service for news engagement in all but two countries – Japan and South Korea – where, respectively, YouTube and Kakao Talk dominate.
  • Sharing news stories and chatting about them appears to be on the rise within private instant messaging apps, and WhatsApp in particular.
  • WhatsApp is now the second most popular social service for news in nine of the 36 locations, and the third most popular platform in a further five countries.

“Some of the biggest growth we’ve seen is in places like Turkey, where it’s positively dangerous for people to express anti-government preferences on open networks like Facebook…. As a result people are using closed groups where they are more confident of expressing their views.” — Nic Newman, Digital News Report

Another attractive quality of WhatsApp is that content is not selected by journalists. The gatekeepers are WhatsApp users. According to a BBC article about the Digital News Report, some news organizations are trying to jump on the WhatsApp bandwagon (of course), but: “….part of WhatsApp’s appeal is that users don’t get interrupted by brands, making it a very pure form of messaging. That’s something [its developers] will really try to hold to.”

Here’s a look at WhatsApp usage in many countries (Percentage of YouGov respondents who report using WhatsApp on a weekly basis)

whatsappx

Source: Reuters Institute Digital News Report 2017

The Digital News Report survey did not include Africa (which is odd), but guess what? WhatsApp is huge there.

Facebook and WhatsApp

Wondering how Facebook feels about the rise of WhatsApp? The world’s dominant social network acquired the hot, new upstart in 2014. Now, naturally, Facebook is looking to monetize the app, so it will be interesting to see how that works out–given that WhatsApp users may be flocking to the service because it’s devoid of advertising and other money-making features.

Stay tuned.

after-acquiring-whatsapp

Not your average Saturday in Cleveland

Saturday, June 24, was weird. I woke up to a sweet Lake Erie breeze coming in through the huge windows of the loft-style apartment where I’ve been living since February. The sky had that look that indicates it will be a sunny, mostly clear day.

yoga
Hundreds of yogis took part in a mass yoga class on the streets of downtown Cleveland on June 24.

I did some work after drinking my coffee, with the news on television. There was nothing too horrible in the headlines—or perhaps I am getting used to the new normal in these tumultuous times.

Breakfast. For a few weeks now, I’ve been going to a locally owned place called Yours Truly on either Saturday or Sunday. There are several around the Cleveland area, and I can walk to one downtown. It’s just shy of Playhouse Square.

The previous Saturday I’d gone in, and a server told me I couldn’t sit in a window booth because it was reserved. There was no sign or anything on the table. He said the reservation had just come in. OK, fine. The other window booth was occupied, so I sat elsewhere.

On my most recent visit, after another server told me I could sit in a vacant window booth, server #1 swooped in to say it was reserved. I pointed out that I was told I could sit there and he said server #2 didn’t know about the reservation. I was furious. And I usually don’t get furious.

I asked to be seated elsewhere—not in server #1’s section—and to see the manager. After outlining what had happened, I received an apology and assurances that I was in the right. There was no particular explanation for the way server #1 behaved, but I was offered my meal for free.

Then, the general manager came down and gave me his card. Another apology. Oh! And both told me the restaurant doesn’t even take reservations; it’s first come, first served.

I don’t know what actions the manager took; I could see server #1 working as if nothing had happened.

So, what should I conclude?

  • Racial discrimination
  • Gender discrimination
  • Solo diner discrimination (a.k.a. fear of meager tip)
  • Some combination of the above

I posted this experience on my Facebook Page and many friends opted for the racial discrimination explanation. As I left, I noted four black women were now seated in a window booth.

Needless to say, I took to Yelp and TripAdvisor to share my frustration. A sad experience, since I really like the Yours Truly Barcelona omelet. (Blog continues below map)

Still steaming, I walked toward Playhouse Square, where the universe instantly tried to make up for what had happened at the restaurant. The area’s busy intersection was blocked off from traffic for the huge Tri-C Jazz Fest stage, surrounding which sat hundreds of people on yoga mats, waiting for the session to begin.

The vibe was just as you might expect: reggae music floated through speakers and the yogis–mostly women—murmured, chatted, and stretched. I stayed around to watch for a bit, not being a yogi myself: Quite a sight! I felt better.

Next, I wandered down to the area near the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame where people were lining up to get into the Cleveland Pride Festival. There were smiles and laughter everywhere.

After that, I headed over to Public Square where the Cleveland Pride Parade was about to begin. I noted with interest that the largest contingents represented the likes of Walmart, USBank and Giant Eagle. Churches were well represented, as were a handful of political candidates.

To see the exuberance and joy in the faces of the people marching made me emotional.

Realization: This is what it looks like when people, long marginalized and worse, can celebrate life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness.

So, I wrapped up my morning rambles by heading back to the apartment. It was not quite 1 p.m., and I was spent.

pride_4
USBank employees carried this massive flag in the Cleveland Pride Parade on June 234.

The Podcast: Auditory perfection? 

What is it that’s so cool about podcasts? The little burst of excitement I feel when a new one is ready reminds me of getting letters or cards in the mail back when people used to send letters and cards.


Perhaps podcasts are like magazines; so many subjects and themes that there is something for everybody. Even better, the podcasts you love don’t have annoying perfume sample inserts.

It’s not likely that most people who podcast will become overnight millionaires; advertising is sparse for the smaller players (which is part of the charm). Some podcasters get donations a la public radio; others sell swag like t-shirts. Crowdfunding is another option. 

Still, as it turns out, if you have an attractive concept and a devoted, growing audience, you might attract venture capitalists to back you.

An article at NiemanLab.org says “We can mark 2016 as the year the podcast business came of age.” Ad revenue is growing, according to stats in the article.

Podcasting is a form of story-delivery that accommodates a wide range of voices, as this article from the Knight Foundation describes. Anyone can do it. Not everyone will cash in.

Here are the voices I am listening to:

  • Snap Judgment
  • LORE
  • Somebody Knows Something 
  • Crimetown
  • Moth Radio Hour
  • True Crime Brewery
  • New Yorker Radio Hour
  • Serial
  • Fresh air 
  • This American Life

Related: How to start podcasting 

Flashback: 5 photos from the end of World War II

My father, Al Edgell, will be 93 years old in 2017. He served as a medic in World War II, and was stationed in Berlin after it was over. 

As I help my dad edit his memoirs, I’ve come across many photos he took, including these from his US Army days. They came to mind as I took in the coverage of Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe’s visit to Pearl Harbor on Dec. 28.


6 Uber drivers you might encounter in St. Louis


Spending the holidays in the US after six months in Belize, I have employed a variety of transportation methods: borrowing my sister-in-law’s minivan, renting a car and using Uber. 

Side note: Uber is the Craigslist of the transportation space: Once you’ve gone Uber you realize just what a big opportunity taxidom missed out on!

 


It’s fascinating to chat with an Uber driver; each one has his or her own style and reasons for driving strangers around in their car.

6 Uber drivers you might encounter in St. Louis:

1. The chauffeur. He wears a sweater vest, a tie, and a crisp white button-down shirt. His vehicle is immaculate and smells of the peppermints he offers passengers. He also provides small botttles of water to the thirsty. Car: Dodge Grand Caravan

2. The as-needed driver. This is a young man who tells you he’d rather be watching football but needs to drive a few hours to pick up a few extra dollars. Turns out he played college football and is in limbo while he decides on his next move. Car: Chevy Impala

3. The single mother. She indicates you should sit in the front passenger seat because the back seat “is a mess.” Her routine is to drop a bunch of kids off at school in the morning, Uber until the school day ends, and then pick up said group of kids to deliver them home. The group includes her musical genius high school daughter who is already being scouted by prestigious conservatories. Car: Kia Sedona

4. The full-timer. This driver tells you he’s started driving up to ten hours a day because he was recently laid off from his job or recently lost his disability benefits. He studies YouTube videos posted by expert Uber drivers who provide tips on maximizing the system. Knows the city like the back of his hand. Car: Toyota Corolla or Kia Sorrento.

RELATED | Chasing the surge: 3 tips for maximizing Uber earnings

5. The NRA member. Conversation quickly turns to the fact that Uber doesn’t allow him to carry a gun while driving, but he does have a pocket knife on his person. Turns out he used to work as a repo man, so he may have reason to fear passengers. Car: Volkswagen Jetta.

6. The juggler. He Ubers in the city for several hours most mornings (including Christmas Day), then heads to the county (far west) for his full time job at a nursing home. In addition he serves as a Kurdish and Persian interpreter at a local center that provides support services for new immigrants. Car: Nissan Quest.

Do you Uber?

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