I met Carol when I returned to Atlanta, to college, in August of 1990. By then I was convinced that Bob Marley was a prophet, and that Bab-y-lon would soon fall. When it did fall, I would be safe because I'd seen it coming and had covertly stacked up walls of protection: critical essays, vegetarianism, cotton fabrics and research, lots of research.
Along with my two comrades, I rented a two-bedroom house. Comrade number one, my promised fiance'; and comrade number two; one of his angelically agreeable female friends, a new sister. She and I shared a first name, so he figured he could talk to us both at the same time. Either that, or change one of our names.
This new sister and I had spoken over the phone all summer, as she arranged our housing and my pickup from Hartsfield International Airport; an older man named Louis. Louis had his nephew and his cousin with him. No problem however, because we could all fit into his semi-plush white Lincoln. He smelled of wet cigarettes floating in beer as he swayed easily to one side, then the other as I wondered if the ride would cost me my life. We drifted down the freeway to the West End, asking Louis questions about his ex-wives, hoping to keep him focused on the white lines in the freeway. Twice we asked him if he was ok to drive before he eventually swerved onto Raymond Street, and alas killed the engine in front of our new house, the brown one, second from the corner. Over the next few days, our stoop emerged as a gathering place for more comrades.
As a group, all of our encounters began with "Greetings," and ended with "Peace, or "Jah guide." We were enchanted by our notions about freedom and race and money. We thought the logic of history made it clear that we should cleave ourselves from what we saw as the traps of eating too much, buying too much, lying too much to ourselves, despising ourselves too much. Any given night our house filled with laughter, slow-cooked one-pot food, highly competitive games of Spades; a rock-steady ichieck of a reggae beat, and a lingering coat of frankincense and myrrh.
Though free, we laden ourselves with some nouveau restrictions. We only wore our hair long and natural. We only ate unsalted, vegan food. We only wore cotton fabrics. We blasted out into the street roots reggae, straight up jazz, and any style of hip hop we could find. Enthused, we dusted off and listened again to the music of our childhoods: Gil Scott Heron, Richie Havens, Aretha Franklin, Stevie Wonder, Roberta Flack, Joan Baez, and Marvin Gaye. And we read everything.
We occupied the thick, green, sweaty neighborhoods around the Atlanta University Center. We met there because we all went to school there: Spelman, Morehouse, Clark Atlanta, Morris Brown, or ITC. We moved with our few brown suitcases (tags reading LAX, OAK, SFO, and JFK) and no furniture into that roomy, echoic house on Raymond Street--just down the street from all five schools, yet a miles away from our gated experiences on campus.
At least two distinct worlds existed in the University Center. There was the college world with its sculpted trees, mix-matched tulips; and there was the outside world. Carol was part of that outside world.
We would sit on our stoop as folks came by to play chess or just talk about the latest. We had food--sometimes from Busy Bee, or Paschal's, a nice vegetable plate--or we had cooked up a big pot of brown beans and basmati rice. Music played out into the street and a local would stroll by and ask if they could join us for a beer. "Have some, we would say." And that would be it. Some friendships come to us so quietly we don't even know from where. They begin with an acknowledgement, however, an invitation: we need each other.
Carol and I first spoke when she came by and I was alone. I hadn't worked that day, nor had I gone to school. I was not extremely friendly at that time, but I was always willing to talk and to listen. We ate together as I listened to her talk about her life. I heard a subtle desperation in her raspy tone. She looked at me with something I'd then mistaken as fear and confusion. We talked about general stuff. Where we came from. What we liked to eat and listen to. What we thought about the coming change in time. I hated it. Short days, less light. She liked it, the day a dismal waste of time.
The next time we met to talk Carol brought her bottle. Tucked in the back pocket of her loosely hanging jeans, it read, "Gin." As she spoke to me she drank from that bottle that just said GIN. I would stick to sipping my beer, hanging over me a fear of liquor as ominous as the fear I maintained of the worst parts of myself, the two always cavorting together. Plus generic alcohol crossed my danger threshold. I tipped my last swig of stock and noticed Carol's eyes, the color of root beer and soft like warm water. She asked me about the flag in the window. I told her we flew the Ethiopian flag because we all come from Ethiopia.
"That's in Africa?"
"Uhm huh." Both of us talking slowly now.
"That's my daughter's name, Africa." Proudly.
"Oh, yeah?" I said, inescapably intrigued.
"Huh whole name, Africa Zaire."
"Wow! That's beautiful, Carol. What made you think of that? I mean, Zaire?"
"When I was pregnant with her, my daughter Africa, I got real sick. I didn't have no where to go, but some missionaries, they had a little church downtown. Dey
"I think you might be right about that, Carol. I like it. Africa, Zaire."
That night Carol passed out on the floor of our living room, and left a little puddle in the unfinished floorboard-- to remind us of her visit. I went to school, and to work the following days, and would meet Carol's daughter, Africa, one day as I walked up Jeptha. I knew it was Carol's daughter because she looked just like Carol, but with skin like fine black ink in a bottle. I said hello as she passed, explaining that I knew she had to be Carol's because she had Carol jumping all off of her. She was an older teenager. She was also pregnant. The next time I saw Carol, I would have to congratulate her.
. . .
Carol came by the house one evening as I sat on the stoop, the sun ducked behind a cloud, in a corner of the golden blue sky. The neon light from Paschal's Hotel beamed through our window. On the wall it left a red, gold and green intimation, much more impressive than the flag we'd hung in the window. Holy smokes we'd said, now sure we were in good stead. Carol plopped down partially drunk, and not too steady. She was completely different during the day when she hadn't had a drink. But it was nearing nighttime, she was full of liquor, and she was in the mood for singing. She sang to me, "I'ma tell you something, but you got-TA tell my story! Only if you tell my story!"
Ok, I shook my head.
"You promise to tell my story?"
Again, I nodded yes. She then broke into a ballad about a man who took her down to Savannah/and tried to make money off of her/because she liked to smoke crack.
"You like to smoke crack!?"
She smiled, "Yesssss! I lovvvvee to smoke crack."
She said this as her hand waved through the air in an operatic moment. "He tried to sell me to other men/ he thought I didn't care nothingggg about myself. I told him I wasn't raised to work on no street corner, my momma taught me better than that/He passed out afterwhile and after he bust my lip/And I slipped away out a teeny tiny bathroom window/ walked through the rain to get to a phone to call my uncle/ and he took the bus down to Savannah and found meeeeee/You gotta tell my stooryy! Somebody tell it, please."
"Ok, Carol," I said, still stumped and confused about the liking to smoke crack part.
That was October, 1990 and the last time I saw Carol. Africa soon had her baby. I would soon be expecting my own (testing the bounds of my commitment to communal living), and Carol would be dead by winter. From the neighborhood I heard she'd had a stroke that killed her where she fell. That urgency in her voice, that desperation and fear, that I then had not understood, I see now as I see her eyes, the color of root beer and soft warm water.
Cool slanting light marks another change in time. Vermilion streaks dance across the blackening sky as I kindly ask another turn at the splendor of spring. I am thanking the night, then the day, sitting here still, having fulfilled a promise to a friend: a woman named Carol.