An orange hat and church

January 25, 2015

Savannah Morning News column

It’s a little scary going to a strange place. Habits are hard to hand over. That’s why it’s good to wear an orange hat.

“I sure do like that hat,” said a woman on Montgomery Street after I got out of my car. “Can I have it?”

I could tell she meant it.

“I have way too much stuff,” I answered. “So I would love to give it to you, but I love my hat, too.”

She busted out laughing (don’t you love “busted out” instead of burst?) and grabbed me in a hug, not an air hug but a real one, real close. That’s how they do at First African Baptist.

“Where are you from?” a woman holding a pencil and piece of paper asked as soon as I walked up the stairs to the crowded front parlor of the red brick building on Franklin Square in a church that used to be called First Colored Baptist.  The pews, which were made by slaves, are nailed into the floor. Beneath the auditorium floor is a sub-floor known as the Underground Railroad floor. That’s where runaway slaves would hide as they made their way north. The air holes, as necessary for life as was their perilous journey, were drilled into the floor. They still exist.

How do I or any of us answer that question: “Where are you from?”

Next to me, also waiting to go into the sanctuary, a couple said, “Ontario, Canada.” Another said, “Chesterfield, Virginia.” Still another, “Richmond, Virginia.”

I finally said, “Fiftieth Street, Savannah, Ga.”

The church was nearly filled when I walked in. The last time I visited I went with a friend from Vancouver, Canada, who had done her research before visiting. This was her first trip south. This was the historic black church she wanted to visit. Rev. Thurmond Tillman was away on family business in Florida that week so Rev. Paul Little took over. Many women were wearing hats. I remembered that. I also remembered Rev. Little asking people in the congregation to report how so-and-so was doing and hearing, “in the hospital, out of the hospital, in for procedures, out for tests.” Then he asked again: who are you praying for? Speak their name.” Then he implored, “Someone shout out, ‘I’m covered’.” More than one replied, “I’m covered!” He called for anyone who was praying for someone to come forth. We held back, Mary Burns from Vancouver and I from Fiftieth Street. But who doesn’t have someone they’re praying for? It didn’t take long to figure that out. We walked up and joined most of the congregation who had moved forward. We held hands. We hugged. Our eyes grew full. It was healing.

I came for some of that healing. I came for succor. Yes, digging in the garden is good for the soul. Yes, standing shoulder to shoulder at an oyster roast on the edge of the continent on a beautiful if blustery day is healing, especially after the sun, absent for what seemed forever, finally showed itself. Yes, going to a fundraiser on a Saturday afternoon for a brave woman with lung cancer who is having trouble paying the bills, is healing. But I was looking for something else. I walked into the church shoulder to shoulder with an orange hat and a bunch of people I did not know.

Before the readings or the words, Rev. Tillman said it was time for fellowship. Not just with the person next to you or in front or behind you. To the faint sound of a bass guitar, an organ, a tambourine and just the hint of a drumbeat, we got up and walked around and hugged and shook hands. The men did that shoulder-banging-greeting thing. The women, not to be too gender specific, hugged, really hugged.

Then a group of kids, wearing white shirts (their ties flying) and pressed pants bounded to the front, passed around the microphone and read the words of Martin Luther King, Jr. “Free at last, free at last, free at last.” The congregation, some standing, arms waving, fingers pointing, shoulders swaying, heads shaking, cheered them on.

And then Rev. Tillman asked the hard questions.

“Why would Martin Luther King Jr. put it all on the line?” he asked, his lanky body moving back, then forward. “He had it made. Why not just let things be the way they were?

“Dr. King never said he hated white people,” Tillman said, pausing. “He spoke only love.”

After that the good reverend recognized “a young brother” who was celebrating 10 years of sobriety, a Miss Black USA and a former Miss Black USA and gave the details of someone who would be “funeralized today.”

Two hours later, I walked out, still in my orange hat, full and fulfilled. It’s good to take time in fellowship even if it’s in a strange place with people you don’t know.

Disconnecting and finding a bargain

Savannah Morning News column

Jan. 18, 2015


When I paid $1.92 for a gallon of gas the other day at Snappy Foods in Darien, I had a good chuckle thinking about my mother. She loved a bargain and hated a rip-off. When a pack of cigarettes jumped above 35 cents – which is what a gallon of gas cost at the time – she quit smoking. Cold turkey. Not a problem. End of story.

When I bitch and moan how the packaging of certain products is shrinking – can you say toothpaste? – while the price keeps creeping upward (as if we the consumers wouldn’t notice), I think about my mother and what she would say. “Just use baking powder or Ivory soap.” (No fluoride, either.)

When I think of her birthday, March 1, I remember Bill Knapp’s. This was a chain of restaurants in the Midwest that started in Battle Creek, Mi. They were known for offering birthday and anniversary discounts. For an anniversary you got a chocolate cake. If it was your birthday you got a percentage off your bill based on your age. Sixty-two? Your bill was discounted 62 percent. My mother dearly wanted to reach 101 to see if they would offer a rebate of one percent.

The chain went out of business in 2002. My mother passed away in 2011. She was 96.

Funny what we remember.

Every time I negotiate a nimble yet sketchy U-turn, I hear her voice in my head:  “Are those legal down here?” When I stare at a joke in the New Yorker, as I have been doing lately, with more and more confusion, I remember her query, “Do you understand them?”

I think if she had been a few years younger she would have caught on to the computer and would have been complaining, “Which of these keys do I poke?” the way I do. She would have been confounded, as I was, at this sentence I heard the other day: “The problem we are having is our Apple TV doesn’t play well with our Amazon Prime Instant Video.” Huh?

But what would she have said about paying $2,285 a night for the privilege of NOT having a television in her room or anything resembling online capabilities, like a cliff-top lodge in Big Sur, California charges – and gets – from those people who want “rustic elegance” along with what they are calling “Internet Sabbath”?  In the travel industry this is what is known as a “black-hole resort.” Note to travel agents and entrepreneurs and stock enthusiasts: “digital detox” is the next big thing. This is very important information. Sounds like a good business to invest in. First we were desperate to stay in hotels that had online capabilities. Now we pay EXTRA for those that don’t. Crazy. First we wanted the fastest Internet service on the planet. Now we pay to be able to disable in our homes. Now we pay for quiet time.

Is this why yoga classes are bursting at the seams? They have become one of the few places where we can’t bring our cell phones. I think the myriad of yoga studios that have popped up should consider an entire class devoted to savasana, the final relaxation, also known as corpse pose. It’s not that easy to relax, you know, the yoga teachers remind us. Everyone in favor, raise your hand.

If that’s not going to work I can always hide my cell phone.

“Going for a walk without my beeper,” I announce to the world, which is what I’ve started calling my phone/camera/calendar/computer/reminder/calculator/photoalbum. Is this why I’m walking so much lately? Because it’s the only time I can separate myself from connectivity?

Free of my phone, free of (high) expectations, I think to myself, Ha ha ha ha ha. You can’t reach me! I can’t be disappointed by what doesn’t come in.  PS: it’s not that I receive so many calls or messages or texts; I don’t. It’s the possibilities, the off chances that loom, that keep me and others looking, looking, looking until the looking becomes a habit and then a diversionary tactic.

Have you heard about the Jump Up Rescue Internet School in South Korea, which happens to be the most connected country in the world? Pay attention. Compulsive Internet use is a mental health issue. My mother would have been the first to buy stock in it. She could always spot a bargain and/or a trend.