WHEN I STEPPED OUT ON stage, it took some time for my eyes to adjust to the lights. Stars.
Then, waves of white-haired White people in twinkling gowns and midnight suits. The drum of my heart was so loud that even the back row could hear it. I froze.
Barefoot, barechested, alone, I stood in fading denim overalls in August-hot spotlight. The stage set, a creaking 1930's Alabama front porch. Weathered white. No mic. I dared not even move for fear the set's splintered planks penetrate my foot - cause me to limp, to bleed.
My eyes wide, I scanned the stage for any comfort - the fat, striped green fruit, the sizzle of pork. If Baba could see me, he would be so ashamed.
Suddenly, I longed to be in blackface, where at least I could be anonymous. What had I gotten myself-
"If you will look to your left you'll see a spectacular view of Manhattan," the pilot interrupted over the intercom system.
Yawning, I scanned the skyline for the Empire State Building. Then, the Chrysler Building. Then, south should be the Twin...
My eyes kept searching for something familiar, but this was all uncharted territory for me - a "South" party in the North, the Republican National Convention, New York post-9/11. As the plane descended into Queens toward Laguardia, I spotted two arenas. One is Shea Stadium, home of the Mets, one of my favorite childhood teams, I thought. But the other stadium is...?
I stood at the Baggage Claim, as my itinerary instructed and waited for my driver - 5... 10... 15 minutes. Maybe they thought I wasn't coming. But that thought should have vanished at the Hartsfield Delta check-in counter. Maybe they didn't like my negotiation tactics. Were they trying to teach me a lesson? How dare they leave me stranded at Laguardia!
My heart rose and fell as one dark-haired driver approached after another, all bearing chest-level signs - ANDERSON, WANG, SUAREZ, BROWN. Anything, it seemed, but HEATH. I wandered outside. Perhaps he's waiting at the curb. But what if he comes to the Baggage claim while I'm standing outside?
I grabbed a bench, fumbled through my bag, pulled the 800 number for the transportation service, and called. I told the operator where I was standing. And as if by conjure, a black-haired driver bearing the name, HEATH, appeared within seconds.
"How long have you been here?" he asked frantically, thickly eastern European.
"About 15 minutes."
"I've been waiting here the whole time." He grabbed my bag. "I didn't see you."
Am I invisible? I thought. But my mouth said, "No problem."
We hustled to the black Lincoln, he tossed my bag in the trunk, and we were off.
After checking in with his office, he asked, "You here for business or pleasure?"
"Uh, business," I said, secretly praying that he didn't ask what type. This was the first time since my in-flight dream that I'd thought about my actual performance. To avoid the discussion, I turned the table.
"So, where are you from?"
We small-talked through the Midtown tunnel. I learned he was from Turkey, had a degree in mechanical engineering, was only struggling in America - more precisely, Long Island - long enough to save to return to Ankara for a life of luxury. He had never been to the South, but he would "definitely be going to Florida."
"When I was flying in," I said, filling a lull in the conversation. "I saw two stadiums. One was Shea... and the other was?"
"Shea...," he seemed to be searching. "Ah, yes, yes. Ashe - The other is Arthur Ashe Stadium. The U.S. Open. It's easy to forget that the tennis is going on with all this fuss about the Republican convention."
Fuss? I didn't think it was possible to cause a "fuss" in New York, aside from 9/11.
"How has it been... with the convention?"
"Big headache! Today, you can go thataway but you can't go thisaway. Tomorrow, you can go thisaway but can't go thataway. All the streets blocked off, thousands and thousands of police.
"And who you think pay for the police? Not Bush, no. Not the Republican party neither." For empahsis, he pointed, then touched his chest. "You and me."
"I never see so many police in my whole life. Who knows where they all came from? On this corner, on that corner. Big, huge headache. I'll be glad when it all just go away."
"So, have you had to drive anyone with the convention?"
"No!" he snapped. I touched my head to make sure it was still intact. It was as if I had asked if he were a terrorist.
After exiting the Midtown tunnel, shrinking among Manhattan's highrises, we navigated what must have been a half-dozen roadblocks. Storefronts were dark. Streets were dead.
What city was this again? It felt like a foreign occupation.
"Here you are," he said, braking abruptly before my hotel. He handed me my bag. I tipped him. But before I could say, Thank you, he was off.
"Mr. Heath, I have good news," the much-too-chipper-for-11:00 p.m.-on-a-weeknight hotel attendant said. "And I have better news."
"The good news is, we've sold out of the room for which you have a reservation...
"And the better news is that you're on the 18th floor!"
At this point, I suppose I should've been saying, Yippee!, or something comparable; but as he handed me my room key, I had no idea what he meant. That was, until I entered the elevator. The only floor above 18 was PH. It took a moment for it to register that that meant Penthouse.
The elevator opened, I navigated a couple of hallways, and I opened my door. It would be the first of many surprises.
A sprawling three-course dessert of mahogany, taupe, and cream - a dining area, a sitting area, a daybed in the wall, a vanilla satin-sheeted platform bed, an ample wardrobe and closet, a glittering view of midtown, Sony electronics, a stand-up shower, a vintage claw-footed bathtub. And on Madison Avenue?
Now this was New York!
Suddenly, I wanted to get lost in the town. But tomorrow would be a big day. After being up for 18 hours - trains, planes, and automobiles; a full day of corporate work - what I needed was a long, hot shower. And some sleep.
Either __t from Turner lied to me, or maybe she really didn't know herself, but it was now clear: Tomorrow's 'South Party' was unequivocally related to the Republican National convention. For a 2-night stay, this room alone cost more than I had asked for a performance fee. And if these were my accomodations for a 3-minute performance at a "side event," I could not even begin to imagine how much money was floating around elsewhere. But I didn't know the half. This was just the beginning.
So I stood beneath the showerhead, closed my eyes. I let the hot water run. Niggers. Rivers. Bombs. Blues. Sugar. Shackles. Sun. Shades. Limousines. Ankara. Scarlet. Cotton. Gin. Ashes. Towers. Temples. T___sa.
T___sa, from Philly, who has always been there for me, was driving up to meet me at this My South party. As stingy as Turner had been with supplying me with information, something was telling me that this party might be a closed event. It did seem strange that they hadn't yet told me if I could invite guests. If I could, I would imagine that T___sa would need some sort of ticket. And with all of the roadblocks, would I even be able to get the ticket to her?
So, I scrubbed my skin as midnight approached.
(I half-wondered if I were trying to remove the brown.)
But I needed to enter tomorrow clean.
WEDNESDAY, SEPTEMBER 1, 2004
"ANOTHER DAY in the city," the dirty blonde sighed as he settled in the elevator with his video camera.
"Where you from?" I asked.
"Atlanta. Here for the convention?"
He rolled his gray eyes, then patted his camera. "Yeah, for the convention. But what can I say? At least I'm getting paid for it. You? You here for the convention?"
"Yeah, sort of. I'm performing at a side event this afternoon."
"Oh." He raised his brow. "You a singer?"
"Naw. A spoken word artist."
Then, he said it. "Are you... Republican?"
"Nope. But I'm being paid to be one today!"
To kill a couple of hours before my noon meeting back at the hotel, I took a morning stroll down Madison Avenue from the 30's to the 20's. The city still felt dead. Cloudless sky. Lots of cops.
I returned to the lobby to meet the four other spoken word artists Turner had flown in and to also have my first face-to-face with the folks from Turner, who I'd only corresponded with via e-mail and phone - most notably, __t, who tried to dupe me into coming to this Grand Ol Party for free.
But that, apparently, would have to wait.
"Hi, I'm S_r_h," said some red-headed woman as she rushed from the elevator. "Are y'all performing at the My South event this afternoon?"
Four of us acknowledged her, then made our introductions.
S_r_h was a vertically-challenged twentysomething from Memphis; Tr___ure was a no-nonsense spike-haired Black female schoolteacher from Mississippi; Co__ was a slim, laid-back clean-cut Black male from Birmingham; and J_hn was a chubby lighting technician from Charlotte, who, in a past life, could have been Jake "the Snake" Roberts.
"__t and C__hy told me to tell y'all," S_r_h began, "that they're not going to be able to meet us at noon. They want us to meet back here at 2:00, dressed and ready to go to the show."
"Did they say anything about tickets?" I asked.
"Oh yeah, they said they have two tickets for each of us."
"And just how are we supposed to get the tickets to our guests if the show starts at 4 o'clock?"
"I'm not sure. You can try either C__hy or __t on their cell phones."
An hour later, I finally met with the neurotic C__hy, whose most notable trait was a right palm, which had permanently evolved into a compact mirror. I got my tickets, and left one for T__sa at the front desk at the hotel.
"Where are you?" I asked.
"I'm right around the corner, like 5 minutes away from the venue," T___sa said. " I'm coming down 10th Avenue now, but the freakin cops won't let me turn down this street."
"Okay, you're probably not gonna have time to go to the hotel and get back here before 4. I have a ticket on me that you can use to get in. I'm standing right outside the venue on... let's see... West 35th. I'll wait right here. I can just hand you the ticket when you drive by."
"Sir," the head security officer interrupted. A dozen or so uniformed men converged.
"Yo, hold on," I told T__sa.
"You're gonna hafta step inside," the officer continued, approaching me. "We're securing the area."
"But I need to hand someone a ticket," I said.
"We're securing this area. You have to get out of the entrance."
"Well, if I stand outside, will I be able to get back in?"
"Yeah, if you have a ticket," he said in a tone that said, Gityoassinside.
So I shuffled back inside the venue.
"T___sa, let me call you right back."
I stared out into the street and sighed, despondently. But she is so close, I thought.
"What she look like?" asked another security officer, who had apparently been listening in on my conversation.
I looked at him quizically.
"What's her name? What she look like? When she comes, tell her to ask for Jer___ in Security and I'll give her the ticket."
At this point it was 3:50, 10 minutes before performance time. I didn't have many options.
"Okay. She's tall, about 5'9". She's..." I pointed to one of the security officers. "About his complexion. Her hair is brown. She usually wears it... You know what? I have no idea how she'll have her hair today."
He laughed. "I think I'll be able to spot her."
Then, it occurred to me that, at this event, he wouldn't have much trouble spotting anyone of color. I called T___sa back and gave her the instructions.
"Be sure to call me if you have any problems, aight?" I said.
Showtime was soon, so I had to release it.
A South Party in New York?
Upstairs, expansive white loft walls were covered with paintings from the Mississippi Museum of Art - a folk piece $1200, an antebellum one $3700, another $5000. Endless tables of Southern artifacts and books.
The centerpiece was a 5-piece blues band of timeworn Black musicians, a section lined off as a dance floor. A dozen white-haired men in navy blazers with khakis or other summer fabrics, and seersucker suits spun around dainty, tipsy women in florals and tweeds. Hundreds upon hundreds, a veritable ocean, of White people with wine glasses mingled and moved from station to station - this chef preparing gumbo; another, Asian/American South fusion; another, rum and chocolately desserts.
If you were colored, you were either performing or "the help" (Really, both.) Dominican servers, Korean servers, Black servers carried silver platters of crab cakes, pulled pork, crawfish, cocktail shrimp; mutely removed empty glasses from manicured hands.
And the party spilled onto the bustling outdoor patio where speakers blared Ella Fitzgerald or Etta James or some other classic Negro as more wine poured and steaming appetizers were served.
Down the elevator, a parallel world. More food, more music, more pricey artwork, another dancefloor. But here, the twang of a White bluegrass band. Still waves and waves of White people. Less dancing, more gladhanding. Then, a holy quartet of weathered Black men in denim overalls, black blazers, and black bowties, who were, at various times in their lives Black or Negro or Colored or nigger in this audience's sour mouths, but who were now the glorious Fairfield Four. Just stage-right of them, a sprawling bar whose mighty flow made the Mississippi River look like a backyard creek.
I could hear the lilt of Arkansas, Tennessee, Carolina, but only "the help", it seemed, were of New York. A party to show off the South to New Yorkers? Hmmmpph.
And not once did anyone ever utter, what seemed to be, the taboo word. I looked through the event program and its endless list of sponsors - BP, ChevronTexaco, TimeWarner, Lockheed, MCI, Motorola, Nextel, Bellsouth, Southwest Airlines, FedEx, Nissan, Siemens... - but nowhere was it written. What I did overhear someone say, however, was that to get admission to this event, it was $1000 a ticket.
South Party, my a$$. This was a REPUBLICAN fundraiser.
In contrast to all of the aforementioned hustle, the Literary Stage was a dimly-lit lounge set with beanbag chairs and couches. The scheduled performers were we, five TurnerSouth spoken word artists, two Southern authors, and a character-actor performing an excerpt from his one-man show about William Faulkner. During our segment, a projection screen behind the stage would show looping video footage of our Turner - My South performances. We were all part of a 45-minute set that would run three times during the course of the evening.
It was anticlimactic. I opened on our stage to a grand total of, say, twenty people. But just as I got lost in the listing of soul food at the end of my first performance, the sun shone in. In walked T___sa.
The second and third times I performed, the audience was a little larger, maxing out at about 50 people. There was no B.B. King. No Today show. No exposure to southern CEO's. Very little of the incentives which __t from Turner had dangled.
After my final performance of "Home," I finally got to try to make myself at home. T___sa and I mingled with the first-floor crowd. We sampled. We imbibed. We took it all in. And I got to thinking...
If I were in this same room, with these same people, in the South, I would undoubtedly feel the tension of Race. But for the first time in my life, I feel the tension of something quite different. Being so outside, standing inside all of this excess, never before had I been so aware of my Class.
"So glad to finally meet you face-to-face," __t said.
But all I heard were her green eyes.
"I really enjoyed your performance. Are you glad you came?"
By this time, I was feeling my brandy and Coke. I wanted to say something about the banjo that wouldn't stop plucking in my right ear. I wanted to say something about the greasy old drunk who poked his index finger in my back, "I reeeeeeeally enjoyed you... and you, too!" pointing to T___sa, who didn't even perform! I wanted to say something about the photographer who kept following us asking us to pose for pictures, who seemed more interested in our mingling than even with my stage performance. I wanted to say something about the air conditioning that seemed to seep out of everyone's mouths. I wanted to say, Thanks for trying to invite me to this Step n' Fetchit show to coon for free!
Luckily, T___sa nudged me before I put my foot in my mouth.
"Uh, yes, I'm glad I came. Uh... I... um... this is very nice."
"Yes, it is." She smiled, glassy-eyed. "Isn't it?"
T__sa and I faded to black.
"Let's see," I said to T___sa, finishing off my drink. "Two thousand people... times one thousand a head..."
"That's two million dollars. Ain't you glad you asked for money?"
We stepped out onto West 35th, not far from the Garden, where Bush would speak to this audience tomorrow. I was relieved to see the sun already setting.
A couple of blocks away, en route to T___sa's car, we passed two blue-collar brothas sitting on the pavement.
"Is it over?" one asked.
"You mean the party?" I asked.
"Not yet," I said. Then I added, looking at T___sa. "But hopefully, real soon."