Although we were quite homeless in 1981, my mother made certain that young Afrocity received her weekly dose of the finest cultural events that the city of Chicago had to offer. Before we were homeless, it was customary on weekends for mother to take me to a museum,the theater or an art gallery–basically anywhere away from the ghetto we lived in. The museums of course were free back then, as was the Lincoln Park Zoo…
How mother afforded to take me to the theater is beyond me. Somehow she had the tickets despite our not having much to eat.
Her philosophy was if you can’t be rich, be around rich people.
We would put on our best clothes, scrape together the subway fare, and off we went on an “L” ride downtown.
Mother had a tan plaid suit purchased from Marshall Field’s department store that looked very nice. She wore it again and again when we went someplace special. I too, had special dress-up clothing but far more of a variety than my mother. Walking to the subway in front of the other neighborhood children was extremely awkward for me. At the time, I perceived my parental situation as lucky. My mother took me to cool places on the north side of the city where white people live. They got to stay stuck in the ghetto making dreams out of vacant lot dust and discarded urine stained mattresses. As a playmate jumped up and down in the vacant lot on the mattress, her brown small body ashy from rolling on the ground, mother and I are walking to the “L”, dressed nicely while her mother is sitting on their brownstone porch rolling her eyes at us. My playmate jumps off the mattress and comes towards us.
My mother being annoyed and above the other commoners in the ghetto, quickened her pace and ignored my friend. I always being more compassionate than she, stopped to speak.
“I can’t tell you.” I responded, digging in my pink old ladies purse from the thrift store and handing her a cold peach. Mother always told me never to tell anyone where we were going because it could give them a clue to how long we would be away. They could rob what little we didn’t have.
My friend took the peach from me with her dirty hands. When she bit into it, the clear juice ran from the peach down her arm leaving a clean squiggly line as it washed the dirt from her skin.
“I will see you later.” I said, running to catch up with my mother.
“Why did you give her your fruit?” mother asked. “You might get hungry at the play.”
I shrugged my shoulders while holding my head down.
“Don’t you see how their mothers do nothing for them? Take them nowhere? Letting them play in the streets with their underpants on?”
Silence was the best way to handle mother’s soapbox tirade on ghetto kids with shitty moms.
“I would never treat you that way.”
But it is now 1981 and we were living in a homeless shelter. 1975 seemed like ages ago. The days of welfare, catholic school and a roof over my head with no phone, were the good old days…
Homelessness did not change our weekend routine much. Our clothes were shabbier. Our spirits heavier. Our home was not ours.
Reoriented towards making my life as ordinary as possible, we clung to those museum and art gallery visits. They were the only sense of normalcy we had. At the museum, I could pretend to be a tourist,on a school field trip, or someone who was not homeless. In other words anyone but who I really was at the present moment. During this trip, I would visit a rare book exhibit within a museum. Mother could never understand why I was so fascinated with how books looked on the outside. I bought old books for their covers.
“They are just old books Afrocity, let’s see the other one exhibit”
It was the first time I would see marbled paper. Patterns, arabesques in oil paint. I was lost in them.
“Go without me.” I said to mother curtly.
I was almost twelve years old and could go to a museum on my own.
She was not the boss of me.
She couldn’t even keep a house for us.
We were no better than those kids in the vacant lots.
In fact we were worse off. They had homes of their own.
I did not.
I watched her eyes and posture to map my possibilities. She was older, now 43 years old, fatter, and defeated emotionally. She was not the same woman who took me to the theater. Her hair was un-straightened, nails unpolished. She was undone.
“Meet me outside by closing time,” she sighed.
She walked out of the museum and left me standing there with the marbled paper books behind glass cases. While I continued to gaze as if taken captive by the colors and textures, I was not at all concerned that I had rejected her. Moving on from case to case, standing on my tippy toes reading the white cards that explained what each book was about. Who makes those cards anyway, I wondered.
At 4:50PM, I emerged from the museum’s huge doors carrying an armful of free pamphlets. I saw mother sitting on the stone stairs eating of all things a peach. She looked at me without smiling.
“You took so long, I ate your fruit.”
Shaking my head as I sat next to her, I unfolded one of the pamplets to sit on so I would not get my clothes dirty. We had no place to wash our clothing and I had to make each outfit last.
For what seemed like a bit of time, we people watched. Normal people watched. They had homes to go to, a stove to cook on, their own bathroom. They did not have to use Suave shampoo because that was all the shelter gave them even though it caused tangles and was bad for African American hair. They were not us. Take me home with you, I thought.
“We had better get back,” mother said rising from the stairs to brush off her jeans.
Standing up, I looked back at the museum doors, now closed and gated shut. I wanted to be one of those pieces of marbled paper. All nice and safe, behind glass, with someone to take care of me forever.
Reluctantly, we walked towards State Street. Two ragged Cinderellas, hand in hand. Outside roaming in the city, no one knew who we were. Now we were going back to the home that was not our home.
That would be the last time mother and I would ever go to a museum together again.
Autographed Letter Signed,