Tuesday, May 26, 2015

B.B. King, Bobby Bland, and a Night to Remember

There was a time when many young, upwardly-mobile, African-Americans would deny their blues heritage. However, even when we weren't there for them, and their audiences consisted mostly of young white kids, blues legends like B.B. King and Bobby "Blue" Bland, kept it real.... giving their hearts and souls at performances across the country for many decades. I remember one such concert.
Photo by Jean-Luc Ourlin-1977
The year was 1976. I was a student at UCLA and heard on campus that blues singers B.B. King and Bobby Bland would be performing at the nearby Cocoanut Grove -- a night club at the since-demolished Ambassador Hotel on Wilshire. (This was the hotel where Robert Kennedy was assassinated in 1968.) The Grove (as it was called then) was a renowned club which had hosted many big-name acts in its heyday. But by 1976 it had seen better days.
Still, the two blues legends - and yes, even 40 years ago they were considered legends in the blues world - were appearing together at the club. Not only that, they would be recording an album during the show. (Bobby Bland and B.B. King Together Again Live)
I wanted to go. I had grown up listening to these two - B.B. and Bobby "Blue" Bland. They were royalty (along with Ray Charles, Dinah Washington, and Aretha) among my Texas-bred family members. Not only did I listen, I enjoyed their music! I liked the blues.
This was not something I could readily admit to my friends at the time; I knew there was no way they would join me at this concert. To most of them, the blues represented a throwback to a black cultural experience they were trying to deny - poverty and the juke joints of the deeply segregated South.

By the mid-seventies, as a result of the civil rights movement and affirmative action - educated African-Americans were starting to get jobs in corporate America and were vigorously pursuing the American mainstream which had alluded prior generations. Young adults still listened to and supported black artists, just not those who played the blues. And, even though many had grown up listening to the music, no one wanted to admit it.
Still... I really wanted to see these guys -- whom I only knew from 45s and LPs -- perform in person. Although my friends would not go, there was one person I knew who would salivate at the thought of seeing these two in concert. My mother. So I asked her to go, of course she said yes, and I purchased the tickets.
The crowd that night consisted of a few older African-Americans (who were probably much younger than I am now), and young white kids who were there in big numbers! They had discovered the blues and would keep B.B. and Bobby going for many, many, years thereafter.
We knew we were going to be in for a long night because they were recording and some songs had to be repeated. But that was okay with this crowd, because the liquor was flowing, the music was good, and folks were getting more and more jovial as the night wore on.
B.B. came out first and played and sang a few songs, he was the headliner. And then Bobby came out and there they were - B.B. in his bright pink suit and Bobby in a burgundy-colored suit. (Yes...this was the 70's. I can't remember what I had on but probably just as outlandish.) The two friends bantered, reminisced, and joked a lot and most of the songs became long medleys of various blues standards.
I knew the music and lyrics because the songs were the soundtrack of my childhood. The familiar phrases:
"The eagle flies on Friday, Saturday I go out to play" (From the song Stormy Monday. I think I knew this lyric before I knew my address.)
"When I first met you baby..... you were just sweet 16" (Sweet Sixteen)
"Chains of love tied my heart to you" (Chains of Love)
"I've got 50 cents more than I'm gonna keep" (Let the Good Times Roll)
still enjoy these songs. But back to the 1976 concert:
At first, it seemed like my mom and I were just two friends out for a night on the town. My mom was in her early 40's and I was around 21. I thought it was one of the few times we could abandon the mother-daughter drama and just be two women at a club. I wanted to call my mother by her first name but thought better of it.
I ordered a margarita (my drink of choice in those days) and she ordered some kind of Scotch concoction - probably Scotch and milk (yuck!!). At that time, it seemed to me that most black people from Texas, like my mom, drank Scotch. Once, my mother and her friends fixed me a "cocktail" that contained Scotch and I took one sip and didn't drink again for a long time. (My mother was much smarter than I ever gave her credit for.) From then on, I never developed an affinity for Scotch or any of what they call the hard liquors.
My friends and I usually sipped margaritas at Happy Hour. You see, our going out at the time included Friday nights at the Red Onion (also on Wilshire) or a club called The Speakeasy. These 'Happy Hours' were attended by young, upwardly mobile, African-Americans, and those who wanted to be - including broke students like me, and guys who wore a uniform to work but changed into business suits on Friday nights.
Because we were 'financially challenged,' we sipped our drinks slowly. And that's what I was doing at the concert. Enjoying my drink, enjoying the concert, and surprisingly to me -- enjoying my mom! I was especially happy when a few more drinks, sent over by others, magically appeared. I wasn't used to this at Happy Hours. Younger men would not send over drinks to strangers. (Probably couldn't afford it.)
All was well, but then my mom had to be my mom again.
"You're not drinking that," she said as I reached for my second drink. "You're driving...you don't need another drink," she told me as she downed her second free drink. Now mind you...this was before the movements against drinking and driving, but she was absolutely right! Nevertheless, I tried explaining to her that I was eating, and it would be a long night, and I could "handle" another drink! Didn't work. Unfortunately, my embarrassment didn't end there.
"Who's sending us these drinks?" she asked the waitress. She looked in the direction of a group of smiling older men and said, "Thanks and this is my DAUGHTER!" She also gave them a look that said, "Don't you dare mosey your ass over here!"
I knew my mom was protective, especially when it came to me...but by then I knew how to handle geezers (what I called men over 40 in those days). If she had not interceded, I would have gotten us free drinks all night, and dinner too, without giving them much more than a smile. (Actually, she probably could have done the same if she had wanted to.)
So there was my mom giving them the back-off look. And I knew they didn't want to mess with her, because being a Texas woman, who knows what she was carrying in her purse. (Again folks, it was a different time and I knew not to ever go searching in my mother's purse, or bag as she called it.)
So there I was, feeling a little humiliated while everyone was drinking and getting a buzz and I was sitting there with a coke. (My mother had the nerve to suggest I get a Shirley Temple, as though I was 8 years old.)
Nevertheless, the music was good and Lucille was on fire! (Lucille was B.B.'s guitar, for my children who probably aren't reading this anyway.)
I was doing okay.....and then my mom said something that totally repulsed me.
"Dance with me!" she said. I looked around because I was sure that I could get one of the geezers to dance with her, but she was determined that I dance with her. Not only that, she stood up and started dancing... by herself!
This was something I could not relate to from my Happy Hour experience. Women waited to be asked by a guy to dance. (I'm glad the kids don't do that anymore. They just get up and dance. I remember songs I wanted to dance to but had to sit out if no one asked. And sometimes at the crowded club it was hard for the guys to even get to you if you weren't near the dance floor.)
But there she was, my mom....not just dancing but doing that uninhibited "this is my show and I don't need no partner" dance that I had seen done many times by the older women in my family. I thought you had to be a woman of a certain size to dance like that - at least over 150 pounds ...because after all, you needed something to move.
"Come on, get up and dance with me," she said again. No way, I thought. It was one thing that I was there listening to the blues, but to get up and dance to the blues...in PUBLIC?

However, I looked around and most of the room was dancing and the music was good! And then I realized, "there is no one who knows me in this room!" So I stood up and tried to mimic my mom's moves. I was rail thin at the time, barely 100 pounds, so imagine a stick figure trying to shake, rattle and roll.
But...it didn't matter. It wasn't about how I looked, it was about enjoying the music, enjoying my mother (who would always be my mom and act accordingly) and enjoying myself. I was dancing the blues!
Thank you Bobby Bland and B.B. King. What a legacy you have left us.

Saturday, May 11, 2013

The Mother-Child Dance Lasts Forever

Back and forth.  Side to Side. Push and Pull. Around and Around. The mother-child dance can last forever. I'm starting to see it in my own daughter. "Don't touch me mom!" when I attempt one of the impromptu hugs we've shared for her fourteen years.  "Wait mom, don't leave!" she runs to hug me before I walk out the door. Every time.

I understand. At her age I couldn't stand my mom. I also couldn't  stand myself when I would go to her with problems, concerns or just to share a laugh; all the while, telling myself I did not want her in my life.

The distance between us, emotionally and physically, grew longer as I got older.  However, even when I lived 3000 miles away, I do not think I ever went more than a few weeks without talking to my mother.

If you want to make a woman mad, tell her she is like her mother.

I've gone to great lengths to distance myself from her traits and opinions....but many linger in me. I see them when I "straighten out" (her term) my own children.

The biggest difference between us is she is dependent and clingy and I am independent and okay on my own. It took me many years to realize, I am like I am, because she is who she is.

The love-hate dance does indeed last a lifetime. Even friends who have lost their mother still struggle with unresolved  'issues' as though they are still with their moms.

It is said that forgiving our parents is the beginning of mental health.  Well then, loving our parents for who they are, or were, must be the beginning of inner peace.

My mom is eighty now and we continue the dance. Some days she doesn't want to be bothered with me, and some days I don't want to be around her.

However, there is something I can admit now. Finally.

I love my mother for who she is.

Sunday, October 28, 2012

Old Skool Los Angeles: When Everybody Did the Hustle

The Hustle was a line dance popular in Los Angeles (and across the country) in the mid-seventies. Music producer, Van McCoy came up with a song to go with the dance, and "The Hustle" made it to #1 on the Billboard Hot 100 the week of July 26, 1975.
However, 'hustling' or 'doing the hustle' was more than just a song and dance in L.A.'s working class neighborhoods in those days. It was also a way of life, and hustling was a term commonly used to describe doing whatever it took to bring in additional income. Today, we would call it being entrepreneurial.

Now I cannot deny there was an illegal side of hustling used to describe gamblers, pimps, and those who carried on a black market trade in the community. And for some, their hustle was their main source of income.

However, for most families hustling meant doing side jobs, or bartering for goods and services.

My dad, my uncles, family friends -- it seemed like all the men in the community I grew up in had a side hustle. Their hustle was a supplement to their day job at one of the manufacturing or aerospace plants. (Which offered numerous decent-paying jobs for low-skilled workers in those days). Some worked at government jobs, mostly the post office. I think all of them just expected to have more than one job whether they really needed it or not.

I remember some of the side businesses my uncles and family friends had and realize now that many were ongoing small businesses -- gas stations, burger joints, trucks for hauling, and a neighborhood tax firm. Again, all of these were in addition to 9 to 5 day jobs (although some worked at night, or what was called the graveyard shift (midnight to 8am).

Side hustles for women included cooking or baking items to sale, fixing hair, sewing, and the staple -- keeping kids.

For a long-time my dad had a TV repair business which was his side job. By day he worked at a Sears Service Center (where appliances and electronics were repaired) at the corner of Slauson and Central. Eventually, he became the manager of the center... but by then he had another side hustle which lasted the remainder of his life -- photography.

My dad's side gig was taking pictures. He never really referred to what he did as photography, although he got to be quite good at it and invested a lot of money in top-rate cameras.

It started at my graduation from Bret Harte Jr. High in south L.A. in the early seventies. This was during the Polaroid era when instant pictures were the rage. My dad was the family picture taker. Mostly because he enjoyed it so much and was the best picture taker in the family. (As a result, he is missing from many of our photos taken back then.)

Anyway, my dad noticed this guy taking pictures after the graduation while families were lingering outside the auditorium with their graduates. The guy offered instant Polaroids, and he even put them in a paper frame that he had stamped 'Graduation.' He charged $5.00 per picture or five for $20.00.

He set up near the school sign and had a long line of eager family members waiting to purchase a framed photo. Now mind you, many of the families had their own Polaroids that they brought... but this guy was considered a 'pro,' so they wanted at least one shot from him.

My dad, who had taken about 40 pictures of us by then, said, "I can do this." He calculated how much this guy made just from the one graduation, and his side hustle was born.

Over the next few years, Dad started taking pictures all over south L.A. at entertainment and club events on weekends. Eventually, he started working weddings and receptions. He hit the jackpot when he was allowed to set up at a club in Inglewood which also had banquet facilities and hosted events every weekend. He became their in-house photographer, although he would still go to outside venues just to see if he could get more business.

Dad's photo of a young Mohammed Ali and Marvin Gaye
Sometimes, if he saw celebrities he would sneak in a couple of shots for his own enjoyment. That was how he got the picture of Marvin Gaye and Muhammed Ali at a nightclub.

By the time I was in college, I would often run into my dad at events, although being a typical young adult I tried to avoid places I knew he would be.

The extra money dad made became significant to our family coffers and helped raise us from working class to a comfortable middle-class and helped get me through U.C.L.A.

These days of high unemployment, I think about my dad and the neighbors of long ago who didn't have the luxury of sitting around bemoaning the economy or waiting for opportunities to come to them. I also realize that for some Angelenos hustling has been a way of life for 30, 40, or 50 years.

I have fond memories of the 'Monkey Bread' guy in the Crenshaw / Leimert Park / Baldwin Hills area. It's been about 15 years since I last saw him so I don't know if he is still around. All he had were business cards with a phone number and the words 'Monkey Bread.' You could call him, order your monkey bread loaves and he would deliver.

Needless to say, this was the best monkey bread ever! Buttery, with just the right amount of sweetness. I don't know where he made the monkey bread... or even if he made it, but I can tell you his business was booming for years... just from the churches, hair salons, and barbers alone he had lots of orders each day. He is probably retired on a tropical island now.

My mechanic, who grew up in East L.A. during the time I grew up in South L.A., says it was the same in his neighborhood. "Everybody had a side 'hustle' back in the day, he says. "selling tamales, doing yard work, doing day labor."

"We've been here before!" he tells me as we discuss today's hard times and he relates how two of his unemployed grown children have moved back home with their own spouses and children. He is working more hours at his garage and trying to expand into fleet service because he has more mouths to feed. Again.

We laugh and decide you aren't a real worker these days unless you have at least two jobs. I tell him about all the "Professionals" I know of who have three or more business cards for different jobs.

"Yeah... we've been here before," he reminds me. "We got through it then and we'll get through it now. We just have to hustle."

Monday, September 12, 2011

Watching the Ice Melt in the Kool-Aid: Or, How I Learned to Eat My Vegetables

Sometimes I wish I could talk to the parents I had as a kid and ask them to explain their rationale for some of their parenting decisions back then. Dad is gone. Mom is still around, but today she's just a sweet little old lady who dotes on her grandchildren. Definitely not the 'she-wolf' I grew up with. (Sorry mom, but you were pretty intense in those days.)

One question I would ask them is this: what was the point of making a thirsty child eat their vegetables before drinking that watery Kool-Aid you served with dinner every night?

First, let me explain... Kool-Aid was the drink of choice among the families in my neighborhood years ago. Soda on a daily basis was too expensive. Thinking about it, we really did not have a choice. Parents just put the drink on the table with dinner. It was either Kool-aid or tap water. (And if too much water was added to the Kool-Aid, there was little difference between the two drinks.)

At the time, Kool-Aid came in small rectangular packages in various colors to denote their flavor. My favorites were orange, lemon-lime, and grape. I think the packets only cost a nickel or a dime, and when mixed with water and sugar they made a pitcher of liquid.

Every evening neighborhood kids were called into their respective houses for dinner. (A very different time... we actually played outside after our homework was done, then came in for dinner. If we got thirsty outside, we didn't have bottled water -- we had outdoor faucets!)

After coming in, we would wash up and head to the table for dinner. We didn't dare open the pots and pans to see what was cooking. And going in the refrigerator without asking was something we did not do (at least not until our teen years.) My husband, who has six siblings, says they were never allowed to go in the refrigerator as kids. (I can understand this when I cook enough for two days and open the refrigerator the next day and see all the food was eaten overnight. I have a friend who used to yell at the top of her lungs at 7:00 p.m. "The kitchen is now closed until tomorrow!")

So 'back in the day' at dinner time, I would get a glass of ice-laden Kool-Aid with my dinner. The problem was, I couldn't drink any of it until I had finished most of my dinner... especially the vegetables. Like all kids, I hated vegetables and would sit there playing with my string beans or peas instead of just eating them and getting it over with.

There were two vegetables that I absolutely could not eat -- okra and lima beans. Today, I can tolerate okra in gumbo, but I hate the taste, smell, look, texture, color -- EVERYTHING about lima beans. Let me say it again... I HATE lima beans. Yet there they were on my plate at least a couple of times a month. Eventually, my parents caught on that I really could not eat lima beans and stopped giving them to me. (But this took a while. Way too long. I love you Mom and Dad, but you were really dense when it came to this.)

For a long time I'd sit at the dinner table watching the glass sweat and the ice melt in the Kool-aid until I finally gave in and ate my vegetables (guess I was a little dense too). I learned to eat the vegetables first, because then I was assured of getting the Kool-aid before the ice melted and it became even more watery. However, whenever lima beans were served, I knew I would not be drinking Kool-aid on that night.

Things are different at my house. My kids go in and out of the refrigerator at will and I don't force them to eat food they don't like. This sometimes requires me to cook different versions of dinner and I am quick to remind them, "When I was a kid we ate what was put before us... no choices!"

Thinking about it... they've probably had more french fries than green vegetables (please don't tell Michelle Obama). I try to give them the vegetables they will eat on a regular basis. Nevertheless, there is one vegetable they will NEVER have in my house -- lima beans!

First appeared in Huffington Post  8-17-2011

Sunday, August 7, 2011

Parenting Old-School: Did Yesteryear's Parents Get it Right?

By the time I reached sixteen, I came to the conclusion that my mother knew precious little about anything of importance. It seemed to me at the time that her sole purpose in life was to make mine a living nightmare by endlessly displaying to me her total lack of knowledge. She had opinions on everything and felt compelled to share them with me. At sixteen, I decided it was my duty to let this woman know that I was tired of hearing her voice.

I picked my time.  While she was driving down Western Avenue.   I waited until she started on one of her endless tirades one day when we were returning home from my piano lesson.  My time had come and I let her have it. "Mom, let me tell you something," I said with all of the authority of a sixteen-year-old who considered herself a grown-up, "You don't know what the hell you're talking about and you need to just shut up!" There.  It was out.  I figured I was safe because after all she was driving.  I miscalculated.

I remember seeing the back of her right hand as it left the steering wheel, but I couldn't move fast enough to prevent it from hitting me dead in my mouth.  "You hit me!" I screamed, as she calmly returned to driving without uttering a word.  Her eyes focused straight ahead.  The matter was over.  I had no choice but to sit there and endure the indignity.  With one swift move she had put an end to all the righteousness my sixteen-year-old self could muster. She had never done that before, and she never did it again.

Would we call her action child abuse today?  Maybe.  Did it give me a clearer understanding of where I stood in relation to her?  You betcha.

I have to give credit where credit is due. My mom never let me get "bigger" than herself.  She let me be a kid. Maybe I should say she made me be a kid.  Of course, back then I resented her for it.  "She's too overprotective!"  "She doesn't trust me!"  "She doesn't want me to have any fun!"  This is what I told my friends when explaining why I wouldn't be joining them at some event I really wanted to go to.  "I hate my mother!" was a common refrain from me and I'm sure she overheard it on occasion.  (I wouldn't dare say it to her face!)  However, she was more than willing to let me hate her. I see now that, as a parent, she knew she had to make unpopular decisions on my behalf.

Today the lines seemed to be blurred as to who's the parent and who's the child.  And, while today's parents tend to shy away from the heavy-handed (no pun intended) discipline of yesteryear, we do wonder just how many time-outs it's going to take to make our child behave.  And, if we are truthful, many times we wonder just who does have control - the children or the parents?  Is parental authority a thing of the past?

Today in many homes it is the youngsters who dictate everything from what time dinner is served to the family buying habits.  The kids decide which TV programs are watched and what time they'll go to bed.   They eat and drink what they want, decide which clothes they'll wear, and, talk to adults as if they are the lowest forms of life on earth.

All the while, we overwhelmed, harried parents struggle with raising independent, freethinking kids who have some moral fiber.

We patiently listen while our kids come up with ridiculous explanations for their behavior: "I left the milk out last night Mom because I knew we'd use it in the morning."

We support them as they try new activities doomed to failure. "Hey Dad, I've got some new audio tapes and will be fluent in Spanish by next week." 

And, we represent them to teachers, coaches, and other authority figures: "I know he hasn't turned in any homework...but really, he did do it...that must count for something?"

At the same time, we try to teach our children the right things: "Remember to say please and thank-you, always do your best, listen to your teacher, and, by the way, please don't plan a terrorist attack on your school!"  

We strive to be better than our parents at child rearing.  We don't ever want to be accused of acting like our Moms or sounding like our Dads.  Yet in the back of our minds we sometimes wonder: "Did they actually know what they were doing back then?  And, heaven forbid, were they better at parenting than we are?"

Thursday, July 14, 2011

"The Look" – A Mother's Weapon

Like many adult children, I sometimes look back at my mother and lament over all of her child-rearing 'mistakes.' (Not as much now that I have children of my own.) Nevertheless, I must give her credit for making my brother and I respect her -- particularly her time.

She is much shorter than I am, but I have never felt 'bigger than my mother.' Not in height or anything else. Sure, I've probably had more opportunities and experiences, but I pale in comparison to her in many ways. Today, the world probably sees her as a little old lady, but I still feel she could 'take me out' in a second. And, she wouldn't have to resort to violence. You see, my mother's weapon of choice is The Look.

My mother was (and still is) an expert at giving The Look. It seems that as a child, any time I'd even think about acting up in her presence, her eyes were on me with The Look. Especially in church. I'd sit there fidgeting or, heaven forbid, talking to friends, and slowly she would turn her head toward me and give it to me.... that stern glare that said, "One more move and I'll kill you!" (At least that's how I interpreted it.) I've tried The Look on my kids but it doesn't seem to work. "Mom, why are you making that funny face?" is usually the response I get.

Years ago, there were times when I would linger a little too long with friends after school in front of Dorsey High, knowing that my mom was waiting. On the days she would pick me up, she would get there early and park right in front of the school so I could see her as soon as I walked out. She knew I could see her and she'd give me about a minute to say my goodbyes before I'd get The Look, which said, "Don't make me have to get out of this car and come get you."

Again... I've tried this with my kids as I wait in the hot sun for them outside of their schools and watch them slowly stroll to the car. You would think my daughter is a celebrity the way she exits the school... acknowledging each and every friend...stopping to chat with them...giving a slight wave to those far away..... friends she will see the next day!! In the meantime, I am seething in the car and trying to give her The Look because I know she sees me! Finally, she makes it to the car and the little brat has the nerve to say, "Have you been waiting long?"

Guess I need some lessons from my mom!

First published by Huffington Post on May 6, 2011

Wednesday, June 22, 2011

The Perfect Mate

Recent revelations of another 'Husband Gone Wild' have many wondering if there is indeed a perfect union anywhere. I don't know about others, but I can tell you that many years ago, I was fortunate enough to have the perfect mate! 

I was twelve-years-old at the time and new to Bret Harte Junior High School on Hoover Street in South L.A. Today, they call it middle or intermediate school, but in those days (1968-1970) it was junior high, and encompassed seventh, eighth, and ninth grades.  It was a different world for me in many ways, not the least of which was the increased interest in romance and dating.  It seemed many girls, including my friends, were intent on claiming some unsuspecting boy as their boyfriend.

I guess I was a late bloomer, because at the time I still found boys disgusting.  I'd much rather spend time with my Barbie dolls (although I could never tell my friends this).  Nevertheless, it soon became apparent that -- according to the junior high code -- not having a romantic interest was considered abnormal.  There was only one thing I could do to fit in -- I decided to invent a boyfriend!

'Stanley' was the perfect guy.  He was older and lived in a different neighborhood, which explained why no one at school ever saw him. (It's not hard to pull the wool over the eyes of Jr. high girls.)  Stanley was understanding, kind, patient, handsome and smart. And while the other girls struggled to get the attention of the guys they liked, my Stanley adored me!  I regaled my friends with stories of all the nice things he did for me.  Pure fiction, but it worked! 

I 'went with' Stanley all through seventh grade, but by eighth grade I had to have his family move out of town. The ruse became too hard to pull off by then. Of course, we stayed loyal to each other.  It was the perfect arrangement for me.  I had a 'boyfriend' and could still play with my Barbies!

As I got older, I discovered there were certain benefits to dating a real-life guy, not the least of which was that I could take him out in public.  However, I also learned that no guy could measure up to Stanley.  Fortunately, I learned this at an early age.  Some people go a lifetime without learning it.

I would not advise young girls to make up boyfriends, but I would tell them to try to stay away from schmucks when it comes to relationships. Also, I would hope they have a line in the sand that keeps out mates who abuse or humiliate them, or have no qualms about subjecting them to outside kids, or worse yet... HIV/AIDS!

Nevertheless, perfection -- as desirable as it may be -- is unrealistic and unattainable. At least in the real world.

Bret Harte friends with their 'boyfriends.'  1969