“I will take you halfway.”
At the Albuquerque Airport I stepped out, curbside, looking for some sensible way to carry four containers with only two arms. I was toting two small suitcases, a side bag, and the familiar family solution for overflow—a cardboard box. My friend chauffeuring me spotted the carts. The price seemed right—just a quarter. Yippee! I had a quarter. Satisfied that I was all set, my friend cruised on home.
Meanwhile, I approached the carts, quarter in hand. It turned out the carts rented for $3.00 each. Customers pay up front and get a quarter back upon the cart’s return. Well, come to think of it, that made more sense. A quarter would have been the 1950’s price. A kindly African-American man—the skycap at the United sidewalk counter—stepped my way, saying, “May I help you?” He explained the cart system to me and said, “Let me get my cart. I’ll take you on over to Frontier.”
My 91-year-old father, bless his heart, would refer to my skycap as a “colored gentleman.” He is a gentleman, that part is for sure. With no eye to current politically correct language trends, I would refer to him, talking to a pal, as “a black man” Our phrases are shaped by the eras we grew up in and those are hard to shake. In my lifespan I’ve seen our references move from “Negro,” to “Afro-American,” to “Black,” and back to “African-American.”
My new friend was middle-aged, hailed from Detroit, Michigan, and has lived in Albuquerque for over 40 years. The Southwest is home now. But his voice has the rich cadence heard in a black Baptist church. I can hear this voice as it rises up singing. “Your voice does me a world of good,” I told my gentleman porter, feeling we are strolling through a railway station in times gone by, feeling as if we are so many places, all at once.
“I cannot begin to tell you. It’s like hearing good news from home.” And, it is. His voice goes straight inside me.We entered the door and he smiled, saying, “You just made my day.” That’s all we say or need to say. We’ve connected, and that’s enough. That’s a good thing—two human beings connecting. We are not just a black man hustling for the last tip of his shift, or just a white, middle-aged woman with too many bags to carry herself.
At the counter he took care of me like a concerned relative; I reached into my pocket for a wad of folded bills to complete the commercial part of our exchange while thanking him. “It’s been a pleasure serving you,” he offered. “And it’s been a pleasure being served,” I replied.
In this brief exchange we are enacting the ancient call and response of all African languages I’ve ever encountered. In Twi, the language of the Ashanti tribe in Ghana, West Africa, the leave-taking exchange literally rendered is: “I lay at your feet.” With the reply of, “There is no need for you to lay there.” It is a way of saying, “I am at your service,” which is, I have noticed, a value dying in our own culture.
This exchange between the skycap and myself spans perhaps ten minutes, yet it makes my day, too. The courtesy, graciousness, classiness, intelligence, and rich voice of the man whom I have not exchanged names with, has connected me back to a dusty roadside in Ghana, waiting for a small bus which runs on no particular schedule, to take me to the next village. Two young women have come with me to help carry my too-heavy bags and then stay with me. They will keep me company until my uncertain transport comes and I am safely on it and safely off.
This is a scene I’ll repeatedly experience throughout the Africa of the 1970s—wherever I go, West, East, or South.In Botswana, this is the custom of “taking half-way.” (Ke tla boledisa—[kay-kla-bolaydisa]—I will take you halfway). In a village one can spend the better part of the day faithfully performing this custom.
It works like this. Upon the end of our visit, I escort you at least to the edge of my compound—to its entrance, where the space of my home meets the communal space. We travel the equivalent distance from a Mayberry front door, across the porch, to the sidewalk gate. This African custom is the same as the one in small towns of seeing off one’s guest. If I have time, I’ll continue walking with you across the village, in the direction of your compound.
Possibly, we may even hold each other’s hands, swinging them happily between us as we chat, until we reach some invisibly intuited point at which we both understand we must part. Now our call and response ritual begins and goes like this:
Tsamaya Tsincle (Travel/go well), I will tell you, and you will respond, Tsala Tsintle. Stay well. And, I do. I stay well on the path as you turn, take your first steps toward home, now traveling alone, not in company, with no one to protect you. And, I, for my part, breathe in and out the perfume of your presence, turn, and make my way, now alone, not in company, with no one to protect me—towards home.
Thank you, dear-man-who-came-from Michigan-and-talks-with-the-good-news- voice-from-home. Thank you. That is where you took me when you carried my three bags and a box on your railroad porter’s cart at the Albuquerque Airport.
1 Responses »
Leave a Response