Toni Cade Bambara – Black Women Writers at Work, ch. 2, by Claudia Tate (1983).
My responsibility to myself, my neighbors, my family and the human family is to try to tell the truth. That ain’t easy. There are so few truth-speaking traditions in this society in which the myth of “Western civilization” has claimed the allegiance of so many. We have rarely been encouraged and equipped to appreciate the fact that the truth works, that it releases the Spirit and that it is a joyous thing. We live in a part of the world, for example, that equates criticism with assault, that equates social responsibility with naive idealism, that defines the unrelenting pursuit of knowledge and wisdom as fanaticism.
Admiral Nano sat in The River’s Edge Cafe with ‘Da Vinci’ Jack Jones and ‘NASA’ Henry. Nano sipped on a cup of what he’d learned is called coffee and at this business also called Seattle’s Blend. What the city of Seattle had to do with coffee served near Chicago in the suburb of Aurora, Illinois Nano had no idea, but it’s bitter taste made his nose wrinkle. Still there was something about this drink humans enjoyed. Perhaps it was an addiction of some sort. He looked over at his table mates, Da Vinci and NASA. They seemed to be enjoying the hot beverage as they chatted away. It was crowded in the Cafe at this lunch hour on a cold, windy, steel gray day in late November. Snow had not shown up yet this winter in the area. It was overdue and some were looking forward to it. This week was Thanksgiving and Nano was trying to learn about the reasons for the holiday’s beginning.
This holiday confused Nano. It had something to do with turkeys, Native Americans, pilgrims, a divine being and a large meal they all had shared after coming ashore from an ancient wooden boat after sailing over the Atlantic ocean. The only one that didn’t enjoy this offering of food was the turkey. He’d been the main course. Nano had heard the story a few times in bits and parts from ‘guests’ at the shelter. Guest was another word for poor homeless people at the Aurora emergency shelter. The fact is the guests were not guests. If anything, they were victims. Mostly they were just people who’s lives had gone astray and were getting little if any help at the shelter. They certainly were not guests. Guests would be a kind of customer whom you’d serve respectfully, with care, kindness and professionalism. Nano had seen words like those used on the emergency shelters’ road sign to describe the facility. He had not observed much of it in practice. Those qualities depended on the person you were dealing with. Some staff cared, but most where there for the paycheck and a free meal bummed from the church volunteers trying to feed the poor, not those receiving paychecks.
As for Thanksgiving, why people hundreds of years later were celebrating a single meal between immigrants and a native race and attributing it to some sort of divinity and mixing a turkey into it all, was a mystery. But it was a very important holiday to humans and it was that which all over America people were preparing for and Da Vinci and NASA were talking about.
“My family lives in Springfield” said Da Vinci. “I can’t go there and join them though. I’ve burned all my bridges behind me and they don’t put up with me anymore. Forgiveness doesn’t run in my family much and so I doubt I’ll have turkey with family again, much less ever see my siblings or their children. Fortunately my parents died some years ago, so they didn’t see the disintegration of the family. Then again, they set the stage for it.”
“That’s too bad” commented NASA. “I still keep in touch with my family. This holiday they are traveling to California to visit my mother’s side of the family. I’m not going because I can’t afford it and even if I did go, my family are big church goers and they always feel awkward explaining to others I have no job now and am staying in a homeless shelter. So, I won’t have a turkey either. I think I’ll just be sitting outside the shelter and hoping the weather is decent till they let us back inside again for PBJ sandwiches.”
The two sipped their Seattle Blend and looked out the window at the bridge being constructed just past the window of The River’s Edge Cafe. It was quite loud out there with about fifty construction workers in their yellow reflector jackets over the top of layers of clothing to fight against the chill wind of the cloudy day. A crane swung a heavy concrete road bed component to the next section of the bridge where workers carefully guided it into place. The project was nearing completion after seven months. It might be done by December, but probably not. No one came in the front door to the Cafe, but all came and went through the back door. There was no sidewalk beyond the front door, only danger. Just a glass window and a few feet separated comfortable coffee drinking patrons from tons of heavy equipment and dangerous swinging loads. It was a small, intense, heavy-construction zone, but if the River’s Edge Cafe was to survive the downturn in business, it had to suffer the hazards and continue to be open. It was a time to struggle for both business and homeless.
Before NASA, Da Vinci and quiet Nano could come back to the subject of the Thanksgiving holiday, a customer walked over to the table and smiled at the threesome.
“Hello, my name is Nancy Rose Gardener. How are you three doing?”
Da Vinci choked slightly.
“Not bad” lied NASA politely. After all, they were three homeless men with no prospects for a job, a home, a return to families or what most others considered ‘normal’. It was really quite a stupid thing for someone to ask a known homeless person how he, she or they would be doing. What truthful reply can a homeless person give a ‘normal’ person without seeming rude? Perhaps, ‘Oh, just swell, couldn’t be better’?
“I just wanted to wish you all a very happy Thanksgiving. I know you’re homeless people, but remember, we’re all living on this world together and I just wanted to say I hope Jesus blesses you this year and helps you with whatever your problems are. Like addictions, or broken families or getting a job or whatever. We’re all special.”
She walked away as the threesome digested it all silently. After her came an old man who extended his hand and said, “How are you doing?” But no one answered, being a bit stunned. The threesome did nod politely and smile up at the man in his clean clothes and freshly shaved face.
He held out a ten dollar bill to Nano who looked at it curiously. The man wagged it in front of Nano, but Nano just looked up at him blankly.
“He’s mute” said Da Vinci, smiling at the old man. “I’ll take it for him.” He reached out and snatched the ten-note.
The old man said, “Just split it between the three of you and again, I hope you’re doing very well.”
Smiling at a few others in the Cafe, the elderly gent walked back to his chair and sat down. Nano looked at the ten dollar bill in Da Vinci’s hand as did NASA.
“Well, that was nice of him”, said NASA. “Very Christian thing to do. I feel all better now about being homeless.”
“Yes” added Da Vinci, “Almost makes being poor, jobless and having a bath once or twice a week worthwhile.”
“Seriously” came back NASA, “It was nice of him to do that, but now we have a problem.”
“What’s that?”, questioned Da Vinci.
“What are we going to do with ten dollars?”
They looked over at Nano who said, “We can buy more Seattle’s Blend.”