My West Side Story

indianapolis-city-skyline
On East Washington street in Indianapolis, among the homeless shelters, drug stores, and sagging rooftops, there sits a little cafe. It’s not what you would expect to find in this neighborhood and that’s what drew my interest to work there for four months as a barista.

My experience was a mixture of dull hours accented by heart-pumping moments.

There were long afternoons where the only people who came in merely asked for a glass of water or the bathroom. Then there were times like the day a fight broke out right outside, and my manager ran to lock our doors before the fight was brought into the cafe. Police appeared, traffic swerved as the fight between two teen-age girls fell right into the busy street.

Heart-pumping; heart-breaking.

My heart broke when a little old man come in to buy a cup of coffee with nine dirty quarters. He wore a leather police jacket and never smiled. With his grey mustache pressed against the rim of his cup, he quietly drank his coffee in the back corner of our shop and stared blankly out the window. I saw him every day, and though I never learned his name did learn how he liked his coffee: a little cream and a lot of sugar.

My heart broke to see a shirtless man, in the heat of summer, walk in looking for something to drink. A baby clothed in just a diaper was pressed to his chest, maybe a month old. The child’s tiny arms ended in tightened fists, his legs far too skinny, his stomach flat and malnourished.

After a while I grew accustomed to this life. Driving through sad-looking streets, passing people I once thought were so scary, but now realized were just lost, confused, or seeking something to satisfy their addictions.

Though I worked on the East side, I had the luxury these people did not: to drive home at day’s end, to a safer, cleaner and more developed area of town.

But eventually I began to see pockets of light in this poverty stricken neighborhood. The church behind my cafe met regularly for bible study at our tables. Wheeler Mission’s staff often came in and shared about the work they were doing, while I fixed their coffee.

Day after day I mopped the floors of my cafe and prayed for the people who passed by the windows.

Morning after morning I clocked in and pulled shots of espresso for our regulars. I began to wonder if this was my calling, to be a barista in a poor area of my city and serve people one by one.

Then one day I was offered a job with the state government. Two weeks later I was clocking out for the last time and moving my career down to West Washington Street on the other side of town.

My new job was a completely different world. I was meeting with state Representatives, Senators, lobbyists, and journalists. I was sitting in a cubicle designing newsletters and writing press releases, responding to media requests, and surfing news outlets hunting for information.

 And I was ordering coffee,

standing on the other side of the counter,

knowing how early these baristas woke,

how they brewed the coffee,

and prepped the night before.

I was pulling a few extra dollars out of my wallet for the tip jar, because I too was once the barista counting up tips at the end of the day.

Life on the West side is so different than on the East and they are mere minutes from each other.

How is it so easy to forget the ghetto parts of a city simply because you never see them?

I’ve grown accustomed to this high society part of Indy, in the middle of towering hotels surrounded by expensive restaurants. I fear I’ve become puffed up and have forgotten the little old man with the mustache or the malnourished baby.

But maybe being a part of state government will allow me to make a bigger difference now that I’ve heard peoples’ stories while making them coffee.  Maybe since I began at the personal level, it will in turn help me at the thirty thousand foot level concerning government communications and legislative affairs, to help underdeveloped areas like the East side of Indy…

Maybe.

 

On Being Black in the Corporate World

new-yearsI flatten my hair before I go to work. While the straightener is heating up I look at myself in the mirror, knowing I didn’t want to become like this: A woman who gains confidence from the approval of others. But I have, and that’s why I woke up an hour earlier to flick on the bathroom light and fill the hall with the smell of burning hair.

I feel most confident when I wear a dress and smooth down my hair. Why? Because that is how professional women are often portrayed.

I remember reading a chapter from the novel Americanahby Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie. The protagonist, a young Nigerian woman seeking a career in the American corporate world, goes for a job interview with her Afro hair. The interviewers read her resume and ask questions but she doesn’t get hired. Afterwards her friend tells her that she needs to straighten her hair so she will look more professional for the next interview. And when she does, she gets the job. Although this book is fictional, it is not far from reality.

Is my untamed curly hair the most professional appearance in the office?

Something tells me no.

I don’t think in my agency, where the staff are the nicest people I know, would I be looked down on if and when I wear my natural hair, which I do sometimes. It’s just that I don’t feel put together when all my curls are pointing different directions and the frizz just might bear its teeth if I step outside.

Now that I’m out of school and part of society’s working class, I’m very conscious of my skin color and my hair. In my senior year of college I began to see how much of a minority blacks are, and how most people in power are not black.

In my cubicle at work there is a poster of all the state representatives. Eight out of the 100 are black. Four of them are women. I’m not sure what to think of this new-found knowledge. I’m just now becoming aware of how few of us are out there.

After pondering all this, I turn off the straighter and see a girl in the mirror. She isn’t black anymore, she could pass for a Latino, an Indian,  or a black person who is almost white.  Do I like this girl, who hides her natural hair  and lightens her face with make-up?

When you’re both black and white it’s tempting to choose one side and hide the other in your closet ’till the day is over.

New Year’s Eve in a Congolese Church

 

I spent New Year’s eve in a Congolese church, singing about God’s faithfulness and dancing to the beat of the African drum, alongside a people with whom I share a history.

My father is Rwandan, born in the neighboring country Burundi, but he grew up in Congo, a country once known as Zaire. While he lived in Africa, Congo Kinshasa was home to my father and though he was not Congolese, he spoke Lingala, Swahili, and French.

Image result for map of congo and rwanda

 

Lingala is what I heard the night of New Year’s eve from a host of African Christians praising God in their own tongue and in their own form of worship, through dance and song. I danced too, awkwardly I suppose, but freely and without hesitation. I listened to the French songs and sang to the best of my limited French ability. They also sang songs in Swahili jumping and waving their hands, so I mimicked the phrases and thought about this language my Grandparents spoke, two African individuals of my own bloodline whom I never really got to know.

The service was wonderfully long and continued through the night until the  New Year came. “You are from Ethiopia?” the Pastor asked, putting me on the spot in front of the whole congregation. “No” I replied naturally. “Well, they say the most beautiful women come from Ethiopia. You must have some African heritage in you.” I didn’t know whether I should be offended or flattered, nor did I know quite how to respond.

People ask me if I am Ethiopian all the time, especially if they are from India, East Africa, or sometimes the Middle East. “I am from America, but my father is from Africa,” I explained later when the women approached me and asked again. They said no more, but accepted me as a sister, a cousin, a daughter. And I felt as if I was part of some special club using the origin of my Father as a token of membership.

For some reason, though I’m not sure why, I am drawn to African people, mostly from Sub-Saharan  Africa. Maybe because I seek an identity, or maybe because I am biracial and constantly searching for a people group to call my own. But most of the time I think it’s because they always accept my big curly hair. 🙂

Happy New Year.  Bonne Année.