We were at this restaurant in Ansley Park. The Oyster Room. Over by the mall. One of Walt’s go-to places. A little seafood joint with valet parking, gray-haired white ladies gossiping about which college their grandchildren got accepted into, and paintings of old plantations. In 1984, you had to try hard to find a place with so few black people. Yet there we were. The only black people in the room, and maybe a few in the kitchen. Not my scene. But Walt was paying, so I came. And anyway, he said Baldwin might join us, which was all I needed to hear.
“Jimmy is in town, and he wants to come see me,” he told me yesterday.
“Jimmy who?” I asked.
“James Baldwin. You know that’s who I’m talking about. So, bring your black ass out to dinner with us tomorrow. I’m going to introduce you. And don’t say I ain’t never done anything for you. I know how much you love James Baldwin.”
It was true. I have been obsessed with Baldwin’s work since college. My friends and I back at Fisk, had this club where we stayed up late reading his books out loud to each other. If our dormmates told us we were making too much noise, we just read in whispers. We would pretend that we were priests of a secret order, pouring over sacred texts, and each word was too powerful to be spoken aloud.
We had been sitting for an hour when I finally asked Walt if he thought Baldwin was still going to join us.
“I don’t know. Probably staying late to greet people. You know how Jimmy is.”
I had no idea how Jimmy was, but I let it go and moved on.
“What is he here for again?” I asked.
“He’s giving a talk over at BWMU. They brought him down.”
Neither of us were really fans of BWMU or Black and White Men in Unity. The organization was a civil rights group for gay black and white men. I went to one of their meetings, because Walt invited me. It was over in Candler Park. Each meeting was at a different member’s home and the host this night was Edmund, the group’s president. It was maybe fifteen of us. They were all like over fifty in age. Some looked over seventy. Three of us were black including me and Walter. That night, Edmund, who also gave me a far too long hug when I arrived, was arguing with Tim, the only other black man there. Tim was maybe in his late thirties. Thick mustache. Light-skinned. His hair was thinning in the middle of his head. I don’t know what he and Edmund were arguing about. But at some point Tim said to Edmund, “Fuck you.” And Edmund quipped back, “You can’t. You’re not black enough.” Then he looked at me and winked. That was my last meeting.
“And Baldwin agreed to speak there?” I asked.
“He sure did.”
“Well, I respect their political work.”
“What political work? Fucking black men is political work now? If that’s the case, then Robert Mapplethorpe should get a medal from the NAACP.”
“You talk too loud.” Walt looked around to see if anyone heard me. “You know as well as I do that it’s more than that. Stop being cute. And he is working on something for Playboy.”
Walt was a part of the black Atlanta aristocracy. His father owned a funeral home and his mother taught Drama at Spelman College. He was somehow related to the Kings, the Dobbses, the Herndons, and even, he would whisper, some of the prominent white folks. One of the former mayors was like a distant cousin or something.
When we first met, I thought he was hitting on me. He kept name-dropping, trying to impress me. He must have sensed that I was getting weird vibes because he said, “You can stop worrying. I ain’t trying to take your cookies. I like trade honey. Not little colored schoolboys from Fisk University.” I fell out laughing. We became friends after that.
It had been an hour and still no Baldwin. I wasn’t surprised. Walt often embellished but this time I was hoping he was telling the truth. But Baldwin never came.
A few days later, Walt invited me out a second time. He promised Baldwin would definitely show. We went to this soul food place on Campbellton Road called Gayle’s. Everyone knew him there, especially the waiters, who all seemed to knock each other over to serve him, ignoring me.
“Must be nice,” I said when a particularly handsome waiter, and the one who beat the others to our table, greeted us.
“Nice?” When he said the word “nice,” he made a face like he tasted something sour. “It has nothing to do with ‘nice,’ my dear. I tip extremely well.”
“So he’s coming?” I asked. “Baldwin. You think he’s still coming?”
“Supposed to. He begged me to forgive him and said he would make it up to me this time.”
“You sure it happened that way? Baldwin begged for your forgiveness?” I asked.
“You don’t believe me? All right. Keep on. And when he shows up, I’m going to tell him you called me a liar. Anyway, how is law school coming along?”
“It’s coming. But I don’t think I want to practice law anymore.”
“I don’t know. The Atlanta Weekly is coming back. I could write for them. I’ve always loved writing. I was a columnist for the paper back at Fisk. Other than that,” I continued, “John Lewis asked me to work on his campaign. Help with communications. You know I volunteered on his city council campaign, and I guess I impressed his team.”
“Listen dear, Councilmen Lewis is a great man, but he ain’t going to beat Julian Bond. Bond has it sewn up. And you can bank on that. My family has known Julian Bond for years. And I’m telling you he’s going to be the next congressman.” He said, pointing his finger at me. “Why don’t you go work for Andy in the Mayor’s Office. My family has been tight with Mayor Young for years. I can make a call.”
I ignored his suggestions and just said, “So those are a few options.”
“Stick with law school. We have enough black writers. We need more lawyers. Daddy wanted me to take up law. But I had zero interest in it.” He made a circular motion with his finger. “I wanted to major in Theatre which mother supported of course, on account of her being over at the Drama department at Spelman. But Daddy wanted no parts of that. And he was paying my tuition.”
He then looked away and knocked on the table.
“But you should be a lawyer. You have it in you.”
“Well, I’m telling our friend Jimmy you said that. I have to be the next Thurgood Marshall because too many Negroes are out here writing books. If he ever comes. He is coming, right?”
Walt sighed. I could tell he was beginning to get annoyed. “I don’t know. I’m sure he got busy again.”
Walt called me a week later and asked if I was free for dinner Sunday night. He joined the board of the High Museum and wanted to tell me about it. So I arrived. This was one of the few places we both liked. The Glorious Restaurant. Over on Old National Highway. The food was all right, but it had a down home quality that I really loved. I got there early and ordered some coffee while I sat and waited. The rain was coming down like crazy. I figured he would probably be late with traffic.
I looked over at the window and saw him pulling up in his old Mercedes-Benz that he called Henrietta May. As he came through the door, I saw that he was with someone. Someone who held a jacket over his head to keep from getting wet. When he brought his arms down and folded his jacket, I had to look twice. It was him. It was Baldwin. And Walt had the biggest smile on his face. I grabbed onto the table to keep from jumping up. I wanted to scream. I wanted to run up to him. I wanted to hug him. But I held it all in and forced my face into a gentle smile.
Though I knew he was small, I was surprised at how small he was. It was almost jarring. He seemed delicate, almost fragile. How could so much be packed into such a small frame? He just wore a short sleeve white button-down shirt. He sat down in front of me, and Walt slid beside me. He smiled and was about to say something before Walt introduced us.
“I know who you are,” Baldwin said smiling, “Walt told me all about you.”
“He told you about me?”
Before he could answer, Walt went on with the conversation they were having when they walked in.
“You should move here. You could teach at one of the local universities.”
Baldwin just laughed.
The rain pounded against the windows, like drums, like a rapid heartbeat, like the footsteps of soldiers marching toward war. And they kept going. Jumping from topic to topic: Nixon, Reagan, black Atlanta politics, South Africa, and the Atlanta Child Murders. Marlon Brando, Malcolm X, and Jimmy Carter. They even talked about J. Edgar Hoover who Baldwin called, “That old fucking queen.” And they both nearly tumbled out of the booth from laughing so hard. But there was something in the laughter, something earned and hard and forced that made me wonder what was lurking underneath it. Their laughter seemed to be clutching for something. The urgency of it. The tenseness of it. Though they howled with laughter, so much so it was contagious, you could still see a sadness in their eyes.
I was in awe of them as they debated and went back and forth, like two jazz masters sharing the stage, giving to each other, and taking from each other.
They smoked their cigarettes and they laughed, and they told more stories. That time in New Orleans. That man in Memphis. The dinner they had in Savannah. The press conference in Birmingham. The sailors in San Diego. Beautiful stories that made me want to live in their memories.
Baldwin looked up as if someone had called his name, or like he just remembered something, and went over to the jukebox and started fumbling with it. Our waitress, over at the counter, was having too much fun watching us.
“Do I know you?” She went over to the jukebox and started talking to him. “I know I know you from somewhere. Where I know you from?”
“You a singer or something ain’t you?”
“Honey, I wish.”
The song he was fumbling with finally came on. It was Ray Charles singing “Over the Rainbow.” Baldwin then extended his hand to her. “Dance with me. Maybe then it will come to you.”
And she did. The two of them danced around the dining room. Everyone stopped what they were doing to watch. I was in a trance. Watching him. He swayed his hips so freely that I wanted to know the freedom he seemed to know. The tenseness in his face relaxed into a peacefulness that can only come from the ecstasy of surrender. The waitress seemed genuinely surprised that the small older man could dance so well.
After a few moments he finally sat back down with us at our booth.
“You’re quite the dancer,” was all I could say.
It was then that I found my courage. “I wanted to ask you something. I’ve been wanting to, I mean I’ve always wanted to ask you this. Ever since I read ‘Giovanni’s Room,’ but also ‘Just Above My Head.’ I wanted to ask you; how do I survive as a Black gay man in a world that hates me?”
My question sounded more dramatic than I intended. Walt just looked at me amused. This was my one chance to squeeze everything I wanted to know and everything I wanted to say into one question. He assessed me. My question shifted the mood of the table. He took a while; it seemed like he was trying to figure out what he wanted to say. He pulled out a flask and poured into his cup. Then reached over and poured some for Walt.
“Love. Love is how you survive. Love is how any of us survive.”
He held his cup up to Walt as if making a toast. And Walt raised his cup in response. “Cheers,” they both said. “Cheers.”
The few other customers remaining had gotten up to leave. Each stared at our table as they walked out. The waitress was wiping down the counter and humming to herself.
Then Baldwin and Walt went back to teasing each other like blood brothers who share each other’s dreams. They took turns telling stories more for me, their committed audience, than themselves. Stories about people and times I would never know. Then the rain stopped. And I kept thinking, “Love. Love. Love.”
About the author:
Charles Stephens is an Atlanta-based writer and founder of The Counter Narrative Project (CNP). He has participated in the Tin House Winter Workshop, the Hurston/Wright Workshop, and the Lambda Literary’s Writer’s Retreat for Emerging LGBTQ Voices. His short stories have appeared in The Lumiere Review, Isele Magazine, and Queerlings. He has also contributed to Atlanta Magazine, Lambda Literary Review, Advocate, Creative Loafing, Georgia Voice, and AJC.
Photo by Dare Omowale on Unsplash
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