Tag Archives: New Orleans

All Aboard!

As a child traveling Pullman cars with my family through the south and on trips out west, I had a romance with the railroads.  Smiling porters, seemingly as happy as I. Gleaming brass and wood, the freshest of linens, service whenever we wanted it, and always with that smile. I had no idea at the time what a moment in history we were caught in.

The first Pullman porters were recruited from the first generation of black men to be freed. It had to be considered a desirable occupation at the time. Porters were trained in schools and wore their uniform proudly, but their working conditions were horrendous. Meager wages, hurried meals, 400 hours of work per month, catering to rich white passengers, some of whom felt free to buzz all night and call any porter “George,” after George Pullman.

And yet the Pullman porters’ contribution to the Civil Rights Movement was immense. Forming the Brotherhood of Sleeping Car Porters in 1937, it was the first organized black labor union and wages finally  improved. Porters were couriers for “The Chicago Defender,” an African American newspaper that advertised job and living opportunities in the urban north, helping to encourage the migration of African Americans from the rural south.

I learned all this while enjoying the “Pullman Porter Blues” theatrical production at Seattle Repertory Theatre. The year is 1937, on the eve of the first black heavyweight championship, and hopes are high for Joe Lewis among porters aboard the Panama Limited, bound from Chicago to New Orleans. Three generations of men serve as porters. Musicians and singer Sister Juba are along for the ride, wailing blues, spirituals and slave era work songs. The set is designed like a fast moving train and moves seamlessly between luxury Pullman cars to coach, cargo, and caboose, and I’m in heaven….

And this ride isn’t over. Next stop is Arena Stage in Washington D.C. (opening November 23). We are casting our ballots out here and sending local playwright Cheryl L. West’s “Pullman Porter Blues” to “the other Washington,” as we call it. Consider them both, our vote and this production, from Seattle with love.

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Being Here (Where I Am)

“Do you think the wren ever dreams of a better house?” Mary Oliver

The desire to live here, there, and over there, in this, I may be the craziest person I know. On a recent sunny Saturday afternoon I went looking at high rise condominiums in downtown Seattle. I wanted to see what it would be like to reinvent my life from that vantage point, overlooking the port, The Sound, and into sunsets every night. Then hours later, setting up my city lot terrace on Queen Anne Hill, I thought, how could I ever leave all this….

This is the terrace we imagined from the deck that had been out back. A stone paved and planted formal outdoor room, evocative of many places: France, New Orleans, Boston’s Nob Hill…. This is the rock wall we envisioned and the climbing hydrangea we planted that now completely covers the high wooden fence surrounding us. Assorted wrought iron pieces collected in consignment stores up and down The Main Line in Philadelphia, painted black, and cushioned in a black & white awning stripe. The pair of magnolia trees that grew from saplings to their two-story height in a few short years—such is the growing power of the Pacific Northwest. The trees are shaped like topiary, low box hedges beneath kept trim, and potted herbs lined up like sunbathers on a étagère. Into this black & white outdoor room I specified all white flowers: rhododendron, climbing hydrangea, the stand of lilies beyond the fountain, and the dinner-plate sized blossoms the pair of magnolia trees serves up. Of course, the lavender plants will bloom in a lavender color, the rosemary, a blue, chives, mauve/pink, roses will climb over the fence, and other assorted plants, such as columbine and forget-me-not, have a way of hopping or dropping in. And like friends, they are all welcome.

As a child I frequently rearranged my parents’ furniture in the night. People would wake up and bump into things. As a single person and later, married, I was all too game for every move. I even remember the moves that we didn’t make, because I had, in a sense, inhabited them. With the position that would have relocated our young family to Iowa, I pictured a house with a wrap-around porch on a prairie where one could see anyone coming over the horizon in any direction. The house, the landscape and its serenity, grew on me such that I was almost disappointed when my husband did not take that position. Iowa.

I could fill volumes with all the houses I have loved that I did not live in. “The ones that got away,” I call them. Some people have affairs; I look at houses. Perusing MLS listings, attending open houses, drawing up floor plans if I’m interested, sketching, coming up with color schemes, and re-imagining life with each one. It’s like a chemical dependency, this willingness to make a complete overhaul of one’s life. In an effort to get more than one life in, I have to wonder, might it be at the expense of one life fully realized?

Yet there is hope. While I continue to look and sketch and imagine, I do notice a waning in the energy to pull off any of these desired moves. This has come with age. For the first time in my life, the thought of moving is exhausting—something others have known all along. And while I may still harbor harbor views, all I have to do is sit still on this terrace, plant, or clean up in this garden, and I can be where I am. And this I must do more often. And keep the drama on the page.

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