Within the first few weeks of sitting in The Extrovert Chair, I was invited to two parties. One of the parties is a weekly event, and last Friday, I finally decided to go.
That day was a particularly fitting one for attending a party of strangers. It was my father’s birthday, and Dad was the most extroverted person I’ve ever known. Whenever we entered a restaurant, he’d shout greetings to friends he spied across crowded dining rooms. He made new friends when out on walks, on buses and planes, while dancing the polka, and even after performing the Heimlich maneuver on a stranger. Going to a gathering of strangers on Dad’s birthday? It just seemed right.
While strolling the four blocks with my lawn chair slung over my shoulder, I encountered a woman walking her dog.
“I’m finally heading to a street party I was invited to months ago!” I bubbled, indicating the chair on my back.
She nodded immediately, and gestured behind her. “Nice! Are you heading to the noisy group?”
They had a reputation.
When I reached the party street, I was relieved to see people sitting six feet apart, all wearing masks. They welcomed me warmly, and laughed when I told them that they’d been referred to as “the noisy group”. One woman peered at my masked face and said, “Hey, I know you! You’re the umbrella lady!” Tina immediately went around the circle and introduced everyone to me. When she was done, I repeated back all the names.
“Damn! Like a teacher!” someone said.
I nodded, grinning.
It was a noisy group. Anthony is a DJ, and provides the music and his crystal-clear sound system for the weekly gathering.
“There are usually more people than this,” explained a few. “Sometimes people dance in the street.”
I’m almost always too self-conscious to dance in front of people. (There are three inexplicable exceptions: The Hustle [in high school]; Irish jigs [in third grade, taught to us by our teacher, an Irish nun]; and dancing in front of my own 3rd-grade class each year. [I’m never shy about pulling ridiculous moves in front of my students, even though tiny Kassandra once looked at me in horror and whispered, “I can teach you how to dance.”])
However, I am an enthusiastic and vigorous chair-dancer, and when DJ Anthony saw my moves, he nodded approvingly, saying, “Oh, she’s happy!”
I giggled. He was right.
Most of the people were neighbors, and conversed easily as a group. Lisa talked about her grandson, who is beginning college on a full scholarship for football, with an excellent shot of making the NFL. How will the pandemic affect his chances? Bonnie raved about how great Tina and Cal’s little dog looked, just two weeks after being attacked by a dog who escaped from someone’s yard.
“I brought the vet bill to the house where it happened, and the very next day, the teenager showed up at my door with fifteen hundred dollars in cash. I couldn’t believe it!” Tina said. “I told him I was very proud of him, and later I wrote a note to him, telling him how responsible he was. I’m getting choked up even talking about it!”
Bonnie said, “I’m getting choked up, too.” Then she stood, and began dancing on the sidewalk to the strains of hip-hop, jazz, and ‘70s pop.
I wandered over to Janae. We exploded into conversation as soon as we learned that both of us are teachers. We traded stories of how incredibly difficult distance learning had been in the spring, and after a while, Anthony asked to speak with Janae, so I went to sit down.
Then Anthony came to me, and apologized for having interrupted.
“Don’t apologize!” I laughed. “Once a couple of teachers start talking about school, we need to be pulled apart to get us to stop.”
“Hey, I get it. I worked in a school.” He pointed to the insignia on his jacket.
Anthony is Black, and worked in a fifth-grade-to-twelfth-grade school for eight years. He wasn’t a classroom teacher, but would meet with classes half an hour at a time, and talk with the kids.
“I was born in 1951, and grew up on a sharecropper’s farm in the South,” he said.
I felt my eyes bug out, aware that we were both sitting in one of the most liberal areas in the country. “And you moved here? Whoa!”
He laughed. “I left when I was seventeen. I lived in Chicago for ten years before I came here. When I got to Chicago, it felt like I was on a different planet.”
“So what would you talk about with the kids at school?”
“I grew up in Jim Crow Mississippi. I talked a lot about my life experiences.”
I asked him if kids seemed to listen when he would talk to them.
“Listen? When I was there, no one even left to go to the bathroom. I tried to teach them how to get along. I taught them that they’re all the same, and that they have to be there for each other, and not be against each other.”
Anthony said that most of the kids at his school were Mexican or Black, and that only a few kids were white. I grew up in Napa, and never saw a Black person there in my childhood. I wondered how it would have changed me if I had heard his Jim Crow experiences when I was young.
He said he used to speak with kids about handling racial slurs. He has heard plenty of insults in his life, and his way of coping was always to smile, say something pleasant, and walk away.
“And you would tell the kids that?” I asked.
“Yes. I’m a pretty happy guy. I wanted them to know that there’s another way. It doesn’t have to bother you if you don’t let it.”
My mind was racing. The thought, “But is that right? Is it okay to not get mad?” kept cycling through my mind, followed by the command I kept giving myself: “You’ll never know what it’s like. Shut up and listen.”
Even as we were talking, his body moved easily with the music. Everything about him radiated contentment, and a chill attitude. Happy and relaxed.
I asked, “How are you handling the pandemic? Does it get you down? You seem pretty cheerful.”
“Well, I keep busy. I’m working on my neighbor’s old car, a 1965. I’m helping out the lady on the corner, fixing her fence. And of course, I’m the DJ out here on Friday nights.”
And then his expression changed.
“But you know, when people are talking about how they feel trapped, how they can’t go anywhere, how they can’t do what they want, you know what I feel like saying to them? ‘You know who’s TRAPPED? Not YOU. It’s those people down at the end of Texas, stuck in cages. THOSE people are stuck. YOU’RE not stuck. You can leave your house, go to the store, do what you want. YOU’RE not stuck. YOU’RE not suffering. YOU’RE not trapped. YOU’RE not in prison.’ That’s what I want to tell people who talk about being trapped.“
His whole being flashed fire. I saw it, could feel it emanating from this relaxed man who loved kids, who swayed to the music that boomed and made my chair vibrate. His choice was to maintain his calm over years of being on the receiving end of racial slurs, but the plight of others who suffer–it ignited him into flames. He doesn’t forget those distant people. He carries the awareness of them much closer than I do. It lies just beneath the surface of his skin.
Words flew through my head: Jim Crow. Sharecropper’s farm. Another planet. Shut up and listen. Kids in cages. Happy guy.
“I’m a pretty happy guy,” Anthony repeated. “I think of those kids at my school a lot. You know? I really loved working with them.”
I could see the wistfulness on his face, and felt a nervous flutter inside, the piercing awareness that before too much longer, I, too, will be on the past-tense end of working with kids.
And just like that, it was time to leave. Darkness had fallen, and neighbors were picking up chairs and calling out their good-byes.
I thanked them for welcoming me, and as I headed back up that street with my lawn chair over my shoulder, the music was still going. The voice of Bill Withers floated toward me, and I felt my eyes fill with the truth that he sang.
“We all need somebody to lean on…”
My dad knew it, and I do, too. And so do the people of The Noisy Group, dancing in the street on a Friday night.