Carmen in New Orleans
"Who is this Bob you keep talking about?" I asked Heather. "Bob is my father." She said. It was my third year in college. I met Heather Ireland in Allen Hall at The University of Illinois. "You call your father by his first name?" I asked. "Yes…" She thought for a second. "Sometimes… it's kind of hard to explain…" She trailed off. "He doesn't spank you when you call him Bob?"
When I finally met Mr. Ireland, it was a bit easier to understand. When Heather referred to him as "Bob", it wasn't as much a name as it was a title, as in "The Bob." Mr. Ireland was short, thin and slightly balding. His skin was the color of a chestnut and he had warm, brown eyes. He looked like a college professor. His wife Carole, was taller and the color of honey. She was very elegant with the bearing of a model. At first blush one might question such an odd pairing but after about thirty seconds in their presence, their reason for being together became quite obvious. Mr. Ireland was as brilliant and witty as Mrs. Ireland was beautiful and poised.
Mr. Ireland wasn't brilliant in an E=MC2 kind of way, but in a, "Dammit! Why didn't I think of that!" kind of way. One day I was at the Ireland house for a party. I had just fixed myself a plate when Mrs. Ireland directed me to the back room. It was a small, rectangular niche off the dining room that housed a couch, a recliner and a television. "Bob's remote for the TV is back there somewhere." She said gesturing vaguely. When I found it, I noticed the large, black remote to the television had a smaller Bose Stereo remote lashed to the back of it with Scotch tape. Mr. Ireland wandered back to the TV room. He greeted me, clasping my hand in both of his. "There he is! How are you doing sir?" He said. "Hello Mr. Ireland. How is everything?" "Oh," He said, "You got me in charge of everything now huh? Well I'm not sure. I can't keep up with everything." I laughed. "Well how is your stuff?" "Oh my stuff is fine. Just fine." I asked him about his remote contraption. "See how small that little thing is?" He turned the remote over, showing me the smaller, papoose remote. "It's way too easy to lose. This way I'm not looking all over the place for it. All I have to do is keep up with the big one."
Like I said, he was brilliant.
Later that summer, a group of friends and I got down to the business of eating and shouldering our way through the crush of people, at The Taste of Chicago. Spotting The Irelands, I shouted through the crowd. They approached and Mr. Ireland greeted us the same way he always did. "Hello gentlemen… and Russ.", He said singling out my friend. I was just about to introduce the additional members of our entourage but before I could, the Irelands embraced them with familiar hugs, calling them all by name. "You know each other already?" I asked. "Of course!" Mr. Ireland said. He then recounted the people that connected them all together. "Wow! That's amazing." I said. "Yep." Mr. Ireland said, "It's a small world among Colored Folks that can read."
He was the smartest man I knew." Mrs. Ireland said, remembering him fondly. "My friends and I used to call him The Oracle. If we ever had a question about something, we would ask Bob and he would tell us. It wasn't until we had been married for a while that I learned the truth. One day I was recounting something he had told me. "Who told you that?" He asked. When I said he did, he laughed. "Half the time I'm just making that stuff up." Still, he was right about the other half he wasn't making up." She chuckled at the memory.
I rocked back and forth on my heels, waiting for the photo crew to finish setting up the lights. Our location was at the Audubon Zoo in New Orleans. The crew zipped back and forth in a race against the morning sun. Chemene, the head of marketing was the liaison between our crew and the zoo. She was a short brown woman with an open, friendly face. Her eyes were fixed on one of the busy techs. "I know you." She said as he whisked past her. "Is your name Tony?" He stopped short, turned and narrowed his eyes, trying to place her. She pulled the name of a grade school out of the air and his eyes widened in recognition. "Chemene!" He said, his blue eyes flashing. "I remember you!" It had been twenty years since they had seen each other. "Most people say there's six degrees of separation. Down here in New Orleans, it's a stretch if you go beyond two." Chemene explained.
"That's amazing!" I said. "The funny thing is, I'm supposed to be trying to reconnect with a childhood friend of mine. I haven't seen her for over thirty years." Chemene stood with her hands clasped behind her back. "What's her name?" She asked. "I probably know her." "Oh no, there's no way!" I said, "Her brother Dylan and I were best friends at the time. They left Chicago when I was about eight and moved to Baton Rouge." "If they live here, I probably know them." Chemene said. "Her name is Carmen," I said, "But I don't know her married name." "What's her maiden name?" She asked. When I told her she said nonchalantly, "I know Carmen. Her husband and my husband are really good friends. In fact, I just saw Carmen yesterday." She reached into her fleece Audubon sweatshirt and pulled out her Blackberry. She sifted through the names and pressed the call button. "Hey Carmen. I'm standing here with a guy who says he knows you from a long time ago. You're supposed to be getting together tomorrow?" I heard a squeal through the phone and Chemene handed it to me. "Hello." I said tentatively. Carmen squealed once more, calling me by my childhood name. All at once, a name thirty years in the past and two thousand miles away, closed the distance and was greeting me in the present as if I had never left.
Mr. Ireland was right. It is a small world among Colored Folks that can read.