Back to Bragging

 

There will be some posts coming about our three weeks in the States and our day in Chicago, but for now only one story is relevant.

Two days before leaving, my daughter had an appointment in a hair salon to get extensions braided in professionally. She had found the salon on the internet and the pictures made it seem like quite a nice place. My sister and I drove her to the salon’s address, intending to get her started and then leave, returning 5 or 6 hours later to pick her up. But on reaching our destination, we found ourselves in front of an apartment building. It all seemed a bit dubious to us, as we entered the building on the off chance that a hair salon could be found inside. We saw the front office and its busy receptionist. (Do normal apartment buildings have receptionists?) We saw quite a few people with walkers and wheelchairs. We saw what looked like a gymnasium where two young women were studying at one of the card tables with folding chairs set up in there. On the back wall there were benches and a youngish man sat on one, directly under a large American flag, staring blankly ahead of him. A dashing elderly African American couple – she in her colorful head scarf and he in his royal blue suit with matching hat –  walked past us and left the building. They were in high spirits as if on their way to the speakeasy.

As the receptionist was clearly ignoring us, my daughter called the number of the salon again and reached the same woman she had talked to before. It seemed we were in the right place and we should go down to the end of the hall where she would meet us.

En route, my sister and I made it clear that if this was not a salon in a public area then we were all leaving. We weren’t going to simply leave my daughter in some stranger’s apartment.

A stairwell door opened and a middle-aged woman dressed in something reminiscent of pajamas appeared.  She ordered us to follow her up the stairs. An awkward conversation ensued. (Thanks again, sis, for doing all the work!) We left again and I dealt with a daughter who was relieved and disappointed in equal measures. It was too late to try and find another salon, so I said,

“Well I watched Lila braiding in your extensions last time, maybe I can just do it myself when we get back home.” That made my daughter happy again.

That statement also had unexpected consequences – one of which is that of the eight days we have been back home, I have spent the better part of four as a hairdresser.

With Daughter One I began with a sense of desperation and the feeling of having too many thumbs. I quickly wished I had paid better attention to Lila. A few YouTube videos and a lot of trial and error later, I started to find my groove. By the time we were done, I had gotten pretty good at it.

Daughter Two looked at the results and envied the way these braids stayed so straight. (She has so much hair, that I have been able to micro-braid it without any extra artificial hair – but her braids then coil up afterward.) We mused about the possibility of doing extensions on her hair too, just as a means of keeping it straight.

Those musings cost me the entirety of yesterday and 3/4ths of today.

BUT!! . . .

I can now show off my masterpiece.

              

Statistics:

Number of braids: One hundred and ten
Extension color match: 9.9 on a scale of 10
Partitioning noticeability: very low (and low is good!)
Time spent: 11 episodes of the Gilmore Girls
Average number of braids per episode: 10
Reward: three hugs, two kitchen cleanings, three volunteered dog walks, no more hairdressing sessions until November, bragging rights.
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At the Core

 

I’ve heard it said many times that Milwaukee is “the most segregated city” in the United States. It has been hard for me to believe this, because the particular area I live in here seems to be very multicultural. Not only do we see all colors in the rainbow, but the groups of people walking together are often a mixture too. On the other hand, there is a whole section of the city that we almost never enter on our trips home because there was no particular thing located in these streets to draw us there. When I was young, people used to refer to this area as “The Core”.

So I got to explore some of that part of the city when we decided to go to the Wisconsin Black Historical Society Museum at my daughters’ request. When we first arrived, I took in the neighborhood, which like so many in this part of town was hard to get a real sense of . . . mostly because of everything that was NOT there. There was a very nice looking public library with a green area around it, but the parking lot in the back could have come straight out of Addis Ababa. The road clearly should have been a commercial one, but a lot of the buildings seemed empty. There were no grocery stores, or pharmacies, or clothes stores, or hair salons or non-fast food restaurants. There were almost no pedestrians.

The museum was locked and we assumed closed, but we pushed the buzzer anyway. A friendly woman came and let us in. She said yes, the museum was open and that someone would come to show us around. In the meantime, we had the whole place to ourselves. We looked at some of the wall exhibits. Most seemed to be documents or pictures printed from computers, pasted on colored paper and then taped or tacked to the wall.  Many were showing signs of wear or exposure. The room seemed more like a classroom than a museum.

 

To be fair, I think we didn’t see the more professional exhibits because the main hall had been cleared for an event. The website, at any rate, has this picture:

But when we were there the hall was nearly empty:

 

So I don’t know what we missed due to unfortunate timing, but I don’t think it matters.

Because the curator walked in, introduced himself, and proceeded to devote the next two and a half hours to us. First there was a long but interesting talk filled with things I had never heard or known before. Then he discussed ideas with my daughter for the focus of her graduation research paper (the original reason we decided to go there). And then he went off to compile/photocopy articles for her.

While the curator talked, I found my mind and attention gravitating toward this picture:

I had seen it before. Was it something iconic (at least for Milwaukeeans?) – or was there something else about it that grabbed my attention? At one point I asked the curator who those people were and he said “I’ll be coming to that.” He went back to his talk which was somewhere between Plessy v. Ferguson and Brown v. Board of Education. Eventually, he reached the 1960s.

It turns out that almost exactly 50 years ago today, Milwaukee experienced civil rights protests that earned this city the nickname “Selma of the North”.  A group of extremely courageous mostly black people began marching again and again, under the most dangerous of circumstances, FOR 200 DAYS IN A ROW (!) to protest unfair housing policy in the city. Looming large among these protesters was Father James Groppi – a Catholic priest (who happens to resemble my own father):

                  

Father Groppi had already traveled to the South to take part in many civil rights protests including some with Dr. Martin Luther King. At some point he realized that many outside activists were moved to fight against abuses in the South while ignoring the problems in their own northern cities. He returned to Milwaukee and got involved in raising consciousness about unfair housing policies that kept African American confined to certain parts of the city and in sometimes abysmal conditions.

All of this was news to me. And it captured my attention and imagination. While telling my sister about our museum visit, she mentioned that there were exhibitions and events going on in Milwaukee to commemorate the 50 year anniversary of the marches. She also suggested a book called “Evicted” which tries to elucidate why the problems identified in 1967 still haven’t been resolved. I am 100 pages into it and can already recommend it to anyone who cares about the fact that big profits can still be made from people in desperate circumstances – especially those trapped at the corners where Racism Road, Segregation Street, Poverty Lane, and Opioid Alley intersect.

 

Seedy Alley Surprise

This must be my 20th trip to Milwaukee, so it was nice to find a little hidden treasure just a five minute walk away. At first site, it is nondescript and uninviting little side alley, that makes you stop and consider taking the long way around:

 

But once you enter, you find yourself surrounded by this:

Here was my favorite part:

Morning in America

There are two soundtracks running in my head as I sip my hazelnut coffee and watch the sunrise on my first morning in Milwaukee and they couldn’t be more different. They compete with one another for my brain’s favor. First I envision the West Side Story dancers and hear:

I like to be in America!
O.K. by me in America!
Ev’rything free in America
(For a small fee in America!)

 

Suddenly there is a mental scratch of the needle on the record and the music changes to sultry sounds of Nina Simone  – or Muse – singing:

 It’s a new dawn, It’s a new day,

It’s a new life,

And I’m feeling good.

 

I think my brain cannot decide on the soundtrack for this day because it feels there is just a bit more waiting to do before this vacation can really begin. Just as it evades sensory input of people smoking around me, it refuses to accept the reality of our arrival here. So when we passed this view yesterday – one that had evoked the feeling of finally being home the previous 20+ times I saw it – there was no excitement (or at least none I allowed myself to feel.) And last night when we all sat together on my sister’s porch and reeled off a litany of possible activities for the next three weeks, I thought a lot of them sounded nice, but that it was too early to start planning . . .

And all of that is so, because my brain pushed the “Pause” button on receiving this message off my computer screen several weeks ago, along with the subsequent letter telling us to appear for our interviews on July 19th.

July 19th. That is tomorrow. (Wish us luck.)

 

Tomorrow, one of two things will happen.

EITHER . . .

my daughters will officially become certified citizens of the U.S. and this long, at times nightmarish, bureaucratic odyssey will be over,

OR . . .

the odyssey will continue and the vacation will be over (at least for me.)

On the bright side I will probably be able to finally decide on a soundtrack – will it be the lightly cynical but happy patriotism? or the moody and dark irony of a new day dawning?

 

Home. Again. The Other One.

Leaving home is hard. Coming home – especially after an extended absence, is . . . tricky.  For me, having essentially two homes, there is always a double whammy as I travel from one to the other. And this year, it was slightly surreal.

 

There is always something idyllic about the time we spend in Milwaukee. Each day begins with a long, relaxed breakfast, sipping hazelnut coffee and looking out over the oceanic Lake Michigan. This year the day’s pace was even more relaxed than usual as the humidity zapped our energy (as 288 straight hours in the sauna would have the tendency to do). Still, we had beautiful weather the whole time. Just a little . . . . moist.

Now I’m home. Again. The other one. The one I own. The one I have lived in longer than any other place in my life. It is beautiful here. But also full of responsibilities. I’m missing the other, magical home where life takes a break for a while. On the other hand, I look out at the vista from my porch and think it is pretty idyllic too:

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No sauna conditions today. Here the weather gods prefer intermittent rainfall. There was even some thundering, but it was pretty half-hearted. Not like the wild storms at the start of summer. Now the gods are just phoning it in.

It seems like we always time our trips to long stretches of sunshine in Milwaukee. It occurred to me more than ever that the guests we bring along on our visits (this time it was Omili) experience the very best of the city – the lake and parks, the museums and festivals, the arts, the foods, the multicultural neighborhoods – not to mention the unbelievable graciousness and generosity of our hosts. We don’t bring them to the sketchier parts of town beyond invisible lines drawn through the city. Like the parts that have been burning for the past two nights.

Our departure from Milwaukee occurred exactly halfway between those two episodes of violence. Being busy getting ready to fly home, we missed the morning news coverage of the first night of protests and violence. We wouldn’t see those images until we watched the evening news on our first day back here in Austria.

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It was hard to wrap my head around the idea that these pictures were coming from that beautiful place I just left.

As much as they disturb my own personal idyllic associations with that city, it is probably a good thing that they are drawing attention. Milwaukee is a place with deep-seated racial divisions and economic inequality issues that need to be brought out into the light. Just like in Cleveland, or Dallas, or Baltimore, or, or, or .  . .

And then there is my daughter, who is still there.

As I write this, she is about halfway through her first day of High School. She has probably just finished her first cafeteria experience. Right now she is in Gym class. I wonder if she was able to open her locker without help or get to her classes on time. Her school is a fabulous place – colorful, multi-cultural, academically serious, and socially conscious.

And, according to Google Maps, it is less than 3 miles as the bird flies from the center of the unrest.