In my last post, I documented a random encounter at Chicago O’Hare airport. This time, I’m thinking about an encounter I had when I landed in London Heathrow on Saturday morning. I got to the Heathrow Express ticket machines and saw a young woman whom I believed had been on my plane. She was staring at a large unfolded tube map and looking befuddled. So, I went up to her and said ‘I think you were on my flight and you look confused. Can I help?” “I need to get to Sheffield” she explained. She then turned my attention to the map and followed the Picadilly line with her finger – “I think I take this, but where do I find it and what do I do from there?” “Ahh, of course” I replied after I had overcome my shock at her end destination being Sheffield, “You are wanting to take a train up to Sheffield and I’m not sure, but I think they leave from King’s Cross.” Sure enough on her map, King’s Cross was highlighted in pink. “You know what, I need to save money and the tube is the best way to do that, I’ll go with you. But you do realize that you might have to be chatty along the way and we might encounter lots of stairs.”
“Oh no problem, I love to talk and at each point where I’ve needed it, someone’s helped me with my bags.” Off we went.
Francis (not her real name) and I slowly navigated our way through to the tube. She bought an Oyster Card (which you can now get straight from the machine) and we found her a seat on the Picadilly line while I stood. For a bit we were silent, both tired after an overnight flight. I was actually happy to go either way – chatty or quiet. Eventually, though I can’t remember what prompted it, the conversation began and it did not stop until we parted ways at King’s Cross (I would normally get out at Holborn to change to the Central Line which would take me to Bethnal Green from where I would walk home – but I was enjoying the conversation so much and I was a bit concerned about Francis finding her way through the King’s Cross labyrinth, I changed my route).
And here’s the ground we covered:
Francis – I never found out her age, but I’m guessing she is about twenty four – is from the South Side of Chicago. This is generally the African-American side of Chicago, with parts of it being ghettos. In the same way that I didn’t venture to the South Side until I was about twenty-four (I went to go hear an Operation Push Saturday sermon with Jesse Jackson and was befriended by a preacher who gave me a tour of the ‘hood), Francis had only made it North for the first time in her early twenties.
I explained to Francis that I had the fear of death literally instilled in me as a teenager when it came to Chicago – turn down the wrong street and you’ll get shot. She confirmed that when she was growing up – which would be about fifteen years after I was – there were days where she went to school with her mom clinging on to her and shielding her from gunfire. I remember my tour – my first live and in-person experience of the Southside: burnt-out highrise apartment blocks with elevated, busy freeway roads looming in the background. I remembered that there was an Irish neighborhood nearby and that a few years (mid-late nineties) after going there I read about how a Black kid had been playing hoops, accidentally stayed after dark, and had the crap beat out of him – was in hospital, paralyzed.
We joked about how her sister moved to Lincoln Park. “Wow! That’s pretty vanilla!” was my observation. Sister is now in Wicker Park, which by Francis’ account is arty, more mixed – has not gotten to that point where all the low-income folk (which is often code for ‘people of color’) can still afford to live there. Francis bemoaned the way that neighbourhoods get mixed up like that and they are funky and cool but then eventually they become too expensive for folks who originally lived there and, well, the coolness fades and so, too, does the color. I nodded my head, thinking that she was – in some ways – describing my East End neighbourhood here in London.
Francis was in England to take courses at Sheffield University. She is doing a degree in criminal law at a notoriously lefty, Midwestern University. Her White boyfriend just accepted a teaching job at a university in New York – so she eventually might move out East. She says her mom doesn’t care about the racial difference and observed that, frankly, with one out of every three Black men her age in prison (a stat I had thrown out at some point – which I’ve come across a few times in recent years), the odds are stacked against her meeting one.
Speaking of being a Black man in the US, the reason Francis had gone into criminal law was because her brother had done time – and I confirmed, rightly so. She reckoned the whole experience did him good, but acknowledged that isn’t often the case and people aren’t always in jail based on a fair trial and sentence and too often have inadequate support then they leave prison. She astutely (I thought) observed that prison knocks you down – take strip searches, for example – and then keeps your there. She didn’t have a problem with knocking people down – that’s what they sometimes need – but she went onto explain how people need to then be picked back up. Take the military, she suggested, for the most part, people are knocked down and then picked up – given confidence and self-value (we agreed, that it doesn’t always work to such good effect). Prison – she concluded – generally just drops people, drags them down and that’s how they are feeling when the come out: dropped and dragged.
Francis is the first person in her family to take a trip out of the country. She is hoping her sister, the one living in Wicker Park doing a Masters in Fine Arts, will come visit her. Francis is one of many children – she didn’t want to give an exact count – and reckons that by the time it came to her and her sister, her mom had learned a lot and it meant they’ve managed to rise up out of the ‘hood. She also had the benefit of a decent education. Her neighbourhood borders an Irish ‘hood – and so there was a good school – I didn’t quite hear her, but I think it is a public magnet school, with an advanced curriculum, where even the Irish (Irish-Americans) sent their children. But, she says, that school now is more mixed ability and the standards have dropped, the Irish families don’t send their kids there and the opportunities just aren’t the same.
One strand of our chatter led to me mentioning a couple of White friends who adopted a Black baby boy from Alabama – to which Francis exclaimed ‘Oh, lucky boy!” Yes, we agreed, being a Black male in the U.S. ain’t easy, being a Black male in Alabama – well, sub-ideal. Francis insisted that she thinks that would be the worst thing ever; she would never want to come into this world as an African-American male. I explained to her that I had connected my friends with an African-American friend of my sister – to help them out with their son’s Afro-hair. Francis has stunning hair and often gets asked about it by strangers – how does she do it, they want to know. I got the impression she doesn’t like that sort of random questioning so much. She doesn’t want to be thought of as some Afro-hair expert; she’s just worked out how to manage her own hair through trial and error over the years.
I observed that I did wonder if my friends would need more than hair-care advice as time goes by – because they are raising a Black boy in the US. Francis gave the example of a White couple she knew who had adopted an Ethiopian boy. She reckons they were letting him be a bit of a wild child and she told them (or wants to tell them) that they needed to reel him in, because his sense of freedom might be accepted in a White child, but in a Black boy, he’ll be seen as ‘out of control’. “He needs tough boundaries” she sighed.
We meandered along in our chatter, as the tube passed through Earl’s Court and into central London. We also hit upon the subject of Asians in England. When people hear ‘Asian’ in the US, they think East Asian – Chinese, Japanese, Korean for example. Here, people think South Asian – Pakistani, Bangladeshi, Indian. I told her that it struck me how in some ways, South Asian migrants here are a bit like Latinos in the US. This is a new thought for me; it came about as I observed all the workers of South Asian descent (who knows who is a migrant and who is British-born) holding fort at the airport.
A big difference, though – she made me see – is language. The Spanish language is spreading like wildfire in the US. Everything is bilingual. I was astonished when I was in Manhattan and felt like I could go into almost any shop and speak Spanish and would be fine. Ditto for Chicago. It was not this way ten years ago. Here, in the UK, however, the numbers are incomparable – so, while we have some bilingual pockets and public service information in multiple languages, there isn’t a single second language that is being integrated into British culture more widely. Though let’s be clear – it isn’t that your average American is now going out of her/her way to learn Spanish – just that more children, at least in cities, might find themselves in a bilingual school and it isn’t uncommon to see billboards in Spanish or to have a Spanish option when calling about a service.
I don’t speak any South Asian languages, including that of my parents. For this reason (perhaps combined with my lack of Hindu religious practice), a lot of the South Asians I’ve met here consider me a Coconut. We used to joke when I was working for a London-based Black (as in Asian, African, Caribbean) organisation, that I was their token White liberal. I told all this to Francis, only after explaining that a Coconut here is like an Oreo back home – Brown/Black on the outside, White on the inside. Francis said that she reckons it isn’t surprising – after all, most of the Indians she meets in the Mid-west all hang around White people. Sometimes, she observed, it is because there just aren’t that many of their own kind.
As we were getting close to King’s Cross, we started to stumble into talking about the Riots – she wanted to know more and though I wasn’t in-country when they happened, I have lived in Bow/Bethnal Green/Hackney areas for over fifteen years, have given much thought to the London Riots, and would love another time to have that chat with her.
Because just at the point where we might have chatted about the riots, we got to King’s Cross and our focus turned to navigation. I got Francis pointed in the right direction to hit King’s Cross rail station, while I headed for the Northern Line to take me to Old Street. As did Francis earlier in her trip, I also (thankfully) found myself assisted by people as and when needed – to carry my bag (which weighed as much as I do) up a long flight of stairs at Old Street and then up three flights of stairs to get to my flat!
I was/am excited for Francis. I told her as much and said she must look me up when she comes to London – including if she needs a place to stay – and certainly if she needs help in any way to navigate this foreign country. She’s looking forward to traveling and exploring. I hope her sister manages to come out here for a visit. It is a long way from the South Side of Chicago to the North Side, never mind getting to Sheffield. It must have taken a lot of resilience to make the journey. I admire that.
I’ve since received an email from Francis and expect to keep in touch, if not see her in the coming months. I have no conclusions to draw from our random connection – though I found it interesting and she gave me much food for thought which I will digest over time.
And that’s the ground we covered and another random connection for which I am grateful.