I didn’t really want to go to the “women’s conference” the first weekend of May. Spending two hundred bucks to stay in a hotel for two nights only forty-five minutes from home? Totally out of our budget, even if it did include “two continental breakfasts, Saturday night banquet, and all conference materials.”
Now if it had been just Denny and me, that’d be different. A romantic getaway, a second honeymoon . . . no teenagers tying up the phone, no dog poop to clean up in the yard, no third grade lesson plans, no driving around and around the block trying to find a parking place. Just Denny and me sleeping late, ordering croissants, fruit plates, and hot coffee for breakfast, letting someone else make the bed (hallelujah!), swimming in the pool . . . now that would be worth two hundred bucks, no question.
I’m not generally a conference-type person. I don’t like big crowds. We’ve lived in the Chicago area for almost twenty years now, and I still haven’t seen Venetian Nights at the lakefront, even though Denny takes Josh and Amanda almost every year. Wall-to-wall people . . . and standing in line for those pukey Port-a-Potties? Ugh.
Give me a small moms group or a women’s Bible study any day—like Moms in Touch, which met at our church in Downers Grove all those years the kids were growing up. We had some retreats, too, but I knew most of the folks from church, and they were held at a camp and retreat center out in the country where you could wear jeans to all the sessions and walk in the woods during free time.
But listening to the cars on I-90 roaring past the hotel’s manicured lawn? Laughing like a sound track at jokes told by highpowered speakers in tailored suits and matching heels? Having to take “after five attire” for a banquet on Saturday night? (Why would a bunch of women do that with no men around to admire how gorgeous we look?) Uh-uh.Was not looking forward to it.
Still,Avis Johnson, my boss—she’s the principal at the Chicago public school where I teach third grade this year—asked if I’d like to go with her, and that counts for something. Maybe everything. I’ve admired Avis ever since I first met her at Uptown Community Church but never thought we’d be pals or anything. Not just because she’s African American and I’m white, either. She’s so calm and poised—a classy lady. Her skin is a smooth, rich, milk-chocolate color, and she gets her hair done every week at a salon.
Couldn’t believe it when I found out she was fifty and a grandmother.
(I should be so lucky to look like that when Josh and Amanda have kids.) I feel like a country bumpkin when I’m around her. My nondescript dark brown hair never could hold a “style,” so I just wear it at shoulder level with bangs and hope for the best.
Not only that, but when we moved from suburban Downers Grove into the city last summer, I applied to teach in one of the public schools in the Rogers Park neighborhood of Chicago, where we live now, and ended up at Mary McLeod Bethune Elementary, where Avis Johnson just happened to be the principal.Weird calling her “Avis” on Sunday and “Ms. Johnson” on Monday.
Avis is one of Uptown Community’s worship leaders and has tried to wean its motley congregation of former Presbyterians, Baptists, “Evee-Frees,” Methodists, Brethren, and No-Churchers from the hymnbook and “order of service” to actually participating in worship. I love the way she quotes Scripture, too, not only from the New Testament, but also from those mysterious Minor Prophets, and Job, and the Pentateuch. I mean, I know a lot of Scripture, but for some reason I have a hard time remembering those pesky references, even though I’ve been in Sunday school since singing “Climb, Climb Up Sunshine Mountain” in the toddler class.
People at Uptown want to be “relevant” in an urban setting, which means cultivating a diverse congregation, but most of us, including yours truly, aren’t too comfortable shouting in church and start to fidget when the service goes past twelve o’clock—both of which seem par for Sunday morning in black churches. Don’t know why Avis stays at Uptown sometimes. Pastor Clark, bless him, has a vision, but for most of us transplants, our good intentions come with all the presumptions we brought from suburbia.
But she says God called her to Uptown, and Pastor Clark preaches the Word. She’ll stay until God tells her to go.
Denny and me—we’ve only been at the church since last summer. That’s when Honorable Husband decided it was time white folks—meaning us, as it turned out—moved back into the city rather than doing good deeds from our safe little enclaves in the suburbs. Denny had been volunteering with Uptown’s “outreach” program for over ten years, ever since the kids were little, driving into the city about once a month from Downers Grove. It was so hard for me to leave the church and people we’ve known most of our married life. But Denny said we couldn’t hide forever in our comfort zone. So . . . we packed up the dog, the teenagers, and the Plymouth Voyager, exchanged our big yard for a postage stamp, and shoehorned ourselves into a two-flat—Chicago’s version of a duplex—on Chicago’s north side.
But frankly? I don’t really know what we’re doing here. Uptown Community Church has a few black members and one old Chinese lady who comes from time to time . . . but we’re still mostly white in one of the most diverse neighborhoods in the U.S.—Rogers Park, Chicago. Josh says at his high school cafeteria, the black kids sit with the black kids, Latino kids sit with Latinos, nerds sit with nerds, whites with whites, Asians with Asians.
Not exactly a melting pot. And the churches aren’t much better. Maybe worse.
In Des Moines, Iowa, where my family lives, I grew up on missionary stories from around the world—the drumbeats of Africa . . .the rickshaws of China . . . the forests of Ecuador. Somehow it was so easy to imagine myself one day sitting on a stool in the African veld, surrounded by eager black faces, telling Bible stories with flannel-graph figures. Once, when I told Denny about my fantasy, he snorted and said we better learn how to relate across cultures in our own city before winging across the ocean to “save the natives.”
He’s right, of course. But it’s not so easy. Most of the people I’ve met in the neighborhood are friendly—friendly, but not friends. Not the kick-back, laugh-with-your-girlfriends, be-crazy, cry-when-you’re-sad, talk-on-the-phone-five-times-a-week kind of friends I had in Downers Grove. And the black couple who lived upstairs? (DINKS, Josh called them: Double-Income-No Kids.) They barely give us the time of day unless something goes wrong with the furnace.
So when Avis asked if I’d like to go to this women’s conference sponsored by a coalition of Chicago area churches, I said yes. I felt flattered that she thought I’d fit in, since I generally felt like sport socks with high heels. I determined to go. At worst I’d waste a weekend (and two hundred bucks). At best, I might make a friend—or at least get to know Avis better.
THE LOBBY OF THE EMBASSY SUITES HOTEL in Chicago’s northwest suburbs was packed with women. An intense hum rose and fell, like a tree full of cicadas. “Girl! I didn’t know you were coming!” . . . “Where’s Shirlese? I’m supposed to be roomin’ with her.” . . . “Look at you! That outfit is fine!” . . . “Pool? Not after spending forty-five dollars at the salon this morning, honey.Who you kiddin’?”
Avis and I wiggled our Mutt and Jeff selves through the throng of perfumed bodies and presented our reservations at the desk.
“Jodi Baxter? And . . . Avis Johnson. You’re in Suite 206.” The clerk handed over two plastic key cards. “If you’re here for the Chicago Women’s Conference”—she added with a knowing smile—“you can pick up your registration packet at that table right over there.”
Avis let me forge a path back through the cicada convention to a long table with boxes of packets marked A–D, E–H, all the way to W–Z. As we were handed our packets emblazoned with CWC in curlicue calligraphy, I noticed a bright gold sticker in the righthand corner of mine with the number 26 written in black marker.
I glanced at the packet being given to the woman standing next to me at the A-D box who gave her name as “Adams, Paulette”—but her gold sticker had the number 12.
“What’s this?” I asked the plump girl behind the registration table, pointing to the number.
“Oh, that.” Miss Helpful smiled sweetly. “They’ll explain the numbers at the first session. Don’t worry about it . . . Can I help you?” She turned to the next person in line.
Humph. I didn’t want to wait till the first session. I was nervous enough surrounded by women who seemed as comfortable in a crowd of strangers as if it were Thanksgiving at Grandma’s. I didn’t want any “surprises.” Avis waved her packet at me over the heads of five women crowding up to the table between us and nodded toward the elevators. We met just as the door to Elevator Two pinged open, and we wheeled our suitcases inside.
“What number did you get?”
“On your packet, right-hand corner, gold sticker.”
“Oh.” Avis turned over the packet she was clutching in one hand, along with her plastic key card, purse strap, and travel-pack of tissues. “Twenty-six.What’s it for?”
I smiled big and relaxed. “I don’t know. They’ll tell us the first session.”Whatever it was, I was with Avis.
As it turned out, we didn’t need our key cards. The door to Suite 206 stood ajar. Avis and I looked at each other and stole inside like the Three Bears coming home after their walk in the woods. The sitting room part of the suite was empty. However, through the French doors leading into the bedroom, we could see “Goldilocks” sitting on the king-size bed painting her toenails while WGCI gospel music blared from the bedside radio.
The stranger looked up. “Oh, hi!” She waved the tiny polish brush in our direction. “Don’t mind me. Make yourselves at home.”
We stood and stared. The woman was average height, darkskinned, and lean, with a crown of little black braids sporting a rainbow of beads falling down all around her head. Thirties, maybe forties; it was hard to tell. Her smile revealed a row of perfect teeth, but a scar down the side of her face belied an easy life.
Avis was braver than I was and said what I was thinking. “Uh, are we in the right room? We didn’t know we had another roommate.”
The woman cocked her head. “Oh! They didn’t tell you at registration? Suite 206, right?” She capped the nail polish and bounced off the bed. “Florida Hickman—call me Flo.” She stuck out her hand. “Avis and Jodi, right? That’s what they tol’ me downstairs. Anyway, I was going to room with this sister, see, but she had to cancel, and I didn’t want to pay for a whole suite all by myself. Had to sell the kids just to get here as it is.” She laughed heartily. Then her smile faded and she cocked her head. “You don’t mind, do you? I mean . . . I don’t need this whole king-size football field to myself. Unless . . .” Her forehead wrinkled. “You want me to sleep on the fold-out couch?”
My good-girl training rushed to my mouth before I knew what I was saying. “Oh, no, no, that’s okay.We don’t mind.” Do we, Avis? I was afraid to look in Avis’s direction.We had pretty much agreed driving out that since it was a suite, we could each have a “room” to ourselves. Avis was definitely not the stay-up-late, sleepover type.
“Oh. Well, sure,” Avis said. “It’s just that no one told us.” I didn’t know Avis all that well, but that wasn’t enthusiasm in her voice. “I’ll sleep on the fold-out,” she added, wheeling her suitcase over to the luggage stand.
I noticed that she didn’t say “we.” I stood uncertainly. But our new friend had generously offered the other side of the mammoth bed, so I dragged my suitcase into the bedroom and plopped it on the floor on the other side of Florida’s nail salon.
Well, this was going to be interesting. I had thought it would be quite an adventure to get to know Avis as my roommate for the weekend. As members of the same church, this was a chance to get beyond the niceties of Sunday morning and brush our teeth in the same sink. But I hadn’t counted on a third party. God knows I wanted to broaden my horizons, but this was moving a little faster than I felt ready for.
As I hung up the dress I hoped would pass for “after five” in the narrow closet, I suddenly had a thought. “Florida, what number is on your registration packet?”
Florida finished her big toe and looked at it critically.
“Number? . . . Oh, you mean that gold sticker thing on the front?”
She looked over the side of the bed where she’d dumped her things. “Um . . . twenty-six.Why?”