In the Light of What I See

We step out of the Red Line on to the platform on the 79th street stop, its narrowness heightened by the people rushing in and out of the train and the drone like sounds of cars speeding across the Dan Ryan expressway that flanks both sides of the station. Lonnie and I stand to a side, waiting for the people to pass. I rest against a white pillar under the digital displays that show the weather and advertise products. Though the sun has set it’s not dark yet and I can see the towers of the Urban Partnership Bank, North and East of where I stand, the tail lights of the cars leading me in that direction as they whizz through the underpass into darkness. I find the narrowness of train platforms in Chicago disconcerting and often find myself standing to the side, sometimes on my toes, head down in concentration, momentarily stilled by the movement around me, waiting for a cue to start walking again. We stand quietly, difficult, as it is to talk through the noise around us, also because Lonnie is cautious when speaking to me with others close by. Though visibly tired, Lonnie is calm, his right hand gently lifted, suggesting a pause in the sentence he had started as we were stepping off the train.

As the train departs northwards, the station clears, and Lonnie and I walk towards the escalator on the lower level of the platform. Continuing our conversation on Plato’s Cave, Lonnie says that he sees the prisoners in the cave as a symbol of his people, chained, unable to discern between the real and the unreal, imagining the absurd to be normal. I’m not sure I understand. 

“Mr V”, he says, shifting the conversation to Osho (referring to him as Bhagwan), as he sometimes does in order to bridge his world to mine, “Do you know what Bhagwan says about photography? Let me put it this way… you remember my girlfriend?” 

 “The one who was shot?” 

 “No, the friend I travel with each year… we used to be girlfriend and boyfriend once… we’re good friends now. When we traveled across America, to small towns, cities, she was always taking photographs.” 

 We stop briefly at the top of the steps near the ticket vending machines. Lonnie hands me the Ventra card he had found earlier in the day and I check the balance on the card for him by tapping it on the sensor of the vending machine. I tell him it doesn’t work. The magnetic strip at the back of the card is visibly peeling off suggesting that someone must have thrown it. 

Walking towards the bus stop, Lonnie finishes his thought on photography, “You know I could remember all the little details of our travels, the places we visited… and she would say, how do you remember that? The thing is I was there, the photographs are inside me… the photographs only make these memories more vivid for me”. Smiling (he knows I’m a photographer), Lonnie gently pats my shoulder. 

We wait a few minutes at the bus stop before Lonnie’s bus arrives. I realize I have to be elsewhere for an appointment in half an hour and excuse myself to head back to the Red Line station to head north. “Call me”, he says as he enters the bus to go home. 

Each time I leave Lonnie, I am left with strands of thoughts, little morsels of experience in a larger history that I have to piece together. That my conversations with Lonnie are often unfinished, interrupted and shifted by a more urgent thought, a building, an experience or an invisible marker in the immediate landscape doesn’t always make sense but often leaves me with much to fill, poignant silences in a musical piece that shifts both in time and fury. 

“Obama had his head in the people but Harold Washington, he had his heart in the people…” 

“Richard Daly sold the city down the train…” 

“I saw it (Cabrini Green) coming down… they did not want no black people living there…they want to make all of Chicago look like San Francisco”  

“We’ve been taught to hate each other… programmed to do so” “Did you know the Blackstone Rangers?”

“You know who hit the longest home run, Josh Gibson, you ever heard of him” 

“Write it down on the top of the page The H U N T I N G of Billie Holiday” 

“My girlfriend before she passed gave me a book on Michael Jackson, so I have an appreciation of him… because of her” 

“Accepting death doesn’t mean you’ve mourned it” 

To be fair to Lonnie, these thoughts weren’t incomplete or isolated, as they appear to be here, this is what remained, words and sentences in my notebook as I struggled to follow Lonnie, not unlike the marks Bearden made on paper listening to music, each complete but not quite without the marks on the rest of the page. To most of Lonnie’s questions I responded in the negative, often unknowing of the weight of his words and the worlds they referred to. I was familiar with the figures Lonnie spoke of but only from a distance, a continental distance, unlike the distance that brings clarity to an experience. In Lonnie’s case he had lived the experience. My memory of our first few meetings is sitting on a bench in a park, a cup of Mc Donald’s coffee by my side writing to keep pace with Lonnie as he walked in an arc around the bench, rocking back and forth, his hands enunciating his words as he spoke to me. He was like a boxer, maybe Sugar Ray Robinson reliving his years in the ring who like Lonnie was a “man of music”, particularly jazz, music “that moved him, curled his mind into delicate introspection and observation.” I think Lonnie would appreciate the analogy to Sugar Ray, though more for his love of jazz than his boxing prowess; Lonnie loves jazz and among other things, jazz is what we speak of most. We make an odd couple, sitting on benches, on the El in different parts of the city, man and scribe, as Lonnie thoughtfully articulates complex histories and I try to keep up with this movement in time and space. 

 On our third meeting Lonnie mentions that he likes talking to me, telling me stories, his stories in the hope that I would share them with others and with his people too. It is the latter that I believe is most urgent to him. For my part, the conversations with Lonnie challenge the understanding of what I see, of what I photograph in parts of the city, spaces that often seem walled to the outsider, deserted streets, closed doors and windows that reveal little of what lies inside, their past of absence and presence. Lonnie breathes life into these spaces, speaking images, enmeshed in personal experience and histories. 

When I first saw Lonnie, he was sitting at the back of a bus holding a book at a measured distance, one end of his glasses hanging from his pursed lips like a pipe. He had a scruffy graying beard, wore loose fitting jeans, a beige jacket, and a hat with a bow across it. He was reading a Sinclair Lewis book, It Can’t Happen Here. The blurb at the back of the tattered book caught my eye. I asked him about the book as a way to start a conversation. A friend joined him shaking his hands asking where he had been. To his friend he remarked, “He’s talking to me because he thinks I’m not the average Negro… reading a book”. I protested and said that it was the book that intrigued me. He changed the subject and asked where I was from. 

“India” I said. 

“Ah do you know Bhagwan, Osho…?” 

We began a short conversation on Pune where Rajneesh, or Osho as he is known has a large sprawling ashram. Lonnie’s brother had been to Pune, to the ashram, as a disciple of Bhagwan. He asked if I knew the Dhammapada, a Buddhist text he was familiar with. A little surprised, I said I was aware of it but admitted I knew little about the teachings in the text. He smiled, gathered his books and a publication I had handed him from my bag— a story about how the Chicago Police Department covered up for a gang of criminal cops. I decided to step out with him to attempt to continue our conversation. The book in his hand, written in the 30’s, was about a populist senator who is elected to the presidency. The cover at the back had a Nazi swastika and a blurb with a reference to racism. This is what had caught my attention first. Stepping out on the pavement together, I asked if it was possible to talk to him or meet another day for coffee. 

A few people walked past us, walking closer as they neared us. We stood out in the mix of people on the street. I placed my notebook in my bag. 

He leaned in and said, “Wait here, I’ll just be back”. I stood at the corner of 79th and S Eberhardt across the road from Sandra’s African braids where a poster of women in different hairstyles was pasted on the glass front. 

He returned and suggested we get a coffee at the Mc Donalds near King Drive and then sit in the park adjacent to the elementary school across the road. He called me Mr V, clarifying that he would like to address me by name but as my name sounds too foreign to his tongue, as of yet. This was important to him. He did not introduce himself to me. I only knew his name thanks to his friends who addressed him when we met them on the street. 

As Lonnie entered the Mc Donalds, he told me he was conscious of how he presented himself, a reference to his appearance and to a sense of paranoia that he has developed as a defense mechanism over the years. He is aware that talking to me on the street attracts unnecessary attention. He says he knows how to present himself in every State in the United States, adding, that it is only when he leaves the United States that he feels American. Then too he is conscious about how America is perceived given its presence in other parts of the world. This acute sense of self has held him in good stead and protected him from many dangers. 

He used to dress better when he first moved to the South Side, wear a suit, a tie, making an effort to dress respectably. But “when you do that you’re a target… people think you see yourself as better than them… that you probably have more than them… I don’t want to get stopped for money… it’s not that I have any more than anyone else”.