Sisters from South Central
By Dell Franklin
I had a good idea who it was going to be when I got an early morning call to Greyhound: black women who rode the bus up from L.A. or down from Oakland/Richmond to visit husbands and boyfriends in the California Mens Colony out on the edge of town. These gals took the red-eye and arrived at the depot around 8 a.m. Often, they were young and attractive and oozing sex appeal. They dressed in their finest out-fits, walked with a strut and did not try to hide the angry, tough, hard ghetto glares that split their otherwise pretty faces. They spent some time in the dingy depot restroom primping, shaping their hair and straightening clothes before settling in my cab, always four of them, bringing with them strong scents of perfume. I wondered if they were visiting drug dealers or pimps, armed robbers or murderers, but never asked, realizing these women lived lives too hard for me to fathom, -being white and lazing in fat, colorless San Luis Obispo.
I could not help but study their smoky eyes in the mirror.
“What you lookin’ at, white-boy?”
I was 43 years old. “Nothin’, hon.”
“How comes y’all wearin’ them funky shades with a safety pin hold ‘em togethah, huh? Who dress y’all?” They all giggled.
“My mother dressed me until I was about 12, and it’s been downhill ever since.” When there was no response, I said: “So how you doing this morning?”
“How my doin’? Sheeeit. Mothafuckin’ bus stop in ev’ry little town ‘long the way. Ain’t nowhere to eat. Ain’t nevah takin’ that nasty bus up here again see MY man. He gon wait ‘til he get his black ass out.”
“You be back,” grumbled one of the sisters.
“You got that right,” added another.
They gazed at the countryside as we pulled out of town, up High-way 1. They could never get over how much land there was, and how green it was in winter.
“Girl, I movin’ up here, soon as I get me enough cash.”
“Hey, boy, how much it cost rent a house up here?”
“Plenty. And you won’t like it, either.”
“How you know that?”
“It’s too white. Only black folks up here are Cal Poly athletes and the brothers they let out of prison from the honor farm to clean the roadsides. Oh, there’s a black lady lives up here with her three kids. I take her to the market once a week. Her husband drives a garbage truck down in L.A. all week and drives up here weekends, so she and the kids can live in this nice white town. Peaceful. No gangs. Very little crime. But she says there’s nobody to talk to, nobody speaks her language. Says she misses her old neighborhood.”
I dropped them off, like so many others, at CMC East, where the harder core criminals reside. The four ladies strode toward the office, where they had to take the end of a long, long line on a very warm morning, waiting to be checked in and inspected before spending a few precious hours with guys who had years to serve, guys in blue pants and blue work shirts with scowls and weight-lifting arms and shoulders.
Back at the bus depot, another woman waited for me — Reese. A heavyset black lady who ran a government office in L.A. and had two children and was waiting for her husband to finish an eight-year armed robbery conviction and go straight — a man who had a year or so to go and had become a born-again Christian. Reese usually came alone, but this time brought her young teenage son and daughter and wanted to stop at the supermarket to pick up supplies for a conjugal visit with her husband in one of the trailers outside prison, where couples spend 48 hours together twice or three times a year.
Reese had to wait. I had to tear to the airport and drive a pilot to a downtown motel room and then stop at a bar and transport a morn-ing drunk home, and when I finally got around to Reese she was in a dither, having already lost about two hours of visiting time with her anxiously waiting husband. Like the other ladies, who’d obviously gotten to the phone quicker, she had taken the all-nighter. She was in a terrible huff, and having trouble with her moody, scowling children, who grumbled about their discomfort and the already stifling heat, both of them decked out in stiff, spanking new Wal-Mart duds. Reese was in what appeared to be her newest, best dress. Sweat rolled down her burnished chocolate face and ran her mascara and make-up, and this large earth mother showed signs of cracking, perhaps crying, perhaps screaming at the misery of it all.
“Where were you, baby?”
“Sorry, Reese. We’re backed up, running late. Two cabs are down. It’s just a mess. I’m all alone.”
“Well, you cool down now. We’ll make it.”
Somehow she always cheered me up, and I cheered her up. She sat up front, window down, staring out while I swerved around town, the kids shifting and grimacing in the back, halting in front of the super-market where she needed to buy groceries for the feast to be cooked for her family.
“You be back in fifteen minutes now, baby. You be here?”
“I’ll try my hardest, Reese.” It took me a few minutes to take out three large suitcases from the trunk and stack them in front of the supermarket where the boy was to guard them while white people shuffled in and out, sneaking furtive glances at his sullen presence, his hair wet and glistening, new clothes blotched with sweat at the armpits, the boy growling and hating his new environment. Just as I pulled away he began shouting at Reese, who tore into him, humbling the boy to the point where he skulked off and sat by himself on a bench near an elderly white woman who skulked away, very uneasy and close to panic.
I didn’t get back to them for more than half an hour. Reese was with the kids, at the bench, beside the stack of luggage and two full carts of food, enough to feed a battalion. Again I lifted the luggage and stacked it in the trunk. Then we started with the bags of meat and poultry and fish and gallon jugs of juices and milk and soft drinks and produce and cookies and chips and condiments …
There wasn’t enough room. Reese had another spat with the boy, threatening to whack him and leave him here, and this was when I stepped in, took charge, a true cab pilot. I told Reese to calm down and instructed the two kids to sit in the back. Then Reese and I began to carefully stack the bags on the two children, until only their heads peeped above the massive jumble of bags. Then I seated Reese shotgun and stacked the last of the bags on her, and she flashed me a weary smile and chuckled, and sighed, saying it was almost over, they were almost home free, and oh wasn't this beautiful country, such a nice day in such a nice place, and she turned around and told her kids that soon they would see their daddy, everything gonna be okay.
She reapplied her makeup and primped her hair in a hand mirror as we climbed the last mile up the hill, and at CMC East we parked, and a prisoner wheeled up a huge sled for her goodies. It took us a while to fill it up, and afterwards Reese paid and tipped me a buck, patting my hand with heartfelt appreciation that left me feeling truly humbled, and blessed. She was the only one of these black women who ever tipped, and it made up for all those who couldn’t, or wouldn’t tip, for whatever reason.
At the front of the slow-going line, the four black women spotted me, and waved. One of them shouted that she wanted me back here at 3:30 p.m. sharp, when visiting hours ended, so I could drive them to one of the cheaper hotels in town that catered to prison visitors for special rates.
I returned to CMC at 3:30 after considerable scuffling — -sweaty, tense, drained — but they were nowhere to be seen. As I pulled out, I saw them sitting in a sedan driven by another black woman. As usual, they had used me for insurance while soliciting a better ride. Well, who could blame them?
Later that evening I saw them on the streets in downtown San Luis. They waved and demandingly flagged me down. They complained about the rude stares they’d been getting, the honks and ugly comments from college boys (“How come you’re not KFC?”) and other wise guys, and about the police, who’d stopped and asked them where they were from and what were they doing in San Luis Obispo.
“Like we ‘hos,” fumed one of them.
“We ain't no ‘hos,” said another. “We come t’ see our men.”
They were going back to their room to have pizza and watch TV, and they wanted me to pick them up the next morning to get them to the prison early so they would not have to wait so long in line, because the process of moving them into the visiting area took forever, with officials inspecting them for drugs and various contraband, shuttling then like cattle as they strained at the leash for precious moments with their loved ones. I said I’d try, and I did, as always, showing up at their motel early, but they were gone, probably with the same sister who had helped them earlier. If they were smart they’d finagle a ride with her back to L.A., too, and skip the dreaded Greyhound.
As for Reese, well, I’d be there for her in 24 hours. She always requested me as her personal cabby, and it always made me feel special to be there for her. §
Dell Franklin is the publisher of The Rogue Voice. He can be reached at email@example.com. Read more of his "Cabby's Corner" series: