— Pema Chödrön (via goldleafed)
To be wonderful and sit in silence in a corner waiting for the world to come to you… that is an unfortunate thing.
What My Assumption Revealed
This was going to be my last project at VCU, and it was supposed to be site specific. I had something in mind, but my idea was shot down by that professor (so I did it anyway, but not for that class). I decided to keep an open mind…
One day when I was walking Matilda through the neighborhood I lived in at the time, Jacksonward… I remember it was a beautiful day, the kind that moves pretty slow. As I was crossing the street a breeze came by and… I dunno sometimes the breeze can make such pretty imagery like when leaves and flowers drift also drift along. I commented on it to a stranger on the corner who saw the same thing. Then the stranger commented on my smile. He started talking to me, and we got pretty deep very quickly. I felt like I already knew him, even though I’d never seen him before. We ended up talking in the same place, on that corner, for close to an hour. We talked about a lot of things… lots about spirituality and humanity. At some point he told me that he had to meet up with his mother, and he started talking about her. How she basically ran the family farm that had been in the family for generations. As soon as he said his mom had a stand at 17th Street Farmer’s Market I knew exactly who he was talking about. I remembered talking to his mother at the market months ago, and she was so… vast and kind. I told him that I knew his mom, and he was so happy. He was this big, tall guy.. the definition of jolly, and his smile was BRIGHT! His smile got even brighter when I said I knew his mom, he was so excited that we also had that connection. So before he left he took a paper and wrote down his mother’s telephone number, and he also left his. I gave him mine. Then we hugged and said our good-byes.
I got a phone call from him later on, and he left me a kind voicemail… he said that I was a special person and to never stop smiling, and that God will always be watching out for me. He told me that I had made his day, and he had told his friends about me and they said that I sounded like I was really nice and a special friend. I was taken aback that a someone I had just met felt compelled to say something like that to me, and so I called back.
When I called back it went to voicemail, but I couldn’t make out what it said. Then I got a call back from a different number than what he had given me, but it was similar. So I called that number back. After about 2 days of some back and forth calling lol, and me being slightly confused—two times my call went through to a person, but I couldn’t understand. I thought I had gotten the wrong number for some reason. Then I was in class, and when we were taking a 15 min. break I got another phone call from one of the numbers so I answered… and it was him! He said he was happy to hear from me, and then he got a serious tone (but he still sounded jolly anyway) and he said he had to be honest with me. I don’t know what to expect, so I’m just like.. “ok”. He said, “remember when I said I was out and about, and waiting on my mom to be done with her hair appt.?… well, the truth is that I was out with my mom, but I was out and about because I was using one of my ‘outing passes’.” He had explained to me that he had just gotten out of jail, and was in a transition program at the Red Roof Inn (you know that place?). He told me why he had been in jail. And he said he was sorry that he lied to me, and that he would’ve told me just that he didn’t think it was right for him to say that to me since he had just met me. But he didn’t like lying to me, and he wanted me to know. Initially, I was shocked, but I really appreciated his honesty. All of a sudden emotion hit me, and I started to cry (not hysterically)… I just thought, wow I think something really intense just came into my life. So my break was over and I had to go.
Then I started thinking… the Red Roof Inn..? I knew that place had a bad reputation. It just boggled my mind that they would put a transition program for people coming out of jail in a place that’s known for housing crime. It just didn’t make sense. I talked to my new friend a few more times, but I also realized that I had just made friends with a complete stranger and sometimes I can be pretty naive.
BUT I decided that I wanted to do my on-site project at the Red Roof Inn. Part of me wanted to investigate, and something was calling me. I had told my professor about it, and he was saying that I should sleep in a room there for the night.. for the sake of being “authentic”, to really know the place I guess. Apparently my professor was sick of where my work was coming from, and he was under the impression that my work was deceptive (at one point he gave me the silent treatment for a week, and that was really weird). I was nervous about that idea though because of what I’d heard. My dad stayed there once, and he said he felt unsafe. I told my dad that I intended on staying there for the night, but I asked him if he could stay with me. He was hesitant, but he agreed.
The phone calls from the new friend I had made started to become incessant, and they crossed my comfort line. So I had asked him to stop calling, and I let him know how I felt. He said he didn’t mean to cause any harm, but that he needed a friend. I understood that, but I let him know that at that moment I couldn’t be the kind of friend he needed. My heart really went out to him, but I also felt that the weight he carried was incredibly heavy and I didn’t think I could handle it at the time.
It was strange… I was planning on doing my project at the Red Carpet Inn (across from Diversity Thrift), but without telling the guy. It was weird tip-toeing around like that, and later on I realized that I didn’t need to do that. It’s so much easier to be up front. So the day me and my dad were going to stay there, when we were heading over there my dad said that he wasn’t going to stay there for the night but that we could stay there for a few hours. I was fine with that.
When we got there… it felt very surreal. I had thought so much about this place, I knew Rodney was there (this was after I told him how I felt about our friendship), and I wasn’t sure what to expect because of all of the things I’d heard. It was quiet though, but still seemed a little sketch. So I walked into one of the rooms that had the door open.. it had been converted into an office. I spoke to the man at the desk, and let him know I was there for an art project through VCU. He heard me out and redirected me to the small office (if I can call it that) next door, to speak to the hotel manager. I spoke to him, and then he bluntly asked me if I was filming a porno. lol I was like… what?? no? Then he passed it off as a joke. I’m pretty sure it wasn’t though because then later on he asked me if I was going to be using the bed. I had explained to him that I would only need a room for a few hours (I wanted to film.. but not a porno lol). He said that because I was student he would just hold a $10 deposit for the room, then when I was done using it, I let him know, and he would come up and check it out and I would get my cash back. So basically I could use the room for free.
He led us to the second floor, and as he was walking up the stairs he mentioned to me, “You know this isn’t like the Marriott or something..” and I was like “I know”
We got to the room, and I started getting the equipment ready to film. I started going through the room. When I film, I don’t really have much of a plan.. I don’t try to force any ideas. Not much was coming to me, at least not enough for me to make a video. But I knew that something brought me there, so I stayed. I started filming, and I ran out of tape. So my dad said he could leave me there, and he’d go to the store to pick up some more. I was fine with that, and I remember it was such a nice evening that I left the door open. I felt safe.
I just kind of sat in the room, taking it all in. I heard gospel music coming from a TV from the room next door. I thought about my dad’s friend who stayed there once and bullets went through the wall. I kept thinking how this place was so different than what I made it out to be (although I know that the seediness did exist). I thought about how I was such an outsider, till I actually went there. Real people, real lives… I knew that this project was not meant for film. So I waited for my dad to get back, and I was pretty much done. I knew what I wanted to do.
We called the hotel manager to let him know we were done using the room, so he came up and checked it out. We let him know that this was so different than what we expected. Then he started opening up about what they were trying to do with the place… then he mentioned the program. It’s called Pilgrims Passage by the way. It’s a program that helps homeless people and people coming from jail to transition back to the community and help them find a job, which is especially hard to do after you’ve just been released from jail. I told him that I knew someone in the program.. Rodney. And he was saying that “yess, he’s a good guy!” He asked if he wanted me to let him know I was there. I told him no, that’s okay. We walked downstairs, and he gave me the deposit money back. And I told him what I wanted to do. I decided that I would do a dance improv performance piece in one of the rooms for my class. So the manager told me that I would need to contact the director of the program, Pilgrim’s Passage, to run it through him since it is a government program after all. So I got the info I needed to do that.
On our way out, the same guy who seemed to be loitering when I first got there was still there. He was friendly with the office manager, and he seemed like an okay guy. He had a hard time getting around, and he could use a ride home. He lived in north side, which wasn’t too far. So my dad and I gave him a ride home. He was talking the whole time in the backseat, and he asked what brought us to the Red Carpet Inn. I told him my experience, and that I learned about making assumptions and expectations… that you don’t really know till you experience it for yourself. We dropped him off, and me and my dad were just really moved by that whole evening. I mean, when it comes down to it… when I’m really living is when I quiet my mind. It’s nice to just be open, without pre-judgements, thought upon thoughts.. just taking it in for what it is.
I thought more about my project, and what I was inspired to do… and I wanted to share the impact (at least a part of it) that I felt in my life with my class. I decided to call my friend Steph, and ask if she wanted to collaborate… she’s my incredibly talented friend who studies opera. I remembered that the last time I had seen her in a solo recital.. just hearing her voice, the sheer sincerity and beauty of it brought me to tears. She loved the idea, and agreed! So we collaborated, and it was a bit difficult since we were doing improv, and she’s so classically trained. But eventually she was able to let go, and just make free-flowing sounds with her powerful voice. We were excited for the critique day!
I had coordinated with Pilgrim’s Passage, and I didn’t get the final word till the morning OF! I admit, I started freaking out lol. The reason I don’t have any documentation of the piece is because no photographs, film or anything that might’ve put their clients (the people in the program) in jeopardy were not permitted. That was fine by me. I had asked my professor not to disclose that the “Red Carpet Inn” location was my project. Some people in that class had their misled opinions of me because of what the professor had said before. I thought that initially obscuring myself from the project was very much in alignment with the spirit of what went on behind the project. I remember hearing some classmates express their caution about going over there. I kept quiet, but I knew it was safe. So I rode my bike over there, met up with the rest of the class… my friend was running late. When we got there though I met up with the coordinator, and then it started to become a little bit more clear to my classmates. Then they started asking, “this is yours?!” with surprise. But my professor and all of them still had no idea… and neither did I. The next thing you know, I had another curve ball thrown at me. When I had spoken to the director of the program he understood that I was not only performing for my class, but for the people in the program as well. So they were already gathering everyone into the room where me and my friend would perform—their community room. At that point, what could I do? I couldn’t turn around and say no. And to be honest, inside I felt like that’s what I should do. That’s the reason I was guided there after all.
My friend finally arrived, and everyone was gathered in this very small room. Imagine around 20-25 people standing around the perimeter of a small rectangular room. No one is really sure what’s going on. I stand in the center of the somewhat circle, and my friend Steph stands in one of the corner’s of the room since there was no other space left. Then… we both began. My movements and her voice bounced off of each other, reflecting what each of us would do, and more. Inside of me I felt everything that had happened through the experience, I felt my connection with Rodney, with Steph, with my class, and everyone else that was in that tiny, crowded room. The thing I felt the most though was hope. I don’t know how long the performance lasted, since it wasn’t timed… but it certainly lived a life of its own.
Rodney wasn’t there that morning, not sure where he was. However, I ended up getting a surprise phone call from him one day… many months later. I had actually just moved to New York. It was so good to hear from him, and he told me that the church he had been attending helped him get a home. They were even able to donate some furniture to him as well. He told me he got a job, and then he asked about my life. And he said that he would love to come visit NY. He said he could use the computer now, since he could go to the library. I asked for his address… and I want to find the piece of paper now… I think it has his number on it as well. I told him about the project, and he said he wished he could’ve been there.
Afterwards when it was time to critique it in class… one of my peers said that despite me being this “beautiful, young lady” moving her body in the center of a circle of people he observed that no one seemed to be objectifying me with their looks, that it was pure beauty on its own. And that all expectations went out the window, and it was really neat that everyone was standing on the same ground. It was really refreshing to him because it’s not something that happens a lot. After the performance, some people in the program stayed and spoke with me… they appreciated being able to watch it, and were moved. One man was especially touched, and he shared his aspirations and more of his mind. It was really neat what ended up happening though… I think it was helpful for the people in the program in their transition as well… to bridge that gap, and to know that they inspired something. It was just nice to see everyone connect after that
After that piece I started wondering, and it didn’t seem like the circle was quite closed. The piece was certainly ephemeral, but I think it left an imprint in some shape or form. I considered perhaps starting a community program that would focus on connecting in a way that gets everyone to see each other more as humans, no matter the social background. Something that is mutually beneficial for everyone involved—not just a giving and receiving one way street. The possibility of involving even maybe the school and the arts. There was some talk of starting a garden there that would eventually produce enough to start a small weekly farmer’s market… a way to bring the community together, and break that barrier down. But, for now.. I’ve left Richmond, BUT it’s not the only place.