Long ago, I realized that some of my most memorable experiences were those resulting from my choice to do something alone despite hesitating when I couldn’t find someone to join me. Now, I rarely hesitate. One such event occurred two decades ago when I was temporarily immersed in, really, embraced by, Black American culture, an experience that gave me insight into a world, an ethos, a way of interacting, that was new, exhilarating, inclusive, and life-affirming.
I was at a conference in Chicago and needed to escape its stultifying intellectual atmosphere one Friday evening. I decided to go to Buddy Guy’s Legends because, well, it’s the only good downtown blues club. Everyone I checked with was busy – dinner plans, email answering, talk preparation – so I went alone. I arrived early because I knew eventually it would be standing-room-only and I wanted to sit at a table and eat dinner. Nowadays, Buddy’s is primarily a tourist joint with a cover charge, but it attracts stellar musicians, mainly local. Sometimes, Buddy himself plays.
The free, dinner-hour band was playing when I arrived and there were several unoccupied tables. I sat down at a table near the stage off to the side and looked around. Mostly black customers, which was unusual. But I noticed the blues harpist Billy Branch was having a CD-release party that evening and guessed that friends and family had come to celebrate. The next table, full and gregarious, certainly had. A model-beautiful woman, Pippi Ardennia, asked me if I would mind saving two seats for friends that were coming later. “Of course not,” I replied.
The place gradually filled as I enjoyed my ‘blackened blue burger’ and a beer. A my-aged gentleman arrived and surveyed the space for an available seat. His gaze landed on my table, the only one with three empty chairs. I had already turned away several couples and was beginning to feel awkward about being the only white woman seated in the club, the only one occupying a table for four by herself. I worried it might appear presumptuous. ‘James’ (I don’t remember his name) approached and inquired if a seat were free and if I minded his joining me. “No, please,” I invited gesturing to the seat beside me. “I’m saving two seats for that table,” I explained, motioning toward my new friend. “Besides, every seat will be filled eventually by either friends or strangers,” I added, hoping to convey a subtext of I wasn’t interested in hooking up, in case he wondered. The thoughts women alone have! James was a polite man who wore a tweed jacket, dark shirt, and tie. He explained that he played trumpet and was a friend of Billy’s from Detroit and had driven directly from work.
Although I’ve had African descent colleagues, friends, neighbors, and teachers and have occasionally found myself the only white person on the 2 train to Brooklyn, I never before had been in a Black social environment. The atmosphere at Buddy’s felt different than usual – electric and communal. Billy’s supporters surrounding the stage, many of whom knew each other, generated a friendly, informal atmosphere.
Billy arrived before the opening band began as did Pippi’s friends. Billy came directly to our corner of the club shaking hands, hugging and kissing. Including me. I think he and others figured I was James’s date. So, there I was, part of the gang. And it felt grand!
The opening band started. After the first song, the singer arrived, apparently a friend of Pippi’s since she smiled and nodded in her direction. The singer had a sexy, powerful voice and walked back and forth along the edge of the stage, interacting with her audience. I had only experienced that before at comedy clubs. A kind of jovial informality reigned that to me was unfamiliar from many earlier visits. With white audiences there is a clear boundary between audience and performer that doesn’t seem to exist with black audiences. I liked this participatory feeling; it felt familiar from the numerous ethnic community events I had attended. At one point the singer came to the edge of the stage closest to me, looked me straight in the eye and said: “Ain’t that right, white girl?”
It was one of those moments that unfolded in slow motion. I knew I had to respond, and immediately. A variety of response options dashed through my mind: “Yeah, you betcha!” “Um, yes!” But these felt too white! Somehow, I managed to blurt out: “you know it, sister!” which seemed sufficiently ‘black’ and consistent with the affable spirit in which she addressed me. I felt that rush of pleasure one gets when you have figured out a social code. After that tense moment of initiation, it was smooth sailing. When Billy’s band played, Pippi grabbed my hand and we danced. Afterwards, Billy came by and gave us all autographed CDs, and Pippi gave me hers as well, with the inscription: “Thanks for sharing! Love, Pippi.”
I walked back to my hotel through the empty streets of The Loop thinking about how lucky I was that no one wanted to join me for an evening of blues. Had I been with friends, the experience would have been completely different. I would never have been enveloped by the African American community and made to feel like one of the gang. That experience inspired me to attend more black music events in Chicago – gospel and jazz – and I was/we were usually one of very few white guests, most of whom were in the company of black family and friends. But I never felt ‘othered’. In fact, I felt a sense of community with strangers at performances that I have never experienced in any other environment, even back in the rock concert era.
And I learned this all because that evening long ago I decided to go out alone on a Friday night in Chicago to Buddy Guy’s Legends. Since then, I have never hesitated to do things alone. The experiences are undoubtedly different and perhaps even better!