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Son Of The Tamale Queen

"Little sister,” he’d say to me, “put BOTH a them teeties back in your blouse and move on… you don’t need to be nursin’ no man… not when you’ve got your mystery baby to take care of!!!”

Metaphorically-speaking, he was absolutely right. Bio-dad lived a life of quiet desperation long before I ever met him. I couldn’t change or affect that by trying to nurse him back to health too. I had a sick child.

It’s always a challenge after a baby is born. The child’s father often feels relegated to the back burner in most instances. Rejected and lost, he sits there in silent desperation if he’s the sulking type, …waiting to be wanted again, time permitting. Lost; unaware of the option of making scheduled time. Some men feel a deep sense of betrayal after the birth of a child, it’s true.

When a baby is born with congenital anomalies, there is even less time to take care of the needs of matrimonial man. Libidinous emotions often squelched by the roar of genetic mystery living inside your child. So loud and overwhelming, all else pales in comparison.

It was just before I became pregnant, that I met Larry Smith. I was in a restaurant on University Avenue in the heart of Berkeley, California watching Hannibal Means sing, in maybe one of his last local performances before moving to Graz Austria to pursue a career where he said, a black man could make a career of singing opera. Sitting in the audience was close friend of Hannibal, Larry Smith. Larry, with the creole flavor to his skin. He glowed. Sprinkled ala orange. He liked to break out into song all of a sudden. A perfectly coiffed gay man, he wore an Palestinian scarf thrown over his shoulder, giving him an exotic flair matching that of Hannibal, who probably looked exotic in the nude. I knew just looking at Larry, we would become friends.

Larry Smith had a lilting voice. He introduced himself as the son of THE Tamale Queen. “Did you know The Tamale Queen, my mother?”

No, I’d just arrived in town within the last ten years, I told him. In evidence remained the old worn Tamale Queen storefront banner on the way downtown, though… I inquired, “Was that her old place?” We sat that night listening to Hannibal sing, while eating. Sharing satisfying enjoyment of food, song, humor, history and fun. Tales of East Oakland among the diverse Means family. Castlemont High. Everyone in good spirits…, we laughed till tears rolled down our legs.

I attended a few “churchin’” functions with Larry Smith, which eventually landed me just down the street from where I gave birth to my daughter on MacArthur Blvd, near the old Diamond District. Love Center is the home of the Edwin Hawkins Choir.

Tramaine Hawkins, wife of Pastor Walter Hawkins was also the daughter of Oakland’s royalty — Lois the Pie Queen … Can’t name all the famous gospel folks coming out of Love Center – or Lois’ for that matter.

And, what a place Oakland; where the Black baking matriarchs were christened, “Queen,” as it should be – one Queen at a time: The Tamale Queen, then Lois the Pie Queen... all beatin’ hell outa the Dairy Queen.

One Sunday Larry Smith treated me to Love Center. It was a special day ending with a family BBQ after “churchin’.” My daughter was a babe in arms then, so we sat somewhat back of the already seated parishioners. It was 11:15 a.m., and by my Presbyterian watch, church was starting late. I inquired where the people were. As we sat down, he said to me, “Who do you see in this room?”

I looked around to a handful of elderly women readying for service, struggling to walk on bad hips and big bunions, arranging bibles and hymnals, dressed in white shoes with black stockings, church coats and flowers and feathers adorning colorful hats. I commented, “Nice hats!.” There were no other parishioners present, and only one 50-ish white woman with long straight hair, robed and seated, combing her hair in the choir loft, rocking to and fro while apparently chanting, eyes skyward.

Larry read my expression, wondering if we were in the right church what with the empty choir loft and all. His response to my cocked brow? “Somebody ought a tell that white woman in the choir loft up there, that Jesus ain’t up there on that ceilin’,” he chided while removing his coat.

An old movie theater on MacArthur Blvd., home to Love Center Church these many years, the stage’s screen, now the choir loft. Of sweeping grandeur, the balcony is of respectable size, too. An effective auditorium for sound: music and sermonizing, weddings and funerals. I still have my Love Center album, “Oh Happy Day!” from the ‘70’s, although I doubt it was recorded at this particular location.

Larry asked me then, “Why do ya think those church women have hats on over they wigs? And you see that one pitiful white woman sittin’ up there in that whole entire choir loft by her sorry self combin’ heck outa her straight-as-a-bean hair?” He peered over his spectacles waiting for the obvious answer.

“Bad hair?,” I strike my best guess.

“MmmmmHmmmmm… Girlfriend, you know how cloudy it was out there this morning. It was drippin’ wet! Black folks will AVOID goin’ out in wet weather that’s gonna be kinkin’ up they heads! We both know fog’s gonna burn off about 11:45 and the choir loft’ll be full by noon. You’ll get your show! You just sit tight and enjoy Miss Ruby!,” he said as he chuckled to my daughter, who could well see the light in Mr. Smith, appearing always charmed by him.

In the next hour, choir members entering through street side double glass doors in front of the former theater, filtered down through the church rows of seating to the choir loft. Finding their places, greeting, conversing, adjusting robes and collars, reading, talking, combing hair, putting on lipstick, and generally getting ready for church on the run in the presence of the congregation; the choir appeared in chaos. No behind the scenes prep or primping. No secrets there. Young elementary school aged musicians eventually arrived. After fixing a broken snare stand, it was a go. Tramaine and Walter’s son at the drums, Tramaine was giving him the “no gum” signal. As the choir loft filled, so did the front of the auditorium. Churchin’ almost on.

Finally, at a bit past noon as the entire band fell into place, the choir loft full enough, Edwin Hawkins walked out onto stage. He wore his hair in a kunk reminiscent of Jerry Lee Lewis. The choir remained raucous – almost chaotic, as if for affect, appearing to ignore their director.

Edwin greeted the congregation in a full bow. He turned on one leg to the choir raising one arm heavenward. It appeared not one choir member paid a bit of attention to Edwin as he dropped his hand on the first beat of the first song. However, with immediate precision, everyone in the choir snapped to by dropping to their right hip on the first count with the Hammond organ, as directed. What a visual. All chaos gone in one beat, the choir was happenin’ on the first note – strong, in tune, and altogether, the famous Love Center Choir, of “Oh Happy Day” fame. Tight ‘n outa sight! Oh happy day! (All this by 12:15, too!) Impressive. The journey is what brings us happiness; not the destination.

Church was fervent for over an hour as Pastor Yvette Flounders sang and proselytized. Parishioners testified on stage as hope reached climax. Finally Pastor Walter Hawkins had the congregation in heated frenzy as he too raised his hands to the sky and chanted to the congregation with the band, and choir backing him up, “Hollywood, Hollywood, Hollywood!!,” Walter shouted through the theatre. Everyone stood cheering.

I called into Larry’s ear over the vibratory spinning whale of the Hammond B3 organ, “Are they going to make a movie about Love Center or something?” Thoroughly confused, Larry asked why I would think that. “Hollywood, Hollywood, Hollywood!!,” I shouted over the tambourines.

“Girlfrieeeeeend, he said, “Hallelujah, hallelujah, hallelujah!! That’s what black people say in church! This isn’t your first time churchin’! You know that! What’s wrong with you!” And we both broke out laughing …until tears rolled down our legs.

I thought Love Center Church had been snagged by Hollywood, and we were churchin’ for their very success. Oh, happy day! ¥¥


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