Note: In this installment, the names of Charlie and his family members are real. A special thank you to Tracy for the stories of her dad she’s allowed me to share here. If you wish to hear Chuck (Charlie) Beasley’s band perform, please visit www.beasleysbigband.com for their schedule.
Two doors down lived an old jazz musician named Charlie. We saw him often in the summer, but the wintertime was lonely. Sometimes, we’d glimpse him coming out of his house in the frigid cold—his tall frame as thin as a reed—bent over his walker. He’d gingerly navigate the ice. We’d rush to his car to clear it of snow before he had to, but it was partly just an excuse to see him.
“Bless your hearts,” he’d say with such warmth that we wanted to stay.
Dallas and Charlie regularly dined at the Applebee’s on Central Avenue and 694. Charlie flirted with the waitresses and ordered “Lemonade, little ice.” The two men celebrated their friendship in the same booth each time, swapping stories while they ate. Sometimes Dallas’ friend Beth heard the stories too, and she stowed them away in her heart.
Charlie invited our girls—new bike riders back then—to use his big driveway as a practice pad. They could freely scoot around on their wheels as he watched them from his deck. And we’d gather on that same deck on warm summer evenings, along with Dallas—and Beth too, if she was visiting. Charlie whisked us back to long ago days—days of being black in the south.
“The fields went right up to a person’s back door. No sidewalks back then, mind you. Only dirt roads—and the driest part was in the middle. So that’s where we walked. And we sat on our front porches to watch the neighborhood. That’s why black folks still do it today.”
He offered the girls sodas in glass bottles, and they clustered around him.
“Don’t ever smoke,” he told them, holding up a lit cigarette between two long, slender fingers. He took a drag and explained he had survived cancer in the 1980s—losing part of a lung in the process—but the habit still held him fast. The girls solemnly nodded, tucking away his words for later.
One day, I told Charlie Husband and I planned to hear his band—Beasley’s Big Band—play at the Wabasha Street Caves, an old speakeasy in St. Paul. Delighted, he invited me to choose a song, and he would dedicate it to me that night, he said. I sat on the couch in his living room—the air around me tinged with kindness and cigarette smoke—and surveyed the foot-high stacks of sheet music on his coffee table. I thumbed through his playlists.
Later at the Caves, Charlie and his band played “Someone to Watch Over Me” by Ella Fitzgerald, dedicating the song to Husband from me, just as I wanted. And I heard Charlie’s heart wail through the bell of his saxophone that night.
Late in the summer of 2009, we heard Beasley’s Big Band perform at the Como Park Pavilion. Later in the show, Husband and the girls deserted their folding chairs to go and dance. During one of the song breaks, Charlie told the audience that because of his recent diagnosis of cancer, this would be his last performance at the Pavilion. A hush fell. Then Charlie’s tone lifted, and he pointed out our girls to the crowd.
“There are my sweet little neighbors over there dancing with their daddy.”
Charlie decided to play his last gig at the Caves on February 18, 2010. After that, he said, he’d spend a week in Kentucky with his oldest daughter Arneida and then travel to Colorado to his daughter Tracy’s house where he would die. But Charlie didn’t stay for the entire set of his last performance. He couldn’t stomach the goodbyes, so he slipped out early. At the age of eighty-five, he made his last trip to Kentucky. He never got to Colorado.
Charlie passed away on February 28, 2010, almost eight years after we first met him on our front sidewalk. His memorial service at the Phyllis Wheatley Community Center in north Minneapolis brimmed with mourners, and several of the waitresses from Applebee’s showed up. Charlie’s loved ones spoke about the man I knew from two doors down. We took their gift of stories home with us to keep.
After the service, Charlie’s children invited us over to his house. While we visited, they sifted through his things, sorting through the mundane items that had belonged to someone extraordinary. I drank in their stories, sitting in the same spot on the couch as I had the day I flipped through his playlists.
They told of their dad, a saxophonist and the first black band member at North High School in the 1940s, and how when the band was invited to perform in Washington D.C., several parents protested. The band teacher placated the disgruntled parents, assuring them Charlie would sit, eat, and sleep separately from the rest of the students. The teacher arranged for him to stay with a black family in the city. Charlie, a featured soloist, was applauded by a white audience in Washington D.C., but had to take his meals in the kitchen along with the black staff who were proud of him and gave him all he wanted to eat.
Another time, in New York, he went to see his sister, a Katherine Dunham dancer. But he wasn’t allowed a seat in the auditorium; he could only stand against the back wall to watch her perform.
Charlie enlisted in the Army Air Corps during World War II in one of the first racially integrated units in the military. He played in the band—a safe place, he felt—since all the members respected each other as performers. Later, he taught music in universities in Texas, Mississippi, and Tennessee. And in his adventures, he played on Beale Street with B.B. King and in Chicago with Duke Ellington’s band.
Then right there in the living room amongst the cardboard boxes, his children packed away Charlie, the musician, and showed me Charlie, the father.
“My mother divorced him when she was pregnant with me,” Arneida said. “We didn’t have any contact with him.”
“He married my mother next,” said Tracy. “Then when I was twelve years old, I snooped around in some papers Dad had left behind when he separated from my mom. I found divorce papers stating that his former wife had sole custody of their daughter. A daughter! But the papers mistakenly listed the daughter’s name as ‘Anita.’ I searched for twenty-one years to find her, contacting every Anita with her birthdate in the United States. When I learned her true name—Arneida—I found her that very day.”
Then they told me about Barbie, Charlie’s youngest daughter with another woman. Barbie was raised by her grandparents because of her mother’s mental illness. The older children kept in touch with Barbie, visiting her when they could. Then one day, her grandparents were killed in a car accident. Arneida took her in and raised her half-sister from then on.
“I asked my father about his heart. His heart for God, you know,” Tracy said. “He told me, ‘I’ve given the Lord a lot to forgive. But dear daughter, I’ve squared it all with Him. And He’s forgiven it all.’”
I settled back on the couch, marveling at this family—marked by grace—who drew together because of one man, found a lost one against all odds, and nurtured one of their own when she was orphaned. Now that Charlie was gone, I wondered what would happen to these people who had suddenly bloomed into my life.
Months after his passing, I still contemplated Charlie—the musician, the father, the neighbor. I wondered why no seed of bitterness had taken root in him and what heaven was like now that he was a resident. Dallas told me Applebee’s had fastened a brass plate to the booth the two of them had frequented. Engraved on it was Charlie’s name and “Lemonade, little ice.”
I smiled. I was just one of many who loved him still.
*Miss an installment of the blog? Or want to catch the story from the beginning? Visit http://www.tamarajorell.com/blog-entries-by-date/
*Names in this blog have been changed to protect my family, neighbors, and friends in the neighborhood, and in a nod of appreciation to the beloved Swedish author Maj Lindman, I’ve renamed my three blondies Flicka, Ricka, and Dicka.