COFFEE MAKES YOU BLACK IN 53206
On my way home from City Hall this morning to pick up a large ornament that I will be decorating for the Christmas tree (you have to know it's going to be ZIP-related!), I took another one of my circuitous routes home, this time exploring more of 53212 and 53206.
In 53212, I found a positively graffitied, gated entrance to a church, an impossibly pink house, and a sunlit, orange autumn alley that pulled me in.
But it was my coffee and the succulent chicken and waffles at Coffee Makes You Black on Teutonia Avenue that really blew my mind. One of the fathers that I had met the other day at Nash Park insisted that I try them out, so when I realized that I had hit Teutonia again, I quickly mapped my path to what would be a pleasant early lunch, impromptu networking event, and positive, enlightening experience.
I learned that Coffee Makes You Black has been operating in this two-story bank building for fifteen years. For fifteen years prior, it had been abandoned--busted water pipes, broken, boarded-up windows, you name it--and it took a year and a half for owners Bradley and Laurie Thurman to renovate. Through it all, it was as difficult as you can imagine for them to get the necessary bank loans to finish and then keep afloat once they opened. Today, it's a brightly lit, spacious affair, with tall bank windows, a wrap-around balcony that houses big conference rooms and offices, and walls filled with Black art and photos of musicians and other greats. And the place was hopping! Young and old, families, couples, business people on laptops and cell phones--mostly African American, with a few non-African Americans sprinkled in at the tables.
While I waited for my lunch, I read some short biographies of Black writers that I had borrowed from the small shelves of books available to customers. It brought me back to my teaching days: August Wilson, Lucille Clifton, James Baldwin, Spike Lee, Toni Morrison. I learned some new things about each one and now plan to finally read Baldwin's Go Tell It On the Mountain. The chicken and waffles didn't come fast--which was fine, because I was enjoying the sunlight, the book, and the general buzz around me--so I talked to one of the owners, Bradley, about ZIP MKE. He sat down with me at my table and we talked about our project. I was saddened that when I mentioned how we'd be including photos from 53206, too, he said, dismayed, "Probably negative ones, huh?" To which I exclaimed, "No way! That's exactly the opposite of what we're doing." This seemed to please him. I offered to stop by again with a stack of postcards (new Promotional Partner!) and he offered the space to house part of our exhibit after the January kick-off. I'll be talking to him, too, about possibly being our coffee purveyor at the library event.
After mopping my plate, I turned around to see a sharply dressed woman at her laptop, with a large depiction of a mask on the wall behind her. My eyes immediately noting the overlap of colors in her outfit and the painting, I introduced myself and ZIP and we got a nice photo. Then it was her turn to introduce herself. She is Dana World-Patterson of Foundations For Freedom, an organization devoted to eradicating human trafficking and empowering girls and women. She offered to have ZIP MKE display part of our collection at F4F's big January event at Radio Milwaukee, which, I think, is a few days before our January exhibit at the Library. Another new Promotional Partner?
After that delightful conversation, I then introduced myself to the other owner, Laurie, who immediately told me about her son, who is currently photographing beautiful images of 53206, often, for instance, of he and his girlfriend in abandoned buildings. "He'll say," Laurie tells me, "Look: A rose grew from the rubble." I told her about the concrete playground at the Rufus King International School-Middle School campus on East Hadley, which had a tall tree growing up from a crack in the concrete (I had taken a photo of it there earlier this fall). I can't wait to get in contact with Laurie's son; I have a feeling we'll have a new photographer for ZIP!
Finally, Laurie introduced me to a table of four that had been there since before I showed up. Anthony Courtney, Vaun Mayes, Gab Taylor, and Mike X listened to the ZIP story and perked up when I talked about how we were looking for positive depictions of each zip code, including 53206. It turns out that Vaun and Gab are founders of Program The Parks, a Sherman Park youth initiative that I've been following on Facebook since August (but that I haven't been able to be involved with yet). We're going to talk about a PTP-ZIP partnership to help get the word out in the Sherman Park neighborhood, especially among young people, and I have yet to share with them the REMIX MKE youth writing experience and community building program that we hope to launch in January (with a working slogan of "Start the New Year Off Write!"). Vaun blamed media outlets for failing to cover the important grassroots and official work being done in Sherman Park to improve the community and the quality of life, and was hopeful that ZIP MKE could have a positive effect in helping people see the city in a new light. Mike X was kind and jovial and a little mysterious, revealing only that he loves making films (I might have to seek him out for future projects!).
Anthony, the elder of the group, was an open book. He listened wholeheartedly to everything I was saying, sitting next to me with arms crossed, nodding his head thoughtfully, speaking with the controlled voice of experience. He spoke about the role of power and greed that is responsible for the mass incarceration of Black people, about how Donald Trump has stirred the waters of racism, about he hasn't failed to vote in a local or national election for the last forty years and about how he is constantly trying to instill in young Black people the importance of voting. We talked about getting off our butts and about being the change we wanted to see in the world. A small table of literature and pamphlets and cards for prisoners sat next to him, part of the work he and others are doing to observe their world and change it with words and images. "You have to counter a negative image with a positive one," Anthony insisted.
In a surprising and humbling moment before I took my leave, Anthony and I shook hands but he held on fast, looked up to me from where he was sitting, and told me that he was going to tell me who I was. I almost felt his oracular power flowing through our hands and up my arm (or maybe it was me draining into him as he tried to divine who I was based on our conversation). I won't tell you what he said, but it was spot on and, like I said, humbling. And gracious.
As was my whole experience at Coffee Makes You Black in 53206. They have a loyal customer now. Next time I have to meet someone for coffee, you know where I'm going to suggest we go.