Monday, March 23, 2015

Selma Johnson, A Great American

Philip and I traveled to Los Angeles this past weekend to celebrate Joaquin's 24th birthday (March 15th).  We had a pretty loose agenda since we were travelling during spring break and flight availability is spotty, at best.  Essentially, we wanted to see where our lil Homey has been living, working and generally succeeding for the last 2 years.  Our friend Roger has been playing the role of "guardian angel" since Joaquin's big move.  We certainly planned to accept his generous invitation to join him at his home in the Hollywood Hills for cocktails and cake!

Returning to the land of "bumper-to-bumper traffic going pretty much anywhere in the middle of the day" was not high on my list of priorities, on its own.  But if anything could lure me back to the SoCal jungle, it was a celebratory visit with Joaquin.  Of course, Philip was onboard at, "Would you like to..."!  Our tentative plans included meeting at Roger's penthouse on saturday afternoon around 4pm.  We busied ourselves with a couple of fantastic estate sales (Hancock Park and Toluca Lake), some Hollywood sightseeing, and a drive out to Jerry's Famous Deli for lunch on our way to Topanga Canyon.  The weather was glorious and everyone's spirits were all-in for the occasion.  The three of us were genuinely enjoying each other's company.

Despite the brutal traffic, both freeway and surface-street, we made it back to Joaquin's home and our rental home in time to freshen up and change for cocktails and dinner.  Roger had just returned from Australia the previous morning and was leaving for Recurrent Training in Houston the next day.  After he spent his one day free at home preparing for our visit, the LAST thing we wanted to do was to arrive late.  At the appointed hour, we arrived at Roger's curb.

Our host prepared a lovely cocktail refreshment for us and a personalized red velvet birthday cake for Joaquin served as the centerpiece for our pre-dinner festivities.  Our moods were light.  We were all ready to set ourselves to the task at hand:  a celebration of our boy who had just turned 24 and who had proven to all that he was where he should be, set on his own path to a successful life.  In our conversation, I mentioned that I'd always wanted to meet two of the figures who play large roles in Roger's life at home:  Carol Goldman, the widow of Dr. Paul Goldman, both neighbors and close friends, and Selma Johnson, a former neighbor who Roger always mentioned in the most reverent tone.  In my imagination, these women already had form and purpose but I was anxious to put three dimensional faces with names and descriptions.

Before our early dinner (no reservations at Joaquin's chosen restaurant were available after 6pm), we knocked on the door of the adjacent penthouse and Carol Goldman answered.  She was as warm and welcoming as I could imagine, given Roger's frequent mention of she and her late husband.  We exchanged pleasantries.  I introduced Philip.  (She'd met Joaquin previously at Roger's Christmas party.) We were rushed to make our dinner obligation in Hollywood and didn't have or make the time for much more than introductions and "sorry to disturb you"s.  I had the sense that Carol puts on a brave face in view of her recent, profound loss.  At once sweet, and welcoming, there was a distinct sadness to her that was almost palpable.  Dr. Goldman, Roger's friend "Pablo", was a formidable force of humanity without doubt.  His loss was monumental to Roger.  To Carol, it must seem insurmountable.

After a lovely al fresco dinner under the setting California sun, our foursome returned to Roger's hillside home for dessert.  We attempted to "stroll off" some of the calories from dinner on the complex grounds beforehand, though.  As we returned to his home, Roger said, "oh, there's Selma", having spotted his friend through an open window.  He called from outside and, to my surprise, she answered, "Hello, Roger!"  Though I'd wanted to meet her for some time, I felt it was likely too late, at almost 9pm.  Roger insisted that we go to Selma's door.  She was there in an instant.  The door opened and revealed a youthful-looking nonagenarian, fresh in a floral silk dressing gown, smile beaming to greet her unannounced guests.  (NOTE:  I can assure you, dear reader, that were you to arrive unannounced at my door after 9pm, I would neither appear fresh nor smiling.)

Starting with an apology for the lack of notice and late hour, Roger introduced Philip and me.  Without hesitating, she said, "and this is Joaquin, the young man I met at your Christmas party."  I added my apology to Roger's and explained that I'd been anxious to meet someone who played such a large role in my friend's life.  To my surprise and chagrin, Roger invited us to tour Selma's home, with her kind permission of course.  In a word, it was lovely:  collected thoughtfully, assembled tastefully, furnished comfortably.  In particular, Selma's kitchen was state-of-the art chrome, limestone, tumbled marble and top-of-the-line Viking appliances.  Freshly cleaned cookware was randomly enough askew to imply that this kitchen was a tool for skilled hands.  It wasn't just a showpiece, though it was certainly that too.

We passed onto a narrow but long terrace where the verdant evidence of Selma's favorite passtime was truly impressive.  Selma likened gardening to caring for her family, a passion.  It was exquisite.  Roger took a few moments to arrange recently acquired patio furniture which had been pulled close under the custom awning to avoid damage from rain. Southern California!  

Selma's home was a direct reflection of what I knew of Selma.  But how little I really knew.

During our visit, I learned that Selma immigrated to Los Angeles from Houston, Texas in 1947.  She met her future husbandArthur, just before leaving Texas; he for the war, she to work in a factory supporting the war effort.  Roger had previously shared some of Selma's philosophy of family, particularly as it applied to people of color.  Did I fail to mention that Selma is a woman of color?  That's understandable as, until now, it was of absolutely no consequence.  But now is when Selma's story begins to intrigue me in earnest.

By doing the math, I inferred that Selma is a member of the Great Migration of African Americans which occurred in the first half of the 20th Century.  Seeking better lives than would ever be available to them in the Deep South, blacks left by the thousands. They left for the North, Midwest and West, areas traditionally immune to the inexorable, suffocating blanket of racism in the South. 

Her philosophy was to build and furnish a comfortable nest before adding to its occupants.  So, upon his return from service, she and her new husband set out to do just that.  Though Arthur's work was of a common, blue-collar nature relegated to those without advanced education, Selma completed study to become a teacher and went on to teach the deaf, learning and practicing American Sign Language.  They methodically, judiciously built their meager fortune to the point where they would be comfortable starting a family.  Then, they focused on the task of raising four children of their own, to educating them, to assuring that they had every opportunity to prosper and thrive.  They executed their plan flawlessly.  

Arthur died suddenly in 2003. Selma now lives alone in a manageably-sized condominium where she appears to be both comfortable and satisfied.

On the walk back to his home, a building or so away, Roger shared that his passion for property investment started with and is stoked by Selma.  It seems that, over the years, she and Arthur amassed a small fortune in Los Angeles-area real estate.  They, now Selma alone, own a home just steps from the beach in Venice;  a home which has long-since been paid off and from which she receives a healthy monthly rental.  Furthermore, when Selma moved into her current condominium home, she left the 4 bedroom home where she and Arthur raised their HANCOCK PARK!  Hancock Park is a pre-eminent address in Los Angeles.  Conservative and understated, it is the location for beautiful mid-century and more recent "estate" homes which routinely sell in the "8 figures".  Selma still owns this home, as well, outright, and collects a VERY healthy monthly rental for it.  My youthful-looking, unassuming, charming, smiling new friend Selma is literally worth millions.

And though Selma suffers from the usual maladies of old-age, most recently a cricked neck from which she can find no relief, she left us at her door as she met us there, with a kind, welcoming, genuine smile.  Well past 9pm, we left her to her solitude...another quiet Saturday night of reflection, no doubt.  I wonder...

When Selma reflects, does she see a magnificent life, well-lived, as I do?  Does she feel satisfaction over her accomplishments, both alone and with her partner-in-life?  Does she see the shining example for achieving the "American Dream" that her life is?  Does she retrace her path and marvel and just how far she's come?  Or is she just tired and eager for another visit from friends, old and new?

I so enjoyed meeting the women who color my friend Roger's life away from work.  They were all he described and more.  But when Selma Johnson's door opened late Saturday evening, I felt something profound.  I knew immediately that I was in the presence of greatness.  Simple?  Yes.  Unassuming?  Of course.  But profound on an extraordinarily ordinary level.  Selma Johnson is a human being of true substance, an authentic American who achieved much under difficult circumstances.  I celebrate her, her example, her drive, her determination, her sweetness, her humility, her charm.

There was something transcendent about being in the presence of Selma Johnson.  It was as though I was being introduced to someone familiar, someone about whom a great book has been written.  It has!  Selma's life is a chapter right out of THE WARMTH OF OTHER SUNS by Isabel Wilkerson.

It was my honor to meet Selma Johnson, a great American.

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