In the summer of 1972, I was working in the Merit Distribution Warehouse as a general dogsbody / janitor. The warehouse had a low concrete profile at the heart of a web of railways, trunk roads and skyways heading into, and out of, Manhattan island. I remember clearly leaning on my yard brush and the steamy summer sun glinting off the windscreens of the cars queuing on the Pulaski Skyway – even then it looked as if it had been assembled from someone’s giant Meccano set, striding across the edgeland of factories, warehouses and urban decay from which New Joisey’s people serviced the needs of New York City.
At school in the late 60s and as a student in the early 70s I had devoured many of the civil rights authors. Now, while living and working in the US that summer, staying with my Uncle John and his family, I was taking the chance whenever I could get it to read some more, to soak myself in the strange reality of American life. Employment in the warehouse was strictly along ethnic lines – Jewish owners, white admin staff, Italian foremen in charge of the loading deck, mostly white fork lift drivers – every one of which knew their European identity. Banter around the stereotyped characteristics, of the Polaks or Ruskies or whoever, was a major part of the conversation. There was a Spanish motor mechanic worked on the lorries, and most of the lorry drivers bringing in the goods, or taking them away, were black. It was hot sweaty work. Dragonflies the size of blackbirds patrolled the skies. I learned a lot that summer about how America worked but almost nothing about how America played – we lived and worked together but then went back to our very separate lives. There were some other, American, students working there – Joey Brignola Frankie something, one of the bosses sons as well. They got to unload the Samsonite wagons off the railway siding at the back of the warehouse – an easier job. In the weekends, they headed up to the Poconos to their family summerhomes, smoked weed and partied. I read the American press – McGovern’s campaign, Vietnam, Tricky Dicky. I also read Maya Angelou for the first time and, like so many others, I was entranced from the beginning.
I know why the caged bird sings sang to me. Eldridge Cleaver or Huey Newton or Malcolm X – they all had something to say, something to learn from. But Maya Angelou spoke to the heart as well as the head. In the 42 years since then, she has cemented her place in the hearts of millions throughout the globe who love her use of language, who have cried with her in her adversity,who have learned from her the true meaning of wisdom and respect.
I mourn her passing and celebrate the rich gift of her life, her writing and her teaching.
Some other links for Maya Angelou – go on, treat yourself.
If you’ve never read I know why the caged bird sings, you should.