From Chicken Soup for the African American Soul

Meeting Maya

We are almost a nation of dancers, musicians and poets.

Olaudah Equiano (1745?–1801), slave autobiographer

San Francisco is an autumn town, but it was July and it was scorching. I had flown to the Bay Area from San Diego, where I had been living for five years. Being born and raised in Philadelphia, the change from the Northeast to the Southwest coast was dramatic for me. So far, I had found San Diego to be a beautiful but sleepy work environment. I had cut my writing teeth in New York City and was a bit bored in San Diego. I was anxious to fly to Oakland to meet a longtime friend who was in town to promote her first book.

I had been writing seriously for over twenty years and published many times. There were also well-attended performance readings in New York City, Washington, D.C., Baltimore, San Francisco and San Diego. For several engagements, I performed with a band. My writing paid my rent more than once. It lived in me and helped me live.

Somehow during the trip to Oakland, I had an epiphany. I would stop writing the poetry I had loved to write since I was eight years old. I surmised that this would somehow make me feel better and solve the problems I’d been experiencing in San Diego.

When I shared my thoughts about giving up writing, my friend was alarmed. “You are poetry!” she said.

“Poetry is for the birds. There is no job description, lousy pay and long hours,” I said.

Despite our conflict, we had a wonderful visit. I was very proud of her. For myself, I felt it was getting too late to publish a book. Obstacles such as poor health, mobility and money were preventing me from furthering my work.

After my friend flew back to the east coast, I spent the afternoon with a young married couple. My flight was leaving from Oakland later that evening. On my way to my friends’ house in Berkeley, we stopped at my favorite supermarket-deli-bakery. The deli makes a turkey breast sandwich with Swedish lingonberries. The combination of sweet and tart is pleasing, especially on the hard roll that the juice soaks into. This is the food that soothes, preparing me not to be a poet anymore.

At the checkout stood only a stately black woman, half-through purchasing a rather large order. Something seemed to tell her to turn around as I approached the line. She turned. She smiled. Maya Angelou! It was Maya Angelou in line in front of me at Andronico’s Market.

Without saying hello, she asked my name. I spoke as if in a Twelve-Step meeting, “My name is minerva [pen name, small ‘m,’ after the goddess of wisdom] and I am a poet,” I said.

By this time my friends had joined me in line. Later, they told me what they were thinking: “Maya Angelou! Wow, minerva knows everybody!”

Maya was majestic, even in the Sunday afternoon “buy me” lights of a grocery store. She was regal, leaning over her stick of French bread. Dressed in earth tones, she reminded me of the Earth Mother I imagined her to be.

When Maya Angelou heard me say that I was a poet, she beamed. She placed the divider down for me to put my groceries on the conveyor belt. With a welcoming motion of her hand she said gleefully, “Well, step on up!”

We started to chat, briefly musing about hunger and choices and the price of food. I told her that I was buying snacks for the plane trip back to San Diego. I also mentioned that I visited two women’s prisons with my friend to talk about writing. My friend had served time and ended up becoming an award-winning journalist. Maya’s reaction was strong. She cried a sincere thank-you and loudly professed that the inmates were her sisters and daughters.

The few minutes we visited together were magical and divine. I wanted to get as close as I could to her side. It was as if we had this sacred space carved out just for us, for this particular point in time—a crossroads in my life.

As Maya Angelou gave the cashier her credit card, I noticed that the cashier and the other shoppers didn’t seem to have a clue as to who our national treasure was: poet, actress, singer, professor and so much more. This was the author of President Bill Clinton’s inaugural poem: “On the Pulse of Morning.” Well, that’s poetry for you, I thought.

Ms. Angelou was kind enough to write me a message on the back of my pocket computer’s manual (the only thing quickly available for her signature).

“Poet on in Joy!” she wrote. And I did.

When I returned to Southern California, I was a writing fool. What wonders have emerged from what at first seemed a chance meeting in a Bay Area supermarket-deli-bakery. Some blessings from God are not in disguise.

also known as Gail Hawkins

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