Out of the blue the other day, I got a message from Kwame. Talk about a ghost from the past. We haven’t seen each other or spoken in more than 30 years.
As you might expect, the message sent me down memory lane – memories that seamlessly crossed the divide of years, oceans, continents and cultures. It was amazing how suddenly we were ten years old again …
At the dawn of the 1980s, with the collapse of the steel industry in Pittsburgh, my parents set their sights on the Southwest. Lots of opportunities lay there, they heard, in places like Houston, Dallas, Phoenix. They settled on Austin. This was way before SXSW, or “Dazed and Confused,” the trendy “Keep Austin Weird” movements that came along later in the Nineties.
Back in those days, it was still a sleepy capital along the Colorado. Back when there was Aqua Fest in the summertime, and Stevie Ray was playing every night at Antone’s (as I found out later). My parents much preferred Austin to muggy Big Oil Houston to the east, or arrogant “Big D,” four hours’ drive north.
We found a house in Oak Hill, which was on the outskirts of Austin then. All the houses were new, full of families like ours, working families, newly arrived in the city. Seemed like every week there was another new kid, shy, spooked, staring at their shoelaces while the kindly teacher introduced them to the class.
“This is James, he’s from Pennsylvania,” the teacher said, on my first day. “Do you know where Pennsylvania is, class?”
“Yeah, that’s where they make pencils!” one smart ass responded, to the delight of the other pupils.
Kwame became one of my first friends. He lived at the end of our street in the neighborhood, which was called Westcreek. We used to go to the woods at the edge of the neighborhood. The woods were still big then, the neighborhood hadn’t been built up, as it would be later.
Saturdays were safaris, with Kwame leading the way, my older brother Mike sometimes along as well. We would select choice bamboo sticks from a nearby growth, sharpen them into spears. Then to the whisk-y sound of the branches, the padded thump of the earth, we set off toward the creek. In spring when it rained, the creek flowed heavily, even flooded sometimes, and you could see all these junky bass or sunfish or crawdads darting in the green shallows. But in summer it usually dried up quickly under the hot Texas sun.
In spring, we followed the winding creekline trail for perhaps a mile or so, to the point where the trail rose and looked out from a short bluff onto a place that was deep enough to swim. You had to be careful for water moccasins near the creek, but we only saw one maybe one time. Another time we (or I) accidentally stepped over a rattlesnake, this was further down the creek, while we were crossing some rocks, but luckily it had been basking and sleeping so we got away from it easily, running terrified in opposite directions.
Kwame and I stashed some quartz crystals in a small “cubby hole cave” (as Kwame called it) that rested behind some trees just up from the creek. We called it our treasure cave, and only we knew about it – we didn’t even tell Mike. Mike was never as much into exploring as we were. He liked it better when we played football, or Star Wars or later, Rambo (which got boring because as the oldest, Mike always got to be Rambo; Kwame and I were consigned to playing the hapless deputies).
There were other guys in the neighborhood, but Kwame was the one who was always around, always up for something. If you were bored, you could always knock on Kwame’s door.
He lived with his mother in a two-story brown house on the corner of our street. His mother was a kindly, laid-back woman who worked as some kind of civil servant. We didn’t see her much, since she was usually at work and at home she liked to sleep a lot. We never saw or met his father, who after the divorce had remarried and settled somewhere on the other side of Austin.
Kwame liked to come over to our house, especially during the weekdays in summer, when we were out of school and the days were very long. Our parents were at work and we were never supposed to allow anybody in. But Kwame was there almost every day. We were one of the first families in the neighorhood with cable TV and a VCR, so he liked to come over and watch movies and MTV, which was still new then.
He also liked to raid the fridge – it’s not that he didn’t have food at his house, it’s just that he was always hungry and we had “better food” or something.
“Food always tastes better at somebody else’s house,” he used to say. He had all these Kwame-isms.
“I’m all up in there,” he used to say, for example. Or “way off in there.” During our safaris, we were “way off in there.”
Kwame was the only black kid in the neighborhood, but as kids we never thought of him as black. He was just Kwame. A little later, I did make the childish mistake of asking Kwame, “Are you from Africa?” and he was ready to fight. I was confused but then an instinct told me my question hurt him, or embarrassed him. I guess maybe I thought I was being funny or witty or something. Anyway, we almost fought, and then it was over, and we never talked about it again.
One time my grandparents came all the way from Pennsylvania to visit. They wanted to see how we were getting on in Texas. I think they half expected us to have horses, to live on a ranch. They were pleasantly surprised to see this pleasant, modern neighborhood with bright, newly built houses.
Pulling into the freshly paved driveway in their tan-yellow 1978 Gran Torino, they got out. My brother and I ran over to hug grandma, to shake hands with grandpa, who had just retired after nearly 40 years working in a steel mill along the Allegheny.
I introduced them to Kwame, who was standing shyly nearby.
“This is Kwame,” I said.
“Thomas?” my grandfather went, extending a hand.
“Kwame.” My friend’s polite correction got lost in my grandfather’s brawny, steel-worker shadow.
“Nice to meet you, Thomas!”
My grandfather smiled politely, but you could tell the name was lost on him. His generation – the Greatest Generation – had guys named Frank, Dean and Sammy. Kwame was a new one.
At school, where Kwame was just about the the only black kid, he never had any problems. He was popular among the other fourth-graders. I think it was because he was more daring or something. He wasn’t as intimidated by adults, teachers and parents, the way most of us were. Maybe that had something to do with the divorce, the fact that he and his mom lived alone together.
“You’re too polite!” he always joked to me. “You gotta toughen up!”
To him I was a “schoolboy.” Meaning I liked school (I did, then). I liked the teachers, raised my hand and all that. Kwame liked school too, some of it. During storytime in the afternoons, the teacher Miss Moody would read to us from “Tales of a Fourth Grade Nothing,” or one of the other Judy Blume books. Kwame always lay on the floor, his chin resting in his hands, hanging on every word.
He always preferred stories to curriculums. Those Saturdays along the creek, those were not just explorations. They were stories, unfolding narratives.
Our favorite TV show was Mutual of Omaha’s Wild Kingdom. We always would re-enact episodes. With one of us taking on the voice of the narrator, we went in search of lost canyons and blazing savannahs. We enountered giant anacondas and pythons, seething cobras and elusive panthers, spotted leopards and roaring lions.
I think Kwame liked me better on those days than at school. In the forest I was an explorer, a fellow adventurer. Our world had places as far away as Africa, or the Barbary Coast, the Yukon. Those were the places we went to on those Saturday travels, with our freshly sharpened spears in hand.
As I said, Kwame also liked to come over almost every day. He would tease us about our folks.
“Why do you always say ‘Hi!’ to each other, all happy and stuff, like you haven’t met in a long time. Hellooo! Hi! What’s up with that?”
“I don’t know. What do you and your mom say?”
“We just say what we need to say. Not all of this ‘Hi!’ stuff.”
We never spent much, if any, time at Kwame’s house. As I said, his mother was not often there, and when she was, you got the feeling she liked to have the quiet of the place to herself. It was always dark and cool inside, the shades always down. Kwame said it was better for his mom’s eyes, so she could sleep, I guess.
My mom also wanted her space, especially on Saturdays. She’d kick Mike and I out of the house, ordering us not to return until sundown. That was her Zen time – listening to Boz Skaggs or the Doobie Brothers, cleaning the house from top to bottom and getting supper ready. Dad worked half-days at the Caterpillar dealership, and when he came home he usually worked on manly projects with his buddy, Mr. Young, who lived next door.
So we had a lot of time to kill. Most of the houses in the neighborhood, the driveways, were empty, silent, as people went on weekend trips. The whole neighborhood felt dead. It was too hot to play baseball or football, and there weren’t enough guys around to get up a decent game.
That’s why we usually went to the woods. The hours would somehow always passed quickly there.
Like when we survived the perils of the Acid River. There was this tree that grew near the creek, and one of its branches stretched out over it. One of our favorite games was to climb the tree and venture precariously out onto the branch.
“You gotta hang on,” we’d say, indicating the creek a dozen feet below. Usually the creek by then was bone dry, just a pile of dusty-algae rocks especially during the summers when the temperatures were usually around 100. I remember one summer we had something like 30 consecutive 100-degree days, and there was water rationing. On the evening news, the announcer would give out the zip codes for homeowners allowed to water their parched lawns the following day.
Now that I think about it, maybe it was that scorching summer that produced the Acid River. I mean, there’s not much you can do with a dry creekbed, except imagine that it’s full of acid.
Yeah, we got a lot of mileage out that one, the old Acid. It was a furious, churning river, lava-like, with heat bubbles bursting at the surface, and sulphur-like fumes pouring into the air. Needless to say, many adventurers had perished in it.
Along with the Acid River, there were the many other places we named during our Saturday expeditions: The Kwame-Jimmy Ridge, the JimKwam Canyons, the KayJay Way, among many others.
Frequently, we could get into heated debates over these immortal names.
“You had the last one! My name goes first this time!”
“Yeah, but I only got that stupid ridge! It’s only a rinky-dink ridge! This is a real canyon!”
“Well, how about you take the canyon – it can be the KwamJim Canyon. I’ll settle for the Kwa-Jah River.”
“I don’t like that name ‘Kwa-Jah! It don’t even sound like a proper name!”
And so on.
At least we could agree on Acid River. How could we not? It was a cool name.
Yep, we all got older. With adolescence we grew apart, drifted off into other friendships, discovered girls, the usual growing pains. Mike and Kwame ran with some tough kids who were into smoking weed and other stuff. I had my own problems for awhile, especially when shoplifting at the new mall became a brief trend among the Popular kids, who I unfortunately tried to emulate. That “phase” cost me a year’s probation and a stiff fine. Later, I got around to graduating high school, went off to the Navy and ended up on California’s Lost Coast. It was there, ironically, that you could say I finally “found myself,” and embarked on my career as a writer.
In the meantime, my family also left Austin. After some 15 years, they missed Pittsburgh. Plus, times had changed. By the end of the 1980s, the collapse of the oil and real estate markets left Texas with a Texas-sized recession. Pittsburgh, always a tough city, had bounced back. Having remade itself with a booming medical and banking sector, its fortunes had vastly improved. So they moved back there, while my brother settled in nearby southern Ohio.
We all pretty much left Austin behind, leaving it to become the Austin so many know now from the films of Richard Linklater. It’s an Austin that I only recognize in dims and flashes. People tell me now that I wouldn’t recognize much of it. Oak Hill, once an outskirts community, has long since been absorbed into the ever-expanding cityscape. Tech companies now compete with those in Silicon Valley. Stevie Ray has a statue down by the river, and his old stomping grounds, Antone’s has a website, and no doubt is frequented by the IT crowd with their freshly bought Justin boots and black Stetsons.
Here in Istanbul, where I have lived the past nine, going on ten years, all those places seem worlds way. Lifetimes away. That’s why it was so startling, and refreshing, to get Kwame’s message the other day.
After expressing wonder about how the hell I had ended up in Istanbul, he congratulated me on my wife Özge.
“Istanbul! Damn, you always were the smart one,” he went on. “You just keep going straight to the top. Good to see someone from the neighborhood doing something.”
Smart? With Turkey’s ongoing state of emergency from the 2016 failed military coup attempt, a falling currency, and a civil war just south of the border in Syria, there are those who would no doubt question that assessment. Perhaps “adventurous” maybe, but smart –
Anyway, Kwame still lives in that same house, on the same street, the same neighborhood of Westcreek.
From what he told me, I gathered he’s had some rough years, problems with drugs, and even did some time in jail. Now he’s out, trying to make a fresh start. He spends a lot of time taking care of his mother, who has got to be in her seventies or even eighties by now. A friend down the road, who also stayed, owns a solar-panel installation business, and throws some work Kwame’s way.
“They can’t keep a good man down,” he concluded.
I wished him well, and we talked about my “gallon-headed big brother” for awhile. We talked about the old places by the creek where we used to go in the summer.
“I sometimes drive that road than ran just the other side of the creek,” Kwame went on. “It’s too many years … I wonder if there’s still any quartz crystal in that little cubby hole cave we found. Man, you probably wouldn’t almost recognize the whole neighborhood, so much around here (is) crazy …”
My wife and I recently moved into a new apartment in Üsküdar, on the Asian side of the city. Having settled in, we took a walk along the coastal road out to Kuzguncuk, a lovely, bohemian-chic neighborhood with tree-lined streets and lots of cafes. After breakfast, we went to the waterfront. The Bosphorus was a bright blue, and looking out you could see the skyline and the bridge.
I posted some pictures on Facebook, prompting a response from Kwame, who wrote almost indignantly:
“Nice spot – but where are the fishing rods? Can’t catch no fish without any rods!”
There are many fishermen along the Bosphorus, each day casting out their rods in hopes of bringing home some hamsi to fry up and eat with a bottle of rakı. Every day I pass these fisherman, but now when I see them, I see Kwame, the two of us even.
I also think back to our old adventures, our explorations and expeditions. Every Saturday we travelled to the far ends of the Earth, formed kingdoms, fought wars over them, and survived the perils of the Acid River. The only difference between us now, I suppose, is that some foolish-crazy-dreamer thing inside me believed it all. I have spent much of my adult life going from one place to the other, from northern Cal to the heart of Europe to the Near East, searching for those adventures. Kwame, for his own reasons, stayed close to home.
On opposite ends of the Earth, decades later, our narratives continue to unfold, corny as that sounds. Maybe one of these days, I will get myself a rod, plunk down by the Bosphorus, and try to catch one for old Kwame. In return, maybe he can take a trip down to the Acid River, and check on our secret cave and those quartz crystals. Maybe they’re still there.
James Tressler, a former Lost Coast resident, is a writer, teacher and once and future trumpet fisherman. He lives in Istanbul.