Bernice and Garry: The Beginning
Updated: Jan 27
“Of all the gin joints in all the towns, in all the world, she walks into mine.” Humphrey Bogart as Rick in Casablanca
On a cool September evening in 1992 I arrived early at my adult education class in a Public Library on the East side of Detroit. In those days, adult education classes didn’t meet during the summer, so I wanted to get my fall registration materials in order. I expected the room to be set up for me and empty. The set-up was in order, registration signs, class times and dates, huge green chalkboard with a box of new white chalk in the tray. The storage door to my books and materials cracked open just enough to let me know I didn’t have to ask the front desk for the key.
But the room wasn’t empty. Huddled in a corner, oblivious to me and I suspect any other intruder, were two women. One appeared middle-aged and was attempting to read from a book that she was holding as though it would burn her hands if she couldn’t spit out its contents. The other woman was sitting erect with a serious but patient air. Both women were well dressed. The reader wore a black, sleeveless blouse, which flowed upward from her full, multihued skirt. The listener was dressed business casual, form fitting beige slacks with matching jacket, a buttoned blue shirt with a feminine collar. Her most striking feature was a tight blonde Afro that accentuated the intelligent face beneath it. I would soon learn that the face was further adorned by clear but soft, robins-egg blue eyes. The smile that would both warm and break my heart for the rest of my life would take a bit longer to surface.
Having finished my preparation, I began checking my watch. Students would be coming in soon. Hopefully at least 25 strong. I had just spent the last four days tearing through the neighborhood like an overzealous voter registration volunteer. Armed with a rubber-banded packet of registration forms, I approached each dwelling with the panache of a Jehovah’s Witness, though I probably looked more like a magazine salesman. My opening gambit for anyone who would answer the door was, “Does anybody in your home need a GED?” Sign ’em up on the spot was my motto. Don’t wait for people to come through the door on enrolment day.
In short, I was in no mood to be trifled with. As a seasoned veteran I knew how to claim my territory and how to guard it. I surveyed the interlopers. Shouldn’t be too difficult to dislodge these two. A little charm, a little sympathy, a little nudge. As I entered their space I waited briefly for them to acknowledge me. Realizing they weren’t going to, I pressed on. “Excuse me ladies. I just wanted to let you know that registration for the GED class is going to start in a few minutes. I see you are working together on some reading but it’s going to get pretty noisy in here. You might want to find a quieter spot.”
The lady with the book gave me a blank look then turned to the Afro lady for guidance. Afro lady responded, “I’m with Literacy Volunteers. We’ve been working here all summer. You won’t bother us”.
“But you will be bothering me,” was what I wanted to say. Instead I just stood there with a stupid smile on my face. Afro had fended me off with surgical precision. Worse, the tight upturn of the corners of her mouth, coupled with the steely glint in her soft blue eyes told me the conversation was over and I was dismissed.
Having lost the first skirmish I could only console myself with the one thing I had learned about my blonde nemesis; she was used to being in charge.