26 July 2018
I ‘lost’ this essay, that is to say, it vanished into the morass of my hard disk until, quite by chance, I ‘rediscovered’ it. Written for Carol’s funeral celebration by her friends in NYC, it needs no further explanation. WB
A memory of Carol By William Bowles
20 October 2013
It’s a freezing cold night in Brooklyn and I’ve not long been in New York. It’s November or maybe it was December 1975 and I’m on my way to meet Carol for the very first time. My friend Valerie Wilmer gave me some names of people she thought I’d should meet when I got to New York. Amongst them was Carol and Rajah Blank.
So I get off the subway at Marcy Avenue which is in the Williamsburg section of Brooklyn and pretty much a wasteland of abandoned factories and burned out brownstones and walk down Broadway toward the East River, past a steak house called Peter Luger’s, frequented by gangsters and cops (if you can spot the difference). But in that desolate and abandoned section of Brooklyn, the wide street outside the solid brick-faced building is incongruously lined with a row of long, black Cadillacs. A single neon sign on one end of the building is the only indication that it’s a restaurant. Welcome to New York.
Further down, maybe a couple of hundred yards before Broadway disappears into the East River (to reappear on the Manhattan side as the ‘Great White Way’), past the abandoned Miller brewery, opposite the trashed Gretsch drum factory, sat a row of dilapidated storefronts and if I remember correctly, Carol and Rajah’s place was the first of the storefronts. Welcome to America.
So I knock on the door and this small, wiry, intense and very black woman, whose taught skin seems cast in bronze with red highlights, opens the door and invites me in with those eyes. In front of a blazing fire that has little effect on the cold drafts blowing in from every which way, two children sit playing; Ravi, who must have been around five then and Radha, his sister, maybe a couple of years younger.
At the back of the room there’s a high counter with three men sitting at it, talking and drinking beer. One is Rajah, Carol’s husband and one of the other guys is the pianist, Andrew Hill. I detect a certain reserve when I introduce myself to them. Rajah asks me what I do, am I a musician and I answer, yes kindof, I play the bass. Acoustic or electric he asks? Electric I reply. Not the right answer, so I retreat to the fire and the kids and Carol. The wind is howling through the holes in the roof. Damn it’s cold!
Thus began a friendship that was to last thirty-eight years. I don’t know if Carol had the same effect on everyone she met but I assume she did. Carol was not the kind of woman that you could ignore. Her beautiful, bright, burning eyes and a grin so wide, it stretched from here to there.
That row of dilapidated storefronts in Williamsburg was an oasis of musos in a desert of ‘post-oil crisis’ neglect. In the storefront next door lived the drummer Sharkey and his then partner, the singer Ora from South Africa and her brother, also a musician. Later, Carol and Rajah were to move to a rundown, leaky, unheated brownstone in another part of Williamsburg, not far from the storefront, where we first met.
If there’s one thing that stands out in my memory of Carol, and I know it’s a bit incongruous really, it’s fish and of course, collard greens and brown rice, always with lots of black pepper. Carol loved her fried fish and every time I ate with Carol, you could be sure fish would be on the menu. To this day, the smell of fish frying evokes memories of Carol and something she shared with my mother who, in turn, learned her fish frying from her mother, who when I visited granma in Salford, Manchester, always made me fried fish that she knew I loved.
Not long after I met Carol, my mother paid me a visit from London. Now much as I loved my mother to bits, we did not get on. In fact, ten minutes in the same room together meant fireworks, maybe because we were so alike? Anyway, Carol and my mum hit it off, they were like sisters, no really, just like sisters. It was a friendship that was to last until my mother died. When I phoned Carol up from London and told her that Vera had just died, she was as broken-hearted as I was. It’s that female thing that I’ve always been jealous of, being a self-conscious and inhibited male. Though Carol probably knew me better than most without ever really talking about such things. She just knew me and accepted me for what I am. What a jewel of human being.
How blessed I was to have known her and to have been her friend all these years. My mother a small, dark-skinned Russian Jew, an ex-dancer/chorus girl had the same kinda fiery character as Carol. Outspoken, afraid of nothing (except death as it turned out), I think she freaked Rajah out. Like a lot of men, Rajah couldn’t deal with strong women, yet he had great respect for her, and during one of my fights with Vera, and rightly so, he got on my case, big time. Roger had this ‘old-fashioned’ thing about the old folks; you respected them, regardless.
Carol was a woman’s woman if you know what I mean (do I know what I mean?) The product of a life of hard knocks and hard knocks for a working class Black woman in the US, knock the hardest. Yet I never saw Carol bow down before it, not even when she was homeless and separated from her children, something she hid from me, until by chance I bumped into her on 14th Street one day. I think that was the only period in our long friendship, when we didn’t see each other for an extended period of time. But what is it with musicians and their women? Or rather what is it with women and their musician men? My mother married two. Where would those men have been without their long-suffering women? Is all that wonderful music really worth the price? I don’t know.
Back in 2008 I returned to New York for the first time since leaving for Johannesburg in 1992 and I stayed with Carol in her apartment on Adam Clayton Powell Boulevard and 122nd Street, in a Harlem suffering the twin evils of poverty and gentrification (though the junkies still hung out near the local precinct, just before you get to 125th Street). It was clear even then that Carol wasn’t well. She had a permanent cough, most probably bronchitis and was clearly very unwell and yet still smoked and still liked her tipple of brandy every once in awhile. Those bright eyes still burned but perhaps not so intensely.
As a kind of echo of that first meeting all those years before, I brought with me a bunch of Andrew Hill CDs for her, though at the time, I’d forgotten about that first meeting and Andrew being there, I just knew she liked Andrew Hill. And every morning during my stay, she would get up real early and chant to her Buddha, very quietly so as not to wake me, but of course, she always did, and I’d lay awake listening and not get up until she had finished. And of course, she cooked us fish and collard greens and brown rice with lots of black pepper, every day.