“Excuse me, sir. Is it possible for me to sneak in and just see the gift shop?”
Visiting Washington, D.C., for business in late 2016, I was drawn to the brand-new National Museum of African American History & Culture. At the time (shortly after its gala opening) the waiting list for tickets was eight months long to get in, but it was a warm, sunny day so I walked there from my hotel just to see what it looked like.
“No sir, you have to have a ticket for that,” I was told.
“Well, OK, just thought I’d try. I’ll come back next time I’m in town.”
The ticket-taker paused, looked me up and down and gave me a conspiratorial smile.
He reached into his coat pocket and produced a ticket, then he winked conspiratorially and told me to go on inside and enjoy myself.
It was as though Shirley was looking out for me…again.
The National Museum of African American History & Culture,…
Shirley Louise Walker came into my life in 1968 when I was 8 years old. She was employed by my family as a “maid,” as we said in those days, at our home by the Chattahoochee River in the northwestern suburbs of Atlanta. I was the second of four children born to my father, a surgeon, and my mother, a part-time nurse and stay-at-home mom.
Shirley worked at our house three days a week — Tuesdays, Thursdays and Fridays — and would occasionally spend the night with us when my parents went out of town.
She had six sons of her own, the first she had when she was 14, and a grandmother who looked after them while Shirley worked. At one time she had a husband, but he was out of the picture. She was an attractive woman with many friends and a busy social life. I know that because I would listen intently to the racy phone conversations she had while ironing in the den when my mother was out of earshot.
Growing up gay in the Bible Belt in the ’70s, the outside world did not feel like a very fun or friendly place to me. So I’d spend hours with Shirley, laughing and talking while she smoked Kool Filter King cigarettes, ironed and drank iced tea. We’d talk about school, her boys, our friends. You may think that she was a maternal figure to me, like something out of “The Help,” but she wasn’t. Shirley was like my sassy, protective, fun and kind of dirty older sister.
We’d cuss and discuss sex, food, Al Green, Marvin, Aretha, Gladys, what was playing on WAOK-AM radio, Coretta Scott King, the latest scandal in the National Enquirer, riding the bus, her wig, the other maids on our street or Shirley Chisholm’s run for president. We’d spend a few dollars each week to play the “numbers game,” which was an illegal lottery popular on the south side of Atlanta. We each won $46 once because we played a number that I dreamed about. She knew that was a sign!
When she stayed weekends, one of the highlights was watching “Soul Train” together when it came on television Saturday afternoons. I’d try to match the moves of some of the show’s famous line dancers, and Shirley would look at me and say, “You got soul baby, I can tell. You black on the inside.” Then she’d clap her hands and break into a few funky moves of her own.
Around this time in the 1970s, racial labeling was making the shift from “negro” to “black,” causing consternation on both sides of the issue. I still laugh to myself remembering one of our conversations about that. “I don’t know why I’m supposed to be calling myself black. I ain’t black, I’m ebony,” she said. “And you ain’t white. You pink!“
In 1974, when I was away at summer sailing camp in North Carolina being bullied and bashed by older boys, it was Shirley who I called on rainy days when camp counselors would take us into Morehead City for a movie. Although I never told her what was going on, she knew I was distressed and we’d talk and talk as I shoved quarters into the pay phone. I never even saw or cared much about the movies.
We never talked much about what was going on in my head as I entered adolescence, but Shirley had an inkling.
“Chris, is you a sissy?” she asked me one day when I was 14. I’ll never forget those words. I was dumbstruck. I did not know what to say and was horrified that someone — anyone — might somehow figure me out, even if it was Shirley. I did not talk to her for about a month after that. (At that time, “gay” was not widely used; “sissy” was a term used primarily in the black community.)
She knew she’d hit a nerve, but she did not say anything to me or anyone else. She wouldn’t press the issue. But I could tell she was upset about being frozen out by the way she’d give me long, sad looks.
Eventually, I could not resist getting back on the fun ship with her, so as the shock of that question wore off, we resumed our good times and fell back into our routines, like watching “Mary Hartman, Mary Hartman” on TV at 11 p.m. — she from her house, me from mine — then calling each other afterward to review it and laugh again at all the funny parts. I still have Shirley’s telephone number memorized. I think of all the numbers I’ve forgotten over the years, but that one sticks.
By the time I turned 15 and had my learner’s permit, my mom started allowing me to drive Shirley to the MARTA bus stop at the end of the day. On the days that she worked, I could hardly wait to get home from school for a chance to take her to the bus all by myself in Mom’s Chevrolet Caprice station wagon.
Once we got in the car, she’d reach into her enormous pocketbook and extract two pieces of Doublemint gum — one for her and another for me. Then she’d pull out a full-size bottle of Jergens lotion, squeeze a dab out and then slowly rub it in all over her hands and arms up to her elbows. (My mom used to say “Shirley has the most beautiful skin of any woman I know.”) She’d also pull out her 15-cent bus fare and the latest issue of Jet magazine to read on the way home. To this day, the smell of Jergens, Doublemint and Niagara spray starch reminds me of Shirley — I can smell it as I type this.
Our friendship was super strong but also kind of a secret. I did not talk much about it to my family, and they did not talk to me much about it, but everyone knew that Chris and Shirley were two peas in a pod. If my parents only knew some of the things we talked about, they would have separated us!
Time went on, and I grew up, turning into a pimply-faced, awkward teenager. I was a band geek and a closet case, but Shirley was always there as my friend and protector. I knew I could count on her, especially when I was living in fear that somehow, someway, someone would figure out what was going on in my head. Shirley would understand in a quiet way — she knew and I knew what was going on, but we never talked about it. That was the way most Southerners dealt with homosexuality at that time. Some still do.
In April 1978, I took a four-day bus trip with the band to Walt Disney World in Orlando. When I returned, my mother broke the horrible news to me: Shirley had died in her sleep over the weekend, apparently due to complications from a hiatal hernia.
Boom. I was a mess. The clothes she’d washed and folded were still in my drawers. I owed her a phone call. It was like losing a mother, sibling and best friend at the same time. She was only 33 years old. On the inside the tears poured and my heart pounded for weeks, but I didn’t feel like I could let anyone know that the death of our housekeeper hurt me so much. I didn’t know who would understand that?
At high school I always liked going to Miss Jenkins’ math class because she was not only a good teacher, but she reminded me of Shirley. A few days after Shirley’s funeral, I recall having a panic attack in class and asking Miss Jenkins’ permission to leave and go to the school clinic.
“My stomach hurts,” I said, when it was really my heart that was broken.
Over the next few months I kept my emotions bottled up and did not talk about it. I cried only in my bed at night or in the car when I drove home from my summer job as a cook at Six Flags Over Georgia.
It took a year or so for me to shake that loss. I continued on with my life, attending high school proms, applying to colleges, going through fraternity rush at UGA in Athens, and then expanding my horizons beyond Georgia by transferring to the University of Colorado. But I never forgot Shirley, and her spirit never left my side. I felt like she became my guardian angel who protected me from too much pain during the coming out years of my early 20s. She kept me out of harm’s way when I was backpacking or working on oil rigs and ski resorts in the Rockies. Sometimes I reached out and heard from her in private séances.
I believe it was Shirley who kept AIDS at bay when I blossomed into a handsome young gay man living in New York City, Puerto Rico and Australia, and watched the horrible, untimely deaths of many friends. Whenever anything mysteriously good comes my way, like Barkley, my partner and spouse of 12 years, or getting this essay published, I feel like Shirley’s up there pulling strings and making it happen.
So when I mysteriously got that ticket to enter the National Museum of African American History & Culture that day, I proudly walked in, one of about 50 white folks among the thousands of African-Americans there to witness a defining moment in their fight for equality — the opening of a spectacular museum on Washington’s National Mall that tells the story of the struggles and highlights of black history in America.
I could hear Shirley squealing with delight as I walked by booths and exhibitions and images of afro picks and pomade, Chuck Berry’s shiny red Cadillac Eldorado, mock prison cells, Al Green and Marvin Gaye music, videos about having light or dark skin, iron skillet cooking, freedom marches and black entrepreneurs. Shirley was there! She got me in the door.
As I stood there admiring Berry’s spectacular car, I noticed an elderly woman visiting alone who was attempting to take a selfie in front of it. I offered to help take her picture, and we had a moment talking about how we both wished we could drive around D.C. on a sunny day with that ragtop down. She had a big purse and a mouthful of Doublemint gum with that unforgettable scent. I realized that if Shirley were still alive, she’d be about the same age.
And I swelled up with warm memories, internal tears and black pride as I walked through the rest of that museum with my head held high knowing that Chris and Shirley were doing this together. It was her magic that got me in that door that day, and continues to keep me happy and safe, I hope, for the rest of my life.
Chris McGinnis is a travel writer and consultant living in San Francisco with his spouse and a succession of black Labrador retrievers named Shirley, Louise and Walker. Email him here
© 2017 Christopher J. McGinnis
This item first appeared in the Atlanta Journal-Constitution