RECENTLY, ON a bus ride I struck up one of those on-the-road conversations with the young white woman sitting next to me. She was from Philadelphia, where I spent part of may childhood.
The converstion wasn't very deep. Unemployment, inflation, raising children . . . etc. Our observations were pretty much the same, until we spoke on having "big fun" in Atlantic City, N.J. Then I found we were a generation and a culture apart.
My traveling companion's "big fun" in Atlantic City was now: the gambling houses, the discos and the Steel Pier. Atlantic City was a fabulous new discovery for her. She asked me if I knew Atlantic City. I asked her if a pig loved slop? Did I know Atlantic City!
I knew Atlantic City in the '50s, before she became the Vegas of the East. I too had plenty "big fun" there, but not at the Steel Pier. Although it was around in those days, I never went. Some said that colored could't get in. I don't know if that's true or not cause I never tried. It was: A, too expensive for me and B, I thought the acts were corny.
Steele meant Larry. Larry Steele and his Smart Affairs, a bunch of high-stepping, high-brown dancing beauties who appeared every year at the popular Club Harlem.
Big fun for me in "Lanic City," as we called it, was the boardwalk, salt water taffy and Rina Myers.
Salt water taffy is a pastel-colored plastic "sweet" that will stick to the roof of your mouth and in your teeth like black on coal. Like white on rice.
Lining the streets leading to the famed boardwalk of Atlantic City were wonderful gingerbread houses with roomy porches.Owned, I believe, by the same person who manufactured the salt water taffy. A dentist no doubt, who made a fortune filling cavities caused by eating too much of it.
Biggest "fun in Lanic was Rina Myers, which is in a way a kinda wild association cause Rina is not a native of the city nor is she a salt water taffy freak. To tell the truth Rina never touched the stuff. Which might in part account for her great teeth that she reveals often in the most dazzling smile the other side of F.F. Majors. Most folks feel to ask her "are they yours" when she smiles, but they don't dare. Rina has a way of looking at you that says she would find that question trifling and her presence suggests that she doesn't trifle.
So, what does Rina Myers have to do with a story about Atlantic City? Will, it's like my grandma Sula used to say, "It's a round 'bout way home, but if you walk with me, I'll git you there."
Rina Myers, youngest of eight, born "1890 something or 'nother" to freed slave parents in the Atlantic coastal town of Port Royal, S.C., is a woman with a lot of style. Her sense of self is remarkable.
Rina is an original. At a time when women wore quiet-colored, man-tailored suits, Rina wore bold-colored, calf-length gathered skirts with ruffled blouses, or "waists" as she called them. When women were straightening, pressing and curling their hair, she wore hers natural and piled in a ball on top of her head, or sometimes at the nape of her neck. Occasionally she would make one large braid and wrap it around her head.
Married at 14, Rina balked at "working by the sun" in the fields with her husband as most wives were expected to do and did. Her husband went to her father and asked him to do something with this "peculiar acting" child bride. Her father told the husband, who was a decade older than Rina, "we never could do nuthin' with Rina. She never did act like the others, takes after her grandmama who she's named for. If you can't do nuthin' with her and don't want her, bring her home, and anyhow we didn't raise her to be no mule." The husband "kept" her and they had five children.
Widowed at 30, Rina migrated north to Philadelphia, did domestic work in the day and went to school for factory sewing at night, eventually getting the factory job she held for the next 25 years.
Rina enjoyed her life in Philly. Philly didn't know quite what to make of Rina. Still don't. Not too long ago, some people stopped Rina on a downtown street and asked her what she thought of women's rights. According to Rina, they stopped her "cause they thought to get a 'pitiful' old black woman's opionion." Rina said, "I was time enough for 'em. I told 'em I think the woman's movement is the best thing that's happened since Emancipation. I'm right on for it. I'm for anything that is gon' help the situation of womens. It's good for womens to speak up and take care of theyselves and not to be contin' on no man to do it. When I was comin' up they had a expression 'a man ain't nuthin' but a pair of britches.' Well, they ain't even that now. The men done took off the britches and they is wearin' shimmies, so since they wearin' shimmies, let the women wear the britches and take care of themselves. As far as what to call me -- there was time when the white people wouldn't call a black woman 'mrs.' cause it would give them respect. Now the womens is fighting for 'ms.' cause it would give them for 'ms.' I'll be called Ms. I don't mind it at all. Just don't call me out my name. Yes, you can call me Ms. Rina Myers."
Over the years, Rina has become famous. Folks in the community talk about her like the English talk about the weather. "Rina don't take no tea for fever." "Rina don't get the fever!" Meaning she is a BAAAD lady. A MEAN sister. Meaning she is an independent Woman, beholding to no man or person, only her God. Some folks think she might talk back to Him for Her.
Everything Rina do is profit for Ma Bell, it's a buzz buzz this and a ki ki that.
"Did you see how she come to church last week, all dressed in them African rangs her grandchile give her."
"Hits a sin and a shame."
"Ain't it the truth!"
"You know she got a dog, a old funny looking pinkish mutt and the dog got one pierced ear."
"No! Now that's going too too far."
"Oh yes she do. And don't you know that dog ride with her in the front seat of her car."
"It's a shame. Wonder how she think up such as that . . ."
"Did you know she got a speeding ticket the other day?"
"What you say!"
"I'm hate to tell you she got a speeding ticket. Tell me she was going plenty fast and when the cop finally caught up with her to give the ticket, he gave her a piece of his mind, say she ought to be shame of herself, old lady like her driving like that."
"He was right, but what Rina tell HIM?
"Well, you know she got that mouth on her and she give him plenty of it. Told him she wasn't shame of nothing she ever did, ever will do and he ought to be shame of his self bothering a Christian woman like her on her way to prayer meeting instead of stopping the rapists and the muggers."
The grapevine is steady shaking everytime Rina makes a move.
"She don't act ladylike."
"She don't act like the other womens."
"She ought to stop that riding round in fast cars, swimming and such as that. . ."
"Ain't it the truth, Lord have mercy!"
"She thinks she is something."
"Sure right 'bout that, think she is somebody."
How dare she. How dare she think she is somebody. Where she get that from? Womens, specially poor black womens ain't spozed to carry themselves like that. How dare she dazzle.
But she does.
It's hard to put your finger on just what it is that she's got, but Rina's got "it," that thang, that special energy, the magical power to dominate the spaces she is in when she is in it. Rina walks in a room and the floor spins like a Mexican top. When you meet Rina Myers, you been met, you hear me. She one of the people Langston Hughes had in mind when he write:
There are people [you've probly noted it also] who have the unconscious faculty of making the world spin around themselves, throb and expand, contract and go dizzy. . ."
Just being around her drives some folks crazy. I don't know why. Rina isn't exceptional looking. She's not tall. Not short. Her contralto voice has a Geechee inflection and she almost stutters. Her biblical honey-colored skin has never known makeup except for a little nutbrown face powder and in her later years she stopped wearing that. Outside of that devastating, disarming, dazzling smile and her hazelgray eyes [strange in one so dark] she is quite ordinary.
Ordinary-looking or not, Rina can rock the boat. Yes she can. Rina can make it hard a' lee and come about. Once, and I saw this with my own eyes, Rina in her natural almightiness was walking down a street in Philadelphia, just Carolina cane-walking along, with her knees leading, her hotenot butt following, slowly switching side to side like a mermain after a hard day's work, minding her own business, and don't you know, some folks were so upset, just lookin at her, they ran in the house, locked the doors and pulled down the shades. Yes they did.
White folks might call Rina feminist or eccentric even. As a child, I didn't know what those words meant, less more usin' them to call somebody 'out their name. I didn't care what they called Rina. I loved the way she did things and admired the way she carried herself.
Because our community intuitively knew that "conceptions of emerging womanhood are transmitted from generation to generation" as Joyce Ladner says in her book on the black woman, "Tomorrow's Tomorrow," women who were good mothers, faithful wives, ardent churchgoers, to whom Mary McLeod Bethune, Lena Horne, Eleanor Roosevelt, and others of that caliber were held up as shining examples. I truly appreciated all of them. But Rina Meyers was the one I wanted to be like when I grew up.I thought she was the best.
She is my grandmother. I was enchanted by her. My mother, her daughter-in-law, was not.
Mame ws forever calling me "Rina's child." "You don't act like you no kin to me, you took after her, You Rina's child."
Being grown up and having survived one myself, I'll admit that as a mother-in-law, Rina was a bit much, but as a grandmother she was golden.
Rina taught me how to sew, that and embroider. And from her I learned how to make the best Carolina peach ice cream outside of Carolina in an old-fashioned churn with rock salt in Rina's backyard on Cambridge Street in Philly. That was about the only food stuff I learned from Rina. Not to be funny but Rina don't do windows or cook and even though she only went to second grade, I learned the value of reading from her. She stressed that if you "ain't lived it or read it in at least three books don't talk it." Rina says the only book you can read and take word for word is the Bible.
Nobody else had a grandmother who made two-piece bathing suits out of cretonne print upholstery fabric and wore tham to boot.
Now, we are almost home.
Rina is a mermaid. She taught me to swim. We used to go to Atlantic City to "catch the sea breeze and bathe in the salt water." "Cause we [talkin bout Geechees -- or Gullahs, the people from the coast and the sea islands off the coast of the Carolinas and Georgia] come from salt water people," she was forever saying. Mother Dear, as she told me to call her although behind her back I called her Rina, would swim way out and the lifeguards were forever blowing the whistle.She'd keep on swimming. They would look right scared, like they might have to swim out and get her. They never did though. Rina always came back. Literally on herback. She would always tell me when I'd look, with awe at her and say "I don't see how you do it, Mother Dear," she'd say, "Ain't nothing to it, just don't fight the water, don't be scared of it, just ride wid it." In other words go with the flow.
Whenever the lifeguards would blow the whistle on Rina, folks would crowd around like they do on a beach and ask "what happened?' Who that women out there?"
I'd say "Nothing. That's my grandmother, riding the waves." CAPTION: Picture 1, Rina Myers -- But you can call her "Ms."; by Joan Ruggles for The Washington Post; Picture 2, Rina Myers; by Joan Ruggles for The Washington Post