In A Revolutionary Life, John Lee Anderson wrote Che Guevara had a sense of security only trust fund beneficiaries understand. Recently, I came across decade-old letters and emails I’d sent the administrator of my now dissolved family trust that made me both cringe at my audacity and smile at my courage. Funding requests for an automobile, back mortgage payments, gifts for my brothers, relocation, graduate school summer tuition, a kitchen remodel for mom’s home with a surprise truck on the side, and an appeal for funding to pay my housing for three years while earning an MFA in Creative Writing and Literature (a notably unprofitable degree I would complete a year early) littered my outbox and clear plastic file box. I imagined myself an attorney presenting my case for financial support on the latter matter, and with the beneficiaries—my two elder brothers, mother and I—evenly at odds on whether the trust should support my next academic endeavor in New York, I argued in the most upstanding manner I knew how, with a series of questions meant to illicit facts.
It took me some time to come out swinging. Were it not for a multitude of adversity, I may never have balled up my fists. But foreclosure, a felony case, and continuous family court hearings all highlighted how much I needed to leave Wichita, and what I would lose—a future—if I stayed.
A professor and mentor of mine, Dr. Chinyere Okafor, told me when many bad things are happening something amazing is about to take place. My eldest brother encouraged me to, “Go do your thing, sis,” and signed off on my proposal. A maternal aunt stood next to me on mom’s front lawn and marveled at my ambition.
“Wow, Margie. New York. By going there, your daughters will see you are a go-getter and they will be go-getters, too.”
“What about mom?” I asked.
“You can call her every day.”
My closest college friend, Shon, assured me over blunts and wine, “God is not going to give the devil the victory over you.”
But my other brother, one and a half years my senior, contended when the economy is down, going to college is about the stupidest thing a person can do. “Now is not the time, Marge,” he said, barely looking up from his book. “I can’t sign that.”
And mom yelled and cursed. “You about to leave your damn home to go rent some place? You went and bought that house and put all that money into it when you didn’t even want it?”
She was right—I was leaving a lot by letting my home go. It felt custom to my daughters and I, and there has not been another person, from what I’ve seen online, original enough to understand the true beauty of that quad-level home on a corner lot in old money east Wichita.
The staircase had sealed the deal. The balcony, bone colored iron balusters, and swooping stairway combined into an ivory clef note. But I could never accept the balusters pale—iron naturally a blackish grey—much less the note. I had hoped to one day replace the ironwork with panels of smoke tinted glass.
And then there was the swimming pool. It was kidney shaped, which—because at age seven I was hospitalized with a kidney infection—I took as a sign to purchase. I once even considered painting the bottom red, making flames of water anytime someone dived in. But when the sun shone bright, the bottom could register either ethereal or chemical; on the one hand it might look like pomegranate liquor, on the other hand nail polish. I settled on white, although pink lights might have sufficed, my own little bean-shaped Lake Retba, a slice of Senegal in my backyard, a partition of DNA—just maybe—running through my veins.
I’d dreamed about if for it a long time, owning real estate. I tried to buy my first home at seventeen, a newly renovated five bedroom off of 21st and Hillside near the new police substation and public library, with the intent of renting it out to someone on Section 8. I figured the passive income would help subsidize a lifestyle of writing and leisure, but I could not close without the signature of my mother and she refused.
And nearly a decade prior to that, when I was eight or nine, I saw Stevie Wonder’s “Skeletons” video playing on Video Soul, sparking a desire to live in a neighborhood where trees lined the streets on opposite sides and meet and kiss in the sky. I‘d forgotten the crystallization of those thoughts until I mentioned the dream one day to a friend, whose young son looked up through the sunroof from the backseat of my Land Rover on our way to my house and said, “You got it.”
Though the property was phenomenal in its own way, the housing market crash had peaked and the only way I was able to escape is through Chapter 7 bankruptcy, serving as my own representation since I could not afford a lawyer and thought it smarter to use my brain—and the coaching of a friend in exchange for my refrigerator—rather than the trust’s resources.
Although I hated to let it go, mom was much sadder about it than I. Because I know sometimes you must leave one dream to progress to the next. Even Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., the bar for nonviolent resistance, recognized “a riot is the language of the unheard.” Even Dr. King knew a long hot summer could evolve into rioting and looting.
Because sometimes you have to go for yours.
And when the stakes are high enough, one will. Because to go for yours is to survive.
Pursuing the trust against the will of half my family was an act of refusal; I refused to be bullied out my inheritance. Since the age of four, I’ve known how to write checks, including signing my name in cursive, skills developed by frequent visits to the bank for my parents to dip into my account throughout my childhood. Some stock accounts belonging to my brothers and I were just discovered this past year upon clearing mom’s house out one last time, the shares long sold by our parents, the fresh revelation dissolving any lingering guilt I may have held over standing toe to toe with mom in appeal to the trust left by my paternal grandfather for support. Ultimately, her love superseded her anger and disappointment in my bidding Wichita farewell; mom signed, leaving only the brother I’d been close to most my life as my adversary.
A quick fired email, subject: tuition help, expressed my appeal for financial support. Included was a three year budget and a handful of questions:
Has not every beneficiary had equal opportunity?
Have I not worked in accordance to my grandfather’s vision to achieve what he wanted to achieve generationally?
Have I not already invested in myself more in earning my bachelor’s degree than the amount I request?
Does personal opportunity respect time?
Is the intent of the one objecting honorable?
What is his qualifications for determining his objection?
Has the objecting individual ever assisted our mother or any other family member?
And, lastly, if I welcomed this objecting beneficiary into my home for over a year while unemployed and not contributing as I worked, attended college, and took care of three children, as well as provided food for us all, how can the same individual attempt to detour the dreams of the very one who has always supported not only him, but every family member?
I was approved and presented with the news the last question secured the board’s unanimous vote.
A month later, I was at the Southampton Writer’s Conference, officially kicking off graduate studies. Between sessions, I lamented to an old Jewish lady sitting next to me on the Hampton Jitney headed to Manhattan, she going home and I to a hotel for the weekend in order to secure a place to live once the girls and I relocated a couple of months later. We’d been neighbors at the Southampton Writer’s Conference. “I just don’t understand how my family doesn’t want me to succeed.”
“Your family is afraid you’ll leave them behind,” she responded, looking over the rim of her glasses.
“I don’t know why they’d think that.”
“That’s just how family is,” she replied, before telling me about her two sons, one whom she cared for as he died from AIDS, “a disgusting disease, “ the other still living and managing her finances. “A woman always needs a nest’s egg,” she said in parting, having learned a lifetime ago when she had to beg her husband for a chair to sit on and study for college courses. Eventually, she got a hand carved seat and a PhD.
To go for yours is a strive toward purpose. Though God fights our battles, we are not called to inaction; so it is said, faith without works is dead (James 2:17). We must, therefore, show our faith by our works (James 2:18-20).
Consider Esau and Jacob, the twin sons of Isaac and Rebekah who wrestled even in their mother’s womb. As Esau, the firstborn, was entering into the world, Jacob held his foot in an attempt to slow him down. Where Isaac favored Esau, Rebekah favored Jacob. Whereas God loved Jacob, He hated Esau. Jacob, like his mother, was deceitful, eventually conning his own brother—frivolous Esau—out of his birthright and blessing from their father, Isaac. Jacob even wrestled with God until daybreak, prevailing with a limp, a blessing and a new name, Israel. (Genesis 32:24-30)
Jacob, now Israel, went for his.
Because an inheritance is worth fighting for.
Upon arrival to the city, I only had two days to find an apartment. My search started on a breezy day at the most northwest tip of Harlem. As soon as I stepped foot in the area I knew I didn’t want to live there; the blocks were long and it was easy to see how convenient a car would be, which wasn’t quite the New York experience I expected. The apartment manager met me in front of a mid-rise. About twelve stories high, it was an older development—not quite pre-war, but aged enough to have a small, worn elevator. The unit itself was unimpressionable; I remember nothing but the overpowering smell of curry and garlic throughout the hallway when the elevator opened to the sixth floor. I dodged a tricycle ridden by a laughing toddler on the way out, thanked the apartment manager and scurried over toward Morningside Heights, where I trekked southwest to an elevator building near the Hudson. A nice Puerto Rican man showed me an apartment with a slimmer view of the water from the kitchen window of which he was particularly proud. Though the apartment was clean and crisp, I was unimpressed. When I’d asked a middle-aged man sitting on a milk-crate a couple of blocks over for directions, he didn’t speak any English. The thought of living among a majority speaking a language unknown to me made me feel like I would be the outsider in ongoing joke or plot, which made me uneasy, as did the men sitting on apartment steps in the middle of the day, whom my three young daughters would have to pass on the way to school. And when I saw men doing pull-ups on the scaffolding while a white Chrysler Charger parked in the middle of the street blared music, I felt like I was in a Biggie video.
So I took my search to Brooklyn, heading directly to a broker’s office I’d found online. The building was located in a busy area that felt a bit like Chinatown. A young Puerto Rican man said he’d take me to look at a few properties that would likely fit my needs. After waiting about an hour, he escorted me to his car, with two women tagging along.
We rode around Brooklyn, looking at a handful of apartments. “What you know about Bed-Stuy?” he asked as we headed to the third space.
“I know it’s where Spike Lee’s from,” I answered.
He laughed, as did the two women in the back seat. We pulled up to a corner building next to a bodega where I noticed a lot of what I perceived to be Jamaicans. We walked up to the second floor apartment, which had original brick walls, large windows, designer lighting, newly refinished hardwood floors, and granite kitchen countertops. It was beautiful.
But the neighborhood was too busy, a smidgen too dark, and the train seemed too far. Above all, I didn’t see one police officer. I never desired the presence of police until I moved to New York City.
On the way to the next potential home, the agent asked. “Where else have you looked?”
“Harlem,” I answered.
“You like it?”
“I like the idea of living in Manhattan,” I replied.
“You said you were going to school in the Hamptons. Brooklyn is a lot closer.”
“Yeah, that’s what I hear.” Many people at the conference veered me toward Brooklyn or any place in Manhattan outside of Harlem.
As the sun set, I became thankful I’d waited for the agent over an hour. Some truth is only revealed in the dark. It was night, enabling me to see the neighborhood in it’s true light—funny how it takes darkness to bring light.
While turning a corner, the voice of a woman yelling a rhyme permeated throughout the car. I looked out the window and saw a lady with long platinum blond hair and a ball cap pointing aggressively at a man while rapping. The two women in the back seat snickered. A Beyoncé song played on the radio and we drove on to the next apartment, which was a ground duplex unit with worn, red carpet and shared rooftop access. I hated it.
I went back to the hotel, exhausted. Brooklyn seemed like a world away from the city, and it was not a place I was interested in carving a life out for my daughters and I. With one more day to find a place, I decided to turn back to Harlem. I perused a selection of apartments listed on Craigslist. One by one, they disappointed. With one more apartment to see, a three bedroom walk-up with two bathrooms in central Harlem, I arrived to the sight of men in suits sitting in front of restaurants having lunch—working men. I felt better already.
The building was located between a Senegalese restaurant and a bar, and the door to the building was glass secured with an intricate metal that fashionably detoured invasions. Though the apartment kitchen was small and there was no living room window—not to mention two of the bedroom windows faced an alley—it was as close to perfect as I could get. I Google searched the nearest police precinct, which was a few of blocks away, and gave them a call. “Would you feel safe with your daughter or sister living in the area?” I asked.
“I’d have no concerns,” the man answered.
But then there was the issue of money and qualification; the leasing agent wanted a year’s rent, paid in full. The trust said no.
So I leaned in. I’d read the trust several times, it’s categories support, maintenance, education, health and well-being guiding my requests.
If the trust is not willing to pay for any apartment for a year and is unwilling to sign as guarantor, then there is a big problem as I have neither the credit nor the income to be approved anywhere, hence I asked for financial assistant with housing while obtaining this degree. I do not have the time to continue to deal with this, as I have several other things to do including finishing my summer courses (which I will be late to this morning because once again I am dealing with this), complete the rest of the components to my research for Wichita State (which are all due this week), present my research at Wichita State (on 7-31), and relocate here on time to attend required orientation (8-19), not to mention enrolling my children in school and everything that entails. Given the trust has the right, power, and authority, as well as my grandfather’s guidance which clearly states my actions fulfill his wishes, quite frankly, these issues make me feel as though this is an attempt to set me up or failure.
Let’s cut to the chase. I leave here in 6 days and when I go I need to have a lease signed and a key in my hand. I am out here to earn a degree. Dealing with this is a big distraction. What exactly is the real issue? I spoke with Lovell again and she is willing to lease if an agreement is signed stating rent will be paid in 6 month increments. However, I do not know what the details of the written agreement would be. If that poses a problem, the only other solution is to wire the $18,000 that was approved for my housing this year so I can add the remaining $3945 to pay the year myself (the apartment is $1828.75 a month). One of those two options should work.
To better inform you of the housing here, I’ve provided links to comparable places from craigslist. Please remember, this is not downtown New York City, but West Harlem, a place where many would be reluctant to live themselves or send their own children to live. Please also keep in mind THERE ARE NO PLACES TO RENT IN SOUTHAMPTON in my price range. You can verify this by going on craigslist.
It was almost a miracle to sign a lease in New York during those couple of days, a place where qualifications are high and availability low.
And it was a blessing to land in Harlem, the most perfect place to start a new life and to begin new struggles. But that’s a different story for a different day.
As the rest of the world binges the latest Netflix content, I’ve gone old school on IMDb TV, watching the old series, Dallas, for the very first time. I was struck by the words of the patriarch, Jock Ewing, to his son Bobby in one of the more intense scenes: “If I gave you power, you’ve got nothin’! Nobody gives you power. Real power is something you take!”
Life is a series of executive decisions leading one up to this very moment. We are the captain of our ship and, if we are wise, God is the star we steer by.
As you ride the waves, I leave you with the words of the great Slick Rick: “Go for yours, ‘cause dreams come true.”
Listen to the podcast here.
Absolutely amazing !!! I love your thought process and how your story telling is so visual. I ove you and the place that God has brought you to shore.
Thank you for your kind words. I love you, too!