Several weeks ago, while taking a run one afternoon with my dog Meggie, I passed a handsome woman strolling down 16th Avenue. Dressed in a simple white T-shirt and pants, she had chocolate brown skin and high cheekbones. I'm a friendly runner so I called out "Good afternoon, how are you?" As Meggie and I passed she responded, "Just fine, love," and smiled and waved at me.
We crossed Harrison Street and Meggie, who'd found a sweet spot on the tree lawn, resisted going forward. The lady in white caught up with us.
Our eyes met, and we nodded again. Before Meggie and I darted off she called out, "I'm holding a benefit for Katrina all day today. If you'd like some delicious rice and beans look for the white balloons a block back. You won't regret it."
The first few weeks after the hurricane hit, I'd had little opportunity to watch the news or get involved, but I felt an incredible kinship with the people who'd lost their loved ones, their homes, their livelihoods. I imagined how Seattle could one day experience an earthquake as destructive as the floods that buried New Orleans under water. Traveling there to help seemed unrealistic, but I also wanted to do more than write a check in the comfortable confines of my isolation. I had a desire to gather with other concerned people and find common cause and perhaps greater understanding.
That evening I convinced my partner Ter to return to 16th Avenue and look for the white balloons. I pictured a barbecue pit or food stand on the tree lawn, but instead discovered a single note card underneath one balloon welcoming us to Monica's apartment. When we heard the laughter through the second story window we knew we'd arrived.
Still in white, Monica answered the door and welcomed us into her home.
Three people finishing their meal sat at a small table. They rose and introduced themselves. Ter and I sat down on a comfortable couch. The cozy one bedroom was painted a warm terra cotta color with beautiful archways and trim.
A new world
I hadn't expected to be swept up into someone's world that night, someone I didn't even know a few hours earlier. Monica offered us a glass of wine as she began to cook in the kitchen. She said that she would soon be leaving this apartment where she'd lived for 27 years.
"I'm from New Orleans," she said. "After the flood I wanted to do something that would make me feel good about leaving the only home I'd known since moving to Seattle."
She'd found a new place a block away, but it didn't have the cozy kitchen, the backyard garden and years of memories. The developer who'd purchased her building planned to turn the units into condos. She still hoped that the new owner might consider renting back to her so she wouldn't need to go.
The threesome got up from the table and made a contribution to the relief effort, dropping a donation into her cash box. Two were from Toledo, Ohio, near my hometown. Friends of Monica's began joining us around the small table in her living room while she prepared her special recipe of Cajun cuisine.
Suddenly with the glow of lamps and candles illuminating the warmth of the walls, with conversation and storytelling filling the void of a building soon to be vacant, the world grew smaller. Other close friends began arriving: a former actor, now-software developer, and his dancer wife; a Metro bus driver whom we later learned took the beaming photograph on the credenza of Monica's daughter and her husband on their wedding day; a young man who'd grown up on Capitol Hill, attended St. Joseph's School and befriended Monica when she'd first moved here from Louisiana.
We sat and basked in the good cheer of her friends for several hours, forgetting about the movie we'd originally planned to see and instead enjoying the chance encounter that led us to a woman's final weekend in her beloved home.
When Monica entered the dining area with steaming plates of fried chicken, rice, beans and vegetable slaw, our eyes widened. The flavors with her special spices tickled our watering mouths. Every last bite became a lasting pleasure. The food and the hands that prepared it told a story.
By the time we finished Monica was readying meals for the next group of diners. We finished our food and wine, and pulled out our checkbooks.
Our day to day lives often take on the rhythm of a metronome, clocking one scheduled task after another. Mistrust and suspicion can prevent us from opening ourselves to change and allowing new people into our lives. Concealing ourselves in our work and routine prevent us from seeing the world anew, as a place of openness and possibility. A place where fear need not exist, where skin color yields to stirrings of the human soul. Where a meal, no matter how simple, becomes a banquet of humanity.
Monica proved with her cooking, her warmth and graciousness that one, even two, nasty storms are no match for the human heart.
Capitol Hill resident Jack Hilovsky's column appears in the second issue of each month. He can be reached at email@example.com.