Do I Dare Disturb the Universe?: From the Projects to Prep School

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9780571198368: Do I Dare Disturb the Universe?: From the Projects to Prep School
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Charlise Lyles was born in 1959, on the cusp of a new era for African-Americans. She came of age as the words of Martin Luther King Jr. and Robert Kennedy stirred blacks and whites to right the racial wrongs of the past, although their individual voices had been silenced. In this vivid memoir, Lyles describes how the programs and policies that emerged from the civil rights movement affected her and her family.
Lyles watched as race riots and a river burned in Cleveland. When the ashes cooled, her family was one of the first to move into Cleveland's King-Kennedy Homes public housing project in 1969. Through the eyes of childhood and adolescence, Lyles portrays their years there against a backdrop of weekly black militant demonstrations, the rise and fall of Cleveland's first black mayor, and mounting violence and despair.
At the same time, she traces her ascent from "the slow class" to an elite suburban prep school, showing how programs from Head Start to A Better Chance could open doors for those with the good fortune to find them and the courage to go through. Finally, Do I Dare Disturb the Universe? shares Lyles's search for her long absent father, a quest that culminates in confusion and enlightenment, anger and love.
Do I Dare Disturb the Universe? shows how the triumphs and failures of the civil rights era converged in Lyles's life while drawing a compelling portrait of the girl she was and the woman she became.

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About the Author:

Charlise Lyles was born in Cleveland in 1959. She is an alumna of Hawken Upper School, the A Better Chance program, and a 1981 graduate of Smith College. Lyles is the co-founding editor of Catalyst Cleveland, now Catalyst Ohio magazine, which analyzes urban school improvement issues. Under Lyle’s leadership, Catalyst twice won a Clarion Award from the national Association of Women in Communication as well as awards from the Ohio Society for Professional Journalists and the Press Club of Cleveland. In 2009, Lyles was a finalist for a National Association of Black Journalists commentary award. In 2008 she was selected as a Fellow in the Kiplinger Program in Public Affairs/Jouralism at the John Glenn School at The Ohio State University. After ten years, Lyles left Catalyst in 2009 to pursue other ventures in eduation equality and creative writing. She currently lives in Atlanta, Georgia.

Excerpt. Reprinted by permission. All rights reserved.:

Chapter One

The No. 14 bus runs east on Kinsman Road, straight through the steel heart of Cleveland. I stepped on at East Fifty-fifth Street as the bus headed uptown to Mount Pleasant. That’s where the people who worked at the steel mills lived.

They were men forged from cauldrons of molten metal. We lived in Mount Pleasant before we moved to the King-Kennedy Estates public housing project. I used to see them coming home in the evenings, gleaming like tin men, glistening sweat and metal sprinklings. After working all day in dim foundries, they could look up at the grayest sky and feel lifted. Some years, that sky stayed dull as the day after Christmas all year long. Many a soul in this northern city just couldn’t take it. But the steel men, they did fine. For they carried home paychecks full of overtime and spent them on long, green Ford Gran Torinoes, Buicks, Chrys lers, and sometimes Cadillacs. With the money left over, they bought two-family houses in the nice neighborhood of Mount Pleasant on the East Side, far from the West Side where the white people lived.

And in summer, the black steel men painted the porches of their new homes in shiny coats of red and yellow, blue and green. From my seat in the back of the No. 14, I watched their pretty porches slide by like carnival tents.

“They make that long money working at Bethlehem Steel,” Momma was always saying. Or, “Republic Steel pays good money, enough to buy a nice house with a porch.”

Momma was a hard-working woman, too dignified to pout about her disappointments in life. But some days, dis gust got the better of her. And words like lemon and salt squeezed bitter off her tongue, stinging my open adolescent wound―an absent father. “We coulda bought us that house in Mount Pleasant instead of ending up down here in the project if your father coulda got a job in one of the steel mills,” she would say, then purse her lips in regret.

But my father, Charles “Skeeter” Lyles, was not a man made of steel. Time after time he had searched, and still no mill would hire him, something about a statement in his Navy discharge papers.

Even when I was in kindergarten, when he still lived with us, he spent his days jobless, out roaming the stratos phere where love and astronomy collide. He looked skyward and swore that the stars were shining in broad daylight. “You just can’t see them because the light of the sun is drowning them out,” Charles Lyles explained to me. “But they are there. Oh yes, they are.”

At night, he gazed on stars and counted. “One, two, three, four, five, six, seven. Those are the Big Dipper, or Ursa Major. See, those seven there are the Little Dipper, or Ursa Minor. They all have names like little girls: there’s Maia, Taygete, Electra, Merope, Atlas, Pleione. And see Alcyone, at the bowl and handle there? She is the brightest of them all, just like you. These over here to the east are Cassiopeia. See, they’re shaped like a lady in her chair in heaven.”

And in winter skies over the shivering lip of Lake Erie was his favorite, the Zeta star. Three times in the course of eight years, Zeta twinkled. It looked like it was winking, just like Marilyn Monroe, the movie star that Charles Lyles liked a lot. The twinkling happened when one star passed in front of another, Charles Lyles said. This was called an eclipse. Zeta could be seen more clearly with something called a telescope―which I imagined was a long pair of glasses. But Charles Lyles could feel enough of Zeta to revel in her light.

“Skeeter, who told you all that stuff about stars?” my five-year-old self demanded to know.

Other times, he pointed to clouds piled up high in the sky like soapsuds mountains and said, “Those are cumulus clouds.” Or he would point to a red sky at dawn and an nounce, confident as a rain dancer, “Gonna be a storm today. Gonna pour down this evening.” Or, “Look at those curly ones there, Sugarbabe. Those are cirrus clouds.”

“Come on, Skeeter,” I begged. “Tell me how you know.”

Impressed with his celestial savvy, I reported to my Sunday school class at Mount Olive Baptist Church that Charles Lyles, my father, could find his way around heaven. And that he also knew what kind of clouds God slept on.

That was a lot more than I could say for old bald-head Reverend Berry. For all his preaching, he did not seem to know the real road map that led to the Lord. His face went blank as a turned-off TV set when we Sunday school students gangstered him in the corridor to ask what God’s “Great Big Kingdom” looked like. And did God have a living room? And did he have a painted porch to sit on in the evenings and watch the sinners go by on their way to hell?

I was proud that even though Charles Lyles did not make it to church often like some Sunday school students’ daddies did, he was obviously privy to special information from heaven.

But it did him no good, his hours idle, his pockets empty. Too often, that sky, gray as a cemetery, descended on his soul, landing him dead drunk off a bottle of Thunderbird wine, hopelessly, painfully earthbound at the Kinsman Bar and Grill.

That is where I hoped to find him as I rode the No. 14 bus up Kinsman Road that summer day in 1974. Nine years had gone by since he had left me, my mother, two sis ters and two brothers. Since then, I had seen Charles Lyles only half a dozen times or so―maybe. They are times I could no longer remember. We now lived in the King -Kennedy project, a place of brown brick and cinder block buildings, hallways, steel doors, gritty tiles, concrete and tar-topped playgrounds, ice-cream trucks, rats, murderers, and incinerators. Charles Lyles had never come there to visit us. But at fourteen, I was forgiving.

There was much to tell Charles Lyles. A month before, upon my graduation from ninth grade at Kennard Junior High School, all the English and social studies awards had gone to me. “Outstanding.” That’s what my teachers at Kennard Junior High School called me. “Miss Lyles is an outstanding young lady.”

But most outstanding of all, I had been awarded a $12,000, three-year scholarship to attend the Hawken Upper School in Gates Mills, Ohio, a private school for rich white kids way out in the suburbs. For grades ten through twelve, my books and everything would be paid for.

Hawken, I had been told, was ten times better than East Tech or John Hay, the high schools where most kids from the projects went. Hawken had no more than fifteen students to a class, while East Tech had thirty-five or more. Hawken had a huge library full of books, maps, and mag azines. A big red barn stood over cows with moody eyes big as a Kennedy silver dollar. An art studio had a potter’s wheel. A theater with dressing rooms was under construc tion. In the math lab, a computer talked in lighted green letters. Classrooms faced a lush forest that stretched for acres. And the French teacher was really from France. In the spring when I visited Hawken, three teachers, including the French teacher, had told me they wanted me to come to their school.

Plus, I needed to report to Charles Lyles that I would be leaving home to live with a schoolteacher whose house was closer to the Hawken School bus route. Our place in the project was too far away and we had no car, no way for me to get to Hawken. My new bedroom would have flowered wallpaper, a set of books about almost every country in the world, and an electric typewriter.

Plus, Charles Lyles needed to see that I was grown-up now, with real breasts that fit into a regular ladies’ size bra, not no training bra. With all my heart, I hoped they would bloom even bigger into beautiful bosoms. My bushy hair now puffed to my shoulders, except on a day like this, when Momma had convinced me to imprison it in a pony tail and braids. (She was worried about boys checking me out.)

So I dropped two quarters in the No. 14 fare box to ride up Kinsman Road. I was going to find Charles Lyles. And I was going to tell him that Charlise―the daughter he had chosen to name after himself―was about to do some thing brave and remarkable in the world. I thought he ought to know about it.

He would be proud. He would brag about me to his buddies at the bar. They would order another drink to ease their envy. They would scold their own children: “Why can’t you win a scholarship to private school like Charles Lyles’s daughter did?”

“East 130th,” the bus driver called. Too excited to sit any longer, I slid off the vinyl seat, pulled the bell, and bounced down the back steps onto Kinsman, right smack in front of the Shrimp Boat restaurant. The smell of frying fat thickened the air. Sweet ketchup, fries, and footlongs.

The Kinsman Bar and Grill was a few blocks away. The bus pulled away, belching fumes. I headed up the avenue.

My low-top Converse tennis shoes smacked the pave ment. Doubt smacked at me. Suppose he wasn’t there? Charles Lyles was a traveling man, always moving from one joint to the next. I had heard my Aunt Cora say that. For his whereabouts, my family commonly relied on friends and relatives like Aunt Cora to report infrequent sightings. “Saw Charles the other day on East 130th.” Or, “Saw your daddy at the bar up on Kinsman.” I relied on this last report.

BEER and wine. Beer and WINE. Pink and green neon beckoned from the window of the Kinsman Bar and Grill.

The wooden screen door slammed behind me, forbid ding a fly entry. Inside, it was dark and dank as a basement. A man was parked on a high-standing bar stool.

“Hi. Have you seen Charles ‘Skeeter’ Lyles?”

He smiled a broad, short-toothed smile. “You Charles’s little girl?”

I knew he knew the answer.

“Hey, Pursey,” he called to someone on the other side of the bar. “This Charles’s little girl.”

Pursey appeared around an old Coca-Cola freezer, tickled as could be. “I coulda told you that. She got that Lyles fo’head. Broad and tall, just like Charles’s.”

“It sho is that Lyles fo’head,” the other man mused. “She got them cowlicks too.”

“Have you seen Skeeter?” I asked flatly, annoyed, but pleased that the Lyles clan’s distinguished features could be so easily identified by total strangers, like royalty or some thing. “Do you know where he staying at?”

“Ain’t he staying up on East 147th Street with Mary?” the nameless man asked Pursey.

“I b’lieve that’s where he stayin’, lest Mary done kicked his ass out.”

“Wait a minute now. Don’t be talking like that in front of this young lady.”

Yeah. I was an outstanding young lady and hadn’t done anything to him. He sounded like he was mad at Charles Lyles and it had nothing to do with me.

“You know what house number on 147th?” I was ready to go.

“I don’t know the address,” said nameless. “But I know it’s the first apartment building, three stories, you come to after you cross Barlett Street. He stay up on the second floor.”

“OK. Thank you.” On my way out the door, Pursey tried to trip me up.

“You tell your daddy he better come ’round here and pay me what he owe me. Else we goin’ have some business to tend to.”

“F’get chu, ole pointed head, high-booty thing.” I flung the words back, dismissing him with a smart-aleck flick of my wrist, once I was outside and well on my way up Kinsman toward 147th Street.

He had made it sound like Charles Lyles was mean to people on purpose. Maybe he was. Maybe he would tell me to get lost. Or send me back home to my mother.

The strap on my new red vinyl purse dug deep into my skinny shoulder. Packed inside were seven paperback li brary books that I believed had to be hauled everywhere I went, lest I miss a minute to read.

A No. 14 bus whizzed by, headed back down Kinsman toward King-Kennedy, toward home. Maybe I should turn back. There was lots to do. The summer reading contest at the library had to be won. The first team to read and report on fifteen books would win two tickets to see Al Green at Blossom Music Center. Those books had to be read. I could visit Charles Lyles some other day―after me and Desiree Kincaid, my reading partner and best friend, won the contest. There was really no time for this unpredictable man who was supposed to be my father.

And who was this Mary woman? What if she was a mean old bitch who answered the door, just outright lied and said Skeeter wasn’t home?

Even my big sister Linda had said it wasn’t worth trying to go visit Charles Lyles. “He was no ’count,” she said. “Never sent us no money.” It was true. He did not take care of us the way Fred MacMurray on the TV show My Three Sons took care of his kids.

After four blocks of frenzied indecision, I looked up. East 146th Street. Too late to turn back now. Some force mightier than my better judgment pulled me up the avenue.

My black tennis shoes, accented by two-toned socks (red and blue) bounced me down East 147th Street. Hugging my narrow hips were red low-rise, elephant -legged jeans, flapping like propellers as I stepped. Outlining my bosom’s progress toward womanhood was a knitted tank top from Petries Apparel, downtown. Pulling at my shoulder was the shiny red vinyl b.k.a. “wet leather” purse from S. S. Kresge, also downtown. My hair was cornrowed tight as crochet stitches. Though new wire-framed, stop sign-shaped glasses, just like Don Cornelius wore on Soul Train, I looked straight ahead. Past porches. Past gerani ums. Past aluminum-framed lawn swings rocking in the stale breeze. I was going to find Charles Lyles. I had some thing important to tell him.

The purse of paperbacks pressed my arm numb. Finally, after crossing Barlett Street, I approached the three-story apartment building, cautiously. Inside the glass door were six narrow metal mailboxes. Number 4 said “Mary Robinson, Theodore Taylor.” Penciled in over Mr. Taylor was Charles Lyles’s name. I touched the button. It spit a buzz.

At the top of the dimly lit stairs, a door creaked open. What if he peeped out, saw it was me and went back in side? What if he didn’t recognize me? What if he mistook me for one of those Girl Scout cookie peddlers or some square selling candy to pay for a class trip to Washington, D.C.?

This was stupid. I should just go on home. Linda had told me not to take my butt up on Kinsman anyway.

“Who knock?”

“It’s me, Sugarbabe.”

A pair of dusty, square-toed loafers stepped onto the landing. “Who is it?” It was a man’s voice, deep, demand ing, and annoyed.

He leaned over the railing and studied hard. The dim hall hid his face, but I felt my presence in his and knew he was my father. He did not know me.

“It’s me. Sugarbabe. Lillian’s daughter. Charlise Lillianne.”

“Well, ain’t this something. Sugarbabe come to see old no good Skeeter―talkin’ ’bout you Lillian’s daughter,” he faked it. “Like I don’t know who you are.”

Not a bad comeback, I thought. He seemed real happy to see me, excited even. I wished he wouldn’t say that “old no good Skeeter” stuff.

Standing akimbo at the top of the steps, he towered like a man with untold powers, whole planets at his command.

“Come on, Sugarbabe. Come on up.”

The book-load on my shoulder fell away to feathers. I...

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9781598510416: Do I Dare Disturb the Universe?: From the Projects to Prep School: A Memoir

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