This post was originally published on August 18, 2010.
I finished it, old man.
While searching the web yesterday during writing breaks I stumbled across the Black Press USA site and saw their ad for this year’s all-star awards. I scrolled down the names and recognized the first name as a former professor of mine from Howard University, who is being awarded this September with a Lifetime Achievement Award for his work in public relations. I skipped the name beneath it at first–Harlee Little–but after reading down the list that name remained in my head until I remembered that I had met him before and once knew him very well.
The summer before moving to Los Angeles I was a bartender at a small restaurant called Domku in Northwest DC. How I pulled that off without formal training will forever remain a mystery to me and the local customers I served, but I digress. I was given the easy shifts of course, since I was made a bartender by default after the girl before me quit, and my favorite day to stand behind the bar was Saturday. On Saturday afternoons, two older black men would walk right up to the bar gripping 500 page books and arguing with one another, so audibly that I heard them before they opened the restaurant doors, about the latest politics and news. One of them was Ken. The other was Harlee Little, a photographer whose list of accomplishments only left the lips of others. I called him “old man” and he laughed and returned my attempted wit with acquiescing laughter and stories about what Washington DC and Howard University used to be. He was a humble man who after asking me questions about myself during my quick vodka and juice concoctions creased his eyebrows as I answered. He always waited several moments after I finished speaking, then he nodded his head, then he responded with something more profound and introspective than what I had expected. I spoke to Ken and Harlee about my plans to move to Los Angeles and my love for art, convictions that were always followed by what seemed like quizzes by Harlee to check and see just how much I knew about the art I embarked on.
I googled his name, hoping to come up with recent news on his newest photographic projects, only to find a site that read this–Harlee Little died on January 1, 2009. My heart is still heavy. On the day he transitioned I think I was in some lounge in Los Angeles still celebrating the New Year, oblivious then to the fact that a man who unknowingly impacted me had left our world that day.
I quickly remembered that we had exchanged several emails after Harlee and Ken asked to read some of my writing, and I sent them the first chapter of “Gbessa”. His last email, with the subject “Domku ramblings” read:
Okay Okay. Thank you, the first couple of paragraphs put me in mind of Ben Okri. I liked the piece a lot and have a thousand questions but they are for later. You must finish this. See you at Domku.
You must finish this. That scant 10 pages became my thesis in graduate school, and is currently the 400 page novel that I have been slaving over. How beautiful is life that strangers are placed on our journeys to bless us and push us forward? How brief are the acquaintances that make the greatest difference?
So sad. I’m trying my best to finish, old man. Rest in peace.