It was at about 30,000 feet that I remembered how to love myself. I had every intention of falling asleep – travel anxiety had kept me awake the night before and powered my frenzied preparation for the flight. Settling into my delayed American Airlines flight, I reached for my iPhone, put her in flight mode, put my earphones in and willed myself to shut out the world and sleep.
What happened next was very different from sleep.
But now, as I’m telling the story, I realize that it began a few days before on a different flight to a different city. Travel with me to Miami for a minute.
The Prophet? Or not?
He was the craziest looking man in all of Miami International – a tall and slim black guy in his 50s pimp-dressed from head to toe. The man I would name Mack Daddy (in my head) was in a black suit with white pin strips widely spaced. The jacket fit his shoulders well and fell down below his knees and a black fedora sat over the smiling brown face. He had just swept the tail of his coat aside to sit down with a magnificent gesture when our flight was called.
I looked at the man just as his curious eyes swept the line I was in and landed lightly on me before skipping forward. Dear God please don’t make him sit by me! Memories of a charlatan in a pentecostal church in the trouser part of this man’s suit had my shoulders tensed right up.
American Airlines boarded us all in their customary disorganized fashion and my neighbors were revealed to me one by one until there was only one seat left – the middle to my window seat. Lo and behold who should next appear but Mack Daddy himself! He politely spoke to the aisle-neighbor and she let him pass to his seat. Sitting down he thanked her with a pleasant smile.
The flight takes off and now I’m curious. Who on earth could think this outfit up? As it turns out my neighbor to New York was open to share. First he spoke to the aisle-lady again about the book she was reading. At this stage I noticed not one but TWO worn bibles on his lap. Yup – Prophet-man’s brother for sure.
I was glorying in my smug conclusion (Yup – I called it. Uh huh I was right.) and thanking the hostess for my water when Mack Daddy turned to me. By this time I had narrowed down his origin to one of two islands (later turned out I’d hit that one good too), figured he was a travelling charlatan, and was waiting for the preaching to begin. Instead he one-upped me and pointed to my accent asking if I was a Trini.
“HELLLL NO!” came out before I could temper it.
And Mack Daddy laughed. I caught myself in my own righteousness and laughed out loud too. This flight was getting interesting.
Mr. J, I soon learned, was a DJ and entertainer by trade and an islander like myself. He had found Jesus in his adult life after having spent years in the fascinating business of being a friend to famous people. He was now using his talents to bring people to Christ. He had managed and DJ’d at a few clubs in Miami, Puerto Rico and in England and had been quite a woman-tamer in his time. The Jesus-man told me with a mix of wistfulness and shame the stories of his time before Christ took him on. “I was not a good guy, Miss Bush. Believe me. There was one time I was rotating 18 women. And I walked into the club with Joy and Sue wasn’t pleased and I had to say to Sue ‘Tonight I am with Joy. Tomorrow will be your night.’ And she had to be fine with that.” Turns out Bob Marley was much worse – he had 40 something kids. But there was a guitarist in one of the other bands that was the worst of all. Something like 80 women at a time. INSANE. If Mr. J hadn’t been talking like a spectator looking from the outside into his memories I admit I would have been a bit freaked out. But the story was good and he continued to tell me of the fascinating club business in his heyday.
We then began to speak of islands, hurricanes, volcanoes, churches (only briefly) and family. His heart was so open I walked right in and received the hug of his conversation. 20 minutes into the flight I loved the man and the rest of the passengers were about ready to throw us out midair Our conversation was so animated and his laughter so unbridled that I’m sure the pilot could hear!
So Mr. J pulled out his phone to show me his gorgeous daughters. My jaw dropped as he moved from family into photos of himself, his work and his friends. He wasn’t kidding at all! He showed me photos full of bell bottoms, guitars, Afros and marijuana smoke with the faces of Jesse Jackson, Stevie Wonder, and Rick James (who was actually a pretty good looking kid!!) James Brown, Little Richard, and Bob Marley. There were faces I recognized and others I didn’t and for those Mr. J would sing a line in a song that I would immediately know. “Remember this one? She’s a Brick….” (and I’d join in) “HOUSE!” He told me of the Brick House competitions they used to have. He was like “you think you would win a Brick House Competition Ms. Bush?” FUNNY GUY. I nigh split myself in half at that one.
The neighboring passengers would pretend not to be annoyed and turn their earphone volume up. I was totally delighted! His ex wife, his daughters, his most recent gospel concert, flashed past until we got to a photo in Puerto Rico with a young Mr. J in a white suit shaped just like the one he was wearing but with more bell in the leg. He called it looking like a Mack. I couldn’t help but laugh out loud – I had been calling Mack Daddy from the time I laid eyes on the man!
It was only a matter of time before the music changed. We were soon singing old Jamaican 70s songs and trying to figure out by combining our memories the words to the Pluto Shervington song Dat. I could just feel the tolerant Americans around us bristling inside about those effing Jamaicans (Let JA take the blame! We’re Small-Island people, thank you. And not Trinidadians either.) My new friend and I didn’t care.
When I said goodbye to Mr. J in New York I was genuinely sad to part with him. The professional Mack that he was, he seemed to take it more like a normal thing as he cordially wished me safe travels.
In a few minutes all that was left of him was the song in my head.