The last of three rainstorms had moved through Southern California, partially making up for a so far dry, chilly winter. Rather than the omnipresent brown haze that usually dominated the region, the skies were clear and the sun was radiant as if imported from a Hallmark card. Joggers and yoga adherents nearly gasped at experiencing the rare occurrence of fresh air. At the funeral for Grisham Abraham Waller, birds twittered on branches and nary a car horn could be heard blaring along busy Florence Avenue. Waller’s body was being interred at Inglewood Park Cemetery.
Standing among the gathered at Waller’s graveside, Cynthia Kang tuned out the minister’s oratory and recalled attending another such service with her departed friend and mentor.
“Impressive,” Grish Waller whispered to her as they sat side-by-side in the pew. It was more than a decade ago at a predominantly black church in then-termed South Central Los Angeles. The occasion was a memorial service for the late County Supervisor, Kenneth F. Hahn. A Los Angeles native, Hahn represented an area that had gone from being white to majority African-American and he had hardly broken stride. In the early ’60s when Martin Luther King Jr. came to the city, it was Hahn who met him at the airport and was with him when he spoke at the West Coast Wrigley Field, once home to the Triple A Angels ball club.
She grinned at him. “You mean the number of people here, or the fact that a white man of German heritage got this much love from black folk?”
“Both,” he answered, nodding a greeting to a state senator who’d arrived late.
“Vision trumps race, Grish?” Kang said.
“In a perfect world it does,” he remarked.
“Fairy tales can come true,” she cracked. Even back then as he prodded her to consider the electoral arena, they’d had long conversations about the nature and character of race identity politics. Like Hahn, Grish was a white man who came to represent a different set of constituents than the ones who’d originally brought him to office. But with his track record and his always having reached out beyond comfortable boundaries, he’d recast himself several times and remained in touch with his Congressional district.
Grish Waller had also reminded Kang, when she finally did run for office, “Mister Ashley Montague’s theory about race being a social construct might get traction at high minded conferences, but don’t get carried away about that shit. For certainly here,” he’d said, pointing at the ground, meaning the city and the world beyond, “race is as American as cherry pie.”
Kang learned she had to be a progressive, credible, and to carry the burden and promise of being a Chinese-American candidate. She had to figure out how much to be of any of that depending on what part of her district she was in–talking to old-timers, some of whom ran with Chiang Kai-shek, to young Latina mothers worried about their kids’ grade school curriculum.
Back at the Hahn service, Waller adjusted his pocket square. The handkerchief matched his golden-hued tie, offset by his stylish gray suit. He always dressed well. “And of course philosophy only matters as long as you can express it concretely. Kenny delivered, Cynthia. It has its problems, God knows, but pushing and cajoling and making deals to get King/Drew Hospital opened in the ’70s wasn’t a parlor trick.”