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.”
“Keeping it open might be,” she dryly observed. Damn near since the last cinder block had been cemented in place, King/Drew had been under external assault for real and imagined faults and missteps. And as the surrounding Watts-Willowbrook area underwent a demographic flip from mostly black to largely Latino, the resulting tensions over who was represented at the local tables of neighborhood power carried over to internal staffing issues inside the hospital.
“Amen, sister,” he said, patting her hand. They rose as the minister, a Reverend Breedlove, had requested. The crowd began the hymn “Lift Every Voice and Sing.”
“And don’t forget, my dear rabble-rouser,” Waller continued, “the little things count too. There’s something to be said for getting the potholes filled and the street lights fixed.” He then smoothly flowed into the song in mid-stanza. Grish Waller possessed a commanding baritone and had recorded several songs, including “If I Had a Hammer” and “This Land is Your Land.”
The limited-edition cassette was produced and mailed when Waller faced a tough opponent in a runoff who’d sent out autographed potholders on Mother’s Day. The tape also contained a recorded introduction and afterword done by an announcer recounting the long-term pol’s accomplishments in office–he’d also been on the LA city council, in the state senate and assembly–and how much more he had to get done. Waller won by a 10 percent margin.
Kang smiled at the memory as the present-day service concluded. She finished exchanging fond words with Waller’s grown son, Connie, and walked toward Lillian McCord, the last in a line of several significant others of the deceased. Kang passed near an athletically built, copper-hued Latina in dark skirt and practical shoes. They briefly took each other in, their eyes hidden behind the barriers of their respective sunglasses.
A number of mourners were ahead of Kang paying their respects to McCord. Eventually Kang got close enough to speak to McCord.
“Oh, Cynthia,” the tall woman said, a quaver in her voice. She reached out and drew the Congresswoman into her strong embrace.
“I’m so sorry.” Hugging her, Kang was teary-eyed. “Grish is going to be terribly missed, Lil.”
“I need to talk you,” the former pharmaceutical lobbyist said as they let go of each other.
“Sure, of course.”
“Not here or the wake,” she added, shaking her coiffured head. “Later.”
Kang frowned but was already being urged along by fellow Congresswoman Maxine Waters, who was nudging her.
“Girl, you had your fifteen seconds,” she joked behind her.
“I’m going, Maxine, I’m going.”
Waters moved around and said, “We need to get together on the Hawkins initiative, okay?”
They agreed to set a meeting. Waters, the representative from South LA, was pushing a revamp of the Humphrey-Hawkins Full Employment Act, given the passing last year of another notable politician, the act’s co-author, Gus Hawkins. In the 1930s he’d been an End Poverty In California candidate, and the first black man elected to Congress from California.
“I’ll call you tonight,” McCord said as Kang moved off and Waters moved in. Kang noted the attractive Latina was now talking to a burly white man. In their shades and their stances, the way they talked not looking at each other but while they scanned the crowd, the two were cops for sure, she concluded.
As she walked to her car, a reporter trailed by a mini-cam operator intercepted her.
“Representative Kang,” he began, the microphone aimed at her like a lance, “in light of your long-standing relationship with the deceased, what do you say to the persistent rumors that Congressman Waller was murdered?”
She removed her sunglasses. “The authorities are in the midst of their investigation and I, like all of Grish’s friends and colleagues, look forward to the results of same. Now if you’ll excuse me, I need to get going.”
The reporter seemed inclined to pursue this, but fortunately LA’s photogenic mayor was also leaving and he decided to pursue him. The mayor was back in town after stumping for Senator Clinton elsewhere as the Mother of All Super Tuesdays approached for California. Kang neared the parking lot, hoping some other media hound would get a shot of her driving away in her PC Prius. She passed a mausoleum containing the body of another groundbreaking LA mayor, Tom Bradley. She paused, considering that the ghosts of dead politicians were hovering around her, and morbidly wondered if this was an omen of some sort… Were they trying to tell her something, or would she be joining them?
To Be Continued…
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