By Al Dickerman, Columnist
How I came to read the book ‘Why The Caged Bird Sings,’ I do not remember. What I do remember is the impact it had on my life. Never before had I felt the overpowering need to meet the author of a book I had read. Yet that is what happened. A friend of mine who worked on the ships, knew Maya’s mother, Vivian, and another friend of Vivian’s. Incredible, but arrangements were made for the friend and me to go to Stockton and stay with Vivian. Maya was having a book signing at a local bookstore! I went to the book signing with Vivian and her friend. Then we attended a large party given for Maya and her new husband, Paul. I can remember sitting at a counter in this large dining area on a stool and talking to Maya and Paul. To my astonishment they asked me to visit them the following weekend at their home in Sonoma. Of course I accepted the invitation! For a number of years after that I spent many weekends at their Sonoma home. And they stayed in my home in San Francisco on numerous occasions, when they were to fly out of San Francisco the next day or Maya had attended an event and they did not want to return to Sonoma so late at night. There were many parties at Maya and Paul’s and I was always there if I was in town. And many celebrities frequented those parties. But there were also numerous parties at my home for Maya and Paul and others. Sometimes very large parties. Maya had what she referred to as her extended family. Many of my remembrances are of Maya with this extended family. One of the earliest of these memorable events occurred on a Sunday in the early 70’s. Maya was to speak at Glide Memorial Church in San Francisco. After church we went to Rev. Cecil Williams’ office in the basement of the church. What an extraordinary church it was ministering not only to the needs of the people in the Tenderloin area of San Francisco but to many wealthy members. When Cecil joined us we went to Doidge’s restaurant on Union Street for brunch. What a delightful time. One afternoon Maya called me and said Paul was out of town and that Cecil Williams and his wife had invited her to a party at their house for their house guest, Sammy Davis Jr. and would she please come to the party. She felt she needed an escort and would I join her? Of course I said yes! And that was quite an evening. There was a master drummer from Ghana their. He and Sammy Davis played the drums. As I relate these events, it may seem like during this time there was nothing but parties but that is not true. Maya and Paul had a rather large property off of Arnold Drive in the SonomaValley. The yard was too full of shrubs and trees and was rather claustrophobic for Maya. So Paul started ripping out plants and making pathways in the yard. But not normal pathways, these were made with cobblestones from the dry bed creek that ran through their property. Needless to say I spent a lot of weekends helping Paul get the stones out of the creek and laying the walkways. There was a guest house across the creek on their property and it was hard to get to. But there was a bridge across the creek about 100 yards down the creek from the guest house. So it was decided to have a big party with a lot of men attending.. After several drinks in the dark Paul rounded up all of us and we carried this good sized bridge up the creek to where he wanted it put. We all had to have another celebratory drink after that little adventure. Paul and I did become good friends which, I think, made Maya happy because she had so many lady friends in the city and they were rather isolated 45 miles from San Francisco. We were very serious about these projects but with it came much fun and laughter. Maya would laugh at us if we got too serious as men working on projects may have a tendency to do. One evening I was at a dinner party in San Francisco. Vivian was there but Knowledge, her most important man, was not. She became very concerned about where Knowledge was and maybe he was misbehaving. So she decided she was going to drive to Stockton, about 70 miles, and find him. I was afraid to let her go by herself so I drove her to Stockton and all over Stockton, it seemed, as she knocked on doors trying to find Knowledge. She finally gave up and we returned safely back to San Francisco at some weird hour of the early morning. Vivian was a lot of fun and we had a tendency to get into trouble sometimes, Maya thought. One of Maya’s close friends in those days, Jessica Mittford, who wrote the best seller ‘The American Way Of Dying’ lived in Berkley. She let Maya use her house for a party one evening, of course, I was invited. That weekend I had a houseguest from New York City that owned six funeral homes. I called and asked Maya if I could bring my houseguest and she said yes. At the party I introduced my houseguest to Jessica and told her he owned six funeral homes in New York City. I thought she was going to choke me. I got to laughing so hard as did several people around us including Maya. Then Jessica saw the irony of it and laughed as hard as we did. James Baldwin who, at that time, owned a village in the south of France had come back to the United States for some business. I think it was his last visit to the USA While he was here he came to Sonoma to see Maya. They had been friends for many years and had spent a lot of time together in New York City before he became an expatriot. Maya asked me to join them that weekend. To be sure I was there. I had always admired his writings. By the way he was the only author whose name appeared three times on the list of the 100 most important literary writings of the 20th century. On Sunday evening James Baldwin and his friend were going into San Francisco to stay with a couple. He and his friend ended up riding to town with me. I was invited to dinner at the house where they were staying. James had just published his book ‘If Beale Street Could Talk.’ His host told him that he did not understand why he wrote that book. That things were not that way in this country today, 1974. I disagreed with the host. To which he asked me to leave his house immediately. As I got up to leave, James Baldwin turned to me and said, “Al, you are not to leave. Just sit back down and stay.” So I sat back down. After dinner James and his friend and I drove around San Francisco doing some nightclubbing. I do not remember the reason for the occasion. Probably it was just to get together with extended family but we had a brunch and party at my house. Maya, Paul, Vivian, Knowledge and others decided they wanted to play bid whisk. I am not much of a card player but I finally agreed. My partner and I were playing opposite Vivian and Knowledge. Knowledge dropped a card on the table then wanted to pick it up. Vivian told him that was OK so he did. Then stupid me did the same thing. Certainly not intentional. I picked up the card but Vivian would not let me pick my card back up. We sat looking at each other for a few minutes. Then finally I stood up and said I think we have had enough partying for awhile. Everyone left in a friendly jovial manner. Somehow we had arguments almost at the same time we were laughing. After one event Maya and Paul and their friends came by the house for drinks. Among those present was the owner of the Sacramento Bee and Shana Alexander, an independent television news journalist. Everyone left except Maya and Paul, They were to stay the night before leaving for out of town the next day. Maya was mad at Paul for some reason. She slapped Paul and left the house. I followed her out and as she started to pull away from the curb in their car, I asked Maya to park her car and come back in the house and we would talk about the incident. Which she did. Before the evening ended we were laughing and telling each other silly stories. There are many more memories of those days, some funny, some serious, some sad and some just ordinary. Maya always had a song to sing or poems to read. And nearly always a smile on her face. She was a towering personality, full of love and compassion but never to be toyed with. She could and did express herself very strongly at times. Those years were very important for me as an individual and I will forever be grateful to Maya and Paul for their friendship and love. Shortly thereafter Paul and she separated and she moved to North Carolina. It seems incredible that after such an intense period of friendship that we would lose contact. My job became very demanding and I was traveling a great deal and Maya’s commitment became very heavy. While I was probably the most responsible for neglecting our friendship it did represent a major turning point in my life. A few years ago I spoke to Maya on the phone, in part, to apologize for the past. Her comment was “I only remember the good times.” We laughed a bit and reminisced. That was the last time I talked to Maya. I will miss her greatly. I guess as long as she was here I felt we would see each other again While this may seem sentimental, she did have a major influence on my life and helped me get through some very difficult times. I loved Maya and Paul very much.