I entered the black metal-framed double doors of the building at the corner of 58th street and 7th avenue. Stepping over the threshold provided some relief from the muggy New York summer air and the bustling of clueless tourists that were descending on the city. I had no luggage with me other than a backpack because my suitcase never made it on the plane. A baggage handler’s strike at Paris Charles de Gaulle airport ensured that I would be without my possessions for at least a week, leaving me even grumpier than usual after a transatlantic flight. I approached the doorman and stated my business—trying to sound official since I had never really interacted with doormen before. Doormen were characters in movies set in upper-class New York City. I never expected that I would be living in a building that required them. Florian greeted me with a smile. “Miss Alvenia has been expecting you. The elevator is over there. You may proceed to the 8th floor.”
I had once called New York City home. Over a decade earlier. As a college student on scholarship, the only apartments I had ever lived in were five-story walkups. Somehow, I had found a room in this fancy building and yet I was paying a fraction of what I did in the early 2000s. Alvenia described the space that I would be renting from her as an adorable little room with an en suite bath. For $800 a month and only a block from Central Park, I was pretty sure I would be sleeping on a mat next to the toilet and using the sink to shield my face from falling paint chips. Finding a room like the one she described in that prime a location for that low a price seemed too good to be true.
As I knocked, the door swung open. She must have been informed of my arrival because she was waiting for me with a huge grin, and as I entered what would be my home for the next three months, I was immediately struck by how regal this woman was. She was statuesque—her six-foot frame towering over me even though her back was slightly bowed as she steadied herself with the assistance of a cane. She wore a simple strand of pearls around her neck, accentuated by the smooth mahogany of her skin and the blackness of her flowing outfit. Her eyes, meanwhile, conveyed the accumulation of wisdom that comes from a lifetime of experiences. If the goddess Venus walked the earth, this is how I imagine she would look. As I studied her face, Alvenia’s warm voice resonated in the hallway, “You must be Maya. Please, come in. Welcome to your new home.”
She gave me the tour of the apartment, starting with the kitchen and breakfast nook, then my room, which was adjacent to the kitchen, followed by a large living room that was partitioned with a silk accordion screen. The right side of the partition was fashioned as a library-art gallery hybrid, with grand, overflowing bookcases and large-format oil paintings leaning against empty wall space. Her bed was in the corner on the left side of the partition along with a desk, a sofa and a table. She then pointed out a spacious, sunny bedroom at the end of the long hall, which our other roommate occupied, and the bathroom that they shared. I couldn’t get over the height of the ceilings and the detail in the crown molding.
“You must be tired, dear. Why don’t you go rest?” I took Alvenia up on her offer. Although I had so many questions I wanted to ask her, they could wait. I hadn’t gotten a good look at my room yet and even after witnessing the opulence of the rest of the space, I wanted to inspect where I would be sleeping for the summer. The room was a perfect size for me, and while the bathroom was cramped, it offered everything I needed. I was still confused about how much real estate I got for only $800 a month. But at that moment, the overwhelming emotion I felt was delight. My living arrangements were a nice antidote to the chaos of my trip.
When I groggily emerged from my room a couple hours later, Alvenia met me in the kitchen. “Would you like some tea?” she inquired.
“Herbal, if you have it, please.”
“That’s all I have.” Upon hearing that, I definitely knew we would get along. She then motioned for me to sit at the little round table in the kitchen while she prepared our tea.
I knew very little of my new roommate other than some scant background information from the mutual friend who had put us in touch. This friend was someone I hadn’t spoken to in years but who had happened upon my plea for housing in New York on Facebook. There is always anticipation when encountering a new roommate, but my introductory phone call with Alvenia had left me with a sense of immense excitement, and when I hung up with her, a voice in my head told me that meeting her would be a life-changing experience.
While waiting for our tea to steep, I started noticing all the photos pinned up on the wall above the table and was soon reminded of the prescient voice in my head that had told me to seize this opportunity. The breakfast nook was plastered with incredible images, many adorned with beautiful inscriptions: photos of Bob Marley signed by his favorite photographer, Kate Simon; portraits of Roberta Flack and Dizzy Gillespie with heartfelt notes scribbled in their handwriting; a blown-up copy of a color polaroid of Jimi Hendrix strumming his red guitar outside his home in Seattle when he was just a boy. This image was juxtaposed with a black and white photo of Jimi waiting on a bench in an airport taken shortly before his death. Someone had drawn angel wings on his back with sharpie. I then noticed a black-and-white photo of a much younger Alvenia modeling a stunning dress as she presented the viewer with her profile. The kaleidoscope of images went on and on, consuming all blank space. “If you think that’s impressive, you should see my office,” she winked. She then grabbed her mug and beckoned me to follow.
It was true. The objects hanging in the breakfast nook were only the tip of the iceberg. She proudly drew my attention to even more impressive memorabilia suspended above her office desk: two framed records encased in glass—identical except one gold, the other, platinum, with her name engraved next to an image of Mick Jagger’s first solo album cover “She’s the Boss”; a black-and-white photo of Jagger during the height of his Rolling Stones’ career; a color photo of Mick with other Rock and Roll legends—Tina Turner, Madonna, Bob Dylan, the list went on—huddled together. A black-and-white photo of Alvenia and a man I didn’t recognize rounded out the series. The two of them were looking at each other with such respect and admiration that I wondered if it was an old love of hers. The inscription read, “Don’t ever forget—don’t ever forget how good you are… –Bill.” I asked Alvenia about these objects that she so lovingly displayed, and each one catapulted her into a distant memory. At first, I didn’t know what to expect, but as she casually said things like, “Oh that’s when I was working on Live Aid,” or “that’s when I was Mick’s personal business liaison,” or “Roberta was how I got into the music business,” or “I was with Jimi the days leading up to his passing,” I would have to stop her and say, “Wait, what?” She laughed, “Those were from another life. Another time. I’ll tell you the stories behind them someday soon.”
The next day I set off to begin the project that had brought me to New York in the first place. I was conducting qualitative fieldwork for a book on language and identity in the Senegalese diaspora. I planned to spend the summer interviewing members of the Senegalese community all over the city to add to research already collected in Paris and Rome. For the next three months, I navigated the city, visiting the West African markets up in Harlem and the cultural centers down in Brooklyn, attending Senegalese dance classes in the Bronx and luncheons in Queens, all the while capturing the experiences of those I interacted with through interviews. I came home each night exhausted by the hours on my feet but also excited because my day of gathering stories would have only just begun. My evenings became my opportunity to learn Alvenia’s story and the multiple worlds that she once inhabited.
The first evening of storytelling—our storytelling sessions would only commence once tea was served—consisted of my staring wide-eyed at her as she began to pull back the wrapping on her former life. Once I got over my initial shock, I fumbled into my pocket and pulled out the digital recorder that I used to interview people. I then stopped Alvenia mid-sentence, “Alvenia, would you mind if I recorded you? I could email you the files so you would always have a record.”
“Of course you may record me, but I don’t really know anything about email. I sort of lost interest in new technology once I stopped working in the music industry. I can barely work voicemail on my phone.”
“That’s OK. I’ll show you how to access them if you ever need to.”
She then continued with the first story she shared with me—pointing to a photo and explaining why she was dressed so impeccably in white surrounded by a sea of white. The photo was taken in the eighties, decades before diner en blanc parties became a global trend. “This was from Ashford and Simpson’s annual Fourth of July white party” she continued. “I looked forward to these gatherings every year.”
As 1:00 a.m. rolled around, I thanked Alvenia for sharing so much of her life with me but informed her that I must go to sleep. I often wondered if she ever slept. As I asked if we could continue the conversation the following day, she responded, “Of course, darling. I would be happy to tell you more about my life if you’re interested.” I assured her that I would love that and then retired to my room.
We got into the lovely habit of meeting in the evening over tea and tales. We exchanged stories of our lives. I was always amazed at how riveted she would be by my own stories considering that she had lived the lives of what seemed like many different people, each one more wondrous than the last. And as we sank into this familiarity, she started sharing with me all of her story—not just the glitzy and glamorous insights of being a model in Europe or the absurd behind-the-scenes chaos of some of the biggest musical acts in the world but also about her troubled childhood amidst the backdrop of societal rot and the moment that she hit rock bottom after soaring so high, a period of her life from which she was still recovering. I accompanied her in this journey, feeling immense joy, inspiration, anger, and sadness as she weaved tales of despair and rejection with those of success and triumph. I kept thinking to myself how fortunate the world would be if they ever got to hear her voice. She had spent a lot of her life behind the scenes. What if she could finally have a stage of her own?
~ ~ ~
A few days before I was set to leave New York, Alvenia turned to me after sharing a particularly emotional memory. “You know. It has been my dream to write my memoir. Numerous people have told me I should. On several occasions I’ve tried, but each time life would get in the way or people tasked with writing my story would fail to see the true essence of what I am about. After spending these months rehashing the experiences of my life, I finally want to try again. Would you help me?”
I was at first taken aback by her request. She had shared parts of her life story with so many people. I mean, how could people not inquire about her life when they see her walls meticulously adorned with the relics of an almost fantastical past? Why was she entrusting me with bringing her words and her wisdom to a larger audience?
I pondered our generational gap. I am four decades her junior. She lived many of her most dramatic experiences before I was even born. And the musical acts she supported during her decade in the music industry did not even cross my radar until long after these performers had exited their prime. Yet Alvenia and I resonated with each other in a way where the age difference quickly dissipated whenever we were locked in dialogue.
We share a variegated perspective to understanding what it is like being highly mobile black women who have travelled the world and have experienced the ebbs and flows of life in motion. I have arguably had a much easier experience in reaching the far corners of the globe. As a child of the eighties, I had more of a leg up than Alvenia ever had. I am the product of two people who came of age in the volatile sixties, who attended segregated schools in the south, and who, because of relentless warriors who fought and demanded equal rights, went to prestigious colleges against the backdrop of Vietnam War activism as well as Black Power and Women’s Liberation movements. I grew up in the wake of my parents’ and ancestors’ sacrifices, which gave me a more expansive understanding of what I should demand for myself and how I should conceptualize my own humanity. Their struggles and accomplishments also paved the way for me to access what my ancestors could only dream of. I could earn a PhD, become a professor, and travel to and live in multiple countries. And while the number of black women professors in the country is dismal, at least I am not the first. I thus have a very particular relationship to social constructs such as race and gender as well as to the places I have lived in and visited, both in America and throughout the world.
Alvenia, by virtue of her upbringing and the timing of her birth, encountered this world in a very different way. She was an unwitting player in the desegregation of America, and her personal experience serves to illustrate the human trauma associated with demanding liberation and equality. The country may have slowly been moving toward justice, but little children like Alvenia were often forced to bear the scars of an unjust world. I thought I knew what this experience was like through hearing my parents’ experiences under Jim Crow and reading personal accounts from the period. But it wasn’t until I heard Alvenia’s story of failing to integrate a public school and then saw how the repercussions reverberated in various ways throughout her life did I realize that the formative experience would dictate how Alvenia learned to engage with the world and color how she would approach interactions around race for a lifetime.
I have not experienced nearly the same amount of racist vitriol that she has encountered in her lifetime nor have I been subjected to the extent of lowered expectations that she endured during her childhood and working career where everyone around her assumed failure based on her race or her gender, and yet many of the emotions she conveyed and disappointments she had to overcome, were ones I’ve wrestled with as well. The world has always been very adept at creating scripts based on preset conditions and shoehorning people into stereotypes that limit their potential and their worth. And while the world has evolved a lot since Alvenia’s arrival on this planet, in many ways it has stayed the same. Alvenia’s story is just as relevant today as it was when her story began to form.
In many ways, her life is testament to what can be achieved when one faces adversity head on. Alvenia transformed failure into the fuel that allowed her to take the world on in her own creative way. The successes she was able to cobble together against the odds convey her indomitable spirit, and the stories she tells from her time in the music industry and the fashion industry would impress anyone. But for me, their true value is in how she navigated these spaces that were not meant for her, either as a woman or a black person or both. Unfortunately, her trailblazing somehow got left out of the history books. As I stood in awe of her ability to live her life fully, authentically, and on her terms when she was never supposed to, I realized that most people have never gotten past the razzle-dazzle she has chosen to display through the carefully curated artifacts on her wall. Her life means so much more than the sum of those parts.
Ruminating on her request, I was overcome with a tremendous sense of purpose. It was as if she and I had been transmitting at the same wavelength our whole lives but only now were we simultaneously tuning into this frequency. I reminded myself that I had dedicated my life to creating a platform for providing amplification to those whose voices would normally go unheard. Converting people’s stories to written form had become my calling, and I was now being gifted with the most extraordinary life story I had ever encountered. I started to understand that it was through our friendship, through the joy that we cultivated in our storytelling sessions, and through my faith in the power of listening that a fuller picture of Alvenia Bridges has emerged. I told her that writing her story would be the greatest honor.
While teeming with excitement, I began to feel overwhelmed by this monumental task. The diversity and disparity of experiences that Alvenia had shared with me over a few months indicated that I was not telling the singular life of a woman. I needed to find a way to do justice to her many lives because Alvenia was a master of reinventing herself.
She smiled at me with her watchful eyes peering over the metallic rim of her teacup—the wall of photographs perfectly framing her regal posture. As my gaze darted from the autographed photographs of musical legends pinned overhead to Alvenia’s black-and-white modeling photos, I soon understood that these artifacts were the key. Our storytelling sessions almost always started off with a piece of memorabilia teleporting her back to a past life and purpose.
Because of my training as an ethnographer, my goal has always been to study people’s lives and their relationship to their communities by applying a cultural lens. Artifacts, and the ways in which people interact with them, provide illuminating insight about how we make meaning in the world. They also convey intimate knowledge about particular cultural moments. Alvenia has witnessed and been a driving force in some of the largest cultural moments of the 20th century, moments that span both time and space. Meanwhile, Alvenia’s ability to move throughout the world, from Kansas City, Kansas, to Los Angeles, New York, Paris and beyond after having grown up in a town that would not even let her move within the white-only sections highlights the centrality of locations and settings to her narrative.
Therefore, the best way to unravel Alvenia’s story is by highlighting her relationships to people, places, and things. This book chronicles Alvenia’s whirlwind journey through a focus on the global places she has occupied and the extraordinary people she has touched. However, at the same time, her apartment and the memories contained in the photos and memorabilia that decorate her walls keep her grounded in the present while allowing her to return to her illustrious past. Because of their centrality to her life, these treasures serve as the lynchpin to her narrative. The following pages thus represent the life and times of Alvenia Bridges—her stories intertwined with my experiences of getting to know her as well as the objects she holds dear in her New York City apartment, the first and only place she has truly called home.