DCHolly Bass

Postcards from the Backseat

DCHolly Bass
Postcards from the Backseat

Washington, D.C.

I’m running late to my job as a part-time writing coach at Ballou High School in Southeast D.C. Barry, my Uber ride, picks me up in front of my building. I’d been planning to use the ride time to catch up on emails, but he quickly engages me in conversation. We talk about the younger generation and his feeling that they lack respect for their elders. I agree to some extent, but counter that the older generation could do more to advise young people.

“Technically, my job is to help students write their college essays,” I tell him, “but my real job is to support their dreams. There are so many dream crushers out there!”

Barry nods. He’s spent decades of his life working as a mechanical engineer for heating and cooling systems in D.C. schools. “I know every school in this city,” he notes. Early in his career, his duties included cleaning the areas near the equipment. He remembered a particularly harsh manager who always felt the need to keep him and other younger technicians “in their place.”

“He told me, ‘You’ll always be behind the blonde’—that’s the broom—‘and the gray lady’—that’s the mop.” Years later, Barry returned to the school, only this time as a certified engineer. That same manager, who didn’t recognize him, carried his tools and watched as he expertly repaired the HVAC system. Once the job was complete, Barry reminded the much-older man of his discouraging prophecy from years before, and just how far he was from the truth.

As we pull into the school parking lot, remarking on Ballou’s beautiful new buildings and football field, I thank Barry for bringing me safely to my destination, and with a little extra inspiration for the day ahead.


Paris

After an overnight flight across the Atlantic, a colleague and I land at France’s Charles de Gaulle airport on a brisk September morning. Using the airport’s wifi, we request an Uber. Hame picks us up in a dark Peugeot. When he asks where we’re from and we say Washington, D.C. he can’t resist asking about the election as politely as his limited English allows.

“What’s wrong with Americans?” 

“We didn’t vote for him,” we protest. And what about Macron? He’s only been in office for a few months. Is there a sense of how his presidency will go?

Hame explains that despite a significant victory, Macron needs to prove himself to the French public. He has done some things well, but some of his recent decisions are questionable. “In any case, French people like to complain about politics,” Hame says with a teasing laugh. “It doesn’t matter how good Macron is, we will find something to complain about. We are not happy if we are not complaining!” 


Johannesburg

Of all the Uber rides in all the cities I’ve traveled to, the best playlists have been in South Africa. Nothing matches the feeling of zooming across the N1 highway at night, windows rolled down, city lights moving to the rhythm of the bass as if all of Johannesburg was one massive, throbbing equalizer.

Most drivers’ car stereos are equipped with USB ports, allowing them to insert a flash drive with their favorite tunes. I’m riding at night through Pretoria. Instead of anodyne house beats, my driver is playing a stream of 80s funk and silky soul. I’m grooving in the backseat, minding my own business, until I hear the familiar strains of Frankie Beverly and Maze’s classic 1981 track, “Before I Let Go.” I lean forward to tap the driver’s shoulder.

“Excuse me, but how do you know this music?” Unlike an artist like Michael Jackson, Maze is neither a global crossover sensation nor particularly well known outside of the Black community, hence my surprise. “This is the kind of music my family listens to,” I explain, “like when you get everyone together for a summer barbecue.”

He smiles in recognition. “This is what my family listens to when we get together and braai,” he replies, swapping out my BBQ for the Afrikaans word for “grilling meat,” a beloved South African pastime. I settle back in my seat and sing along, basking in that happy feeling of connecting in some small way with a stranger across continents.

Photo: Magda Zofia

My primary mediums are performance art, poetry and dance, but my work also includes video, photographs, audio recordings and installations. I create solo and ensemble performances with professional collaborators as well as public art happenings with untrained community members. My background in journalism influences the way I research and investigate the subjects that drive my artistic practice.