When I picked him up at the airport, all I knew about him was that he was an artist and he was going to be a VIP for the Urban Arts Festival this fall.
We locked eyes as he came down the escalator. “Mr. Stewart?” I said, holding a sign with his name. He gave a low, deep laugh that reminded me of James Earl Jones. “Yeah, but call me Charlie.”
He sat in the front seat, since his 6-foot-5 frame wouldn’t have folded up very well in the back.
I made my usual conversation. “So, you’re an artist?”
“I’m in a band,” he responded.
“Oh really? What instrument do you play?”
He gave that baritone laugh again. “I’m a rapper. But really I was born to do graffiti. So I like to say I’m a graffiti artist who happens to rap.”
“I’m a knitter who happens to write books and stuff,” I said. That was pretty much where the similarities ended.
We had an hour to kill before he was due at the Gallivan Center, so I took him to Eva’s Bakery on Main Street for some breakfast and proceeded to pick his brain, because I used to be a journalist, and old habits and such.
Charlie grew up in a gangster (his word, not mine) area of Chicago. He and his rather large family (large as in tall, and large as in numerous) lived in adjoining apartments.
When he was 6, he vividly remembers his 26-year old uncle in an ongoing dispute with some dangerous individuals. One night, in the heat of the moment, the uncle wanted to confront his enemies. Charlie’s grandma begged him not to go, saying she had a “bad feeling” about it.
The small woman tried to block the doorway. Charlie’s uncle picked her up by her shoulders and gently moved her aside. And then, he stormed out.
That was the last time Charlie saw his uncle, who was shot and killed that night.
As we sat across from each other in the café, munching on nosh and sipping coffee, I asked Charlie about his tattoos. One showed the face and torso of a man. Charlie told me it was his dad. He’d worked in the steel mills in Detroit in the days before government regulations limited the amount of toxins in the air. He inhaled these toxins for years. When he reached middle age, he got tired. Doctors checked him out, but by then his entire body was riddled with cancer. There was nothing to do but make him comfortable.
Another tattoo on his shoulder was of a girl with a sweet face. It was his cousin, who had died in a Chicago nightclub after security guards put tear gas in the ventilation system, triggering a stampede toward the one way out. She was trampled to death.
At 15, Charlie seemed poised to follow in the footsteps of the family members who’d come before him. That’s when his grandma stepped in.
She is a small, strong woman. She gave birth to nine children, although she lost triplets shortly after they were born. She raised the remaining six and also raised some from the next generation.
She knew the only way to stop the cycle was to take Charlie’s two younger siblings out of Chicago. But she gave teenage Charlie a choice. Stay in Chicago and hang with his wild cousins, or leave with her. Charlie asked for a day to think about it. When his cousins came to pick Charlie up that night, he told them he needed to stay home and figure stuff out.
Later, his cousins were pulled over with $20,000 in cash and a few kilos of cocaine. They ended up doing six years in a federal penitentiary. Charlie would’ve been with them if he had gone.
A few days later, Charlie, his two younger siblings and his grandma packed their belongings and moved to California, where one of his aunts lived.
Fast forward a few years. Charlie finds friends who are into music like he is. He spends his days experimenting with all sorts of genres and his nights decorating the walls of Los Angeles with cans of spray paint. He showed me pictures of some of his art, in particular a striking painting of a fierce tiger that he’d sprayed on double elevator doors.
During a break, I texted my boyfriend to tell him about this fascinating person I was driving. He was all, “You’re driving Chali 2na?? I listened to Jurassic 5 all the time in the nineties!”
So I did a little research on Jurassic 5 and Chali 2na. And suddenly it made sense when he answered his phone at the airport and told his manager “The Tuna has landed.” And why he laughed when I asked him what instrument he played. And why, when I dropped him off at the Gallivan Center, fans began to fawn, excited to be in his presence. And why he was surprised when I called him Mr. Stewart.
It reminded me of this one time when my grandma and mom saw Oksana Baiul in a Nordstrom. My mom pointed her out and said, “That’s the girl who won the gold medal in ice skating.”
When my mom wasn’t looking, my grandma walked up to Oksana, the star of the 1994 Olympics, and said, “I understand you do a little ice skating.”
I wondered if it was refreshing to sit and chat with someone who so obviously didn’t know who he was. I mean, I showed him the shawl I was knitting for my mom, and he acted like I was an artist too. And I was all, yeah, we’re so alike.
When I parted ways with Charlie, I was a little more educated as to who he was, and I did the appropriate thing. I called him Mr. 2na. And he gave me that baritone laugh one more time.
He’ll be at the Urban Arts Festival in September, rapping and doing some live tagging. I highly recommend checking out his music and his art there.
Brodi Ashton is a New York Times best-selling author who lives in the Salt Lake City area. She’s also an Uber and Lyft driver who shares stories from the road in this occasional column.