A road trip to get a a gifted teen who was scheduled to fly into the epicenter of the coronavirus pandemic
By Erick Johnson
It was raining, but the time had come to leave Chicago on a chilly Saturday morning. I climbed in the driver’s seat of a rented Mazda X35 SUV, pushed the start button on the dashboard of the technologically-advanced vehicle and said goodbye to Bronzeville. What began as a road trip to Louisville turned into an interesting journey to save a gifted teenager from the coronavirus pandemic.
Riding with me was Ina Carter, a teacher’s assistant who works in the Chicago Public School System. She is the mother of Mae Ya Carter Ryan, a talented young singer with a mesmerizing voice who wowed many audiences, and celebrities.
Her freshman year at Boston’s prestigious Berklee School of Music ended its spring semester early, causing Mae Ya to stay with her aunt in Alpharetta, Georgia, a suburb of Atlanta.
During a casual conversation, Carter informed me that her daughter would be flying home into Chicago Midway from Atlanta’s busy Hartsfield Jackson International Airport, the world’s busiest airport. Mae Ya’s flight on Southwest included a five-hour layover at New York’s LaGuardia airport in Queens, the epicenter of the coronavirus in the U.S.
The red flags went up. I urged Carter to drive to Georgia to get her daughter instead of letting her go through three busy airports where hundreds of people are touching railings and doing all sorts of things. Carter was afraid of driving long distances. She said no several times. She finally gave in when I offered to go with her.
I was nervous. Since the outbreak struck Chicago, I stayed confined to my apartment in South Shore, just 12 minutes west of the Crusader office. My publisher stared at me when I told her of my plans.
But I love road trips. Last year I drove through five Midwestern cities over three days. For this trip to Louisville, I volunteered to drive the entire journey.
In the SUV, I wore my face mask and a pair of latex gloves. Carter did the same. I watched in disbelief as she loaded bag after bag of goodies and other stuff into the SUV. I reminded her that we would not be staying in Louisville but would be coming back that same evening.
We left Carter’s home in Bronzeville at 7:15 a.m. We would have to travel 708 miles to Alpharetta, but ended up only driving 300 miles as Mae Ya’s aunt was driving her to Louisville, where we would pick up the talented prodigy.
From Chicago, we took Interstate 65 south. It was an eerie journey. Most of the time, we were the only ones on the road. At 80 miles an hour, we zoomed by vacant shopping center after shopping center. One was anchored by a Macy’s backstage store and Nike outlet.
We stopped at a gas station at a rest stop that was five miles from Indianapolis. I filled the tank of the SUV for just $21.39. Without looking at the price, I thought the pump had stopped prematurely and tried to put more gas in the tank. I realized I wasn’t hallucinating when I looked at the dashboard and I saw the needle was on full. On the way back to Chicago, $19.42 was enough to fill the tank.
After over four hours of driving through Indiana, we crossed a bridge over the Ohio River and were suddenly in Louisville, a city some say is more Midwest than southern.
We pulled into the city’s downtown at 12:25 p.m. It was empty. Mae Ya and her aunt arrived 15 minutes later. While it was 43 degrees, overcast and drizzling in Chicago that day, it was sunny and 75 degrees in Louisville, but it felt like 80. We didn’t hug, but greeted one other by touching elbows.
Hungry, we went to the iconic Shirley Mae’s Soul Food restaurant in Smoketown, Louisville’s oldest Black neighborhood that is just eight minutes from downtown. We pulled up next to an old red brick building with two large smoking barbeque pits in front. We got out of our vehicles, took off our masks and delightfully inhaled the smell of fresh barbeque and just smiled.
Shirley Mae’s is legendary in Louisville’s Black community. Shirley Mae herself wasn’t there. In her 80s, her sons told us she stayed home to remain safe during the coronavirus pandemic. The restaurant was closed under a stay-at-home order from the governor, but their takeout service was humming with orders.
Governors, mayors and celebrities have dined here near Churchill Downs, the venue that hosts the Kentucky Derby, just 10 minutes away.
Years ago, Shirley Mae herself, convinced Churchill Downs to give her several pictures and artifacts about the Black jockeys who won first place in the race’s early years. The artifacts had sat in the basement of Churchill Downs for decades before Shirley Mae put them up in her restaurant.
We snatched up her ribs, collard greens, macaroni and cheese, hush puppies and hot water cornbread. I ordered the famous blackberry cobbler for desert.
While we waited outside for our order under a beaming sun and blue skies, one of her sons gave us a fascinating history of Louisville’s Black past.
The Smoketown neighborhood had been historically Black since the Civil War. When slavery was abolished after the 13th amendment, many Blacks fled north to Louisville, where they settled into Smoketown, which got its name from the industrial factories that manufactured red bricks with smoke-producing kilns.
With its shotgun houses and narrow streets, Smoketown was a densely populated area with a population of over 15,000 by 1880. African American property ownership was rare, with most living in properties rented from whites. After years of declining population, Smoketown is experiencing a renaissance with several multimillion projects.
After getting our orders of food, we drove around to find a shaded area to eat. It would take a while. We drove around the site of the Kentucky Derby, which has been postponed until December.
We found a shaded spot under a tree in Old Louisville, a tree-lined neighborhood with old Victorian homes. The food lived up to the restaurant’s reputation. It was simply delicious. I had never tasted a better blackberry cobbler than Shirley Mae’s. My only regret is that I did not purchase more before I left Louisville.
With full bellies, we drove to the West End neighborhood of Louisville where boxing legend Muhammad Ali grew up on Grand Avenue. His small, pink single-story house is a national historic landmark that was a museum but it closed in 2017 due to a lack of funding. The grass was high when we were there and no one was there.
It was time to head back to Chicago. We put back on our masks and hit the road. Carter and Mae Ya slept the first two hours. When she awakened, Mae Ya was thankful she had not taken her airline flight back home.
With its grand homes and beautiful weather, she said she had loved Alpharetta, but was ready to come home. On the way back, she mentioned she was disappointed that her semester at Berklee was cut short. She was scheduled to perform April 3 before Christina Aguilera, Toni Braxton and New Kids on the Block as part of Berklee’s career week.
Mae Ya was disappointed, but she was happy when saw the Willis Tower and the Chicago skyline as we drew closer to the city. We were back home at 7:15 p.m. The end.