Escorting History

I’m standing outside room 904 in the Brown Palace Hotel in downtown Denver, about to knock on the door, a knock that cannot possibly compete with the crazy knocking of my heart in my chest. I’m newly 25, it’s the middle of January, and I’m holding a cell phone (back when cell phones were small with just the number pad and sometimes a little antenna) in order that I can communicate my progress to the people back at the performing arts complex who are waiting for the guest in room 904 to deliver the keynote address on the first night of a four-day event.

Let me back up.

I’m 24 and recently hired at Cleo Parker Robinson Dance, one of Denver’s most respected dance companies. I am the administrative assistant, which means I answer phones, take messages, open the studio doors at 9:30 a.m. for the 10 a.m. ballet class, run errands, and do whatever else I’m asked to do. It’s my first real job out of college, and it has absolutely nothing to do with my Journalism degree, but it’s in the performing arts world (one of my great loves), and I’m so thrilled to be there, rubbing elbows with dancers and choreographers and musicians and costumers, that it doesn’t even matter. When the studios are empty, I steal away and practice grand jetés in the cavernous quiet. I flirt with the lighting director. Cleo gives us impromptu neck massages and says, “That’s deep!” My immediate boss, the operations manager, is only a few years older than me, but she has been working in this world for years, and her stories and field time are legit. On the first day of the job, I flip through the dusty Rolodex on my desk and see Maya Angelou. I’m making $7 an hour, and I have Maya’s phone number.

From the minute I am hired, all I hear about is the International Association of Black Dancers Conference, of which CPRD has the enormous responsibility of hosting, and I watch the ops manager fly around in a frenzy of list-making, list-crossing-off, phone-calling, travel booking, meetings, and daily upheavals with the marketing manager.

I help where I can. They put me in charge of the showcase. Dance companies participating in the conference send in tapes of a piece they’d like to be considered, a panel of distinguished judges reviews them and chooses, and I take over the logistics, which entails calling to inform and congratulate, scheduling rehearsal slots, helping with the program, and practicing my “nice” voice. It’s tricky work, but I’m happy for the responsibility. I think this is the best it can get for me as the lowest on the totem pole around there.

On the first evening of the first day of the conference…after I have walked back and forth from the hotel (where the conference attendees are staying) to the performing arts complex (where conference registration, master classes, and performances are all taking place) approximately five times (about a 10-block walk each way)…AND played therapist to the ops manager who is realizing that nothing is going according to plan and she’s got three more days ahead of her…my feet are now killing, it’s getting colder by the minute, and I’m finally sitting down so that I can watch the showcase rehearsals and see the fruits of my labor.

Suddenly M approaches me. M is a volunteer with a long history at CPRD. She is intrinsically connected to all the goings-on at the company, and has inserted herself into the center of the conference action. M and I also had a run-in a month before when she thought I was rude to her on the phone, after which Cleo herself confronted me about it. In those moments, when you are 25 and still green and M is a close personal friend of Cleo’s, there is nothing you can do to defend yourself.

“Amanda,” M says, “what are you doing right now?”

I sit up straight—on high alert. Was I about to be reprimanded? Criticized? Had I not done something I was supposed to? Had I done something wrong? Should I not be sitting down? As I was casting around for the right answer and the right way in which to say it, she continues:

“We need you to go get Harry.”

She hands me a cell phone, and gives me instructions: “He’s at the Brown Palace. There’s a car waiting outside. You need to go to his room and bring him down to the car. Then you need to go to the mayor’s office because they’ve arranged a meet-and-greet. Then you need to go straight to the theater for the keynote address. Call me on this and let me know where you are every step of the way.”

Then she looks me in the eye and says: “Do you think you can do this?”

I say “Yes.” Or maybe I just swallow and nod. All I know is that in the next moment I am running out of the theater, through the complex, and out to the street, where I grab the first cab I can find and head to the Brown.

When we arrive, I jump out and run inside. I go straight to reception and ask for Harry’s room number. The receptionist gives me a curt smile and says, “We don’t give out that information.”

Of course they don’t, as I realize in horror that no one has given me the room number. I call the cell phone—frantic—but M doesn’t answer. I call the courtesy phone in the lobby, but in order to reach a guest, you have to have—duh—their room number. Finally, in desperation, I rush up to the doorman in his fancy coat and hat (I don’t even know why I think he can help) and ask, vibrating with anxiety, “Can you help me.” He must have observed my distress in the lobby, because he says out of the corner of his mouth, staring straight ahead, not missing a beat: “Room 904 but you didn’t hear it from me.”

True story. All of this is a true story, by the way.*

Up the elevator I go, trying to collect myself on the way. At the door of the suite, I knock.

The door opens. Harry’s then-wife, herself a former dancer in a seminal African-American dance company (I had learned), says to me: “I sent my skirt down to have it cleaned and they ruined it.”

As I’m taking this in, I see Harry in the bedroom getting dressed. I look away quickly.

“I’m so sorry to hear that,” I say as soothingly as I can. “We’ll have that taken care of for you.” I don’t know if this is even possible or if it’s an appropriate response. But one thing has become clear: I am an absolutely terrible smooth-talker.

She gives me a doubtful look, and I proceed to stand there for a full 10 minutes while Harry does something with his cuff links and his wife buzzes around trying to come up with a new outfit and I interject with what I hope are helpful comments and subtle urges to get going.

When they’re finally dressed and ready to leave, I lead them into the corridor. Immediately a hotel employee spots Harry and calls out his admiration. Harry nods his head. He is tall and broad, taller and broader than I expected, and has a slow, fluid way of walking. I have no idea how old he is, but he’s still quite handsome, and there is something inherently gracious and calm about his demeanor. I manage to get them down the elevator and through the lobby. (I refrain from thumbing my nose at the receptionist). We go outside and the car M promised was waiting, is. I give silent thanks. The driver is paying attention (more silent thanks), hops out when he sees us, and opens the door for them.

“To the mayor’s office first,” I say. I’m in the front with the driver, clutching the cell phone so tight it’s slick with the sweat from my palms. I try M. She answers. I tell her discreetly that we’re on our way. She reminds me of the time.

We pull away from the curb and drive slowly and steadily to the city and county building. At this point, Harry hasn’t said one word, but his wife has kept up a conversation with him that I am grateful not to have to follow. I am keenly aware of the time. We’re already behind schedule, and God knows how long things will take with the mayor.

When we get there, I am sent through the metal detectors while Harry and his wife are allowed to step aside. The city and county employees on night duty realize who Harry is and offer their praise. They ask for autographs. Harry does the head nod, but stays silent, and I usher them as quickly and authoritatively as I can away from the autograph requesters. We follow someone down a hall to a large office, where the mayor and his wife and several of his closest staffers are waiting.

The mayor gives me a disapproving look. I’m in a leather jacket, wearing inappropriate shoes for the weather, my face and chest splotchy with anxiety, and escorting—how much I don’t even realize until many years later—a treasured figure in American entertainment and civil rights history. There is a lot of hand-shaking and arm-clapping. Photographs are taken, re-staged, and taken again. Everyone is suddenly very chatty, including Harry, and I stand, fidgeting, just inside the doorway, trying to guess how much of our precious time is being eaten up.

And that’s the thing: how do you break up this meet-and-greet with two mighty people who have a chance to show each other much-earned reverence and respect, having beaten the odds, usurped institutions, and steadfastly followed their callings in life. I am cringing and sweating and wondering if I can get away with a check-in to M at this moment. We’re now past the start of the evening’s festivities. I don’t know where Harry’s keynote speech is in the line-up. I am failing.

Eventually the staffers start to disperse and I’m able to round up Harry and his wife again. I hurry them back down the hall, past more admirers, and outside to the waiting car.

“The theater,” I say in misery, expecting the worst: that we are now so late they’ve had to go on with the evening and Harry’s whole point of being there will be null and void and I will be fired immediately by M herself.

We pull up to the curb at the backstage entrance. A woman I don’t know is waiting with a clipboard and a smile; she’s wearing a volunteer badge. She opens the car door and helps them out. She is calm and bright-eyed, her smooth-talking skills infinitely better than mine. She whisks Harry and his wife through the door, while I follow at a safe distance, trying to let my heart return to a more normal galloping. I walk through the maze of backstage halls and rooms, and end up standing in the wings of the stage where several presumably important people in festive attire are assembled. Someone is emceeing; the house is packed. I see Harry on the opposite side in the wings, being prepped.

I am home free.

I am not fired.

They have not moved on without him.

I walk away. I don’t even wait to hear Harry’s speech, which I’m sure was remarkable and inspiring. I go back outside, take yet another cab to my parked car, drive an hour home on icy roads, and call my mom, who is working the night shift at the hospital, to tell her what I’ve been up to. Then I try to fall asleep. I have to be up at 6 a.m. the next morning and back on the road, because there are three more days ahead of me.

I do not see Harry again.

And then last year I happened across a documentary on Harry’s life, and I sat and watched it and was amazed. I had always known about him as an actor and a singer; I knew the song he was especially famous for. And while my experience on that strange night had been frenetic and stressful, he was kind to me and even patient. I suspected he’d learned to slow down and go silent over the years, a way of coping with the endless speaking engagements and events that probably took up his life, with the constant sleeve-tugging and ingratiating smiles and “This way, please” from all the people who had ever been charged with escorting him places. But I had never previously known the degree to which he had affected the landscape of movies and music, civil rights, humanitarianism and so much more until that documentary.

I’m not a celebrity worshipper. On some level I recognize that we are all the same, that no person is inherently better than the next, that fame is a poor indication of the true spirit and value of any one human being. But I also recognize that every so often there are people who are destined to embark upon something from which they can never look back, and to be braver than most in order to move civilization forward. They are imperfect and fallible like the rest of us. They make tough choices, sometimes wrong choices. Their paths are often uncertain and fraught with challenges. But they are necessary people—not better—but necessary to the cause, whatever it may be. And Harry is one of them.

If you haven’t guessed, it’s Harry Belafonte who I’m talking about. Go look him up and familiarize (or re-familiarize) yourself with his work. Right now there are a lot of people and past events we are being asked to re-live and consider anew, and with good reason.

In the end, my brush with fame makes for a good story, but my brush with history makes for an even better one, because I’m reminded of how things were several decades ago and who was paying attention and who orchestrated change. And that paying attention now and orchestrating change now are still important. And that if anyone asks you to go get Harry, knowing the room number ahead of time would be a smart idea.

*Of course, in telling a true story, there may be some details I get wrong, such as the actual room number.