Grandma fought the “G” word: “It’s about time someone paid.”

The author's grandma Alpha Mae in 1983. (Photo courtesy of Jamila Johnson)
The author’s grandma Alpha Mae in 1983. (Photo courtesy of Jamila Johnson)

This story was originally performed by Jamila Johnson at The Seattle Globalist’s live Moth-style storytelling event on Wednesday, Sept. 14. It has been adapted for our online news format. 

Nana did hair. For 30 years, she owned the quaint Alpha’s House of Beauty on 16th and Yesler in Seattle’s Central District. Nana retired when I turned 6, gently slipping into a leisurely life of playing the ponies, trips to Reno, binge-watching CNN in purple tracksuits, inhaling Vienna Sausages and swatting at fallen Saltines in her cleavage.

It was a good life.

In 1994, six years after her retirement had begun, Nana had a particularly strong year spent hitting trifectas, and properly selecting Morning Glory in the third. With her winnings in tow, she took me to the courthouse steps one cold winter break morning.

Nana and I went there to bid on tax foreclosed properties seeking “slivers.”

The “slivers” were strips of land lost in subdivisions and between homes — slivers too small to build on. That day, she bought nine properties, sight unseen, for practically nothing.

In the back seat of Nana’s white Cadillac, I navigated with my magnifying glass and “The Thomas Guide” finding the property she’d bought. These properties were in subdivisions with the phrase “country club” in them, in neighborhoods Nana had never been in, despite her many years living in Seattle.

“You see, Seattle used to redline,” Nana would explain. “This neighborhood: you wouldn’t ever see one black face. They put it in the deeds. They kept us out. Don’t you forget it.

Years later, I would not forget this statement. I would not forget it when someone razed the Chubby and Tubby’s on Twenty-Third Avenue South, where Nana had bought the plastic Black Santa that spent each December in her front yard. I would not forget it when Alpha’s House of Beauty became apartments. I would not forget it when the news that the Red Apple had been acquired spread through the newspapers. This moment in the Cadillac would create the context of the gentrification I would see over the next 20 years.

Redlining had been Seattle’s way of keeping brown people like Nana in areas deemed undesirable, and the impacts of these old deed restrictions would continue to dictate much of where Seattle’s minorities resided long after Nana died. It would add fuel to the fire when people one day would determine this land desirable again.

But in 1994, on that December day, the Cadillac pulled up to each of these properties, and Nana would saunter along the stairs of a neighbor to the sliver.

Tap. Tap. Tap.

“Well hello. I’m Alpha Mae,” she would say. “I just bought your side yard, and I’d like to make you a deal.”

Each time the person at the door would say no. Then, she would do the same on the other side, as I watched from the car. Nana could spot a racist like no one else. She would explain later: “he didn’t look me in the eye” or “he wouldn’t shake my hand.”

Nana would pull a chair from the Caddy and sit on the property reading a newspaper, me reading at her side. After about an hour, Nana would select the one who she thought most wanted us gone.

Tap, tap, tap on the screen door. I never knew what she’d say on the second visit, but Nana, formerly of Alpha’s House of Beauty, would have doubled what she paid in only a few days.

“They kept me out for too long. It’s about time someone paid.”