by Lee Gutowski
C.C. Carmickle speaks in “rhythm and rhyme,” as he puts it (but he tried not to speak that way as a child because in the South when he grew up you could get killed for that, for acting too intelligent). His stories are riveting and full of adventure, with plenty of clear-eyed, irreverent comedy to boot. He is never NOT dressed nattily, with leathers and scarves, a fedora, and a downtown poet’s flair. The jewelry he wears is often self-designed, or magically rich as ancient ivory. He greets folks with his old-world Southern manners – a hat tip and often a peck on the hand for ladies, a warm handshake for men – and those he meets can feel the respect he brings to the meeting. He would never ask a lady her age (I’ll bet), but a woman recently asked him his. With a twinkle in his eye, he charmingly demurred, “Old enough to know better, too young to resist.”
C.C. has been in Milwaukee for about 15 years, the last nine of which have been in Riverwest. His introduction to the neighborhood was “Jeb from Riverwest Radio” asking him to be on his show, which was pretty new and being produced in the storefront of Riverwest Film & Video at 824 E. Center Street. (Jeb had seen C.C. performing at a comedy club in Milwaukee and invited him then and there.)
“I want to start by thanking Ian and Jeb from Riverwest Radio, and Charlie Hustle. They are the ones that brought me to Riverwest and made me to feel at home. Jeb brought me to Riverwest. Charlie Hustle made me feel at home in Riverwest … Ian watched my back and helped walk me through the radio station. He helped build the radio station.”
C.C. points out, “the only reason I stayed in Riverwest was the eternity of Jeb,” who has since died. “I stayed to honor him at Riverwest Radio.” Although he’d been offered a position at WFMU in New York (where his spontaneous, freeform spoken word / poetry / rap stylings were in syndication), and thoroughly enjoyed time in the Bronx, his home was here.
Reality of history
C.C. was born in New Orleans and raised on a plantation in nearby Shreveport, Louisiana. “My grandmama ran the big house of the plantation of the man that ran the town. And the plantation owner (Mr. Wilkerson), his slogan was, ‘Not nobody touches one of my n*s’. He said, ‘you got a problem, you call me’ – and that included the police!”
“Mr. Wilkerson owned the bank, the movie theater, the car dealership … he owned the town. He also had a Rolls Royce, with a white driver,” and that was the first car C.C. ever rode in.
“I was given to his daughter as a birthday gift. And she rode me around to all the other plantations showing them what daddy had given her. And I sat in that car, and I said to myself in that car, I will be able to own one of these if I want to, and no one else will put me in a position like this again.”
The young C.C. “didn’t have to work – I had the run of whatever I wanted to do,” because of his place in the big house with his grandmother. “I also had a 112-year-old babysitter (not his grandmother), and her sisters around that age. They would tell me stories of when they were being bought and sold. One lady had 10 kids, she wondered if they were still living, did they even know about her. It was the definition of learning real history, and with the history they taught in school, I knew they were lying to me. I was told what real history was by the people who lived it.”
At nine years old C.C. endured the harrowing experience of “cutting down a man who had been lynched, burned and castrated,” because his father “refused to do it.” Until he was thirteen, he was able to somehow survive the gauntlet of being black in Louisiana. At about that age, though, he pretty much had to leave Shreveport. “I had visited Chicago, and I could ride on the city bus when I was there.” But when he got back to Louisiana, he tried to ride a bus and was kicked off and told to enter on the side, a separate entrance from the white people. Armed, he commandeered the bus and forced the driver to give him a ride. He got into a lot of trouble for that, and “there was nothing that could be done by Wilkerson.” That’s about the time he started out north to Illinois, where he landed in the town of North Aurora (a suburb of Chicago).
C.C. told of the time he had to run for his life from the tough kids from Chicago who wanted him to pay them a “protection fee” at church camp and pulled a knife on him. “I had an attitude, I guess. I didn’t really care, I knew was already dead. Death has always been my friend. I would drink out of the white-only water fountain … When they put the dunce-cap on me at school, I threw it off my head and did Al Jolson. They run me outta that school!”
Learning from the mistakes of others
“The best thing about mistakes is watching other people make them. That gives me the opportunity to see how they did it, what caused it, the outcome, and my goodness how to avoid it!” C.C. mentioned this idea a couple of times, and indeed he’s used this method all through his different jobs and projects.
C.C.’s resume is long, varied and fascinating. Thirty-odd years ago in Illinois, he opened a music club so that the 15-year-old guitar player he was managing (Michael Tafoya from the Boyzz from Illinoizz) had a place where he could play his music and not get hassled for being underage. He used to sing and perform, but when he observed that bookers and promoters and managers were the ones who made the big money, he decided to get into that side of the business.
In the early 70s, he became the first black deputy sheriff in Kane County. “I wanted to be a police officer so I could understand them, learn how they tick and know how they work. … It was knowledge I’ll never forget, and I enjoyed it immensely.” C.C. tells the story of the first time he walked into the office as a deputy, and the sheriff told him, “The only reason I’m hiring you is to fill my quota. I asked him do I get paid the same as everybody else? He said yeah. Do I get to wear a uniform and a hat and a badge? Yes, you do he said. And do I get to carry a gun? Yep. I said, ooh, man, can I shoot white people? He looked at me surprised. I said, I’m just trying to fill my quota.” At that point, the sheriff said something about they should get along just dandy. But C.C. said, nope. “I told him as soon as you’re up for re-election, I’m going to do what I can to get you out of this office.” Later, when the sheriff was running for reelection and C.C. was still deputy sheriff, C.C. covered his truck with stickers endorsing his opponent, and parked it right front and center in the office parking lot. “He was livid,” C.C. says, chuckling.
C.C. has always been one to say exactly what’s on his mind – to tell the truth to so-called “authority figures” even at his own peril. But he’s smart. He’s lived a lot of life and done a lot of observing of other peoples’ mistakes – the best kind of mistakes.
Currently, C.C. is preparing to go up to Musky Fest in Hayward, Wisconsin and do business at the big vendor fair there. His friend, Riverwest jewelry maker Jo Yanish, takes her jewelry all over the country and sells at vendor fairs. “It’s interesting that the name of Jo’s business is Flattery Works,” says C.C. “Because when we’re there, she does the work. And I do the flattery! That’s what she always says,” he laughs.
He’s also recording some television and radio commercials, as well as working on a children’s book that will be one long poem with different movements, that tells a story. Oh, and there’s some festival planning on his schedule, too. He’s looked at a privately-owned festival site around 30 miles outside of Milwaukee, and “it’s perfect for what I want to do” – which will include a vendor fair with “art, jewelry and cheese vendors” as well as performing artists doing music, poetry and spoken word.
In closing, C.C. opines, “I’ve always thought of Riverwest as the poster child of Milwaukee. If Milwaukee could all be like Riverwest, we’d be better than Chicago and New York; they would have to bow down to Milwaukee.”
He asked if we’d include a spontaneously written poem by him with this article, which he sent me in a telephone text message. Here it is.
We’re the poster child of Milwaukee, Wisconsin
As we walk the destination of your mind’s understanding
Your hearts and souls fueling the riverside with energy
Likely the universe
Feeding your souls
Savoring the love imposed by their beautiful souls
In search of gold
The true story behold
Is your families – the platform you stand on
Is the beauty from the sanctuaries
The diamonds justifiable sparkles in their eyes
When you are seen not viewed
Don’t get me wrong there’s a lot going on
Artists in every shape
And form beauty creating beauty
It’s an honor being a part and having the opportunity
To see the beauty they placed in my soul and gave me
The opportunity to see
The true destination of my destinies
Me myself C.C.