The first time I try to meet up with Makeda “Dread” Cheatom, she doesn’t show. I leave her a note. An hour later, she calls to apologize, and we arrange a new time for later that afternoon. Ten minutes after we hang up, she calls back.
“What time did we say — 1:00 or 3:00?” she asks.
I remind her that we said 2:00.
But once we’re finally seated on the perfect-for-sitting tree stump in front of the WorldBeat Cultural Center, the organization of which Cheatom is both founder and executive director, I have her undivided attention. Or, rather, she has mine.
“George Harrison was mad at me, because I wouldn’t let him smoke,” she says over the sound of drums coming from inside the center. “I had the first nonsmoking restaurant [in San Diego].”
The restaurant to which she refers is the now-closed Prophet International Vegetarian Restaurant, opened in 1971 at 4461 University Avenue.
“We were multicultural, and San Diego didn’t have that at that time,” she says. “We were Mexican, Japanese, white, black. We thought we were cool.”
A little bald baby wobbles out of the water-tank-turned-cultural-center in Balboa Park, across Park Boulevard from Balboa Hospital. He has escaped from the kiddie drum class inside. A half-second later, a man hurries out and scoops him up.
“He’s making a run for it!” Cheatom calls to the man.
The man laughs and carries the kid back inside.
“So, anyway,” she continues, “George Harrison comes in. It was probably ’75 or ’76. They were Krishna people who brought him in. At that time, I think he got into the Hari Krishnas, who don’t eat anything that grows below the ground. So he goes, ‘Well, you got mushrooms. You serve mushrooms and onions and carrots.’ And I’m young and arrogant, and I’m like, ‘I don’t care who he is. He still can’t smoke in my restaurant.’”
It’s hard to tell if she regrets that she upset the former Beatle until she says, “Now, I know he died of throat cancer. He’s probably saying right now, ‘I should have listened to her.’”
Cheatom has the androgynous face of an old soothsayer. Her heavy-lidded eyes bear a sadness that doesn’t quite lift, even when she smiles. Yet there’s nothing guarded about her. This is our first meeting, but before I leave today, she’ll tell me she loves me.
Cheatom was born in 1942 to southerners who’d moved to San Diego in the early 1940s. Her mother and father had fifth- and third-grade educations, respectively. On her birth certificate, she says, they were listed as “a maid and a boot black.”
“Everybody from the south came to work in the defense plants,” she says. “The government gave us these cracker-box houses. [Linda Vista] was an extension of the south. We had chickens and stuff like that. So I grew up with that existence. Grandmothers stayed home to take care of the children. They’d hit you, too. They had the authority, because they watched everything you did.”
The drumming and singing has stopped. Parents file out with their children on hips, in strollers, or hand-in-hand. They wave and smile at Cheatom as they pass by. She waves back.
“He’s keeping you young!” she calls to a man carrying a beefy toddler.
“Yeah, just turned one,” the man calls back.
“No — I say, he’s keeping you young, man!”
The man responds, “Who said you supposed to get old?”
“Nobody!” Cheatom shouts. “We’re not gonna do that, are we?”
Cheatom’s phone rings. She picks it up, then, without waiting for the caller to speak, says, “Call you back,” and hangs up. She looks at me and continues as if there’s been no interruption.
“One time, I was arrested for stealing my own car.”
When I laugh, she smiles, but only briefly.
“Yeah, man. I had an Austen Healy, and you know black people didn’t drive sports cars in those days. I was always picked on. In those days, you had to show your registration. I had my steering wheel in, trying to be cool, you know. You could pull it in or pull it out.”
She mimes pushing a steering wheel in and pulling it back out.
“And I had a magnet with my registration. I put it on the heater. But, somehow, it fell or whatever, but they weren’t going to bother to look for it when they pulled me over. I was in the beach area, and they took me to jail. I remember the car door was closing, and the officer goes, ‘Good-bye, nigger.’ A policeman.”
She shakes her head.
“When we grew up, man, everybody just wanted to get out of here. A lot of great people moved out. If you had any artistic ability, that’s what you did, because they would kill you. Most of my friends died or went to jail. You just couldn’t make it here.”
Cheatom looks down at her hand and fiddles with one of the eight beaded bracelets on her wrist. A drum sounds from inside the building. It’s not a steady rhythm, but an intermittent series of tones, as if a child is banging on the drum skin.
“Black people are suffering from post-traumatic slave syndrome.” Cheatom looks up again. “We didn’t get any therapy or anything for what’s been happening to us. That’s why there’s black-on-black crime and self-hate and all these different things.”
She gives me a significant look. I get the feeling she’s said this a hundred times before. She segues into an explanation of how Transcendental Meditation eventually helped her let go of her own demons.
“The meditation helped me realize that I have a divine self, and that the only thing to be angry at is anger. I started raising my level of consciousness.”
Cheatom, too, dreamed of leaving San Diego, but felt she couldn’t leave her family. Both her parents were alcoholics, and her uncle was a “hobo, you know, sleeping in cars.”
At 13, she did leave for a while, traveling up to Fort Lewis in Tacoma, Washington, where her older brother was stationed. Though she’d gone to “escape the alcoholic situation” at home, she found that her brother and his wife were also drinking, and that “there were some abusive things going on in the household.”