NOVEMBER 28, 2014

STRANGER: Caecilia Key
LOCATION: The Carolina Kitchen, 2350 Washington Place NE, Washington, DC
THEME: A single mother shares her hopes for the future

Single mother Caecilia Kay has faced several struggles in her life, from being one of only a handful of black girls at a mostly white Catholic high school to the breakup of her marriage.

But she’s determined that those experiences won’t break her. Instead, she told me during dinner that those hurdles have reinforced her resolve to work hard both for herself and her youngest son, who is 19 and focused on his studies. “All the awful things that have happened in my life have led me to who I am now, determined never to let it happen again. And that’s what I tell my son: never give up,” said Caecilia.

Much of her time is devoted to ferrying her son to and from school, while also taking care of all the various regular household tasks that Caecilia, 55, has to handle alone.

Yet she’s also increasingly trying to use what little free time she has to pursue her long-held dream of building a career in public relations and communications.

For now, it’s on a part-time basis. She’s doing free work promoting some people in the Washington, DC, area — such as a group of comedians. It’s work that she told me she loves, and whenever conversation would come back to the topic during dinner, her face would light up and her smile would broaden.

Not that she isn’t prone to smiling. From the moment I met her at the entrance to the Carolina Kitchen, Caecilia was friendly and a good conversationalist.

It was the first time at the restaurant for either of us. Friendly staff greet you at the door. The place serves hearty Southern food. Meatloaf, ribs, collard greens, mashed potatoes.

The place has a pretty generic décor, with white walls, a gray carpet, dark blinds on the windows and well-polished wooden tables and chairs. It’s the staff that made the venue memorable for me, as they were very attentive without being intrusive, fun to talk with, and gave thoughtful input on what to eat — and what not to eat.

Our server was mid-conversation when he was dragged off to the far end of the restaurant to join in the singing celebrations for someone’s birthday. Yes, Carolina Kitchen is the kind of place that if you say you’re dining out to commemorate another year on earth, the crew races to your table and sings, claps and generally mortifies your entire table.

Mercifully Caecilia and I were left alone far away from the song-and-dance routine. We used the quiet time to peruse the packed menu.

“This all looks great to me,” she said.

“Only problem is I’m still full from Thanksgiving,” I replied. That great American feast had happened the day before this dinner interview. I had a mound of leftover turkey, potatoes and all the trimmings waiting at home. So my eyes hovered over the menu’s lighter fare.

Caecilia, who lives in Hyattsville, Maryland, said she appreciated the chance to get out of the house. She’s currently on medical disability leave from work, which can make life stressful when combined with being a single mother and pursuing her own dreams.

“All in all, I love what I’m doing,” she said. “I dream of the day I have paying clients. Since I’m on medical disability right now I do as much as I can. But when I do this kind of creative work I can think clearly. I get energy from the people with whom I interact.”

While being based largely from home could make some jobs difficult, it’s actually a boon for Caecilia’s work for free as a self-described public relations and social media specialist. She can promote people and events via Facebook, Twitter and other sites, all from the comfort of her home and her phone. “I feel fulfilled helping people increase their online presence. I enjoy interacting with people online and building relationships,” she said.

She said she’s long enjoyed communicating with people, which led naturally into promotional work. For example, she’s working with DC-based Just Jokes Radio — a comedians’ production agency — to build their social media presence. She’s bulking up their Twitter subscriptions, currently at 650-plus and growing, and fires out several messages a day from their account. A big part of the promotion and outreach is communicating with like-minded people to increase visibility.

“Many companies think they can pop up a page, like on Twitter, follow a few people, and the world will rush to their door. But the successful companies engage with people,” she said.

My use of Twitter revolves primarily around just putting up the occasional link to Dining With Strangers or posting random photos. But that’s why I’m not a social media specialist. As Caecilia tells it, timing of a Tweet or a Facebook post can be crucial. Some people might advocate posting at lunchtime, when workers are off the clock and browsing online. But that might not work for people like comedians with jobs that keep odd hours, she said.

One tool she uses to fine tune her promotional strategies is using web analytic data to find out which posts proved the most popular, and try to emulate those going forward.

Although she’d love to pursue the job as a full-time paid position one day should she recover from her disability, she said she gets plenty of enjoyment from promoting others regardless. She created a Facebook page for Bernie Gibson, a former table tennis champion from the Senior Olympics. “He got so much joy when he went to the market or ran errands and people stopped him to say, ‘Bernie, I saw you on Facebook! Great job!’ His spirits were visibly lifted. And that’s why I love this work.”

Then our waiter returned, with plates full of appetizers.

“Careful, they’re hot,” he said as he put down my order of fried green tomatoes.

Sure enough, when I punctured the crisp casing on the tomatoes, steam poured out. Once they cooled down, I dug in. I was impressed. The tomatoes, despite being caked in fried batter, tasted light and fresh, topped off with a savory yet delicious sauce.

Caecilia ordered the fried shrimp. I had more than enough of an appetizer with the large portion of tomatoes, so didn’t try her dish. But she spoke highly of it.

While she made her way through the shrimp, her voice got a little softer as she became more reflective. Although she’s identified her current passion and has a good handle on her dreams for now, she told me how it has been a difficult path getting there.

She was born in Minneapolis, Minnesota, but the family moved around a lot because her father was a professor working at various schools. They also lived in Illinois before settling for a while in Iowa, where Caecilia attend the Catholic high school that was two bus journeys away from her parents’ house.

“I didn’t enjoy it, there were almost no black kids at the school. They went to the public school two blocks from our house, but I’m at the Catholic school and one of less than 12 black people there. My parents wanted a better life for their kids and didn’t think they’d get it at the public school,” she said. “So I was socialized white. It created some friction with other black people.”

That friction was due to the fact that she wasn’t able to pick up on conversational cues, cultural topics or other things that she might have learned by going to the public school. Being “socialized white” at the Catholic school, as she described it, also meant she largely kept to herself as a child. “I would go home, read my books, or ride my bike,” rather than hang out with friends, she said.

It wasn’t until her college years when everything changed. “Now I was independent,” she said, and picked Iowa State university. “Then I discovered the black community and other black people like me, and that branched off to discovering the broader black community in college. And everyone was intelligent, forward-thinking and controlling their circumstance rather than being a victim of circumstance. That was awesome.”

At university she studied broadcast journalism and radio production. Her father said she had a great speaking voice and should be in radio or television. He was right. Caecilia has a soft, pleasant voice that still manages to keep one’s attention when she’s talking.

Although college life taught Caecilia independence, it also taught her about parties.

“I had been the good Catholic girl. I made up for lost time and went to all the parties,” she said. This led to her making what she called some “pretty bad choices in life.”

She became pregnant, and rushed into a marriage with the father. They moved to DC, but broke up. A second relationship with a musician followed. Fast forward a few years, and Caecilia was now mother to two boys and a girl, but about to break up with her partner.

“I never wanted to be a single mom, I was crushed,” she said. “It was a very difficult time, like a mental scrambling. I had a huge learning curve to get use to it.”

How does one even plan life when being a single mother?

“That’s an excellent question,” Caecilia said. She had to plan accordingly with rent, finding a place that she would always be able to afford regardless of a potential partner’s income. And she took on all the other tasks of family life that two parents would normally divide.

It was a lot of work, and it made her literally sick with stress. That’s been an ongoing problem that has contributed to her current physical disability that keeps her out of her current employment at an accounting firm, she said. “I have just been feeling so drained,” Caecilia said, looking down at the table.

Then she lifted her head up and flashed a small, gentle smile.

She said that despite all her struggles, there are several things that keep her going: her faith, her passion for social media and public relations as a way to help promote others, and her desire to protect her children.

Despite the struggles Caecilia has faced, she’s optimistic about the future.

Meanwhile, I was optimistic about the main course when the waiter returned. I decided to play it somewhat healthy by ordering a green salad topped off with fried chicken.

The vegetables were crisp and flavorful, and the house vinaigrette gave just the right amount of tang to the meal. However, and perhaps obviously, the best part of the dish was the crunchy fried chicken chunks on top. The coating and the thick white meat were good enough for me to make a mental note to return one day to the Carolina Kitchen and try the fried chicken dishes.

“I’m telling you, these will be better than the beef,” said our waiter as he presented Caecilia with her order of a half rack of barbecued pork ribs.

Earlier that night, she’d tried to order the beef short ribs. But our waiter guided her to the pork ribs, promising they’d be much tastier. And so Caecilia ordered the pork, with sides of green beans and macaroni and cheese.

Turns out our waiter was right. Caecilia had nothing but praise for the meal, though the massive portions meant neither of us wanted dessert.

As we wrapped up the meal, Caecilia reiterated that her faith has helped get her through the difficult moments in life. And it’s what keeps her focused on the future, not the past. It’s her beliefs that keep her working hard to make sure her youngest son has what he needs. It’s those beliefs that also propel her to keep trying her best at experimenting with her interest public relations.

“When I talked about faith being my strength to carry me through, my faith and my church helped to put me in the position I am now, pursuing a purpose. Our pastor said we should not be silent when we are called to a particular task. Answer the call. You never know who is on the other side of your ‘mission’ waiting for you to step up to the plate.

She paused for a moment. Reflected again.

“I took that to heart,” she said. “People say the work that you would do for free is what you were called to do. And I’ve been volunteering social media and PR services for a long, long time. A change could come any minute now, but I’m keeping the faith.”

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