QUEENS: A MEMOIR for AUNT PUMPKIN

20 MINUTES AND COUNTING

As little Long Island boys, New York City Saturdays couldn’t come soon enough, and the anticipation of the series of events for the next two days ate away at us like necrotizing fasciitis.

I can’t remember if we went to Astoria, Corona, Long Island City or someplace entirely different, I only knew we were going to Queens, to my aunt’s house, and we were getting close. We waited for the unmistakable identifiers; the patented indicators that always told us when Long Island faded and Queens came to life; landmarks that verified our transition; the huge metal globe, the ominous pavilion, and rockets that seemed to sprout from underground bunkers; relics from the 1964 World’s Fair.

QUEENS WORLD'S FAIR

The Queens of our destination was dramatically different from the manicured grass and single family homes of central Long Island. Once we exited the highway, we’d snake through neighborhoods where two-story homes with tiny lots stood mere inches from one another. A block or two from those homes were brique blanche low rise apartment buildings, no more than four stories high, misplaced among the marigolds and gardenias but fitting, somehow, among the splendor. They looked inviting and warm, yet not exciting or telling, not like my aunt’s building, which stood twice as large, full of fantastic tales, and was still several hundred driving yards away.

I found myself, even as a child, awestruck by the architectural majesty of the edifices that led to my aunt’s place: Italianate, Neo-Classical, and Victorian. I’d trace the outlines; the smooth facades, and curvy beams, the jaunting slabs and recessed windows of the early 20th century homes. There was also a unique beauty in the design of the convenience stores and the numerous carry-outs that peppered the next several blocks. Each was pristine; white, clean, notifying passersby, on sidewalk A-frames, of the sales and special edibles with fancy names sold in their markets. Their customers smiled, held conversations, petted each other’s dog, or gestured like royalty.

THEN the dramatic and immediate change, both apparent and unapologetic.

Whitewashed walls turned a mild shade of grey and darkened as we gradually motioned closer to my aunt’s neighborhood. The stores suddenly morphed into worn and depressed concrete slabs, hoping, perhaps, for a solid, strong, and unmerciful wind that would level them. Merchants didn’t appear as lively or inviting as those just a few blocks away. Along this path, the accents and complexions were different. The street, one block to the next, grew darker, from European white to Middle Eastern brown, to African Black.

produce market 2

Despite this, the sweet scent and attractive colors of fresh fruit and flowers poured invitingly from beneath green awning, and offerings of Jamaican beef patties, knishes, bialys or massive green pickles wrapped in wax paper pockets were sold alongside beef hot dogs, quarter pound burgers, Chinese food, and jumbo slices of cheese pizza. I learned that the name of the store was moot. Who stood behind the counter was how each was identified: the Arab or Spanish store, or just, ‘The Deli.’

Within minutes we arrived in the ‘projects’: that magical place where secrets were born. Finally.

And butterflies fluttered in our bellies.

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Dad maneuvered his well-detailed, ’74 Caprice Classic slowly, tip-toeing over hole-filled asphalt and shards of shattered liquor bottles, in search of a parking space close to the building. He grimaced, frowned and cursed as we coasted further from Aunt Pumpkin’s. Growing frustrated — and Dad being Dad — he created a space made of sidewalk and grass.

We stood outside the car turning our heads left and right, taking in the wonder, familiar with the unfamiliar. We inhaled the Queens air deeply, filled our lungs with invisible compounds created by transient mad scientists and released into the open environment. But the air in Queens wasn’t what we were breathing on Long Island. It was thick with the signature (and welcomed) odors of diesel exhaust, incinerator smoke, stagnant river water, collard greens, vinegar, fried chicken, onions, and garlic. I grew to love that odoriferous symphonic blend because combined, it produced nostalgia. Even to this day, any similar smell sparks immediate memories: some of the best times of my life.

THE RIVER BENEATH US

Behind my aunt’s apartment building there flowed a vast and murky river. It glistened at sunrise and again at sunset like tea colored diamonds cascading down a ten-degree incline. It was most beautiful at night, when the lights from the buildings on the other side of the river seemed to dance on waves that rose and fell like the notes of Bolero. When the sun eased beneath the horizon the pungent scent of day thinned, leaving that familiar oceanic essence that made lovers swoon.

We played on an island where the river met the brick wall intended to keep residents and fury separated. The island, made from compressed trash, was created in 1968 during the New York City trash worker’s strike. Within days, garbage consumed the projects, snaking along walking trails and leaving a putrid, sticky slime. Complaints to the management, mayor, and resident rights associations, garnered nothing except larger piles. After several weeks, with no resolution and an infestation of rats and mice, the residents made a decision that changed the landscape and seascape.

trash

Residents — men, women, and children — donning gloves and homemade masks soaked in perfumes and disinfectants, gathered together and begin the task of moving the trash.

‘If the government doesn’t care about us, we will get their attention on something they do care about.’

And with that, for several days an army of Corona, Astoria, Long Island City residents carried leaking, germ-filled bags of trash to the river.

When agreements were met between the government and the strikers, the trash strike ended. Building management (who also participated in “the great dump”), hoping to regain authority, posted notices that spoke of hefty fines to anyone caught dumping, but people ignored those warnings and continued, for two generations, tossing trash over the railing. Soon, management stopped trying.

By 1975 the island grew into an uneven twelve foot semi-circle that sloped into the stagnant river. We would stand with other kids, bouncing on the hard funky mass, with no fear or regard to the possibility of irreversible consequences.

toxic river

With about ten of us gathered on the relatively small mound, vying for position and trying to avoid taking a fall from which we didn’t know what may result, the viscus, egg-smelling river water splashed a few inches from our feet. She played with us; teased as we flirted with her, and sang to us a beautiful aria, promising that if we hopped on her back she’d take us on an unforgettable journey and return us home safely. Her song was intoxicating, magnetic, and comforting. But there was a longing and loneliness in her tone that appealed to parts of us we never knew existed. Although she was hypnotic and alluring, her uncertain but apparent danger kept us at bay. We were tempted, as children usually are, but too afraid, as children usually are. We wanted to ride, and to feel the salty, putrid mist kiss our faces. We wanted to scream, laugh, wave, and be admired. We were just too afraid.

The neighborhood kids trusted her. They were lured by her song. They stepped into the water, positioned on her spine and journeyed a distance nearly beyond our view, waving excitedly to us and their image drifted further and further until it became an unidentifiable speck, and then, quietly, very quietly, they disappeared.

“The Island” became a generational contribution to adventures, like a candy store or a secret garden. It was an amusement park death trap, far more dangerous than the emerging drug dealers and known molesters who roamed the projects when the sun went down. Throughout the years many children disappeared. Many mothers and grandmothers begged God for mercy. “The Island” grew. It aged and blew steam from a collection of pores from January through December. Children took a ride and never returned to shore. Perhaps this was His being merciful.

THE RESIDENTS

There were a half-dozen morning nomads playing on the winding path that led to my Aunt Pumpkin’s building. It was 8:00 in the morning and they looked as if they had just awakened. A group of men with crudely drawn caricature-like faces leaned nonchalantly, but confidently, on cars talking fantastic shit about nothing. They were sharing a Kentucky breakfast from a brown paper bag, hiding their obvious concern as the Lion (my Dad) and his two cubs (my brother and I) got closer.

Capture_11 (1)

Their scowl deepened. Their boisterous chatter turned to murmurs and the murmurs to deafening silence. Every eye eyed Dad suspiciously, focusing on his height, his width, and his prideful gait. The men rolled their shoulders back, expanding their chests, bore brown teeth and folded their arms over malnourished bodies, attempting, we guessed, to intimidate, until Dad nodded and greeted them loudly, with a bottom-hammer toned: “Good morning fellas.”

Involuntarily they nodded back, still silent, perhaps unsure of next steps, but alert, giving us an unspoken okay to be in their camp. Their approval wasn’t necessary. My Dad was big and confident; an unmovable Super Alpha male who was in immediate command of all packs, and they knew it. Their shifting eyes said they knew, as they kowtowed (actually dropped their heads submissively) until we passed. They understood, just by scent, that a jump-up guaranteed a beat-down. So they boasted when we were a safe distance away, testing the waters, only to realize that it was deeper than they initially assumed, and waded in the deep end until we were out of their sight. We had no concerns, Dad’s waistband partner, Roscoe, was keeping stride.

“Y’all McGuire family?” asked one of the older 8:00 kids. She looked familiar.

“Yeah,” I replied, looking at them side-eye.

The biggest kid, a girl who’d later tell me her name was Natalie, nodded at us like the men had done my father. She was tall and thicker than the rest of the kids frolicking on the ground playing skullies. She was almost a woman (physically) with a little girl’s face. A perfectly straight line separated her afro-puffs into equal symmetrical orbs, exposing big eyes, a wide nose and protruding lips that shined under the rising sun. I could feel her eyes on us as we walked toward Aunt Pumpkin’s building. We’d later become friends but at that moment I realized, at that very moment, that I was not yet an Alpha.

THE BUILDING
Along the winding concrete path, colored over with spray-painted hieroglyphics, to the building that looked identical to a dozen others, we walked. We continued our trek through the intense but invisible cloud of garlic gas, inside the dimly lit building, to the elevator and pressed the number of the floor to my Aunt Pumpkin’s home. When the elevator doors opened there was a short distance, a path along the hard tile floor between stone grey walls, to her apartment. Those moderately polished floors would make the rubber soles of our Pro Keds squeak, echoing like trapped rodents in the hollow.
It was hauntingly quiet inside the hall, but whispers often ominously leaked from behind the locked doors. My brother and I, always game for a game, made a game of trying to decipher the mumbled words of the voices reverberating behind those creamy gray colored reinforced portals. I don’t know when we started doing this, but we always did. The voices were rarely loud enough for us to guess correctly, but wrongly repeating the assumed discussions of the unseen always entertained us, especially our Dad. That is until there was an argument or fight, and there were plenty of those, which rang as clear as the bells of the Catholic church a few blocks away. As the years progressed the once rare conflicts were no longer behind those closed doors but spilled into the hallways and stairwells as painfully contagious events.

BOOM…BOOM…BOOM… BOOM…BOOM…

Dad hammered his closed fist against the metal door of Pumpkin’s apartment. The sound echoed throughout the dimly lit curves of the hall and before the echo ceased he’d do it again, aggressively, with authority. BOOM… BOOM… BOOM…

Pause.

Someone in an apartment down the hall opened their door and peeked out, grunted and quickly retreated.

SLAP…SLAP…SLAP…

This time with an open hand and greater intensity.

A click sounded from the door that previously opened; it was locked.

“Who is it?!” My aunt playfully barked from behind her door.

“Who you think?!” Dad fired back, his face twisted into a youthful smile. “Open the door Punk…”

And that banter would continue for a few seconds. This was their game, I supposed. Big sister and little brother play. And when the door opened we were rushed upon by our cousins with hugs, laughter, and gentle taps. We felt, in that moment, like the most important people on the planet. When the door opened it was the official beginning of the some of the best times of our lives. … And doors opened.

INSIDE THE PUMPKIN PATCH

Aunt Pumpkin’s apartment was inconceivably spotless, smelling of pine or lemons and, for some reason, boiled pork shoulder and vanilla pound cake. To the left of the front door –where no one ever sat–was the sitting room, the color of pale green wasabi and resembling the waiting room in a psychologist’s office. We didn’t care if we weren’t allowed to sit on the plastic covered furniture, as long as we could kneel in front of the glowing glass box, filled with an animation that sparked our imagination. The box – -the largest fish tank I had ever seen — illuminated blue and was crystal clear. Inside were dime-sized guppies and other sea creatures that floated majestically from end to end in a ballet de poisson. Later that night we would sit in front of that tank as if it was a television and we were watching a three-dimensional episode of Jacques Cousteau.

It was by way of that tank that we learned the miracle of birth.

“C’mere! C’mere! I want to show you something!”

We rushed in, bags still clumsily hanging from our hands, into the sitting room and in front of the tank. A fat guppy with massive eyes and a large sweeping tail slowly swam from one end to the other. Her name was Polly. At the bottom of the tank was Max or Maximus, the grotesque, hanging lipped, tumorous male, and father, that stayed suspended within a two-inch radius waiting for the flakes of food sprinkled at the top of the tank to drop to within reach of his self-created cell.

” Look!” my cousin said pointing to the cotton-like speck that dangled helplessly from a tiny opening at Polly’s belly. We moved in closer, wide eyes and motionless as Polly lethargically swam in erratic patterns, dropping, one by one, a dozen tiny pale, big-eyed newbies; the fry. They struggled, swirling in rapid succession from Polly’s protruding underbelly, free falling several inches before eventually getting their sea legs and exploring their new world.

We counted twelve.

We gathered around the tank under a bright light and watched those tiny translucent orange creatures swim through the vastness of their unexplored world. It was amazing! I was in wonder, imagining myself a guppy, free, unafraid, and catered to. We talked about the new additions in the tank and I’d, a couple hours later, sneak back to the sitting room and gawk at the eleven…

ten…

I recounted, and though we agreed that there were twelve, there were indeed ten baby guppies. When we returned the next morning, nearly all of the fry were gone, victims, we learned, of Maximus, the large lipped, multi-colored, tumorous male guppy; the father.
Four remained, hidden in the slender crack of a rock, clustered closely together, traumatized by the horrors they had seen and the sonic fish screams only they could hear. But they too would soon meet a similar fate. I was devastated, vowing never to own fish of any sort. Against my better judgement, I’ve owned two, both of which, within five days, seemed to prefer to swim on their sides.

“Y’all wanna eat?” Aunt Pumpkin asked, her voice both animated and intimidating.

“Yes,” my brother and I sheepishly replied although we had breakfast before we left Long Island.

She went to the refrigerator, gathered a hand full of ingredients and from the drawer grabbed various culinary tools. She put canisters, cartons, and bowls topped with aluminum foil on the counter. In one hand she held a cast iron pot and in the other a knife in the shape of a scimitar. She filled the pot with water, sat it on the stove atop the flame and then, without missing a beat, cut away the plastic wrapping from a pack of sausages, placing them into the pot just coming to a boil. Oil from a tin can that sat on the stove was scooped into the cast iron skillet and heated to a moderate heat. It smelled of bacon and fried chicken. This oil would fry the eggs and sear and char the boiled sausage which would plump and explode through its casing.

Aunt Pumpkin and Dad talked while she moved about the kitchen with admirable precision and purpose, a grace-filled dance by a woman who grew more beautiful with each twist. Their voices amplified as they chatted, reminiscing, and laughing about matters and events we all were alien to. A cup of coffee sat in front of Dad, stream rising and swirling in a ghostly pirouette. In less than a half hour, the little yellow kitchen table would be covered with a spread rivaling most buffets, and we’d dine until our bellies stuck out so far we couldn’t see our feet.

There was no pork shoulder.

II — AUNT PUMPKIN

Aunt Pumpkin was born in the early 1940’s on Virginia’s Eastern Shore, in a town formed from extreme heat and swarms of mosquitoes. It was named, possibly, for an annihilated Native American tribe, killed by brutal colonizers who escaped from their brutal colonizers to build themselves a better life , or the name derived from the town being the tenth railroad station from the Delaware line. Either way, it was home to her and Dad and their tribe.

There were fifteen brothers and sisters, cramped into a house that somehow accommodated them all. Pumpkin’s real name was Mildred, after her mother. In order of birth, she was number ten or eleven. They all worked in the fields of Eastern Shore Virginia, not in the capacity of chattel labor, but as a money-making force. I know nothing about her formal education, but judging by our collective attitude, education was a non-negotiable, as important as air. She was my Dad’s older sister, and based on their relationship, his protector. When it was all said and done, that was all that mattered.

My Aunt Pumpkin, Dad, and thirteen brothers and sisters resembled one another, all sharing distinct and unmistakable facial and physical characteristics that would dominate for generations.

Grandfather was dark and stoic. From him, my Dad, aunts, and uncles got their sloping foreheads, downward slanting eyes, full-ish lips and broad, muscular bodies. Grandmother was light, the color of buttercream, with features that were arguably Native American; the keen nose, piercing eyes, high cheekbones, thick hair, full-ish lips (also), and perfectly drawn eyebrows. They all were beautiful, strong, regal in a way that was achievable only through DNA touched by the spirits. And it was this combined genetic structure that dominated the features of every generation to follow like the smoothly carved lines of West African sculpture. I believe my grandmother’s genetics were most dominant and today her great-grandchildren and great-great grandchildren are mistaken for Dominican, Jamaican, Central African, Ethiopian, and Native American. Aunt Pumpkin, with skin the color of copper (perhaps this is how she got her nickname), represented both of her parents well.

I most vividly recall the warmth I felt when around her, how she seemed larger than most men and twice as loud. Aunt Pumpkin seemed grander than life itself. But more than that, I remember how she laughed, big and joyous, with such passion and animation that she squealed long and breathless at the end, which made whatever she found funny even funnier. We loved that laugh. Without ever really knowing it, we needed that laugh. It was as much a part of the trip as the trip itself. And her eyes, squinting behind large octagonal glasses, danced delightfully, especially behind our childish stories and corny jokes.

The weekend stays at Aunt Pumpkin’s came with a single demand, that we go to church on Sunday. There was no way around it, but the difference between the church we would attend in Queens from the Baptist church I attended at home was welcomed and exciting. So we’d rise early, dress in whatever we could reach and saunter off to a large cathedral a few blocks away, slumber still pasted in our eyes. With pockets full of coins and the occasional paper bill, we calculated how much to put into the plate and how much we could buy from the Spanish or Arab store on our way home. We’d end up proudly toting five-pound bags of candy, cookies, and chips back to Aunt Pumpkins, assuring one another that, although we shorted the collection plate, God would understand.

GROWING PAINS… TRAGEDY … MEMORIES MADE

We were teenagers the last time we spent the weekend at Aunt Pumpkins. The faces in the neighborhood had changed and those who remained were not the people they once were. We had changed. My first Queens Grape-flavored-Now-or-Later kiss changed. I was 12, she was 14. I told her I was 15. She believed me, but I don’t think she cared. I met her years before at 8:00, while we were going to Aunt Pumpkin’s She the biggest girl in the group. Natalie. Her kiss, sloppy and wet made me sing: God bless you, you make me feel brand new. I hadn’t seen her for four years and she had gone from rough edge to smooth line, and… she now had children: two.

It was early evening. People gathered outside their homes to enjoyed the perfect summertime weather and the cooling breeze blowing from the river. I was leaning on the fence taking in the the scenery I had noticed years before. I couldn’t recall a day more beautiful.

The screams came rapidly. Out of nowhere. It’s happened before, but the timber of these outbursts curdled my blood. The night plague swept through the projects, had infected dozens. Pretty people morphed into leathery wrinkled beasts, bent at the waist, begging for forgiveness, while their children begged for food and guidance. They, too, would succumb to the serpent and become its spawn. Corona, Astoria, Long Island City had become an apocalypse. The serpent was growing restless. Today it would show its wrath.

“She on the roof of the 1-15 Building! Look!” the woman pointed toward the sun. ” what she holdin’! She’s holdin’ something.”

All activities ceased. I walked up. The crowd was growing and conversations were drowned behind the din of multiple voices, a chorus of gasps. I was 16, my Alpha-ness was emerging. I worked my way to the front of the growing crowd. My face was now familiar. My movements were more deliberate. My size was almost twice that of the 12 year old that secretly kissed Natalie in the laundry room and felt her afro-puffs caress my forehead. You tell anybody and I’ll beat yo’ ass!, she promised.

… you make me feel brand new.

Teena Marie was playing fin the background: It must be magic…got me under your spell…

“That bitch is crazy. Ridin’ that horse. That’s what it is. She ain’t got no harness. I told them people she didn’t need that baby. She don’t need none of them babies.”

My eyes adjusted to the glare. I could tell that the body on the roof was naked, a formless silhouette moving like the wind. The crowd was forlorn. The lady on the roof was a shadow, a black mass dancing with a Cabbage Patch doll in swaddling cloth. She looked down at the crowd. Afro-puffs revealed like Mickey Mouse ears. Natalie!

She walked, her plantigrade unstable, to the edge of the building, extending her arms away from her body, holding the Cabbage Patch doll in swaddling cloth over the parapet, open to nothing but space and a 70 foot fall. Clouds covered the sun and Natalie’s face came into view. The smell from the “island” wafted around us. Everything became stagnant. She was smiling, yelling venom to the crowd, a white foam ran down the sides of her mouth.

“She gonna throw her baby off the roof.”

“She crazy, BUT SHE AIN’T THAT CRAZY!”

A roar rang from the ensemble and was answered with a greater roar. It was a call and response pastors pray for.

“She don’t love me!” Natalie yelled. “She evil. She the devil.”

There was no negotiating. No time to reason or reconsider. The decision was made, and the moment was irreversible. I stood in silence. The crowd hushed. My cousin grabbed my shoulder. I didn’t know he was there. I was frozen. Aunt Pumpkin trailed not far behind. The entire project was gathered at the mouth of the building. We were forced to accept what our teachings told us was wrong. We were never taught how to reverse the madness the night plague brought. Heroin was stronger than the God of our understanding. We knew this; we understood. We could only accept what was, and hope that we’d one day be forgiven.

Natalie raised the bundle above her head as if presenting a gift to the Gods. She was crying, perhaps thinking twice about what she was about to do. But her reconsideration was brief, as she tip-toed forward and without additional warning released the Cabbage Patch doll with a scream heard on the other side of the river. The swaddling cloth flapped in the free-fall like a malfunctioning parachute. Natalie was Maximus eating his young.
Natalie closed her eyes, raised her leg and silently followed, her rigid naked body dropping horizontally; belly down.
The concrete waited.
The crowd parted.
I will never forget the sounds of flesh on solid ground and how it made me feel

The police came five minutes later. The bodies lay on the sidewalk, bodies that formed the nucleus of a horrific painting. Five agonizing minutes, enough time for the crowd of men, women, and children to absorb the moment and become traumatized by images and memories years beyond the stain. But what was discovered in Natalie’s apartment, the police were not prepared for.

The apartment was hauntingly immaculate; feminine, picturesque. In the kitchen, spices and a large bowl of browning vegetal matter sat on the counter. It seemed that Natalie was in the process of making dinner when her crash happened. The place smelled of incense and burning pot roast, the officers’ report would later report. Satan sat at the kitchen table fiddling with a blackened silver spoon, bloody syringe, and a rubber tube.

The oven was still on but the apartment was empty. No sign of the other baby. Nothing was out of order. The police collected several items, took a few pictures, and began to tape off the apartment. One of the officers turned off the oven, checked the other knobs, surveyed the area again and began to exit. She reached the front door but stopped and doubled back. A burning pot roast needed to be taken from the heat, she thought. She walked toward the stove, opened the oven door and took out the large covered roasting pan. She removed the lid and yelped, alerting the other officers. In the pan, dressed in carrots, onions, and potatoes was the seared remains of the other child, roasted into a swollen mass, practically beyond recognition.

The other baby, less than a year old, was found.

FINAL CURTAIN… ALMOST

The Corona, Astoria, Long Island City phenomenon began to change as the years progressed. Time forced each of us into the covenant of our own design, often not including fish tank follies, bubble gum runs, and trash island adventures. Periodic visits kept us abreast of growth and personality. We were young adults, filled anew with thoughts that we weren’t going to share as freely as we shared fantastic stories doing earlier years. I was saddened when the communication eventually transitioned into silence, and when we met again, our once slender bodies were transformed into broad shoulders and shadowy facial hair.

In time we would be left with only the memories of how freedom felt and how death came without warning or fanfare. Thoughts of Natalie faded into legend, but other memories, just as tragic, were quickly made. There would be new discoveries in far away places and secrets we’d never share. Our little boy innocence would evolve and be deeply tucked away at the bottom of a secured footlocker. We had become men. We would become beasts and do beastly deeds, scaring colonizers and their children and confronting police who put our well being behind all others. Perhaps we had grown filled with the poisons from the toxic river. I think we just grew. My cousins changed their names, following a belief that believed in them. They found peace in Queens’ chaos and discovered the God within themselves. Queens made them Kings and I was not fully invited to their kingdom.

I discovered myself, my love of classical music, rap and jazz; of Monet, Ernie Barnes, Edmonia Lewis, Basquiat, and Jacob Lawrence; of photography, theater, and literature. I would journey to Manhattan and Brooklyn to meet the artists I’d, years later, break bread with in Paris and London. I went to college while my cousins went to life. I am not sure who came out better. I was taught about the ills of the world, while they combated those ills with weapons I believed came in books.

As it was God’s plan, my Dad and Aunt Pumpkin were reborn about nine months apart, leaving us to remember the love and promising that we would reconnect and reminisce about the joys of those early days. The process is slow but encouraging, and Queens, although now wearing an unfamiliar face, will always be ours. The years between our adolescent and adult selves have been a transformation. Our thoughts and recollections may have changed with time but our hearts will always remain untouchable; always a part of a greater universe, always a part of Corona, Astoria, or Long Island City.

(c) 2018 J. O Beckett for GrifB

When They Call You A Terrorist: A Review

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When They Call you a Terrorist: A Black Lives Matter Memoir isn’t like most memoirs. The emphasis, despite the title, is not solely on the BLM movement, instead, it builds the reason for creation and existence BLM through the life experiences of the co-founder Patrisse Khan-Cullors.

As it is not my practice, commonly, to give a synopsis of the book or provide spoilers that may deter interested readers, I will keep it simple and to the point. Khan-Cullors approach to the creation of this highly respected and equally controversial movement (funny how hue-man movements for the amelioration of a people is tainted with adjectives of anxiety) is in direct response to injustices that span beyond the color spectrum. When They Call You a Terrorist is larger than a title, it touches, without apology or stammer, the core of discrimination, both riotous and subdued, that affects the lives of nearly every life, deemed different, on the tree of humanity.

It is said that we fear what we don’t understand. Since the 1865 emancipation of enslaved Africans and people of African descent, there has been a consistent effort to eliminate the African race or traces of the race, by way of intimidation, deception, denigration, incarceration, and murder. For decades, even to this day, a sector of society is directly ostracized and openly isolated by some of the most abusive practices imaginable. Only the color of skin, their choice of who to love, and the God they understood was enough to make them the dregs of “proper Christian” society, by those who worshipped flags and burned crosses. Through the years, and one century later, the rights of people of African descent (and other who felt or were disenfranchised) came to a head and erupted for the world to see. Still, decades later, the rights of people considered different, remained in the forefront of the American psyche and the hue-man efforts branched off in directions the ruling parties were not prepared to deal with. This is what gave birth to Patrisse Khan-Cullors, whose memoir is revealing, exciting and sometimes confusing (in a nature versus nurture sort of way). And they called them terrorists.

Khan-Cullors, who is a very talented writer, was able to seamlessly blend the complexities of being an emotional automaton and a formidable force. The killings of innocent people by police, the discrimination against the LBGTQ community, and the “turn the other cheek” decisions of elected officials started the clearly missioned but intentionally misrepresented (by those who wanted to besmirch the cause) organization/ movement, BLM.

The book is magic even if its heavy biographical content dominates. It is a history lesson that may never appear in a textbook or on an SAT exam, but can never be hidden or destroyed. It is the single most recognized movement in current history and the reason that so many others, who remained silent for ions, are now raising their voices and donning warrior gear.

Read When They Call You a Terrorist: A Black Lives Matter Memoir, not for those things that are easily seen, but for the content that encourages you to think. Take from it more than Patrisse intended. Like Black Lives Matter, When They Call You a Terrorist: A Black Lives Matter Memoir, is the blueprint of what’s to come.

 

Same Kind of Different As Me: A Review

same kind of denver and ron

There are occasions when a reader is drawn to a book because of its title, cover or both. The contents become secondary, practically an after-thought. But it is the title and cover, in its complexity or simplicity… that often clinches the deal. Oddly, and perhaps only in my sensibilities, this applies (in its simplicity) to Ron Hall and Denver Moore’s book, Same Kind of Different as Me: A Modern-Day Slave, an International Art Dealer, and the Unlikely Woman Who Bound Them Together.

With an awkwardly handwritten and excessively descriptive title, coupled with a muted and arid but luminous drab pale yellow ,  Same Kind of Different as Me,  could be told by scanning the cover without ever reading a word. The addition of an older Black man, a railroad crossing sign implying more than transportation (being from the other side of the tracks, perhaps?), a lone structure that could be a house and an empty landscape all effectively symbolize details to be found in the story. But beyond the cover, the words are stunning. The collective story is profound. The messages of life, love, and humanity, peppered with historically significant events, although often wordy, are as clear as confessions of sin.

I opted for the audio book version of Same Kind of Different As Me, certain that there would be — through the dramatic inflections of the human voice — greater authenticity in the telling of the story, and to undoubtedly heighten my appreciation for the depth of the tragedy and triumphs that the characters and their individual tales bestowed.  I wasn’t wrong.  I wasn’t disappointed. The audio book catapulted the story beyond expectation and heightened my visual.

Same Kind of Difference as Me is the story of Denver Moore, a Black man, whose personal perils and melancholy filled life are directly attributed to the color of his skin and the emptiness of his pocket, Ron Hall, a very successful art dealer, and Ron Hall’s wife, Beth, both of whom are cast as philanthropic humanitarians, initially more for self gratification (but, it seems, not in an insincere manner) and later by way of “spiritual” awakening. This is the story about being vastly different in an America that promises equality, and how those differences are so clear they have become practically invisible. It is the story of the second oldest form of segregation in the entire world: money, and how the wealthy and the impoverished view each other as different species.

The reader will  find that Denver Moore’s narratives were considerably more engaging than the others. This is not to say that the other characters lacked any of the nuances that would make for a spirited and riveting tale, but Moore’s stories were filled with the emotion only a walk through the fires of hell can produce. It was felt. I felt it. The opportunity to walk in his blister causing shoes hit a nerve, over and over again, as his stories pulled from the depths below where the rocks gathered, and his honest confrontations with sorrow, tragedy, bad luck and self-imposed alienation in immeasurable abundance, were his cause de rigueur against those who offered help and his general lack of trust. There are points within in the book where Denver openly describes himself as an opposing figure, an ogre, the unapproachable beast, emotionless and pitifully satisfied with his view of how the world views him (my words). This self view proves more penetrable than even he seemed to expect, as he lives the life he seeming felt he deserved.

To be honest, there were many questions not adequately answered; many beyond the contents within the book and maybe this is why a second book (What  Difference Do it Make?) was quick to follow (I have not yet read this book — and may not at all). I couldn’t help but question if Denver became another piece of art for Ron(after a personal tragedy) or a cash cow whose story could pull, ideally, at the heart strings of sympathetic country (just reread the title of Ron’s second book); a way for Ron Hall to make money through a story that he could only imagine based on the reality of another’s impecunious sorrow . I may be digging deeper than necessary, but it was Ron who open that Pandora’s box  as he also questioned the initial sincerity of his friendship with Denver toward the end of the story.

Still I’d say read or listen to  Same Kind of Different As Me, I’d like to know what you think and if you got from it any of what I did.

(Audiobook is highly recommended!!!)

 

An American Marriage: A Review

 

 

 

Title: An American Marriage

Author: Tayari Jones

Series: Oprah’s Book Club 2018 Selection

Hardcover: 320 pages

Publisher: Algonquin Books; Oprah Book Club ed. edition (February 6, 2018)

Tayari Jones’s has written four novels. I have read three: Leaving Atlanta, Silver Sparrow, and most recently, An American Marriage. Before An American Marriage was selected for the Oprah Book Club (the gold star of book clubs) I knew that Jones was exceptional; a writer’s writer, with clear, fluid thought and relatable, often internally flawed (thus familiar), characters. But she writes about real people, with honest conflicts and a jig-sawed existence, lost within a terrific maze of their own creation. She writes about relationships that are complicated, impervious, surreal, and painfully sincere. She, like novelist Bernice McFadden, forces the reader to gasp, not in horror, but in wonder, as the characters make conscientious decisions and engage in emotional actions, often leading to long-term repercussions. Indeed, they are flawed, but understandably so, and in many ways, they are us. They are resilient. They are believable.  They are beautiful.

An American Marriage draws the audience in, sitting them comfortably on the living room sofa where they become not just a reader but one with the action. Tayari does this transitional integration effortlessly, extracting from overlooked human events shared in kitchen conversations and amplifying them, with the slightest of action, to rock band crescendo. Addressed are the sacred covenants of marriage (between Celestial and Roy), the old school “stay-together-no-matter-what” marriage (of Roy’s parents, Big Roy and Olive and Celestial’s parents, Gloria and Franklin Delano), and the relatively predictable “man in waiting,” (Andre). It is through each of these characters that the audience begins to understand the meaning of the title: An American Marriage. Jones paints the three marriages differently and each is infused with their own abstract story of turbulence. Thankfully, she doesn’t sugar-coat their issues, nor does she overly embellish them for the sake of giving the story depth.  But depth is something past readers expect from Jones, and she does provide it plenteously, from chapter to chapter.

The story opens with Roy providing a narrative about him and Celestial as husband and wife. This option to use individual narrative as a point of projecting the story is most effective as it enhances the point of view, personalizing while familiarizing. Roy, whose adult life, the audience will learn, is subtly complicated (especially in relationships) despite involvement in success building organizations in his earlier years. But he minces no words when he was able to leave Eloe, Louisiana. He states:

Celestial thinks of herself as this cosmopolitan person, and she’s not wrong. However, she sleeps each night in the very house she grew up in. I, on the other hand, departed on the first thing smoking, exactly seventy-one hours after high school graduation. I would have left sooner, but the Trailways didn’t stop through Eloe every day. By the time the mailman brought my mama the cardboard tube containing my diploma, I was all moved into my dorm room at Morehouse College attending a special program for first-generation scholarship types.

Roy is something of a ‘good-bad’ boy. The type of guy who was a big fish in his high school and was determined to be even bigger in college. Without emphasizing the components that made Roy who he is, Jones introduces a plethora of quick, but vital, personal stories that produce aha moments. It is revealed that Big Roy, Roy Jr.’s father, is not his biological father, and perhaps (as I put on the reviewer’s deep-dive hat) this is a part of his multidimensional personality. And it is when Roy is arrested, for a crime he did not commit, that the story goes into another casual phase.

Although there isn’t much said about Roy’s experience as a prisoner allusions are clear. Jones, thankfully,  spares readers the overwrought details of the perilous life Roy faced there. Instead, she takes the story in a direction that is far more engaging and wholly unexpected by presenting a character with whom Roy quickly bonds: his long absent, never before met, biological father, Walter, who brings yet another dimension (there were many).

The novel, for a few dozen pages, is epistolary in form, told as letters between Roy (in prison) and Celestial (building a business), and this technique effectively expresses distance and individual change. It is through these letters that the audience learns the most about Roy and Celestial’s relationship; the volatility, the passion, the always-there-but-never-revealed uncertainty. It is here that Jones quietly makes a point that is perhaps the truest and most overlooked event of the story: Growth. For Roy, time stood still, locked at the moment of his arrest and suspended as an undying memory. For Celestial, time was the factor that decided her destiny; her truth. For Andre, time was the only thing separating him from true but elusive love. And time is everywhere (even in the Roy resembling dolls whose innocence is unchanging) but particularly in the form of an old oak tree that Jones presents (in my opinion) as Celestial’s symbol of time. The tree, although sparingly mentioned, is so powerful and such an assertion of time that toward the end of the book  Roy, in a fit of mania, is determined to stop time. It is masterful!!!

This short review exposes many elements of “An American Marriage,”  but Tayari Jones, in the now classic Tayari Jones way, provides so much in so few pages that the story, by way of this review, remains relatively untouched. This is a novel from which everyone can glean something different — something personal. It is a novel that may have readers questioning or applauding the concept of love as they understand it or the nature of commitment to another human being. I give a much-deserved ovation to this work, as did Oprah, for its depth, its complex simplicity and its detail to the familiar. A brilliant work worth a few hours of your time.

My Soul Looks Back: A Memoir A Review

 

My Soul Looks BackJessicaHarris275

Title:  My Soul Looks Back: A Memoir

Author: Jessica B. Harris

Hardcover: 272 pages

Publisher: Scribner (May 9, 2017)

 

Like several books previously reviewed, My Soul Looks Back, was an accidental find. I hadn’t read any prior reviews, knew little of the author (except she did something in the culinary world), and, based on the cover of the book, couldn’t begin to imagine what I was embarking upon. But, as the book began, I was instantly awestruck and inspired.
Harris is a writer, chef, thespian, critic, and academic who, aiming for this outcome or not, struck my core with vivid memories of European travel, the exciting journey into the tastes of the unfamiliar, and the beautiful faces and physiques of an alien world seemingly etched by the gentle touch of Bernini or Rodin. If was her meeting and admiration for James Baldwin, Maya Angelou, Toni Morrison, and a dozen other writers that solidified my desire to read further, to delve into the deepest parts of the book, not realizing that there no shallow areas.
Jessica Harris is an academic who writes, speaks, and lives academia. She elaborates on the people, places, and objects with the tongue of privilege, but admits, directly and indirectly, that she was fortunate in meeting the people who knew the people, places, and things and that without them she wouldn’t have had a story, of this sort, to tell. My Soul Looks Back is not a conventional autobiography, it explores friendships and acquaintances and time in space. It is a diary of events throughout history (without being historic), of life, love, passion, peril, birth, and death. Through Harris, the reader is offered the highly revered Greenwich Village and the mystical magnificence across the Atlantic (including Africa), enhancing our desires with both broad and absolute longing to taste, hear, and smell and an emotional core that we would never be able to adequately or accurately describe.
My Soul Looks Back, as wonderful and billowy as it often is, can sometimes feel heavy. Harris’ experiences are not everyone’s experience (which is okay), but her approach and consistent infusion of French phrasing, name-dropping, and self-inflation can and occasionally does feel a bit… well… heavy, especially if you do not speak/read French or have not had the opportunity to travel extensively or eat Choucroute Garni. This does not take away from the overall beauty of the book’s language, nor does it lessen the sincerity that Harris effectively projects, but it can potentially be problematic to those who are not versed in the art of braggadocio.
Fortunately, many of Harris’ experiences mirror my own, and as a result, I devoured her every word. She mentions the names people I have befriended and praises the many places I have grown to love. This made the book, for me, personally; a time capsule, a portrait of people, places, and objects, I was sure to forget as time progressed. My Soul Looks Back is a breezy walk through artistry and aesthetics, friendships and heartbreak (she writes about the start of the AIDS epidemic and its direct effect on her circle of friends). It will inspire some to throw caution to the wind and others to wonder if they had spent time wasting time. Regardless, you will not be able to help being moved, or at least stirred.

 

 

 

This May Be My Undoing: A Review

this may be my undoingmorgan jerkins

You should’ve known I was coming. — Morgan Jerkins

In late 2016 the writing of Morgan Jerkins, a phenom who orchestrated phrases with amazing fervor and openness, slammed upon my literary landscape like a Sikhote-Alin meteorite. She’d been around for a minute, I’d later learn, as I Googled her name and scrolled through a canon of her articles and blogs as far back as 2014, but, as I had just become familiar, she was [for me] a welcomed fresh face and a new beautiful mind.
It was Jerkins’ lyrical sensibilities, word-aerobics, approach to common themes and colorful social nuances with artistic insight that separated her from the massive ensemble of similar writers. I was encapsulated within her comfortable literary cocoon. In articles from Buzzfeed, Catapult, and Fusion (just to name a few), Jerkins (not Jenkins) gives a head-first dive into her transparent world and in doing so made us better, even if we didn’t know we needed to be.

In her debut and eagerly anticipated book, “This Will Be My Undoing,” Morgan opens a glass door into a place you’d want to linger past closing hours, just to ensure that nothing is missed. She begins with confessions that in this age of Black Girls Rock and Black Girl Magic would certainly raise a few eyebrows. She writes:

“When I was ten, the only thing I wanted was to be a white cheerleader. Bone straight hair. Thin nose. Saccharine voice. Slender body. ”

She continues:

“When I was ten, I realized that I was black. In some ways, that had nothing to do with actual cheerleading, but rather with what blackness meant, writ large, learned from the experience of trying to force myself into this pristine, white, and coveted space, which spit me out before I could realize how much I had been abused.

The detail of this opening is vital to the content of the book. Although racial issues (Jerkins says she was accepted more by the white girls than by the black and brown girls but in time that changed) are not the basis of every essay, it does linger in the wings, entering like an apparition, to prepare Jerkins for the real world, her world, and a series of ‘uncheery’ cheerleading (read social) try-outs. But Jerkins doesn’t allow the past to completely color her present. Instead, she uses the experience to rain observations and truths upon the pages of “This Will Be My Undoing” with enough force and fervor to make the reader quiver. Indeed there were many moments when my progressive mind was shaken. Morgan, although small in stature, is mammoth. She is a force shouting from a Harlem brownstone, Princeton classroom, Russian square, and New Jersey high school; shouting phrases that are usually whispered behind glass doors.

Morgan Jerkins writes of being different, sometimes in a manner that is self-depreciating, searching, longing, and uplifting. She is different. She is mesmerizing. She is a welcoming warm gust and a needed cool breeze. Never quite fitting the pre-requisites of social popularity, she, throughout her entries, was always searching for her place. As one of few African-Americans on the campus of Princeton, for example, she found an odd alienation, of sorts, from the Black men. Perhaps it was a matter of association, climbing the proverbial ladder of success, or being accepted by a culture that could uplift them to higher heights, that kept these men distant. Her relationships with men materialized from daisy fields and butterflies to post-date rides on the last train home; lovely and initially tranquil, but lonely. It could have been because of her, or them, or both. It may simply have been… Too bad for those guys.

But Jerkins brilliantly and beautifully finds that place, in the printed word and through passionate thought, where she is whole and becomes, in essence, a veritable juggernaut. She writes of relatable issues, human matters that beat upon the brow of the common and uncommon. Jerkins treads with a heavy foot along paths that many fear to tread, detailing events that keep the pages turning and the readers hungry. Her essays cover a spectrum of subjects and styles that are academic, real-world, and foreboding, changing her tone from chapter to chapter (often at the end), showing that, like a jazz musician, she’s got chops. There are moments when she sounds like (forgive this comparison) Carrie Bradshaw (Sex and the City), cosmopolitan, hip, contemplative and impassioned, then there are the other moments when she delves into the arena of the bards, thunderous and commanding; professorial.

“This Will Be My Undoing,” is a huge undertaking, much more profound and prolific than a review could possibly relay. In it, Jerkins gives an amazing ride on a Ferris Wheel full of ups and downs, highs and lows (from childhood to adulthood). She pulls at the reader’s heartstrings in one piece then has them longing to reevaluate themselves. From her very beginning — from those articles and blogs that captured the attention of multitudes– Jerkins was on a journey to the fantastic creation of this book. She hinted and warned us, and in the end, she climatically states: “Surprise. You should’ve known I was coming.” Surprise, Morgan. We are glad you came.

 

 

 

 

 

The Autobiography of Gucci Mane

 

Confession first:

Before reading this book, I had only listened to three or four Gucci Mane songs… maybe.

I am a child of the seventies and eighties, a New Yorker, jazz head, bibliophile, art-nerd, musician, whose taste in Rap is more “puritanical” than what began to emerge from the genre in the mid-nineties and the new millennium. The repetitive bass line, synthetic-hypnotic rhythm, and heavily slang-filled accented lyrics kind of lost me, but that is not to say that I was not open to rappers from the south. Actually, I was digging them. Their raps covered life as they knew it and educated those of us who didn’t understand. Through them, we grew eager to see the alien contours and crevices of the planet they occupied, and rushed in droves to Atlanta, North Carolina, Florida, Texas, Memphis, and New Orleans to be enveloped by their often harsh-told realities and to tread upon their planet.

I first learned of Gucci Mane while a Dean in a Memphis performing arts high school. From the middle of a relatively quiet room came a screeching howl, “GUCCI!” and the room exploded in laughter and echoes of “GUCCI” raced across the room for what seemed like an hour, quieting only when it lost its comedic appeal. Still I hadn’t heard anything by this Gucci dude until a student pulled a CD from his backpack and put it into a player behind the classrooms. The CD was “Murder was the Case,” and it was both familiar and extraordinarily foreign. It was the sound of the south, the story of forbidden zones and hidden realities, of ‘life in the game.’ It was raw and vivid, sad, tragic and poetically profound. It was catchy and definitely not my jam, but I could see why it was theirs.

Then I heard about the book.

I feverishly read “The Autobiography of Gucci Mane,” because of Morgan Jerkins. She interviewed him for Vulture magazine in 2017, and from that interview penned an article entitled ‘Gucci Mane Got Out of Prison and Wrote a Book. Here’s How It All Happened.’ I figured that if Morgan Jerkins found him worthy of writing about, and millions of people love him and his music then I had spent an unrecoverable decade missing out. By the time I finished reading his autobiography, I realized that indeed I had.

Gucci Mane’s story is the story of America. Not the pigeon-holed, stereotypical images perpetuated throughout the media, but the real day-to-day. It is an uplifting tale of rags to riches and dirt paths to gold paved streets. This autobiography was a graphic music video based on its own sound-track. And it brought to the forefront that, tattoos, accents, drugs and all, Gucci is a bad MANE!

At the opening of his story he writes about his ability to read earlier than his peers, thanks to his school teacher mother and his inexplicable interest in the written word. It was the word, ultimately, that would save his life a dozen times, and would equally make his world an orb of fire. Words produced poetry, poetry produced rap, and rap, at least for Gucci, produced money, power and chaos. But the other part of his DNA was provided by a father who knew the importance of hustle and respect, and Gucci, whose real name is Radric Davis, followed that often sordid path. He was thought to have a speech impediment (at age nine Gucci and his mother moved to Atlanta where verbal inflections may be different from its neighboring states) but it seems that his Alabama accent was so thick his words didn’t sound quite right. As the years progressed, Atlanta introduce and influenced young Gucci, exposing him, almost illuminating him, to a life of trapping, profiling, and grandiosity; certainly not a life he would have found in Alabama. He became disenchanted with formal education and, after high school, never fulfilled any academic commitments, dropping out of college and trade schools. But words remained his strength.

The Autobiography of Gucci Mane rockets through Gucci’s existential life so quickly the reader feels as if something was missed. This sonic movement from period to period is, perhaps, the principal misfortune. Admittedly, I may have missed some of the fillers or statements that closed those holes, but I doubt it. From the point when he becomes a drug dealer to when the heavens opened and he begins to realize his talent as a rap artist, it seemed to be a blur, particularly the bump from buying beats to bagging gigs. Suddenly his music takes off, soaring well beyond the skills of his peers and he is crowned and quickly revered.  But, in all fairness, it is obvious that Gucci was a pursuer of his personal passions and thrusts himself into the spoils of those passions. He followed the credo of the very successful: Never Apologize — and throughout the narrative abides by that credo. Regardless of the outcome, he never made excuses and he never apologized. Then another phase emerged: Prison.

Being imprisoned for possession of firearms in 2013 (this was not this first rodeo and it wouldn’t be his last) was his metamorphosis and, in many ways, the beginning of his rebirth. When admitted, his body was wrecked from an addiction to a codeine laced cough syrup concoction that affected him so profoundly he gained a mass of weight and suffered chaotic side-effects. Eventually a doctor urged him to discontinue its use, but that was not a part of his immediate plan and he continue to sip syrup until his environment prohibited access. Prison, as implied by the book, detoxed him. He was gradually getting clean of the damaging poisons and in doing so, clearing his head. The decision to engage in a self-developed exercise program (if you want to call it that) led to an eighty pound weight loss by the time of his release. When his term ended (of course there are stories about his time behind bars) the beats of his life and the rumble of the streets welcomed him back.

Ultimately, The Autobiography of Gucci Mane was surprisingly well developed and absent of chapters of indecipherable rhetoric often common in autobiographies about musicians, especially rappers. I was shocked by his candor and his willingness to speak about a multitude of [personal] issues that other artists would avoid intensely. His transparency in this book was golden and elevated him, I believe, to a status that he would not have gained through music alone. Would I recommend this book? Absolutely! Not because it speaks to the life and success (or failure) of a known personality, but because it was everything one would never expect a book about a known personality to be. It seems that Morgan Jerkins also found this to be true. So, now, after a decade free of “trap” music I am trapped, bumping several Gucci Mane tracks locked securely in my musical repertoire. The magic is that these tracks clarify many parts of the book I only subtly understood and left me, randomly, if not hypnotically, yelling… “GUCCI!”