What both the left and the right get wrong about my neighborhood in Baltimore
The announcement of the release of her debut novel was equivalent to the literary second coming, at least to those of us who knew, and the level of excitement was infectious. What made her so special, I wouldn’t know for a few months, but I too found myself getting caught up in the hype: a maniacal frenzy based solely on what I read and the pics I saw.
During interviews, she was humble — quiet and serene among the maelstrom and fanfare. While reading an online article about her I noted her pictures, how she posed for the camera, timidly, like a child taking their first solo photo at the JC Penney studio. Despite this, her pictures glowed, beaming so bright it was as if looking into the sun. She was magnificent, a star deserving of the flurry of accolades and whatever fame was netted from this moment. The media adored her, as she strolled through their affairs with reserved assurance.
“So your much anticipate debut novel will be released in a few days– how does that feel?” a commentator asked.
“Feels great. A little surreal. Definitely unnerving. I’m excited.”
“As you very well should be. Congratulations and much success.”
I pre-ordered her novel upon its announcement. I wanted to be one of the first. I waited. In less than 48 hours I will possess her debut, concentrating on her telling, anticipating her first few words, opening the literary journey, wondering how she’d present her characters, settings, and storyline. I was fortunate to have found some of her work in several literary journals, stories about her life in New York, first college love and the relatable essay on body transformation wishes. Her stories were personal, inviting the readers into a room without a door and a screen that permitted only small glimpses into her world. I devoured them like a famished beast. There was something in the voice of those few read clips that captivated me, the way she twisted thought in time, how she invited me and others into a world she seemed to hold close to her soul.
On the day of her book’s release, I rushed to my Kindle with the excitement of a four-year-old. I opened my Kindle’s sleeper case. The screen glowed a faint blue, releasing Alladin from the lamp. I tapped in my password. The Kindle’s screen blinked, instantly revealing my books which I quickly fanned through, looking for the colorful familiar cover of her novel. Back and forth, my finger became a wand… passing over a dozen unread books and a few periodicals. Her book was missing. Impossible.
I checked the cloud, retraced my steps, reviewed the date of release, the bill of sale, and whether or not I requested that the book load into a particular Kindle. But, there was nothing. The book didn’t appear in the cloud. The date (which I cross-checked twice) was correct, and my order status was confirmed. I stared at the screen trying to figure out what went wrong. I Googled what I should do to retrieve the missing book, returning to my Kindle, staring and wondering. Finally, frustrated, and since nothing else worked, I restarted the device. ‘Kindle’ blazed across the screen and after a brief pause, the book miraculously appeared.
Immediately I opened the book, flipped past the preliminary banter and dove into the first chapter, consuming her words, getting magnificently lost within her story. I became one with the book, the characters, the underdeveloped flat personalities, the asides, looking into the window of her soul. She moved me, made me dance and laugh and cry. I hated and loved her equally. Wanted to lay at her feet and she developed the complex layers that evolved into brief but unabridged animation.
In moments when I paused from reading, I imagined her in her apartment, writing her next book at a dark lacquered antique desk pushed against a window facing the street, losing herself in a psychosis that had no remedy. Perhaps, romantically, lost in the local cafe, laboring, painstakingly, at her laptop, sipping cup after cup of coffee, taking brief breaks, talking to herself; animated. And as I flipped to the final page, I exhaled. She had written a journey, long, beautiful, and merciless. My budding love for her many voices was solidified. She was bound to become a literary legend; admired, lauded, and international. I would be waiting.
Two days after I completed her book, the story played over and over in my head. I recommended that friends and family read her tale. Her novel absorbed me and I hoped they, too, would be absorbed. I needed them to feel what I felt. I needed her to know, as well. She had to know. I had to tell her.
I nervously sent her a message, thanking and praising her. I felt stupid, desperate, but justified. I surmised that writers needed to be told that people appreciated their craft, admired the thought and effort it took to create a world with blood, flesh, emotion, and mischief — to be both omnipotent, and omnipresent. I wanted her to know, so I told her in a post that probably made me seem more stalker than an admirer. A day later she responded with the eight words every reader wants to receive:
Thank you. I really appreciate your support.
I swam through that brief, surreal, moment; backstroked in blue Caribbean water parallel to white sand and randomly placed palm and coconut trees. I followed her as her career rocketed to unimaginable heights and rose to levels she said she’d dreamed of since childhood. I congratulated her for her many achievements, virtual partied with her at star-studded soirees, following her from the East Coast to the shores of places trapped in time. Soon the author and I became virtual friends, sharing pics, words, and worlds with little meaning to anyone else but us. And then our communication ceased. The communication with everyone ended — without reason. There were no posts. There were no DMs. Everything froze. There, suddenly, was nothing but silence.
She was working on another book, I assumed. That’s what I told myself.
She… was… ABSOLUTELY… working… on… another… book.
Two years had passed since the release of the amazing global ride created by her last 137,000-word project, after all, and although never making the top five of the NYT best-seller list, it was popular, but the road was coming to an end. Still, that wasn’t it; there was something else; something more, bigger than the book and far greater than explanation. Finally, after a several month hiatus, she did post. Pictures of her smiling at a table of unfamiliar faces. Another was a selfie with other authors. And one of her in an embrace with a very fashionable woman, their gaze hazy and seductive. But the pictures of her alone were different; sad and undeniably sullen. They were [slightly] melancholy; nothing remotely like those posted when her book was initially released. She, in those forty-eight months of absence, had transformed. She had changed. She was different. Her once soft regal image hardened. The metamorphosis was extreme and absolute.
I studied the pictures, seeing something different with each view, then sent the following message:
Hey Author X,
It’s been a while. You aren’t posting much, so I guess you’re working on your next masterpiece. I hope all is well.
Initially, I checked her posts daily, hoping there would be something there, not necessarily a response to me, but something that would let me know where she, as a complete entity, was. Days turned to weeks; weeks into months; and the months faded into the distant orbs of mysterious darkness that birthed then concealed concern and renewal. I returned to her novel, scanning through the pages, searching for some clue that would make sense of the moment. There was nothing.
Then as autumn gave way to winter she posted…
… I’m tired of people claiming to love me… tired of the judgment, the childhood memories… of being locked in dark spaces… of being told it was for my own good. That stayed with me; the loneliness, the quiet emptiness, even when I step into the light. I tried to hold it together, laying in that asylum’s bed, strapped down; the demons picking — stabbing — at my soul. I just want to disappear; preserve my sanity. I want to lose this insanity and not apologize for taking my life back. I want to slay Goliath…
She ranted for three pages, a rhapsody revealing the many secrets she kept locked away. Those who knew her from afar, as I did, would never have known. Those who knew her intimately were equally clueless. Her words (in her post) that roared across the page, perhaps made little sense, but they were her words, her feelings, and they poured out for the social media world to see and, of course, judge.
And I, at a loss for words, whisper-sang the following tune:
*Is this the real life, is this just fantasy?
Caught in a landslide no escape from reality
Open your eyes look up to the skies and see
I’m just a poor boy, I need no sympathy
Because I’m easy come, easy go
A little high, little low
Anyway the wind blows
Doesn’t really matter to me, to me…
Mama, life had just begun
But now I’ve gone and thrown it all away
Didn’t mean to make you cry
If I’m not back again this time tomorrow
Carry on, carry on as if nothing really matters
Too late, my time has come
Sends shivers down my spine
Body’s aching all the time
Goodbye, everybody, I’ve got to go
Gotta leave you all behind and face the truth
Mama, ooh (anyway the wind blows) I don’t want to die
I sometimes wish I’d never been born at all…
I messaged her words of encouragement, hope, and support. I wished her happy Thanksgiving, a Merry Christmas, and a Happy Birthday. The messages piled like sand on a dune. Then as 2018 transitioned to 2019 her social media pages were gone, and with that, so was she.
If I’m not back again this time tomorrow … Carry on, carry on.
I think about her every so often. I wonder where she is and how she’s doing. I still imagine her at the dark antique lacquered desk, maybe trading coffee for bourbon, breathing life into inanimate apparitions. I periodically checked her page, hoping, I suppose, that she’d be there in words or pics. But she remains hidden. I check for any clues that she is on the cusp of releasing a new book. I wait. We wait.
I hope she realizes that no matter the depth of darkness, the quiet or the storm, she is never alone. She has moved mountains with her words and left impressions on our hearts. And when she opens her eyes and look up to the skies she’ll see that we were always there… waiting.
*From: Bohemian Rhapsody — Queen
Bill Cosby, once lauded as America’s dad, and revered as the pristine embodiment of purity (“I will not curse in my routines”) was given a sentence of 3 to 10 years for the sexual assault of a college administrator. She and dozens of others told, tearfully, of being “drugged” with a substance that left them virtually unconscious, unable to defend themselves against Cosby’s advances. There were traditional and social media formats spilling the story. By way of six degrees of separation, someone knew the details; hopefully the truth. Although he adamantly denied the many allegations leveled against him and, with the exception of one, contends that he did nothing wrong, the pressure-packed voices and ravenous want for justice loomed large and effective. Any persons who found the matters of Cosby’s impropriety questionable did so, it seems, out of an effort to hang on to the 50 plus year image of the man they really, for the most part, never knew. He became the first; he would not be the last.
According to testimony and reports, the incident occurred several years ago. The allegations erupted into an immediate divide, cuffing the country in a gender and, in many unfortunate ways, racial headlock. Regardless of the seething universal familiarity of men taking sexual advantage of women, the color of Bill’s skin played a role, if subtly. Historic lore painted the Black man as a sexual pariah, insatiable, sexually ravenous, especially for white women (Bill’s accusers and victims were of all races). It was a stigma that has existed for several hundred years as an attempt to further denigrate and dehumanize the Black male, building fears of a virulent caricature. It worked, to a degree. Even to this day, the presence of unfamiliar Black men encourages white women to clutch purses, speed walk to their destinations, or engage them in meaningless conversation to keep their minds off of a certain, as they see it, genetically programmed assault. Although this is applicable across the racial divide, Black men are the principal wearers of this disparaging veil. Because of the social stigma, whether admitted or not, Bill Cosby was no longer Bill Cosby when the accusations flourished. He became the stereotype.
Bill Cosby was accused of drugging his victims and sexually assaulting them, usually in his home. There came an almost immediate outcry. African Americans huddled together reminiscing about what this man, this icon, meant to them, appalled by the act and then by the dragging of Cosby. We felt, at that moment, sorry for him, his wife, and their children. We were a part of them, invited into their quiet public lives, breaking bread when they did. We were certain that there must have been some mistake. But reality has a way of awakening even the deepest of truths. After a while, there was no more denying. William H. Cosby, America’s Dad, was found guilty. He was a sexual villain.
Looking back to the early years, listening to his squeaky clean routines, Cosby gave the image that America needed. Alas, there was a Black man who was lauded by a racially diverse public and did so with minimal buffoonery. His characters, even those that were over the top (see Uptown Saturday Night), bought us comfort. We knew that in the end we would laugh and quote his lines as if we had written them ourselves. He sold us Coca-Cola, Jell-O Pudding and Pudding Pops. He epitomized style and the unique jazz infused coolness so large it couldn’t be duplicated. We loved him, and we believed, he loved us back. But, as the Spinners sang, “Love Don’t Love Nobody.”
The end result of this decades-long egregious infraction was already known. Beyond public shame, beyond the portrait of an old man with an unreliable gait and fading eyesight was, in the antiquated shell, Bill Cosby. What was happening to him began as a downward spiral long before the flurry of accusations, as his crown began to tarnish with African Americans. He crowned himself, perhaps with the best of intentions, the self-appointed spokesman for Black correctness; focusing on a community whose circumstances were dire, criticized and generational. His book, “Come on, People!” written with noted psychiatrist Alvin Poussaint, met mixed reviews and an outcry from those portrayed in the book and those learned enough to understand the underlying reveals. We understood what he was trying to do, but the adage of airing dirty laundry was gospel, still, the dirty laundry was aired from every bookstore in the country. Sadly, Cosby was right. The Black community was viewed through a cameraman’s lens, only able to capture the mired images, broken dreams, poor schooling, emotional indifference, impoverished conditions, and despair. He and Poussaint felt that the existing circumstances could be altered or altogether changed. They had the theories but they didn’t provide the foundational methods.
The MeToo movement, founded by Tarana Burke, herself a victim of sexual assault, brought women out of their unspoken place and into the spotlight, unified for justice against men who violated them. The movement was founded to empower women at a time (and decade) when empowerment shouldn’t have been a necessary issue. A barrage of men, mostly white, were accused, shamed and judged. From immature politicians to actors, musicians, law enforcement, and corporate executives. There were no surprises. Some of the accused and accusers were believable and others were questionable. Were women seeking revenge against men who had done them wrong? Were the actions of these men simply a case of the ridiculous but acceptable ideology of ‘boys will be boys?’ Was Bill Cosby the sacrificial lamb in a cause célèbre? The answer to each question is a resounding ‘no!’ He became the first; he would not be the last.
Women have fought for decades to be heard, to be recognized. Finally, by way of the MeToo movement, their stories became a fortified web, boldly told and universally heard. Bill was ensnared in this web for reasons that only he and others accused of this heinous violation would know; entangled so completely that his fans and admirers hoped that the punishment he would inevitably receive would be merciful. Mercy was not in the cards, and at 81, a frail William H. Cosby became the first for lacking control of his, let’s say, pudding pop.
Callers to “For the Culture, ” Morgan State University’s (WEAA) radio program had varying views. One caller referred to the incident as “cannibalistic racism,” a term he coined to describe how rich Black professional (athletes and others) prefer white women because they have the financial means to “chose.” The caller attempted to parallel the issues of the many white women accusing Cosby of inappropriate physical behavior (remember, the accusers were of all races). It was obvious what he was trying to project but in his attempted verbal acrobatic feat, the point was lost, although the potential to make a pivotal and provocative abstract was looming. Few callers defended Cosby, expressing disappointment in the man who was a familiar voice on their early lives. There was a Cosby who was ineluctable. Ultimately, the only escape necessary was from himself.
“How well do you really know anyone; really?”
Disappointment became the running theme with mortality a close second.
Disappointment was met with anger. Cosby became a hypocrite. “What would Cosby say,” became the buzz.
THEORETICAL COSBY: “Are you STUPID? What in the hell were you thinking? I don’t think you were thinking, at least not with your big head. This is the dumbest and most ridiculous thing you have ever done. Haven’t you learned that NO means NO?!”
These were words he couldn’t hear and actions he couldn’t control. His warm smile, sure stroll, and inviting demeanor were reduced to a pale facsimile; a man with a cane timidly stop-stepping as if the world was moving unsteadily beneath his feet. It was.
Bill Cosby was iconic, and for several generations will always be viewed sans the accusations and consequential sentencing. He was for decades, an “asexual” demigod, a fatherly figure, a moral protector, if only in our memories. He was our childhood, growing with us, embracing our dreams and coaching us through our difficult decisions. He has suffered a plethora of personal blows, certain to be overlooked because of the waltz of his personal demons. We cried at his loses, reached out trembling hands to grasp at his aging fingertips and heard him whisper, “I’m so sorry.” We will miss that Bill. I think we already do. But we cannot dismiss what we didn’t know or the man behind the curtain.
So, now the years will pass slowly. Those three to ten years will feel like another eighty-one. It pains us to silence, but years of silence was what kept Cosby safe. We pray to the God of our understanding that he will one day be forgiven. We pray that the Bill we knew can one day forgive the Bill he really was.
In 2012 I worked in Washington DC. Amidst the chaos, omnipresent politics, and scurrying of residents and visitors toward an unknown end, something clouded the purpose, redefining the mood. DC was, and remains, an enigma; the best and worse of the best and worse.
Four hours into my first day I was told the story of four children. It seemed to be a required post-employment discussion. My career as an educator was filled with stories about abused children and homes unfit for the rodents the borrowed beneath the planks.
My orientation guide said, “No one even noticed that they were missing. I don’t know; a lot of time. I think they were withdrawn, at least one of them. I don’t know. That happened in 2008, maybe 2007.”
Officials were notified. Visits to the home netted nothing. An unanswered door, even when noises were audible inside the home, resulted simply in a taped notice to appear in court or notify the school. Follow ups were rare.
“The system dropped the ball, and now, four years later, we’re paying for it.”
On a cold January 9, 2008 morning, CBS news reported:
“U.S. Marshals delivering an eviction notice Wednesday found the decomposing bodies of four youths, probably female and ranging in age from 5 to 18, inside a home in one of this city’s poorest areas, authorities said. A woman who answered the door at the small, two-story brick apartment building where the bodies were found was taken into police custody for questioning, authorities said.”
The story got little coverage beyond DC, overshadowed, perhaps, by the election of the first African-American president, Barack Obama.
Four years after the incident, DC remained shook. DCPS Central Office personnel with direct school and student contact were given a new charge; visit the homes of children with excessive absences, although for many the task was not an official part of the job.
So when Tiffany Jackson’s novel, Monday Isn’t Coming, was released shortly after her heavily lauded novel, Allegedly, the story was immediately reminiscent of that conversation in 2012. Ironically, Monday Isn’t Coming follows the story line of the DC reports although it is believed that the book is based on the disappearance of young women and girls in DC. The setting, actions, coincidences and outcomes align with the four children. I am going with that.
Inseparable friends, Monday and Claudia, spend the summer away from one another. Monday stays in DC, Claudia goes south.When Claudia returns to DC she immediately searches for Monday, anxious and excited to tell her about her trip but more so because she misses her. Closer than sisters, Monday and Claudia do everything together.
What follows for over 400 pages is a maze of confusion, deception, and secrets so deep the reader has to reread lines just to make sure they actually read what Jackson had written. Claudia begins a search that becomes a crusade after being told that Monday, who lived in low income housing with her mother and siblings, went to live with other family members. Claudia’s every search for and inquiry about Monday is fruitless, a maze that has no beginning nor end, and this makes the story a little heavy as it progresses.
Claudia’s insatiable need to find her friend leads her on a personal crusade, from Washington DC to Maryland and back. At times the journeys are surreal, beyond reality, especially considering Claudia’s age. After several hundred pages of empty promises, unreal visits, dangerous leads, and endless dead ends the revealing of Monday’s whereabouts are finally emerging. The story felt rushed at times, slow dragging the next. Unfortunately, this becomes distracting, forcing the story to lose some of its focus, but this is only one reason for the lapse.
Tiffany Jackson, whose work blurs the line between realism and horror (see her YouTube short films), Monday’s Not Coming takes an unexpected and believably awkward turn. It is as the book approaches its conclusion that the Jackson trademark become apparent. The final chapters left me saying “I wasn’t ready,” but equally disillusioned because it felt as if Jackson just wanted to conclude this novel, as if she was a modern day Sophist. That aside, Monday’s Not Coming is an interesting read. YA audiences will be thrilled with the language, settings, plot, and twists.
I will away read new releases by Jackson. I only hope she doesn’t rush her amazing skills for profit.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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. 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, to protect their reputations, 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 lookedhi 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 Punkin’s building. We’d later become friends but at that moment I realized, at that very moment, that I was not yet an Alpha.
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.
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…
Someone in an apartment down the hall opened their door and peeked out, grunted and quickly retreated.
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…
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 holding 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 GrifBeck