When the Glitter’s Gone

When the Glitter’s Gone

Preface to a Twenty Volume Suicide Note

Lately, I’ve become accustomed to the way
The ground opens up and envelopes me
Each time I go out to walk the dog.
Or the broad edged silly music the wind
Makes when I run for a bus…

Things have come to that.

And now, each night I count the stars.
And each night I get the same number.
And when they will not come to be counted,
I count the holes they leave.

Nobody sings anymore.

And then last night I tiptoed up
To my daughter’s room and heard her
Talking to someone, and when I opened
The door, there was no one there…
Only she on her knees, peeking into

Her own clasped hands

-Amiri Baraka

 

THE LETTER: The Beginning

Dear Rita,

I know we never thought our situation  would end up this way, but life, as always, has proven a mystery; unpredictable and  undefinable. This isn’t easy for me. The passing of time has not effectively erased the pain that we’ve inflicted. Only in the movies are there predictable happy endings.   I know I will never heal from this situation, and for that, I apologize, despite the pain, because I know you will never heal either. It is for this reason that I am writing;  to try to begin the process; to fill a void that was formed; to admit the callous endeavors that were enacted because we wanted to see one another suffer. I, perhaps, am writing to myself more than to you, I guess. I needed to reflect and reveal, or confront and acknowledge, my role in everything that happened.

I remember our happy; how we were “pillars of love” when we began this voyage. The air was sweetly perfumed, scented with Lilac and Frankincense,  and breezes blew cool on sweltering days. I remember how you made everything so new, how your friends, coyly side-eyeing me, smiled in my presence because you smiled more than they have ever seen you smile; more than they, perhaps, ever have. But in my absence they’d pull you aside and ask:

“How can you be with a man like that? Girl, y’all don’t even look right together, I mean, he’s so dark and big. Ugh, he looks like he’d crush your little ass. And what he drivin’? A Honda? Damn girl, you drivin’ a Mercedes. I just don’t see it.”

We weren’t young but we were far from antiquated. The patina of time had not yet discolored our bronze glow.  Maturity was our platform, our undeniable kingdom.  Youth fled several years earlier, taking away those immature issues, uninspired mistakes, and childish innuendoes, but we were young enough to enjoy tomorrow and old enough appreciate  our past. We pledged depth and eternity; those impossible possibilities that were so fantastically unrealistic there was no other option but to come true. It was because we believed in dreams where we hadn’t believed nor dreamed before. We were virtually iconic, allegedly, the poster people for the look of love, and because we were, people, friends, openly wished for our downfall.

After a couple of months, your people became my people. They were cool but cautious; measuring me with that joker-ish sarcastically painted grin on their MAC plastered faces.  I was guarded, cautious, and unsure but certain that their designer mentalities and mixed social ignorance would not fit my conservatively artistic ideas of reality. My intuition was in the red zone. But, I accepted them because, on the surface, and for the most part, they accepted me. Eventually, when I began to feed the bank account,  I gained their respect, I became them, dressing in clothing I could hardly afford and driving cars with massive notes and foreign names. Eventually and unfortunately, they got to know me better and had mistaken my kindness for weakness. They were offered that one opportunity to find that out.

Then there were my friends. They were international, free, artistic. Our bond was  made from fire and steel,  Jupiter Rays, and  tsunamis formed from puddles of rain. They were beautiful, energetic and creative. They smelled of May showers and a cask of Cabernet. They were the embodiment of God as I understood God to be. There, within my cadre, were cover models and visionaries, exotic and undefinable; questionable enigmas who people feared but were drawn to, irresistibly. Together, my friends and I spewed elemental and complex stanzas, and poetic energy that warmed our souls until it turned into love. They were dapper and shabby, brilliantly confident and wholly insecure. With them,  thunder quieted  and lightning tamed. My friends… essentially so full of life and equally so damned to episodes of suicidal ideation. They were naturally everything your friends (my new friends) sought to be.

Perhaps against my better judgment and because I was crazy for you, I (reluctantly) dismissed those many amazing friends. They were sure that I had partnered with my artistic equivalent, but that rarely happens. Opposites, I thought, were the stuff that inspired greater creative endeavors. It was, from the beginning, painfully clear that you didn’t want them to be in your shallow circle. Their nose rings, long unkempt locks, spiritual auras, and freedom were too much to comprehend. You said you didn’t trust them, that they all seemed weird, aloof, sneaky and judgmental. But let’s be honest, we know who judged.

Do you remember the night we were driving back from Upper Marlboro? We were invited to a get-together and we were still vibing on the good time we had, continuing to laugh, thirty minutes later at the antics of the host. We talked about how important our friends were, spoke of the blessings they brought. I spoke of mine, glorifying in the good times we shared from New York to the shores of West Africa. Perhaps I had become more animated than was necessary. I talked about the beauty that seemed to be at every corner in Paris; how the air was always cool and just the scents from rue to rue identified where you were. I spoke with passion.  And that did it; you withdrew. Silence filled the rest of the ride after that. You stormed into the house and I could feel the tension in my soul. I prepared. Finally,  you gave a devastating ultimatum. You said it would either be you and I or me and them, that I could not have both. You said you didn’t want me to ever communicate with those friends again. I angrily submitted. They were my past.

Especially hard was when you told me to “get rid of” Elaine. You didn’t know her, you didn’t want to know her, but it was Elaine who saved my life when I was living in Harlem, I told you that. I minimized my bravado, telling my story from the heart.  I told you Elaine and I met in Paris and she quickly took to me. She took me into her home and her life  when I wandered through Parisian streets and cared for me when sickness wrecked my body. I don’t know why you saw her as such a threat, she wasn’t my lover, just someone who loved me. You said that sort of relationship was impossible.

She was almost my mother’s age and maybe that had something to do with it. When I left Paris and settled in Harlem Elaine came for a month-long visit, to conduct business and rekindle relationships separated by the Atlantic’s depth.  She introduced me to spirituality, friends who were larger than the Empire State and stressed to me, in tears from some unknown place, how I must always be important  to me. With her, my wandering spirit was given rest, and unconditional love replaced towering silos of pain. She was my sister, my rock, and my emotional guide during that period when I became lost on my journey to finding myself. She told me to be careful but to pursue you because I deserved happiness. If she wasn’t there, I wouldn’t be here. I wouldn’t be me.

These were my chosen friends.

RELIANCE: EAT AT JOE’S

Looking further back, before we ventured into the big houses, fancy whips, and massive parties, the bliss was different. It was easier when we had so much less. For us, those struggling days were exquisite. The lessons we learned could never be measured. It was sobering. It was an indescribable libation; a nectar of the gods, soberingly intoxicating I guess.  I know that sounds dramatic, but I think many would agree. Having less was when we saw how rich we really were. Having less was the only time that we truly had so much.

We struggled; ate kielbasa, pierogies, and frozen yogurt until it poured from our pores. We laughed at nothing and bathed in the light of darkness. We looked forward to rainy days and snowy nights, and dinner by candle light or just the chance to lose ourselves in that place where no one else was allowed. Those were lean times but we provided what we could to one another because we were all we had and we had no choice even when there were countless choices.

But I promised you that …

*I will build you a castle with a tower so high
It reaches the moon
I’ll gather melodies from birdies that fly
And compose you a tune
I’ll give you lovin’ warm as Mama’s oven
And if that don’t do
Then I’ll try something new

And in our self-made universe, when our paychecks grew, it was revealed that those who smiled in our faces were eagerly awaiting the opportunity to put a sickle in our spine. For years we opened our home and our hearts. We fed them, gave them money and material, shoulders to cry on and faith when their faith waned. They followed us before the invention of social media, singing our praises and worshipping our names. They were relentless. We couldn’t avoid, evade, or tunnel away from them. These were lessons learned the hard way, years later, when our economics changed and times, again,  got unexpectedly  hard. We stood at the edge of the cliff with our hands extended as they threatened to jump and they withdrew when we hung from our fingertips from that same cliff.  Then, like snow under a searing sun, they were gone.

“I’ve been fucked over, left for dead, dissed and forgotten
Luck ran out, they hoped that I’d be gone, stiff and rotten
Y’all just piss on me, shit on me, spit on my grave (uh)
Talk about me, laugh behind my back but in my face
Y’all some “well wishers, ” friendly acting, envy hiding snakes
With your hands out for my money, man, how much can I take?”    Ether–NAS

Unfortunately, I learned before you did. I am still learning. Today I wonder, where are they now?

And my spirit sang…

I will take you away with me as far as I can
To Venus or Mars
There we will love with your hand in my hand
You’ll be queen of the stars
And every day we can play on the Milky Way
And if that don’t do
Then I’ll try something new

We discovered and appreciated the unequaled beauty of long walks down North Charles Street, toward the Inner Harbor, along the path where men held hands and cross-culture couples secretly kissed under awnings that protected from rain, sun, and the moon’s full beams; pass the bookshops, restaurants,  and storefront museums. We noticed the fragility of people, saw the abject hunger for life, liberty, and the pursuit if happiness in their eyes, shared our few pennies with those who had considerably less and tasted the sweetness of a city that conjured up fear and sorrow in the hearts and souls of those who lived outside its borders. I won’t say we loved Baltimore, but it was here that we found bliss. Baltimore, with its many imperfections, loved us as best it could, keeping us close to its full, yet virulent, bosom. Remember that?

And my heart said…

I will bring you a flower from the floor of the sea
To wear in your hair
I’ll do anything and everything to keep you happy
To show you that I care
I’ll pretend I’m jealous of all the fellas
And if that don’t do
Then I’ll try something new

I am filled with an indescribable level of reflection as these words pour, perhaps meaninglessly, on to this page. They leave me panting. This emotional marathon has become my Katrina.  As much as I try to avoid negative thoughts I am overcome by them. After our first two years together you changed. Maybe I changed.  I noticed that you were suddenly continually preoccupied. Your time was spent on phone calls and girl’s nights out. I trusted you, I really did,  but my loneliness had no place to hide. I know I showed it.

I wanted and needed you to see me; the inner me. I needed a nod that you recognized my transparency.  I needed to quell the discomforts.  Suddenly, with no prompting, the previous life you assumed I had, became your compulsive disorder. You were obsessed, without just cause. I tried to convince you that every woman that said hello was not a previous lover, although many were. I stopped writing and performing poetry because you felt that each line was about you or every image was my memory of a former tryst, and indeed they were. I tried to explain that it was often just poetry — that some of the shit just came into my head, but you weren’t convinced, so I let it go. Against God’s will, I let it go.

And my soul cried…

I’ll take the stars and count ’em and move a mountain
And if that don’t do I’ll try something new

I lost my voice with you. I lost my words and pieces of my soul because there were so many unexplained moments when you didn’t talk to me and I frustratingly blamed myself even if I did nothing to bring about the silence. But I loved you deeply. I loved you more than I loved myself.  I think I can safely say that we both were drowning in our love for one another. We suffocated and at the time I didn’t know that the actions we projected had an actual name. When I found out what we were doing, it frightened me. Although I wanted to deny it, the facts were undeniably true. I think I can safely say that we both were drowning in what we perceived as our unequivocal love for one another. We nearly died but believed that love, alone, was powerful enough to keep us. We loved until we were empty. It was painfully beautiful. It seems like a lifetime ago. Perhaps it was simply another life. I didn’t know it was wrong.

My lips whispered…

I’ll tell the moon above it’s you that I love
If it don’t do I’ll try something new*

JOY

When you told me you were pregnant, I paraded around more proud than I had ever been. My already broad chest became considerably broader. It was the most magical gift anyone could ever give; parts of us creating a single magnificent life. I became a silver back that day. I knew that my job description had changed completely. I went from boyfriend to husband, to father. We both were floating. But unfortunately what floats sometimes falls although I wasn’t expecting the fall, nor was I reaching to have it occur. You know, it seemed that we were often walking a tightrope of which each of us held the ends.

Then things abruptly changed.

See part II. Coming soon….

*”I’ll Try Something New” — Smokey Robinson and the Miracles.

She Said No Twice the First Time

SEXUAL ASSAULT 1

I must apologize before I begin this blog, as it is written, not from the perspective of a champion, but a coward. It’s the tale of being a witness to an avoidable, stark, brutal and haunting violation. Disturbing is the recurring thought that  I had the ability to intervene; to put an immediate end to the madness before it began. But youth, selfishness, and an absolute unwillingness to be placed in possible harm’s way dictated my actions. So, as the demon indulged in his bacchanalia, I cowered behind a heavy oak door and wished away the monster on the other side.

Here is the story…

There were forty of us occupying the second floor of the twenty-year-old dormitory; boys as light as virgin snow and as dark as midnight bliss, yet profoundly foreign to one another. Initially, we were strangers, venturing into dynamics which each of us,  were unfamiliar, despite sharing culture,  music, thoughts, and struggles. Some of the boys seemed worldly and sure while others wandered aimlessly, waiting for reality to find, and ultimately, save them.  I fell somewhere in the middle. We were virgins, in the less common connotation of the word. Life, love, and a comprehensive knowledge of the grander universe remained shadows but, at that time,  there were few experiences with enough importance for us to bother paying attention.

We were the freshman; a displaced caste. Aimless and immature. Forty longing bodies hoping to find somehow,  our identities; longing, before too late, to identify our purpose.

Foolishly, but willingly, we chased the unknown into dark crevices that quickly closed and locked us in. No matter what region we claimed and despite our inherent strength, we were helpless. Unknowingly, we all held the key to release us from our vassalage, but opted, for reasons unknown, to continually bash our skulls (and brains) into brick and mortar while desperately clawing at the door. Those of us who survived the self-inflicted brutality realized that in the crevice was an unlocked door.

Slowly we would mature into the men that legend and tradition promised we’d become. The college would change our voices and sharpened our vision. We’d slowly began to understand the importance of academia, self-preservation, a level of elegantly arrogant confidence and being a man of honor.

But this was freshman year; the shock of the new, and none of us was certain, in the beginning, that we would find our way through the next unlocked door.

“Look to your left, look to your right; this time next year, one of the brothers sitting next to you will not be here.”

We relied on one another to translate our issues and share our preponderance. Our new-found freedom brought thoughts and lies about adventures we’d probably never have, lives we’ve never lived, and dreams with no promise. We gorged ourselves, ravenously, on the fruits of fantasy which starred those superstar fly songstresses our very limited minds defined as irresistibly beautiful. Their likeness, plastered on massive carefully handled posters, was methodically nailed into concrete walls over our beds. And there we lay, beneath their image, hoping, perhaps,  that they would come to life and tumble between our sheets. We LIED… a lot! 

Big brothers were assigned to teach us how to become ‘men of’… before we earned the right to be called ‘men.’ Late one night we were gathered around the quad and waited. This wasn’t unusual; we often were told to report to an on-campus location with no knowledge as to why. A tap on the mic quieted us. A tall, dark brother with a stern and meaningful face stood before us.

“Brothers,” he began with a voice that thundered through us, “they call me Hound, and mine is the last face you want to see if shit flies off. Not the college president, not the dean, not security, not even your parents; mine!”

We mumbled.

“Now, you probably askin’ who this Negro think he is? Well… for the next 186 days, I will be the only thing, brothers,  that stands between some of you and expulsion. How do I know this?” he laughed, and the five big brothers that stood with him also laughed, “because you stupid, and because you’re stupid, you will, inevitably, make stupid decisions, especially when it comes to drugs, drinking, and girls.”

The mumbles turned to grumbles.

“I know… I know… some of y’all all experienced and whatnot, thinkin’ you know everything. So did we. Wet behind the ears high school graduates. Here, you’re at the bottom rung; you don’t mean a damn thing.  But this city, this campus,  those sisters across the way and the local girls, they aren’t the ones from your yesterday. Step wrong, the Hound’s gonna get you.”

Laughter.

When you set foot on this campus– this sacred ground–  you were REBORN! And tonight you will be baptized, and I implore … no… I advise you to remember that.But I assure you if I find out that you have violated your ass is done. DONE!”

His roar commanded immediate attention. Behind me, a boy said,”Nigga trippin.’ He ain’t nobody, and he ain’t gonna do nothing to nobody.” Within seconds, the brothers point him out, as if he was a shooter.

He lasted less than a semester. Hound spoke the unknown into existence.

Then when the water hoses doused us all. The baptism was official.

The ‘IT’ Boys

There were guys who had the “it” factor, and girls flocked hypnotically to their mirage, only to find heartbreak and embarrassment. The “it” guys, proved, in time, to be temporary occupants of the second floor, and in the greater dynamic, space fillers for the freshman class. They were pretty; curly hair, Crayola eyes, thin, athletic, smooth… artificially flavored (no, I’m not hating). I was not of them. Perhaps it was my ordinary demeanor or cautious personality that kept me from their fraternal order.Their girls were, to freshman’s eyes, desirable but there was something about their perfection that was frightening. Intuition told me that their tomorrows were bleak and broken; that their immeasurable beauty was Delilah’s mask. I feared them. I convinced myself that: A taste of their youthful sweetness would be an ocean of poison.

Okay, a little dramatic, my creativity was budding, and I was a square, but to a degree, I believed it to be true.

But one incident, one poor decision, changed everything.

Spring of 1984. 

The unexpected is the truest teacher of lessons. How one reacts to the unknown or the unfamiliar dictates how well one copes, day-to-day, hour-to-hour, or minute-to-minute.  This held particularly true one Saturday night, making our ‘best of times’ campus the very bane of our existence. That April night would affect me forever.

It was Spring and for over a week the Georgia sun blazed high during the day, angrily scorching the landscape;  a southern heat wave, an onset of early Summer, nothing unfamiliar to the south, but new to those of us who had come to Atlanta from the north. At night, with residual heat spewing from the dormitory’s cement walls, we feverishly attempted to cool ourselves by securing electric fans, of various sizes, into widely opened windows and turning off most of the lights.  The doors to our rooms were ajar for the purpose of a hopeful cross-breeze; anything to get some relief from the sauna-like effect. Many of the guys went outdoors, seeking relief from a possible night time Zephyr. Several of us stayed in the dorm, knowing that there was no escape. The intense heat kept the ‘regular’ girls away that night. Their familiar antics were sorely missed and desperately needed to curb the boredom we were experiencing.

But then came one….

Her laughter echoed from the darkened end of the hall. It was soft, timid, and unsure; unfamiliar. It sang nervously. I saw only shadows. This girl, whose presence was enveloped by muted darkness; she was different. The light that once existed on that end of the dorm was extinguished after a poorly executed drunken game of touch football knocked the fluorescent bulbs from their fixtures and rendered a quarter of the hall in near darkness. We quickly adjusted to the dim, and never reported the need for replacement.But the shadows that were formed, as a result, were ominous and, for some reason, profound.

My room was where the fluorescent glow resumed; two doors from where they stood. In this shadowy light, as I exited the bathroom,  I saw her. Her short stature was obvious, and her silhouette revealed what today would be affectionately called ‘thick’: large breasts and wide hips, concealed by a fitted mini skirt and tight-fitting  blouse. She eyed me from behind glasses that reflected the little light beaming through the slightly opened doors and moved her lips. I knew that her initial joy had morphed into nervous uncertainty. She seemed so innocent, like a lost lamb that wandered, no, was lured into a wolf’s den. Bradley (not his real name) shoved her purposefully, directing her toward his room, pressing his denim covered genitals against her inexperience. She fanned her face for relief, as the heat spraying from the high gloss walls engrossed her. An inexplicable pain shot through me. I took a deep breath and tuned into the bootleg Sade lyrics coming from another room:

Jezebel wasn’t born with a silver spoon in her mouth / She probably had less than every one of us / But when she knew how to walk she knew / How to bring the house down / Can’t blame her for her beauty / She wins with her hands down / Jezebel, what a belle / Looks like a princess in her new dress / How did you get that / Do you really want to know, she said / It would seem she’s on her way / It’s more, more than just a dream / She put on her stockings and shoes / Had nothing to lose – she said it was worth it    (Sade, Jezabel, 1985)

I watched them as they drunkenly fumbled at the door. I paid little attention, although my intuition told me to intervene. She wasn’t with me. This affair wasn’t my business.  Bradley was the lucky guy who caught her attention, despite the fact that she looked much too young to be making her way into a dormitory, especially at that hour, and she accepted his proposal and a taste from his crystal tumbler.  It was obvious that she wasn’t the girl next door– but a local (local in Atlanta had a 25 mile radius)– most certainly in high school, perhaps, lured by the promise of chicken wings, potato wedges, the devil’s spit, and, if she carried this correctly,  a college boyfriend.

My heart sank as I watched her, with unsteady steps,  stumble into the wall, partly from Brad’s urging and partly from her apparent inebriation. She rested her head against the wall. I could hear her panting. Bradley fished for his key while groping her young and overly developed body. She giggled, peeking at me but hiding her face from the other boys who had emerged from their rooms at the sound of a girl in the dorm. She whispered to Bradley, with laughter in her tone, “stop the boy.”  Sade sang louder. I knew what was next, behind that door, in that room, but a pledge to this brotherhood was far more significant than the regret that was to befall this ignorant little girl, and the rules could not be broken.

When she disappeared behind Bradley’s oak door, and the lock sounded, many of the boys returned to their rooms. Music videos were on, and it was better to secretly fantasize about musical vixens than to openly gawk over someone else’s trophy. My mind remained on the full face of the little brown girl in Bradley’s lair.

Only fifteen minutes had passed, yet my uneasiness rose. Why I cared, I do not know. I didn’t know this girl, and the quiet understanding among the brotherhood was that any “new” girl who came to the floor came for one reason only. Still, my gut told me to rush into the room, remove her from whatever vice Bradley may have had her in, and hurry her from the building. But it was late, and I was broke (couldn’t afford a taxi), and the thought of walking her home was dismissed by the assumption that she lived in one of the less humane, “do not enter,”  communities near the school. Boys from the college were not welcomed in most of the neighborhoods in the area because they acted as if they were better than the people who lived there. Sadly, it was true. Spoiled little rich kids looked unfavorably upon the hard-working, lower-middle-class families that resided where we were simply visiting.

My angst grew for the strange girl a couple of doors down from me. I kept thinking that she was someone’s daughter, possibly someone’s sister, cousin, niece, grandchild. She would one day become someone’s girlfriend, wife, and mother. On that night, she was a toy. This indulgent moment would be the moment that her life changed, and her dreams, wants, and desires, took a turn toward the heavily populated town of Ruin.

 

BRADLEY

Bradley came from a small town in Oklahoma known, according to him, for hard-drinking and low living.

“We was poor, but my momma kept us spiritually rich. She had a monkey that was taking all of her money.  My daddy was a ghost,” he said, “I only knew he was in town when I heard my momma moaning.”

He smoked heavily. Plumes of white toxic clouds lingered behind him.  He’d cut off half the filter for a fuller effect.  But what was most unusual was the crystal tumbler he carried, always filled, from sunrise to sunset. We all wondered how he was always so stocked. The legal drinking age was 21, and the laws of Georgia were not to be challenged. Even the rot gut liquor stores in the area refuse the sale of spirits to anyone who looked too young, regardless of if your ID said otherwise. We’d ask him how he got over, and he’d say nothing. Maybe it was his peach blush red eyes, burnt caramel complexion, and dusty Georgia clay brown hair that fooled the spirit brokers. Maybe it was because he walked with a haunch, giving him the appearance, from a distance, that he was a much older man. To see him face to face, one would never guess that he was only seventeen. For him, no ID was required.

Bradley was, for the most part, a loner. I know it was not because he wanted to be, but because none of us could fully, regardless of the attempt, connect with his odd and unreadable demeanor. On weekends, when we all hurried to the mall, library, one of the many nearby colleges, or the girls across the quad, he sat in his room in a paisley smoking jacket and terry loin-cloth wrap. It haphazardly covered his thin, five and a half-foot frame.

He spoke in riddles, and we weren’t sure if he was brilliant or a sociopath or simply absent of basic social abilities. On occasion, with no warning, he would rave like a madman, perambulating throughout the dormitory; a cat overdosed on catnip. He’d run from floor to floor, tumbler in hand, a burning cigarette pinched between his index and middle fingers, chest bare, and that paisley smoking jacket flapping like a super hero’s cape; yelling a mix or words, phrases, and sounds that were more haunting than amusing.  Then he’d disappear from the campus, for a  week or two.

One night, with no prompting, he talked about how he raped a little girl in Oklahoma. “Lil slut couldna been no mo’ than twelve, thirteen. But she had an ass on her that’ll make water cry!”

Pause…

Then he would laugh and say, “I’m just fuckin’ wit y’all. It’s my momma’s fault that I’m so fucked up.” He was as weird as hell. We didn’t know if he was telling the truth about the little girl or not, but after that, we all just pretty much kept our distance.

 

Behind Bradley’s Door

Nearly forty minutes passed since she entered. There were quiet mutterings periodically coming from behind the door and giggles that implied that she was where she wanted to be, and everything was as she needed it. He’d mumble something, laugh and then make a sound like he was sucking air between closed teeth.  Quiet fell between the giggles followed by a long pause… perhaps to kiss, or grope, or….

“No, I don’t wanna…” Her voice fell off.  She spoke as if trying to free herself from a heavyweight. “Get off me!  I said… get… off ….”

Things were falling apart. Bradley’s room changed. A physical altercation was happening, and curses rained throughout the dimness.  Her muzzled screams, wailing sobs, and rhythmic tapping of the metal bed framed against the wall became a terrifying symphony of pain.

“NO! Don’t… PLEASE… dammit! Get your damn hands off me. Noooo… no…. please! ” She wept. She wailed like the child she was. Her cadence echoed. She began to cry and released a painful yelp. Bradley let out a frustrated growl and said, in an amplified whisper, “Now, see… isn’t that better. Shhh…  it feels so good, don’t it?”

Suddenly, eerily, the noise, the frenzy, the need for immediate liberation were muffled, lost behind the plea of a broken soul. It was obvious; his hand covered her mouth, muted her cries, and turned on his animal. Her voice became her age and fear swallowed the searing heat still flowing from the concrete walls.

Exhausted, she submitted.

The boys on the hall gathered about the door again, listening to her songs of sorrow, listening to her whimper vocalize each thrust of pain, each stroke of depression. Bradley grunted, louder and louder until his grunt became a roar and the roar parted oceans, and time, at that moment, stood still.  Her agonizing cries were the only sounds remaining. The silence was deafening. Five minutes later, the door opened, and she slowly walked out; all of us standing there frozen, looking at her, unsure what to say. She showed her face, but none cared to look.

I watched her as she walked from the room alone. Her glasses were gone. Her skirt twisted. She stumbled, although she was now very sober. Her hair was messed. Her face was more visible, and I saw that her eyes were swollen. Smeared make-up and moisture kissed her cheeks. God, she was young. She bent in agony; not actual physical suffering  (although she was obviously hurting), but spiritual agony. We looked at one another. I wanted to hug her. I wanted to tell her that everything was going to be okay. I mouthed sorry, then looked away as she exited the building.

Bradley walked out nearly twenty minutes later in a paisley smoking jacket and Terry loin-cloth wrap. A cigarette dangled between his grinning lips and his tumbler was nearly empty. He looked smug and satisfied. He approached the few of us that had gathered at his door, smiled and dropped, just beyond the door seal, a pair of pink panties, a white bra, a pair of glasses, and an unrolled but unused condom. He walked back into the room and closed the door.

The following day Hound came to the dorm with his five guys. They walked to Bradley’s door, knocked gently, and when it opened, they walked in without an invitation. There were grunts and the sound of flesh crashing against concrete. There were unintelligible yells and the crashing of bone against bone, skin meeting wood. Bradley was dragged from the room, blood dripping from his lip and nose. His eyes nearly closed shut. He was quickly and brutally battered. We scattered. Hound said nothing as he, alone, dragged Bradley from the dorm. A few minutes later two other brothers followed. The other guys remained. Bottles of liquor smashed against the wall scattering liquid and glass throughout the hall. Several cartons of cigarettes were crushed. They walked from the room with the tumbler in a bag and yelled to us…” Y’all clean up this shit.” Bradley never returned.

Unshakable Impression

That was over twenty years ago. I have since become an advocate and an educator; trying to impart to developing minds the proper demeanor of a proper man. Yes, hindsight is my nightmare, as I would have approached this matter with as much fury as it was enacted if I had the frame of mind I now carry. To this day, I do not know what happened to Bradley after he was escorted off campus, but it was rumored that he was killed in a drunken accident. I have no proof that this is true. Perhaps he was mauled by lions or became a politician. He did not return the following year.  There were many stories about him, none of which I can validate.  What is true is that my heart bleeds only for the person he could have been; the person none of us forty got a chance to meet.

As for the girl, her name is Tina (not her real name). She was 15 when Bradley brought her to the dorm and violated her. During my last year of college, I saw her at the mall. She was a sales associate in a hip and eclectic boutique. She was around nineteen and exuded tremendous confidence and pride, as if the incident three-and-a-half years prior never happened; as if her life was seamless. Our eyes met briefly. Her face was much prettier than I remembered and, it seemed that she didn’t recognize me, but after a month of my invisible weekend visits I conjured up the nerve to talk to her and told who I was and how I knew her. She said nothing at first, searching my face for traces of the familiar; pictures of that night. Her mature and serious face finally produced a smile that said, before she could utter a word, “I forgive you… I understand.” And I said to her that I was sorry for my cowardice. I don’t think, before my visit, that she ever talked about it.

Soon after I graduated, we lost contact.  I later found out that she had graduated from college, went to law school and was an attorney like her father. She didn’t live in the communities surrounding the school like I had assumed, but in parts of Atlanta that showcased antebellum homes and grassy knolls.  We did briefly reconnect, many years later, through social media, and met in DC for lunch. After three hours and no mention of the ‘incident,’ we parted ways. I haven’t seen nor heard from her since.

But there is one certainty; we will forever be connected by the events of that hot April night in 1984.

Lean Back…A Metropolitan Tale: Part 1

December 2015

There is a gloom– thick, shouting, and angry– outside my Franklin Street office window. Winter’s chill hasn’t been very effective in keeping the off balanced bodies—with heavily trampled heroin veins swollen by the burn; unattractive and alien — from forgetting their sorrows and reminding us of their existence. For the next three months, they will freeze and thaw; their already withered frames withdrawing further. They will be dead come morning. By evening, they will resurrect, celebrated as immortal tightrope walkers balancing carefully on a vast slab of pavement. This image shouldn’t affect me; I was introduced to them during my childhood. But it does.

I grew up in New York. A much softer version- Long Island-far from the television caricature of terrifying Son-of-Sam, Tommy-gun-toting 1920’s gangsters. My New York was, from my perspective, relatively pristine. There were front yards, back yards, trees, pavement, possums, raccoon, squirrels…. It was Mayberry northeast, but we, in our state of metropolitan confusion, aggressively, but not always accurately, copied the styles of the Borough Boys to camouflage, I am certain,  our bouts of chronic suburbia. Fortunately, the big five (Manhattan, Brooklyn, THE Bronx, Queens, and Staten Island) were accessible whenever we wanted or needed them, and we’d frequent weekend journeys into their indescribably mysterious lair. I was exposed early to exceptional doses of a mesmerizing universe that existed a mere 45-minute drive away. It was named, Harlem.

My parents would assemble my brother and me, check our attire, hair, teeth, and ears;  pile us into the backseats of the newest late model Chevy, and we’d be on our way. We would be thrown into a cinematic trance with funk-disco-soul theme music blaring from an 8-track tape repeated until it squealed  (usually Al Green, Curtis Mayfield or the Isley Brothers).

Let me say that since… Since we’ve been together…

All I want is some peace-of-mind, And a little love I’m tryin’ to find, It could be such a beautiful world… Freddy’s Dead!…

Sharing our love… Between the sheets….

We’d roll, crossing familiar bridges with no name, filled with an inexplicable excitement, traveling along the Long Island Expressway until the smell of the air changed from Magnolia blossoms to a putrid river and hydrogen sulfide; a fragrance which, to this day, I absolutely love.  A dozen years later, I began taking this journey alone, planted in a withered seat on the LIRR westbound passenger train that reminded me of cannolis, knishes, yellow mustard, Newports, bubble gum, and ass, to 34th Street: Pennsylvania Station / Madison Square Garden. It was on these unnerving voyages that I would be awakened– butterflies fluttering spasmodically in the pit of my belly as the locomotive motioned through this darkened cavern– and I’d feel awkwardly reborn.

ON THE PENNSYLVANIA PLATFORM

The final stop, pulsating with the redolence of locomotive’s exhaust, cigarettes, burning pretzels, hot dogs and the commingling of rodent and human piss, were indescribably welcoming. It was the flea market perfume of the girlfriend you traveled a millennium to get to. There was sweetness in that Manhattan air and, although I am slightly embarrassed to admit it, a theme song…

Welcome back.

I felt that I had been denied something urgent, as pedestrians, even those who boarded from those sleepy Long Island towns, moved with alacrity to a place I have yet to discover. Perhaps, I thought, I wasn’t privy to wherever event it was that made them sprint from the car, to the platform, and to the waiting street. I stood still on that platform,  watching as mothers pulled children behind them, their steps turning into uncoordinated slides,  and men repeated, trance-like, with eyes focused toward the stairway,  “excuse me,” as if chanting a supernatural mantra.

New York in the 1980’s was Id’s utopia, full of mischief and mayhem, a paradisaical fun-house of pop-up dolls, bloated cigar-chewing pitchmen, turbo-charged nightclubs, and secret lovers under shrouds of ignorant bliss. Forty-second street, its most famous feral son,  was a raunchy strip of debauchery and perversion, promising with profound certainty, to leave one spoiled before they reached 43rd, but no one ever went to Times Square for the cotton candy, only the religious experience.

It was on 42nd Street that, without warning, I was assaulted, virtually mugged,  by a massive, sweaty, bare and colorless tit. The owner of this elephantine mammary grinned with jocular triumph; her stringy, poorly dyed black hair, green eye shadow, pink (beyond the color) mascara, and ruby-red-wrinkled-lips, inviting me into her rancid catacomb. That musky colorless tit was still shoved in my face; the other raging to be unleashed. She had doused herself in cheap floral perfume and her breath was tainted by considerably cheaper hooch. The odor remained in my nasal passages for over a year. I was traumatized; not by the mammary, but by the extras that came with it. Never had I mentioned this incident to my parents. It, and many other experiences were simply Rites of Passage.  I was seventeen.

Manhattan, for a 17-year-old Long Island boy, was the devil’s playground, the fashion universe, and unquestionably, as it is today, the greatest show on the planet. I recall the late-night walks along Broadway and treks through the village where I was lured away from my original destination by the unmistakable scented plumbs of piney-sweet marijuana smoke emitted from a bohemian couple, a few steps ahead of me. I remember I moved closer to them, quickly, I inhaled deeply, absorbing, as much as possible, their second-hand intoxicant; never having to thank them for the buzz light. In this wondrous nomadic stupor, I nursed tall cans of cheap beer, watched as small bands of people reenacted scenes from Broadway musicals, and lusted after the Latina wearing leg warmers and an incredibly beautiful free-flowing miniskirt.  I fell hard. Not for the girl but for the city. No other place could match the magnificence I felt there. New York welcomed me, in a way that my high school classmates who bragged about her passion, could only fantasize. She embraced me. To this day, I know that no other city loved me as much as she did.  The unexpected sights, the beauty that appeared from nowhere and the unusual and inexplicable events made memories that nothing nor any place  could ever match. This was my New York.

THE EARLY DAZE…

Those early Harlem journeys with my parents — “A different New York,” my father, Superman, would say to my brother and me — were magnificent. This was hallowed ground. The ground that Baldwin walked and Langston played, and Malcolm preached, and fables were made. The sweet fragrance of garlic, and soul food commingled with the hypnotic grooves of Grover Washington, Stevie Wonder, Curtis Mayfield, (… Freddy’s Dead…), and the O’Jays; terrific gray noise and the constant, but expected odor of plastic fed fires.

Harlem, to my immature eye, was a beautifully dreary universe with a propensity for yelling, and drunkenness, dirty rag window washers,  huge black rats and croaking Blattaria. It was streets covered with discarded hooch bottles, soda cans, and barbecue-stained Styrofoam containers. Harlem was colorfully dark, brilliantly lit, and inescapably in your face; the stuff of my early childhood nightmares, and it frightened me to my underdeveloped core, with its shadows and moaning and symphonic sirens. Harlem was the main ingredient in my pot of New York Experience Stew.

We went there once a month, to have communion with family who settled into that unsettling place. It seemed, after so many drives to Harlem, that the car was able to navigate itself. Mahalia was playing low from the rear speakers; how I got over,  a start-stop rhythm that perfectly match the sound of the car’s tires rolling over gaps in the pavement.   My brother and I looked forward to the adventurous cousin-guided excursions, especially the climbing of ‘Trash Mountain’ across from their three bedroom  apartment. At the apex of this rocky structure, our time would be occupied  avoiding the razor blades and syringes, broken bottles, used condoms, soiled panties, and gun shell casings, that hid in tall weeds and behind graffiti covered boulders, like a thousand invisible rattle snakes.

Don’t step on those needles. They will kill you.

Don’t put those coo-coo juice panties near your face. They will make your skin peel off and then kill you.

FROZEN ZOMBIE…

It was the first week of July, 1972, when I saw them for the first time. I was very young, not cognizant enough to understand who or what they were. I could not avert my eyes, for they were like Disney characters out of costume, with pallid death-ridden complexions.  “Don’t stare at them,” my mother warned my brother and me, her face flush with a mortifying concern. Every red stoplight brought from her a sigh and scrunched frown. “God, there are so many,” she whispered to my father. “Taster’s Choice,” he said, referring, I later found out, to the name the shooters gave the most recently released packets of what they called ‘horse.’

The shooters stood like statues, immobile, then slowly, lethargically,  leaned forward, not to reach for anything, just leaned, frozen in awkward positions; sleep-standing. Their movements were poetic, choreographed to a music sans sound. For several blocks they occupied crowded sidewalks, masters, for a forgettable moment,  of an urban form of tai chi, and wandered into streets, standing like human boulders in front of explosive Pintos and shiny  sedans with white-walled tires.

“Move, you funky ass junkie,” shouted a man standing outside his fifteen foot white Cadillac Fleetwood. A woman in the passenger seat laughed as she applied more makeup to an already plastic looking facade. The statue stood stoically, moving with the wind, then opened its mouth and whispered…air. We continued to move. I turned to watch the Fleetwood man adjust his furry-brimmed hat and fan his matching full-length fur coat.

The car was silent as we drove forward. We wanted to ask, but could not think of what we could say. Finally….

“Mom, what was wrong with them?”

“They are sick.” She replied

“What kind of sick?” I asked. “Can I catch it?” The tremble in my voice sounding desperate and painful.

Silence.

“They are dope addicts,” my mother finally revealed. I didn’t know what a dope addict was, but in my little boy imagination, I thought them to be people who lived in the upper part of someone’s home. In years to come, I would not only understand but I would get to know them, personally. The images remained, but I moved on, and for nineteen years, they were no longer seen.

The Eye of Baltimore’s Needle

The phantasmagorical 80’s  came to an end. I didn’t say good-bye. New York had changed dramatically. I had just returned from Africa and Europe to find that my beloved metropolis has been slipped a Micky and her once melodious song was now mumbles of venom. Heartbroken, I left her. At 25 years old  I followed LOVE to Baltimore. Love fled to pursue dreams I never had, and I was alone in a place I didn’t  understand or want to know. Baltimore was a new face.  Her’s was a face of gloom, outside my Franklin Street office window.

PART TWO: The Conclusion,  COMING SOON.

Help! St. Monica’s Anglican JHS in Need

Truly an amazing and beautiful post. I lived and studied in West Africa for several months and remember these exact images. The feelings I had there came flooding back, thanks to these photos. Much appreciated!

Mum C writes

The St. Monica’s Anglican Junior High School is a school at Bonwire, the home of the famous kente cloth of Asantes. The school has 98 students  with two classrooms and one uncompleted classroom (a little above foundation level). It has no staff common room, no office for the headteacher and the most important things they need are desks for students. It is so bad that some of the students have to sit on the bare floor in order to sit for their exams. When amoafowaa.com visited, there were no chairs for teachers to sit on even during recess.image

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Since it is situated in a tourist site and serves many children from the small community, it is imperative to help them build this school to standard.

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