Monday, February 23, 2009

A Legendary House in Harlem

Nessa could not avoid walking through The Projects to get to the more affluent Striver’s Row neighborhood. She was heading home after an evening of rogue jazz mixed with oddball stand-up comedy at a local underground club. She didn’t fear getting mugged because she wasn’t carrying a purse. She was carrying, however—a baby. Already forty weeks along in the pregnancy, Nessa’s belly could crowd up a two-bedroom apartment in Manhattan. Now, as she walked past unremarkable buildings on Frederick Douglas Boulevard, Nessa feared any kind of assault less than she feared giving birth right there upon the mucky concrete. She already was feeling the early stages of labor and had laughed enough that evening to know that the child must be on its way, for she had read somewhere that laughter helps to speed child labor along.

At the corner of 134th Street she spotted Tony, the premier chef from Londel’s Soul Food Restaurant. He’s known for making soul food that could save any doggone soul; he was also known as a funny street poet. Nessa was ever grateful that early in her pregnancy Tony had shared his recipes for fried chicken and okra with her because her gravings could get pretty severe. About twenty weeks along, she ate one evening at Londel’s and ordered practically every dish on the menu. Then she had bared her teeth, ripped meat off bones; sniveled, shoveled, salivated, and snarled while she masticated. She was a starved jungle beast. Though it was difficult to embarrass Tony Jackson, Neesa’s manners were too much for Tony’s dining room, and when he knew she was pregnant and planned to dine at Londel’s often, as she lived only four blocks away, Tony decided to reveal his secret recipes so she could make them, and more importantly eat them, in her own home.

On this Spring evening, Tony was walking a pink dog. Pink! Why…how? A pink miniature poodle, or some cute and cuddly breed like that. Tony explained to Nessa that his dog was going to star in a YouTube clip about a day in the life of a True Style Dog. Nessa apologized that she could not bend to pet the wagging celebrity. Tony nodded at her bump and said he understood. Before Tony and his pink poodle let Nessa on her way, Tony thrust a book into Nessa’s hands. A book?

Tony said, “If you’re going to be white and live in Harlem, you had better read this…” She studied the cover of the book. It was by Wallace Thurman, entitled Infants of the Spring. Nessa looked at Tony, quizzical. She cocked a brow. She shrugged. Tony also added that if she knew her Black History, Nessa must know that she lived at an address that was famous during the Harlem Renaissance.

“Sure, I’ve seen tourists taking pictures of our place. The landlord lords it over everyone…the history of the address, I mean. And my neighbors throw parties these days that wake the dead. We’re talking NEO-renaissance, pal. We’re talking Zora Neal Hurston’s ghost doing the Charleston inside our plumbing.” Nessa boasted.

Then she rubbed her belly. “I’ll probably give birth tonight in the very place where Langston Hughes composed all that poetry. I’ll read the book, thanks, Tony.”

The two started in opposite directions then Nessa turned and was walking backwards. “Hey Tony, I couldn’t help but notice that your dog is pink. How does he feel about fitting into the Harlem color scheme?”

Without turning around, Tony shouted, “His bark is worse than his dark, lady. Ha! His bark is worse than his dark!”

Nessa returned home to 267 West 136th Street. To get her mind off labor pains, she read Thurman’s novel. She read about a Danish guy who moved into Niggeratti Manor during the early part of the Harlem Renaissance. She met bizarre personalities, such as Raymond and Paul, who all seemed to represent some element of cultural life: the singer, the writer, the poet, the painter: erotica enthusiasts, all. She enjoyed the part about the wild donation party they threw. She got to the part about the salon gathering when they all discussed Negro art and their plans to make black contributions to American culture. After that, Nessa had to put the book down because the labot pains were too intense and she felt the need to push.

She called her husband who was working late, again, at The Firm. He said he’d be home as soon as he finished just this one last 1100-page brief.

Next, Nessa called her midwife who said she was on her way. She had to travel from Brooklyn all the way to Harlem. Nessa clenched her teeth and hoped she’d arrive in time.

Nessa mixed herself a drink—a highball—gin and ginger ale in memory of the poison preferred by the bohemian personalities of Thurman’s Niggeratti Manor. The laboring mommy-to-be climbed into a warm tub and raised the glass to her Belly. “To nativity!” She knocked back her drink.

While gin worked its magic, Nessa surrendered her body to The Supreme Ache. Soon her mind started tripping on love hormones.

Nessa thought back to her former African doctor friend, a guy whom her husband always complained had only wanted to get into Nessa’s pants. Well, as usual, her husband had been right and Nessa’s friend had managed to do precisely that around the same time Nessa and her husband were working to get pregnant. Bam! Nessa got knocked up and suffered through an entire pregnancy accompanied by the nagging pain of paternal ambiguity. Humiliated, she shared this trouble with no one.

Soon after the third highball and a lot of otherworldly groaning, Nessa delivered a healthy girl in her bathtub. She cleaned the child, chewed off the umbilical chord and threw the afterbirth out the window to the starved stray that was always prowling around the trash.

“That wasn’t so bad.” She said to soothe herself and the nursing newborn as she hobbled to the king-size nest she prepared on the bed. The baby suckled while Nessa waited for the midwife and her husband. So, she opened Thurman’s novel and read to the end. The book has everything in it: gin, rape, laughter, suicide, abortion, poetry, all shades of carousing. It’s not recommended reading for new mothers, but then Nessa is not your typical new mother. Just as she closed the book and put it on the night table, The Mister and the midwife arrived.

Alfie’s face glowed with pride and relief when he saw his wife and daughter safe and cozy in bed. He didn’t notice anything untoward about the child until months later. He casually asked, “Does her skin look sort of dark to you?” Nessa, examined the child with feigned surprise; then she shrugged and pouted in that way that Alfie found so sexy. Nessa said, “Well, Alfred, we do live in Harlem, after all...must be something in the water."

Wednesday, February 11, 2009

California Route 163

“Observe perpetually.” These words echo through Sterling’s mind as she drives downtown on Historic Route 163. They are the words Hank repeated at the writers’ workshop. After another week and another twenty pages written, Sterling is heading back to the artist’s loft on 13th Street for a read and critique session. While driving, she grows frustrated. What can she possibly observe that is of enough interest to write down? The world passes at such speed. Hotel Circle. Old Town. Friars Road. University Avenue. There must be trillions of details she cannot observe, can only imagine: the woman reading a secret memo in the lobby of the Travel Lodge, the man bending over to pick up a wallet he finds in a saloon, the security guard at Bed, Bath, and Beyond scratching his balls when no one is looking, the men kissing in the “ladies” room at The Alibi; and these are only the surface details. Ah, what Sterling could do if she could actually observe these details and then probe the interior of each moment, each life, to get to the psychological mystery of the minutiae. Then she feels like she may be able to write, to put pen to paper and push upon something profound.

But she spends most of her time behind the wheel. When she is not writing, she’s driving a cab. And life presents little more to her than perpetual signs, perpetual signals, perpetual lanes, perpetual windows, perpetual lots, perpetual shocks of trees and buildings and seaside that may be empty for all Sterling knows of the life in them. There is no psychology. Only blink, blink. A pot hole. Some jerk merges. A car spins out of control and seems to head straight for Sterling’s face. She screams and sees red for a moment. Then more crashes and a weird thud heard around the world. When Sterling was scratching her head over what the hell there is in this world of interest to observe, she should have been observing her speed, or the “two-second” rule, or any warning signals from the other lousy drivers. But how could she have observed that the six-car pile up on this rainy day was caused by a man in an old Dodge Magnum, a guy named Fats Cajon who was listening to Jazz 88 and attempting a circle of fifths, T. Monk style, on his dashboard while using his knees for the steering wheel. He had been imagining jamming the solo when he swerved. Then he overcorrected. Six cars involved were all following one another too closely. Not only is Sterling a careless observer of the details of the road, but she also lacks an informed historical consciousness. Little does she know that in the very place where her car slammed into the wall of the Cabrillo Bridge is where there used to be a man-made lagoon into which seventeen people threw themselves to their deaths in the early 1930s. At the time, the locals called this method of suicide “the leap into eternity.” When Sterling crawls out of her mangled cab with minor bruises and bumps and checks in with the other victims of the crash and the cops and gets the story of Fats Cajon’s carelessness, she feels sorry for the guy. Then the police officer writing the accident report introduces Sterling Smith to Fats Cajon, right there on the side of the road amidst barricades, flashing lights, and crawling traffic. When Sterling meets Fats face-to-face, she sees eternity in the Jazzman’s eyes. She feels an urge to leap.

Monday, February 02, 2009

I-5 South

They feel zoom in their skulls and through their bones. Sunday afternoon. Coast and freeway. Zona Mona on the stereo. The surf, a symphony against rocks; waves play the dangerous cliffs then curl up and calm in the coves. A girl named Calafia and her mother head south on I-5 in their convertible Ejacula, a sports car that runs on pure sex juice. They’ll get a fistful for making Calafia’s father wait. He’s counting the nickels and dimes wasted, but let him count for the rest of his life. Mother and daughter could care less. The migrating season for whales is coming to an end, and these women agree it’s a great time to skip town—the border is just too damn close to this city, too close to this sly wife and her fragrant daughter. Illicit destinations call to Calafia and her mother. And their vehicle is so fast and fuel-efficient. They can make it to their Mexican lover before sundown, though neither will ever admit to the other the physical liberties they have allowed good old “Uncle” Zorro. Still, the two are convinced they’ll find freedom.

A year later, Calafia heads north herself. When the Ejacula gets a flat in Tijuana, a friendly Mister Fix-it gives her a hand, so she offers him her trunk. Though it’s tight, he accepts. Distracted, she forgets her stowaway, and Calafia keeps driving all the way to Canada.