Wednesday, April 24, 2013

The Mysterious Buried Treasure: A Tale of Street Aristocrats

Visiting my grandfather down at 15th Street from our home in the suburbs was a lot like travelling through Lewis Carroll's Looking Glass. The faces went from white to black. The speech changed from nasal and ultra-formal to warm and down-home. There were words that regularly appeared in the everyone's speech down at 15th Street that would have been entirely foreign and without meaning to our neighbors which was my first and early knowledge that there is black language and white language.

 I'm not talking about Ebonics though I suppose one could call it that. I'm not merely speaking of accents or malapropisms. I'm speaking of entirely other forms of interpretation and usages of words in the English language backed up by emotions that are absent in the white world and vice versa. To me it seems without a doubt there is greater emotion and humor and generally greater expression for human emotion in black language..

On Saturday afternoons my mother and my brother and I would come to Grandpoppy's office only to find the good cushy chair by his desk occupied by the roly-poly figure of the Councilman. The look on my grandfather's face clearly indicated that the Councilman had overstayed his welcome but either the Councilman was very poor at reading the unspoken or he didn't give a damn. Finally he'd drain his glass of whiskey and take his leave.

He was barely out of the office when my grandfather exploded in wrath "GODDAMN!! I thought that muthafucka wa'nt never gone leave!! He been here drinkin my goddamn whiskey all muthafucking day!!"

 I cannot do justice to the majestic range, descriptive grandeur and sweeping scope of my grandfather's cursing. To say that he cursed like a sailor would be to rob my grandfather of the individuality of his venom not to mention  the purity, originality and inventiveness of his cursing talent. To be sure, one had to be there to hear for it to be believed. His favorite word was GODDAMN and he used it with such frequency that even the most lapsed Christian cringed and peeked between his fingers expecting God to smite Claude one of these days.  The Councilman never failed to put him in his most irritable and ornery mood and intense annoyances like that  pitched his gravelly voice into lower depths.

Staring off into the middle distance as he sometimes did, Grandpoppy said in a low voice to himself "I hate that triflin muthafucka..." He shook his head and went back to counting his money.

"Trifling" is a word that has an entirely different meaning from the word "trifle" as it appears in Webster's. The black word  has a range of meanings from no-good or dirty or run-down to a use expressing a general dislike of something. It's one of my own favorite words but it does not exist in white language.

As well there is a term for professionals of the underground economy who are called "hustlers". Not every person who works in an illegal craft merits the name and not every hustler is a criminal. Hustlers are a higher echelon of professionals whose skills and activities command a respect among peers, citizens and outsiders. Hustlers inhabit a smaller inner world of their own. Like my grandfather.

The Councilman came to visit for a number of reasons, and not usually because he was invited though he rarely was.He came to pick up his "donations". And he came to pick up the week's gossip like Who had won the biggest hit? (This was useful information for tracking individuals who possibly owed you money.) Who had lost the most? Who was in jail? For how long? Who had gotten out? Who had died? Who had just been born? What were the odds on the game Sunday? There were so many things one could learn from an afternoon at my grandfather's and not all of them had to deal with gambling or illegalities.

It was quite an honor to be able to sit in my grandfather's office as he worked, very much like sitting at the knee of a king. And there was no one who was unaware of the honor. Gossip and rumor could be confirmed or debunked if you were lucky enough to get my grandfather's attention. Not that he would necessarily tell you anything at all but perhaps he might feel generous that day and give at least a straight answer. Perhaps not. Such is a king's privilege

 There were many times that I took my tape recorder along and just let it record because he had lived so many lives, had such fascinating stories that I find it impossible even now to recount. Though he had not graduated high school (he dropped out when the principle threatened to paddle him for his truancy but he had been a capable student.) he could discuss any subject matter from science and astronomy to geography and literature.Absolutely anything. He was a brilliant man. I never had a conversation with my grandfather where he said "Wait. What does that mean?" It was a joke for people to tease him about paying for his grandkids' "fancy white schooling" but those fancy white schools were rigorous academically. Yet from the range of his knowledge you would never know that he hadn't been schooled in the same way.

Like so many powerful men he was adept at secrecy. He had that gift of conducting a conversation where you say everything and he said nothing yet you went away feeling as if you had quite the interesting discussion. "Dumb ass muthatfucka," he mutter contemptuously after a person turned away. He didn't suffer fools kindly.

Secrecy, however, is an addictive habit that is every bit as dangerous as the strongest drugs. Secrets can make a person powerful. As the secret-keeper you feel your strength and privilege. There is a glamour that emanates from your power.  As time passes by, however, the roles become less clear and more uncertain: who is master, who is slave? Does the  secret possess you or do you possess  the secret?

That sense of masquerade and uneasiness dominated the world at 15th Street so close to the throne. One never knew if the rumors of Downtown coming to end the reign of pea shake kingpins was true and imminent, or if it was just another false story made up to make some bureaucrat feel powerful  Looking back in hindsight I see now that those stories were so much hooey purposely recycled to create un-ease at 15th Street. Not that I truly needed that confirmation because I only ever saw my grandfather rattled with nerves on one occasion: when he was robbed at gun point by a gang of armed robbers who shot his body guard and escaped with thousands and thousands of dollars.

 For weeks after Grandpoppy was a nervous wreck. And that alone was like the world ending to see my mighty unflappable grandfather shaking from post-traumatic stress.

Rumors and secrets did not rattle him. But our lives, the lives of his family, were very different from his life as wielder of power. In contrast we were targets at times.  By far the most ridiculous rumor that I ever heard turned out to be the most dangerous threat that could have harmed us all, my mother, my brother and most important of all to my grandfather, the love of his life Laura.

From the time I was a very little girl I remember how people would come up to my mother as we hung outside in the carnival atmosphere joking and gossiping and say "Oh well we all know that Patti and Laura got all the money in the world buried in that backyard!!" And we all would fall into fits of laughter.

"If I had a load of money buried in my backyard I wouldn't be out here talkin to y'all ignorant niggas!!" Mom shot back.

This was a running joke. We heard it everywhere all over the city. "Laura is the one who got all Claude's money" someone would tease. This primed more laughter since the story of my grandparents multiple marriages was legend. Though neither one ever admitted it to anyone the feeling was that they would have married a third time and then stayed married.

Alas Claude's whoring caught up with him and a woman whom he'd been fooling around with on the side claimed to be pregnant with his child. By the time it was clear that this was false she had gotten her way ...and a ring. I've always believed that my grandparents still carried on a discreet relationship and I searched for evidence and clues to support my theory but it wasn't until after they both died that I confirmed my theory.

Rumored love affair or no, everyone knew that Laura was the one and only. And that was not merely some rumor or sensibility gained by conjecture. Claude was firm and open that Laura was the love of his life. And my grandmother managed to issue an equally strong confirmation; after all, she never remarried and there was no lack of proposals from honorable, attractive, upstanding and wealthy gentlemen. But none of them was Claude.

So when folks joked about the mysterious fortune that was buried beneath my great-grandmother's peonies we simply laughed at the thought and named all the fantastic things we would do with this fantastic fortune. Visit the Great Wall of China! Buy an island in the Caribbean! Buy a pied a terre on the Champs-Elysee!!

We laughed and thought  nothing much of it until one of my grandfather's famously despised entourage began making inquiries in earnest about the supposed secret buried fortune. Staring at the questioner Mother said she felt a cold chill. And finally she went to her mother to find out WHY this rumor refused to die.

Was it NOT a rumor then? Was there truth behind this undying myth? Laura didn't laugh when Mother came to her explaining that something odd was afoot. Not even my brilliant grandmother could explain where this rumor was birthed and why honest denials could not kill it. There was no hidden treasure in her backyard. Which was not to say that there wasn't an emergency getaway sum that my grandfather kept with Laura, his most valuable treasure. He was a hustler and a hustler has to have some way OUT should the heat get too close for comfort but that was no "fortune". The rumor spoke of something of greater substance, a  wild sum that only a fool would have kept near one's person.One person told us that the hidden fortune under the peonies was as much as a million dollars. It's hard not to laugh when someone tells you something patently false and ridiculous besides. Except some were determined to believe that the ridiculous was quite reasonable.

Mother and daughter put their heads together to determine what was going on, who was the author of the rumor and for what purpose. But they never got to the bottom of the mystery.

And it was years after my grandfather's death, after my grandmother's death that Mother and I discovered that ill intent had indeed been planned in order to gain possession of the secret buried treasure.

But there was no buried treasure right?

There was no buried treasure. There never was. It was a myth that was the product of envy, materialism and the warped greed that hustlers cultivate but can never sate until ultimately their ow hunger  consumes them whole

But the people who live inside the Looking Glass world of hustlers sooner or later find their vision warped and even the normal world begins to look bent. Even the straightest, most honest individuals appear to have motives and agendas and none of them nice. It's not safe or healthy to dwell too long inside that Looking Glass because even you can lose perspective of yourself.  Once you begin to see danger everywhere it is because danger rarely leaves you.

15th Street was a different world. But we were all   happy to come back to our safe suburban home after an afternoon with Grandpoppy. We weren't made from the hard stuff that had formed him. And we knew it. We didn't have what it took to live beyond the Looking Glass and thank god for it.

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