Saturday, June 15, 2013

Street Corner Tales

The street-corner, to a hustler, is not merely representative of society's  margins but the borderland and shoreland to the busy marketplace of life. The street itself is the thoroughfare in which trade is conducted and the street-corner  is the place where all parties convene to transact business, to seek direction, to pause and rest, and of course the perfect vantage point from which to observe the full lay of the land and its inhabitants.     

The corner is life, the edge of the hustle where the bustling begins.

As children my brother and I were never allowed inside my grandfather's businesses. Well there was the bodega and candy-store, known in these parts as a "variety store". So some days Mom would load us into the car for a drive. "C'mon let's go see Daddy," she'd say. There was always the added anticipation that he might feel generous and slip any of us some extra cash. On occasions when we could score a hundred dollars that meant a trip to the music and book stores with treats for all and dinner at one of our favorite restaurants. Mother was always a terrific cook but we ate out most nights of the week.

She'd go inside to the tavern or one of gambling dens known as  pea shake house and he would come out to the curb to talk to us. People flowing in and out of his businesses would wave as they walked past "Hi Claude!!" they'd wave. 

"Claude you black muthafucka how you doin'!!"

"Claude!! This yo family? How you get such a pretty daughter wit yo' ugly ass?" Always these greetings and assorted terms of endearments.

Or Grandpoppy would ruminate on people as they passed. Pointing to one man he said thoughtfully, "That's Geechee. He was a helluva second-story man." So in this manner we learned that Geechee had been a burglar.

Another man passes by us and Grandpoppy looked on with distate. "A stickup man!!" he said witheringly. A mugger. Truly low down on the rungs of street corner hierarchy. 

"Never play three-card monty. It's a losers game," he explained to me and my brother once about the maddening card game that one sees being performed on street corners in all lands. The dealer shows you a ball or coin, hides it under a cup. Switches the cups about and if you guess correctly you win. Except no one EVER wins three card monty. It's the biggest ripoff and the most infamous cheater's game on planet earth. At the time my grandfather explained it to us I'd never seen it before. It wasn't until I had gone away to college in New York City that I saw a pair of flashy hoods fleecing a huge group of gullible folks on Fordham Road on a bright, beautiful Saturday afternoon. The dealers can make a tidy profit since they never lose ever and also because sheer frustration, anger and  inadvisable determination compel the player to continue placing bets sure, nay certain, that this time he will win. Usually the more stubborn players manage to lighten themselves of many dollars indeed before surrendering to defeat by cheats.

Once I drove down to visit with him and took a  horrible frightbecause I wandered off without his knowledge. I only went across the street to buy a knock-off handbag from some street merchant. I said to him "Grandpoppy I'm going to see what handbags this man has. I'll be right back." But he was hard of hearing and didn't realize what was happening. He and I were supposed to be feeding the neighborhood strays before shaketime. No sooner had I crossed the street to view the contents of the merchant's trunk than one hundred people descended on 15th Street, in that eerie quick way that happened exactly five times each day beginning at 6:30am, in order to watch the shake. In just that short interval Grandpoppy lost sight of me and panicked. I heard his deep heavy voice raised louder than I ever knew he could even speak. From across the street he called my name over and over. Everyone in the street stopped to discover what was happening, his voice full of fear and worry. He thought that I had been snatched away. I rushed the merchant to make change for the knock-off and dashed back to his side. There was a wild look in his eye. Terror.

  "Grandpoppy don't mean to scold you, baby. But Grandpoppy don't know all these niggas out here. Someone might try to hurt you or something. You can't wander away from Grandpoppy like that. Now go on inside," he said to me, patting my arm protectively. Dismissing me as one does with toddlers. Nevermind that I was 27 years old. This was the first and only time he had ever "scolded" me. I was sent back to the women's quarters in the office for the rest of the afternoon. No more street corner for me, no more shopping or feeding the strays. Not that day or any day. He was still so upset the next day that he called my mother and told her what happened and told her to tell me that "Grandpoppy didn't mean no harm. But I don't know all these niggas out here. Anything could happen". Ever after when I went down to 15th Street for an afternoon visit in his office, if I so much as stood up and looked outside he'd sit up and "What? What? Where you going?!"  
"Grandpoppy I have to go to the bathroom."
He would scan the security cameras to see who was out front doing business and nod. "You call Grandpoppy if you need me.  You hear me?"
"Grandpoppy did you hear about that new movie that's coming out about John Dillinger?" He'd look up from his ruminations on the corner or up from counting bills at his desk, blink once or twice and whisper in that raggedy voice of hot gravel and crushed glass   

 "Naw. Naw. What's that? I knew John Dillinger," he'd say.  And we'd make him tell the story again about how he'd played with Dillinger when they were kids. Long before Dillinger got into trouble with the law and sent to reform school.  "He was a few years older than us but we rode our bikes over there to the next town over, Martinsville, and play softball together." 

Mind you this "next town over" is at least ninety minutes by car today. But this was way back in the 1920s. The Dillinger family is an old Indiana family and respected. John Dillinger just happened to be that one skunk in the family and every family has one. (Non-conformist  by nature or pure cussedness as you wish, such as my family has rather more than one.)   My great-grandfather had a soft-spot for young John Dillinger and allowed him to hide in the family barn on nights when he was trying to evade pursuers. But the time came when his troubles mounted up to actual criminal offenses requiring juvenile detention and so Grandpoppy's softball buddy was swept out of his life.

"Daddy how did you meet Al Capone?" 

"He came down from Chicago on his liquor runs. That was Prohibition. He was down on the Avenue. I used to shine his shoes. His shoes and Frank Nitti's. Tipped me a quarter," Grandpoppy rasped proudly. Indiana Avenue was the center of black life in Indianapolis for more than half of the 20th century until urban planning tore the inner city into oblivion. Jazz musician Wes Montgomery played on Indiana Avenue. Madame CJ Walker's main business headquarters moved to Indiana Avenue in 1910.

My mother studied Urban Planning at IUPUI in the inaugural class. One day while combing through the archives she came across memos from some governmental offices outlining the plans  to dismantle the inner city along Indiana Avenue. In fact, the cache of memos she found mentioned specific addresses some of which were properties owned by our family. She quietly snuck the papers into her purse and gave them to her father and Aunt Helen who owned a flat-iron shaped block directly across from the Madame CJ Walker Theatre. 

Aunt Helen, who was my grandfather's youngest sister and chief business rival, was overjoyed to have warning of the city's plans. She vowed not to sell for a penny less than one million dollars. Over the next two and a half decades, from the Seventies up to the early  Nineties as she steadily and slowly succumbed to cancer she continually denied the city this critical piece of property. People whispered that if she didn't stop behaving in such an obstinate and high-handed manner that the city would merely invoke the clause which allowing them to buy out landowners at a price decided by them  -- imminent domain it's called  I believe. 

The city was never able to justify imminent domain and before she passed away from lung cancer she added one million dollars to her already significant fortune which was far superior to Grandpoppy.  That tidbit isn't speculation at all but merely a piece of clever detective work: when Aunt Helen died my mother and grandmother simply went downtown to get access to her will and any other  documents that are accessible to the government. GreatAunt Helen  was a broad, a dame, a woman with balls and determination that belongs to an entirely different era. She was flamboyant and wild and loud and brash. She was a business-woman  whose business was made on her back at times in her life and other ways as well. She sounded exactly like Ursula the Sea Witch from THe Little Mermaid.  She was a giant of her generation. 

She made her living from the street corner just as her brother did. And  with similar verve and symmetry it was the street corner that brought her a cool million from the very urban planning which was intended to displace the very inhabitants who made the Avenue live and breathe. 

Poetic Justice or just mere street punk's luck? No matter. She laughed last and loud and best and not every street punk gets to do that. There's a million stories on every street corner about the people of those streets. Some stories are hard and mean. Some stories are forgotten altogether. When a hustler can leave his memory behind, leave behind a laugh....a memory of himself it becomes the memory of the land, of that marginal side spot where citizens and hustlers and good people and bad people all tried to negotiate the busy highway of life.        


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