Monday, June 24, 2013

The Non-Conformist

Having grown up in a family that was largely non-conformist and also very much a pariah in terms of polite society it's often hard for me to judge what it "normal." I just have no real understanding or comfort in relation to societal norms. 

My mother protested and debated with every single black minister to the point that we never went to church due to her crusade against black male oppression over black women. My grandfather's role as a prominent professional gambler meant that even though my grandmother was uber-stylish and a social butterfly by nature she wasn't welcome in the "respectable" parlors of other ladies (who were also jealous because men admired her beauty). Prechers would craft impromptu speeches on the evils of gambling, drinking, fornicating and related sinning as my family sat in the pews. My mother taught us from a very young how to "make our own fun". And it hurts to be excluded but the very same people who did not always welcome us were often to be seen whooping it up for joy and laughter in our midst. Sooner or later most everyone made their way into my grandfather's different establishments, restaurants, gambling houses, and bodgas.

It wasn't until I went away from home where no one knew me or my family that I got a glimpse of how other people lived. It was so hopelessly and godawful boring. And by little bits as I made friends whom I could trust and who became, to me, family I would let people inside and tell them about where I came from. Who my people were, as it was phrased at home. And no one seemed to care or judge me. Certianly no one shunned. Most people thought it was cool to have a gangster grandfather and others found it so unfamiliar a background and me so "normal" seeming that they forgot about it. As a child I carried around the knowledge of my family's business as a secret and worried what would happen should I be "outed". It was a relief to get away from home and to feel free to out discover that it was something that made me unique.

True I often had to explain that no; people did not get killed; that my grandfather strictly forbid drug dealing and that unlike my "normal" friends who grew up in New York I had never been the least effected by the growing culture of crack cocaine. Frankly I was much safer and secure and isolated as the grand-daughter of a gangster than they were just as normal citizens. I had to explain that things were frankly far more tame than a Scorsese film: all that killing and flossing and profiling and druggie stuff is simply bad for business. 

My grandfather was a businessman and he lived like any other serious businessman: he knew politicians and lobbied to keep his establishments running; he sat in on banking breakfasts that were only open to bank customers who had very large accounts; he worked six and a half days a week literally from sunup to sundown. Most of all, he could be stingier than the most miserly miser; he was famous for his parsimonious ways which could be infuriating for a man who spent all his time at a very expensive and beautiful polished wood desk counting cash. Endlessly counting the cash that flowed into his businesses at the rate of thousands and thousands of dollars per week. My mother joked that it must be the ink on the cotton US currency that was his secret to his longevity. He made it his mission to personally count practically every dollar bill that he earned. It is not true that money is the root of all evil; but evil is the root of all money for sure. No one who lives and breathes money with such obsessiveness can leave much room for softness of heart at least not him. 

However he did play a role as a sort of social work agency to the inner city community. People came to him for help such as when a kids' baseball team from a poor school could not afford uniforms. Every Christmas and Thanksgiving he held a turkey giveaway. Hundreds of turkeys. In the summer, in June if I remember he held a barbecue picnic at one of the parks and anyone was welcome to come and eat and socialize. It was a huge event with the best soul food. The cooks from his soul food restaurant and tavern did the cooking. People having trouble affording the burial of a loved one might ask for help. He provided food, cash, assistance, loans and employment when legit society turned its back on people who had nothing to discredit them other than poverty. Like the social agencies of the 19th and early 20th centuries which helped new Southern migrants adjust to the Northern urban communities Grandpoppy provided help where it was needed.

He was not Robin Hood and I do not wish to give any misleading or falsely nostalgic imagery to that effect but he was an active member of his community. He did not conform to social standards but at the same time it is hard to see how he was any different from those standards and norms. I think that at bottom most non-conformists are like that; they function outside the boundaries and curious on-lookers get quite the thrill to bravely venture over to see what it is that everyone is talking about. People who do forbidden things are a bit scary, a little bit nerve wracking. Why won't they just do what they are supposed to do? But the dispassionate observer detects that at bottom the non-conformist doesn't hate society, he just chooses to live separate from people who blindly march to the beat without yet refuse to read the music.

 My grandfather was very astute and he was very concerned for his daughter's and grand-children's fates not wanting us to be excluded unfairly as punishment for his own choices. And sometime that did happen. But kookiness is at least a little bit genetic even as it is a choice: each generation has turned out non-conformist traits that become major personality quirks. It is difficult to explain to a child why some things are different at home than at school (assuming of course that you sent them to a school among 'different' folk). It's frustrating as hell to be a young child in a non-conformist family when all you want is to fit in. 

 But if your family's genes and systematic social rejection is successful you will one day accept a very significant truth which can be the foundation of a very happy and individualistic life: those other people? those "normal" types are about as unimaginative boring as it gets. Do you want to be a visionless sleep-walking zombie?

No? Well then come on over to the other side.....Once you see the view from here you'll never be the same. I think I've learned something that my grandfather may have been unaware of because the right to creativity and freedom is priceless. It is beyond any amount of money or any manner of social recognition. But perhaps that view of the un-necessity of materialism is my way of not conforming to his example. And I'm okay with that.

Sunday, June 23, 2013

Street Corner Aristocrats' Instructions on Life and Living

Never pick up a gun unless you plan to shoot it. Never shoot a
man unless you intend to kill him. 

I decided then and there, from the very first time I learned this lesson that I would never, ever pick up a gun. I never wanted to be the instrument of another's death.

Never disrespect homosexuals. That's how they are. It's not right to be cruel or tease.

My grandfather said that during the Depression when he had worked at the CCC camp that he had met some homosexual men. He thought it was a wrong thing when people made fun of them or treated them badly. "Gay" wasn't a word used then but he was certainly ahead of his time.

"Don't be going to parties and leaving your drinks out of your sight. No tellin' who might put something in your drink to hurt you," I was warned many times by my Grandfather and my Grandmother. My mother told me this and my father. And aunts and uncles. Many times I was told this. However I don't drink; I never liked the taste of alcohol. And frankly parties bore me.

"Don't never talk back to a policeman. Don't talk at all! Just call home and we'll come get you with a lawyer!" I was told even as a tiny person at a very young age. My brother heard this probably as a newborn. The odds are so high that as a black person one will experience police harrassment.

Once I got caught with a nickel bag of weed by the campus police at my friend's college in the South. Unfortunately I was just euphoric enough from indulgence that I forgot to keep my mouth shut. I dont remember what I said but I was able to keep us out of jail. They sent us away with a warning. I immediately called my Aunt Sharon to come pick me up from my friend's dorm. The girl was my best friend from high school - we had been inseparable. Alas this brush with the law heralded immediate separation. That same night she suggested that I find other lodgings despite the fact that I had come down to her school in Atlanta specifically to visit her on Springbreak.

Just the year and a half that we had been away from each other had turned us into entirely different people. I told her just before I caught the plane down to ATL that I had three serious goals for my holiday: to smoke copious amounts of weed, party with hot boys and to study for my history midterm in the course I was taking called The Sixties.  She was newly coming to terms with her sexuality as a lesbian though I hadn't known that beforehand. These mixed motives clearly indicated that we were travelling separate roads. After the police/weed debacle that night she never spoke to me again.

My Aunt Sharon and Uncle Greg were appalled that a person could have such bad manners as to be offended by marijuana. Though they pitied the fact that the cops had confiscated my stash they didn't pity me so much as to share their own. They were too terrified of my mother finding out. We concocted an elaborate plan to hide my indiscretion from my mother.

Mother discovered my indiscretion. I suffered terribly. But I aced my midterm. Out of a class of sixty people I earned one of the only two As on that exam. The professor of the course was so impressed by my performance that he took me on and became my advisor

"Stay in school!! Don't get pregnant!! You're a smart girl; you'll go far if you don't mess it all up by letting some boy get
you with a baby," Everyone said. I never meant an adult who didn't telll me to Stay In School. I never understood this. I was a child, what else was I going to do?  It seemed like every single one of my mother's friends had the same story:they had been living life, working hard in school when they got pregnant at  age 15....16....17....  How it disrupted their plans and future.

 "Don't get pregnant!!" Everyone warned until I was utterly paranoid about the prospect. "Stay away from them boys. They only want one thing!!"

"Don't get an abortion!! Lord no telling what might happen. You know so-and-so near about died trying to get that abortion!'' my mother warned. "If you get pregnant then we will just have to take care of the baby," she reassured me.

"But don't get pregnant!" she said utterly confusing me.

Her friends would say "I was good in school too! Ask yo Mama wasn't I good at school! But...I had that baby and had to go get a job," they said mournfully. School was infinitely easier than a job, I knew that much. I looked at these women who all seemed old to me and simply couldn't picture them as teenagers going to school. Surely they'd been old and too plump all their lives. I couldn't see how my life could be similar to theirs at all. I was young. These women were not. Of course I would stay in school.

I was in seventh grade when the first person I knew became pregnant. Her name was Farrah. Farrah was the one person in my class who was smaller than me and I was always one of the smallest. Her tummy bulged out to huge proportions. It frightened me. I couldn't understand who she was having sex with, how such a thing could happen. Of course I knew what sex was. But it was something grown-ups did.

I still played with my Barbie DreamHouse in my bedroom (I had the silver corvette as well. And all the  furnishings to go in the Dream House. I had two white Barbies and two black Barbies. My black Peaches and Cream Barbie was my favorite because she came with this amazing peach--colored chiffon ballgown that flowed in waves and puffed sleeves)    

When Farrah got pregnant I was secretly embarrassed that I still played with Barbies at 13 years old. So I went home and asked Mother to tell our handyman to take my Dream House out of my room and put it in the basement. I was too old for Barbie anymore, I told my mother. She was concerned I think because I remember how she looked at me. So she had James take the Dream House. But I kept my Barbies in my room. I just couldn't quite take the radical step of purging Barbie entirely. I loved that Peaches and Cream Barbie so much.

And I stayed in school and never got pregnant. Now that I'm staring down the fearful barrell of age 40 if you are cruel enough to  round up I regret not having had babies already. But I was in school all my life up to age 30. There was no time.

"Never try to throw out an addict's drugs or alcohol. It's dangerous. They might go crazy and hurt you for it,'' There were no drugs or alcohol in my house. Not even a bottle of wine. Mother only bought wine if she were having a dinner party. But there were many people I knew who were alcoholics or drug addicts. Grandpoppy himself was an alcoholic I knew though I'd never ever seen him drink.

 As I understand it he tended toward binge drinking. He relapsed twice in his 80s. He checked himself into rehab at age 84. The doctor told him "Claude if you drink again you will not live to return here.," He never touched liquor again and lived into his 90s. In fact he was at work on the last day of his life. That always amazes me because surely he didn't feel well the morning he woke up. But he went to work anyway. He never missed a day of work.

Once he went to Hawaii on vacation and startled his employees cruelly by returning several days early. He didn't want a vacation he said. He had to see about his money. All his employees had considered his vacation an opportunity to steal, to skim a little extra for themselves. There was hell to pay when he came home early and looked at the books.    

"If you have a husband who cheats on you, you don't break up the family for just some piece of pussy. You're the WIFE. There's better ways to fight back. First of all, you hit him  in the wallet. You spend as much money as you want as fast as you can. Don't let him take the family wealth out of the family for some tramp. He'll figure it out."

This came from my mother, co-signed by my grandmother and practically every woman I ever knew. I've seen women enact this principle and certainly there were plenty of intact marriages that I saw growing up.

Let's say the jury is still out on this piece of advice.


Saturday, June 22, 2013

My Mother's Garden Now Belongs to Me

The only thing I know how to do when I feel badly is meditate. When I was younger and attended church with my mother and grandmother I remembered being frightened by the violent seeming emotion of women in church. They would rock and weep and sob loudly. They would pass out on the floor. Once I saw a large woman "get the Holy Spirit" and she hit her head falling on the alter. No one moved to help her. I grabbed my father's arm and said "Daddy!! Daddy! That lady!" He looked over lazily and said "Oh. She alright." I was mad at him for a long time about that and refused to go back to church with him for some weeks. My dad and I were like that: we'd get mad and stop speaking then get over it and go on. 
When I saw "The Color Purple" at the movie theatre the first time with Mother and Nanny I didn't understand Miss Celie and why she talked to God. I didn't understand the songs in church like "Jesus Is My Friend". Frankly I always had serious difficulties with Jesus. Well not with Jesus exactly but Christianity. I never understood. I still don't despite having a Theology degree from undergrad. Christianity leaves me cold. I just don't get it. 
I understood spirituality however. I was always happy cobbling together little rituals and prayers that I stole magpie fashion from my exposure to other religions. Judaism. Hinduism. A little Wicca. Finding yoga and a yogi whose words finally made sense changed my life. My first experiences with meditation were so amazing ly successful that I was suffused with a goodwill or a confidence..or perhaps just an old fashioned blessing. Those early meditations carried me through the worst, emptiest, most frightening times of my life. It was the first time in my life I was confronted with human evil. I know nothing of supernatural evil and since I get so scared in horrors movies that I literally cry tears of fright I hope never to encounter it. But simple, commonplace human evil is its own terror, the kind that leaves you shivering in the bed in bright daylight fearing what will come next from someone's spite and general lack of compassion. 
Maybe your experience in life is devoid of anything that you would attribute to spiritual resolve. For me I can't imagine my life without it. I spend a lot of time in meditation asking Why this? or Why that? Technically that is prayer. Meditation is the listening part. Somedays I'm good at calming myself and patiently falling into that Place. 
My favorite thing is when an answer actually comes. Meditation is like going into Bergdorf Goodman as a beggar and having every salesperson from all the high-end boutiques greet you as a queen. "Take this!! And you'll need this too!!" ..."Oh have you seen our newest line? Have some! Oh did you take extras for family and friends? Here!! Here!" (Yes there is probably something wrong with describing my spiritual life in materialistic terms but this is my metaphor. You can go describe yours like Walden Pond or Dover Beach or whatever. My meditation is like Bergdor Goodman, I say.) 
It's getting amzing answers from the void that are so extraordinary that it sometimes puts me in a good mood for weeks at a time. The other day I had barely been sitting for five minutes when a story idea dropped in my lap beginning, middle and end. 
Someone hurt my feelings recently and I've spent a lot of time listening for some -- what? Wisdom? Answers? Yes. -- some explanation. Trying to find a salve for my heart because I feel sad. 
I look at myself in the mirror and I'm rocking extra weight that feels funny because I've always been a tiny person. Though my face doesn't necessarily display my age I know recognize myself as those women from my childhood. The Miss Celies. The emotional crying women in church who held it together all week long until they could make it to Church on Sunday and let their emotions free. 
Except that I don't wait until Sunday. I'll go meditate two, three, times a day if I can. I keep asking the Universe the same question until I get an answer. In that my spiritual practices are no different from the way I am in talking to real flesh and blood humans all day long. I like to get RESULTS. 
So now I save my emotions and tears and even some joy for entering the Spiritual Bergdorf Goodman of the Universe. Alice Walker's essay "InSearch of Our Mother's Gardens" was probably the most impactful thing I read in college. She talks about the fragile, mental, artists who had very little in their material life and such rich emotional artistic and spiritual lives and I remember recognizing all that she discussed as if it were a future memory. Perhaps I have finally entered that vague future memory at last.

Thursday, June 20, 2013

Solitude Rhyme

I am hiding inside myself, she said.
It is the safest place I could be:
No one would think 
to look 
for me here
after all
It takes more than eye-sight to see

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.