Wednesday, May 26, 2010

The Birdman of Harlem @ A Twist of Noir course, like Big Daddy the number banker used to say, “Prayers in the ghetto are like watercolors in the rain. If God moves in mysterious ways, then the Devil his own plans.”

Maybe if Candi had thought clearly, she never would have messed with Big Daddy. Hell, everybody in Harlem knew that his woman, the infamous Sheila Mae (breasts the size of overstuffed pillows, legs thick as tree trunks), was no joke. A colossal country chick who prided herself on hellraising and slicing the competition with the garlic-soaked straight razor, which she kept tucked in her cleavage.

Still, most of the broads who hung at the Oasis had cocaine for brains and stiff drinks for courage. As my own mother, who had worked at the ’O since I was a baby, told me after Miss Candi’s accident, “That poor woman was blinded by the cash, the flash and that big-ass Caddie.”

For the rest of this story, go to:

Labels: , , ,

Monday, May 24, 2010

Such Sweet Thunder


Under fiction editor SekouWrites, "Such Sweet Thunder" was first published in 2005 in Uptown magazine. This story, about gentrification in Harlem and the plight of small business owners, came to me one night while walking to the A train from the Studio Museum. As a Harlemnite who still visits my old block as well as my mom's former beautician Jackie (I spent so much time in that shop, Jackie's like an aunt to me) and my late stepfather's apartment building, it was shocking to see much the neighborhood had changed.

The real Shalimar barbershop, not to be confused with the fictional account below, used to be downstairs from daddy's apartment on 7th Avenue and 123rd Street. The last time I checked, about six months ago, the storefront was boarded up. Owned by the late Luther "Red" Randolph, it was also where daddy worked for years. This being the '60s, when men were into heavy duty marcelling, my mom has horror stories of how raw daddy's hands would be from conking hair all day.

In addition to my own Harlem nostalgia, I've always loved hanging out in barber shops, listening to men philosophize about everything from politics to women to who is the best MC. Recently I explained to a friend how, for me, barber shops were therapeutic; to this day, the buzz of clippers have a way of lulling me to that perfect place.

Last, but not least, I'd like to give a big shout out to my homie Duke Ellington, whose music, style and innovation has been a constant inspiration since I first heard "In a Sentimental Mood" when I was six. Presently, I'm trying to think of a good story so I can swap the title "Money Jungle." Barber Shop by Jacob Lawerence
Such Sweet Thunder
by Michael A. Gonzales

Pops from the barbershop knew the end of an era had arrived the moment he heard those dreadful diesels slithering down 7th Avenue. Lighting his first Marlboro that chilly April morning, his usually steady fingers trembled. Exhaling a whiff of smoke through thin lips, he sullenly glared out of the Shalimar’s dusty plate-glass window on its final day of business.

Two dirty fans swiftly whirled overhead, and the sweet scent of sizzling bacon drifted from Sara’s Luncheonette next door. Dressed in his usual uniform of a starched white shirt and black tie partially covered by a freshly laundered blue barber smock, Pops cracked his stiff neck.

In all of Pops’ years of looking out of that window, he had witnessed many neighborhood transformations: from ranting revolutionaries roaring about Malcolm X to soapbox preachers screaming about the souls of sinners; from nodding heroin junkies, their bugged eyes transfixed on the ground, to the panicky behavior of crack heads; from pretty little girls with Shirley Temple curls who would soon be mamas themselves to hard rock bad boys who grew up to be either pimps, punks or proper men.

A year ago, the neighborhood folks noticed a crew of white interlopers wearing yellow hard hats and carrying clipboards. The surveyors performed their jobs smugly, silently. Pointing at the storefronts, the men studied blueprints and jotted jumbled notes with sharpened pencils. With colored chalk, they scribbled peculiar symbols on the soiled sidewalks.

A few months later, much too their disdainful surprise, every merchant on the block received a formal letter from a newly formed city agency. Printed on raised lettered stationery, the memo informed the six store owners of plans to convert their aged shops into a sprawling shopping complex and luxury high-rises. In other words, as of April 29, 1999, Freddy’s Newsstand, Sara’s Luncheonette, Chino’s Sneakers, Fleishman’s Liquors, Vanessa’s number spot and the Shalimar Barbershop were to be closed forever.

Although Pops had lived in Harlem since he was twelve, one could still hear his Jamaican accent when he was angry. “God forbid we should try to take over one of their neighborhoods,” Pops protested the morning the official-looking letter arrived. “How many black boys done been beat down just walking through parts of Brooklyn or Staten Island? Harlem is my home. How they just gonna chase me out my home?”

As far as Pops could remember, he hadn’t been this vexed since M.L.K. had taken a bullet a year before the Shalimar opened. “At least then black folks were angry enough to riot,” he ranted. “These days we just take whatever slop we’re served.”,%201977)-782147.jpg
Black exhaust swirled from the hulking fleet of seven demolition vehicles skulking down the boulevard. Under an overcast sky the creeping convoy resembled a gloomy funeral procession. After months about anxious speculation of what would become of his friends and neighbors, the beast now roared outside their door.

The clamorous commotion of the Mack trucks caused the entire block to rumble. A few doors down, a demolition crew stridently demolished the two abandoned buildings on the corner. As ancient bricks crashed to the asphalt, Pops spotted a scraggly rat scurry beneath an emerald-hued El Dorado.

“Thirty years building a business and for what?” he huffed, extinguishing his cigarette. “Just to be kicked aside like trash in the name of progress.”

Pops slammed down his coffee mug on the stained Formica cabinet cluttered with sharpened scissors, sterile clippers, and plastic combs; on a shelf inside the cabinet was a white box overflowing with the multicolored candies he kept for kids. In the corner next to a chrome coat rack, Pops leaned his pure mahogany walking stick with its solid-gold handle. Handcrafted by an African dude down the block, Pops used the stick whenever his right leg cramped from standing too much.

Thirty years before, after Pops had served his adopted country in the Army, he had secured a veteran’s loan to open the Shalimar. The shop’s two other barber chairs were leased to his long time friends, a short spic named Carmelo and a former local soul singer everybody called Smokey.

The Shalimar had a splintered window seat that was stacked with countless magazines while a multihued poster of Muhammad Ali painted by LeRoy Neiman hung on the urine yellow wall next to the green and gold Jamaican flag. 2010, LeRoy Neiman

Underfoot, the cracked paisley patterned linoleum, with years of loose hairs trapped in its crevices, needed replacing, as did the dark blue hard plastic chairs that the customers used. While Carmelo and Smokey decorated their space between the mirrors with Jet magazine centerfolds, Pops had taped a radiant picture of his late wife Beverly to his section of the wall.

Opening the front door, a plump horsefly buzzed inside the barbershop and landed on the sugary rim of Pops’ coffee mug. He stepped onto the soiled sidewalk shaking his gray haired head in disbelief as a crazy lady with dirty fingernails fed the foul pigeons stale bread; she cooed along with the birds as though they shared a secret language.

“Her comes our new renaissance,” Freddy barked from his newsstand shed.

“This tearing down shit isn’t a renaissance,” Pops replied. He winced when a sharp pain shot up his leg. “More like a plague if you ask me. You seen how many rats been on this street since they started ripping down that building on the corner the other day?”

Surrounded by pulpy tabloids and slick magazines, Freddy stuck his bald dome out of the weather beaten stall. An unlit cigar dangled from his juicy lips. “Had to chase one out of my box this morning. Scared the hell out of me.” Looking closely at Pops, a concerned Freddy asked,

“How you holding up?”

“What can I say,” Pops’ said. “No matter how I feel it’s not gonna change nothing. Nothing at all.”

Violently coughing, Freddy spat into the dirty street. “Harlem is just another Plymouth Rock for these folks. Now I know how the damn Indians felt.”

Heartily, Pops laughed. “You ain’t said nothing slick to a can of oil, Freddy. Nothing at all. He strolled over to the newsstand and picked up a Daily News. Dropping two shiny quarters into Freddy’s tarnished tin tray, Pops strolled back inside.

Switching on the radio, Pops stopped turning the dial when he heard Duke Ellington’s melancholy music. “And that was ‘Star Crossed Lovers’, playing on the maestro’s 100th birthday,” the smoky voiced disc jockey said. “Next up comes Duke’s celestial ‘Come Sunday,’ featuring Mahalia Jackson.”
Phyllis Sims Collection

Still feeling an ache in his leg, Pop glanced at the walking stick. Carefully, he lowered the barber chair and plopped in the black leather seat. Opening his newspaper, he silently waited for the end to begin.

At dusk thunderclouds still hovered in the sky, but rain had yet to fall. Glancing at his tired face in the mirror, Pops touched his wrinkled forehead; a feverish heat rose beneath his fingers.
Like brown sugar, the babel of the barbershop bubbled: in the corner a rowdy quartet of regular hangout cats played a never ending game of spades. Turning up the radio a little bit, burly Smokey quietly hummed along to “Take the A Train” while sweeping hair from the floor.

“This gentrification jazz ain’t got a damn thing to do with race,” Carmelo proclaimed, his spic accent thick as stew. He was a short Rican, standing about five foot six in his colorful gators and black dress slacks. Sipping from a chilled bottle of Heineken as he cut a customer’s frizzy ‘fro. “This jazz is all about class.”

“Class?” Smokey replied. With his jungle of jeri curls, black velour sweatsuit, and thick gold chain, he looked like a broke down Barry White. “What a mida mida like you know about class.” Although they had been homeboys for years, Carmelo and Smokey loved to verbally spar.

“All I know is you’re like an old school house,” Carmelo said. “No class and no principals.” With the exception of Pops, the entire shop roared with laughter.

Pops opened the door and waited for a cool breeze to caress his warm face. Like floating quicksand, a murky mixture of dust and fumes hung in the air. Choking on the stale air, Pops felt a sudden tightness in his chest.

Taking a deep breath, the roar of the city sounded like a raucous big band grating on his nerves. Closing his eyes, Pops listened to the wail of the jittery jackhammers, the clank of cement mixers, the boom of bellowing voices. and the roar of restless machines.

“You all right over there, Pops,” Smokey asked. “You want some water or something?”

“I’ll be all right, just give me a minute. I need to get some air.” Reaching down, Pops shoved a plastic jam beneath the chrome-and-glass door.

“No disrespect, Pops,” Lester, one of the dudes playing cards in the back, said. At twenty-three, he was the youngest member of the barbershop crew. “But maybe you should look at this as a kind of blessing. Take some of that loot you done squirreled away and hop a flight to Miami Beach. Find yourself a big booty Cuban girl who keep you company.”

After Lester slapped five with his card playing cronies, Smokey barked, “Don’t go there, youngblood. Pops might not play the dozens, but I can get down.”

“I’m not trying to battle you, Smoke, I’m just sayin’...the ways of white folks is as old as the slave ships,” Lester snapped. “But, when the white man gets enough dough he spreads his wings and flies south. Chill in some condo, listen to Billie Holiday, sip some lemonade. Hell, who cares if they tear down every block in Harlem.”

Pops glared at Lester as through youngblood had just spat in his face.

“I care,” Pops hissed, his accent thick as fog.

“No disrespect Pops, but…”

“What do you know about Harlem anyway, boy?” Pops interrupted.

“What do you know about being a stranger in this city and making it home? What you know about Billy Eckstine crooning on stage at The Apollo on Saturday evening, drinking at Sugar Ray's that night or hearing Adam Clayton Powell Jr preaching at Abyssinian on Sunday morning? What you know about Bumpy Johnson or James Baldwin or Sammy Davis Jr. getting his hair clipped in my chair? Just because I’m old doesn’t mean I’m ready to lounge on the beach waiting for death.”“Chill Pops,” Lester said, smiling uncomfortably. “Ain’t nobody say nothing ‘bout dying. I’m just don’t have to work forever.”

“There’s nothing wrong with working,” Pops hissed. “It’s what men do.” A frigid wind blew through the open door; for a frozen minute, Pops’ words hung in the air. On the radio, the jazz jock cued-up Ellington’s “Such Sweet Thunder.”

Pops caught a glimpse of his face in the mirror. Glaring at his gray hair and wrinkled forehead, Pops wondered when he’d gotten so old. His flustered gaze fell to the floor the very moment a swollen sewer rat scampered through the open door.

“Jesus Christ!” Smokey screamed, dropping the broom.

Startled, the wide-eyed men stood up from their chairs as the long-tailed rat crashed into an overflowing wastebasket. Cigarette butts, used tissue, and various textures of hair tumbled to the floor. Pops stared at the repulsive rat scurrying across the soiled linoleum and slammed the front door. For a moment, the Shalimar was frozen in time.

Stiffly, Pops walked over to the corner and picked up the walking stick. In his fragile hands, the shellacked smoothness of the heavy mahogany contained the strength of a thousand tribes that once roamed the fertile motherlands of Ghana and Kenya and the Ivory Coast. In Pops’ perspiring hands, he felt the sweat of the mud colored men who had cultivated their kingdoms with callused fingers, sweaty brows and bloody feet, only to be eradicated by pale faces with loud machines.

Pops listened to the lush jazz streaming from the speakers, his tired eyes fixed on the vile vermin. He imagined himself as a swaggering young man coming of age in Harlem. Pops struggled to remember the first time he saw a buxom Beverly sitting on the stoop of her building. He pictured them, stylish young lovers in the summer of ‘65, sauntering through Sugar Hill.

A black prince on those once-vibrant streets, Pops walked the boulevards with an arrogance that everything he cherished in this world would last forever.

“Damn you,” Pops mumbled. “Damn you.” Outside, thunder crashed in the gloomy sky.

Afraid and confused, the rat stood on its hind legs and prepared to strike. Yet before it could leap, Pop savagely swung the walking stick and smashed the rodent’s skull. Blood and brains stained the yellow wall.

As he stared at the slaughtered rodent, Pops leg buckled and he collapsed to the cold floor. For the first time since the death of his beloved wife, tears fell from his eyes like rain.
Story copyright (c) 2010, Michael A. Gonzales
Images copyright (c) 2010 by respective creators

Labels: , , , , , , , ,

Friday, May 14, 2010

Cinematic Soul: The Soundtracks of Quincy Jones

Premiering in 1972, Sanford and Son was an every Friday night at eight o'clock event in my Harlem household. "What channel does it come on again?" my grandmother would ask every week and every week I'd turn the television to channel four and patiently wait for the cool-ass intro music to kick in. While most program themes had lyrics, it was only fitting that a funky show like Sanford had a juke-joint instrumental to introduce this bugged junk man and his son.

Yet, being a nine year old music buff who bought countless 45s from Freddy's Record Shack on Broadway and read religiously the Soul Brothers Top 20 in Jet magazine, I began noticing Quincy Jones' name on several television shows including Ironside and the Bill Cosby Show, which featured the wild out track "Hikky-Burr." Although I had no idea who he was, I knew that he was the man. this day, the musical legacy of seventy-seven year old Quincy Delight Jones Jr. looms large over the landscape of popular culture. While our grandparents might remember him as the cool cat who once swung with Sinatra and Count Basie (released in 1964, It Might as Well Be Swing is a champagne music classic), most eighties babies will forever associate him with the post-disco blare of Michael Jackson’s mega-monster Thriller in 1982.

Yet, that collaboration might never have happened if the two had not originally worked together on the soundtrack for The Wiz, the wretched 1978 remake of The Wizard of Oz. Directed by the king of New York City cinema Sidney Lumet, who once described the film as urban fantasy (a genre his considerable talents were ill suited for after the brilliant social realism of Serpico, Network and Dog Day Afternoon) the picture, was a visual failure.

Though the much-maligned movie was almost made without Quincy’s help, who explained bluntly in his 2001 autobiography Q, “I just wasn’t feeling the songs,” he still stepped up to the plate. “I did it because Sidney Lumet, who had given me my first U.S. film-scoring break on The Pawnbroker, plus five more films, asked me to do it. I felt like I owed him more than one; I owed him a lot.” a post-bop Martin Luther King with a conductor’s baton and complex arrangements, Quincy Jones was a pioneer who helped pave the way for other Negro musicians in that so-called Tinseltown. “Film has never been a Black friendly industry,” says director Nelson George, whose first feature Life Support was produced for HBO. “But, Quincy fought and charmed his way through to become Hollywood royalty.”

Though he would go on to create other great scores like In Cold Blood (his first Academy Award nomination) and In the Heat of the Night, it was The Pawnbroker that made it all possible.” Although Duke Ellington had contributed the soaring soundtrack to Otto Preminger's 1959 film, Anatomy of a Murder, helping to define the jazz-influenced film music in same way as Henry Mancini and Elmer Bernstein, it took still took Quincy to take the art form to the next level.

Beginning his professional career as a be-bop trumpet player in 1947, Quincy had worked with Ray Charles, got scammed by Charlie Parker and opened for Nat King Cole in Europe. Later, as vice-president of A&R at Mercury Records, he signed Lesley (“It’s My Party”) Gore. However, once given the chance he never looked back. As critic Philip Brophy wrote in a 1997 Wire magazine article, Jones became “a key-yet ignored-figure in wrenching the film score from its Wagnerian cave and slamming it down in the midst of cross-town traffic.”

The Pawnbroker was recorded in 1964 at A&R Studios in Manhattan over the period of two days. Quincy’s old roommate, friend, engineer and studio owner Phil Ramone (who later produced classic sides for Billy Joel and Paul Simon) remembers those sessions well. “Quincy stayed up days and nights for weeks writing those songs,” says Ramone via telephone.“Things were just magical. Man, that studio was so small we used to call in our basement in the sky. Q’s superstar buddies would come in to play two solos and be out. We had guys piled up in the hallway, while others would be in Jim and Andy’s, the bar downstairs; I had an intercom hooked-up, and I would call down whenever I needed somebody.”

Two years earlier, Jones and Ramone recorded the whimsical “Soul Bossa Nova” in the same studio. Popularly known today as the “Theme to Austin Powers,” which featured a Roland Kirk flute solo, it was obvious that everybody loved working with Q. Lalo Schifrin, who would later compose the famed Mission Impossible theme, played piano on that session.

“It was like a juke joint up 112 West 48th, but it was home to him,” Phil Ramone remembers. “Nobody ever said no to Quincy; if he called, you were there.” With a Who’s Who of cool cats that Pawnbroker director Sidney Lumet likened to “Esquire’s All-Star Jazz Band,” the line-up included Dizzy Gillespie, Elvin Jones on drums, John Faddis on trumpet, George Duvivier on bass and countless others.

“The main titles use of vibes, celeste harpsichord and harp tantalizingly cast semi-jazz clusters against a monophonic semi-blues line played by thickened strings,” critic Philip Brophy observes. “It’s like hearing Ellington and George Gershwin simultaneously. It’s black and it’s jazz and all the space between.”

Despite the fact that Lumet had first approached John Cage and Gil Evans, he was more than pleased with Quincy’s efforts, which Jazz Improv magazine described as “a lush, string-laden mood pieces, interspersed with frantic jazz vamps.” In addition, Lumet was also impressed that Q. had studied under famed French composer and music educator Nadia Boulanger—who had also taught Aaron Copland, Virgil Thomson and Burt Bacharach.

“She used to tell me back in France—and it took me years to accept it—that you only have real freedom when you set boundaries and parameters,” Quincy wrote in his bio. “When you have total freedom, you automatically create chaos. As a jazz artist, this was hard to swallow until I had to score films on a deadline.”

Author Todd Boyd, who penned The Notorious Phd's Guide to the Super Fly '70s: A Connoisseur's Journey Through the Fabulous Flix, Hip Sounds, and Cool Vibes That Defined a Decade (Harlem Moon, 2007), also cites The Pawnbroker soundtrack as a personal favorite. “People sleep on that movie. To me, Quincy’s music went straight into the psyche of the main character played by Rod Steiger, who is a Holocaust victim who owns a pawnshop in Harlem. You can hear the depth of his paranoia in Quincy’s music. We can also hear that in the score he did a few years later for In the Heat of the Night.” years after its release, new jack film composer Scott Bomar still feels the influence of Quincy’s 1967 score for the Sidney Poitier feature directed by Norman Jewison. “That soundtrack heavily influenced the work I did on (director Craig Brewer’s neo-exploitation gem) Black Snake Moan,” says Bomar, who also scored Hustle & Flow for the same director. In 2003 Bomar was musical director for a segment of Martin Scorsese's PBS series The Blues.

“Jones’ mixture of jazz, blues, country and pop was amazing. Quincy not only did the score, he did all the songs you hear on the radio and jukebox; all the music sounds like it comes from that particular world. Quincy also used vocals in a very original way; without a doubt, the Ray Charles sung title track is one of my favorite songs.” In addition to Charles, the Afroed maestro also collaborated with singers Donny Hathaway (Come Back Charleston Blue), Shirley Horn (For Love Of Ivy), Sarah Vaughan (Cactus Flower Theme), Johnny Mathis (Mirage) and Diana Ross (The Wiz).-town traffic.

Still, like Los Angeles based crime writer Gary Phillips and composer David Holmes (Out of Sight), many of Quincy’s fans prefer the Playboy chill of his caper movie scores. Mastermixing the sonic swagger of synthesizers with more traditional instrumentation, the eletro-fusion heard on the groovy The Italian Job (1969), The Anderson Tapes (1971), $ (1971) and The Hot Rock (1972) process a neo-noir delirium that still resonates with movie lovers and hip-hop crate diggers. The track “Snow Creatures” from $ has been sampled by Gang Starr (“Alongwaytogo”) and Common “Tricks Up My Sleeve,” while The Hot Rock theme was lifted by both Jurassic 5 (“Improvise”) and Eminem (“Like Toy Soldiers”). “I like to listening to The Anderson Tapes or The Lost Man (1969) soundtrack when I just driving around,” explains Gary Phillips, whose crime novels include Bangers (2003) and DC Comics/Vertigo graphic novel Cowboys. “There is a great sense of pacing and rhythm in that music that just gets my creative juices flowing. For the crime and mystery stuff that I write, that music just takes me there. Quincy not only reflected the feel of those movies, but those soundtracks also captured the time period perfectly.”

While Quincy Jones has not done a full-length film score since teaming with Steven Spielberg on the majestic 1985 The Color Purple soundtrack (for which he received his eighth Academy Award nomination), his movie music is still as magical as it is distinctive.

“If you are putting together a compilation of great film music from the second half of the 20th century music, there is a good chance you will be using something Jones composed,” says writer/filmmaker David Walker, former publisher of defunct zine BadAzz Mofo. “More than anything else, Quincy Jones brought a sense of soul to film scores.”
Writer's Note: The Anderson Tapes is perhaps one of the best heist films ever made and Jones' soundtrack is the groovy foundation of many scores to come; if you don't believe me, just ask David Holmes.

a different version of this story was first published in Stop Smiling, Issue 32: Hollywood Lost & Found

Labels: , , , , , , , , ,

Wednesday, May 12, 2010

Boogie Down Inferno (fiction) "I keep smelling smoke. I can’t tell whether it’s real or in my imagination.”
from "In the South Bronx of America" by Mel Rosenthal, 2000, Curbstone Press

Introduction: Anybody who lived through New York City's crack-era in the mid-1980s, knows it was a bizarre time. Like living in some kind of alternative universe where seemingly overnight friends, family and familiar strangers were stricken by a plague.

In my Washington Heights neighborhood I remember some drug hawker standing in front of the subway station on 145th and St. Nick trying to sell me something called "crack" in 1985 and six months later my lower-middle class neighborhood suddenly became a haven for spaced-out zombies, random robberies, middle of the day shoot-outs, countless prostitutes and other illicit activity.

Later, it would be revealed that the local police precinct, which would later be known in the press as, "the dirty 30," was taking bribes and wasn't really trying to protect the law-abiding citizens in the first place.
This disturbing short story "boogie down inferno" was inspired by my vivid memories of those wild years when uptown was a combination Sodom and Gomorrah meets the wild wild west.

While editing this piece, I listened to Tricky's disturbing Pre-Millennium Tension, whose, "hallucinatory soundscape, where the rhythms, samples, and guitars intertwine into a crawling procession of menacing sounds and disembodied lyrical threats," seemed to be the perfect soundtrack for a tale about my beloved metropolis during those very dark days.


an abandoned car was parked in front of the hydrant. fire-truck sirens screamed in the night as raging flames kissed the midnight sky. staring at your former south bronx tenement over on 178th and vyse avenue, neighborhood crack zombies were entranced by the vivid yellow and crimson cinders raining down from the rooftop. “oh shit,” screamed a young black boy cruising the trash strewn street on a stolen five-speed bike.

this block is filled with ghosts, you thought, still buzzed from the cocaine you had been hitting since noon. feeling as though it were on the verge of exploding, your heart was beating a million miles a minute.

“another bronx building burning,” said a weary voiced stranger standing behind you.

looking all official and shit, you were dressed in the same police academy uniform you wore at graduation that same afternoon. assigned to work at the 48th precinct, your brain was buzzed from the the eight ball of devil’s dandruff you scored from some hunts point homie.

“fish scale,” he had assured you, as though it made a difference. all those youngbloods swore they were scarface. fuck the friendly skies, ‘cause you was higher than eddie palmieri hanging at casa amadeo record shop bragging about being the baddest piano player in the barrio. sweat rolled down your face like you had stuck it in a oven or something.

besides yourself, no one watching that building burn knew that there was a dead woman on the top floor lying next to a pissy mattress, her messy haired head cracked like the plaster on an old bedroom ceiling.

chick’s name was lisa hernadez, and once upon a time baby girl had been a great beauty with a big booty and supple breasts. still, that was years before the broad had become a full blown crack ho, wandering the streets of the boogie down looking to make her loot by any means necessary no matter how low down.

back in the day, when both of ya’ll had lived in that red bricked apartment building (her fam lived on the fifth floor, while you were one flight down) you had lusted after sweet lisa since you was teenager who stared at the ceiling while pulling your pecker.

eyes closed, your nasty daydreams were like private porn movies continually running on a loop in your mind. in that home-made triple-xxx flick in your head, you rubbed lisa’s perky nipples through sheer tube-tops, sucked the dirty toes that had been walking the block in red jellies and licked her hairy snatch as she screamed your name.

of course, in the real world, she barely knew that you were alive, so you thought of tonight payback for all those times she had mocked you, laughed in your face and made snide remarks behind your back. “whose laughing now, bitch” you thought to yourself, trying not to laugh aloud.

welcome to spic heaven: clearly you remembered the days of growing-up on that broke down block of vacant lots, drunken domino players and one storefront church. despite the sweet salsa songs your mother used to hum in the mornings, you never saw any pretty flowers blooming through the cracked sidewalks. unless, of course, they had mutated into dog shit, broken bottles, trash heaps and empty heroin bags.

back when you were a small school boy with chubby cheeks and sorrowful eyes, your mother was your entire world. every friday evening, after leaving her gig at the martin luther king health center, she stopped-off at the cluttered botanica tu mundo up the street. gently parting the colorful floral curtains in front of your living-room window, you patiently waited for her to sluggishly stroll down the block.

you looked at the shattered souls gathered on the stoop across the street, boisterous boys congregated around a chalk drawn skellzie board; a few feet away from jose’s luncheonette, a couple of strong armed teens dressed in two-tone sweaters and tight black pants played congas while a wino ex-boxer drunkenly danced wildly and sang out of tune.

minutes later you spotted your mommi slowly walking pass dented garbage cans, carrying a heavy shopping bag. it usually took her at ten minutes to tiredly scale the dirty marble stairs to your fourth-floor apartment.

after achingly removing her white nurse shoes, she poured herself a healthy taste of dark rum and flopped on the plastic covered couch. after taking a few gulps, she shared splendid stories about her homeland of puerto rico. with peppermint scented breath, her remembrances of the island were filled with dusty roads and white sand beaches, mystic sunsets and flying cockroaches.

from those tales you conjured images of wide-hipped aunts you had never seen and divine music you had never heard.

“tell me about poppi,” you begged after she had downed a few glasses of the potent rum.

“oh, he was such handsome man with his grey eyes and curly hair,” she swooned. a fisherman, he had drowned seven weeks before you were born. while you secretly hated him for dying, you never tired of your mother’s verbal snap-shots of their short life together: “it was olokun,” she wept, referring the deity of the sea in santeria. with frail fingers she crushed your small head into her full bosom and wept. “olokrun took your poppi away from us.”

in the corner of the white walled living-room, below a cheaply framed picture of j.f.k., mommi had constructed an altar. there was a small color photograph of your father lying atop the red and white satin cloth that covered the altar; there was that plaster statue of st. jude, lit white candles, fresh flowers, an apple, an upside down glass of water supported on a white dish and a jar full of coins. with your father’s spirit and the santeria gods as her constant companions, it was not uncommon for mom dukes to awaken after midnight to pray that he was at peace.

washing-up in lukewarm water the following morning, you glanced into the sparkling bathroom mirror, slowly searching for a resemblance with the man in the picture. when you were about eight, you noticed that the two of you shared the same haunted grey eyes. at least that explained why your mother never looked into your peepers when she spoke to you. hell, she just couldn’t stand seeing your father's eyes in you.

because of your poppi’s drowning, your mother feared losing you to “d’evil streets” outside your windows. with those beatbox boys blasting grandmaster flash tapes and nasty domincan girls shaking their bubble butts, to your moms, those bario blocks were wilder than the waves that had swept away husband.

once a month she performed a despojos ceremony, gently beating you with whatever herbs the botanica oracle suggested would frighten away evil spirits. she even placed a string of multicolored prayer beads around your neck to protect you from the demons that lurked in the shadows.

as you got older, she slipped deeper into a netherworld of religion and rum. speaking in tongues, she hung crucifixes throughout the apartment and sprinkled the corners with aqua floria. over the plastic slip covered couch hung a picture of jesus that for some reason scared you. affixed to the cross, blood dripped from his hands and feet.

one night when you were nine, your father approached you in a dream: visions of his sun blackened body lying on the white sands of a beach. there were piercing holes where his eyes should have been. with webbed feet and gills like a fish, he stood-up and approached. his hands were cold and slimy when he touched your fat face.

that rainy morning, you woke-up screaming.

outside of your hollowed home, you were a paradox: gang member and alter-boy, cheeba smoker and teacher’s pet, wild in the streets and smart in the class-room. you hung tough with a clique of kids who called themselves el barrio angels.

an everchanging crew that had been around since the days of the young lords, they had originally planned to be an off-shoot of the radical group. but, by the time you got down with them in the summer of ‘77, the notorious season of the infamous blackout that bought new york to its knees, the el barrio angels dappled in petty crimes that included selling weed, boosting clothes and robbing number taking bodegas.

by ‘79 ya’ll had become infamous in the hood. it was your best friend fast eddie calderon who had put you down with the crew. Money grip had got his nickname because he could out run any mick cop in the precinct,

skinny ass calderon, with his greasy hair and raggedly jeans, had been your homeboy since the two of you were no bigger than fightin’ cocks. after his parents had died in a car crash, he lived with his older sister in the projects. at first glance he didn't appear to the brightest star in the sky, but the boy was no dummy.

"if you look stupid then people don't expect much from ya," he declared. "that way you can get away with more shit with less consequences." although he was only two years older than you, calderon schooled your punk ass in the ways of the street. “we be like brothers from different mothers,” he fondly said.

the meeting spot for the el barrio angels was a decaying tenement a few blocks from the cross bronx expressway. a once stunning structure had been contemned years ago. the once exquisite marble floors, with their faded art deco designs, were chipped and soiled, and the broken windows looked like the eyes of a dead man. the angels transformed the apartment on the third floor of a crumbling building into a clubhouse. somehow the gang’s leader had managed to install lights, an old pool-table, a stained cloth couch and a few tattered chairs. a beat-up eight-track played a constant stream of barretto and bataan. in the dimly lit room there was also a old safe with a broken door where the angels stored bags of weed and stolen loot.

whenever ya’ll went out, the wild stray german shepherd ya’ll named blood was kept inside the room. the canine’s constant barking kept the junkies far away. “blood would rip out their throats and eat ‘em hop heads like hamburger,” calderon laughed petting the dog. “them junkie motherfuckers know better than to fuck around over here.”

indeed, the only thing that disgusted you about the building were all those noddin’ junkies shooting up, pissing, shitting, fucking and dying in the halls. a trio of nappy haired colored dudes dressed in old vietnam jackets and oily jeans sold five dollar packs of p-funk from a first floor apartment, and throughout the rest of the building.

one dreary twilight in the summer of ‘79 you and calderon was just chillin’ in the club house puffing budda bless. like the villian twins you wanted to be, both ya’ll was dressed in your regular el barrio angels uniform of backwards black baseball caps, black pro-keds, white tube socks and black polyester pants.

outside the window, as the sun slowly changed colors from white glare to muted orange, the racket of a rowdy block party ricocheted off of the rickety structures. you just knew that kool herc was in the house.

later that night, there was a surprise raid by corrupt cops on the gang's chill-out spot. the boogaloo music had been so loud that none of the crew had heard those hard heeled police footsteps as they crept up the stairs. guns drawn and popping shit, the blue boys barged into the room.

scared to death when those pigs threatened to stomp anyone who squealed, you knew it was time to jet. in your eyes five-o were just a bunch of pussys with power and guns, flexing their muscles against a roomful of teenagers.

one chalky faced cop swung open the rusty safe door, and began stuffing all the loot and drugs into his pockets. with coffee and cigarette stained teeth, the pig laughed.

there was mayhem in the room as you and fast eddie scattered out of the window and scurried up a rusty fire-escape in beat-up pro-keds. once you reached the roof-top, both of you attempting to leap to the neighboring building.

fuckin’ eddie didn't make it though, falling to his death in the darkness.

though terrified, somehow you made it back to your apartment without a scratch. it was then, lying on the bed still in scared shirtless, but wiping away the sweat and tears, that you decided that you wanted to be a cop instead of a criminal.

it was not about knowing right from wrong, but about who had the supremacy in that police state. you’ve noticed how the fuzz swaggered through the hood with a sense of self-importance; you saw how they never paid for their food in restaurants; you heard stories from the other el barrio angels how the pigs are always ripping-off the local drug dealers, stealing the stash and keeping their cash.

“that’s gonna be my hustle,” you mumbled, wiping tears away with a tissue. in the next room your mommi slept, unaware of your revelation. “i’m going to be a cop.”

ten years later the decade has changed, but the barrio was still the same. or maybe worse. still, on that weary winter morning that you graduated from the police academy, your mother was so proud.

after taking her home to her new spot in riverdale, you hooked-up with a few other friends from the academy for what was supposed to be an innocent celebration in the old hood. in the city's liberal attempt to recruit former homeboys to police their own, thinking they will be able to relate better to the beamed-up crackheads and wild cowboy drug dealers, this was going to be your beat.

crack had worked a dark mojo on that hood. shit, niggas flipped for that rock cocaine. after it first hit the streets in the early ‘80s, the bronx barrios had become a surreal circus of ruthless addition and scary monsters who crawled in the night.

you looked at the new jack street dealers with their snarling pitbulls and exquisite foreign cars, and their wealth excited you. hell, you knew that soon you would be sharing in the spoils of the losing war on drugs.

that night, along with three of your fellow graduates, you boogied over to carlito’s pub, an old school bar that had been in the hood since you were a kid. the jukebox blared old salsa as though hip-hop had never been created. after hooking-up with your drug dealing homie in the bathroom, you began sniffing the pure coke and downing shots of barcardi as though tomorrow would never come.

“drinks for my friends,” you screamed as your mind slowly unraveled like a spool of thread. next thing you realized you are alone in the streets, wandering down the block in search of a piece of pussy gone astray.

the trick was to find one of those rock smoking hoes who knew how to blow like miles davis. it was then that you saw lisa, her skin smoother than black ice as ice. like other lost ladies, she had become as ruined as the hood itself.

“rock star, bitch,” you mumbled. “i wonder who broke you down. used to be too good for a look at ya.”

dressed in dirty jeans, worn nike’s and a ratty sweater, you gave her two twenty-dollar bills to buy a few vials of rock before she took you to the apartment building where you used to live when you was a kid.

the block was swarming with illegal business. you walked into the dark building, and heard mumbling voices coming from beneath the steps. most of the creepy apartments appeared to be crack spots, but you were not nervous. the fifth-floor apartment used to belong to her mother, who moved back to p.r. the year before. you can remember coming to a birthday party here when lisa turned ten, and the apartment was immaculate as the virgin mary. but that was so long ago. now the flat was a wreak, the sticky floors littered with old beer bottles and used condom packages; there were chink take-out boxes and chicken wing bones; there are dirty clothes all over the floor and jacked-up mattress in the middle of the living-room. there is an unholy stench that burns your nose hairs. there were dirty sheets covering the windows.

after lighting a few candles, lisa invited you over to the stained mattress. you still had coke left, so while she smoked those stinky rocks, you took a few sniffs. lisa chattered non-stop, and what little you caught of her conversation had to do with the baby her mother stole from her. another innocent child born a junkie, but now she was gone.

you didn't give a shit about this mess she was yapping, you just wanted your dick sucked so you could break out. blaring rap songs (eric b. & rakim, big daddy kane) crashed through the closed window like an urban rhythm soundtrack.

touching her bony leg, she told you to wait until she has smoked another rock. she is jumpy and nervous, but after sucking that glass dick lisa would be just fine, at least for five minutes.

you lay down, imagining yourself swimming in the ocean. you could feel lisa unfastening your belt and pants. gently she began licking your balls, sucking and gently gibbling with skill. with your eyes closed, in your mind you saw your father emerging from the sea. except, unlike those dreams from your youth, he doesn't look to be at peace. his eyes look angry and confused.

"be a man," your dead daddy said. "be a fucking man."

minutes passed and soon your vision was shattered by loud cackling laughter. despairingly you opened your eyes and saw that it was lisa laughing though fucked-up teeth.

"i been sucking your dick for twenty minutes and you still ain't hard, poppi," she says. "you been sniffing that shit all night long, now your little dickie won't co-operate."

you felt like a drowning man trying to catch your breath. with these simple words, blood rushed to your head. you could feel the anger building in your chest like a wall as her laughter echoed through that room of horrors as though it were coming through a set of hi-fi speakers.

“you’re going to regret that you raggy bitch,” you screamed, and before you could help yourself you punched lisa in the face. on impact, her mouth shattered as teeth and blood rained to the floor.

for a moment she was dazed, but without warning she leapt on your back and began pulling your hair as her fingernails scratched the back of your neck. "fuckyoufuckyoufuckyou..." she cried and screamed and lost her mind. regaining your balance, you flipped the crazy broad off your back. she looked like a broken doll sprawled on the floor, her skull cracked; you noticed your pants and underwear are still around your ankles.

although lisa had not moved since you flipped her a minute ago, her laughter was still loud in that evil room.

she was unconscious on the floor, but still you were afraid. suppose she filed a police report at the same precinct where you were to report to work in the morning.

it would be your rookie word against a crack-head, but who needed the grief; more than likely she would get one of the housing project posse-boys who populated the block to pop your ass on the sneak tip.

pulling up your pants, you buckled your belt and stared into lisa's damaged face. shit, she had bought it on herself, you reasoned. who told the bitch it was cool to laugh at the police.

slipping your dirty hand into your pocket, you felt a pack of newports. you lit one, sucking on the filter like it was a pacifier. lost in thought for a moment, you decided to set the entire pack of matchs aflame, tossing the lit matches into a pile of yellow newspaper next to the stained mattress.

flames scaled the cheap plastered walls lined with rotting wood, you could feel the heat on your body and sweat on your brow. as the fire begans to spread you could smell lisa's burning flesh. feeling no remorse as you dashed out of the door and down the five flights.

the next day, when you reported to the precient for your first tour working the four to midnight shift, you would hear the story of some crazy crack head who burned down a building doing stupid crack head shit. your fellow boys in blue would make crude crack jokes and you will laugh, showing them you are down with the program. fuck that serpico shit, you was down.

exiting the burning building, the sidewalk was alive with the jumping jive of spectators who now had something to do with their time instead of sitting on the stoop or shooting dice. cornerboys gathered screamed “meda meda” as though the world was coming to an end. but for you, it had only just begun.

angrily you glanced up at the building. it reminded of that flick the towering inferno. in your stoned mind, the fire looked like a crimson animal trying to escape from the confines of its bronx zoo cage.

watching that sizzling disaster of your own creation, exhilaration surged through your body like electricity. as the blaze grew even more intense, your little dickie finally got hard.

First published in Hood 2 Hood edited by Shannon Holmes

story copyright (C) Michael A. Gonzales, 2010
photos copyrighted by their owners

Futher Reading:

Iced by Ray Shell (Penguin Books, 1993)
An underrated novel about crack addition that director Lee Daniels once considered making into a film. This book is a masterpiece.

Labels: , , , , ,