Tuesday, July 6, 2010

PROSE: A Rhyme from My Childhood, Or: What Sorrow Mars My Grandure

The world is before you and you need not
take it or leave it as it was when you came in
James Baldwin

Growing up primarily in the Deep South, and I believe you cannot get any deeper or any more southern than good ole New Orleans, thinking about the world in terms of power was for me a way of life.

On Clio Street, Erato Street, Second Street, First Street, Saratoga Street, Josephine Street, Gravier Street, I-10 Service Road,  Amelia Street, 
Laferniere Street, St. Ferdinand Drive, the Quarter, Over-the-River,  Back-A-Town and there were Americans of various geographic, linguistic, and religious distinctions, every artificial category—all poor and keenly aware of our condition. And while I am fortunate to have been witness to my family’s hierarchical ascension through the ranks of the impoverished, I believe that we were as poor in the big houses on quiet tree-lined St. Ferdinand Drive as I know we were in the housing projects on Clio Street. I know I was a far cry happier on Clio Street than I ever was on St. Ferdinand Drive. 

In the communities were I grew up, there were people whose presence I could not help but think about intensely. There was Pete who owned PETE’S FOOD STORE and Mr. Burk who owned BURK’S FURNITURE STORE. I mention only two of a host of ordinary, often nameless, hard-working men who operated family-owned businesses in the communities   I lived, along with their wives and children, relatives and neighbors, friends and sponsors. Retail outlets, drug stores and five and dimes all along Canal Street and Rampart Street, they owned. Over on Dryades Street the butcher, the baker, Adam Smith’s brewer, and the nursery rhyme’s candlestick maker eagerly stood in the doorways of their establishments eagerly anticipating the daily exchanges in hard-to-come-by cash for over-priced, low-rate, back-dated goods and services. Fruit stands, insurance companies, and hardware stores open for business at the intersection of the Carrolton Avenue Shopping Center and what would later become the Icons in Black History Boulevard. ‘M talking about every sort of commercial establishment imaginable already in place, already fixed, already already in my communities long before I began to make my way through the world. So you see, I had no concrete reason to question their presence, and yet, I instinctively knew that these men and their wives, children, relatives, neighbors and sponsors were both part of my communities and quiet separate and distinct from those communities.

Now I doubt very seriously whether my conclusion was informed by any rigorous analysis of discrimination based on the holy triad: race, class and sex. Rather it was the pitch and cadence of the mother’s and my grandmother’s voices when they barred us from making purchases from “that” store, or the tremor in my Uncle David’s eyes when he—instead of going himself—sent his daughters and sons to FIORELLA’S FINE FOOD, the RED DOOR, or JERRY’S to put the nights din-din on credit because the paychecks were going be late again this week, or the outright hatred demonstrated toward lousy furniture purchased year after year, season after season. My all-time-favorite was the dinette set. Each screw hitting the linolem, plop, one after another, plop, plop, helped inform me, plop, plop, plop, that Anglo, Andrew, Tony, and Papi were actually strangers. More important, I joined the ranks of the Kazillion Others mouthing one of the institution's oldest mottoes: EXPLOIT ME, DEBASE YOUR FUCKING SELF.

Now, I don’t know if any of you have ever seen the The Book that is used the ghettoes across My America, a truly peculiar and remarkable object old and ragged from the constant turning of its pages, pages containing the names and day-to-day purchases of more than a few people of the communities where I live and once lived. What is really fascinating is how Pete and the others who, no better than him, managed to pass this tradition on to the new storekeepers in the ghettoes across my America. For here in the gloomy morning of the twentieth first century that damned book can still be found in the corner grocery stores. Not quite the multi-lingual hologram of my warped imagination, but an instrument whose Spanish, Arabic, Chinese, French, Hausa, Swahili, and Woolof content is a strong and sobering dose of irony for an English speaking community who had become accustomed to being exploited in Hebrew, Yiddish, Greek,  and Italian. The euphemistic translation taped-up near the cash registers of mature capitalism reads: No Credit. No Ask. Just across Morningside Park in Harlem, Mohammed and his cronies over at the NEW AMERICAN DELI had an even more insidious interpretation on display: No Credit. Don’t Ax, until gentrification did exactly what I told them it would do to them one day. In a dream, which in hindsight it can only be described as a nightmare, a boy, after the reading the insult, asks Mohammed, “how long” only to told be told by an adult behind the check-out counter, “until you people wake up”.

Even now, I can hear my dear Aunt Shirley, even though she is supposed gone somewhere called glory, calling from upstairs: “Valerie go and get two pounds of rice; Pamela pick me up a pack of Viceroy’s on your way back home—and some charms; David, Jr. we need some toilet paper; Frank, Claudia, Emily…Suzanne? And I can remember the unwillingness of my cousins to enter those places, and the humility and rage, innovation and sheer and utter gall that came over them when asked to enter that place, especially when the tally was getting rather long. On those weary go-to-the-store moments, my cousins would lie to their mother and say, “I forgot to go” or tell her that the store was of out the items she requested or simply say, “the store is closed,” when she knew full well that the store was still open. “The news isn’t even on yet,” she would yell into the silence.

Often I sat in on the lie. Often I would volunteer to go because I could always get me a pickle and and a bag of potato chips or some plain M & M’s on the sly, but more so because somehow, even as a child, I was able to sense my relatives’ pain. I knew that the head of my household was fortunate to have the benefit of illusion coupled with the combined resources, resources my dear aunt Shirley lacked, of two good arms and two good legs plus that extra added bonus of a daddy-in-the-house—with his inadvertent fists—that afforded us the opportunity to pretend that our situation was not as dour as my relatives’ situation was. I refused to allow myself to be harangued into thinking that I was any better-off than anyone else, and it was that guilt—why them and not somebody else—and my sensitivity to that guilt that sent me skipping-off to Pete’s, limp-wrist and all, sissyfied, in spite of my mother’s firm instruction, humming my rhyme:

Don’t Go To Pete’s
Pete’s Got Funky Meat!

…that movement stirring in my Uncle David’s eyes—that tremor—touches all of us. The murmur of those darn screws’ sound moves through each and every one of us. And it by such commonplace subtleties: a screw falls, hits the linoleum and rocks itself still; payroll checks delayed by the routine of ideology; P x R x T = sham; cheese sold not by the pound, but by the slice; the force and drive in the utterance of the word “that”—these are the dynamics that create the consequence by which we are charged. I don’t know about you; and I cannot speak for all the others either. But I know that I, along with usually not even a roomful of others, have resolved the share the responsibility of this haunting reality, or at the very least to merely...to merely take the risk of feeling...(didja hear that sound)... quivering, perpetual, pervasive, echoing, and it moves...


Copyright © 1990 by Gregory Christopher Baggett
from the collection, None of the Above