CHAPTER ONE, Excerpt Two
Being the enterprising woman that all Angry-Ass Black Women with children are, Mom did make the best of the situation. In those days, nut houses like Bellevue had this thing where if you brought a crazy person in off the street they’d give you five bucks. And back in the early sixties you could buy a family of five almost a week’s worth of dinners for five dollars. I mean, shit, a quart of milk only cost twenty-five cents back then, a pound of potatoes was, like, eight cents, and a pound of ground beef was only fifty-nine cents. So whenever we got real broke, my moms would call my father at the hospital and tell him to break out so she could turn him back in and get five dollars.
Growing up in Harlem was the shit. It really was. The early sixties was after the white folks stopped coming around because of the riots, and before the black folks started talking about black power. But I gotta tell you, all the bullshit I hear about people being poor when they was kids but not knowing it, is just that. Bullshit. Hell yeah, we knew we were poor, and everyone else in the neighborhood knew they were poor, too.
Like I said, I lived on 117th Street, between Lenox and Seventh Avenues. They call them Marcus Garvey and Adam Clayton Powell, Jr. Boulevards now, but for old-time New Yorkers like me, it’s always gonna be Lenox and Seventh.
I lived on the same side of the street as Graham Court, that grand old building on Seventh Avenue that took up part of 116th and 117th Streets. All the rich folks lived at Graham Court. And there was a big old fence around it, which I just knew was there to keep us poor folks out. Didn’t matter. We knew how to scale fences. We’d climb the fence all the time to play hide-and-seek. See, Graham Court was a big old-ass complex, and actually had four buildings inside that fence. I bet in the real old days they had doormen at each building, but by the time I was up and playing over there, there weren’t no doormen. They had intercoms, though, and you could just keep ringing bells until someone let you in.
So when someone became “it” and had to count to a hundred, all of us other kids would scale the fence and start ringing bells to get in one of the buildings. Inside was just beautiful. They had real brass doorknobs and door trimmings and there was even a chandelier in the lobby. The stairs were made of marble, and they had the old-fashioned elevators where you had to open the door and then open a gate to get inside. Oh man, Graham Court was the shit. When I used to dream of being rich I would think about having an apartment at Graham Court. But it seemed like an impossible dream. Especially when hide-and-seek was over and we’d have to go back to our homes filled with mice and roaches. I don’t care how clean your mom kept the apartment you had mice and roaches, and like I said, when we lived in the basement we had out and out rats. I remember my mom bought a cat ’cause she thought it would scare the rats, but one day we woke up and the cat was dead—a rat had bitten the shit out of it.
Most of the buildings on the block were five-story walk-ups, but there were also a couple of brownstones. They were built, like, in the 1900s to be townhouses for white folks, but after blacks took over Harlem most of them were turned into rooming houses. Everybody was finding a way to make ends meet.
I remember there was one kid who moved on the block when I was about five years old. A real uppity kid who believed his parents when they told him he was too good to be playing with us. I think his father used to be a butler or something for some rich old white man in Long Island, and when the rich old man died his grown-up kids swept in and swept the old faithful butler out on his ass, and down to Harlem without a job.
Anyway, we used to call the uppity kid Poindexter, because his nose was always stuck in a book, and his head stuck up his ass. Don’t get me wrong, we ain’t hold the fact that he liked to read against him. At least, I didn’t. Maybe because both my mom and Joe-Joe were such prolific readers, I started reading real early myself. I had moved past the illustrated fairy tales long before I was five and attending kindergarten, and was already tackling books on the fourth-grade level like Snowbound with Betsey and The Black Stallion. Yeah, I loved to read, so Poindexter’s nose in the book didn’t bother me, but the fact that if one of the kids tried to talk to him he’d look at us as if we were dirt and scurry off without saying anything back did bother the shit out of me. Bothered the shit out of all the kids on 117th Street. I mean, Poindexter actually believed the crap his parents were telling him about him being too good to associate with riff-raff like us. And on top of that, he was scared of us kids although he tried to hide it at first. But see, kids in Harlem can smell fear like a shark can smell blood. Brucie, who lived up on the fourth floor of my building, was the first one to corner the fool.
The acclaimed author tells her own story in this drama-filled novel set in her gritty Harlem hometown. Get a taste of it via the debut of three excerpts of its first chapter.
Newshounds-turned-novelists Solomon Jones and Karen Quinones Miller encompass the light and darkness of life in the city. Days before their joint book-signing and reading at the Free Library on Nov. 1, Miller and Jones sat down to talk to each other about their lives, their books and the amazing journeys that shaped two of Philadelphia’s most distinctive storytelling voices.
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