Karen Quinones Miller’s provocatively titled An Angry-Ass Black Woman (subtitle: “A Novel Based on True Life—Her Life”), published by Simon & Schuster imprint Karen Hunter Books, hit bookstores on Oct. 2, but she'll get the cover treatment in this week's PW, alongside fellow novelist Solomon Jones. Here, we begin the initial excerpt of the book's first chapter for your reading pleasure, and be sure to check out its trailer as well.
Parts Two and Three are on deck for Tuesday and Wednesday.
CHAPTER ONE, Excerpt One
Me and my twin sister, Kitty, were born in Harlem in 1958, and we lived in the basement of an apartment building on the corner of 117th Street and Seventh. Just for the record, Kitty’s name is Kathleen, but my parents nicknamed her Kitty. My name is Karen, but they nicknamed me Ke-Ke. That’s pronounced kay-kay, not kee-kee. I hate when people call me Kee-Kee.
Actually, we was born in Flower Fifth Avenue Hospital—I think that was on Fifth Avenue near 100th Street. It ain’t there anymore, but that’s where we was born. Mom took us home to the basement when we was five days old, then had to take me back to the hospital when I was a month old because I caught pneumonia. I was lucky. A kid from another family that lived in the same basement before us had two fingers bit off by rats.
The basement we lived in had cold concrete walls, and even colder concrete floors—so cold that even when you were wearing shoes it felt like you were walking barefoot in the snow. We didn’t have money for rugs, so my mother used to put sheets and blankets down on the floor to give us some protection, but it didn’t help much. The basement was freezing. I guess because the rats had fur coats they ain’t care.
I was almost a year old when we graduated from the basement to a second-floor, two-bedroom apartment in the same building. We didn’t live with rats anymore, but damn if we ain’t have mice, and of course, roaches. Hell, everyone in Harlem seemed to have roaches. No matter how clean you kept your house, you had roaches. It was one of the things you got so used to you didn’t even notice after awhile.
My mom was collecting welfare, and also working as a bookkeeper off the books at a dinky real estate office on 116th Street. It wasn’t that she was trying to get over on the government, but she had four kids to feed—my older brother, David; me and Kitty; and my younger brother, Joseph, who we called Joe T.—and welfare ain’t give nobody enough money to survive in those days.
God knows my dad wasn’t much help. Joe-Joe was a sweet guy and a fucking wimp. He was a ninth-grade dropout with an I.Q. of 215, and he became a raving lunatic because of it. He was Puerto Rican, from a poor family who lived in Spanish Harlem when Spanish Harlem was still Spanish Harlem. Fifth Avenue was the boundary back then between black and Spanish. Joe-Joe lived on 116th between Fifth and Madison (the Spanish Harlem side of Fifth) and my mom lived on 115th between Fifth and Lenox (the Black Harlem side of Fifth). Somehow they hooked up and he got my moms pregnant when he was twenty-five, and in those days, you got someone pregnant you’d better get married. Especially since Grandma had a shotgun she wasn’t afraid to use.
Soon my dad was twenty-nine years old with four children, and couldn’t get a job but as a window washer. That 215 I.Q. musta eaten him up when he was hanging outside high-rise windows with nothing but a belt holding him up.
He never complained, though, and he loved us kids and loved taking care of us. He became a big doper, using whatever kind of drugs he could find. The big joke was when my dad came to your house you couldn’t let him use the bathroom because he’d clean out your medicine cabinet. Joe-Joe would swipe the cold medicine, the aspirin, and even the mouthwash, poor guy. Yeah, they might call it self-medicating these days, but back then it was just called doping like a muthafucka.
Joe-Joe wasn’t a real big guy, only about five foot eight, but he was really muscular, so muscular he didn’t have to walk around in a T-shirt for people to notice. But there was nothing intimidating about him because he always had this real dreamy smile on his face, even when he wasn’t high. And he was the sweetest and most caring man in the world. He was the type of person who would walk down the street and say hi to everyone he passed. And if he saw someone who looked a little down he’d stop and talk to them, even if they were total strangers, to make sure they was okay.
Everyone in the neighborhood loved Joe-Joe. Everyone who ever met him did. But he was just crazy. Sometimes he’d be sitting on the stoop reading a newspaper and all of a sudden he’d get up, walk to the middle of the traffic-filled street, and start reading the funnies out loud to the cars zooming by. “Beetle Bailey” seemed to be his favorite, because he could never get through it without doubling over with laughter. Then he’d get all serious again when he read “Rex Morgan.” It was so weird for me to see him standing there on the yellow line reading from the newspaper, me being too young to cross the street to persuade him to come in the house. After he read the funnies, then he’d start reading the editorials and then the local and national news. If we’d lived back in the 1700s when the city had a town crier who walked around ringing a bell and letting people know what was going on in the world, Joe-Joe would have a guaranteed job. But it was the early 1960s, and people had radio and television, so they ain’t need to get their news from the neighborhood nut.
Most of the cops in the neighborhood knew him and pretty much left him alone, and some were even nice enough to direct traffic so that none of the cars passed too close to him. But every now and then there’d be a new cop on the beat and all hell would bust loose. Joe-Joe would ignore the new cops when they came up and told him to get out the street, and when they tried to take his arm and lead him back to the sidewalk Joe-Joe would simply walk away. But if they kept tugging, or got rough, Joe-Joe would fold the newspaper into quarters or eighths, stick it into his belt, and punch the cop in the chest. Then they’d be rolling around in the street. Inevitably, Joe-Joe would wind up hauled off to jail, and then off to
the nut house.
Anyway, he was in and out of the loony bin since I was five. So while he sat around in a nice, clean hospital, getting three square meals and sleeping in a warm bed while telling people how bad he felt, my mom was left to raise four children on her own.
Yeah, I come from a long line of Angry-Ass Black Women.
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.
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.
Gabriel García Márquez, 1927-2014
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