Easter Sunday, 1987
Having given up meaningless relationships for Lent, forty days later I was still alone. Rolling over in an empty bed, wiping sleep from my eyes, I rose early on Easter morning. Listening to the children upstairs noisily preparing for church, I groaned loudly as the homesick blues binged in my heart.
Deciding to ride the iron horse uptown to spend the Sunday afternoon with my mom, I boarded the uptown local at 14th Street. Treated to a colorful fashion show as screaming children and too cool teens strutted onto the subway freshly dipped in their new Easter clothes.
Dressed in faded jeans, black t-shirt, a light jacket and sneakers, I bought some wilting purple tulips from a short, smiling immigrant, playing guitar. Exited the train at 145th Street and Broadway, I held tightly to the flowers.
Three years had passed since I spent an Easter afternoon hanging out at mom’s bar the Oasis. Located three blocks from the train station, she had worked behind the bar at the O since I was a boy. Yet, even on that overcast day celebrating the resurrection of Christ, nothing was sacred on those uptown streets where the crack plague was in full effect.
Having swooped down on the citizens above 110th Street a few years back like something out of Camus, crack wreaked havoc on the once decent neighborhood where I grew up. The same streets where I once popped wheelies on a beat-up Ross Apollo five-speed bike and perfected graff-bombing skills down the hill on Riverside Drive had become a war zone.
Whenever I saw a toothless crack head obliviously tottering onto the train smelling like piss and bad decisions, I remembered that bleak night in the winter of ’84 when my best friend Smokey Miller showed-off a few red-topped plastic tubes containing beige chips of cooked coke.
“Got the package from a Dominican dude down the block,” he bragged, as though there weren’t a million Dominican dudes living on our street. “This shit is going to make me rich.” Although we laughed about his name “Smokey” being perfect for a crack dealer, the end result of the latest get-high-on-the-lives-of- folks-in-our-hood wasn’t quite so funny.
As the crack casualties multiplied daily, it became obvious that President Reagan’s “war on drugs” was the real joke. While politicians and pop stars smiled for television cameras, begging kids to, “Just say no,” the streets of the New York City ghettos overflowed with illegal guns and cheap cocaine.
Seemingly overnight, the once expensive white powder that was a favorite of both Sigmund Freud and Sly Stone, became as inexpensive as aspirin. In ramshackle rooms throughout the city, crack was cooked up by new jack chefs and distributed like free meals on Thanksgiving, as drug dealers boom blasted nine millimeters at all hours of the day and night, blighting neighborhoods one block at a time.
Whereas old-school drug dealers were shady dudes operating in the shadows, the new jack peddlers weren’t afraid of the police. Strapped with powerful guns, the boys brazenly sold rock while chilling on their tenement stoops. For once, the cops were as vulnerable as the victims as they patrolled the dimly lit streets of the city with their outdated firearms.
Stray bullets from random shootouts slaughtered children strolling home from school, while the living dead could be seen everywhere. With their mad eyes and unwashed faces, they lurked in front of dilapidated buildings hawking stolen stereos and 8-track players; they snatched gold chains from young women standing on crumbling subway platforms and solicited strangers with offers of oral sex in public places.
“Suck your dick for five dollars, baby,” one chick said as I strolled down the filthy sidewalk towards the Oasis. Talking out the side of her mouth like a stroke victim, I stared at the damaged crack whore sloughing in front of me. It took a few moments to realize that she was someone I once knew many years ago when she was a press ‘n’ curl teenager living next door.
Brenda Coleman, I thought. Though I don’t think she recognized me, there was a strange flicker of familiarity in her vacant brown eyes. In those distant days of our youth, Brenda only sucked lollipops from the Blue Funk Candy Shop after school, ambling down Broadway with her cute girl crew, giggling in that way that innocent schoolgirls do.
“Mister, did you hear what I said?” Acidy bile bubbled in the back of my throat. “Maybe next time,” I quickly replied, stepping into the doorway of the O.
After giving mom a big hug and kiss, she stuck her dying flowers in a beer pitcher filled with tap water. Although there were a few patrons in the bar, the only one I knew personally was the retired pimp Red Jackson. Dressed in a stunning black suit, he looked like a million and one bucks. On the bar, the overflowing ashtray was cluttered with Chesterfield cigarette butts.
“Glad you got a chance to come uptown and see the old folks today,” he said, flicking ashes as he shook my hand. Red had been sitting in the same spot near the front window for over twenty years. “Don’t see you much since you moved so far away.” It always made me laugh how some folks acted like anything outside of their small community were another country.
“Personally, I’m glad he ain’t around here much,” mom blurted. Standing behind the bar, she poured me a draft beer and shook her head in disgust as an old James Brown jam blared from the jukebox. “Folks around here done lost their minds. Shootouts in the middle of the day, dying over dumbness. I’ve been looking out this window for twenty years, and I’ve never seen stuff that made people act so crazy. It’s a damn shame.”
“At least heroin made them nod the fuck out,” Red Jackson said. “But that crack shit keeps them wide-eyed and crazy. Glad I retired from the game when I did, because that shit is kicking hoes in the ass worse than any pimp ever did.”
The three of us roared with laughter. “The only pimps on these streets now are crack heads and their crack head girlfriends,” I said, and Red slapped me five. “You can say that again, youngblood,” he agreed.
“You ain’t messing with that stuff, are you?” mom asked, staring into my eyes looking for lies. Ever since finding a sack of weed in my pants pockets when I was a senior at Rice High, she suspected I had the fiend gene. Before I finally moved out, she randomly searched and sniffed through my belongings like a new breed of drug dog.
Of course, I couldn’t confess that I had tried crack once, but the high was too much to handle. Laid up in a ravaged $35.00-for-four-hours hotel room with some ragamuffin chick I had picked-up at the Hide-A-Way, she had pulled a glass pipe from her purse and prepared her blast.
“I don’t smoke all the time, but it does relax me,” she said, stuffing the stem with a sticky substance that reminded me of chunks of chalk. With a cheap plastic lighter, baby girl lit the pipe’s tip and fiendishly sucked down the noxious fumes. Her eyes grew wide as though her brain was surprised by the hit.
Not yet a full-fledged rock star, the moniker uptown boys gave to smokers of rock cocaine, she offered to share her stash. “It ain’t going hurt you baby,” she murmured, passing me the heated stem. “In fact, it might be the best thing you ever had.”
Yet, from that first blast, I knew I had made a mistake. Nerve-shattering, grotesque thoughts spooked my fragile mind as I closed my eyes. Feeling as though I’d climbed aboard a screaming rollercoaster whooshing downwards at five hundred mph, my heartbeat became faster and faster and faster, as I detected whispered death threats coming from behind the crumbling wall.
Black spiders scrambled across the dirty floor. Swinging from the naked light bulb, the Virgin Mary squatted from above, pissing on my head. From the broken door of the closet, headless rats the size of cats peeped from the broken closet door and my chest was tighter than Mike Tyson’s fist.
Gasping for air as drool rolled down my chin, my eyes slowly began to focus and I crashed like a lead balloon. Although the frightening ordeal felt like hours, only twenty minutes had passed.
Whatever it was about crack that got people hooked after the first few puffs had completely backfired on me. “Come on ma,” I replied finally, as though her question was straight-up stupid. “Just because I puff weed don’t mean I’m riding every damn drug merry-go-round in town. You know me better than that.”
Refilling the chilled mug with Bud, she eyed me suspiciously. I quickly sipped the brew before the rising foam spilled onto the bar. After rinsing a few glasses, mom wiped down the bar with a damp rag.
“All I’m saying is, you never know who is doing what these days,” she sighed. “Just look at Mama Turner’s little girl, Brenda. She was a beautiful girl once. Took classes at City College, worked at a good office downtown and everything. Now look at her, just another junkie giving these nasty men blowjobs for five dollars.”
Brenda Coleman had been my first stone-cold crush when I was eight years old. Her dark skin was the color of chocolate sprinkles and her breath just as sweet. On the nights Mama Turner cared for me until my own mom got home from work, I gazed lovingly at my “future wife” through her bedroom keyhole as she slow danced in front of the mirror in her sheer black brassiere and panties as Marvin Gaye and Tammi Terrell’s “If This World Were Mine” blared.
Peeping through the keyhole, her pink girly bedroom was a shrine to the Motown macks. While most girls her age swooned over the jumping jive of The Jackson Five, this little bitty pretty one desired the aural loving of real men like David Ruffin, Smokey Robinson and Marvin Gaye. Countless pictures of her idols were carefully trimmed from the glossy pages of Ebony, Sepia and Jet and taped to the walls.
“What you doing, boy?” Mama Turner screamed, her down-South Carolina twang ringing throughout the apartment like a big cowbell. A big-boned woman who was constantly cooking, she had managed to keep her country ways in the big city. “Leave that girl be and come help me clean these collards.”
In the summer months, Brenda’s flawless features and angelic Afro stirred my prematurely raging hormones. Lustfully, I stared as she roared down the hill, riding on the rear of her boyfriend’s loud mini-bike. In tight blue jeans, her supple booty stuck out like a soft pillow.
“Stop following me, David,” she screamed on those days that I tried to trail her. Dressed in tight white tube-tops, her brown nipples were as radiant as the sun; the sight of her pretty toes squeezed into brightly colored high-heeled sandals gave me my first hard-on. A few nights later, the Brenda Coleman pinup floating through my mind induced a sticky icky wet dream. My first, I awoke scared to death, but pleasantly satisfied.
“Jesus, mom, since when has ‘blowjob’ been part of your vocabulary?” I asked, stifling a laugh.
“Well, it’s the truth isn’t it? Don’t act like you’re so innocent, mister. And, don’t use the Lord’s name in vain, especially on Easter. I got eyes, I see. Your so-called friend Smokey is the one selling that poor girl that poison. Both of you boys used to love that girl, now you just ignore her and your best friend is trying to kill her.”
“Word on the street is that girl will crawl across shattered glass just to get a blast off the pipe,” Red sniffled, rubbing his broad nose. Although he was a notorious coke tooter, the street hierarchy of drug culture considered crack heads the lowest addicts on the junkie totem pole.
“I had a crush on that freak a million years ago, ma,” I countered. “And what Smokey does is Smokey’s business. I don’t counsel nor do I take confessions. I don’t even live in the neighborhood anymore.”
“What Smokey and Brenda both do to this neighborhood is everybody’s business,” she chided. “I don’t know what’s gotten into you, David. Did I raise you to be like this? If you ask me, seeing her pretty daughter turn into a junkie is what killed Mama Turner in the first place.”
“Don’t forget the stomach cancer and her bad heart,” I replied. Mom snapped me with the dishrag as though I were a disgusting roach that had just crawled across her bar.
“Don’t speak ill of the dead, boy.” Mom slapped me without moving her hands, her word stinging. “Mama Turner was a good woman,” she screamed, no longer in a joking mood. “That woman cared for you many nights like you were her own child. Some weeks she refused to take even one cent for babysitting your bad ass. Always said, ‘We gots to look out for each other.’ Well, who was looking out for her?”
“So, what do you want me to do about all that?” Mom looked at me as though I were a stranger, as though it were impossible for this crude, rude person sitting in front of her to be her child.
“I’m sure with you kids, being indifferent is cool, but would it kill you to care?”
It was the spring of ’74 and on the first day when Quincy Jones’ “Body Heat” came out, Brenda rushed to Mr. Freddy’s Record Shack a few blocks away. Weeks before its release, whenever WWRL played the album cut, “If I Ever Lose This Heaven,” she got a faraway look in her eye. In her wanting to be grown fifteen-year-old heart, Brenda believed that singer Leon Ware was crooning to her, for her and about her.
That same year, she and Mama Turner was also planning Brenda’s sweet sixteen festivities, which was going to be in July. From her lavish lavender gown with matching mules to the colorful decorations that would transform their massive living room into a faux Savoy Manor to the bombastic grooves her boyfriend Mark would play on his newfangled Hi-fi, Brenda’s party was to be the ghetto gala of the season.
The day before the party Mama Turner steadily prepared a vast southern spread that included fried chicken, chitlings, potato salad, corn bread, deviled eggs and honeyed ham. “We’ve invited so many people, I’m not even sure if everybody will fit,” worried Mama Turner. “But at least won’t nobody be hungry.”
She stood erect in the sweltering kitchen with a red bandanna tied around her hair. There was no sweat on Mama Turner’s round face. “When you done cooked in as many kitchens as my family, the heat don’t bother ya none,” she somberly reflected. Helping her, mom’s yellow face looked as though she had just stepped out of a sauna.
“You a better woman than me, Mama Turner,” mom said, sticking her head out of the first floor window for air. Dressed in black hi-top Pro-Keds and worn jeans, I busied myself trimming varicolored Cray paper streamers to hang from the ceiling.
The night of the party, Brenda looked like an inner-city princess who’d just stepped out of an Ernie Barnes painting. Stereo music blasted as mini-skirted girls danced beneath the white light and Dashikis-wearing dudes sat on the couch as though stuck to the sticky plastic slipcovers.
Brenda’s drunken Uncle Butter bumped butts with his niece’s best friend Joy. “No fools, no fun,” he screamed, spilling his drink. Older bros with blood-shot eyes poured cheap gin into the red Kool-Aid punch while the adults played a loud game of spades in the kitchen.
Wearing new Marshmallow shoes and a rainbow hued applejack hat, I tried to reflect Super Fly suaveness. Leaning against the cream-colored wall, my shoulders jerked while my head nodded to the music’s soulful beat.
Like a million moons in the July sky, Mama Turner beamed. “Why you not dancing, David?” she asked. Without answering, I meekly shook my head. “In all my years, I ain’t never seen nobody who could dance so well standing in one spot,” she laughed, walking towards the kitchen. Before rejoining the grownups, I watched as Mama Turner whispered something into Brenda’s ear. The birthday girl grinned.
Moments later, someone switched off the bright ceiling light and turned on the two gaudy lamps on each end table; both glowed with identical blue bulbs. Backlit in the aqua light, Brenda emerged from the shadows of the living room. The sultry scent of her Chanel No. 5 wafted through the humid room as she sauntered across the hardwood floor as though moving in slow motion.
With a voice gentle as a summer breeze, Brenda whispered in my ear, “Would you like to dance, lil lover man?” I tried to stutter a sentence, but nothing came out except balmy breath. Without waiting for an answer, Brenda grabbed my small hand and led me to the dance floor. As though on cue, Mark dropped the stereo’s sharp needle into the deep black grooves of “If I Ever Lose This Heaven.”
The moment the seductive bassline gushed from the speakers, all the couples in the room moaned in harmonized orgasms as they rushed towards floor. Yet, as far as I was concerned, Brenda and I were the only ones in the room. Reaching as far as her budding bosom, Brenda held me close. Although I was awkward, the brown sugar of Brenda’s erotic movements hypnotized me as I sacrificed myself on the sanctified alter of her divine body.
The architecture of her fine figure brought to mind grand monuments and exquisite cathedrals as the voices of the song’s singers Leon Ware, Al Jarreau and Minnie Riperton captured the smooth timbre of tumbling dice rolling across crushed velvet. Placing my small hands on her silk-swathed behind, I fell deeper and deeper into the abyss of desire.
After the dance, Mama Turner ran across the floor holding a Polaroid camera she had bought especially for the party. From somewhere behind the crowd, I heard C.C. and Smokey’s juvenile laughter.
“You two don’t go nowhere until I snap this picture,” she screamed over the music. “Turn on the light, so I can do this right. I want to remember this night forever.” Over a decade later, the flash of the Polaroid dragged me back into reality.
Across the street from The Oasis, the once beautiful Brenda drifted like a ghost beneath a gray street-lamp. For many years the paint-chipped lamppost had doubled as a dead sneaker cemetery with soiled sneakers of various brands, sizes and colors dangling like strange fruit from the top, casting creepy shadows on the concrete.
Mom stared at the lost girl sadly, obviously spending time with her own memories of the person Brenda used to be. Reaching across the bar, I grabbed her moist hand. As the three of us observed Brenda frantically trying to scrap up cash for a few rocks by offering blowjobs to every man who passed through the block, the bar was quiet. Holding back her tears, mom tensely bit her bottom lip.
[BIO]: Michael is a Brooklyn-based writer and journalist.