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Authors: Nelson George

Tags: #Non-Fiction

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BOOK: City Kid
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One of the crew was named Gary. He had a radio DJ deep voice, bedroom eyes, and a luxuriously laid-back manner. Every other word out of his mouth seemed to be “groovy,” “outta sight,” or some other sixties slang. He had one of the first Mustangs to hit the streets, a sleek white beauty he drove with his seat pulled back so far it reached his rear tires. I would have wanted to grow up to be Gary, if his boy E.M., aka Eddie Sawyer, wasn't around.
If Gary was cool like Bill Cosby's Scotty on
I Spy
, then Eddie Sawyer was a more chilled-out Sidney Poitier. He drove a light-colored Volkswagen Beetle when that car was new to U.S. streets. As an insurance claims adjuster, Eddie wore dark suits, bright white shirts, and razor-sharp ties, and carried an attaché case filled with papers, expensive pens, and a Polaroid camera. Walking up to 315 Livonia, Eddie looked like he'd just been cast as the sepia 007. I really don't remember Eddie's eyes since, in my memory, day or night, inside or out, they were perpetually covered by green-tinted shades.
If Eddie's demeanor wasn't already cool enough, his selection of women was always incredible. I remember them always being superfine ladies in hot pants, with long black legs; stylish women, either red boned or dark ebony, with bright orange Diana Ross wigs and frosty blue eyeliner. Eddie had custody of his three daughters by an early marriage but, with the aid of his mother, lived a bachelor's life that I envied as a child, and tried unsuccessfully to emulate as a man.
I loved all his women, but none made a bigger impression than Charles. I recall her as a Halle Berry look-alike, with short hair, pretty brown eyes, and skin as smooth as melted butter. She was the first attractive adult woman to tell me I was cute. She'd come over and hug me, and look at me with those brown eyes, and I'd blush bright red. To me Charles was a woman to have, and Eddie was a role model to be inspired by.
Aside from parties, Eddie had two other defining leisure-time activities. One was smoking reefer, as any cool sixties cat of his pedigree would. The other was hunting. In his bedroom dresser drawers he kept a couple of hunting rifles that, on several occasions when Ma wasn't looking, he showed off to me. One day, he promised, when I got bigger, he'd let me go upstate and hunt with him and his friends. It was an invitation I never got a chance to accept.
The cool world of the Afrodisiacs ended one bloody late-sixties night. Apparently Eddie and Charles were high, perhaps off something stronger than reefer, and for some reason Eddie pulled out one of his rifles. A playful struggle ensued. The gun went off. Charles was shot dead. It was an ugly, drug-fueled tragedy. We all cried because of Charles's death, and then cried some more at Eddie's fate. The shooting was ruled an accidental death, not homicide, which was fortunate. What was so sad was that drug possession charges got Eddie sentenced to seven years in an upstate prison.
I was about ten years old when this tragedy occurred. To this day I think that what happened to Charles and Eddie made me leery of drugs. Though I'd develop a taste for beer and various alcoholic beverages over the years, I always indulged with moderation when I wasn't abstaining altogether. As for herb, I'd be a late bloomer, and a nonparticipant when it came to what folks in the sixties called “hard drugs.”
By the time Eddie had been convicted another man had entered my family's life, one who'd be the great love of my mother's life. Stan wasn't the most imposing man I'd ever met. He was coffee colored, with a thick beard, and he was balding prematurely, despite being several years younger than Ma when they hooked up. Unlike the Afrodisiacs posse, Stan wasn't fly. He was an elementary school teacher who Ma met at work, and who, like her, had become an educator to “make a difference in the community,” a quaint sixties notion that bonded them as co-workers and lovers.
Ma's cooler male friends thought Stan was square, but Andrea and I loved the fact he was so solid. From my years in elementary school until I started college, Stan was my mother's boyfriend and the stable male presence my family craved. We'd go to Coney Island on Friday nights to get shrimps at Nathan's and ride the Wonder Wheel. We saw movies together and shared popcorn with him. He had breakfast with us and Chinese food dinners. He would bring over the Black Panthers' newspaper and explain to me the difference between a cultural nationalist and a Marxist.
Stan loved sports like I did and took me to many basketball, baseball, and football games. We even saw some sports history together. His father had Jets tickets. So, because of him, I was at Shea Stadium the snowy December Sunday afternoon in 1973 that O. J. Simpson surpassed two thousand yards in a season. (I still have the ticket stubs.)
It was Stan who, at an upstate New York resort, showed me the proper way to shoot a layup on a gorgeous summer day. For a Brooklyn boy it was a gift that keeps on giving. It seems like a small thing, I guess, but for me it was the kind of fatherly experience I'd been starving for. The rhythm of it—dribble, step, dribble, dribble, right leg bend, left leg straight, right arm up—was a dance I still do happily, and Stan was my instructor.
I wish there was some drama to relate about Stan and my ma during the sixties and early seventies. I just remember my mother being romantically content. It allowed her to be consumed by her other dreams—a master's degree, a car, a house. Marriage was always in the air, hovering just a few years off in the future.
I was about fourteen when I saw an ad in
magazine or the
Atlantic Monthly
(I always read well above my age) telling me I could join something called the Literary Guild for one dollar. The offer was a generous four books for a buck. Borrowing books my mother had purchased for her Brooklyn College studies, I'd already read the greatest hits of urban lit—Richard Wright's
Black Boy
Native Son
, James Baldwin's
The Fire Next Time
, Claude Brown's
Manchild in the Promised Land
, and Piri Thomas's
Down These Mean Streets
. Plus Ma was a lover of commercial fiction, so I'd read several James Bond novels and books by Jackie Susann, like
Valley of the Dolls
What was so seductive about the Literary Guild offer was not simply that I could get four books for a buck, but that if I was clever, those four books could become fourteen. According to the
ad, you could order three Ernest Hemingway novels (
The Sun Also Rises
A Farewell to Arms
For Whom the Bell Tolls
), four F. Scott Fitzgerald (
This Side of Paradise
The Great Gatsby
The Last Tycoon
Tender Is the Night
), four William Faulkner (
The Sound and the Fury
Light in August
As I Lay Dying
), and two Thomas Wolfe (
Look Homeward, Angel
You Can't Go Home Again
) for that single dollar. I'd read some short stories from this bunch in anthologies (Faulkner's “The Bear,” Hemingway's “The Snows of Kilimanjaro” and “The Killers,” Fitzgerald's “The Diamond as Big as the Ritz”), but was aware of them more as legends than as actual writers.
I figured that this was my chance to start my own, very adult library, without seriously endangering my allowance. So I clipped out the ad, inserted one dollar in an envelope, and hoped I'd soon be not just well read, but informed about literary history.
The box came one morning with a buzz, as the mailman couldn't fit anything that big in our box. I was out playing ball, employing my two moves (a low-trajectory Kareem Abdul-Jabbar sky hook, and a drop-step spin move I stole from Dave Cowens) as I led my three-man squad to decisive defeats. But my substandard game was forgotten once I opened that Literary Guild box. Inside were four sets of books, each color coded: Wolfe's two were thick and sky blue with silver embossing; Faulkner's were red with yellow letters; Fitzgerald's pale blue with black spines; and Hemingway's a dusky blue with white letters.
For a while I just fondled them, touching the covers gently, rubbing fingers over the lettering, and smelling the pages, deriving a strange pleasure from the ink on the page and the pulpy paper used in these editions. Then I got nervous. Was I really mature enough to understand these books, or were they just symbols of my ambition and nothing more? The serious writing I'd read before had been about “the black experience”—meaning our ongoing struggles against racism. But I'd have no easy way of identifying with these writers, who were all white, and all dead to boot.
I began with
. Not for any deep literary reason—just because there was talk of a movie, and I liked to be as on top of things as a child of the ghetto could be (I remember making sure I read
The Godfather
before seeing that flick). I believe it was my first time reading a book that was better than any movie. Whereas the Bond movies were all more fun than Ian Fleming's books, and Coppola's film was art compared to Mario Puzo's pulp, Fitzgerald's book was a sensational read, with his liquid, flowing sentences pulling me along.
I totally identified with Nick Carraway. His cool observations and vaguely condescending, ultimately sad tone really touched a nerve. Even at fourteen I knew that Nick was me. I already had the sense of feeling slightly outside of things happening around me, even feeling outside of things happening
me. Sometimes it felt like I was standing next to myself. I always felt I was taking notes on a life I should have been living, and, to me, that was Nick's curse, too.
I didn't really connect with
until I was a young adult. Still, even as a pimply preteen, I could understand Gatsby's desire for reinvention in pursuit of love. I wanted muscles, but stayed a string bean. I wanted to be a shot caller, but was really a bricklayer. I wanted to be made smarter by my reading, but I could barely add higher than 2 + 2. The scene that still kills me is when Gatsby goes down in flames in a steamy Manhattan hotel room, trying to get Daisy to proclaim her love in front of her boorish, unfaithful husband, Tom Buchanan. I remember thinking that no matter how much you try to remake yourself, class differences could be difficult to overcome even in supposedly “classless” America.
I've never cried for Gatsby, but I've come back to his character numerous times, seeing as an adult that his frustrated yearning for an unattainable woman is an apt metaphor for trying to rise in American society. I've met countless black Gatsbys, men obsessed with acceptance, who thought the “right” woman—be she light, bright, and bourgie or white with a pedigree—is as essential as the right bachelor degree to their crossover dreams.
Not as imposing, but still quite pleasurable, was
This Side of Paradise
, Fitzgerald's first novel. Its details now escape me, except for the air of romantic yearning for adventure that hovers over the book, and that young men like me will always be susceptible to.
My attempts at Wolfe and Faulkner were much less fulfilling. I found Wolfe's overblown verbiage boring. I dipped into both of his massive novels and nearly drowned in pages of worthless adjectives. I decided to postpone reading more Wolfe for another time, one that's never come.
My relationship with Faulkner was more complicated. Despite all the references to his greatness in all the literary criticism I read, the man's white Mississippi pedigree and Southern milieu was a turnoff. I knew race was an obsession for him, but I really wasn't that interested in an alcoholic white man's view of “the question.” I knew (at least, according to the great critic Alfred Kazin, whom I'd been reading to better understand my Literary Guild selections) that Faulkner shouldn't be viewed (or, at least, solely viewed) through the prism of politics. So with all that in my young mind, I cracked open
The Sound and the Fury
and was confronted with the limitations of my fourteen-year-old imagination.
The shifting point of view and subtle narrative line was just too much for me to grasp. Armed with only my ambitions as a reader and a couple of books on American letters as a guide, I bailed on Faulkner and have returned in dibs and dabs over the years, obviously a major failing in my literary self-education.
I was only one out of three with my Literary Guild authors when my life changed and a love affair began. Like scores before me and, I hope, many generations after, I found a personal guru in Ernest Hemingway. In that summer I turned fifteen, and then in so many sweet summers since, Hemingway's elemental elegance and hard-boiled humanism spoke to me as style and attitude. I devoured
The Sun Also Rises
and then
A Farewell to Arms
, fixating on the details of fishing, bullfighting, ordering in European cafés, and driving through the Swiss Alps.
Though not as pristine as his classic short stories, in terms of how Hemingway squeezed every ounce of meaning possible out of “and” and “but,” these novels were like cool, clear water that reflected back and quenched my thirst. Over the years I'd come under the sway of many artists, but none as artistically ambitious, stylistically influential, and creatively accomplished as Big Papa. (Speaking of big men, whenever I hear the Notorious B.I.G.'s “Warning,” with its economical storytelling and matter-of-fact violence, I think of Hemingway.)
Sex was a huge attraction for me in both
. I never did quite understand what was physically wrong with Jake Barnes in
. Did his dick get blown off, or his testicles? I mean, could the guy go to the bathroom? The hot-blooded object of his desire, Lady Brett Ashley, tried to roust him a couple of times, only to frustrate them both. This ambiguity was, of course, central to its charm. At the time I only had a vague notion that there was a malady called impotence (at that age I got an erection just walking past a pretty girl). If I found out what Jake had, could I catch it? I'd read the passages dealing with the injury over and over, ultimately trying to decode the tragedy as a preventive measure.
BOOK: City Kid
4.87Mb size Format: txt, pdf, ePub

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