[original illustration by Scott Williams]
Leroy had the Church of Scientology on one side and JP Morgan Chase bank on the other.
He knew he was in trouble.
But he figured if he couldn’t find salvation in one, he could always find it in the other. After all, the other, and more ancient, religions had failed him interminably and maybe now it was time to get with the program: money or outer space.
“Fuck it,” he thought, “I’m ready for it. Bring on the aliens.”
He knew it wouldn’t matter, that no extra-terrestrial invasion would change a thing – regardless of whether we were or weren’t demons from another moon-planet or the swapped saliva under Tom Cruise’s armpit. His mother, ironing clothes when he came home from school, holding up and shaking the iron every time L. Ron Hubbard’s commercials came on - the volcanic eruption, the flowing lava on the screen: “What the hell did Dianetics ever do for Black folks!” she’d cry and as soon as the sales pitch vanished and Oprah’s face filled the screen – she would calm back down.
She was frantic for understanding and honesty and generosity. Especially when it concerned money. Other people’s money. This was probably why he felt as foreign from the Capitalists as he did from the Scientologists, but he’d better get with the program – quick – or he’ll be destroyed. Cause if the Aliens from Hollywood don’t save him, then money will. And if that doesn’t work there is always death. Because when you’ve got a bank you can’t join and a church you can’t believe in, then your options don’t seem that great.
“No, couldn’t be,” he said to himself every morning, “this couldn’t be the end…”
He knew it was, or could be, or would be and it scared him. He was desperate to make a connection.
On his first day back the adrenalin pumping only crystallized his prey. He turned on his heel, looked down the block, hoping to find another brother from Back in the Day.
One, named Creepy, was the type of brother you take for granted.
He was a record-keeping device with veins. Some kind of anthropological scout in the form of a camera that pumped blood.
He knew everything about Harlem and had seen all the changes. Which is why whenever he saw Leroy - he’d raise his fist:
"So long, so long, since I’d seen a man --
not a son with a gun, but a man with a hand.”
And of course no one ever listened to him. He was not a prophet (he always said things would get better). The looming shadow that lurked over the corner he frequented proved that. The residents of his neighborhood had grown tired of his hallucinations and desired coffee instead.
Or at least that’s what the land developers said.
They had replaced the Brother on the block with a Starbucks and it was just the beginning of a very quick extermination.
Hamptons-Harlem, Hamptons-Harlem, Hamptons-Harlem...
Yes, it was here that the freaks would meet the geeks and the energy of Dylan’s Mr. Jones would pervade in the purple hovering like some close encounter of a fourth or fifth kind, easy ins and easier outs, a postcard to send home to their supposed-Suburban-dormant lives…
Here Fellini had collapsed into an eighth-rate Coon Zoo and Lipstick Regalia where fashion meets fodder and fools will shuck and jive for the Mass-Media whores and old ladies from Australia.
Change had definitely come to Harlem. And it had nothing to do with the death of Michael Jackson’s feet or a hip President whose wife had arms of steel.
There was no sleep, there was nothing to eat.
Now awake in his crippled concrete pedigree, his asthma worse, the music--cheap, loud, and vulgar… He had to come to grips with the fact that he had lived passed 27 and was not rich.
To make matters worse, when old Mrs. Tillens tried to organize all ten floors of their humble abode on 131st street, only nine of the original 40 tenants still lived there and only half spoke English or cared. Some of the tenants were quite nice, had moved from other places – in pursuit of “something” intangible, some were going to College, some constantly wore back packs and said “dude” and wore funny glasses and pointy hair and they were interested in buying property and renovating--and made it known that they were trying to help the neighborhood by converting an old warehouse into a cafe and not hire any of the local natives--so that when their friends were coming to visit they could have a place to go: "Cause, like, we're all people and we just want to have some place just for ourselves, too, you know?"
Mrs. Tillens did not know.
And all the while the pigeons overhead swooned and swarmed, but even they too were getting tired of the good fight. If they could, they would have flown Mrs.Tillens away. And she knew that.
So he had returned to the place of his birth as an outsider.
He decided to clear his mind and get out of the funk by riding the subway like he used to do early in the mornings.
The train he rode almost his entire life had changed its number.
The reason given was “because the subway riders on that line didn’t like that number. And we felt we had to accommodate all the people who rode that line so they could all have something they could agree on.” Well they must have agreed they didn't like him because as he crept through the train he could feel the hostility bounce and float like a spirit haunting the site of some historical assassination.
But it was their long lean train face and alien cadences that frightened him – the large mobs of straphangers awaiting their trains, with funny hats and ducked-feet and awkward limbs; these were people not used to subterranean travel, but the bright lights and infested seats in the waiting areas kept them calm and safe and comfortable in a way that Leroy had never quite felt.
Surely, the bobs and belligerence of the young men who thought they ruled the city would appear again: the haunted faces, the slinky Joe’s dressed in black, the lonely Linda’s who never wore make-up and wouldn’t know how to – even the Chinese vendors and African street merchants now seemed distant and weary and they were the only anchors he could rely on. Their rocks being their tongues. The sound of their speech comforted him only a little because they were often overwhelmed by lateralizations and “foreign accents” his ears were unaccustomed to, but ones he recognized from
Hamptons-Harlem, Hamptons-Harlem, Hamptons-Harlem...
In all that seasoning, he could not detect one New York accent or one real sigh.
As the natives used to say, “Go figure.”
Downtown, he made his way to the ferry.
There was a man huddled over under a gray wool blanket with a sign that said: “I’m so broke, I can’t pay attention.”
He wanted to talk to the Broke Man, but he was unsure of what to say. Getting a better look, he realized this man was the other Brother from uptown he used to see--two mayors ago-- right outside his apartment building. He used to alternate corners with Creepy, but he was a bit younger. His face had a dull shine like a used bowling ball. And it was all the more daunting when Leroy saw the green awning of the Starbuck’s Coffee shop six feet behind the Brother. Leroy knew it hadn’t been there before.
And already, the NY skyline was morphing into something miraculously abominable.
Back on the train.
The settlers arrive like thieves in the night.
What is it they are looking for?
The quotidian beat of an urban ghetto is the same as a suburban village…
He had a place to sleep, but he was anxious to have his own “home” again. His friend, Jose, had once gotten him a place when he was still working as a muralist. But eventually, Jose flew back to join his folks in Puerto Rico. He said he could no longer take the dreariness of the city and that he knew he would die soon and if he were to die he wanted to see clear, blue water. And he always warned Leroy about “the shift” – he knew “the shift” would come and when it did – all would be forgotten, all would be lost, all would be…frozen.
Leroy cursed himself for having given up the two leases before that fatal morning and before he slid into his deep freeze, but he knew – or at least began to sense – that he was lucky. Some people had no place to go at all…and more and more of the masses found themselves bumbling and tripping the street curb with worthless promissory notes and pay stubs caught in gum from years ago…
That talk about luck would have been fine and dandy if he didn’t feel like he was living in a construction zone. Or airport. Or broken sewer. Or somewhere in between all three.
His flat-mates were less agreeing. “This neighborhood’s always been noisy,” one said. “Anything’s better than gunshots,” the other mocked. They both laughed. “Besides, in one more year – we’ll be living in the center of sin city! This place is gonna be hot. You’ll see, Leroy.”
“That this place is gonna be hot. You don’t know how lucky you are, man. Our landlord upstairs just told us he bought that abandoned building across the street. He’s gonna make it into a café-concert hall. We’re gonna work there. Isn’t that cool? We’re sooo lucky!”
Leroy was getting tired of feeling “lucky.” Especially when it was coming from kids who had no clue as to where they were living and what it meant or what had occurred before. Kids who hadn’t known the meaning of the Lenox Lounge or Adam Clayton Powell Boulevard or the significance, say, of the old Renaissance Theater and Casino (or even Tompkins Sq. Park – downtown!)
“Well, you mustn’t be like a prisoner of history,” the other one said.
“Yeah, that’s like Nationalism.”
Leroy sighed, went into his room and stared at the painted-over window. The room was stuffy and the smell of paint inflamed his sinuses.
He squinted into the night as the cranes and trucks beamed and flashed their white light far up into the cosmos--perhaps it was a signal to the Martians, or homage to Brecht: space invasion and unemployment in a New York sky…
Looking into the street, below the surface –it was as if he’d seen the organs of a tormented dinosaur. An ancient orifice whose juices still flowed, but whose mystery was no longer respected.
Something was afoot. Unless there was an emergency or a sewer-break – there was no reason why anyone in their right mind would be digging in the twilight of the night.
The next morning a small table was set up in front of the building with a couple at the end holding books.
There was a sign at the center of the table:
Are You Stressed?
The couple smiled at Leroy as he stepped out to go on a job interview. He smiled back and nodded. On his way back, he noticed the couple was still there – even though the construction directly behind them was scattering dirt and tar and concrete. Leroy tried hard to not get hit by any of the debris, and he darted into the lobby of his building – as if dodging a hail of bullets.
The couple at the table stood up and yelled: “You seem worried, would you like a stress test??”
That night he dreamt that the New York accent had become extinct. And people earned their living by performing classical monologues in full glorious New Yorkese in small cages with sliding doors. On the sides of the cage was a Rockefeller octagon with: The right relationship chiseled along its ominous rims.
The only options the poor natives had was to perform in this ghastly JP Morgan Chase-Millennium Freak Show, although some were allowed to retain their posts at the DMV, the police station, or local Social Security office. Some natives were left to fend for themselves as others died off quietly. A few rebelled and many lost their minds.
It was too late to call Jose.
He awoke and looked out and this time – through the thin white layer of paint over his cell window, beyond the wire mesh and over the broken fence within the yard was a huge billboard of a pair of hands that had burst through the concrete jungle holding a newborn baby, with the words:
And who are you? What will you do for yourselves?
And below it, beside a picture of a pink man in a suit with a bow tie with his arm around a brown man with a baseball cap and baggy jeans, was the text:
What you can’t do – the Believers of L. Ron Hubbard will!
The New Scientology Complex: Coming Soon in the New Year.
Leroy found a job working for a Virginian in a new restaurant in Chelsea. He was over-qualified to be a waiter, so they made him a busboy instead…if he promised not to speak.
So now that he was working, it only seemed right that he would have to lose his room in the apartment of the “Bo and Luke Duke” of the Slummers. The blonde had his girlfriend visiting and the brunette was thinking about “renovating” and since he knew how sensitive Leroy’s sinuses were – he thought it would be only fair to warn him and suggest that he find another place to live.
The couple selling stress tests and pamphlets downstairs moved into his room two days later.
This is the third apartment I have gotten kicked out of.
And it always seems to happen on a Sunday.
Remember how we hated Sunday’s when we were kids, how you could never really get comfortable? Now I know why. It seems as if the apartments themselves have gotten uglier, the streets of Harlem have now grown sinister as they gleam and try their best to withstand the nouveau ignoramus’ and the pelting feet of miserable foreigners and the hiply displaced downtowners who – ten years earlier – wouldn’t go past 116th street. Unless they were in a bus.
With a very big map.
No longer need a bus. Or a map. No longer eager to “discover” us; we’ve been demystified. They’ve taken our moon, our sun, our stars.
Even the street lamps above have been tamed.
Further uptown, ten, twenty blocks…
He found a vacancy across from a bodega and a “Real Estate” office on the corner. He paid a handsome fee and they gave him a key. He could stay in the room as long as he wanted. As long as he told the landlady that he was Dominican and not Black American. In case she or anyone asked. Not that they would; he could easily be taken for a Dominican, there was no difference in how they looked. Leroy said he had family all throughout the Caribbean.
The agent eyed him suspiciously.“You sure? How come you don’t speak Spanish?”
“Brother,” Leroy assured, “I speak English the same reason you speak Spanish.”
The first couple of days not much occurred and everything seemed fine.
And then…it happened.
It was on his way upstairs (he lived on the third floor) – he held the elevator for a couple and decided to take the stairs.
The man said “Yo, hold that elevator.”
“Yeah,” Leroy said, “sure thing, brother.” And the man and his woman hopped in. The man stared at Leroy through the elevator-gates. If looks could kill.
Later that night, Leroy decided to smoke a cigarette. He went to the bodega to buy a “loosie”. They no longer sold them.
He ended up having to cop a cigarette from a passer-by on the street. He thanked the generous soul and then went in front of the apartment building to smoke. But he needed matches.
He waited until he saw someone smoking. He saw the mother of the three children who lived below him. She cursed like a psychotic and so did her kids. But she always smiled when she saw him. And she smoked like an old nightclub comedian – thick cigars, constantly. He asked her for a light. She obliged.
“Thanks, sister,” he said, without even thinking.
She flinched. “Que? What you said to me?”
“Thank you. Thank you.”
“You say somethin’about my sista?”
“No. What? No…”
She eyed him long and hard and her three offspring did the same and they did a slow and steady walk around him and into the building.
The social epidemic was made clear to him, the next morning when he went outside to buy a coffee. While standing outside, sipping his coffee in the early morning twinkle – he noticed a younger man with a swollen eye and a head buried in three or four hoods passing by. It was cold and he looked cold and he was also humming or whistling or talking to somebody on a phone with an earpiece – Leroy could not tell. He made eye contact with Leroy as he was passing and out of instinct, Leroy nodded his head and muttered “Wha’s up, brother.”
The man scuttled one or two feet passed Leroy, turned and scowled at him. A woman from across the street, smoking a cigarette under the construction scaffolding, yelled out: “This ain’t 1962! What the fuck you think this is? 1962?? He’s not your brother!” She couldn’t have been any older than fifteen and huddled in a corner with her boyfriend. The man with the swollen eye made up his mind and brushed passed Leroy as he made his way into the apartment building. He turned back in Leroy’s direction, cursed, and spat out the Lobby vestibule.
Lately, I’ve been calling the men on my block ‘brother,’ and this hasn’t been going over too well with many of the people in my building. Many are stunned. Most are suspicious. I can understand their suspect-ness, I too believe that just because you’re not paranoid doesn’t mean that no one’s after you – but I am concerned because something happened, something’s changed…and I’m still afraid I don’t understand. Three nights ago, I heard the most peculiar sound…It was about 3 o’clock in the morning and at first I thought it was a dream – these muffled sounds, stifled cheers as if a crowd was at a football game – beneath the hum, you could hear a clear strain of choral chants and applause. And every now and then “Yes!” or “Alright” and then what sounded like “Amen.” I could not tell where it was coming from –but I wasn’t dreaming and the TV wasn’t on cause I don’t have one…
I was determined to find the source of this alternate universe. I scrambled to the door and opened it – but heard nothing. Not even the snoring of the elderly man in the bedroom next door.
I tiptoed to the kitchen and tried to detect the sound of this subterranean gathering. The sound was even more distant in the kitchen and by the window than it was in my room. I went back to my room, wiped my feet, and put on some socks. Doing so, I had bent down and was standing right by the one window in my bedroom. The sound was even louder and clearer than before – it was definitely a crowd of people, at least a hundred.
I lifted the blinds and slid the window open. A gust of cold air blew in and nearly sucked me out. I stuck my head out into the frozen night, and notice a man about our age running across the street – his yellow coat swelling under the orange pool of light shimmering under the street lamp. He ran so fast I could not even see him open and enter a door – it seemed as if he just disappeared into the scaffold and construction boards that were directly across the street. The huge wooden panels chained and the adjacent territory behind it was still in the midst of development.
A moment later, I saw another man run into the “building.” Then, another and then two more (I think they were holding hands, but I wasn’t sure). All you could hear was the excited rubber soles pounding against the pavement and the sharp echoes that it left. For a second I thought: “It’s a fire! The building’s on fire, they’re all seeking refuge!” But of course it wasn’t and that was well established when I heard the next wave of underground cheers and applause. And I was convinced now it was some kind of concert – with the manic fever of a revival meeting. But it was neither, of course. I don’t think those energies could incite this type of electricity, any more.
I was curious why nobody else was peeking through their blinds and opening up their windows and why no one shouted “Shut up!” or cursed or honked their horn. The street was empty and so was my building apparently: I was the only one left.
So I went downstairs and walked slowly across the street, I could hear some traffic from the West side highway and if I squinted I could see all the way down towards 125th street
As I crossed, I could feel the music flow through me. Almost messianic. As I approached the scaffold and the construction site – I began to get light headed, for I noticed a twinge of the same feeling I had weeks ago when I first got off the plane. It was all apparent at this point, but I needed my hunch to be confirmed. I got closer to the chained wooden boards and the huge planks that were joined together under the scaffold. My heart was pounding. (There was always a chance I could be wrong…!)
I licked my lips and noticed that I began to breathe heavily. I was hoping there was still some justice left in the world, but I looked up and saw the letters that I knew would be my death. The arrangement of words, the sick melody of name could defeat you like a lover’s sigh.
The tiny print on the wood planks above the construction permits said it all:
It was in front of this construction site that Leroy was stabbed 37 times for calling someone “brother.”
What happened to the Brother on the block?
(He turned into a Starbucks.)
This is one of my favorite pieces, a work I am very proud of due to its stylistic shifts, its surrealism, its humor, and its honesty. This story was not only my love-letter to the Harlem of my past, but a nod to to the great satirists like Charles Wright and Langston Hughes who wrote about Harlem with a great compassion and absurdist humor that exists on several planes. A lot of people do not get this story so of course I like it even more. This is the the complete, unabridged text to the story that inspired my 2011 performance-piece counterpart, Gentrified Minds. While both works exist singularly outside of eachother, they work better if experienced and appreciated as parts of one large work. The audio recording of this story can be heard here.
Copyright 2002-2012 Writings of the Nomad Junkie. All rights reserved by Dennis Leroy Kangalee.