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It was the eighties. The summer of 1989, to be exact.
Hip-hop was conscious. Rebellious. Stronger than the blackest cup of your mama's black coffee. Public Enemy was barreling through the airwaves. "Fight the power. We got to fight the powers that be." But no matter how much conscious rap we were listening to, niggas were still wildin' out, especially me and my brother Bing. Throwing bricks through car windows, crank-ringing doorbells, stealing candy from the corner store, and hanging out in the alley with baby hoodrats, lifting up their shirts and looking at their baby breasts, nipples shaped like Mike & Ikes. It's not like they were all that big, but to us they were winning. We were young and having fun. We were on one, living life the only way we knew. In the streets as much as we could be for as long as we could, or at least until somebody's grandmama came running out in her housecoat and pink slippers, chasing us away.
"You see these damn streetlights! Don't make me come off this porch."
We were hoping to God that just one time she would come off the porch, but she never had to. In the 'hood, grandmamas were like the ghetto E. F. Huttons. When they spoke, cats listened. The Pro-Wings were hitting the asphalt.
Life couldn't get any better. And as bad as the world may have seemed to folks on the outside, from the inside, it was perfect. Even in the worst times, niggas still got their party on. Like the time Mrs. Johnson lost her job and got evicted, and Mrs. Jenkins threw her a rent party charging ten dollars a plate for some fried chicken, collard greens, and macaroni and cheese that didn't cost no more than two dollars to make. Or the time Mrs. Parker's phone got cut off and Mrs. Patterson let her get another one in her five-year-old son's name.
Shit didn't faze us, especially Bing and me. Not that we had a whole lot, but the little we had, Mama always made it seem like more. Like on birthdays. By the time Bing's rolled around, whatever I'd gotten on mine was rewrapped in a Broadway box with a stick-on bow and given to him. And those Christmases when money was tight, and we only got a Hot Wheel, some socks, and a pack of Fruit of the Loom. But by the time all the kids in the neighborhood played with each other's toys, it didn't matter, 'cause what one got, we all got. That was on the east side of Long Beach.
One day Mama came home with the bright idea to move us to North Long Beach, supposedly for something better. The way I saw it, though, North Long Beach rats were just as nasty as east side rats -- they just breathed ocean air.
So off we went, looking like Arnold and Willis, cramming all our stuff into her dented-up, dingy blue Nova with a U-Haul attached to the back. The neighborhood kids were singing the theme from The Jeffersons as the car backfired out of one 'hood and into another.
"Here we are," Mama said, smiling and looking proud, like we had just pulled into Beverly Hills. Judging from the chipped stucco and barred windows; the liquor store next to the pawnshop next to the Nix Check Cashing Store next to First Baptist across the street from Third Baptist down the block from Second Baptist; Church's Chicken; and the older cats with the brown paper bags stumbling in the streets -- instead of moving on up, we'd just moved over.
We unloaded the one good couch covered in plastic that she would never let us sit on. It didn't matter who you were, you wasn't sitting on that couch. She didn't even sit on it. Next, we unloaded her favorite chair, the one place where she did sit. The tweed chair. The one that when you got up, it damn near scraped the skin off the back of your thighs and left an imprint on your ass. So old that the zipper was broken and yellow foam came out every time you sat down. She couldn't have been comfortable, but that's where she sat. And if you wanted to sit, that's where you sat, too.
Inside the apartment there was leftover gold shag carpeting from whoever lived there before. African beads dangled in the hallway. We had one bathroom and the hot water only stayed hot for ten minutes. Mama had the big room, which wasn't much bigger than the one Bing and I shared. At night you could hear the next-door neighbors threaten to kill each other, drunk on some cheap liquor.
"Bitch, I'ma kill you!"
"If I don't shank you first, you snaggle-tooth muthafucka!"
After that, the fucking began.
"Bitch, I'ma kill that pussy!"
"If you don't, another nigga will, you one-tooth bastard!"
Bing and I could hardly sleep for the bedpost banging and more "Yes, Lords!" than in Sunday morning service.
Even with all that, Mama was still content with the move she had made, making us think it was hers, when really it was Grandma's.
"Blackdammit, Barbara, get them boys outta the east side," my grandma had said, pouring herself a little taste in her morning coffee. "'Cause if you don't, I will. These streets ain't nothing but a breeding ground for trouble," she continued.
It didn't matter what she said, "blackdammit" was always in there somewhere. It was her way of cussin', but not really.
No matter how we'd gotten here, we were here. And whenever I watched Mama pass by that one good couch so she could sit in that one bad chair, I knew that one day I wanted to get her couches, clothes, and whatever else she wanted as long as it was new.
Mama was our seventies soul superhero, still sporting a nappy 'fro fifteen years after the Black Power movement. She was hip, thin, and fine like she'd never had kids. My boys would make jokes about how sexy she was. Jokes that I never found funny.
Every Saturday morning she had us cleaning up the house to a never-ending eight-track tape of Aretha Franklin's Young, Gifted and Black, which by now we had memorized line for line. I would vacuum to "Rock Steady," Bing would sweep the dirt onto Earth, Wind and Fire's All 'N All album cover, while Mama would yell in the background, "Boy, don't you know that's The Elements?!"
Mama would sometimes pay us a dollar, but to get out of cleaning I'd give Bing a quarter of mine. Since he was five years younger, a quarter went a long way. I really didn't have to give him anything and he still would have done it. Bing was my man. He got his nickname from when he was two, running too fast, and he slammed headfirst into a wall. His head made a bing! sound when it hit. The way he bounced off it, we all thought his head had cracked open, but it didn't. He shot back up and staggered away. From then on, his name was Bing.
On the weeknights after work, Mama would come home, flip off her shoes, fire up the hibachi, and throw on some chicken wings, burgers, and links. It was like the Fourth of July weekend. Life couldn't be better.
As we ate, she had the good sounds flowing through the house -- Johnny Taylor, Betty Wright, and Tyrone Davis's "Turn Back the Hands of Time" was her favorite. We were dancing, singing, laughing, having a good time doing the Bump, the Rump, or whatever hot dances were out at the time.
My mom, Bing, and I, we were best friends. We were all we had and all we needed. She even let us get a little taste. She'd pour herself a glass of her favorite, Courvoisier, and leave the room and act like she was surprised when she got back and there wasn't none left. She knew what Bing and I were doing, but she didn't trip. And even our imperfect world where sometimes the light bill wasn't paid, or the window air-conditioner never blew cool air, or the busted pipe from upstairs stained our ceiling, was still perfect to us. We even had our own pet mouse named Ben. Ben would wait until two a.m. to race across the floor. Really he belonged to our neighbors by day, but at night he was ours. To us, life couldn't get any better. This was how it was supposed to be, at least in our minds.
That is, until one day Aunt Estelle came by with her crooked hat, matted wig, dress down to her ankles, and carrying a hundred-pound Bible. She wasn't really our aunt, at least not by blood. She was Uncle Donnie's wife, my mama's oldest brother. He had left her damn near the day after they got married, but we still called her our aunt. She had a strange look on her face. A look that let me know that shit was about to get all fucked up.
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