Before I left the porch, I thought of Mr. Strozier, my parent's dapper and forever-forty church friend from Atlanta, who told me before I left California that he'd lived on Palmetto when he was a boy. From his stories, I imagined the neighborhood in the 1940s and 50s brimming with early-paying families happy to be so well-nigh the University Center where relentless teachers like W.E.B. DuBois spat out histories that had helped to fire the Harlem Renaissance. DuBois aggravated and unnerved his superiors at Atlanta University with his refusals to compromise over anything.
DuBois said black folks needed to demand respect and what he called citizenship rights. He thought we could construct a world where Africans everywhere tapped into their history—the fantastic stuff mostly—like the black Pharaohs of the 24th Dynasty who built the pyramids in Egypt and libraries at Alexandria and Timbuktu and everything that was grand about us—to get rid of the lie about whitefolks being older or smarter or more industrious. He wanted us to always tell the truth about history and stop letting the white man off the hook. He said they were liars and thieves and we needed to let them know we knew that. The color line did poop him out, eventually, however.
And … not everybody agreed with DuBois, anyway. They wanted him to shut up sometimes. Booker T. Washington couldn’t stand DuBois. He didn’t think he was such a smart man—to demand something from liars and thieves was foolish. Show and tell them what they want to see and hear so they’ll let us be. Just do what we needed to build our own shit here in America. Washington believed in seducing whitefolks with their own magic. Take what they had to offer. He’d buck-dance and smile and act a clown to keep them filling his pocket and out his way. He did that and built Tuskegee, in part, off of what he sold them. DuBois’ high-mindedness exploded beside Washington’s low-ball.
And here I was knowing this neighborhood wasn’t near what Booker T. or DuBois imagined. I called Mama collect. She laughed at the characters I described; and unusually, confessed a bit of worry.
“Sounds like the neighborhood’s changed. It was balling back when I lived down there. Ever tell you I worked at Paschals? For a minute anyway, in ’66. I got fired. Couldn’t keep orders straight.” Mama bad with numbers.
“No, Mama. You didn’t tell me that. I saw Paschal’s yesterday. Next to Busy Bee. Busy Bee is more popular now. I’m sure things different.”
Early-paying West End families had no doubt started to question why they should continue to pay the interest for the many who always paid late. They moved away if they could, leaving a neighborhood reliant upon student commerce. And any families still living in the area remained as stalwarts, rejecting a move to the more upwardly mobile College Park or Decatur or Stone Mountain. Not many of us students lived much farther away from campus, past Palmetto, into the neighborhood. We nestled in its collar.
* * *
The first Tuesday of my first week of school, it was ninety degrees out, dead August heat and I was sweating in my tight leather flats and long pink skirt. Cars flew up and down Ashby Street. The boom boom bass and piercing high hat treble of Miami booty shake music blasts through the Lincoln car windows. Emcee Shy-D commands—come on shake shake it /come on shake it. My bladder bounced a little as the cars passed. Boys in blue and red Braves baseball caps and gold tooth fronts leaned out car windows.
“Where you headed, Shawty? Can I come?”
I smiled first. “Nawwhhh.” They drove on. Then another. “Nah.” Then another. “No.”
As I walked past Morehouse's tennis court, across the street and on my left, out of the bushes behind the Laundromat walked an emaciated man in a crooked mini-skirt covering obvious Frederick's of Hollywood plump your rump pads. He walked toward me. His skin, an old and brown custard, looked bothered by the knobs and bones pressing beneath it. He wore a wig of dry black hair pulled together into a ponytail by a dirty white shoestring. The muscles in his arms, tired and stressed, were spotted with old scabs. His swollen veins roped around his arm in contrary patterns. As he got nearer, I smelled the grilled onions and mustard of his body and felt forced to squint and breathe through my mouth.
“You have a quarter, Miss Lady?” His head and eyes flashed from one point to another, and never at me.
“Let me see. I might. You could help me. I’m looking for a grocery store.”
“You got change, Miss?”
“Here. What's your name?”
“I’m Tasha, Lisa.”
“Nice to meet you, Miss Tasha. Just keep this way.” She pointed down the block. “Run into A and P at the West End. You walking all the way up there? Hot as hell out here today, girrrrlll.”
“I don't mind.” I looked up the hilly street, calculated the discomfort.
“You got some more change? I'm finna get me some Snickers.”
“I think I got a little to spare.” I handed Lisa some coins from my bag.
“Well thank you, Miss Tasha.”
A long silver station wagon, a car seat tipped over and poking up in the back storage, slowed on the street. A sandy haired man in glasses and starched shirtsleeves looked through me, at Lisa. Lisa waved at him, then pointed around the corner. The man checked, then adjusted his rearview mirror and gently pressed the rubber gas pedal and clicked his right turn signal.
“Alright Miss Tasha. I'll see you now. I be round here.”
“Bye, Miss Lisa.”
I bought a six-pack of Coca Cola, stuffed Oreo cookies, sliced turkey meat and white submarine buns. Mama would cuss me good if she saw my basket.
That night, my roommates, Baltimore Kristy, DC Dre, and Philly Melissa and I decided to catch Showtime at Spelman in a hundred twenty degree Sister's Chapel. The flyer said it started at seven, so seven thirty. We showered, dress and headed out at six forty-five; we wanted to get a decent seat so we could boo loud and up close. We agreed to sweat up the hill and cut through Morehouse's campus on our way to Spelman's campus, about half a mile away. As we turned the corner onto Ashby, yellow tape blocked our passage through the spot directly across from where I stood talking to Lisa earlier in the day. We slowed to red and blue swirling lights. No sound, but the deadening crawl of long cars bodied by low gazing discs pointed across the darkness and onto Parsons Street. The street was damp from the humidity condensed onto the evening pavement. Dre's friend Faith, her runner’s thighs pushing out of her shorts, stood on the corner of Ashby and Parsons.
“What's going on?” We all asked at once.
Faith connected with Dre. “Somebody shot her. One of the working girls.”
“Oh, snap. Damn.” We all answered at once.
Faith's face was stuck somewhere between an uneasy smile and a howl, her eyes wide, deep black circles held them from blinking. “Yeah, I heard the shots and peaked through the blinds. She walked a little, then fell. They drove off … I told her she would be alright. We called 911. I think she's dead … I'm so upset. ” Faith held out her hand to show it’s shaking.
All of us, “Shit.”
Dre, “Welcome to the ATL, Shawty.”
Faith, “Welcome to the West End. I am not going to tell my Mama. She will make me come home.” We all decided the same.
That year, two more working girls were murdered in the neighborhood. I wondered at the shrugs and lack of news reports. This was the quiet that kept Wayne Williams free to kill.
I was twelve, living in Pine Bluff with Grandma when the news started to pile on reports of bodies and more bodies found. Tossing his football under the flickering street light, Cousin Ramone cut his eye like he’d been spooked, “Y’all, we better get home, before the Atlanta killer catch us.” We sprinted to our doors scared half shitless knowing that only pinpoint response might save us the day the real monster lurched from behind the bushes.
By eighteen it had entered my body. How many dead? This one, in the street, I didn't really know. Mama was about the only one I knew who’d stop for every fallen somebody in the street. Worry about yourself, Keeble.
I had cut it off. Didn’t remember Lisa for years. Had forgotten that night completely. But the sight had nuzzled some unforgettable place in my mind. And it stayed there penned with the rest of what I was supposed to get over.
I had learned from a master. Grandma’s refrain, “That’s whitefolks’ mess,” became a working part of my memory. Grandma could tell the story, but she wasn’t about to let it drag her down. Protest once. Make your bed. Fix your hair. Read your book. Buy some boots. Dance all night. Drink a beer. Stack your lovers. Disagree over nothing, then everything. Complain--then go to bed.
But that night, a rope lingered and wended through the trees of my insides. I thought about my family at home in Oxnard and my family in Pine Bluff. Should I tell it? It really didn't rank high enough for in-house conversation. They’d ask me to speak no further. Prostitutes and hardened dope addicts had sinned themselves out of our stories. Soon enough though, their stories would blend with all of ours. Their stories, like that invasive Kudzu creeping up from the Florida wetlands, would creep over the brick walls we’d built around us.
My roommates and I made little adjustment. We walked all the way up to Westview Drive and cut left across Morehouse's campus to Spelman's front gate. We walked and heard only Faith's account of what had happened as it ricocheted between us. Three shots. She walked up the street and fell. On that hot August night, we pressed ourselves passed King's Chapel. In front and over our shoulders leaned Martin Luther King’s Statue, his right forefinger pointing eastward.