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Black scene south of Market Street

Love and smoke

Four of us walk toward Market. Outside Los Panchos Taco Shop at Ninth Avenue, forty men and a dozen women mill around the street and parking lot. A stream of men — one by one — approach me. I explain: Jerome, not I, is looking to buy. - Image by Paul Stachelek
Four of us walk toward Market. Outside Los Panchos Taco Shop at Ninth Avenue, forty men and a dozen women mill around the street and parking lot. A stream of men — one by one — approach me. I explain: Jerome, not I, is looking to buy.

Don’t flatter yourself. My life is not an open book.

"You don’t learn this from no fuckin’ book. Don’t need no education for it,’’ says Jerome. You don’t. You really don’t.

To us, the man who adores the Negro is as “sick” as the man who abominates him.

10:00 p.m., Thursday. I am ready to go. I am double-barrel loaded with scalding liberal guilt. White-boy guilt.

White man’s burden? White man’s tears.

I am definitely not part of the solution.

I cannot speak these words into Jerome’s mouth. He’s five feet, eight inches tall. Green plaid Pendleton. Gray slacks. Suede shoes. We meet at Tenth and Market. He asks me for a cigarette, for spare change. We are definitely going to share.

"Why don’t you go in and buy me a tall can of Olde English?’’

"Sure.’’

I do. Three cans. A pack of cigarettes. "Why don’t we walk down this way?" We turn south off Market into darker side streets.

"Let me introduce you to my friend Shorty."

She’s a few inches shorter than Jerome. Red plaid Pendleton. Blue jeans. Tennis shoes. Her eyelids droop. She says, "Hi."

Jerome cracks open a beer. It’s a breezy, cool evening, and Jerome is in love with the world.

Shorty locks one arm around his neck. We walk.

"He reminds me of my kid brother. He’s short like he is," says Shorty.

"She’s got a nice ass." Jerome returns the compliment. "Those hips on her," he squeezes one. “Mmmmmmm.”

“Boy, you better watch out, or I’ll thump you.”

We settle on steps beside a warehouse, and Shorty jogs off to talk with two men crouched in a far doorway.

Jerome and I are going to share.

I let him have it: “I come from a very liberal family. I remember when my brother said ‘nigger.’ My mother washed his mouth out with soap.’’

Jerome does not wait for what I’ve said to sink in.

“Uhhhhhhh,’’ he says, and I wouldn’t be going too far if I said he sounded wounded. “I hate that word.”

I hate it, too. And it’s the same hate, isn’t it? That’s what I wanted to talk about. I have read the words of black revolutionary leaders. They have inspired me.

But Jerome, at least for the moment, is in love with the world: “I’ve got all kinds of friends, black, white, Japanese. As long as a man’s got blood pumping through him, a heart, he’s a man to me.” He drinks from the can of beer and passes it.

“You ain’t ‘Massa,’ are you?” he asks.

“Massa?”

“The police.”

“No.”

“’Cuz if you are” — he smiles when he says this, a sincere smile, unless life’s duplicity can teach you to fake such a smile — “I’ll kill you right here.”

“Naw, he ain’t Massa. Just look at that beard on him.” Shorty’s returned, and she wants some beer.

She backs away from the steps and takes a sip.

A few yards down from us on the loading platform, a man rummages through a paper bag. He jumps to the ground and picks through pebbles with his fingers.

“Larry, you quit that ghost chasin’,” yells Shorty.

“Ghost chasing?” I ask.

“Lookin’ for things that ain’t there,” she says, lifting the Olde English to her mouth.

“Keep that down! Massa come by here an’ see you ...” Jerome hisses.

“Jus’ look at that nigger sittin’ there actin’ crazy. Boy, I’m lookin’. I ain’t crazy. An’ I say Massa ain’t comin’ by here. Ain’t no one gonna come by an’ give me a ticket,” Shorty states.

Nigger. I wince when it’s said. Oh, how I wince!

“He looks just like my little brother back in Minneapolis,” she continues.

Jerome rises off the steps and puts his hands on her shoulders. “We’re partners. I’m your bodyguard.” He loves her. I can tell.

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Shorty’s singing something, Jerome joins in.

“I love that Keith Sweat. I play him all the time. My sister says I’m in love with him, but I don’t even know what he looks like.”

“I seen him.” Jerome jabs her hip with his finger. “And he ain’t good lookin’.” Shorty tells him, “Now that’s something I’d never say. I’d never say that a girl’s good lookin’ or that she’s cute. If you ask me, I might say she’s all right, but I’d never say that a girl’s pretty. Uh-uh. I don’t go in for that — I like BEEF.” She brings her face close to his.

Jerome giggles. He settles back on the steps. There’s nothing Shorty could say that wouldn’t please him or make him laugh. She’s plain and stoned and drunk and her eyes’ll hardly stay open. Jerome thinks just then, at a quarter past twelve, or maybe it’s already 1:00 a.m., that she’s pretty. We are all friends.

“I gotta go pee,” she says.

“That’s all right. I’ll stand watch for you. I’m your bodyguard.”

Behind a dumpster, she squats. She pisses hard and fast onto the ground. “Ain’t no one comin?”

“I’m right here and don’t see no one.” Shorty comes back.

“Now it’s my turn. Now I gotta go. You stand watch.”

With his back turned to us, Jerome cuts loose on the front of the dumpster. “You see anything?”

“Not what you’re thinkin’. I’m watchin’ the other way.”

That over with, I am anxious to share, to learn.

The Olde English has a sweet, catsup taste. Shorty likes to drink beer warm. Jerome likes it cold. He is from Escondido. He just got out of jail. Shorty met him six months ago.

“Do you smoke?” Shorty asks me. “Uh, no.”

“You give me three dollars to go buy a joint?”

“Sure.”

“I’ll walk with you,” offers Jerome. “Where is it? Way up on Broadway? I’ll walk with you. I’m your bodyguard.” “That’s all right. I can go by myself. I ain’t been home for three days, but I can walk by myself. I might stagger a little, but I can walk by myself. I’ll be back. You two just sit here an’ wait.”

She turns to leave.

“Girl, you sure look healthy.”

“My baby’s three weeks old. I was up to 153 before I had him, but it’s all come off. I look good. I was up to 198 back when I did time. The food was shit. Just sat around, nothin’ to do.”

“Well, now you look good,” Jerome smiles.

“I’ll be back.” Shorty leaves.

Jerome turns and his face is caught by light. His skin is smooth, unblemished. His hair is short. There’s a gap between his two front teeth. It’s just Jerome and I; he in the light.

“You’re good people. I can tell. Shorty and me’s good friends. We hit it off one day up there on Market. Can I have a cigarette?”

He doesn’t know me. I am by a sacred law required to give him all he asks for. Just two strangers. I wonder if he’s got a knife and if this is how and when. I wouldn’t mind, and I am sincere when I think this. I wouldn’t mind if he slit my throat. There are worse things. I see him slit my throat. Or maybe he’d rather stab me in my white stomach.

I see him raise his arm and drive the blade in me.

In the same moment, I want to embrace him. Jerome’s in love with the world tonight, and I have never met a gentler man. I can imagine his life in my mind.

“Yeah, you’re good people. I been through a lot of shit. I’m glad to be out, though. You can walk around. In there, you can’t even walk out to the store to buy yourself a bag of potato chips.’’

In the course of this essay we shall observe the development of an effort to understand the black-white relation.

The white man is sealed in his whiteness.

The black man in his blackness....

There is a fact: White men consider themselves superior to black men ...

How do we extricate ourselves?

“I been to work today,’’ Jerome says. “You heard of ‘general relief? My partner today start singin’ ‘Happy Birthday to me, Happy Birthday to me.’ It was his birthday. When was you born?”

“December 24.”

“A Capricorn. You’re a born leader. Are you a leader? You don’t look like the type. I’m Aries.”

“You’re in a good mood tonight.”

“I’m always in a good mood. I try to be. Learnin’ how to deal with life. I can take a man down, though, if I get angry. A guy came up to me today and asked me for money, and I told him I ain’t got any. Then later he saw me eatin’ food, and he got angry ’cuz I told him I didn’t have no money. He tried to hit me, and I had to take him down. I’m out on the street. Lost my old lady. When they arrested me, they interrogated me. Took everything. Now I don’t even have her phone number. Could you loan me ten dollars so I could get somethin’ to eat tomorrow?”

“Sure.”

He cracks open the second beer. He passes it to me.

“Yeah, I’d sure like to get some. You made love before with a girl? I sure need some. Shorty’s cute, but we’re just friends. I sure need some pussy. When I get my check, I’ll get my van out of the shop, then when I need to be alone with a girl, I can be.”

He leans back against the wall and pulls a pamphlet from his back pocket. He opens it. “You ever fucked a black girl? Look at this.”

The pamphlet’s cover says “Black Cherries.” A black woman sits astride a white man.

Jerome thumbs through, offers — shares — a few pages with me. The black woman and white man are geometric in their ecstasy. Arms and legs are at right angles.

“Look at that. Is she takin’ the beef or what?”

He slips the magazine back into his pocket, pulls at his crotch.

“Can you loan me ten dollars? I’ll pay it back to you.”

“Sure. I’ve only got a twenty. I’ll need to get change. We can go back to the liquor store and I’ll buy some more cigarettes.”

“But you can loan me the money?”

“Sure.”

“Let’s go for a walk. Looks like Shorty ain’t comin’ back. I’ll get you your change. Give me the twenty.”

I hand it to him as we walk. We see two men sitting beside a low white building. Jerome knows them.

“Now hang cool with these guys.”

One shakes something onto his palm. Little white things; I think they’re pills. They are small, waxy white clots. The other guy takes from his pocket a small tube and holds it to his mouth. He flicks a lighter and holds it to the end of the tube.

“Is that crack?" my voice rises.

“It sure is. You lookin’?”

“So that's what it looks like?”

The smoker inhales softly from his pipe. The lighter’s yellow flame licks into the tube’s end. He holds the smoke in his lungs for a few seconds and exhales.

I want to smell the smoke.

Jerome and the nonsmoker walk off to one side and talk.

“Come on,” Jerome motions to me.

And all four of us walk toward Market. Outside Los Panchos Taco Shop at Ninth Avenue, forty men and a dozen women mill around the street and parking lot.

Jerome has left me behind. I stand on the street, and a steady stream of men — one by one — approach me. I explain: Jerome, not I, is looking to buy.

“You lookin’?”

“No. Thank you, though.”

“Hey, man. You lookin’?”

“No. Thank you, though.”

“Do you have a quarter?”

“Do you have a dollar?”

“Hey, man. Can I have a cigarette?”

“You wanna give me a cigarette?”

“Hey, you got any spare change?”

“You lookin’?”

In fifteen minutes I am penniless and my cigarettes are gone.

Jerome, I can see, is involved in some kind of negotiation. He seems to have forgotten me. And my change from my twenty.

Shorty is standing in front of Los Panchos. I walk across the street and wave to her. She sees me and waves back.

There is a zone of non-being, an extraordinarily sterile and arid region, an utterly naked declivity where an authentic upheaval can be born. In most cases, the black man lacks the advantage of being able to accomplish this descent into a real hell.

I cross the street to the taco shop where Jerome and Shorty stand. The negotiation, the bargaining, is complex. I cannot understand how an agreement is made or if one has been made.

A man on a crutch approaches me.

“Can you give me two dollars?”

“I’m waiting for my change.”

“Don’t you be sweatin’ on him,”

Shorty, suddenly at my side, cautions the crippled man.

“Come on, man, give me two dollars. I know you got it,” he pleads.

“Don’t you be sweatin’ on him just ’cuz he white. He’s my friend. Back off. Just ’cuz he a white boy. He may look white, but he’s not.”

“A stupid white boy,” yells Jerome from behind the taco stand dumpster where he is pissing.

He cannot break my solidarity. My steadfastness.

Jerome comes back to the front of Los Panchos. He is a changed man.

“He’s high. When he’s on that stuff he gets paranoid,” Shorty explains.

I explain I would like to get my change. She rolls her eyes. “You better talk to him,” she says.

“Hey, Jerome,” I call.

He doesn’t answer.

“Hey, Jerome.”

“Talk to him like you mean business,” Shorty counsels.

“Yo, Jerome!”

He doesn’t answer.

I walk over and put my arm around his shoulder. He smiles and puts him arm around mine. We walk.

“Let’s walk, ” he says. Shorty follows. Down the street into the dark.

“Let’s sit here,” he says and pulls a small red plastic tube from his shirt pocket.

“C’mon, man,” Shorty says impatiently.

We are all sitting, friends. The three of us. Jerome, like the smoker before him, holds the pipe to his lips and inhales flame from his lighter into the tube. He holds his breath. Shorty picks through the gravel at her feet.

“Can I smell it? I want to smell it,” I say.

“C’mon, Jerome, let me have it,” Shorty says.

“Can I smell it? Let me smell the smoke.”

Jerome urges me closer.

“Open your mouth,” he gasps, still holding his breath.

He takes me by the shoulder and pulls my face close to his, maybe three inches from his eyes.

But when I see his eyes, my imagination leaves me. Many things must be understood for what they are.

But when you’re so close to someone that you can smell him, when you are so close to his face that you can no longer plead innocent, it’s impossible to deny he is human. It’s no wonder dogs look away.

And I open my mouth. And he softly blows the smoke at my open mouth. And the smoke I taste is sweet. And he blows softly.

I do not smell beer on his breath. I do not smell tobacco. Only this soft, cool smoke enters my mouth, washes my face.

“Let me have some,” Shorty taps her shoe on the ground.

“May I please have some? I’ve never had some. May I try some?”

“You shoulda let him go first. It was his money.” She takes the tube from Jerome’s hand. She lights it and draws in. Lights again. A smell of burning plastic wafts toward me.

She coughs a large gust of smoke.

“Damn! I burned the rim.”

Jerome takes the pipe and refills it with another white grain.

I think it’s my turn.

“C’mon, man. Let’s get outta here. You got a car?” he whispers.

“Sure.”

“See, I told you he gets paranoid when he does this shit. Ain’t no Massa ’round here. But let’s go.”

We ride through back streets. Shorty fiddles with the radio and finds 92.5. Anita Baker sings “Sweet love ...” We’re looking for a dark and quiet place, but Jerome can’t be satisfied.

I drive. Jerome directs. Back onto Market. Right onto Nineteenth. Left. Right. Right. Shorty picks through pieces of lint on the car’s floor, holds each one into rapidly intensifying, then diminishing light.

Jerome says we’re back in his old neighborhood. I’ve never been through these streets before. We double back. Too much light. Too many cars.

We settle, park, at last, beneath a bridge near Nineteenth and Commercial. In front of us a semi truck is parked. Through the radio’s static, Prince is singing. Reception is poor beneath bridges.

“One time I saw a man an’ a woman doin’ it in a car under this bridge,” Jerome raps his knuckles against the window.

“Give it to him, will you?” Shorty commands.

Jerome taps the window, lost in thought. Shorty fishes the tube from his pocket while he stares out at the night.

She, beside me, adjusts the pipe between my lips, smiles as she does so, “Just breathe in, baby, real light and real slow. Not too fast.”

Jerome holds the lighter to the tube. I inhale. He smiles, “You don’t learn this from no fuckin’ book. Don’t need no education for it.”

I can barely taste the smoke. I inhale slowly.

“That’s too fast. Slow. Slow. Light. That’s it.”

Jerome flicks off the lighter. I hold the smoke in my lungs.

The music from the radio gets lost in hazy noise.

Time passes. Jerome and Shorty have been trading hits on the pipe. Lost in static, worrying about my heart, which is not heaving but pounding — rapidly, very rapidly in my chest — I have not noticed. I have not noticed anything.

Jerome rolls down the passenger window. He spits. Shorty sings along with the radio.

I am alone in this nervous sadness.

“Let’s go buy some cigarettes,” Shorty recommends.

I fumble. I can’t find the ignition. My hands wander through the black above my knees. I feel the key and turn it. We move along. “I’ve really got to get home.”

“That’s okay,” she says. “Drop me at Forty-ninth and Logan, then take Jerome back downtown. But let’s get some cigarettes first.”

I am lost. Jerome knows the way. We are in a place I have never been.

We pull up to a liquor store. Jerome gets out and cracks open the third and final beer. Shorty and I wait in the car.

“He’s not coming back anytime soon, is he?”

“I think he’s gonna score again.”

“I really have to get home. I have to get up early.”

“So does he. He’s got to get to work tomorrow.”

We watch through the windshield. Ten minutes. Ten more. Jerome stands and talks with the guys. Turns the corner, is out of sight.

“Would you mind telling him that we’ve got to go.”

“It won’t do no good, baby, but I’ll try.”

Shorty leaves. I sit. I can’t see her.

I wait.

I could wait forever...

Reality, for once, requires a total understanding. On the objective level as on the subjective level, a solution has to be supplied.

And to declare in the tone of ‘ 77 ’s-all-my-fault ’' that what matters is the salvation of the soul is not worth the effort.

Ten minutes pass. I cannot see them. I start the car and pull a fast U-turn, the passenger door flings open. Papers, letters, and cigarette stubs fly out onto the street as the car and I move quickly away.


All italicized quotes are from Frantz Fanon’s Black Skin, White Masks, 1967.

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Four of us walk toward Market. Outside Los Panchos Taco Shop at Ninth Avenue, forty men and a dozen women mill around the street and parking lot. A stream of men — one by one — approach me. I explain: Jerome, not I, is looking to buy. - Image by Paul Stachelek
Four of us walk toward Market. Outside Los Panchos Taco Shop at Ninth Avenue, forty men and a dozen women mill around the street and parking lot. A stream of men — one by one — approach me. I explain: Jerome, not I, is looking to buy.

Don’t flatter yourself. My life is not an open book.

"You don’t learn this from no fuckin’ book. Don’t need no education for it,’’ says Jerome. You don’t. You really don’t.

To us, the man who adores the Negro is as “sick” as the man who abominates him.

10:00 p.m., Thursday. I am ready to go. I am double-barrel loaded with scalding liberal guilt. White-boy guilt.

White man’s burden? White man’s tears.

I am definitely not part of the solution.

I cannot speak these words into Jerome’s mouth. He’s five feet, eight inches tall. Green plaid Pendleton. Gray slacks. Suede shoes. We meet at Tenth and Market. He asks me for a cigarette, for spare change. We are definitely going to share.

"Why don’t you go in and buy me a tall can of Olde English?’’

"Sure.’’

I do. Three cans. A pack of cigarettes. "Why don’t we walk down this way?" We turn south off Market into darker side streets.

"Let me introduce you to my friend Shorty."

She’s a few inches shorter than Jerome. Red plaid Pendleton. Blue jeans. Tennis shoes. Her eyelids droop. She says, "Hi."

Jerome cracks open a beer. It’s a breezy, cool evening, and Jerome is in love with the world.

Shorty locks one arm around his neck. We walk.

"He reminds me of my kid brother. He’s short like he is," says Shorty.

"She’s got a nice ass." Jerome returns the compliment. "Those hips on her," he squeezes one. “Mmmmmmm.”

“Boy, you better watch out, or I’ll thump you.”

We settle on steps beside a warehouse, and Shorty jogs off to talk with two men crouched in a far doorway.

Jerome and I are going to share.

I let him have it: “I come from a very liberal family. I remember when my brother said ‘nigger.’ My mother washed his mouth out with soap.’’

Jerome does not wait for what I’ve said to sink in.

“Uhhhhhhh,’’ he says, and I wouldn’t be going too far if I said he sounded wounded. “I hate that word.”

I hate it, too. And it’s the same hate, isn’t it? That’s what I wanted to talk about. I have read the words of black revolutionary leaders. They have inspired me.

But Jerome, at least for the moment, is in love with the world: “I’ve got all kinds of friends, black, white, Japanese. As long as a man’s got blood pumping through him, a heart, he’s a man to me.” He drinks from the can of beer and passes it.

“You ain’t ‘Massa,’ are you?” he asks.

“Massa?”

“The police.”

“No.”

“’Cuz if you are” — he smiles when he says this, a sincere smile, unless life’s duplicity can teach you to fake such a smile — “I’ll kill you right here.”

“Naw, he ain’t Massa. Just look at that beard on him.” Shorty’s returned, and she wants some beer.

She backs away from the steps and takes a sip.

A few yards down from us on the loading platform, a man rummages through a paper bag. He jumps to the ground and picks through pebbles with his fingers.

“Larry, you quit that ghost chasin’,” yells Shorty.

“Ghost chasing?” I ask.

“Lookin’ for things that ain’t there,” she says, lifting the Olde English to her mouth.

“Keep that down! Massa come by here an’ see you ...” Jerome hisses.

“Jus’ look at that nigger sittin’ there actin’ crazy. Boy, I’m lookin’. I ain’t crazy. An’ I say Massa ain’t comin’ by here. Ain’t no one gonna come by an’ give me a ticket,” Shorty states.

Nigger. I wince when it’s said. Oh, how I wince!

“He looks just like my little brother back in Minneapolis,” she continues.

Jerome rises off the steps and puts his hands on her shoulders. “We’re partners. I’m your bodyguard.” He loves her. I can tell.

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Shorty’s singing something, Jerome joins in.

“I love that Keith Sweat. I play him all the time. My sister says I’m in love with him, but I don’t even know what he looks like.”

“I seen him.” Jerome jabs her hip with his finger. “And he ain’t good lookin’.” Shorty tells him, “Now that’s something I’d never say. I’d never say that a girl’s good lookin’ or that she’s cute. If you ask me, I might say she’s all right, but I’d never say that a girl’s pretty. Uh-uh. I don’t go in for that — I like BEEF.” She brings her face close to his.

Jerome giggles. He settles back on the steps. There’s nothing Shorty could say that wouldn’t please him or make him laugh. She’s plain and stoned and drunk and her eyes’ll hardly stay open. Jerome thinks just then, at a quarter past twelve, or maybe it’s already 1:00 a.m., that she’s pretty. We are all friends.

“I gotta go pee,” she says.

“That’s all right. I’ll stand watch for you. I’m your bodyguard.”

Behind a dumpster, she squats. She pisses hard and fast onto the ground. “Ain’t no one comin?”

“I’m right here and don’t see no one.” Shorty comes back.

“Now it’s my turn. Now I gotta go. You stand watch.”

With his back turned to us, Jerome cuts loose on the front of the dumpster. “You see anything?”

“Not what you’re thinkin’. I’m watchin’ the other way.”

That over with, I am anxious to share, to learn.

The Olde English has a sweet, catsup taste. Shorty likes to drink beer warm. Jerome likes it cold. He is from Escondido. He just got out of jail. Shorty met him six months ago.

“Do you smoke?” Shorty asks me. “Uh, no.”

“You give me three dollars to go buy a joint?”

“Sure.”

“I’ll walk with you,” offers Jerome. “Where is it? Way up on Broadway? I’ll walk with you. I’m your bodyguard.” “That’s all right. I can go by myself. I ain’t been home for three days, but I can walk by myself. I might stagger a little, but I can walk by myself. I’ll be back. You two just sit here an’ wait.”

She turns to leave.

“Girl, you sure look healthy.”

“My baby’s three weeks old. I was up to 153 before I had him, but it’s all come off. I look good. I was up to 198 back when I did time. The food was shit. Just sat around, nothin’ to do.”

“Well, now you look good,” Jerome smiles.

“I’ll be back.” Shorty leaves.

Jerome turns and his face is caught by light. His skin is smooth, unblemished. His hair is short. There’s a gap between his two front teeth. It’s just Jerome and I; he in the light.

“You’re good people. I can tell. Shorty and me’s good friends. We hit it off one day up there on Market. Can I have a cigarette?”

He doesn’t know me. I am by a sacred law required to give him all he asks for. Just two strangers. I wonder if he’s got a knife and if this is how and when. I wouldn’t mind, and I am sincere when I think this. I wouldn’t mind if he slit my throat. There are worse things. I see him slit my throat. Or maybe he’d rather stab me in my white stomach.

I see him raise his arm and drive the blade in me.

In the same moment, I want to embrace him. Jerome’s in love with the world tonight, and I have never met a gentler man. I can imagine his life in my mind.

“Yeah, you’re good people. I been through a lot of shit. I’m glad to be out, though. You can walk around. In there, you can’t even walk out to the store to buy yourself a bag of potato chips.’’

In the course of this essay we shall observe the development of an effort to understand the black-white relation.

The white man is sealed in his whiteness.

The black man in his blackness....

There is a fact: White men consider themselves superior to black men ...

How do we extricate ourselves?

“I been to work today,’’ Jerome says. “You heard of ‘general relief? My partner today start singin’ ‘Happy Birthday to me, Happy Birthday to me.’ It was his birthday. When was you born?”

“December 24.”

“A Capricorn. You’re a born leader. Are you a leader? You don’t look like the type. I’m Aries.”

“You’re in a good mood tonight.”

“I’m always in a good mood. I try to be. Learnin’ how to deal with life. I can take a man down, though, if I get angry. A guy came up to me today and asked me for money, and I told him I ain’t got any. Then later he saw me eatin’ food, and he got angry ’cuz I told him I didn’t have no money. He tried to hit me, and I had to take him down. I’m out on the street. Lost my old lady. When they arrested me, they interrogated me. Took everything. Now I don’t even have her phone number. Could you loan me ten dollars so I could get somethin’ to eat tomorrow?”

“Sure.”

He cracks open the second beer. He passes it to me.

“Yeah, I’d sure like to get some. You made love before with a girl? I sure need some. Shorty’s cute, but we’re just friends. I sure need some pussy. When I get my check, I’ll get my van out of the shop, then when I need to be alone with a girl, I can be.”

He leans back against the wall and pulls a pamphlet from his back pocket. He opens it. “You ever fucked a black girl? Look at this.”

The pamphlet’s cover says “Black Cherries.” A black woman sits astride a white man.

Jerome thumbs through, offers — shares — a few pages with me. The black woman and white man are geometric in their ecstasy. Arms and legs are at right angles.

“Look at that. Is she takin’ the beef or what?”

He slips the magazine back into his pocket, pulls at his crotch.

“Can you loan me ten dollars? I’ll pay it back to you.”

“Sure. I’ve only got a twenty. I’ll need to get change. We can go back to the liquor store and I’ll buy some more cigarettes.”

“But you can loan me the money?”

“Sure.”

“Let’s go for a walk. Looks like Shorty ain’t comin’ back. I’ll get you your change. Give me the twenty.”

I hand it to him as we walk. We see two men sitting beside a low white building. Jerome knows them.

“Now hang cool with these guys.”

One shakes something onto his palm. Little white things; I think they’re pills. They are small, waxy white clots. The other guy takes from his pocket a small tube and holds it to his mouth. He flicks a lighter and holds it to the end of the tube.

“Is that crack?" my voice rises.

“It sure is. You lookin’?”

“So that's what it looks like?”

The smoker inhales softly from his pipe. The lighter’s yellow flame licks into the tube’s end. He holds the smoke in his lungs for a few seconds and exhales.

I want to smell the smoke.

Jerome and the nonsmoker walk off to one side and talk.

“Come on,” Jerome motions to me.

And all four of us walk toward Market. Outside Los Panchos Taco Shop at Ninth Avenue, forty men and a dozen women mill around the street and parking lot.

Jerome has left me behind. I stand on the street, and a steady stream of men — one by one — approach me. I explain: Jerome, not I, is looking to buy.

“You lookin’?”

“No. Thank you, though.”

“Hey, man. You lookin’?”

“No. Thank you, though.”

“Do you have a quarter?”

“Do you have a dollar?”

“Hey, man. Can I have a cigarette?”

“You wanna give me a cigarette?”

“Hey, you got any spare change?”

“You lookin’?”

In fifteen minutes I am penniless and my cigarettes are gone.

Jerome, I can see, is involved in some kind of negotiation. He seems to have forgotten me. And my change from my twenty.

Shorty is standing in front of Los Panchos. I walk across the street and wave to her. She sees me and waves back.

There is a zone of non-being, an extraordinarily sterile and arid region, an utterly naked declivity where an authentic upheaval can be born. In most cases, the black man lacks the advantage of being able to accomplish this descent into a real hell.

I cross the street to the taco shop where Jerome and Shorty stand. The negotiation, the bargaining, is complex. I cannot understand how an agreement is made or if one has been made.

A man on a crutch approaches me.

“Can you give me two dollars?”

“I’m waiting for my change.”

“Don’t you be sweatin’ on him,”

Shorty, suddenly at my side, cautions the crippled man.

“Come on, man, give me two dollars. I know you got it,” he pleads.

“Don’t you be sweatin’ on him just ’cuz he white. He’s my friend. Back off. Just ’cuz he a white boy. He may look white, but he’s not.”

“A stupid white boy,” yells Jerome from behind the taco stand dumpster where he is pissing.

He cannot break my solidarity. My steadfastness.

Jerome comes back to the front of Los Panchos. He is a changed man.

“He’s high. When he’s on that stuff he gets paranoid,” Shorty explains.

I explain I would like to get my change. She rolls her eyes. “You better talk to him,” she says.

“Hey, Jerome,” I call.

He doesn’t answer.

“Hey, Jerome.”

“Talk to him like you mean business,” Shorty counsels.

“Yo, Jerome!”

He doesn’t answer.

I walk over and put my arm around his shoulder. He smiles and puts him arm around mine. We walk.

“Let’s walk, ” he says. Shorty follows. Down the street into the dark.

“Let’s sit here,” he says and pulls a small red plastic tube from his shirt pocket.

“C’mon, man,” Shorty says impatiently.

We are all sitting, friends. The three of us. Jerome, like the smoker before him, holds the pipe to his lips and inhales flame from his lighter into the tube. He holds his breath. Shorty picks through the gravel at her feet.

“Can I smell it? I want to smell it,” I say.

“C’mon, Jerome, let me have it,” Shorty says.

“Can I smell it? Let me smell the smoke.”

Jerome urges me closer.

“Open your mouth,” he gasps, still holding his breath.

He takes me by the shoulder and pulls my face close to his, maybe three inches from his eyes.

But when I see his eyes, my imagination leaves me. Many things must be understood for what they are.

But when you’re so close to someone that you can smell him, when you are so close to his face that you can no longer plead innocent, it’s impossible to deny he is human. It’s no wonder dogs look away.

And I open my mouth. And he softly blows the smoke at my open mouth. And the smoke I taste is sweet. And he blows softly.

I do not smell beer on his breath. I do not smell tobacco. Only this soft, cool smoke enters my mouth, washes my face.

“Let me have some,” Shorty taps her shoe on the ground.

“May I please have some? I’ve never had some. May I try some?”

“You shoulda let him go first. It was his money.” She takes the tube from Jerome’s hand. She lights it and draws in. Lights again. A smell of burning plastic wafts toward me.

She coughs a large gust of smoke.

“Damn! I burned the rim.”

Jerome takes the pipe and refills it with another white grain.

I think it’s my turn.

“C’mon, man. Let’s get outta here. You got a car?” he whispers.

“Sure.”

“See, I told you he gets paranoid when he does this shit. Ain’t no Massa ’round here. But let’s go.”

We ride through back streets. Shorty fiddles with the radio and finds 92.5. Anita Baker sings “Sweet love ...” We’re looking for a dark and quiet place, but Jerome can’t be satisfied.

I drive. Jerome directs. Back onto Market. Right onto Nineteenth. Left. Right. Right. Shorty picks through pieces of lint on the car’s floor, holds each one into rapidly intensifying, then diminishing light.

Jerome says we’re back in his old neighborhood. I’ve never been through these streets before. We double back. Too much light. Too many cars.

We settle, park, at last, beneath a bridge near Nineteenth and Commercial. In front of us a semi truck is parked. Through the radio’s static, Prince is singing. Reception is poor beneath bridges.

“One time I saw a man an’ a woman doin’ it in a car under this bridge,” Jerome raps his knuckles against the window.

“Give it to him, will you?” Shorty commands.

Jerome taps the window, lost in thought. Shorty fishes the tube from his pocket while he stares out at the night.

She, beside me, adjusts the pipe between my lips, smiles as she does so, “Just breathe in, baby, real light and real slow. Not too fast.”

Jerome holds the lighter to the tube. I inhale. He smiles, “You don’t learn this from no fuckin’ book. Don’t need no education for it.”

I can barely taste the smoke. I inhale slowly.

“That’s too fast. Slow. Slow. Light. That’s it.”

Jerome flicks off the lighter. I hold the smoke in my lungs.

The music from the radio gets lost in hazy noise.

Time passes. Jerome and Shorty have been trading hits on the pipe. Lost in static, worrying about my heart, which is not heaving but pounding — rapidly, very rapidly in my chest — I have not noticed. I have not noticed anything.

Jerome rolls down the passenger window. He spits. Shorty sings along with the radio.

I am alone in this nervous sadness.

“Let’s go buy some cigarettes,” Shorty recommends.

I fumble. I can’t find the ignition. My hands wander through the black above my knees. I feel the key and turn it. We move along. “I’ve really got to get home.”

“That’s okay,” she says. “Drop me at Forty-ninth and Logan, then take Jerome back downtown. But let’s get some cigarettes first.”

I am lost. Jerome knows the way. We are in a place I have never been.

We pull up to a liquor store. Jerome gets out and cracks open the third and final beer. Shorty and I wait in the car.

“He’s not coming back anytime soon, is he?”

“I think he’s gonna score again.”

“I really have to get home. I have to get up early.”

“So does he. He’s got to get to work tomorrow.”

We watch through the windshield. Ten minutes. Ten more. Jerome stands and talks with the guys. Turns the corner, is out of sight.

“Would you mind telling him that we’ve got to go.”

“It won’t do no good, baby, but I’ll try.”

Shorty leaves. I sit. I can’t see her.

I wait.

I could wait forever...

Reality, for once, requires a total understanding. On the objective level as on the subjective level, a solution has to be supplied.

And to declare in the tone of ‘ 77 ’s-all-my-fault ’' that what matters is the salvation of the soul is not worth the effort.

Ten minutes pass. I cannot see them. I start the car and pull a fast U-turn, the passenger door flings open. Papers, letters, and cigarette stubs fly out onto the street as the car and I move quickly away.


All italicized quotes are from Frantz Fanon’s Black Skin, White Masks, 1967.

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