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?’’
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.
“’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.
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?”
“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.”