The Hall of Justice downtown smells every bit its age, and it’s moldy and unkempt. Finding the way to our courtroom was like searching for a dormitory in Hogwarts.
“Jesus Christ,” I said. “They don’t have anybody around that can tell you where to go.”
“I know,” said Paula, my partner of three years.
It took us 20 freaking minutes to find the right room.
Paula and I had been subpoenaed to testify, because we’d helped a woman named Rose (not her real name). On March 12, 2010, Rose parked her car illegally on Washington Street in Hillcrest, to run inside Alberto’s and pick up an order.
Her assailant had different plans.
“Hey, Paula, there she is,” I whispered. “The woman we helped.”
I was surprised that I recognized her; the last time I saw Rose, she was being viciously beaten on a sidewalk.
“Oh! Oh, my God, that is her,” Paula said.
I remember leaving the CVS parking lot that night in Hillcrest. Paula was driving, and I was texting. “Hey! There’s a fight over there,” Paula announced. I looked up from my cell phone and saw a beat-down happening on the sidewalk across from the parking lot.
“Damn, let me call the cops,” I said.
While I waited for the touch screen to unfreeze and catch up to the speed of my fingers, Paula drove across the street, honking the horn.
“Is that a woman he’s beating up like that?” I said.
Paula had tears in her eyes. “It is.”
I jumped from the car still holding the phone.
The woman on the sidewalk was covered in blood, dazed from multiple blows to the head. I calmly walked up and put myself between her and her assailant.
I could hear the 911 operator. “Is everything okay? What’s happening?” I hadn’t spoken into the phone since I jumped from the car.
“Where is the guy right now?” the operator asked.
“He’s right here, in front of me.”
“Well, where are you?”
“I’m standing in front of the lady. I’m in the middle of her and him.” I wanted to make sure the operator could hear all that was happening. If I was forced to fight this guy, I wanted everybody to know why.
∗ ∗ ∗
Almost six years ago, a Greyhound bus let me off at 120 West Broadway, with too much luggage to carry.
It was my second attempt at living in Southern California, far from the black-iced streets and racial divisions of Michigan. I stood on the corner of Broadway and First like a boxer waiting to face an old adversary. Los Angeles had beaten the dreams out of me, but San Diego would not. My grandmother would be proud.
“It ain’t no easy win,” Grandma used to say.
In the 1940s, Gram left South Carolina for Detroit in search of something better. She didn’t know a soul in Michigan, yet, back then, there was a sense of community, and people acted out of kindness. Gram soon made her way.
A hush would come over a crowd whenever she entered a room. She was like a gunslinger in an Old West saloon, but instead of Dodge City, it was the barbershops and juke-joints of the Motor City. Gram inspired an unspoken respect, maybe even a tip of the hat as she walked by.
She seemed like a giant, but she was probably only 5'3" or 5'4". She had broad shoulders. To hug her felt like embracing a suitcase. She kept her bra packed; she stored everything there. She had several keys: one to the deep freeze in her basement, others to her gate, the house, and the bedrooms. She had two openers for her Pepsis (always ice-cold and in glass bottles). She had handkerchiefs — some for sneezes, some filled with coins, some wadded with cash. Then there were the sticks of Wrigley’s Juicy Fruit gum, and, who knows, maybe even the deed to her house.
As a little girl, I loved to sleep in the same bed as Gram, my skinny little legs sandwiched between her calves. Some might have said Gram was in danger of getting no rest while I was with her in the bed. But it wasn’t my legs or my elbow in her back that caused her discomfort. It was the lump under her pillow, from the loaded .38 Smith & Wesson she kept there.
“Shida,” she’d yell at me, “if you don’t stop messin’ with that, you gon’ have to go get me a switch.”
“Ah, Gram, I just wanted to peek at it.”
“You don’t touch it or just peek at it, you hear me?”
Gram would rearrange her pillow. She’d fluff mine and tuck me in for the night. She’d soon follow and we’d assume our positions, her head on her pillow, one hand underneath. I never slept better.
One night, there was a rustle in the hallway. The door to Gram’s room flew open; my aunt, who stayed in the room next door, had pressing news to share. Before she could scream or slam the door, Gram’s .38 was pointed at her.
“Queen Esther,” Gram said, “you don’t come in here like that. I didn’t know who you was. I could have shot you where you stand.”
“I’m sorry. I’ll tell you tomorrow,” Queen said with a shaky voice.
“Nah,” said Gram, “come back in and tell me now. I know it’s you. I ain’t gon’ shoot you.”
Gram and I giggled all night about how she almost shot her daughter. “Sometimes you got to laugh to keep from cryin’,” she said.
∗ ∗ ∗
Her expressions were some of the funniest things I’ve ever heard.
“I might have a little heart disease, but I ain’t never had no ass-trouble,” Gram said. Ass-trouble was the term she used to describe sexually transmitted diseases. My cousin, who contracted many of them, had gotten food out of Gram’s pot without washing his hands, and Gram was certain that everything in her kitchen was now infected with ass-trouble.
She took baths in water so hot you could poach a salmon in it. The steam rose from the tub in big clouds, like from a cartoon cauldron.
“You’re gonna get in that tub?” I asked. “The water is smoking.”
“Yes, child, that’s how a bath is supposed to be,” Gram assured me. I watched her ease into the scalding bath, and then she did the unthinkable.
“Hand me the bleach, gal.”
“Hand me the bleach.”
“You’re going to put bleach in your bath water, Grandma? That’s poison.”
“It’s the good kind of poison. Now hand me the bleach.”
Who was I to tell Gram no? I watched in amazement as she poured two capfuls of bleach into the boiling water. She lay back and shut her eyes.
Years later, with wide eyes and mouth agape, I told my mother what I had witnessed.
My mother said, “Yeah, that’s how some women did it back then.”
I said to myself, “Well, holy shit.”
∗ ∗ ∗
While my mom was out making business deals, I was at Gram’s, learning what would one day become my life’s work. I’d wake up to the smell of bacon frying in her kitchen. Even if you don’t do breakfast, the smell of bacon frying makes you want to. I’d walk into the kitchen in all my morning glory: T-shirt, Wonder Woman Underoos. I’d sit across from Gram, in front of a hot plate — there was bacon, grits, and the gravy from a smothered-chicken dish Gram had made the night before, plus my favorite accompaniment, a cup of Maxwell House coffee, lots of cream, lots of sugar.
Now, my mother would forbid such a drink for a seven-year-old; Gram, however, was my mother’s mother, so I got that cup of coffee every time. Then it would begin, a symphony of sips, forks scraping the plates, spoons rattling inside of coffee mugs or mason jars. I’d look up at my Gram with wonderment, and she’d say, “Eat, gal.”
In that moment, I knew I was loved.
Gram spent days in her kitchen during the holidays, blending, mixing, and kneading. She had all the focus of a brain surgeon. She would not take a break. She wouldn’t even sit down until everything was complete.
With no culinary training — no concept of brunoise over small dice, or cross-contamination — she had not only her friends and family running to her dining table, but all the neighbors, and the community, too.
Like waving some kind of gastronomic magic wand, people appeared on her doorstep: family you hadn’t seen all year, friends you hadn’t seen in months. They’d gather on the front porch, laughing and smiling, waiting to come inside. Then they’d step into all kinds of sweet and savory smells. They’d look with wonderment at the spread laid out before them. They’d know they were loved. That was the kind of power my grandmother had.
As a little girl with no brothers or sisters and a busy mom, I often felt alone. I’d say to myself, If I could cook like Gram, I’d always have the people I care about around me. When we are bound by food, we are also bound with love and laughter.
I would eventually study culinary arts at Le Cordon Bleu in San Francisco, many years after my grandmother’s death.
But it was Gram who taught me to cook — I am one hell of a chef because of Gram’s lessons. But she also taught me to be proud. She taught me to be fearless. I carried those lessons with me and practiced them throughout Gram’s life. I still do today, and they have served me well. I, too, have sometimes relied on the kindness of strangers, and they have depended on my kindness.
Anytime I’m home, and my friends or family know I’m cooking, people appear at my doorstep like magic. They step inside, look at the spread laid out before them, and know they are loved. I spread love with my gourmet butter, flavors as diverse as San Diego. I prepare it at home, and also as part of my new job as a chef.
People say, “Oh, this is dangerous.” Then they eat it and forget it’s butter.
∗ ∗ ∗
“Can I have some gum, Gram?” I’d ask.
“Yeah,” she’d say, pulling a wilted pack from her bosom.
She was what black folks called “light-skinned.” But her sisters Katherine and Ethel and her brother Ezra Junior were a lot lighter than she was. I remember meeting them for the first time in South Carolina, surprised by how high-yellow they were. Ethel even had bluish-green eyes.
Ezra Cannon Senior was Gram’s father. He was a full-blooded Cherokee Indian. “Oh, yes, he was a light thing, with yellows and reds in his complexion,” Aunt Ethel said. “Hell, he was so pretty, he looked like a woman. If you saw him now, you’d think he had a little sugar in his tank.”
Was my great-grandfather a gay man and still married to my great-grandmother? I don’t know, but it wouldn’t be the first time something like that happened in the anti-gay South.
Gay or straight, my great-grandfather was no sissy.
As the story goes, sometime in the 1920s, Great-grandpa took a disliking to a certain white man who trespassed on his property. Ezra Senior didn’t appreciate how the man was staring at his daughters. He told the man to get off his land, but the man refused to leave. A fight began. Ezra drew his pistol, and the white man left. He never came back again. After that day, Great-grandpa kept his gun close.
As I became more educated about African-American history, my family made more sense to me. Many slave-owners raped their black women, and the women had Massa’s babies.
My mother has several university degrees. She’s never missed an opportunity to school me on issues she deems relevant.
“Mom, can I ax you something,” I’d say.
“No, you can’t ax me anything, but you can ask me.”
“Ask,” I’d quickly say.
We’d go through the genealogy. Ezra Senior was a Cherokee Indian. Gram’s mother, Georgiana, was almost as dark as the bottom of the sea. I asked my mother, “Where did the blue eyes come from?”
“That’s a good question,” Mom said. “It has a lot to do with race-mixing. What do you think happened to the Indians when Columbus so-called discovered America? It wasn’t friendly. I’m sure Native Americans had children by white colonists. Those genes are probably what you see in Grandma and her siblings.”
∗ ∗ ∗
It was supposed to be a night of dinner and the theater: The Vagina Monologues. There’s some irony in that. Profits from the production go toward stopping the physical and sexual abuse of women.
Instead, it was a night of police, EMTs, and on-scene line-ups.
What I saw that night in Hillcrest shocked my very soul and left me questioning, What is happening to our community? That night, I wept for humanity. I wept until my body was choked with disappointment, choked with the hate. It was like that Clint Eastwood movie, The Good, the Bad and the Ugly. All that blood, all that violence, all those people standing by, just watching a brutal attack. All that trauma in the trendiest part of town.
But because of Gram’s lessons in courage, I did not back down from a righteous confrontation.
∗ ∗ ∗
“Hi, my name is Fred. I’m the prosecutor in this case. Thanks for being here.”
“No problem,” I said. As if I had a choice. Ignoring a subpoena could land me in jail.
Our case would be called soon, and Fred wanted us to be ready to go inside the courtroom. If only Portia de Rossi would reprise her role of Nell Porter from Ally McBeal and prosecute this case. Then I wouldn’t mind so much being in the stinky Hall of Justice. But, no, I’m stuck with Fred. If I wanted red-headed kids, he would be perfect; maybe, in a very tight pinch, Fred would do.
“This is kind of strange,” I said to Paula, the scene being nothing like Law and Order.
“Yeah,” Paula said. “I wonder what we are going to have to do when we go in.”
A set of old wooden doors cranked open, and men and women in suits fell out into the hallway. All of them had some sort of briefcase on wheels. Some carried manila folders with papers spilling out.
“Okay, guys, we’re up,” Fred said with spunk. “We all go inside, and you just find a place to sit near the back.”
Was that what we were there for, to sit in the audience of the courtroom?
Paula and I walked inside. And there he was, at the head of everything — the judge in his great robe. I recognized his face; he’d been the judge in the John Gardner murder trial. That was freaky.
The guy who’d beaten Rose bloody was escorted into the courtroom in cuffs. Rose became visibly distraught. Her friends, who were there for support, wrapped their arms around her. They wiped her tears away and whispered in her ear. I imagined what they were saying. You’re okay, you’re safe, it’s going to be all right.
Now I realized why I was in the courtroom. This trial was real, and very important.
I thought back to Rose’s attack. During breaks at previous hearings, she’d told me the defendant had wanted to rape and rob her. I’d never seen so much blood as I did that night. I knew that if the assailant had continued to punch her in the head and face, he would have killed her. Unlike others who stood there on the street or watched from their restaurant tables, I could not bear to witness another human being — especially a woman — get beaten to death.
Rose could have been my mother. Rose could have been my best friend from college. Rose could have been the love of my life. So I did what I had to do.
Gram wouldn’t have had it any other way.
My grandmother often carried a razor blade under her tongue. She’d bring it out with the tip of her tongue and use her front teeth to steady it. If needed, she could grab it with her right hand and slice her abusive husband — or anybody else who got out of line.
An old family friend once said with a chuckle, “Yo grandma would leave any Negro lookin’ like a carved Thanksgivin’ turkey.”
But all I had that night in Hillcrest was my cell phone.
I told the 911 operator, “He’s wearing a pair of black Adidas with three white stripes down the side, a pair of faded camouflage shorts, and a white tank top with blood smeared on the front and the back.”
“Is he still in your face?” asked the operator.
“No. He is pacing, walking toward University, and then walking back to me. He’s still trying to grab at her.”
“I got your location. The police and paramedics are almost there. Can you see them?”
The paramedic truck passed us by. Paula tried to wave them down from the street, but they didn’t see her.
“They just passed by us,” I said, frustrated. “We are closer to Washington Street, not University Avenue.”
“Okay, they’re turning back around now.”
I sat Rose down on the curb and tried to stop her bleeding. Her assailant ran to the CVS, to dispose of his bloody tank top.
The paramedics put Rose in a neck brace, strapped her to a stretcher, and took off. Police officers descended on the crime scene. Some snapped photos of the smears and mini-pools of blood on the sidewalk. They also took pictures of the surrounding buildings.
The cops had Paula and me, along with two other witnesses, lined up against a wall. One by one, we answered their questions about what we had seen or done. It lasted for two hours.
“Okay, we need you to do an on-scene line-up for us,” said one officer.
“An on-scene line-up?” I asked.
I got into the front passenger seat of his cruiser.
“Oh,” I said, “I’ve never been in a police car before.”
The officer looked at me with a grin that suggested, Yeah, pretty cool, right? He drove me across the street to the CVS, where two police cars were stationed. They had Rose’s assailant handcuffed in the back seat of one.
“Are you ready?” the officer asked me.
I nodded yes.
He turned on the outside light at the side of his cruiser door. It was blinding. I’d always wondered what they used that light for. Now I knew.
“Okay, bring him out,” the officer said into his radio. Another officer then snatched the assailant from the back seat and placed him in front of the blinding light. Even from 50 feet away, I could see every detail of the guy’s face. I noticed that he’d changed into a clean tank top.
“That’s him,” I said. “A different shirt, but that’s him.”
“That’s a positive,” the officer said into the radio.
I never thought senseless violence was cool unless it was wrapped up in a celluloid reel stamped “Tarantino.” I never thought the statue of Blind Justice meant that I should cover my eyes. But I also never thought helping someone in need would be so complicated.
After several months of delays, postponements, and other legal maneuvering, the assailant, Cliff McLaughlar, finally learned that he would have to answer for his evil deed.
∗ ∗ ∗
In the courthouse, I sat by the front door of Department 14, waiting to testify. The seat was like a wooden plank, cold and hard. Every few minutes, someone would pass by. Unlike previous trips to the courthouse, this was the first time the hallways seemed peaceful to me. I could feel the history in the walls.
The doors opened to the courtroom. The prosecutor and Paula walked out. Paula breathed a sigh of relief. She rolled her eyes back in her head.
“You did good,” the prosecutor whispered to her. Then he said, “Rashida, you’re up next.”
I went inside. I was sworn in. I walked slowly toward the witness stand. For the first time, my nerves nearly got the best of me. I could feel all 24 eyes staring at me from the jury box — people perked up in their seats. I knew that somehow my reputation had preceded me. Everyone wanted to hear my side of the story, the solitary female who’d stood face-to-face with a madman.
The prosecutor asked: “Do you see the man of March 12th in the courtroom today?”
“Yes,” I said.
“Will you point to him?”
“He’s right there.”
“Can you tell me what he is wearing?”
This kind of questioning went on for a while. Once, when I happened to look at the court reporter, she smiled at me. I smiled back, thinking how odd it was that we would share that moment. Maybe it happens all the time.
“Rashida,” said the prosecutor, “on the night of March 12th, you saw a woman who you did not know being beaten by the defendant. You got in between the defendant and the victim, is that right?”
“Yes,” I said.
“Why did you do that?”
“Because she needed help.”
“What did you see that made you think [the victim] needed help?”
That question hit me like a sledgehammer. Until then, I’d been a rock of calm and certainty, but now that night came rushing back.
My eyes were on Rose. I remembered her helplessness — taking blow after blow — and her yells of pain. Everyone in the courtroom went still. I shifted in my seat. I felt tears pushing up. I took a deep breath.
“She was bloody,” I said. “I had never seen so much blood. He kept hitting her. She was yelling, and nobody, nobody, was helping her.”
“Thank you,” said the prosecutor. “No further questions, Your Honor.”
A week later, McLaughlar was convicted on all counts. He faced a maximum sentence of 15 years in prison.
I don’t know if Rose sleeps well at night, but I hope so. Me, I’m doing okay. Yet, sometimes, in the middle of the day, if I see someone who looks like her assailant, I get surges of adrenaline. It’s worse if I see a couple arguing or if I perceive any sort of tension in their relationship.
I say to myself, “God, I hope I don’t have to do this again.”