I'd been staying at Jim's East Village apartment for two weeks, but as we sat in his favorite bar on East Fourth Street downing dollar drafts, the air was let out of the keg.
"Listen, Mason, it's been cool having you crash, but if you wanna keep kicking it in New York you're gonna need to find your own place."
Jim was your average hipster whose claim to fame was that he was the first white guy, that he knew, to have dreadlocks. All summer I had been twisting my hair, trying to attach myself to something associated with black heritage.
"I know. I've been looking," I said. "I've checked the ads every day."
"Fuck the ads," said Jim, holding up his empty mug to the tattooed bartender. "Just tell everybody you meet that you're looking. It's the only way. That's how I found my place."
The "place" was a railroad flat. At least that's what they're called in New York. In the South it's called a shotgun house. But at that moment it was more than I had.
I'd crossed out all the possible ads but one remained:
TO SHARE TOWN HOUSE
450/month. Rarely home
No. 20 W. 120th St.
Appt. 4-4:15, 15 October
I'd circled it as a lark. Sure, I was going to go to Harlem, at some point, to check it out, but I'd never really considered living there.
"Please be sure to take all of your belongings when leaving the train. And be mindful of your wallets, for the hand in your pocket may not be your own." Voice over the intercom of the 6 train, tunneling through Manhattan's East Side.
I got out of the subway at 125th Street, and the rush of color, fabric as well as skin, filled me like a Jamaican patty. The air was different, alive. Incense filled my nose, and the different languages and accents felt good in my ears.
"Dreads?" said the West African woman, stepping up to me. "You want dreads? Twist?"
"No, thank you," I said with a smile as I walked on, avoiding the rolling tumbleweeds of hair that hadn't made it onto someone's head.
"Yo. Yo, playa. Wassup?" said a voice. I turned around as he stood on a stoop. His three friends stayed on the steps, sipping Forties and sporting their latest bubble coats. "You I-ight? You need something?"
"Nah, man. I'm cool. Thanks," I said, stopping, hoping to strike up a conversation. Bond with the brothers.
" 'I'm cool. Thanks,' " he said, not at all trying to cover his mocking tone. His friends started laughing like Richard Pryor was doing a show. "Yeah, I see. You one of them uppity niggas. Probably get your shit delivered. Look at this motherfucker," he said, turning back to the peanut gallery. "He look like one of them niggas they always have in an ad, peeping out from behind the white boys. Like he don't care they got his ass stuck in the back. 'Just so happy to be here, massa.' Black boy blending."
I smiled, trying to brush off the situation. That I was used to, but not this.
"Your name's probably Theo. You a Huxtable?"
"Nah, man. It's not like that," I said, trying to change my voice, deepen it. "My name's Mason."
" 'No. My name's Mason.' "
"Malik," said one of the guys on the stoop. I glanced over at the guy, happy for the interruption. "Give the brother a break."
"Brother? This nigga ain't no brother. You ain't from up here, are you?" asked Malik. I wanted to just walk away but I didn't want to turn my back on him.
"No," I said. "But I'm checking out a place, though."
" 'I'm checking . . .' Nigga, you better head on back downtown. Harlem ain't for you. You too soft." He pushed me hard in the chest and I stumbled back. I couldn't smile anymore. At the end of the street I could see a cop car turning the corner and rolling our way.
"Malik," said one of his friends. "Chill, man. Damn."
"I'm just fucking with this li'l nigga." Malik looked me up and down, then started laughing. He reached out his hand and I shook it, feeling the calluses on his palm as he slid his hand from mine and headed back to the stoop.
The cop car stopped but the policemen didn't get out, fully aware that their presence was more than enough. "How's it going, fellas?"
"It's all good," said Malik. "Just keeping it real, ain't that right, Theo?"
He changed my name so easily; he saw me as Theo, and as far as he was concerned, that's who I was: a black TV character from the eighties, living in a brownstone, successful parents, beautiful sisters, no troubles in the world. Theo Huxtable, easy as that. "Fine, Officer," I said, using this as an excuse to start walking away. I felt Malik's eyes on me, but I just walked on, hands jammed in my pockets, a slight ache in my chest.
I thought of going back to the ads, back downtown, back to something familiar, but I wasn't going to let one incident stop me. Still a man, in Harlem, I marched on.
My steps weren't as strong as they were before running into Malik and they became even more strained when I turned the corner off of Fifth Avenue onto 120th Street. Standing outside of the town house was a mostly white crowd, all looking attentive, ready to claim the space. I stopped for a moment, nervously twisting my hair; dreading rejection.
Black hair is hard work.
As I stood there it was like Malik had left his friends on the stoop and was standing in front of me, Forty in hand, then spitting in my face, "Black boy blending." I crossed the street and went into Marcus Garvey Park. I took off the sweater I'd gotten in Ireland and stuffed it in my backpack. I pulled out my shirt and T-shirt and let the tails hang. There was no way to hide my loafers so I took off my belt and pushed my khakis down as far as they could go without falling off.
The park was hardly a telephone booth and Superman I wasn't, but with a slow swagger I walked toward the group standing outside of the town house like I belonged in the neighborhood and they were mere loiterers. "Wassup?" A few people nodded their heads but didn't say anything. I made my way to the back of the crowd hoping that being set off from the rest would draw attention to me, praying that on this trip a whale in the distance is more alluring than those circling the boat.
We didn't have to wait long. At four o'clock the front doors of the town house opened. A woman stepped out and my body straightened and I shifted my weight from foot to foot to try to get a better look.
She closed the door and walked down the steps, leisurely as though an aria was ending, the cadenza on its way. She had on a fitted black sweater, a gray ankle-length skirt with a slit up the side, and tied around her shoulders was a light blue cardigan. Her hair was high on her head, as though pulling up her neck, where a strand of pearls pulled it all together.
"Women," she said, looking over our heads. She said it like it was the only word worth saying. "You may leave."
My penis had helped me survive the first cut of the apartment hunt bris and I was thankful for it.
"I gather you boys are here to see me," said the woman, a gleam in her eyes. Her voice was intimate and soothing. Chocolate mocha ice cream. A few men started to leave. I guess it wasn't their cup of black oolong, but I felt like honey ready to melt into the mix. Stir it up.
"You and you," then pointing with eyes only, way in the back toward me, "and you. The rest of you, thank you." She did this with ease, no exuberance, no explanation. It was like I'd called on God and he'd put me on hold, but at least Mahalia Jackson was singing while I waited. I pulled up my sagging pants as I made my way up to the front, stoked to be one of the You's. I could feel the eyes on me and I loved it. Who da man? Who da man? How ya like me now?
Hello," she said as we stood in the entryway. "I'm Carmen England."
"Richard Downing," said one of the guys, wearing a designer pin-striped suit and spit-shined shoes. He'd gone all out and I started to worry.
"Nice to meet you," said Carmen, then looking at the other guy.
"Scott Franklin," he said. His dark hair was cut short in the back and the sides, but he'd left it full on top. He had huge dimples and couldn't seem to stop smiling.
"A pleasure," said Carmen, then she looked at me. "And you?"
"Ma-Malik," I said, tugging on my pants, slightly slouching, giving aloof. "Malik Randolph."
I instantly felt alive. I didn't care that it wasn't my name, but just saying it made me feel powerful. Assertive. Assured. Just the name alone made me feel as though I could walk down the streets of Harlem without scorn or ridicule; bubble coat on my back, forty-ounce in my hand. If I wasn't going to get the place, it wasn't going to be because I was blending.
"Wassup?" I said, extending my hand to her.
Carmen arched her eyebrow, then said, "Never extend your hand to a lady unless she offers hers first."
I dropped my hand back to my side and started rubbing it against my pant leg, hoping that would salve the sting before it began to swell.
"Don't be. It's nice to meet you, Mamalik."
"What? Uh, oh," I said. "It's just Malik."
"That's very seventies. Power to the people."
"You know," I said, trying to compete with Scott's smile. "Gotta keep it real."
My twists and the way I was wearing my clothes would have made my mother have a fit and it would have even made those at Johnny's Barbershop, an institution in Layton, Louisiana, pause. Though appointments weren't taken at Johnny's, people would line up for hours before the shop opened to be one of the first to take a number.
Clovis was the most skilled barber and always cut my hair. If you wanted any style, Clovis was your man. But he never got to try them fully on my nonthreatening fade.
There was always lively conversation going on, but once the soap operas started, all attention went to the television on top of the "pop" machine. These men were as avid about their "stories" as any woman and were loyal to the CBS lineup. They would talk about when Nikki was a stripper before marrying Victor or when Mrs. Chancler had her first face-lift, long before she met Rex, or they'd talk about Billy and his drinking problem. They'd shake their heads at the woes of the television rich.
But whenever I'd walk into the shop they'd want to know what was up with the "Randolph boy." I don't think many of them knew my first name, but they knew, or knew of, my father and I was his son.
One day I was getting a haircut because I was going to Baton Rouge to represent Layton in the Louisiana State Spelling Bee. I'd told Clovis and he made a point to share the news. As usual, the old men sitting in the chairs that lined the wall, beneath the coat hooks and old posters of old hairdos sure to come back, were encouraging.
Clovis finished my cut, put the stinging green rubbing alcohol around the hairline and brushed me down with talc powder. He removed the barber's cloth and I stepped down from the chair, but before I could start to leave, Joe motioned me over.
Blue-eyed Joe was a fixture in the shop. He'd take the lunch orders and phone them in to Marianne's, the soul food joint a few doors down. He also swept up the different textures of hair that had fallen around the base of the chairs, all becoming one.
Black hair is hard work.
The bluish haze coating his left eye was how he got his name. No one knew if he could see out of it and no one ever asked. Mr. Joe never said more than he had to.
He patted the fold-out chair next to him. I sat, but he didn't look at me. He kept looking at the action in the pool hall in the back of the shop.
"Don't ever smile too big when thangs going good for you," said Joe. "We's proud of you here, hear?"
"Yes, sir, Mr. Joe."
"Just know, ever'body in that world out there ain't gonna be like that. Some people, Colored or other, ain't never gonna want to see no black man looking too happy. God speed."
Joe turned away from the pool hall and looked up to the television set. As I opened my mouth he put his hand up to stop me.
As the World Turns was starting.
Carmen showed us the room available for rent. It was small, right across from the kitchen and under the stairs, but a window looked onto the garden. I knew I could work with it.
We followed her back down the hall and into "the parlor." I looked around, taking it all in. The gilt mirror over the mahogany fireplace, the wainscoting, the decanters on the drinks cabinet, the ceiling cornices, the Oriental rugs and the pocket doors that closed off another room. The smell of the old didn't bother me.
She eased down onto the edge of a chair and motioned for us to take a seat. Richard headed for the chair to her right.
"Not in that chair, dear heart," she said. "It may not appear so, but the arm is loose and I can't be bothered to have it mended. I broke it when I was a child. When fine things begin to fall apart, only then do they reveal their true essence. Trust." Richard made his way over and joined us on the sofa.
"So. What is it that you boys do," she said, and after a brief pause, "for a living?"
I listened, getting nervous, as they spoke. Scott was a model, Richard a lawyer. Carmen focused on them with debutante attention and it took everything I had not to start twisting my hair. When they finished she looked at me.
"I don't have a job." I found myself thinking, Oh, now you wanna tell the truth. I could feel the sweat huddling in my armpits, ready to fall like rain from a dark cloud on a New Orleans afternoon. "Yet."From the Hardcover edition.
Excerpted from The Queen of Harlem by Brian Keith Jackson. Copyright © 2002 by Brian Keith Jackson. Excerpted by permission of Broadway, a division of Random House, Inc. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.