Make sure you’ve got a wax.
And your nail polish ain’t chipped.
And your kitchen is clean.
And you’ve been seeing your therapist.
And you take off your eyeliner before bed.
And you drink a bunch of water.
And you have a book on you.
And something to write with.
And you stay in touch with the folks back home.
And that your eyebrows look decent.
And that you use a condom.
And you make a to-do list if that’ll help you stay focused, and that you put “drink some more water” on it.
And you make your bed before you leave the house.
And that you know how to cook something.
And that you deep-condition often.
And that your boss would write you a good recommendation letter.
And that your coworkers don’t know all your business.
And that you know how you’re getting home from the party.
And that you have your keys out before you get to the door.
And that you’ve paid Sallie.
And that your headphones are definitely in before you start playing Webbie on your work computer.
And that you’ve put at least an hour behind it — whatever your passion is — every single day.
And that you’ve got some basic white tops that are still white under the arms.
And that you have a go-to hairstyle for the day before wash day.
And that you’ve inquired about your parent’s health.
And that you’ve thought about it before you start running your mouth about it.
And that you don’t text him when you’re emotional.
And that you have something classy queued up when your boss asks what you’re drinking. And that you have a glass of water before you drink it.
And that you know where your birth certificate and shit is.
And that you’ve eaten something green today.
And that you didn’t leave your metro card in your other bag.
And that you won’t be out of breath when we have to run from the zombies.
And that Jesus would speak up for you if the bomb hit us today.
And that you remember people’s names.
And that you do it all with love.
And that you drink even more water.
Everyone was outside that day. Rorrey and Kelly and Drew, Leon and Deon in their matching basketball shorts, Chaz — the only only-child on the block — and Justin — poor, poor Justin — out there with his 5 older brothers, all of ‘em dark as a chalkboard and finer than a pack of Malaysian Remy.
This girl Kayla, who looked like she went to the beauty shop every morning and would hop out of her dad’s Lexus with a crisp $100 bill for lunch money, called him musty after recess one day, and now no amount of soap, detergent or deodorant could rid poor Justin of the adjective. The alpha female had spoken, and now you had to hold your nose and pretend like he was a walking fart, lest you become musty by association.
But it was summer now and Kayla didn’t count in the summer. All that mattered was how much we could spend at the Cool Cup Lady, or whether the ball would get wedged between the rim and the backboard, or who could skate to the end of the cul de sac fastest, or which one of us was brave enough to go see Lexi.
The answer was nobody. Not even Daniel, who my parents had just let off punishment — who was always on punishment — was brave enough to fuck with Lexi. Shoot, only a couple of us were even saying “fuck” yet, but we all knew she was the fucking worst. No one could tell you this for a fact, but facts weren’t going to save you when it came to Lexi. Chaz heard they fed her hot sauce for breakfast. Hot sauce on top of gunpowder, Leon said. Kelly swore she had little points for teeth that got sharpened every night, and she put that on everything. Justin was like, “aww yall some punks” and if Lexi was out here right now, he’d prolly walk up and give her a pound. We were like shut up Justin, you couldn’t get a pound of cheese from the government. There is only but so much redemption in the summer.
We went back to our rollerblades and our bikes and basketballs. There was a water treatment facility at the end of our cul de sac, separated by a flimsy gate that had a gap just big enough for a skinny 5th grader to squeeze right on through it. I was as much of a wandering recluse then as I am now, and that rounded end of our street was my favorite place to go when I wanted to be in my own head again. I’d skate back there with my Moesha braids swangin’, listening to Brandy’s “Sittin’ on Top of the World” on my portable CD player, then clutch my hands around the gate and imagine the world behind it. I wouldn’t dare squeeze through it, because of the mutant wasteland that I just knew it became after dark, when there was nobody around like me to keep an eye on it.
I was shaken out of my daydream by what can only be described as a rift in the space-time continuum. I turned around, the burned ends of my braids slapping me in the face, and saw that a real life wasteland had begun to develop behind me. The side gate that opened to my neighbor’s backyard was swinging open and creaking slowly, like an ominous horror movie sign that we were all about to die. Basketballs bounced off without their owners. Half-eaten orange and blue cool cups fell to the ground. “Tops Drop” by Fat Pat had been playing out of somebody’s trunk, but now the block had gone silent. Someone screamed, “LEXI’S OUUUTTTT” like Omar was coming around the corner with a sawed off shotty, calmly whistling the Farmer in the Dell. Our house was about six houses up from the facility and I had about six seconds to get to my front door before Lexi did.
Kids were running for their lives, screaming like the Boogie Man was real and had just come through their bedroom windows. Nobody was supposed to step on Mrs. Parker’s lawn, but now it had footprints from our neon Jellies and worn out Airmaxes all up and through her pristine grass. People’s mamas stood on their doorsteps, arms outstretched for their babies to jump into, closing blinds, doors and curtains behind them. I looked to my left and swore I saw Deon climbing a tree; to my right, Justin was screaming on the hood of a car, probably very musty as he flailed his arms around his head. Even his big brothers, who thought they were so cool, like their mama’s didn’t make them come in and say grace over the meatloaf when the streetlights came on, were holding their saggy blue jeans up while running, not even worried about creasing their new Jordans.
The fluffy little white dog named Lexi, no bigger than the suitcases 5-year-old girls carry through the airport, was running too, barking in every general direction, going around in circles and yapping, jumping up and down and probably more confused and excited than anything else. We were all terrified, in the wasteland of our own creation, until Ms. Terry came out and told that dog to get on back in here and stop scarin’ these kids. The streetlights weren’t even on yet, on a summer evening, and there wasn’t a kid, basketball or pair of rollerblades in sight. Lexi didn’t bite anybody, but it was summer and facts didn’t count in the summer. We’d be out there tomorrow, talking about the vicious monster that ate gunpowder and hot sauce, how it only “looks” innocent, and how we had all survived it’s terrible wrath.
The people on the bus spoke to each other like characters in a Spike Lee Joint. Brittany said, “Hi Ms. Anna!” when she climbed up at her stop, the paper bags from the Giant wrapped between her wrinkled up fingers. Ms. Anna said hi back, then asked her how the baby was doing. He was doing good, she said. Just starting pre-kindergarten.
My seatmate had on a Dallas Cowboys beenie and when the driver saw it, he made like he was going to close the folding doors on her and the box of Krispy Kremes that was so big she had to hold it with both hands. “Don’t get on here with that trash!” he said in his Washington football scarf, jerking his thumb toward the back with his lips gathered up to one side of his face. I could see them in the rearview that was hanging above his head as she tried to swat at him from behind her donuts, like “boy quit playin’!” or “you better be lucky my hands are full!”
She asked him to not be mad that her team had kicked something or punted it or did some shit better than his, and he was like, “naw! naw!” and they went back and forth about it the whole time — longer than I payed attention for. I don’t think they even knew each other but it was like they’d been going at it since the playground, repeating whatever they heard their dad’s yell at the refs on TV the night before.
I sunk into my seat and looked out the window. I never come out here — east of the river, “the other side of the tracks” — and I never have a reason to. Anacostia, Congress Heights, Naylor Road. We don’t hang out outchea. There isn’t a Pret or an H&M or one of those new beer gardens outchea. There was a liquor store and a community center and Troy’s Barber Shop next to Bethuel Temple Church of Christ Apostolic. The United Black Fund was on the corner, with the Clara Muhammad school and a Chinese carry-out just down the block. There were Pan-African flags on some doorposts and others had murals of beautiful, big-lipped saxophonists or well-known activists spray painted on the sides.
I saw two ladies in green scrubs laughing to each other as they headed down MLK, probably ki-ki-ing on their lunch break after some good ear-hustling at the water cooler. I saw a crew of guys pulling industrial vacuum cleaners and floor buffers out the bed of a pickup, and a group of high schoolers playing ball in the courtyard of Thurgood Marshall Academy, looking like the opening sequence of the Fresh Prince of Bel-Air. I was like, dang, people (certain people) are always like, “watch out for south east,” “stay away from south east, “ohh, what were you doing in south east?” The paint’s not fresh on any of the buildings and it’s still risky to put that zip code on a loan application, but the people on the bus know each other.
They ask how So-and-So’s doing and about Ms. Anna’s arthritis and the how Brittany’s EMT training is coming along. And they make fun of each other the way we used to make fun of this boy Calvin for wearing them tight ass t-shirts, though we’d always dap him up and say, “alright Calvo!” before the bell rang. The bus stopped abruptly, just past a stop in front of an old man’s house, who was watching it all from the chair on his porch. My seatmate hollered, “hey!”, and told the driver to stop running his mouth, then maybe he’d remember where to let folks off at. She lumbered with her box of donuts up to the front and laughed her way off the bus. The driver laughed too, swatting at her elbow as she past him down the stairs. I looked at Ms. Anna and Brittany and So-and-So, and we all laughed along with them.
There were hardly any black people in town. Five hundred, tops, and that included babies, base heads, the elderly, and everyone on the high school football team. She was definitely the only black lady at her job, working at a diesel engine company that had ramped up recruiting at schools like Tennessee State and A&T, sending all those country negroes out to set roots in states like Iowa and Wisconsin. They’d go up there after 4 years of living in a real life Soul Train line and suddenly be like little specks of pepper spilled on a white table cloth. She was an account manager, selling monster engines to companies that made freightliners and cabs for 18-wheelers, her 110-pound frame barely big enough to wrap her arms around one.
It was already an unconventional job for a woman, but especially for one with eyes like Diane Ross and a tongue slicker than the conk on Little Richard. She worked in a bullpen with a bunch of good ol’ boys from Ohio State and Michigan who had never said more than two words to a black person, and they loved her. On Fridays they would all just bullshit around the office, and, being the only black person there willing to talk about blackness (the other one had come down with a severe case of racial colorblindness after his first semester at Harvard), she would drink her pop and field all their dumb-ass questions about race and black folks. And she had fun with it, too. One time somebody said that he was glad to have met her, because before then he thought all black people walked around with knives just waiting at the ready. Without missing a beat, she grabbed the letter opener in her drawer and held it up just enough for them to see the sharp, shiny tip. “Ah yeah,” she said. “We do.” They laughed like the studio audience when George Jefferson would call his neighbor a honky.
She did her thing though; dated one or two white guys from around town but didn’t take any of them too serious. It was 1974 and she had just finished college, already making enough bank to send a check home to LaGrange every now and then. She wasn’t studyin’ nobody or no thing. Her only worry was what club or lounge she was hitting that night, or which Motown singer to style her hair after, or which city to skip off to that weekend. Ol’ girl was living. Her second month in town, she walked into a car dealership on the edge of the city and pointed to a canary yellow convertible that matched the oversize sunglasses she had just pushed up behind her ears. “Ooh!’ she shrieked. “I want that one!” Baby girl was living indeed
She’d drive it down to the college in neighboring Bloomington, let the top back and play Marvin Gaye while she snaked through the winding roads of the tree-lined campus, watching the leaves flicker up around her. Her short, loose curls would blow in the wind and the silk scarf tied around her neck would follow. Hours would be lost in that foliage, singing along to “Distant Lover” and thinking that life didn’t get much better than that. She had become friends with another gal-about-town, and the two of them would drive that yellow MGB all up and down 65, often going as far south as Alabama and as far over as Chicago. They would get fried fish plates that tasted like the mom and pop spots near the dorms at TSU, juke all night in those legendary nightclubs owned by Pervis Staples, then crash at her big sister’s apartment for the rest of the weekend. She was living indeed.
But of course things changed. And it didn’t take long either. Columbus was a union town and a bunch of employees had started protesting the company’s hiring of these “outsiders” instead of promoting from within. Her work friends, those guys who used to think she was so clever and fun, were cold and distant now, making it clear they weren’t the allies they once seemed to be. She used to go strawberry picking with some of their young housewives on the weekends, and they’d send her jarred preserves and warm pies wrapped in foil to the office the next day. Now, she barely got hellos. She went outside one Friday, ready to head to Nashville for the weekend, and all four tires on that cute yellow convertible had been slashed open. And nobody in the picket line could seem to recall seeing a thing.
Plus the town’s overall homogeneity had started to weigh on her. She had been dating a Ken doll who was working on his master’s at the University of Michigan, but things had gone as far as she knew they would go. Her dad had been an essential part of the movement in LaGrange, even taking the city to court over districting policies that kept black folks disenfranchised, while her mama ran the community center that would allow little offshoots of SNCC and other groups to meet there after hours. Plus her brothers seemed to get in fights with white guys for breakfast — at least for that entire first year that LaGrange High was integrated. The Ken was cool, showing up with baby blue boxes, but her heart pumped red, black and green. There were a couple of guys at her job who had been recruited from TSU and North Carolina as well, but they had imported their Kappa Sweethearts into town and settled down with the quickness. It was hard and lonesome being the pepper, feeling like you could get swept off the dinner table at any minute.
Things got even more lonely when she realized she may be in over her head with the home girl she’d been traipsing with to Chicago. They had gone to a party for some magazine the girl was modeling for, and saw her in the centerfold spread, butt ass naked on horseback wearing a smile and a cowboy hat. She knew then that it was time to go.
Most of her friends and line sisters from college started moving to Houston, but she wasn’t sure just yet about what to do. There was a copy of Black Enterprise Magazine in the top right drawer of her desk — the same one that held her knife/letter opener — and she happened to turn right to an article highlighting the “Boom Cities for Blacks of the 1970s.” Houston and Atlanta were the top two. She closed her eyes and put her finger on the page, whispering “eenie meenie mynie moe” as her cherry red manicure moved from one column to the other.
She landed on Houston. I was born a couple years later. I don’t think she ever looked back.