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Macon Everett Detornay fisted the wheel and swung his new yellow cab downtown. Hip hop didn’t raise no moon-eyed loverboys, and Macon would be dead before the thought of whittling down passion from a blunt lump to a harpoon, something you could aim at a person, would take shape inside him. All the things he loved were too big, comical to throw your arms around like carnival prize teddy bears: truth, revolution, huge nonexistent shit like that.
It was a little past rush hour now, and Macon flipped on his radio and relaxed as the venerable voice of Kool DJ Red Alert introduced an old-school set on Hot 97 FM, the station whose tagline, “Where hip hop lives,” had inspired more than one underground MC to declare himself dead. As the omnipotent what’s-hot-what’s-not market arbiter of the late nineties, Hot 97 had played matchmaker for hip hop and psychotic materialism, advising hip hop to stop returning phone calls from former lovers like Black Power and Social Responsibility, encouraging the couple to move in together, and finally, in an exclusive Aspen ceremony attended by three hundred CEOs and only a handful of artists and project-housing thugs, to exchange diamond-flooded Rolexes and sign the merger deal in blood. When the honeymoon waned, the station placated hip hop’s ornery elders, pissed and financially slighted, by paying periodic tribute to “the pioneers of the old school” with five-second announcements encouraging their audience of fourteen-year-old wannabe gangster macks to “know their history.”
None of which had jack to do with Red; his drive-time show remained untainted bypayola, his very employment a paean to purer days. The crossfader glided clean across the mixer and into a classic, dancing New York City’s newest cabdriver straight down memory lane. “I useta roll up / this is a hold up, ain’t nothin’ funny / stop smilin’, be still / don’t nothin’ move but the money,” Rakim Allah intoned, smooth with the roughness, reflecting on the tax-free paper he had clocked before he “learned to earn / cause I’m Righteous”: before he joined the Five Percent Nation and gained Knowledge of Self and realized that the Original Asiatic Black Man was the Maker, the Owner, the Cream of the Planet Earth, Father of Civilization and God of the Universe. Before he became part of the Five Percent of the population who overstood the Supreme Mathematics and threw off the shackles of mental slavery to become Poor Righteous Teachers.
Macon knew the Five Percenters’ rules as well as any whiteboy could, first from listening to the lyrics of the Righteous and then from living at Lajuan’s crib in Jamaica Plain for the last fifteen months, where black men who called themselves Gods sat around all day with eyelids quartermasted from smoking blunts and drinking ninety-nine-cent twenty-two-ounce Ballantines, talking about women who were not called Earths, as doctrine dictated, but bitches. The apartment was a degenerate sitcom: jokes and laugh tracks, heated interlocking minutes of family therapy, “Son, son, listen” interruptions, sex convo and chess games and rhymes and rhymes and beats to the rhymes and the every-occasion, rain-sleet-or-pestilence query “Who’s going to the weedspot?”; long- ass conversations that flipped general to specific and then back again in an endless, fascinating, and pointless battle of verbs and philosophy, volume and religion, rhetoric and flowskills.
Macon had learned the most from Jihad, the big-entrance- making uninvited drop-in neighbor the audience loved: a Newport-smoking, monologue-spitting herbologist with matching Nikes for every rugby shirt he owned and a penchant for talking the esoteric God Body Science of the Five Percenters from one mouth corner and hustle-ego-watch-me as unfiltered as New York tap water out the other. Macon’s star-vehicle spin-off, cats joked, would be a show called Adopted Brother. They plotted episodes in the perennial back-alley twilight that slashed in sideways from the street lamp and gave the dust something to dance in besides the glow of the forever-on TV.
Chinese takeout boxes filled the garbage can, and a ten-pound bag of white rice lived a bachelor’s life in the one uncorroded cabinet. Cats would go to the store for hot sauce, barbecue sauce, ranch dressing, go to McDonald’s and jack three hundred little ketchup packets, whatever you could pour on rice for flavor. Only on Sunday afternoons did they sit down and really eat, and then only because when Macon moved in he’d instituted-slash-sponsored the ritual of family dinners. They’d make turkey lasagna, Jihad and Aura grating cheese into silver mixing bowls and making Sal’s Pizzeria jokes from Do the Right Thing and Macon sitting in Lajuan’s room, where he hid to do his writing, scribbling in a notebook and listening at the same time, overhearing and folding what was overheard into his thoughts like mushrooms into an omelet.
Everything was always too much in that crib; the drinks too strong, the weed too harsh, the conversation too aggressive, the chess battles waged on the bootleg coffee table too long and reckless, the music too loud. Dudes cut each other off, spoke fast and until interrupted, acted like the dilettante scientific and social analogies they constructed were the perfect tools of proof—which somehow they often were, like “Naah, son . . . SON! Do the knowledge: Boom, it’s like magnetic attraction. The gravitation doesn’t work unless the shit is mutual, so ‘love is blind’ is Now Cipher, God. It’s like how some cats say that niggas can’t be racist, you know, you know the science on that, you can’t be racist unless you have the power to be racist, so boom, you can’t say you in love unless you both in love; one person in love is like the sound of one hand clapping, God.”
Macon switched lanes without signaling, loving the order and chaos of Manhattan driving, and made an arbitrary right turn. He’d learned his way around already, before he’d even posed for his driver’s ID; it had taken him all of a week. New York was simple, a grid: choices galore, traffic laws optional. Boston, by contrast, was a lunatic maze of dead ends and one-ways, a city whose streets had evolved from cowpaths to highways with no sign of topological supervision. Macon had spent all twenty years of his life there, and even on his final day of work at the charter-car service, he’d gotten lost carting a vanful of Japanese businessmen to a suburban conference. Now exhilaration filled him and he tightened his left-handed grip on the wheel: Fuck racist-ass, provincial Boston. New York City, baby. Here at last. The center of the universe. He turned the music up, digging the unity of place and soundscape, relishing not just his understanding of each line of Rakim’s verse, but the fact that he could scarcely remember a time when he hadn’t known this shit.
With idle pride, Macon scrolled through some of what he knew. The Ten Percent were the bloodsuckers of the poor. They had Knowledge of Self but were not Righteous, and they preyed on the ignorance of the Eighty-Five who were Deaf, Dumb, and Blind to the truth. The Divine Alphabet allowed Gods and Earths to communicate in code; when Sadat X from Brand Nubian rhymed “the born cipher cipher master / makes me think much faster,” he meant the b-o-o-m, the boom, the weed. One hundred and twenty sacred Lessons awaited mastery; Jihad had sometimes disappeared behind a plywood bedroom door to study, or claim he was studying and smoke a blunt for dolo. Elijah Muhammad’s old Caucasian creation myth—the evil scientist Dr. Yacub grafts a barbaric white race from the Original Asiatic Black, a warlike people banished to the caves of cold, dark Europe but destined to rule the earth for sixty centuries—was tacitly endorsed, and white folks were called devils.
But were all white people devils? Could there be exceptions? What about that dude Paul C., who’d engineered Eric B. & Rakim’s album? What about Macon, who built with the Gods morning, noon, and night, passed out alongside them on perpendicular couches with his sneakers touching theirs, high off shared wack buddha? Macon had lost sleep looking for a loophole back in 1990, when the smoovest MC on the planet was Grand Puba Maxwell, asking “Can a Devil fool a Muslim? No, not nowadays bro,” and declaring, “It’s time to drop the bomb and make the Devil pay the piper.”
From Macon’s confusion had bubbled anger. How dare black people not see him as an ally, not recognize that he was down? He retaliated by studying their history, their culture: He was a thirteen-year-old whiteboy in a Malcolm X T-shirt, alone at the first annual Boston Hip Hop Conference, heart fluttering with intimidation and delight as scowling bald-headed old schoolers pointed at his chest, demanding, “Whatchu know about that man?” Which was exactly what he’d wanted, why he’d worn it. He ran down Malcolm’s life for them, watched them revise their expressions with inward elation, nodded studiously at their government assassination theories, rhymed when the chance presented itself. Tagged other graffiti writers’ blackbooks and wondered what it would take to be scratched from the devil list for good.
And yet history was overwhelming, and down deep Macon knew the truth. Who but white folks, his folks, had been so brutal for so long? He’d retreated briefly into his own Judaism, Jewish-not-white, with its analogous history of victimization and enslavement, but he couldn’t make it fit, couldn’t make himself feel Jewish, didn’t know what being Jewish felt like. He tossed the Star of David medallion Grandma had given him back into the dresser after a day, reflecting that race pride was a fashion trend he’d been completely iced out of. The sterling necklace’s drawer mate was the red-green-and-gold Increase the Peace medallion Macon had bought after Three Times Dope released their single of the same name; he’d copped it from a Downtown Crossing vendor as a less fly but more plausible alternative to the Africa medallions everybody was rocking post–Jungle Brothers. Macon never even wore it in his room.
Instead he lay on his bed in his parents’ house, music streaming past him low enough to go unheard in the kitchen below, and went to work constructing a rhetorical framework that would allow him to embrace the Five Percenters’ truths without capitulating his soul: White people aren’t evil, but evil is white people. There it was. Simple. Elegant. True. It bought Macon space to live in, to be special, angry, the exception, the crusader. The down whiteboy. You my nigga, Macon. You a’ight.
The light clicked green and Red switched up the soundtrack, segueing into “Days of Outrage, Operation Snatchback,” X-Clan’s song about being assaulted by cops at the Yusef Hawkins rally on the Brooklyn Bridge. Macon rolled his window down and dipped his elbow into the warm fall air, smiling. He remembered how when X-Clan’s album dropped in 1990—damn, had it been eight years already?—brothers in Boston had started wearing quasi-military African pimpgear just like them: nose rings, leather ankh caps, red-black-and-green bead necklaces, knee-high boots, carved wooden staffs. Macon had just scraped together the money to buy his first set of turntables that year, some bullshit Geminis, in the hopes of becoming a DJ—hopes soon aborted by impatience, mediocre rhythm, and the fact that he was surrounded by cats who actually caught rek on the decks, who brushed him aside and onto the mic so they could do so.
Brothers would congregate at his crib after school to freestyle and make mix tapes, trooping through the kitchen en route to the basement wearing some outlandish shit and baffling the hell out of his mother. Everyone was perfectly polite—“Hello, Mrs. Detornay”—and his mother said, “Hi, guys,” and smiled back, but if she had suspected before that she didn’t understand her son, a legion of staff-wielding pro-black rappers marching through her kitchen and interrupting her People magazine perusal certainly confirmed that shit.
A hand shot up on the west side of Wall Street, and Macon swerved to the man’s side. The stiff-armed gesture people used to summon taxis was only a few degrees north of the Nazi salute, Macon reflected as he hit the unlock button, and especially reminiscent when performed by somber-suited young businessmen. The vapors of entitlement that steamed from these yuppies irked him; they were so fucking sure the cab would stop for them. They’d never been snubbed in their lives, sized up and passed by because the driver thought they wouldn’t pay or that they wanted to be taken somewhere ghetto. Back home, Macon had flagged cabs while Lajuan and Aura stood discreetly down the block, pretending not to be with him, approaching only when Macon had the door open. It was another way, he thought with pride, that they had cheated racism.
Two guys in their early thirties clambered into Macon’s backseat. “Eighty-fifth and Fifth,” commanded the one on the left, a wispy blond who didn’t look up from the gold-rimmed glasses he was wiping with his necktie.
“We’re already fucking late,” the other one informed him. “The reservation was for six.” Mr. Punctuality’s dark hair was thinning on top; razor-burn flared from his neck as he pulled off his tie with a meaty left fist and undid his top button. On the night of Macon’s high-school prom, when he had dropped by in his father’s Camry to pick up Aura and his date, Aura’s mother had told Macon to remember three things as she redid his necktie for him: Nothing is sexier than a man who wants to be wearing his suit, nothing is unsexier than a man imprisoned by his suit, and a woman can always tell the difference. These jokers, Macon thought, were prisoners for sure.
The one on the left, Mr. Eighty-fifth and Fifth, had the same rock-solid Roman nose as a guy Macon had known in high school, a senior when Macon was a freshman. Scott Cartwright was probably president of his fraternity; he’d been lacrosse captain back then. Out of the blue one day, he had stopped Macon in the hall outside the cafeteria and poked a thick finger into Macon’s bird-chest.
“You think you’re pretty fuckin’ cool, huh, dude? Sitting at the black table, kickin’ it like you’re Vanilla Ice or something?”
Cartwright turned his dirty white baseball cap backward and bent into Macon’s face. “People laugh at you, dude. I don’t even know you, and I sit there and laugh my fuckin’ ass off.” Macon had stood for a moment staring back, tightroping the thread between provocation and cowardice, then asked, “Are we finished?” He’d been going for a kind of Sir, request dismissal tone, but Macon couldn’t disguise his boredom and the words sounded insolent instead. Scott slammed him up against a locker, mad corny, like they were characters in a John Hughes movie, and Macon wanted to want to laugh, but instead his ears burned and he wanted to kill Scott Cartwright, hated himself because at that moment he cared what Scott Cartwright thought of him—felt ridiculous, ashamed. And yet Macon knew he’d courted this. He wanted his defection from whiteness and his acceptance by black people to be public, the subject of wonder and envy, anger and scorn.
Just then Omari had rounded the corner: Macon’s homeboy, Cartwright’s co-captain. Scott backed away, sheathed his hands in khaki pockets, watched Macon give Omari a pound and followed suit. As soon as the rapper/midfielder went on his way, Scott’s finger was right back in Macon’s face.
“You better watch your fuckin’ attitude, bro. I don’t care how tight you are with the niggers. I’ll kick your fuckin’ ass.”
The passenger on the left, Scott’s look-alike, was cursing at his cell phone. “I can’t get a fucking signal on this piece of shit,” he said, slapping it closed against his leg.
“Forget it, man.” Punctuality rapped twice on the partition. “Hey, turn that down, will you?” Macon reduced the music to a whisper. Every passenger but one had made the same request. “I gotta hear enough of this shit as it is,” Punctuality told Scott. “Two in the morning last night, these guys in their fuckin’ SUVs are rattling my windows three floors up.”
“What I want to know,” said Scott, “is how they can afford forty-thousand-dollar cars. With custom stereos.”
Punctuality laughed. “We’re in the wrong business, bro.”
“Seriously, dude. First thing tomorrow, I’m gonna go get an Adidas sweatsuit and find myself a nice street corner. Sell a little crack and buy myself a Lexus.”
Macon tightened his grip on the steering wheel and tried to concentrate on the road. The two passengers were silent for a minute. As Macon merged onto the FDR, Scott spoke.
“So who’s this girl tonight? Kim’s friend?”
“Her name is Kaliyah, Kalikah, something like that.”
“Yeah.” Scott played with his phone and Macon couldn’t take it: He knew them too well, better than he knew himself, knew what they were thinking and everything they’d ever thought and it was vile, all of it, smug and oblivious. The eternal fear of wak-ing up as one of these mix-and-matchable bar-hopping assholes kept Macon clenched with vigilance, tight as a fist. Loathing frothed within him, bubbled over the sides of its containment vat, and splattered onto Macon’s rational mind. It was corrosive. He jerked the wheel, hand crossing over hand. A vertebrae popped as Macon leaned into the turn; his biceps flared and he felt the tattoo there burn as if it had just been etched into his skin. A sweat-drip blotted in his armpit, horns blared past him, other drivers cursed him and their spittle flew against the insides of their windows. The cab cut right across two lanes and veered onto the shoulder of the highway. Macon mashed the brakes, and Cartwright and Punctuality careened forward, heads colliding with the scratched plas- tic partition, then fell back into their seats as the taxi recoiled. Macon’s shirt stuck to his skin, soaked; a few seconds of adrenaline was all it took.
In the backseat, terror turned to anger just as fast. “What the fuck?” Scott roared, bracing his arms and legs against the door, the walls, the floor. “What are you, some kind of maniac?”
Macon slapped a button and the silver door locks bulleted into their sheaths. Scott clawed with his thumb and index finger, trying to pull one of the little cylinders back up. His friend watched and mimicked, laying fumbling hands on his own panel. Macon’s face was as flushed as theirs were ashen, as if both their blood now flowed through his body, or he’d leaned for hours over fire. He fist-banged the glove box and the door dropped open with a squeak. Metal scraped plastic and Macon slid backward across the worn vinyl seat until the meter jabbed him in the back. With both hands clamped around it, he thrust a heavy, empty .38 caliber pistol into the small space in the partition and sighed hugely: a gust of human exhaust that filled whatever space was left in the small cabin. He could smell his air and both of theirs, all three mouths stale and disgusting, their breath meeting the gunmetal and the cab plastic and cab vinyl so that the car stank like a microphone in heavy freestyle rotation. Macon always sniffed the mic. A small perversion.
“Shut the fuck up,” he said, eyes darting from one to the other, other to the one, gun barrel following his glance, mind dancing just above the moment. Control flowed up from the gun and coursed through Macon’s body. He had to remind himself to keep his hands clenched as the rest of him relaxed. His toes laughed. Thighs, tingled. It was all Macon could do not to turn and sneak a peek in the rearview. He knew he looked heroic, and he knew he was invisible to them behind the mass of postings, stickers, and graffiti signatures that covered the partition. All Cartwright and Punctuality saw was a gun.
“Take out your wallets and leave them on the seat,” Macon commanded, giddiness mounting as he heard his own gruff, not-to-be-fucked-with voice. He wagged the gun a centimeter, pointing. “And your phone, Cartwright.” A final inspiration: “And both your neckties. Hurry. Look up and I’ll shoot you in the face.” Gun back-and-forth inclusive.
“Okay,” Punctuality stammered, awash in more sweat than Macon had ever seen except the time he went to Celtics pre-camp with his dad and Reggie Lewis—rest in peace—was taking a reporter’s question afterward and Macon, barely knowing why, reached out and touched Reggie’s huge forearm, slick and glinting with warm sweat. Macon had drawn back immediately, embarrassed at the wetness, and Reggie had looked at him and smiled, and Macon had grinned back, almost crying.
Punctuality flailed, words and limbs. “Just don’t hurt us,” he said again and again, hand shaking as he took the necktie from his jacket pocket and, Macon noted with amusement, folded it into a neat, even swath. Scott was faring better. His tie was jumbled in his hands and he stared into his lap with great focus, as if wanting his assailant to take special note of his willingness to cooperate. The thought of making them strip naked barreled through Macon’s mind, but he declined to detain it.
Two leather wallets, a flip-top StarTac cell phone, a Motorola pager, a Donna Karan tie, a Gianni Versace knockoff, and two silvery watches lay on the backseat between them.
“I didn’t ask for any watches,” Macon said. He buzzed down the right rear window. “Throw them out.” The wristwear hit the tarmac, and Macon sealed the portal.
“All right.” He turned back toward the road. “Now. Where were we going? Eighty-fifth and Fifth, was it?”
“Can-can’t you drop us off right here?” Scott’s voice was meek and shivery, a poverty-stricken cartoon rodent on the night before Christmas. “Please?” He threw his shoulder at the door again.
“You sure, homeboy? I wouldn’t want Kim and her black friend to think you’d stood them up.”
Macon’s gut clenched with suppressed laughter as he wondered what they’d say to that one. A few ticks passed in silence, and then Punctuality was hyperventilating, choking on huge droughts of air, eyes bulging to the blood-veins, too frenzied for caution. “Why are you doing this to me?” he brayed as tears blazed down his face.
Scott grabbed Punctuality by the scruff of the neck and pulled him down into his lap—a blow-me motion Macon was sure he’d executed many times before.
“Shut up, dude, get a hold of yourself.” Punctuality thrashed, pushed off of Scott’s thigh with his hand, and sat straight, dripping tears and snot. He tried to look at Macon, but Scott yoked him again, and this time Punctuality went limp. The sobs mounted and he mumbled words between them: “What”—sob—“do”—sob—“you”—sob choke snot sob—“want-from-me?” Sob sob gulp-swallow recap. “Why me-he-hee?”
Macon considered the question for a moment, then turned to answer, his voice slicing through the slot in the partition. “Because you’re an ignorant white devil asshole, and you and everybody like you deserves to be robbed every day of your life,” he said. “Now get the fuck out of here. If I see you even halfway looking at my plates, I’ll back up and run your stupid asses over. Move.”
He hit the unlock button and they scrambled out onto the shoulder of the highway, Scott pulling Punctuality onto his feet. Macon peeled off, merged into the middle lane, and swerved so the door swung shut. He slumped low, steering with his right fist, gun wedged underneath his thigh. Shock, horror, and an absurd, spastic euphoria tussled for control of him, each one pushing the next off the podium.
By Fifty-ninth Street, euphoria had Macon’s ear. The perfect crime, it hissed. No photo up yet, no way those jokers saw your plates or memorized the cab ID. He started laughing when he thought of what he’d told them. This had been the first time, Macon was certain, that those guys ever regretted the color of their skin.