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"Wait a minute, Ruffin. Owners have some rights too, you know, so be patient..."
The dog was in danger of breaking my wrist so I untangled the leash and moved away from the stoop and toward the curb. The sky was slate gray for Aprilnot my favorite colorand the temperature could have used a little juicing up also. Just a few minutes outdoors and already my feet felt as if I had stepped in a bucket of ice.
...Maybe I just oughtta walk the dog and go back in the house. Let that boy come home in the rain without his jacket. That would teach him a lesson, but then, I'd probably be up all night nursing his cough.
...Just like an eleven-year-old, never wants to hear anything that resembles advice. Told him the weather wasn't going to warm up anytime soon but did he listen? Now I had to call him at rehearsal to wait there until I bring his coat.
...Well, I get a chance to walk the dog again, or trot beside him if he decides to slow down. Sometimes I can't figure out who's walking whom...
...I shouldn't complain. Alvin's adjusted to the group. He likes the singing, and the nightmares are not nearly as bad as they used to be...
I lingered for a minute and gazed down the block, a row of three- and four-story brownstones with iron filigree balconies and narrow, French-curtained windows. They called it Strivers Row because of the black professionals who owned property on the block.
I was born here thirty-one years ago, and as far as I could remember, the houses had remained unchanged through the years. Now the gray and brown facades took on a silken sheen from the mist that hung in the air.
The branches of the trees were still bare, but several gardens showed signs of life. From Adam Clayton Powell Boulevard to Frederick Douglass Boulevard, behind old iron railings layers of forsythia, shaped into rounded hedges, had bloomed into brilliant yellow almost overnight.
They looked warm and inviting and hinted at spring but I was still cold. I pulled my hat down and jacket collar up and steered Ruffin toward Powell Boulevard, listening to the light tip-tip of his paws on the wet pavement. The delicate sound was deceptive for a Great Dane.
The rain had driven all but a few hardy souls from the street, which was fine. It was Saturday afternoon and the wet weather meant fewer children to watch out for and Ruffin wouldn't have to be reined in quite so tightly.
On the avenue, we passed the old Renaissance Casino dance hall near 138th Street, which had been boarded up for years. Under its weather-worn marquee, the long-haulers who regularly drove up from Georgia and South Carolina were already set up and selling their produce despite the rain. We usually bought smoked hams, pig tails, collards, yams, and jars of honey here, and in another month or so, we'd buy string beans, corn, and watermelon fresher and cheaper than the local stores but, still, it was depressing to look at the faded marquee overhead.
Lately, I had begun to feel differently. When David Dinkins and Charles Rangel arranged to have Abyssinian Baptist Church buy the hall, my depression lifted. "That grand old ballroom will be renovated, it's going to reopen," I said. "Harlem's coming back."
My father had raised one eyebrow and smiled. "My dear girl, Harlem never left. It can go through a million changes and never change. Harlem," he said, "is a state of mind, an essence. It's not defined by one building. Of course it helps to see that place open and functioning again, and I tip my hat to those guys who tapped the mortgage, but they gotta get the deed in the hands; gotta get title to the place."
"What if they don't?"
"Well if a general loses a fort doesn't mean he's lost the war. It means he has to revise his battle plans."
Listening to him was like opening a history book, only better sometimes. "You're just kids," he used to say to my sister and me, "but I'm gonna show you anyway so you'll know where all the old neighborhood dance halls, nightclubs, and after-hours spots used to be. And why everybody, not just from downtown, but from around the world, wanted to visit at least once. This is history, and since you're Harlem babies, I want you to know it."
And he had walked us, two little girls, into the past, pointing out the Club Baby Grand on 125th Street where Willie and Ray, the deejays, had broadcast their rhythm and blues; the old Cotton Club, where the black chorus girls couldn't be any darker than the cream in the white gangster-owner's coffee. The Savoy, "Home of Happy Feet"; Minton's Playhouse, the serious jazz hangout. And Jock's Place, Smalls' Paradise, and the Red Rooster. That was just for starters.
My father, Jeffrey Anderson, teaches music. When he was younger, he had spent weekends rolling his bass fiddle from one club to another and then into one of the after-hours spots to greet the dawn.
He had jammed with the best jazz men in town, out of town, and those just passing through town, and spoke of the politicians and movie stars he had met in the clubs: George Raft had once lit his cigarette with a solid gold lighter. Adam Clayton Powell, Sugar Ray Robinson, and Willie Mays had shaken his hand. He had small-talked with big-time gangsters and had been tipped a whole week's salary by a numbers baron just for a solo. And more times than he cared to think about, he had gotten out of a joint just minutes before it was raided by the cops.
"Folks scramblin' for the door like they was rushin' off the Titanic," he said. "Those were hot places and some hot times, man."
Those times and all of those places gone, but somebody said that was progress. My sister is also gonedead two yearsand I wonder who else could point out the exact spot on Lenox Avenue where the Golden Gate Ballroom and the Savoy and the Club Sudan once stood. Dad misses those old times, but he still has his students, more than he can make time for. And I have Alvin, my sister's son, and am showing him these places, the same way Dad showed me.
Ruffin continued to pull on the leash, as if he knew exactly where we were going....I'm glad I called that boy to let him know we're coming. Especially today. Sometimes he takes a different route even though I tell him not to...
I cut through 138th Street, a block much like my own with old brownstones, small front gardens, and bare-limbed trees lining the curb. The street was deserted now because of the rain.
Midway into the block, I saw Ruffin's ears perk up. Then I heard the commotion. A car had halted several yards away and a struggle was taking place near the car's rear door. The cries, high-pitched and frightened, moved through the driving rain.
"Lemme go! Naw! Lemme...go!"
Instinct, a dangerous and sometimes necessary thing, took hold, and before I knew it, I was running forward, forgetting I was no longer on the force, no longer carrying a weapon, and had only Ruffin trotting beside me.
Through the downpour, the cries came at me. Desperate. This was not the crying of a stubborn child, but a terrified one.
Habit got the better hand and I opened my mouth.
"Police! Don't move!" My voice seemed to float somewhere outside of me. I hadn't shouted those words in two years, but to hell with that now. I yelled again and unclipped Ruffin's leash from his collar, tapped him on his side, and yelled once more.
"Get 'im, Ruffin!" hoping that whoever was trying to harm that kid would appreciate the size of a Great Dane and have sense enough to get away from the scene while he still had legs.
Ruffin's bark should have been enough. He looked like a young colt as he leaped away, covering the distance to the car in less than a second.
I heard a muffled shout and a light pinging sound. A hand shoved the child away from the car and the door slammed shut. The automobile, a black, late-model Cadillac, accelerated and turned screeching onto Seventh Avenue.
I caught sight of "HO" on the plate before it disappeared in the rain.
The child, ten or eleven years old, sat sprawled on the curb in a daze, his hand bleeding and his jeans and jacket rain-soaked. Ruffin paced the ground beside him, quiet now, then trotted over to the middle of the street where a man lay, motionless.
I knelt beside the man, took a closer look, and pressed my hands to my mouth. My friend Erskin Harding, the tour director of the Uptown Children's Chorus, lay in the rain-soaked street, his eyes wide, seeing nothing.