DUCE'S SHRIMP ÉTOUFÉE
1/2 cup (I stick) butter 2 green peppers, chopped I can of Rotel diced toma- toes and chilies 3 cloves garlic, minced 3 stalks celery, chopped 3 green onions, chopped 1 large onion, chopped
Tony's Cajun Seasoning
1 (10-ounce) can cream of mushroom soup 1 pound peeled shrimp 4 cups cooked rice
In a large saucepan, melt the butter over medium heat. Add all ingredients except the soup, shrimp, and rice. Sauté for 10 minutes or until tender.
Add the peeled shrimp, and cook for another 15 minutes. Serve the étoufée in bowls over cooked rice.
37, MARRIED, AIRLINE BAGGAGE HANDLER AND PART-TIME MODEL
Dante, always one who's dressed to impress, comes flying into the library parking lot in a brand-new Humvee that he probably can't afford, and why he's wearing a burgundy leather suit in September is beyond my understanding. Oh, he's cute and everything, but it's only fifty degrees outside, not nearly cold enough for leather--unless, of course, your name is Dante Malone.
Look at him, talking on his cell phone. People walking past him are looking at him like he's crazy because he's got one of those little ear-pieces in his ear that you can't see. They're probably thinking, "Why is this man laughing and talking to himself, wearing a burgundy leather suit in September, and climbing out of a Humvee?" Then again, they're probably looking at him like he's a little strange because he's talking much louder than he needs to be, probably just to draw attention to himself and his new truck, which he's been trying to lock for the last ten minutes. Either he doesn't know what he's doing or he's just taking extralong so that more people can see him using the key to that massive box-shaped truck and think he's rich or something.
"Dante, boy, would you come on over here so we can go inside," I yell. But he looks at me over the top of his shades, which are trimmed in the same shade of burgundy as his suit and alligator shoes, and keeps right on talking--if he's even talking, that is. When he finally gets the door locked and crosses the street, he's chattering away, as usual. "That was my agent on the phone. You know I'm about to get back into modeling. See y'all don't know nothing about Dante Malone. I gots it like that. But enough about me--what's up, ladies? You two are looking lovely as usual, almost as good as me." He laughed as he gave us both a hug, even though we were looking upside his head like he had lost his mind. "Y'all know I'm just kidding--damn, stop looking all crazy. Come on, let me get the door."
Yep, he's still the same old Dante. Ain't nothing changed since high school. He's still cute, conceited, and loud. His hair is still jet black and curly, he's still got those thick eyebrows and long eyelashes the girls always loved, and his skin is still a flawless caramel color. Fortunately, one thing did change: he's grown maybe six inches since high school, which makes him about six-one.
The burgundy leather suit--and I know I keep bringing that up, but it's only because I can't believe he actually wore it--looks good on him because he's nice and slim. He stays in shape by running. He's forever saying he'll never be fat because he comes from "good blood," whatever that means. I'm not hating on Dante, I just think he's a trip. He's always been a trip.
We took the last private room available in the library, and Mr. "I'm Marvelous" finally took off his burgundy shades, and not a minute too soon, because he was beginning to look like a drug dealer or something in all that burgundy, and wearing dark shades in the library in the middle of the day. "Why are your eyes so red, Dante?" I asked, already knowing the answer.
"Wha--Now see, there you go, worrying about the wrong thing,but since you asked, I had to have me a little gin and juice on my way over here so I could be mellowed out for this little interview."
He picked up our sheet of questions, looked them over, and said, "Umm-hmm. Okay, let's get busy, ladies. Y'all know I'm wanted somewhere else as soon as I finish up here, so let me just run it down for you.
"I really didn't have a very eventful childhood, but when I was fourteen, I started hanging out with people who were eighteen or older, and people on the outside looking in said I was growing up too fast. My parents didn't like it, but I wasn't really out there being wild the way people thought I was. People thought I was a ho, but I wasn't.
"Around age sixteen, I started to become interested in cars and women, in that order, and the women I hung around were in their early twenties. I wasn't having sex yet, but I loved being in a fast environment and I loved being in the presence of women who were that old, just to see what they were about. They always thought I was older than I was, and I think that's because I'd been hanging with the older guys for so long. I already had a mustache, so I looked older than most guys my age, and I was already going to clubs. I had the clothes to wear wherever I went 'cause my friends bought them for me, but it wasn't a gay thing. My male friends just wanted to dress me up so I could look appropriate when I was out with them, and I accepted their gifts.
"My mother and father would complain and tell me, 'You growing up too fast. You shouldn't be hanging with older people,' because they were under the impression that I was out there screwing around, but it wasn't like that. I just hung out with them because they liked me. They treated me like I was their little pet. I had the freakiest and richest friends you could have when I was a teenager. I was in an environment where I met people like Grace Jones and Donald Trump. It was an eye-opening experience for me.
"I saw the drugs, the sex, the orgies, all of that at a young age, but I never participated. I could be sitting in a chair just like I am now, and a man and woman would start going at it. Even two women or twomen might get busy right there in front of me, but I just looked and learned. That's why I say the assumptions that people make about another person are not always correct. Just because I hung around with people who were into drugs, sex, partying, and all that, didn't mean I was doing the same thing.
"During high school I had one girlfriend--well, only one I considered a girlfriend. We dated for a while, but I didn't really click with her, because she told me she wanted a baby, and that just threw me off. It was my senior year in high school, and I was like, 'Oh no, sweetie, we're not going to have no baby. Dante ain't ready for that.' Here I was only seventeen, and I hadn't even had sex yet, and she wanted a baby. I guess she didn't know I was a virgin and I didn't bother to tell her, but I was not interested in having a baby or being that serious about anybody, because I believe in God and I felt like he would let me know when the time was right.
"I can't lie. I didn't have a role model when I was growing up. I can't say my dad was a role model for me, because he was a whore and I never respected him as a man. The reason I say that is because when I was around sixteen, I came home from school early one day and caught him messing around with another woman. They were going at it on the living room sofa, the very same sofa that we weren't even allowed to sit on. When I walked in on them, nobody said a word. The woman just got up, pulled on her clothes, and left, but I saw her at the grocery store about a week later, and the slut had the nerve to proposition me. As I got a little older, I began to find out that he knew and had dated a lot of the same women I knew. Word was he'd sleep with anybody if she lay still long enough, and that made me sick because he should've had his ass at home. He didn't have any respect for women. None of the men in my family had a lot of respect for women from what I could see, and I always vowed that I wouldn't be that way.
"I left home and moved to D.C. with two buddies as soon as I graduated from high school, and I was out there trying to break intomodeling and going to even more freak parties. I was like, 'Damn, I want to hit some ass like all these other guys,' but something in me just wouldn't let me do it. Something kept telling me I should wait, but because of the environment I was in, I had a lot of friends who were drug dealers. So they had money and gave me money--I mean paper, big money--and there were a lot of women who wanted to date me just because they knew that.
"I would take women on dates and kiss them and fondle them and shit like that, but that was as far as it went. They could kiss me and feel me, and get close to me, but they couldn't have me, and I enjoyed having that kind of control over myself. It always got back to me that some chick had said something like, 'Damn, he had me all horny and shit, then kissed me and left my ass at the doorstep,' because I did that a lot. I always had an excuse as to why I couldn't stay and hit it, because I felt like I should wait.
"When I was twenty, I decided to get into modeling seriously and I was still a virgin, for real. I mean, don't get me wrong, there were a lot of women I kissed and let give me head because I was modeling and hanging with all these fine women, so I couldn't say no to everything. But as far as having sexual intercourse with a woman, hitting the skins, no, I didn't do it. I even told one woman, 'I can't go to bed with you, because I'm not going to marry you. You're nice and everything, but you're not the type of woman I'd want for a wife, and I have more respect for a woman than to take a gift like that when it means nothing to me. I'm not going to play games with you or break your heart. I'm being real,' and believe it or not, she actually wanted to be with me even more after I said that."
33, SINGLE, RESTAURANT MANAGER
I met G., as he chooses to be called, on a Friday evening while hanging out with a few girlfriends over dinner and drinks. He's the manager ofa swanky restaurant in Dallas's upscale Oak Lawn area, and he'd stopped at our table to make sure we had everything we needed. When he approached us, we were laughing and chattering like magpies, and my friend Elise almost choked on the glass of wine she was sipping when she saw how extremely fine he was.
"Good evening, ladies," he said with a huge smile, causing all six of us to drop our forks and secretly hope that there was no smeared lipstick or misplaced salad dressing anywhere on our faces. "Y'all are having way too much fun over here, you make me want to take a seat and join you. What in the world are all you beauties laughing about? Are y'all over here talking about men?"
Casey, the only one of the group who wasn't married, ran her tongue across her teeth to make sure all was well, sat up straight, gave him a huge smile, and made herself the spokeswoman for all of us when she told him that the service was impeccable, but we could certainly use a refill on our water. In the process, she pointed to her half-full glass with her left hand, making sure that he noticed she wasn't wearing a wedding ring.
After giving all of us a friendly nod and promising to send our waiter over, he continued to work the room, and I told Casey that I didn't know why she was flirting with him, because he seemed like he was gay.
All five women clicked their tongues in the negative, Casey being the loudest when she replied, "Girl, you're tripping. That fine-ass man ain't gay. All this talk about black men being 'on the down low' just has women spooked, even you married women. You can't look at every black man and just assume he's creeping with another man just because that's the latest hot topic of conversation."
I sat back and kept working on my salad, but all the while I was thinking there was something about him ... something about the way he moved or kept using the word sweetie that had me convinced. Since we had been unsuccessful at finding a man "on the DL" who would discuss his life with us for the book, I thought I'd try G. and see if he might be interested. I slipped away to the ladies' room and pulled himaside on my way back to see if he was game for an interview at a later date. I told him about Sister Gumbo and told him we were looking for a few interesting men to interview for Mister Gumbo, and handed him my business card, which included my phone number and e-mail address. Even though he gave me a wonderful hug and kissed me on the cheek before I left, I wasn't sure I'd hear from him, so I was pleasantly surprised when he called me about a week later and said he'd be willing to answer whatever questions I had if I would like to meet him one evening after the restaurant closed.
Sexy, slim, and standing about six-three, G. has a deep baritone voice, smooth golden brown skin, and long thick eyelashes. He had the bartender pour each of us a glass of white zinfandel before inviting me to follow him to his office in the back, where we could have some privacy. I noticed a picture of a beautiful young lady on his desk and thought that asking about her would be a good way to start off our conversation, so I did just that, and G. took it from there.
"That's Tia, my girlfriend, and for the record--since you've already said you're writing about life, sex, and relationships, and since you promised me that what we say is confidential--I'll admit that I'm one of those men who loves women, but I do keep a male friend to get with every now and then to keep things interesting. Even though I don't publicize the fact that I like sleeping with men and women, I don't consider myself to be one of those guys on the DL. Tia knows my sexual preferences, and she's okay with it because she's as open as I am about sex. I am definitely bisexual, but only the people I'm close to and intimate with know that, and that's how I prefer to keep it. I'm very private, and I don't believe what I do in the privacy of my bedroom is everyone's business.
"Growing up, I lived in a predominantly African-American community and attended private Christian schools before leaving home to attend college in California. My family is extremely conservative. I grew up in the church, my grandfather has been a Baptist ministerfor well over fifty years, and I'm one of the head deacons in his church.
"My parents have been married for forty years, and even though they haven't gotten along for most of those forty years, they are still together because they don't believe in divorce. They live in the same house but sleep in separate bedrooms, and they've been doing that for as long as I can remember.
"I have a sister and brother who happen to be twins. My sister is a doctor, but she's also an alcoholic. She starts drinking from the time she gets home in the evening and doesn't stop until it's time to go to bed, and she doesn't think anybody knows it. We all know about it; we just don't talk about it. My oldest brother was accepted to law school but got burned out and started running with a fast crowd. He recently got out of jail for dealing drugs.
"So as you can see, even though outwardly my background is conservative, if you look real close, you'll find that beneath the surface my family life is pretty interesting, to say the least.
"My father was always a very stern disciplinarian, and he was always on me about being too sensitive. I was the kind of boy whose feelings were easily hurt, and my father couldn't deal with that and he would chide me when I would break into tears when he would speak to me too harshly, while my mother would take me aside and hug or kiss me to take away the bluntness of his words. She never had to do that with my brother or sister, because they could hold their own with my father whatever the situation. They would nod their heads and agree with whatever it was my father told them to do but as soon as his back was turned, they would become children he wouldn't recognize in his wildest dreams. My siblings could outdrink, outsmoke, and outcuss anybody in their peer group.
"Coming up Southern Baptist, I wasn't taught anything about sex except that it was bad, and once puberty set in, I had a burning desire to know what was so bad about it, but was too scared to take the action and find out. The first time I had sexual intercourse with a man, I wasnineteen years old and a freshman at UCLA. It happened in the apartment of a popular thirty-year-old radio and party DJ who was on the DL. I was nervous and excited at the same time, and even though I've dated women and have continued to have sex with women since then, for me the sex act with a woman is not nearly as intense as it is when I'm with another man.
"My mother and my sister know about my sexual orientation because I've told them, but my brother and my dad, who are also deacons in our Church, reside in the land of denial with their 'We're not going to ask, so don't you dare tell us' typical Southern Baptist crazy-ass mentality. I think they feel that if they really knew that I liked having sex with men, then they'd have to deal with it, and that might compromise their feelings about their own sexuality, so we don't even go there. And my brother was in jail, so I know he had to deal with that when he was locked up. When I'm back home and me and the fellas are just sitting around talking or whatever, I pretend I'm a womanizer like the rest of the men in my family, which seems like an acceptable way to be and the only thing they can be comfortable with. If it works for them, it works for me too, what the hell.
"I honestly feel I was born sexually uninhibited or bisexual. I can remember one evening during the summer when I was at church waiting to attend youth choir rehearsal. I was ripping and running all over the church because my grandfather was in his office working. I know he probably would have killed my ass and laid me out on the Communion table had he caught me all up in the pulpit, but luckily he didn't catch me. I eventually tired of playing in the pulpit and decided to explore some of the empty rooms in the long hallway and happened upon one of the Sunday school classrooms in the far corner of the church, where a muffled sound caught my attention. I peeked inside the dimly lit room, and my gaze fell upon the church's very married choir director and a teenaged boy kissing, and the boy wasn't fighting him off. He was acting as though he liked it. I knew instantly that what I was seeing was taboo, but I continued to watch because it excited me.
"I guess I was around ten years old at the time because shortly after that happened I remember having a birthday party and playing hide and go get it after all the adults went inside. This was a game that entailed catching a member of the opposite sex and then feeling that person up. The thing is, I was looking to "hide and go get it" from a boy rather than from one of the many girls at the party, and I think that's when I first realized that what I'd seen at the church appealed to me more than it should have. I never told my parents or grandfather what I had seen, because Lord knows I probably would have gotten a beating just because I'd witnessed something I shouldn't have and then to add insult to injury had the nerve to talk about it. But now that I look back on it, I must have known at that young age that I was maybe a little bit different than most other boys.
"I didn't consider that experience to be a traumatic one, because as I've said before, I was born sexually uninhibited. I have never felt that there was anything wrong with being sexually attracted to both men and women, even though the church has always taught me different. The thing I don't quite understand is that while the Bible says one thing and the preachers preach what the Bible says, why are there so many openly gay men in the church like the musicians, ushers, and so on who are accepted? My grandfather's church is huge, and his minister of music and several of the men in the choir are openly gay. I know for a fact that several of the deacons are DL, and while it is quite obvious that the gay men are gay, the church members must discuss this fact only amongst themselves in the privacy of their homes--because I have never been in one meeting or had one conversation with a family member or anyone else who would dare bring it up. It makes no sense at all, but that's the Southern Baptist way, isn't it? If you ignore it long enough, it doesn't exist.
"Outside of that, the most significant thing that happened in my life, that made me the man I am now, is when I was introduced to several glamorous, trendy, substance-abusing, self-righteous, but self-conscious, openly gay men at the age of nineteen, when I first lefthome and entered college. My roommate happened to be one of these characters, and that's how I became involved in the life, although I do remember innocently wanting to establish same-sex relationships as early as age ten."
41, SINGLE, SMALL BUSINESS OWNER
When we met with Joe, the first thing he said was, "I don't know if y'all really want to interview me, 'cause you know I keep it real," and that's the truth if I've ever heard it. At first he tried to act like he didn't want to talk to us, but as much as he loves to be seen and heard, we knew he was just fronting.
Joe is a Texan to his heart, and proud of it. If I'm not mistaken, he mentioned it at least three times during the interview. "My mama and daddy owned the first dry cleaners in the community, and they made a pretty good living, so I didn't want for nothing. That's why I'm so well dressed, my mama starched my clothes from the time I started kindergarten all the way through high school, and even today I won't wear a pair of jeans unless they're starched."
Today Joe wore a pair of blue jeans that had been starched to within an inch of their life coupled with a shiny black shirt and black eelskin dress shoes that had to be at least twenty years old but were shining like new money. Everything on Joe was shining. He wore at least six rings, a black square onyx, a couple of gold nuggets, and a few simple gold bands studded here or there with smaller diamonds, and when he smiled, the gold tooth with the half moon that capped his front tooth sparkled and glimmered as brightly as his rings. He's the type of brother who will show up at a wedding wearing a red suit, red socks, red shoes, red hat, and carrying a red walking stick if he can find one. And get this, if he's dating a woman and they're stepping out, you'd best believe she'll be wearing the exact same color he is and walking so close to him that all you can see is one big block of color as they approach.
From the first impression one believes, and rightly so, that Joe is stuck in the 1970s, but he is very much aware of what's going on concerning money, politics, real estate, and anything else that's happening in his community. You can laugh at him wearing that red suit all you want to, but don't try to run no game on him, because he's no fool when it comes to life, women, or how to make a dollar. Joe is barely five-eight and a little on the heavy side, has beautiful jet-black skin, dark brown eyes, and a Jheri curl that he has worn for the past twenty-five years. He's by no means handsome, but the way he handles himself makes him attractive, and the women certainly like him. Joe always has and always will drive the biggest, longest car he can find. In the eighties it was a gold two twenty-five (better known as a deuce and a quarter), in the nineties it was a gold Lincoln Continental, and now he drives a Cadillac and, you guessed it, it's gold too.
I first met Joe back in the early 1980s, when we all frequented a club called Panther Hall. I was at the bar ordering a rum and Coke when I saw him walk in, looking around like he owned the place, and politely ignored him because I was waiting for my ex-boyfriend to walk in so I could spend the night pretending to ignore him too.
Joe walked around to where I was standing, looked me up and down, and said, "Damn, you fine. Who you here with?" When I didn't respond, he kept right on talking.
"Say, cutie, I know you hear me talking to you with your fine self. Why don't you let me buy that drink for you?" When I still didn't respond, he got silly. "Oh, I see, I guess the cat got your tongue, huh? What, you can't talk? I bet you gonna talk to me tonight 'cause I'm gonna make it my business to bother you all night if you don't. You gonna dance with me too, 'cause you know you like me. Look at you, trying everything you can to keep from smiling with your pretty self. You even got pretty hands and pretty lips. What yo name is, girrrrrl? Is you got a boyfriend? If you do, too bad for him, 'cause I'm gonna take you from him. I'm one of a kind--you can't resist me. Just lookover here at this big smile I got on my face and tell me I'm not irresistible," and that was all I could take before I burst out laughing.
We've been buddies ever since.
For the interview, we met Joe at the BBQ Stand, a place he co-owns with a cousin. Joe said the BBQ Stand was known not only for the smoked brisket but also for the sweet tea his aunt made daily, so we both agreed to have a glass, and once the sugar kicked in, we were ready to roll.
"I grew up right here in Funky Town aka Fort worth, Texas. My parents are from the north side and relocated to the south side right before I was born, so I've lived here all my life. Since they owned their own business, I had the opportunity to learn how to make money because I was always hanging around and watching them make decisions. Every time my dad made a business deal, even though all of them weren't legit, he'd say, 'See, son, that's why I like having my own business. I get to call the shots, and there ain't no glass ceiling unless I make one. Always remember that you can never be financially independent as long as you work for someone else.'
"My mom worked in the cleaners right along with my pops, but her main responsibility was keeping the money straight, and she did it well. She can hold a dollar tight enough to make Washington's hair sweat and curl up in an afro--that's the tightest damn woman I know--but I appreciate her thriftiness because if it weren't for her, Pops probably would have given all the money to some little hot-ass woman he was messing around with. I love him, I'm proud to call him Dad, and he taught me a lot, but I damn sure inherited his trifling-ass ways when it comes to women.
"I can't come right out and say I ever saw my dad with another woman, so maybe that's taking things a little too far, but from what I did see, I know he was a ladies' man. For years I watched the look on the different women's faces when they came by the shop to present Pops withone of their homemade pound cakes or sweet potato pies still warm from the oven. They'd always say, 'Brother Joe, I was just thinking I'd bring this by to make it easy on Mrs. Palmer so she won't have to do all that cooking when she gets home.' The funny thing is they never seemed to bring any of that food over when Mama was at the shop, and she never ate any of it either. I can remember her telling Pops one time, 'Keep on letting them little black-ass women bring you food. One day they gonna come up in here looking for your old gray ass thinking I'm not here, and I'm gonna get a stick and beat their asses all the way back out that door.'
"I did some crazy things as a kid, even as a young man, but I always had self-respect. I think your self-respect shows in the way you dress. In the late seventies and early eighties, you didn't go to school--or anywhere else, for that matter--with your clothes wrinkled. It just wasn't something we did. I don't know how many girls in my graduating class have messed-up feet to this day because girls even wore heels with their starched jeans when I was in school. We enjoyed dressing up, and we wanted to look good when we went to school, not like these bad-ass kids nowadays. The boys go to school with their pants hanging all off their ass, and now that those hip-hugger jeans are back in style, the girls got all their shit hanging out too. It's like the boys wear all their stuff two sizes too big, and the girls wear theirs two sizes too small. It's crazy. The sad thing about it is they think they look good dressed like that.
"People may say I'm a little eccentric with the way I wear my hair and the loud colors I wear, but that's me. That's my style, and I don't care if other people like it or not. They might not like it, but I'll bet they can't say they've ever seen me sloppy or dirty, or looking like I wasn't prepared to conduct business if the opportunity presented itself. I'm always up on my game, and that's the reason I've been successful in life, which to me means having money in my pocket 24-7, driving a nice car, wearing nice clothes, and owning my own businesses."
31, MARRIED, CHEF IN TRAINING
We met Ken at the Essence Music Festival during the Frankie Beverly and Maze concert in the Louisiana Superdome. He was seated in the row in front of us with a bunch of other guys and their women, and you couldn't help but notice him, because he was an extremely talkative cutie with cinnamon-colored skin, high cheekbones, and dreadlocks that reached the middle of his back. By the time Anita Baker was through singing, he had struck up a conversation with everybody in his immediate vicinity.
"Damn, this beer is too expensive to be lukewarm. I ought to take it back," Ken complained.
"Nigga please," the brother sitting next to him scoffed. "It's not like you can't afford it."
"That's beside the point," Ken replied. "You just wait until my wife gets back in town and I tell her how her cousin was all in my business." Before the other guy could comment, Maze had hit the stage, and why did they go and start off with "Southern Girl"? Everybody was on their feet immediately moving to the rhythm, and then the whole stadium full of people had the nerve to break into the Electric Slide and keep on beat. I'd never seen anything like it in my life.
"Go 'head, go 'head," Ken sang as he moved his shoulders and danced to the beat. When he went to raise his hands, he must've forgotten he was holding a cup of beer because what was left went flying out and landed right on my feet just as I was ready to go into my turn. I know he saw it happen because he stopped in the middle of his own turn and said, "Aw, damn, sister--I'm sorry." But I couldn't get angry with him, especially when he grinned at me.
I told him no problem; I had kicked my shoes off anyway, so at least my shoes hadn't gotten messed up, and instead of my feet just being sore from all that dancing, they were now sore and sticky.
"So, where y'all from?" Ken asked after handing me a cleanhandkerchief so I could dry my feet. We told him we were in town doing a book signing, and he looked somewhat impressed.
"What? I've been telling my wife for the last few years how I plan on writing a book when I get finished with school, and look, I run into authors. Things always happen for a reason. I need to keep in touch with y'all. Once I get my restaurant up and running, I'm gonna write a cookbook. You're looking at a man who can cook his ass off. Right now I'm going to the Culinary Institute of New Orleans because I plan on being a chef, and my wife, Zonora, is going to Xavier and is about a semester away from graduating."
Because he was so personable, we asked him if he'd agree to an interview the next day. He said yes and invited us to his home.
Their house was located in the Garden District of New Orleans, and once we arrived it was obvious that spilling an expensive-ass beer in the Superdome and worrying about where he was going to get the money to pay for another one was the least of Ken's worries. Obviously he or his wife came from a family with money--because property in this area of the city didn't come cheap. There was no way he could've afforded to purchase this property on his own, since he was barely thirty if that.
I pursed my lips and whistled silently as I took in the huge mahogany door inlaid with leaded glass, the well-manicured lawn, lush foliage, profusion of flowers, and the hundred-year-old moss-draped oaks surrounding the two-story house. The house wasn't as large as some of the others on the street, but it was still very impressive.
Ken opened the door and laughed when he saw our twin looks of surprise. After watching him carry on last night and seeing how down-to-earth he had been, 1 never in my wildest imagination would've thought he was living like this. I had been under the impression that he lived in some little garage apartment in the Garden District, being that he was so young and still in school, and here we stood in the foyer of this mini-mansion.
"I came into my inheritance when I was twenty-one; the housebelonged to my great-grandmother," Ken explained. "I don't have to work for a living, but I do, and at least I got to choose to do something that gives me pleasure, unlike most people. Besides, my wife is not about to have a man sitting up on his ass all day, wealthy or not, and that was the promise I made to her when we got married six years ago."
He led us deeper into the house, and I stared in awe at the obviously expensive and original antique furniture. "Why don't we sit out in the sunroom. It's pretty comfortable. I fixed lunch and it just needs eating, so y'all are right on time."
Ken was about five-eleven and had a nice body. His wore a short-sleeved T-shirt that didn't reveal much, but it was tucked into jeans that outlined thick thighs and a slim waist, not too bad. Today his locks were held back with a bandanna.
"It's nice of you to take this kind of time with complete strangers," I said.
"Humph, I love to talk about me--tell me what man don't?" Ken asked, slipping into a Cajun dialect as we followed him into the sunroom. He already had the food warming in silver containers on the sideboard.
"1 cooked y'all some shrimp Creole with my famous Ken's Creole sauce, and for dessert I fixed a white chocolate French custard bread pudding, and yes, it's fattening but you don' come down here to Nawlins expecting to be on no diet. Diets are for when you back in Texas."
"What prompted your interest in cooking?" I asked.
"I have to say my mama, because she loves to cook. Even today, all my mama watches on TV are cooking shows." Ken continued as we prepared our plates "I have a twin sister, and when my mama would show her how to cook something, I'd be right in there with them, and she was always able to make the lesson interesting."
"So", I said, "you're a down-to-earth kind of man, so that means you're going to be open, honest, and interesting, right?"
And with a sexy little smile, Ken replied, "Hey, all I got to say is be careful what you ask, because I'm ready."
38, SINGLE, ACCOUNTANT
Simeon flung open his front door and ushered us in, mouth running a mile a minute. "That's what I'm talking about--sisters who know how to be on time. When y'all said one o'clock, I was like, Okay, in CP time, that means two."
Simeon said that he spends the majority of his time in the family room when he's at home, and apparently he shops at the same import stores that I do, because I have some of the exact same masks decorating my walls that he does his. I looked around and thought to myself, Damn, this man doesn't need a woman. He's decorated this house, keeps it clean, and knows how to cook? Homeboy got it going on. A flokati rug lay in front of the upright CD player and a zebra print rug was situated beneath the glass coffee table. In the center of the room was a pool table, and the far wall held a wide-screen plasma TV, a fully stocked bar, and a mini-fridge. Simeon pulled out a bottle of red wine and a corkscrew and poured equal amounts into the handblown wineglasses he'd set out for us.
He's six feet five inches tall with cocoa-brown skin and the build of a basketball player--nothing but legs and arms. In his ears he sports diamond studs that weigh at least two carats, and while he's not the pretty-boy type, his charisma and income go a long way to ensure that he has no problem getting or keeping a woman's attention.
When the first question out of my mouth was what he thought of women in general, he was quick to reply. "They ain't no good! But let me sip on this Rémy for a few minutes before I get into that," and it was clear he wasn't joking.
After handing each of us a glass of merlot, he sank down into one of the large chairs stationed in front of the CD player, took a sip of cognac, and began to talk.
"I grew up in a home with no father, and my sisters and I went to private school since my mom was big on education, but the majority ofthe kids in my neighborhood went to public school. Our neighborhood had a mixture of everything, and by mixture I mean some families had both of their parents living at home and some families just had a mom, and we fell into the latter group.
"Because our mom was a single parent, we understood at an early age that we couldn't have some of the things that kids with two parents living in the home had, and sometimes our not having a father around kind of made us feel left out. Back when I was growing up, it was a big deal for parents to be divorced and for a woman to raise a child by herself. It was almost like it was something to be ashamed of. Nowadays, it's the opposite.
"I learned and understood the essence of what was important, and even though we weren't poor, we definitely weren't rich. We never went to bed hungry or anything, but I did learn how to appreciate things. When I was growing up, it was like this: if somebody offered you a compliment or if someone gave you something, you appreciated it and said thank you. I was raised to never take anything for granted.
"My mom worked a lot, and because she worked a lot she required a lot from us. She was like, 'You know what, I'm going to bring the money home, but don't ever think that you're not gonna keep your room straight and keep this house clean.' It wasn't like we had a choice in the matter anyway. There was never an option. She'd never say, 'I would like you to clean your room and I would like you to make good grades.' No, it was, 'This is what I expect from you.' She was a true believer in that old saying, 'I brought you into this world, and I can take you out.' That was the kind of upbringing I had.
"My mom expected us to make good grades in school, and she also told us to be respectful because, as she said, 'It makes no sense for you to come in here with an A or a B and then get an N in citizenship. If you get A's and B's, that's fine, but you're still going to get an ass-whipping if you come up in here with an N in citizenship,' and I tell my nieces and nephews the same thing.
"My mom and grandparents instilled a good work ethic in me. Itwas like, screw what a person can give you--if you go out and earn it, you appreciate it, and I respected that. Even when my mom was disciplining us, she was going to give us an explanation for it."
Simeon turned the jazz music down some and placed the remote control on the glass tabletop.
"My sisters and I joke about it now. We would grumble amongst ourselves, but we made sure that Mom didn't hear us, because she didn't play that. You'd get a serious beat down if you caught yourself talking back after she said something. We'd be mumbling, 'Mom just whip us, we don't want to hear all that talking,' because when Mom talked to you, oh my God, it took forever. She would start off with, 'We going to have a talk.' Even to this day, those six little words chill me to the bone. I could come in thirty minutes after my curfew and she would hear the door open and call out, 'What time is it?' and I knew good and well she knew what time it was, and then she'd say, 'We going to have a talk in the morning.' I hated that shit, I hated the anticipation of knowing she was going to get on my ass about something and that I had to spend the whole night wondering what the punishment was going to be. Once she started talking, it seemed like she could go on for hours.
"But, really, everybody I knew worked to get what they wanted. If it meant working some overtime or whatever, that's what you did to get ahead. You didn't do no scamming, sell drugs, or try to beat somebody out of their money. You just worked real hard. When I got into accounting I was taught that it's okay to work hard but it's also okay to work smart. You can work from sunup to sundown, but the work's still going to be there, so if you can be more realistic about what you want to accomplish, then things kind of fall in line.
"I think the discipline Mom instilled in us helped me when I started working, because I was really young and I worked with a lot of individuals who were older than me, so I was always getting some kind of advice and I didn't mind it. I was used to listening to Mom and my grandparents anyway. It always pays to listen to people who are older than you and adviceis free. It's up to you to take advantage of it and to use it as you see fit. I find that people who follow good advice and put a lot into life get a lot back, but if you don't put too much effort into life, you really shouldn't be expecting much out of it.
"My family didn't have a whole lot of material things, but truly speaking, when Christmas came around we were happy, and when birthdays came around we were happy. We had peace, friendship, love, and respect back then, and I feel like if I still got all of that now, I'm successful."
Simeon lowered his voice to a whisper and added, "Well that and a whole bunch of money too." Then he shouted out again like he wanted to make sure that we hadn't forgotten his earlier comment, "They ain't no good, every color, every creed, every shade, ain't none of them no damn good!"
36, DIVORCED, HIGH SCHOOL FOOTBALL COACH
"What's going on ladies?" Quincy said, greeting us. "Sorry there's not much room to park. Damn Mexicans and Asians got six cars in each yard and ten to fifteen people living in each house, just gets on my nerves." Quincy was sounding like a crotchety old man as he led us inside.
"I walked outside the other day and thought I was living in Chinatown, and the people in the house across the street had their music up so loud, I couldn't hear my TV If it's not that, it's the Mexicans next door moving cars all damn night. One of the boys will come outside and start up one of those old buckets, rev the engine up as loud as he can, drive off real fast and return five minutes later, parking the car in the exact same spot he just pulled it out of like he ain't used to nothing.
"The black folk living in that house behind me ain't much better, 'cause they got a different group of people staying there every time Iturn around, and they're partying every week, probably selling drugs. I swear, I probably should just sell this house and move, but I don't feel like buying a new house and being broke. I'm not one to try to impress the ladies with material things anyway, so I'm not getting into no debt just to keep up with the Joneses."
Quincy, a friend of a friend, is a young man from the old school. He's old-fashioned and down-to-earth, and he believes in things like hard work, commitment, and being true to your word. He's five-eleven, weighs around 190 pounds, has Hershey's dark chocolate brown skin, and a quirky little smile to go along with his sense of humor. A divorce with two boys ages ten and eight, Quincy is a high school football coach. Except for the weekends when his boys are with him, he lives alone in one of the three modest two-bedroom town houses that he inherited from his grandfather in a neighborhood that used to be pretty decent but is now well past its prime.
The house is pretty neat for a bachelor and is chock-full of antiques on loan from his mother, even though he says he really doesn't like antiques.
"I'd been separated from my wife for a month before my mom found out, and the minute she found out, she demanded that I go to her storage room and get whatever I needed because she said she couldn't stand the thought of me being in an empty house with no furniture. She also made it very clear that if I up and married another sorry-ass woman, the furniture was not part of the deal.
"So I went and picked up that bench in the foyer, that armoire with the double doors that I remembered seeing in my grandparents' house when I was a kid, that Victorian bookcase in the corner which I converted into a gun cabinet, and this sofa and the wingback chairs. Oh, I also got a dining room set that consists of a china closet, sideboard table, and six chairs. Other than the sofa and chairs, nothing seems toreally match, but I guess it's better than nothing at all, and it is quality furniture. I could have taken a few things from my house when I left, but my wife was such a bitch, I didn't want any reminders of her."
Oddly enough, the furniture seems to fit Quincy because of his old-fashioned nature. When you look around, it just seems like this is the kind of atmosphere he'd be comfortable in--if you exclude the neighbors, that is. He said that when his grandparents first moved here, the neighborhood was about 70 percent white and 30 percent "other," and the homeowners kept everything nice and clean because they realized the value of real estate. Now that the older people who were the original owners have either moved on or died, their children and grandchildren have turned the entire neighborhood into Section 8 rent city, and most of them don't even check backgrounds and references like he does before allowing someone to rent their property, which is causing the property value to drop and the homes to look run-down.
Quincy was dressed like he was prepared to go somewhere after the interview, and when we mentioned how nice he looked and asked about his plans for the evening, he replied, "I always dress like this, even when I'm not going anywhere. I like to be comfortable-casual just in case something jumps off, because you never know. Khaki pants and a button-down shirt aren't what I would call dressed up, but if I decide to go somewhere on the spur of the moment, I'll be ready. It's not that I don't own any FUBU, Polo, or Sean John, but I'm not really into faddish, name-brand-type clothes. I wear that stuff if it fits the occasion, but I'm a bargain shopper--and if I can't get my FUBU on sale, I'm not buying it. Besides, if a woman is looking for a hip-hop kind of brother with his pants hanging off his ass, I'm not the one anyway, because I'm not spending my hard-earned money on clothes that are too big.
"I've been through a lot in the past few years, and although I used to be very bitter about my divorce, I'm now at a point where I'm free of all the resentment and anger. Counseling and a few self-awarenesscourses really helped me understand more about myself: my likes and dislikes, and my feelings about women, love, and marriage. I think I may be ready for a serious relationship, but I'm not in any hurry to be committed again.
"I'm a by-the-book kind of guy. I follow the rules and expect others to do the same, especially where love and relationships are concerned, and that's one of the main reasons my marriage didn't work. I gave one hundred percent and then some, while she barely gave twenty, and she didn't want me to say anything to her about it. She turned out to be totally different from the woman she'd appeared to be the short time we dated, so after trying to make things work for three years, I finally gave up and decided that if I couldn't be happy with her, I'd have to be happy without her. I refused to raise my boys in an environment with fussing and cussing all the time, because it was unhealthy. I was just about to file for divorce, but she beat me to it and I wasn't mad at her. I guess she thought I was going to break down and cry and beg her to change her mind, but I was practically smiling when I signed those papers, and she's been pissed ever since.
"As far as growing up, I had a great childhood. I'm from San Bernardino, California, and grew up in the city, but my dad was a country boy and wanted us to experience the same things he experienced, so we did a lot of hunting, fishing, camping, and stuff like that when I was a kid, I had the best of the suburban and country life.
I'm the oldest of three boys, and me and my brothers are only like a year apart, so when we became teenagers and got inquisitive about sex, my dad started taking us to R-rated movies, and afterwards we would have a discussion about it. We didn't go see stuff that had a lot of low-down, dirty, rated-X sex in it, just good movies where sex happened to be included. Dad would ask us if we understood what we'd just seen, and that was our opportunity to ask questions.
"He always said that sex was a wonderful thing, then turned right around and said we should always remember that in order to play big-boygames, you had to be willing to pay the big-boy price. That meant if we got a girl pregnant, it was going to be our responsibility, and even though I had sex as a teenager, I was always very careful and I still am to this day. Actually, I was a little scared to start having sex, because I'd had that conversation with my dad so many times. His favorite saying was, 'If you don't want to see her face across the table from you every morning, then don't get her pregnant--because if you do, you're marrying her and you're gonna help raise that baby.'
"I sure as hell wish I'd had a little more fear and a lot more insight before I married my ex, because it seems like once we said, 'I do,' I wasn't looking at the same woman at all."
30, SINGLE, ENGINEER
We met Jared in a Mexican restaurant at the San Antonio International Airport during a short layover.
We'd just feasted on a bowl of charro beans that tasted homemade, the deep red ceramic bowl nearly overflowing with the hot and spicy mixture seasoned with onions, tomato, garlic, bacon, and jalapeño peppers.
Facing us were two wall-mounted, flat-screen TVs with the sound turned low as Mexican music played quietly in the restaurant. The walls were inlaid with yellow and cobalt blue Mexican tile and faux windows decorated with wrought iron. Small white Christmas lights brightened up the room. The floors were hardwood, the sheen dull, the tables stationed between thick round oak beams.
Jared had just finished his meal when he looked over and noticed our shirts; they never fail to get a second glance, but of course something that reads LIFE, SEX, AND MORE SEX will make almost anyone look twice. Catching our eyes, he flashed a smile and asked, "So what's Life, Sex, and More Sex mean?"
We described our first book, told him we were working on a sequel, and asked if he'd be willing to respond to a few questions.
Checking his watch, he shrugged slightly and said he had at least two hours between flights, so that sounded like a great way to pass the time. He picked up his Corona and walked over to our table where we sat nursing our own drinks. He was a tall, good-looking man and wore his long-sleeved white cotton shirt, blue jeans, and black leather boots with the grace of a male model. His hair was cut close, his eyebrows thick, black, and wickedly arched, and his only facial hair was a thin mustache and sexy goatee.
When we made mention of his awesome height, he said he was six foot six and that it had come in handy when he'd played ball throughout high school and college, and he had even been on track to becoming a professional player until he'd busted his knee.
"My parents were proud of my skills on the court, but they were even prouder when I brought home good grades. To this day, I'm glad I had the sense to listen to them when they stressed the importance of an education, or else I would've been up a creek because an uneducated black man with a bum knee who used to be good at basketball doesn't get very far in life." Jared flashed that perfect smile again. "After the knee injury, I put more effort into my studies and was able to graduate with my master's degree in engineering."
Jared shifted a bit in the wooden chair, stretching his long legs out in front of him and crossing his feet at the ankles.
"My dad is an engineer. He worked for the same aeronautics company until he retired, and my mom was a stay-at-home mom, so she was always around. Me and my brother didn't even think about getting away with anything. Well, let me take that back, we did make a few attempts to try and get away with stuff, but our mom would always find out. I don't know how she found out, but she did. She must've attended every PTA meeting, school outing, and anything else they needed parents to volunteer for. I swear, she should've been on the payroll she was around our school so much, and I mean elementary through highschool. She probably would've hung out with me at college too, if I hadn't of gone out of state.
"I wasn't too fond of school early on, and I remember being in the first grade and my teacher, Miss Reese, teaching me how to write the letter of my first name over and over again. Apparently, I quickly got tired of that, so I issued her an ultimatum. As the story goes, or at least my mom's version of it, I told Miss Reese, 'Look, I'm going to write one more J. My mama didn't send me to school to write J's--my mama sent me to school to play.'"
Jared shrugged his broad shoulders as we stifled our laughter, and then he raised his bottle of Corona in a toast. "Here's to the innocence of youth."
38, DIVORCED, BEER COMPANY SALES MANAGER
Greg, a handsome chocolate brother who spent a lot of time in New York while he was married, is originally from Georgia. He's a senior sales manager for a large beer company and has four children by two different women. At five-eleven and 210 pounds, Greg is extremely well built because he works out faithfully six days a week.
He has nice dark brown skin, beautiful eyes, and is always flashing this sexy yet playful smile that seems to hint, "Be careful--there's more to me than you think." Judging from the way he carries himself and his mannerisms, it's obvious that he knows how to treat a lady, and because of that, he has no shortage of female friends. Greg was dressed in black cotton house pants, the type teenagers wear to the mall nowadays even though they shouldn't, and a sleeveless white V-neck T-shirt that showed off his muscular chest, arms, and stomach. He was also barefoot, and even his feet, which he propped up on the coffee table, were pretty.
Greg's apartment was immaculate. I'd already checked out his kitchen when we first walked in and noticed that there wasn't a dirtydish in the sink. The sink was chrome and had obviously been wiped clean because there weren't any water spots, and let me tell you, the smell of scented candles burning, his cologne, and that beautiful smile made for a superb setting. It was so cozy and inviting that it took me a moment to gather myself and get focused.
There is something sexy about an attractive black man sitting there smiling at you when you're trying to act like you don't see him smiling, because you're trying to be all about business. But the harder you try to keep your cool, the more you start to sweat because married or not you still realize that he's sexy as hell and knows it, not to mention the fact that you're on his turf.
"I'm not a shy brother, so if I get too talkative, let me know. Growing up, I had a pretty normal childhood. Both my parents raised me, and my father was a serious disciplinarian. He stayed on me, and now I realize that I needed that because if he hadn't, I probably wouldn't be where I am now.
"I was never crazy about school, but I wasn't no dummy either, and I should have gone to college. I had the opportunity to go, but I didn't want to, and that's one of my biggest regrets to this day. I didn't take the opportunity that I had available to me, because I felt like I would be missing something out in the streets. Fortunately I got with the company I work for now right out of high school, and I've worked my way up, so I make pretty good money.
"I just turned thirty-eight, and I'm looking to find the right person to settle down and grow old with. I've been married before, so I know what it's like and I know what it's like to be single, and I think marriage is a good thing. My parents have been successful at it, and I think I can be too if I can find the right woman."
24, SINGLE, FULL-TIME STUDENT AND ENTREPRENEUR
Oh Lord, here comes Xavier. He's late as hell for the interview and taking his sweet time getting off and parking that expensive motorcycle. It looks just like one of those bikes they call a crotch rocket in the movie Biker Boyz.
He finally strolls in, jeans hanging low on his narrow butt, and gives us each a hug and kiss on the cheek. When I look at him, smile, and say, "Boy, every time I see you, it seems like you've grown another two inches. You're just as handsome as you can be, you know that?" he grins and replies, "Yes, ma'am," showing all his big, white teeth. Looks almost like Tiger Woods, except he's taller and skinnier, and his teeth are not quite as big as Tiger's.
Did you notice that he said, "Yes, ma'am"? Well, we could have been offended, but Xavier was born and raised in Baton Rouge, and he, like many of the other young men he hangs with, was raised the southern way. That means he was raised to respect his elders, even though we don't consider ourselves elders. He still says "Yes, ma'am" to ladies and "Yes, sir" to men, because he was taught to do so.
Xavier is twenty-four years old and lives at home because he partied a bit too much when he went away to school in Houston, so he didn't graduate when he should have. Now he's made up his mind to stop playing around and to finish school, so he's attending LSU full-time, majoring in business management, and running his own car wash and detail shop that he started a year ago with money he saved while he was working full-time and not going to school.
Q's Qwik Wash and Detail Shop, appropriately named after Xavier's best friend and our young cousin Q, because that's where he got the idea from, appears to be a lucrative little business. He's open all day Thursday, Friday, and Saturday, but on Sunday he's open only from two until seven p.m., because, he says:
"You know black folks got to have time to go to church and then go eat before they do anything else, and I don't want them telling me how many stripes the Lord's gonna beat me with for not being in church myself. I used to open the shop every other Sunday at noon, but my grandmother got all upset and said the devil was gonna come driving up here one Sunday to get his car washed if I wasn't careful, and even though I didn't believe her, the thought of that scared me a little bit. You know how superstitious people in Louisiana are. Gram says the only people who would get their cars washed on a Sunday morning are heathens anyway, and that I already had two of those working for me, so that's enough."
Q's is a cozy little place with mismatched sofas and chairs scattered in front of a large TV so the customers can catch a basketball or football game while they're waiting. There's even a pool table and dartboard, and in a corner Xavier has a vending machine full of snacks and one of those old-time Coke machines where you have to open the door and pull your bottle out after you've inserted the proper amount of change.
The office has one of those glass windows where Xavier can see out but people in the front room can't see in, so he's able to keep an eye on things while he's doing homework, making phone calls, and handling other business. The office is just large enough to accommodate a love seat and a small desk, and this is where we decided to do the interview since it was private and quiet, but the building is old, so the heat wasn't working like it should. Xavier had borrowed space heaters from just about everybody he knew, but it was still cool, so we sat there bundled up in our sweaters and decided to jump right in.
"My childhood was all right, but my parents didn't get along too well. They argued all the time, and as a result I learned to talk really loud in order to be heard, and I believe that's the reason I'm so aggressive sometimes. Before they got divorced, we did a lot of family things together and went on some great family vacations, so I try to rememberthose times because those were the nice times. I was a pretty quiet kid for the most part, did okay in school and made friends easily, but once I got through high school and college, it was like I just blossomed. I left home and went to school for my freshman and sophomore year, but I partied so hard that I couldn't maintain my grades, so my mom made me move back home. At first I was pissed, but it's cool now because I've settled down and decided to go ahead and finish because I don't want to be in school all my life.
I want to be a successful man, which for me means happiness and having the ability to be free to do whatever I want to do with my life. That's why I want to eventually get into real estate because then I could be my own boss. I could set my own schedule and come and go when I want to, and I wouldn't have to be loyal to one particular company for so many years just to get a retirement. Working for the same company for thirty years is nice, but the way businesses are right now, they'll get rid of a person before they have to pay their retirement, and I don't want to end up in a situation like that. So, now that I've decided what I want to do, everything's cool; I'm a young, strong black man, I've got my head on straight, and I'm on my way to the rest of my life and I'm excited about it."
41, MARRIED, POSTAL WORKER
When we arrived at Bennigan's to have lunch with Malik, we were running late because we had gotten lost--but he had no mercy on us. "Oooh, y'all ought to be ashamed to invite somebody to lunch then show up late. The waitresses have been looking at me like I'm crazy because I've been sitting over here for the past forty-five minutes by myself drinking homemade lemonade. I was going to order an appetizer, but after I'd been waiting for fifteen minutes and y'all hadn't shown up, I decided I wasn't buying nothing, and you know damn well I'm expecting y'all to buy me a drink for keeping me waiting so long."
We each gave Malik a big hug and told him how sorry we were, and even tried to explain that the reason we were late was because we had taken the wrong exit, but he wasn't even trying to hear no explanations. "So do y'all have everything? Do y'all need batteries? Need me to go to the drugstore across the street and get some tapes? Hell, did y'all even bring your recorders? I thought you would have at least called me or something. I got my cell phone right here," Malik said, holding up the phone for us to see. "why didn't y'all call a--? Oh, damn, my bad." Malik squinted at the phone. "I see that you called six times but I had it on silent. Sorry."
"Uh-huh, you ought to be sorry," I said. "Just running your mouth and not even giving a lady a chance to talk. Now that your lips aren't moving, can I explain what happened? We got lost because the exit you told us to take was the wrong one. We passed this place thirty minutes ago and kept right on going, and now I'm about to starve to death." Before I could go any further, Malik looked me up and down, eyebrows raised, then stopped and stared pointedly at my hips.
"What you trying to say?" I challenged him. "Are you trying to insinuate that I'm a long way from starving just because I'm a little thick in the hips?"
Malik laughed and clicked his tongue against his teeth. "Woman, please, I know you pretty good and I know you ain't going to starve, because you'd hurt somebody first. So what's up, how y'all been living? But wait--" Malik held up a hand and beckoned for the waitress. "--before you answer, can we please order lunch because my ass is starving too. I'm going to order the country chicken salad with extra chicken and depending on how I'm feeling after that, I might just order dessert too."
Malik will tell you what's on his mind in a heartbeat. He's from Chicago and is flirty, friendly, and outspoken. He's short and stocky but not fat and has nice, smooth light brown skin and dark eyes. He's bald by choice and has a nice beard that he says makes him look young and sexy, to which I jokingly reply, "Okay, Malik, whatever you say."
He and his wife of fifteen years have a thirteen-year-old son, aten-year-old daughter, and an eleven-year-old niece they're raising because her mom died and her dad, Malik's brother, is in prison. He's very much involved with the kids; therefore, he's a little rushed today because he has only two hours before he has to pick the girls up from school. We placed our orders and then listened intently as he started to talk about his life.
"Okay, you already know that I was born and raised in the Windy City. I had a pretty rough life because my father was an abusive, alcoholic asshole. We never referred to him as our father; we always called him our mother's husband because that's the only role he played in our lives. He moved us around a lot, most of the time back to his mother's house because whenever he did work, he'd find a way to blow all the money, and when he blew the money, he couldn't pay the bills or he'd just decide he didn't want to pay the bills, so we'd get evicted from a place every six months. He spent no quality time with us whatsoever and taught me nothing about being a man.
"I can remember getting several beatings when my mother's husband was drunk, and to this day I can't tell you why he beat me, but I finally ran away from home when I was sixteen because it was either that or somebody was gonna get hurt. I got tired of him hitting me for no reason, and I was trying to handle it the best I could. Then one day he came home sloppy drunk and jumped on my mom, and I couldn't take it anymore. I'm the youngest boy out of seven kids, so my three older brothers had already left home, and I felt like I had to defend my mom. When I tried to get him off her and she told me to mind my own business, something in me snapped, and I knew it was time to go.
"To this day she swears he never, ever hit her, but when I ask her if she remembers the day I left home, she can tell me exactly what the weather was like, what I was wearing, and which direction I headed. Denial is a bitch, and even though we were told never to discuss what went on in our house, I know that shit happened for real, and so do my sisters and brothers. I moved in with my aunt after I left home and finally, tosome degree, had a normal life. I graduated from high school and went to college on a baseball scholarship, and I've been on my own ever since."
55, DIVORCED, HIGH SCHOOL COUNSELOR
Neal was well prepared when we arrived at his home, typical for a man who was once in the military and is a stickler for things being done "on time and in order." He can easily be described as tall, dark, and handsome since he stands six-four, has dark brown skin, sports a slightly gray goatee, and has the cutest dimples in both cheeks. Although soft spoken, Neal is very direct when he speaks. It's almost like he thinks through everything he's going to say before he allows the words to pass his lips.
He was wearing navy blue Dockers, a light blue polo shirt, and navy leather Cole Haan house shoes, all in good taste, which was also reflected in his furniture, that appeared to be brand-spanking-new and gorgeous. We only went through the foyer into the dining room, where he'd prepared lunch for us, and that space was so beautifully decorated that I wanted to ask to see the rest of the house, but once I smelled what he'd cooked, I changed my mind.
He'd prepared a simple meal, which included a green salad with homemade dressing, crawfish étoufée with white rice, and sweet potato pecan pie. "Just a little something I threw together," he said, but of course we didn't care if he'd thrown it together or spent four hours cooking it. In case you haven't noticed it by now, we're always ready for a good meal, and today was no exception. When he finally announced that everything was ready, we almost got into a footrace to see who could make it to the crawfish étoufée first, but before we could take our first bite, he bowed his head to bless the food. "As soon as I say grace, you all can eat and we can talk at the same time," he said.So we bowed our heads without saying a word so he could get his grace said and we could get our eat on.
Neal started off by telling us a little about himself and his life. He was born in Brooklyn, New York, but was raised on his grandparents' farm in Tallahassee, Florida. He said his father made the decision to move the family down South when he was about three because he could never find steady work up North. Fortunately, his grandparents owned fifty acres of land and a large house, so by moving back home, not only did his father ensure they had a roof over their heads and plenty of food to eat, he also had steady work on his father's farm.
The house he's living in now is the house he shared with his wife and children before the divorce, but he doesn't want to sell it, because he always told his children they could come home when they couldn't go anywhere else. His ex fought him tooth and nail, but when it was all said and done, she got all their other property free and clear and most of their savings too, but he got the house and custody of the kids, which was fine with him because he didn't feel like his wife would do a good job raising them. He felt she was weak and easily persuaded, and he wanted to be sure that his kids were raised in a loving but structured environment where they couldn't just do what they wanted to do, especially his youngest son, who he says is strong willed just like him.
"My parents made me the person that I am. They were highly religious individuals, and they were very strict and guarded, but the things they taught us as we were growing up made us very productive. There were seven children in my family--three boys and four girls--and I'm the third child. We were taught to have faith and trust in God, and to respect our elders as well as ourselves.
"I grew up in the Deep South, where you got baptized in an outdoor pond. It was a beautiful ceremony; the deaconesses of the church would be dressed in their white uniforms and white starched hats. The deacons wore dark suits and ties, and all of the candidates that were tobe baptized would form a line. The girls went first, wearing long white robes with a sash tied around their waists and a white scarf around their heads, and the guys wore white shirts and dark pants.
"The pastor would have a deacon help him with the baptism because the pastor already had his hands full with having to pinch shut the nostrils of the person about to be baptized. Most of them couldn't swim a lick as it was, and it would've been a shame if someone would've messed around and drowned out there even though the water wasn't no more than three feet deep.
"After the baptism, we'd all have ice cream and cake, and I often wondered if some of those kids were being baptized and coming to Christ just so they could get that homemade ice cream and cake.
"My parents stressed getting an education, and that was the one thing that guided me throughout my life. We were told to stay in school and make good grades. You couldn't come up with any excuses like, 'Mama, the teacher doesn't pay attention to me, the other students are bad, I went to school hungry and couldn't learn, I didn't have time to study.' None of that worked. My mama's philosophy was, 'If it's being taught in that classroom and you're in that classroom, then you should be learning. You have no excuse for not learning.'"
30-SOMETHING, DIVORCED, PERSONAL TRAINER
Pierre had chosen a small intimate Italian restaurant as our meeting place, and since it was early afternoon the place wasn't extremely crowded. It was slightly misting outside, and the heat inside had caused the windows to fog a bit, offering a touch of coziness to our surroundings. We had arrived early for a change, so we sat down and ordered drinks and appetizers and gossiped about this and that as we awaited his arrival. At our request, the hostess had seated us at a booth in one corner of the restaurant, a bit removed from the other patrons, which would allow for some privacy.
From where we sat, we could see him when he parked his blue Jeep Cherokee and walked inside. He was wearing a gray wool jacket that zipped up the front, because it was kind of cool out, blue jeans, and brown Timberland boots. He's about six feet tall and high yellow, has beautiful, pink, full, kissable lips, pretty white teeth, and light brown eyes. As if that weren't enough, Pierre is very, very intelligent and well spoken and has a deep, sexy voice. His is the kind of voice you can listen to for hours on end and not digest a single word he says because you're too busy luxuriating in the rumble of it.
Pierre had initially appeared to be the strong, silent type when we'd met him a few months ago at his gym. He didn't say much at all during that first meeting, just offered a brief comment here and there and a fleeting smile. Now that our initial meeting was behind us and his comfort level had risen, he spoke more freely and we found out that the old saying, "Still water runs deep--and it's hell at the bottom," is true.
His hands were as nice, pretty, and manicured as the rest of him, yet they had the slight roughness that a man's hands should have. He took his cell phone from his pocket, turned it to VIBRATE, and placed it on the table in front of him. "I'm expecting a call from a friend of mine who's coming into town today. He's going to need directions once he gets here, so I don't want to miss his call, and I promise his will be the only call I'll take while we're talking." It was good that he had the forethought to turn it on VIBRATE--because he got so many calls, the poor phone danced all over the table the entire time we talked.
The waiter came around to take our orders, and Pierre asked for the calamari without looking at the menu, while we ordered pasta. He removed his jacket, revealing a fitted black shirt that only a man with a body like his could wear. The knit stretched across a muscular chest, broad shoulders, and flat stomach. Even if we hadn't already known that he was a personal trainer, it was obvious that he spent a great deal of time in somebody's gym.
Pierre took a sip of the Bellini he'd ordered and pretended not tosee the hostess who had just found an excuse to walk past our table for the fourth time in five minutes.
"Women are always giving me things. I've never had to ask a woman for anything. If I spend time with a woman sexually and she gets to thinking that she's in love with me and wants to start giving me things like money, jewelry, clothes, or whatever, I don't feel bad about taking those things, because I feel like I've given her something of value as well."
Pierre laughed at our expressions. "Y'all looking at me like those women must be crazy or desperate or something. I don't know what it is--maybe ladies like you wouldn't do that--but it's been my experience that there is nothing a single woman, or married woman for that matter, won't do if she wants a man."
The waiter was back with our orders, and the food looked and smelled delicious. "I love coming to this restaurant," Pierre said. "It's one of my favorite spots. It's intimate, it's off the beaten path, and anything I've ever eaten here has been marvelous."
We consumed our meals over a bit of small talk, and after ordering a fresh round of Bellinis, we were ready to do the damn thing, I mean interview.
"I guess I had what some folks would call a normal childhood. My parents are still married, and we attended church regularly given that my father was a contract minister for the military. They were kind of old school: you had your chores you had to do, there was no talking back, what they said went, and all of that. I wasn't abused or anything, so I can't complain. I'm very thankful, and I think my parents did a wonderful job of raising us. Me and my sisters had a middle-class upbringing. I always lived in the suburbs and went to predominantly white schools where I was the only black kid in class, that kind of thing.
"There was no college fund set up for me, and I didn't get to wear the brand-name clothes. I had to wear my Chuck Taylors, jeans, and T-shirts, so I had a highly moral, very structured family life. Since mydad worked for the government, I'm not really from anywhere in particular, because we traveled all over. I've lived in New York, Atlanta, El Paso, Chicago, and lots of small military towns, which made me a more cultured person, but having a background like that makes it hard for me to settle down in one place. I got so used to moving all the time that even now, after living in a place for five years or so, I'm bored. Also, you don't keep the same friends when you move around a lot, so I don't have any childhood friends. I don't know what it's like to say 'I've known somebody since grade school.' But then I'll think, 'Why I want to know anybody that long anyway?' I know people from a distance, and that's cool with me."
50-SOMETHING, MARRIED, ELECTRICIAN
On a balmy evening in Baton Rouge, Louisiana, we talked with Collier while sitting on the tailgate of his customized, candy apple red, '55 Chevy pickup. We'd come down for a family reunion, so it was a perfect opportunity to interview him because usually it's impossible to get him to sit still for very long. He's always got somewhere to go or something to do, but because he's such a charming and witty man, we couldn't pass up the opportunity.
Collier is tall and thick, about six-three and 240 pounds, and he always wears a hat, starched jeans, a nice shirt, boots, and sunglasses. He's never without a cigar--either he's holding it between two fingers or it's sticking out the corner of his mouth, firmly clenched between his teeth while he talks. He smokes Swisher Sweets, and the scent is actually kind of nice and mellow if you like the smell of cigars. He usually looks serious and doesn't smile a lot, but when you talk to him or listen to him tell stories about his childhood, he'll have you in stitches and then he'll offer a brief smile because he was able to make you laugh.
When we first approached him and asked if we could talk to him, helooked at us like he wasn't quite sure. Then he took a sip of brandy, studied us again, and said, "Well, okay, you can ask me whatever you want 'cause I ain't got nothing to hide, but I ain't saying I'll tell you everything. You ever heard the old saying, 'Never let your left hand know what your right hand is doing?' Well, that's how I feel about telling some things, and my left and right hand are on the same body."
Collier had parked his truck across the street from the park where everyone else was gathered because he didn't want to take the chance of anyone parking too close and putting dents in the doors. He had a huge-ass cooler in the bed of the truck, full of ice, beer, and wine, just in case he ran across some of his friends and wanted to stop and talk for a while, so his truck was pretty much a bar on wheels because he even had a few folding chairs back there.
"I've got some wine back here, and even though it's got a screw-off top, it'll still give you a buzz. If you don't want that, I can make y'all a mean whiskey sour--what you say?" Collier asked, while taking out two plastic cups and filling them with ice. He mixed the drinks and handed them to us--and child, he wasn't lying. It was more whiskey than sour, but it was good. He pulled out a brown bag and poured himself some more brandy; then as the wind blew softly and the smell of rain hung in the trees, we sat on the tailgate. Collier unfolded one of his chairs, sat down, crossed his legs and said, "Let me tell y'all this little story first, okay?
"There were these two ladies who were girlfriends, right? One lived in the country and one lived in the city, but they were real good friends. The city girl was invited to a ball, so she called her country girlfriend up and said, 'Won't you come and go to the ball with me and meet some nice people?'
"But the country girl told her, 'No, I don't think I'm going. I never been to a ball before, and I might not know how to act or what to say.'
"So the city girl said, 'Look, girl, come go with me and say what I say and do what I do,' and she finally persuaded her to go.
"So there at the ball, a gentleman walked up to the city lady and asked her--he said, 'Excuse me, may I have this dance?'
"The city girl said, 'No, thank you. I'm concentrating on matrimony. I think I'd rather sit.'
"So he asked the country girl, 'Excuse me, may I have this dance?' and she say, 'No, thank you. I'm constipated on macaroni. I think I'd rather shit.'"
We fell out laughing, but he just smiled and cleared his throat and went right on talking.
"I'm from a big family, and I was the second to the youngest. My parents were very strict and very religious. In fact, my father was a preacher, and out of all six of us, I was probably the worst. I think I was the one who caught the most whippings, probably because of some of the things I used to do, like charging food on my father's account at the neighborhood store. See, I used to go to that store and get stuff for Daddy all the time. He'd send me, and I'd charge it.
"I know y'all probably heard the story before, but let me tell you how it really happened. I was mad because one of my sisters had asked me to wash dishes for her, and then wouldn't pay me, and on top of that I was hungry. When my daddy asked me to go to the store, I figured I would just have me a hootenanny. Man, I put on a raincoat and some boots, and it wasn't even raining. It was just cold, but I figured I would need that coat to store all the food I planned on getting.
"When I walked in the store, old Mr. Boudreaux looked up from his magazine and stared at me real funny and said, 'It ain't raining, Collie. What you doing with a raincoat on?'
"I say, 'You must ain't hear the weather. They say it's gonna rain a little later on.'
"My mama had plenty of food at home, and she had lunch meat, but I didn't want no lunch meat. I wanted me some pepper sausage, but back then you didn't tell your mama what you didn't want unlessyou wanted to get the taste slapped out your mouth, so I charged some honey buns, cheese, a whole loaf of bread, a big old cold drink, and about two dollars' worth of that pepper sausage, and it was sliced real thick, about like this."
Collier used his finger and thumb to measure a quarter inch of space. "After old Mr. Boudreaux sliced the sausage and got all the food rung up, I waddled out the store and went and ate until I almost knocked myself out. I weighed about sixty pounds, but I left that store weighing about eighty with my arms sticking out like this." Collier held his arms out horizontal to his body.
"I went to this little house right around the corner. It had a lot of bushes and stuff in front of it because didn't nobody stay there, and it was an old house. Child, I took everything out from inside that raincoat and laid it down on the front porch with my cold drink. Then I opened my bread, unwrapped my cheese and pepper sausage, and made me some sandwiches, but I couldn't eat more than two. I ate a few of those honey buns, and then I took all the leftovers and threw them under the house because I knew I couldn't take none of that food home.
"I skipped home, full, whistling and feeling good. You ever seen a little skinny boy with a big, tight stomach? Oooh boy, that was me. My stomach was 'bout to pop, but I didn't care. I was skipping because I just knew ain't nobody know nothing. I skipped up onto that front porch, and Daddy came outside and said, 'Collier, ain't I been good to you?'
"I said, 'Yes sir, you been good to me,' 'cause I didn't know where he was coming from.
"But then he said, 'Then what the devil you go round to Boudreaux's and charge--' and when he said charge, boy, I aimed to jump off that front porch, and he caught me while I was in the air and swung me back towards him, took my head, put it between his legs, and tore my butt up, and when he got through, my pants was smoking. He whipped me so until my mama finally had to come outside and say, 'Now that's enough, honey. You gonna hurt that boy.'
"That was the worst whipping I ever got, but it was worth it. See, back then the stuff Daddy would have me charge usually added up to about five dollars, but that day I charged about ten dollars' worth, so you know I had a lot. After Daddy whipped me, I looked down inside my boots, where I still had two honey buns stashed, but I was crying too hard to eat them.
"We had something we called a common in our neighborhood, and a common is really just a big old vacant lot. I went over to the common, hid between some trees, pulled them boots off, and threw those honey buns away. That one experience taught me something very important, and that's why I don't use charge cards. To this very day, I don't charge nothing.
"After I finished high school, I couldn't narrow down what it was I wanted to do, so I joined the Navy during the Vietnam War. Actually, the Army had drafted me, but I didn't want to go into the Army, because my brother had gone into the Navy. He told me, 'Man, if you go in the Navy, every port you go into has nothing but beautiful women. You can go to Hawaii and lay on the beach under the coconut trees and just let these beautiful women fan you all day long.'
"I was only nineteen years old, and of course that sounded good to me, so I went and joined the Navy, and at that time they had a four-year plan. I took a test and scored really high in electronics, so I ended up in the Operational Electronics Division, and I got shipped to San Diego and had a ball. I enjoyed the military experience because I got to see a lot of things I wouldn't have seen if I hadn't gone.
"When I finished serving my time in the Navy, I got out and because of the GI Bill, I was able to go back to school with every hope that I would graduate from college in a year, but my girlfriend got pregnant, so my plans changed. It was like seeing the flame of my life die out. I kept thinking about all the things I could have been and done had I not gotten her pregnant, and I was devastated. Back then, if you got a girl pregnant, the decent thing to do was marry her, so that's what I did. After all this happened, I realized that it don't matter how smart youare--you can have all the plans in the world, and something can always come along and change your life forever, and there's not a whole lot you can do about it. I kept telling myself, 'You should have kept your dick in your pants or put a raincoat on,' but it was too late for should have's.
"Even though things in my life didn't turn out exactly the way I wanted them to, I feel that I've been successful and the best is still to come, so I try to be positive about everything. I've had two major operations on my brain because I had seizures, and I haven't worked in almost a year, but other than my wife and my children, no one knows that because sometimes you have to keep things to yourself. Believe it or not, my bills are still getting paid even though my wife only works part-time.
"Look at this."
Collier pulled out his wallet and started counting the bills.
"One two, three, four, five, six, seven, eight, nine--that's nine one-hundred-dollar bills, and I'm not working. That's how I know that God is good. He gave me enough good sense to invest my money wisely, so that when hard times like this came, I could still take care of my family. So see, even in times like these when I'm down a little, I'm still not completely out of the game."
47, DIVORCED, SPORTS BAR OWNER
We met Antonio in Reading Terminal in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, and for those who have never been, it is truly a feast for the senses. You'll find freshly cut flowers, beautiful produce, seafood, all varieties of meats and desserts, and restaurants too numerous to mention. You can purchase cookbooks, jewelry, candles, freshly baked pastries, soft pretzels, and ice cream. You name it--this place had it. It was also interestingto see the Amish merchants--the men in their dark clothing, broad brimmed hats, long beards, and no mustaches--and the Amish women--free of jewelry, wearing long, modest, full-skirted dresses and aprons, with their hair pulled back in a bun and heads covered with white or black caps.
We were sitting at Pearl's Oyster Bar, trying to decide what to eat for lunch when Antonio sat down next to us and said, "Hello, ladies. I see you two trying to decide what to eat, so obviously you've never been here before. Where are you all from?"
We explained where we were from and told him that we were in town to do book signings at Robbins and Basic Black Books, as well as try to find a few guys to interview for our next book. He said he was free for the afternoon and would agree to an interview if we would let him buy lunch (which you know was no problem for us), and after we got down on the shrimp and oysters with extra tartar sauce that he recommended, we went back to our hotel lobby around the corner to get his story.
"I'm forty-seven years old, I'm half-Hispanic and half-black, and my mother's parents raised me until I was into my teenage years when I went to live with my mother. My grandparents put the old in old school; they were old, old, old school. My grandfather, by his very words and actions, defined the word machismo, which means a proud, Hispanic man with a lot of good characteristics like courage and heart and all the good things a man should have. That's the kind of man that raised me. He was always quoting things to me like, 'A real man--' Fill in the blank, 24-7. He was constantly teaching me things.
"I broke my nose playing baseball, and he popped it back into shape and held it in place with a Popsicle stick and two pieces of adhesive tape and said, 'Real men don't cry about getting hurt. Go out there and play baseball.' I broke my finger once, and he said, 'A real man don't cry about pain. Be tough.' Eventually I figured out that it was better tohave too much guidance than no guidance at all, but as I got older, I was able to sort the good stuff out. Certain things like always being the one to pay when I took a woman out on a date--that's one of the things my grandfather taught me, that was part of machismo. He said it was a man's privilege to have a woman's company, so you always pay. 'It's a man's obligation to pay for a woman's company,' is how he'd say it, so I'm just used to paying for dates all the time. He also taught me to be honest, because he always said, 'Real men don't lie.'
"We lived in a tough neighborhood that was almost all black with only a few Hispanics. Then the few Hispanics that were there left and all that remained was the black people, my grandparents, and me. My grandmother gave me the tenderness I needed; she was the one who would save me from an ass-whipping. She'd tell my grandfather, 'Give that boy a break, give him a chance, he don't know, help him out.' I learned from her that everybody deserves a chance, everybody deserves this or that, and you have to have a little bit of tenderness mixed in with the toughness. I'd be like, 'God, he's so mean, Grandma,' and she'd say, 'Baby, people don't know what nobody's taught them, so your grandfather don't know, because nobody taught him not to be mean. He don't know.' She had a lot of empathy.
"A big turning point in my life was the summer of my eighth-grade year. I was always in trouble with the police for doing mischievous things. Shooting BB guns inside the city limits, lighting fireworks and pushing shopping carts down underpasses and hitting cars--this happened to be a sport of ours. One time my grandfather grounded me for the whole summer and made me read the encyclopedias from cover to cover, and do book reports. It's amazing how all of that reading changed my life.
"All of a sudden I became a great student, I knew everything; there was nothing they could tell me that I didn't know, aardvark to zebra, so I started doing well in school. Then I moved into a better neighborhood because my mother came and got me. I got to know her and then when I was eighteen she died. She basically worked herself to death.
"My father was an alcoholic when I was a young boy, but the lessons I learned from living with my mother taught me how to forgive and forget, and the reason I know how to shoot pool so well right now is because the rare times my father would come pick me up on Saturday, I'd shoot pool all day. There were many Saturdays that I would sit on the curb all day, till it got dark, and he never showed up. But when he did show up, he'd take me to the Tee Pee Tavern, give me a roll of quarters, and sit at the bar and drink while I played pool. I shot pool with the waitresses, and they'd bring me Cokes all day, from afternoon till it got dark.
"Now I take care of my father. He lives here in an apartment and I pay his rent and I take him to the store every weekend because he doesn't drive. Why hate him for what he did to me as a little boy? I let that go. I got him now, he needs me, and we're close. God changed my heart because I resented my mother at first--I actually hated her when I was a little boy because I always wondered, Why did she leave me? Then I realized it wasn't for me to know why she left me because I eventually found out that she was a wonderful woman. She took care of me and my sisters, so I didn't want to make that same mistake with my father and just throw him away because of what he did when I was younger. That's the mistake so many people make: they let what their parents did to them twenty years ago affect the rest of their lives."
54, DIVORCED, CONTRACTOR
Edwin stood on the front porch of his house puffing on a Cuban cigar in between sips of Grey Goose. He spread his arms wide open as we walked up the steps. "See, this is why I like living by myself: I can smoke and drink whenever I want to and I never get any complaints.
"I don't have to worry about a wife wanting to drive my car or truck." He motioned to a classic black Corvette and an ivory Cadillac Escalade. "It's not that I'm selfish, but that last wife of mine couldn'tdrive for shit. Every time I looked around, there was a new scratch or dent, but I couldn't keep that woman out of my car to save my life."
We followed him into the large, rambling, twenty-year-old house that he's renovated from the inside out over the past few years. He's replaced the roof, the light fixtures, the windows, and the plumbing, knocked out walls to enlarge some of the rooms and refinished the wood floors, which were highly polished and covered with expensive rugs. The house sits on a three-acre lot and is surrounded by pecan trees.
He placed his Grey Goose on the table and ran a hand through his curly, closely cropped hair that had a few strands of gray. "I'm fifty-four years old, and marriage is the last thing on my mind right now. I've already tried it four times. For now I'm just enjoying my space and living by myself. I'm finally learning how to be picky because now I know what I want in a woman."
He put out the cigar and stroked his thick black mustache. "Can I get you ladies something? If y'all want something to snack on, I got some tuna salad in the fridge." He patted his stomach. "I weigh about a hundred and eighty pounds, and the only way I'm able to maintain my weight is to be careful about eating the right kinds of food and besides that"--he winked--"I make a damn good tuna salad."
Edwin is fair skinned, but he's strictly a for-real brother. He has a dry sense of humor, is well read, cultured, and enjoys the finer things. I could be almost certain that the cigar he had just put out and the Grey Goose he was sipping were some of the best to be found, and his wardrobe is just as classy as he is. Whether the event is casual, social, or work related, he always has on the proper attire.
"I don't have a housekeeper," Edwin replied when asked who kept his house so spotless. "I clean my own house, I wash my own clothes, and I cook my own food. I learned how to cook when I was growing up, and I'm glad I did, seeing as how 1 can't seem to stay married."
The kitchen was well equipped and not just for show. A rotisserie and silver wok with a shiny red lid took up one portion of his kitchencounter, and in one corner he had a stack of cookbooks that included a Southern Living 1988 Annual Recipes book, a Spoonbread and Strawberry Wine soul food cookbook, and Mexican and Oriental food cookbooks. All four appeared to be well used, judging from the dog-eared pages.
After we settled in, Edwin began to reminisce.
"I grew up in a small country town and was raised by my mom and dad. I'm the middle child in a family of five with two sisters and two brothers, and my childhood was fun; I spent a lot of time playing with my brothers and what few neighbors we had in East Texas. Me and one of my brothers are exactly a year apart, so we grew up pretty close. My other brother is four years older than me, and of the three boys in my family, I am probably the most domestic because I would get in the kitchen and help my older sister out. Growing up in the country, it was always the girl's responsibility to take care of the cooking, the cleaning, and whatever but I'd get in and help a little bit wherever I could because I wanted to learn.
"I really didn't date until I was older because in small towns--you know how it is--everybody knows everybody, which means most of us were related. I spent a lot of time studying and playing basketball because I really wasn't interested in girls too much anyway, but I did attend all of the high school dances because my sister and her friends needed a dance partner. They used to dance my damn feet off, and that's probably why I don't dance now unless I've had a good bottle of liquor first.
"After high school, I went to college for two years and intended on majoring in electrical engineering, but instead of finishing my degree, I ended up getting married and got into a four-year apprenticeship program and subsequently got my journeyman's license. Then I got my master plumber's license and finally a contractor's license. Now, why I got married when I was so young, I don't know, but I do know that it was a mistake because it didn't last for very long, and I've been marriedthree more times since then, so you know I got some stories to tell, and all of them ain't nice."
50, MARRIED, CORRECTIONAL OFFICER
"Y'all just in time for some piping hot catfish." Warren spoke to us in a slow relaxed southern drawl as we rounded the corner of his house. He was taking the last bit of golden brown catfish out of a huge fryer. "I fry fish outside because I don't like grease popping all over the place and having the whole house smell like fish for days afterwards."
Warren is slender and about five-ten and dark skinned. He's a real black cowboy and wears the hat, the tight-fitting jeans, the huge belt buckle, the boots, the whole deal, and today was no different. We'd met him and a group of his friends and their wives at a club called Foxies one Saturday night. They're members of a swing-out club and get together the first Saturday of each month to drink and socialize and do this dance called the swing-out. Anybody is welcome to join them, and if you don't know how to swing out, somebody is always willing to teach you. The following Sunday, one of the members has a little get-together at his or her house, and it was Warren's turn, so he'd invited us over.
Warren wasn't a man to put on airs; he's comfortable with himself and with the life he leads. He's been married most of his life and is quick to say that if he had it to do over again, he'd choose the same woman--which is a pretty impressive statement, seeing as how his wife wasn't even within hearing distance of the compliment.
"I cook as a form of relaxation. Some folk like to bowl, some folk like to drink--well, I drink too," Warren said, sipping on a bottle of beer. "But you know what I mean. I do the majority of the cooking in my house, that La' Gay See fellow ain't got nothing on me," he said, mispronouncing the famous chef's name.
"See, the secret to my hush puppies is that I mix in a hint of sugar with the creamed corn, and I put in jalapenos but they're chopped up real fine. I also made the coleslaw but I use just enough dressing to coat the cabbage 'cause I don't want to drown it. Look at y'all, standing there looking all hungry. Come on, let's eat and then we can get to these questions y'all want to ask. There's nothing like talking about life when your belly is full."
Just as we finished eating, Warren began to talk about his past:
"I had a good time when I was a boy; we went to church on Sundays, choir rehearsals during the week, and on Friday night we had football games and parties--the usual stuff. There were four of us, three boys and one girl. I'm the baby of the family. I was raised by my mother and father right here in Louisiana.
"I wanted to play college football, but in my senior year of high school I broke my collarbone and couldn't play at all. I still went to Grambling for a semester, but then I quit school and went to work at the Angola State Prison, and I've been there ever since. When me and my wife got married, I was twenty and she was seventeen, and that was thirty years ago.
"We had some tough times, as young couples do, but we always managed to get by. I can remember when we were so broke that we ate spaghetti with tomato sauce and biscuits for dinner for a whole week--but shoot, we were so in love, it didn't even matter. As long as our bellies were full and we could make love, that's all we needed. It wasn't like it is now with some young folks who break up just because they wake up one morning and decide they don't want to be married anymore.
"We were young, but even at seventeen and twenty, we knew what a commitment was because we was raised that way. After she graduated from high school, she wanted to go to college and since I was the husband, it was my responsibility to put her through college, so I did that. She got her associate's degree, and then she wanted to be a paralegal, andI supported her in that, and when she got pregnant I changed my work schedule so I could take care of the baby while she studied. So, I may not have a lot of money, and I may not drive a fancy car, but I feel like I've been successful because I've been a good husband and a good father.
"I'm a simple man and I live a simple life. I got me a piece of land with two horses on it, I go out there and ride them about once or twice a week to keep them in shape, and for the most part, I'm happy."
43, SINGLE, ACCOUNTANT AND MUSICIAN
When we pulled up, Ruben was just coming in from the golf course, with his tall, sexy Latino self. He slid his golf cart into one bay of the four-car garage alongside his Jag and the speedboat, which he confessed was his latest toy.
"You two are just in time--come on inside and let me freshen up." He motioned to his golfing clothes, which consisted of khaki shorts and a navy polo shirt.
He offered us something to drink and placed some sliced fruit and cheese on the black granite kitchen counter before slipping into his room to change. "Make yourselves at home," he called out over his shoulder. "I'm sure you can find whatever you need, and check out the new artwork in my living room. It's been a while since y'all have been over, and I've gotten some new pieces."
Ruben's house is custom built, about 4,500 square feet, with tiled flooring and modern furnishings. In the living room, he has a gleaming baby grand piano, which he plays well enough to make the ladies swoon--as if playing the saxophone and being successful and good looking aren't enough. We viewed his impressive art collection then returned to the family room and munched on purple grapes and strawberries as we gazed out of the massive floor-to-ceiling window at the well-manicured golf course, which was the main reason Ruben had chosen to move here.
He came back a few minutes later, wearing black linen slacks that tied at the waist, a matching shirt open to reveal taut abs that he'd earned from working out religiously, and black leather thong sandals on his feet. His shoulder-length, wavy brown hair was pulled back in its usual ponytail, and he looked a bit like Antonio Banderas, only his skin is more of a light honey-brown shade.
"My son has gone to the movies with some friends, so we got the whole house to ourselves." He sat down on the ottoman in front of us and stretched out his long legs. "It was nice seeing y'all at the club last night. Our band plays there about once a month, and I like the crowd because it's older and more sophisticated."
Ruben is an accountant by profession but plays saxophone with a local jazz band. He fiddled with the thick silver bracelet on his wrist then reached over for a slice of fresh pineapple, sank his teeth into it, and savored the flavor. "Mmmm, do I know how to pick good fruit or what? I sliced this fresh for y'all--much better than that stuff in the can." He flashed a smile. "So should I be nervous about the questions you going to ask me, or what?"
"I don't know, maybe we should be nervous about the responses you give."
"Y'all don't have nothing to be nervous about, I've kind of mellowed out in my mature years--just 'cause I date a lot of women doesn't mean I screw a lot of women. I'm not out there like that, but in my twenties--man, that was another story. I was like a kid in a candy store." He flashed another smile. "Are you guys ready, am I getting ahead of you?"
"Oh, our recorders are already running, Ruben," I laughed. "Since you're already talking, keep going. Just back up and start from your childhood, and we'll be right on target."
"Okay, cool. There are six boys in my family, and I'm the second to the oldest. My mom taught school for about five years, and when my dad got to a certain point in his career, she was able to stay at home and raise us. When we first moved into the house I grew up in, there were only three bedrooms, so that meant Mom and Dad had a room,and there were three boys in each of the other two rooms, which was a trip. Dad decided to add on to the house, and once mom stopped working, she actually became the building foreman on our house, and we worked on it every weekend until eventually each of us had our own room.
"My mom was strict, and she was running things because Dad traveled a lot with his job. We had a twelve o'clock curfew, and I don't care where you were or what you were doing, you better be home by then. I remember being seventeen and me and my friends had parked on one of those old country dirt roads and were out drinking, and it was after curfew. I saw lights coming down the road, and figured it was my friend Steve coming back with some more beer, but it was my mom. I had a cigarette in my mouth and I was holding this big-ass can of beer, and she let her window down, stuck her head out, and said, 'Get your ass home. Now.'
"When I got home, I said, 'Don't you ever do that to me in front of my friends,' and she let me have it. She slapped the hell out of me and said, 'Who do you think you're talking to?' And here I was almost six feet tall, and she was no more than five-one if that. Even to this day, when I go home to visit, I'm home by twelve. To me, it's a respect thing. They'll always be my parents, even though they're grandparents and great-grandparents now, so I give them that respect.
"During that time when I was out drinking with my friends, they were probably the wrong crowd for me to be hanging with anyway, but I had a chip on my shoulder because I wanted to date this girl and her parents said no because I was Latino. Then I got injured playing football and was told I could never play again, so I said, 'To hell with everything,' and forged my dad's signature and joined the Army.
"I turned my back on everything and just waited for the day I was scheduled to leave for boot camp. My mom told me that my dad wanted to contest the enlistment because I'd forged his signature, but she told him to let my ass go. I stayed in the Army for four years, but when I left home, I was a mess. Mom said that when the Army recruiter came topick me up, I said good-bye to her, and once I got in the car I never looked back, and the thought of it still tears her up.
"I said, 'Mom, if I had looked back, I probably would've headed back. I had to move forward because my life was moving forward.' I left for the military a week after I got out of high school.
"Patriotism was ingrained in me as I was growing up. All of my great-grandma's sons were World War Two veterans, and she was always one to say, 'Serve your country.' So I decided that's what I wanted to do. But during the first week of boot camp, I was already asking myself, What in the hell did you do? Then I said, All right, big boy--you thought you were a man, now you got to grow up and act like a man and tough it out, and I turned out to be the number-one soldier in my training class. I scored high on all the tests, and after we went through three different platoon leaders who couldn't get the guys into shape, I decided to do it and I was put in charge of the whole platoon.
"When I got through all my security clearances and moved on to my new assignment, there were only sixty people there, so we did a lot of things together to pass the time. I started playing football again, and one of the colonels saw me. We'd been told when we took this assignment that the Army would work with us to get us a nice assignment afterwards because our current assignment was rough duty. While I was there, I saw people commit suicide, I saw people get hooked on heroin, I saw a lot of people go AWOL, which means 'absent without leave,' because they just couldn't handle it, but here I was, nineteen years old, and I'd made sergeant in two years. So when it was time for me to come back to the States, the colonel took care of me. He called one of his friends, a general, and said, 'You need this guy for your football team,' so I started coaching football, and I was the general's assistant.
"For eighteen months, I would just play tennis with the general in the morning, and I was defensive coach for his football team in the afternoons. At the end of my tour of duty, he asked why I'd quit playing ball, and I told him what had happened when I was in high school. Hesaid, 'You've been cleared, you've seen the doctors here and you're fine, so you can still play. I'll write you a letter of recommendation to go anywhere you want to go.'
"By then I was twenty-one and I got out of the Army and went back home, and as soon as I got home, I ran into a guy who taught grad school in Arizona who had gone to high school with my parents. He asked me what my plans were, and I told him that I had a letter of recommendation from the general, so he made a phone call, and I got a meeting with the coach at Arizona State. He gave me a chance because he was a veteran, and that's how I got back into playing football. A week after I was there, they gave me a scholarship because I just got after it--I wanted it.
"I made the best of the military and used the experience to grow because I always felt like I owed my parents something back, and even though my mom wasn't happy about what I did, I can still say that the best relationship I've had with any woman is the relationship I have with my mom. She has been unselfish, loving, and nurturing yet still was able to make a clear distinction between what a mother's role was and what a son's role was, and even though she sometimes acted like a friend, at the end of the day, she'd remind you, 'I am not your friend. I am your mother.'"
26, DIVORCED, MARINES RECRUITER
Landon swaggered into the restaurant like he owned it, bald head just a-glistening as he tucked the keys of his new Mercedes into the pocket of his baggy jeans. He wore a maroon mock turtle neck that set off his golden brown skin to perfection. Every female eye in the place tracked his glide, some covertly and some blatantly as he made his way to the table. One woman even put her menu down and licked her lips like she'd just decided what she was going to have for dessert, and herdate was looking upside her head like she had just lost her mind. It just didn't make no damn sense for a brother to be as sexy as Landon.
He held a phone close to his ear and was speaking in Spanish in a low tone of voice. From the inflection, it sounded like he was telling someone where to get off--and none too gently.
"Adios." He ended the conversation abruptly and placed the phone on the table before greeting us. "I apologize for my tone. I do my best to watch my temper, but some people know just the right button to push that will piss a brother off." Landon's English has a Spanish flavor to it. "I wish I'd inherited my mom's temper instead of her looks, but naw, I got a bad-ass Cuban temper just like my old man and my uncles."
Landon is the living, breathing description of the term pretty boy. He has full, pouty, bee-stung lips that a woman can spend hours kissing and nibbling. He has caramel-colored skin, soulful brown eyes, long eyelashes, and ferocious black eyebrows that make him look like he's scowling even when he's not. His only facial hair is a finely trimmed mustache.
"The woman I was just talking to, we broke up over a year ago, and she's still calling me and trying to hook up with me again, but I don't believe in going back. For me, once a relationship is over, it's over. Some women just don't get the message, and a lot of them are too damn easy. I can be driving my beat-up old truck, and they'll do anything they can to get my attention--and don't let them see me pull up in the Mercedes, they're really forward then."
His phone rang, and he scowled and placed it on MUTE--good thing too or we never would have gotten this interview done.
"Women have never been a challenge for me. I can be somewhere with my lady and get up and go to the bar to get a drink or go to the bathroom to take a piss, and I can guarantee you that three or four women will slip me their phone numbers.
"I won't lie--I'll be the first to say that I'm lustful. Sex is like a drug to me, and it doesn't help my habit knowing I can get a fix anytime I want one. Even when I was in high school, girls would send menotes and cards all the time; I have boxes of notes from high school back at my parents' house--they'll be something funny to look back on and read when I get old. My mom told me to save them because the first time some irate father came up to her or my dad talking about how I'd chased his daughter or how I'd done something to his daughter, we'd have evidence to the contrary that I wasn't the one doing the chasing.
"Women like the way I look, so it's just something I've become accustomed to. I don't let all that attention give me the big head. I had nothing to do with my physical features; it's just the luck of the genetic pool. Most of the men in my family are good looking, most of my cousins and uncles are pretty boys, so it's no big deal.
"I've never been a dog. I never had to be, because women are always up in my face. I listen to a woman talk, and I take the time to be nice to her if she captures my interest. Women fall in love without any provocation on my part. Most of the time I'm not even trying to go there with them. It's simple to make a woman fall in love with you. It starts before you even have sex--all you got to do is get inside her mind and listen to her and really hear what she's saying. All you got to do is show her a little attention and be yourself, and you're in there.
"I'm an only child, I grew up in a two-parent home, and my parents are still together. Even though I didn't feel that I could go to them for emotional support, whenever it came to getting material things, anything I wanted I got. I still do, surely you didn't think I was able to afford that Mercedes outside on my salary, did you? My parents are both professional. They're corporate lawyers and have been extremely successful in their careers, so they were always able to give me anything I asked for.
"The problem is, I've never been able to talk to them about things that really mattered, not even to this day. When you go that long without being able to talk, it's difficult to make a change. My dad isn't a man who's open for any type of discussion. He's a 'you do what I say and nothing else' type of guy.
"The only interaction I ever remember having with my dad was when he was telling me to do something, but growing up a boy needs emotional support. He needs a father who will say, 'This is how things should be' or 'I've been through this' or 'What's going on with your grades?' But it was never like that between the two of us. The only time he had anything to say to me was when he was getting on my ass about something I'd done.
"My parents always pushed me to do well, but a lot of times I didn't listen, because I never felt like they were there for me emotionally. I wasn't being rebellious, but in my mind it was like, How can I take advice from people who don't understand the things I'm going through? I couldn't. When they tried to give me advice, I brushed it off and said to myself, They don't even know me--who are they to give me advice? Yes, I realize that they brought me into this world, but where were they when I needed guidance on specific issues that concerned me?
"I learned to listen to advice from friends, compare their advice to what I thought I should do, make an educated guess, and stand by my decision. The way I've lived my life is that I don't want to do nothing I'll live to regret, but that doesn't mean I haven't made bad decisions.
"I was really into sports during my last few years of high school. That's where I got the team camaraderie and close friendships, things I was never able to get with my parents, because they were always too busy working and climbing that corporate ladder.
"My dad set the rules, and he would tell me, 'As soon as you turn eighteen, you got to get out of here.' He said, 'If you're going to stay in this house, you got to go to school or you got to have a job,' and at the time I wasn't sure that I was ready to go to school, even though I was a straight-A and -B student. School was easy for me. I was in honors classes my last three years of high school and graduated with a three-point-five grade point average. I had everything going for me, but by the time I graduated, I knew I wasn't ready to go to college, so I joined the military.
"I went into the Marines, and there was no privacy anywhere, andthat was something I just wasn't used to. Open showers, open beds, open everything--you never did anything alone. Even going to the bathroom, you got five minutes to shit and pee. You got a line, and you got four guys standing there, watching you use the toilet, and they got to go bad, and they're like, 'Hurry up, you need to hurry up,' and all of this was a whole new experience for me. We had two gay guys in boot camp who would watch everybody shower. They were openly, flaming gay. You're dealing with all this, you're worried about your girl back home, wonder if your parents are all right, and then they got you doing four and five hundred push-ups a day and sit-ups and all this crazy shit. Man, I wasn't sure if I'd done the right thing.
"A few months after I got out of boot camp, I sat down and said to myself, I got to stars doling things that are good for me. That's why I say I don't want to do nothing that I'll live to regret. It was a hard transition to leave home and go straight to the military because this was real--I was on my own, for real.
"I remember getting my first two checks out of boot camp. I got paid on the first, and by the second, I was broke. It only took two paychecks for me to figure out I was doing something wrong. I went out clubbing, drinking, and doing whatever, and I wasn't worried about having money, because I knew I could eat in the chow hall and I lived in the dorm, but I realized that I couldn't go to the places I wanted and I couldn't meet the girls I wanted if I was broke, so after that first month I said to myself, I can't keep doing this. So I started saving my money, and I've been saving ever since."
MISTER GUMBO. Copyright © 2005 by Ursula Inga Kindred and Mirranda Guerin-Williams. All rights preserved. No part of this book may be used or reproduced in any manner whatsoever without written permission except in the case of brief quotations embodied in critical articles or reviews. For information, address St. Wartin's Press, 175 Fifth Avenue, New York. N.Y. 10010.