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I was sixteen years old when I first set foot on Thirty-fifth Street and first saw Alfred Mayes. And when Child came that night, I knowed exactly what she saw while staring into his old devil eyes. I had saw it myself, lo them many years ago. Honey, them eyes could cast a spell. They invited you in. Told you to make yourself at home, and then before you got comfortable good, they done grabbed hold of the corners of your soul and shook till your whole being was shuffled in the darkness, till you hardly could speak your name. Child didn't have sense enough to be scared for herself, but I was scared for her. The Right Reverend Alfred Mayes and me went back a long way.
As I finished closing the store that night, all I could do was think about that little girlher pretty red hair, her cute little crooked smile, the way she walked holding Hump's hand, looking over her shoulder, waving back at me. There was something about Child that was special. I saw that the moment I laid eyes on her, just like I could tell she was coming back no matter how I warned her to stay away. When she nodded, even after I asked her if she understood it wasn't safe over here, I knowed that nod was a lie.
Like I said, I was sixteen when I came to Thirty-fifth Street and first saw Alfred Mayes. It was the summer of 1932. And I don't mind saying I was fine, long black hair, with an even finer waist. Everybody say I looked just like my mother, a cross between Mahalia Jackson and Bessie Smith. But high yellow as honey dew, with big dimples and green eyes trimmed in amber. My mama died birthing me, so I never got a chance to see her. I had to take everybody's word. I still keeps a photograph in my pocketbook that shows me in my fine days, though. It's of me and my big sister, Essie, sporting Sunday flop hats with wax sunflowers and gingham dresses, looking cleaner than the board of health (even though there was a few holes here and there we tucked out of view).
The night we made it to Thirty-fifth Street we'd been in Chicago a couple of months. Essie and me waited for everyone crowded in that old tenement house we was staying in to fall asleep. We was two young girls sneaking out our bedroom window like two men tipping out on their wives. We had on the same Sunday dresses and hats we had on in that picture, and some fresh from-the-kitchen bacon grease that we spread across our legs and elbows to get rid of the ash. We thought this was a occasion to be fancy.
I was the one that wanted to go to Thirty-fifth Street. Poor Essie, I just drug her with me. She was three years older, but I always led the way to the fun stuff. I probably wouldn't a gave a hoot about the place if Aunt Ethel hadn't warned us to stay away, hadn't slapped our faces with her old gnarled hands with that warning. My face carried her whole handprint; Essie was much darker, so her print went away faster. But the hurt was something neither of us could easily rub off.
"It ain't nothing but Satan's Row, a hole that shoulda burned down when the rest of Chicago was on fire," Aunt Ethel told us, making a ugly face, worser than the one God left her with. "The only good thing about it is the New Saved preachers. And all the good work we're doing to try to lift it out of darkness. Now, I want you girls to stay away, you hear? Your papa works too hard for you to not mind."
Then the old heifer fell to her knees, with her lace handkerchief pressed against her flat chest, and baptized us in her spit. She yanked us to our knees and mumbled all kinds of prayers, trying to protect us, she said. All the while, she pinched and tugged our ears, making sure we heard what she said, what God said. Oh, she was full of horse hockey and evil as hell, which is now her final resting place. We found out later that the money Papa was giving her to feed us, she used to boost her tithes at that New Saved church, instead of putting food in our bellies.
Anyway, I came to Thirty-fifth Street that night the way the three wise men came following that star. The bright city lights called me. (They was lamps, but any light is bright when you from the country.) And when I got there, Lord, the street, all that mud, was soft as sweet cream and seemed to mold to my feetmy old, tight, run-over shoes. And the people? Ladies, beautiful ladies, in feathers, around their sleeves, around their necks, and dangly wanna-be pearls and diamonds. White satin gloves and expensive slippery dresses that knowed when and where to hug, and when and where to flow. Fine, fine men, coffee black, coffee creamed, coffee in-between, in suits with fat wallets and shined shoes and processed dos so slick, they glowed in the dark.
I looks back now and have to chuckle to myself because I remember Essie and me walking so close to each other and holding on so tight, you woulda thought we was in a wind tunnel. I don't know which was opened wider, our eyes or our mouths. You see, Thirty-fifth Street was like something you see in a picture show or only hear about when some crazy uncle gets too drunk to keep his business to himself.
Folks was everywhere. Yelling from the windows, high over the street. I remember one woman standing in nothingI mean nothin but her corset and garters and holding a glass of "feel-good," toasting to the full moon. Young boys our age was swinging from the fire escapes; some was sliding along the sidewalk, in all kinds of fits; another group was roasting a pig, or what we hoped was a pig, over a bonfire in the alley while basting themselves with the contents of three slop jugs.
Each old brownstone we passed offered up something different, so we had to stop and take a gander into the large windows. There was a jazz jointClub Giovanni, they called it back then smoke-filled and dark. It headlined a woman in a tight, velvety, berry red dress who was singing some hootchie-cootchie number, running her hands up and down her thighs and in between her legs, across the dollar bills in her cleavage. She rubbed as she wiggled in front of this dude on the sax. When she passed, shaking those ripe tomatoey hips, his old horn wailed out kisses and spoke in tongue, honey, hoping she'd tarry for a while. (Essie and me almost fell out, because the closest we ever came to something like that was Sister Pearl at the AME church down by the river in Annington County. Some Sundays, she would sing "Amazing Grace," then get the Holy Ghost and rub herself with the tambourine in ungodly places. Even Papa said she was nasty. And in God's house.)
The club was so dark, Essie and me could hardly see, but we saw one other thing before moving on. We saw Alfred Mayes. At the time, I didn't know what I was looking at, or I surely woulda ran as fast as I could back to Aunt Ethel's. They say the devil you know is better than the one you don't. But, at the time, all I could see was this tall, fine black man. Built like a African warrior. He had shoulders from sea to sea. Regal. Cheekbones carved out like mountains. He was dressed in a bright yellow suit trimmed in black, shined from head to toe. He rose slowly from a round table in the front of the club. If there was a spotlight, it woulda crowned him king. The way he strutted up to that woman on that stage made my thighs shake and my ankles sweat. When he touched her, it was like she was a ruby ring he had took off for a while to let sparkle and now was about to wrap right back around his little finger. She stopped singing, stood jellylike. I stopped breathing. He grabbed her waist with one hand, pushed up on her breasts with the other, loosening the dollar bills in her cleavage. Then that sister climbed Alfred Mayes like he was a mighty oak, planted by the river. Green leaves falling all over. She grinded her body into his. And he grabbed her fanny and they squeezed and hugged and touched each other as they did a slow, nasty dance. I started to wiggle with them, hips moving from side to side (a little number I'd put together in a barn back home). Essie slapped me on my fanny. Soon every man in there who had blowed her a kiss or offered her a ride home got the messagea beep, beep, beep from Western Union, honeythat she was off-limits. She belonged to this big dude Alfred Mayes.
Essie grabbed my arm and shook her head. "Johnie," she said, her voice a near mumble, "we ain't suppose to be seeing all this." Well, I knowed that; still, I didn't want to uncement my feet. I was sixteen years old and stupid, caught up in that tingling feeling women know from experience and little girls only giggle about. I didn't see Alfred Mayes leave Club Giovanni right then that night, but it wasn't because my fool eyes wasn't looking hard enough.
Next door to the nightclub was the policy house. The men was sashaying out with pocket change spilling over the sides. I ain't never seen so many colored people with so much money in my life. I wanted to hang out there for a while, too. But Essie pulled me away when this young boy came flying through the door and landed near our feet. Pockets turned inside out. Somebody had mashed his head good. Razor marks slit across both his cheeks. He crawled into a vestibule, licking his wounds like a old dog that'd met up with a coyote in the middle of a field.
Two doors from that was this long line of men and boys, some pressed, others dirty and dusty from a day's work at the stockyards and steel foundries. The line whipped nearly around the block. White police officers walked past twirling their sticks; some stopped to get in line. Essie and me was so green, we thought this was an example of what Papa meant about the long lines of men and boys that form during wartimemen and boys in line, signing up for tours of duty to serve their country. Ha, wouldn't be no war for another ten years! These men was all waiting for some service, uh-huh. Rationed if need be. This was the whorehouse, biggest, finest brownstone within miles. Even had a wraparound porch that the women wrapped themselves around like tinsel and holly. But that was at night. During the day, they was nowhere to be found because the first floor doubled as an insurance agency.
Rumor had it that Robert "Mr. Ribs" Price, the first colored to own a chain of restaurants in Chicago, opened a ribs joint next door so that when the dudes finished their business, they could walk a few paces and grab a rib, with a smile on their face. Business got so good, I hear told, thatwith the help of some mob moneyMr. Ribs bought the whorehouse and opened the tunnel underneath the two buildings. Police had closed it down during Prohibition, when people was trying to haul bootleg from place to place. So, with the tunnels open, some men's wives never saw them again. Wasn't no need to go home for dinner, or anything else.
Papa used to say for every left there's a right and for every up there's a down. Well, Thirty-fifth Street was no exception. Because that night, for every sin we saw committed on that street, for every house of ill repute, there was at least one street preacher running interference, trying to wash everybody white as snow. At the corner of Thirty-fifth and Bernard Street stood the neighborhood's one storefront church. Every breath that came in and out my aunt Ethel's body had something to do with that church. She loved it so much. Its members called themselves the New Saved people and they just kept churning out New Saveds all night, left and right. Left and right.
You think the so-called sinners cared? They knowed getting in most places meant getting past them preachers, their bug-eyed stares, their questions. But everybody came ready for the fight. And them New Saved preachers was pretty uppity, mind you. What made a bunch of men with gold teeth, dressed in Crooks Brothers suits and wide-brimmed hats think they had something to say about getting into heaven, nobody knows. Seems to me most people on Thirty-fifth Street had already found heaven, one way or another. Or at least thought they had.
But them church girls surely stood their ground behind their men. They was on firm footingwith gold teeth, tall white wigs, bleached and starched white dresses that swung below their knees, and shoe boots with tiesbelting some tune, maybe good for my soul but hell, fire, and damnation on my ears. Lord, them New Saved women couldn't sing. I don't care how new and saved they was supposed to be. Essie and me couldn't believe it. When they was done, everybody hummed, and not long after, Bibles and wigs soared toward the heavens. And them white pigeons overhead cried out, too. Flapping here to there. All that bad singing got on their nerves, as well. Didn't help much, being a bird.
Essie and me didn't stand long around them preachers. There was more of this place to see. We did feel a tad guilty, mind you, so we dropped a penny in one of their gold-plated canisters. Then we scooted past them to the cute little drugstore on the corner, O'Cala's Food and Drug.