Haygood, a Boston Globe reporter, is the author of two previous books, including an admired 1993 biography of Adam Clayton Powell Jr., King of the Cats. This book, an account of "the common Burkes, the holding-on Haygoods," documents a sprawling urban, working-class African-American family with southern rural roots. These are people who juggle multiple jobs and scrimp to buy homes and to dress with style on Saturday night and Sunday morning. In 1968, as Haygood is entering adolescence, his spirited mother, Elvira, moves her brood from her parents' ramshackle house to a new, three-acre federal housing complex on the other side of town, closer to the glitter of Mt. Vernon Avenue's nightlife, where she too often drifts in search of glamour beyond her workaday world. The lure of the streets and easy living poses a constant threat to the Haygood siblings, but even when they succumb, some of them find a redemptive path through faith, family, and grit. What keeps Wil on his upwardly mobile path is a devotion to basketball. Ironically, his athletic skills are marginal, but he has the shrewdness to transfer to a more affluent and academically stronger high school, where he makes the team. To protect his eligibility to play sports, he gets himself into a federally funded summer enrichment program. Such improvisational efforts result in a scholarship to Miami University of Ohio. After graduation, a stint on the local black weekly newspaper, whose offices anchored the business community of Mt. Vernon Avenue, sets him on his eventual career course.
With an unpretentious eloquence and humor, Haygood shows a deft ability to convey complex lives, a past era, and a memorable place.
- Houghton Mifflin Harcourt
- Publication date:
- Product dimensions:
- 6.05(w) x 8.58(h) x 1.17(d)
Read an Excerpt
Any life seems an accumulation of events, fate, some luck. When I was a little boy, in love with nature, with fishing, I'd walk alone the two miles to the Olentangy River dam in my hometown of Columbus, Ohio. I'd dance across slippery rocks, water swirling underneath and the dam gushing near my face, until I reached my favorite spot, which lay right below the center of the dam. I'd stand there on rocks, balancing myself, with rising woods in the distance, and I'd disappear into thought, fast-moving fish, sunlight glinting off the water, the water moving downriver. The dam at my back turned noiseless, the entire world went silent. It was the one place in the city, however, that my grandmother did not wish me to go. Boys sometimes disappeared at that dam, beneath its cold waters, the life drained from them. But I fished happily, kept safe for some mysterious reason, falling now and then but never in water past my waist, and even then rising quickly with a deep secret in my chest: I did not know how to swim.
Not long ago my mother, Elvira, handed me a watch. It's a beautiful timepiece, squared and edged in maroon, dead of time now, just old. It belonged to her father, Jimmy, my grandfather. It is the first thing my mother has ever given me that has led back to her family. My mother has never made a habit of looking back. Jimmy received the watch from his Uncle Doc, my great-great-uncle. I remember Uncle Doc, an old shiny man with grainy eyes full of mystery. He lived alone in a rooming house on Mt. Vernon Avenue, back in the days when a man could live in a rooming house and still hold his headhigh.
I never knew what my grandfather Jimmy and Uncle Doc did before arriving in Columbus. There were things in my family I guess I was not meant to know. I never knew Jack, my father, never knew him like a son knows a father, even as I came to love that man, his voice heavy and sweet. I never knew why my mother sometimes disappeared. Never for more than two days. Her destination could be near as Mt. Vernon Avenue. Sometimes it was more exotic, all the way up to Detroit, Michigan, three pairs of dangerous high heels in her suitcase, a weekend of partying with relatives. Still, it seemed like an eternity. My tummy would fill up like a cup with loneliness, and I'd cry. For years I didn't know about my brother the pimp, Jack's bastard son, who in due time came rolling thunderously into all of our lives.
The things I knew seemed fine enough. I knew how to find my jar of marbles in the dark. I knew that living on the north side of Columbus in a green house with yellow trim, a back yard with a dirt hill, a raspberry bush to run circles around, I was happy. Sometimes I floated; I swear, it felt like I floated through days, mornings, afternoons. Even now I sometimes wake up on the edge of sleep and try to summon back that time and place, the way the air felt in that midwestern town, the leafy autumn days, human voices butterflying through screen doors, the shuffle of old men's shoesJimmy's brothers, my great-uncles. I never thought about why we lived with our grandparents. I certainly never thought about how oddly matched a couple my grandparents seemed. Or why it was my grandmother's voice I heard telling me to stay away from the Olentangy River dam, not my mother's.
My green house: I believed forever meant just thatforever. We'd live in that house forever. But we didn't. In the summer of 1968 my mother moved our family to the east side of Columbus, across town and over the St. Clair Avenue bridge. She disrupted my life and tried to renew her own. I could hardly blame her for doing that. But it was an upheaval, and it seemed not only strange but scary. By the end of that first summer, there were only two things I wanted to do in the whole wide world. I wanted to learn how to bounce a basketball better. And I wanted to get to know Elvira, my mother. She had started that disappearing again.
She was up on Mt. Vernon Avenue mostly. There were nightclubs on that avenue. There were men in straw hats who drove Hudson automobiles. Actually, there was more than thatmy mother met my father, Jack Haygood, on that avenue, in front of the Pythian Theatre. The Pythian had acts on its stage from New York City. The Pythian even had a rococo stage. My mother thought she might become a fashion model. A photographer had hung a photograph of her inside his studio on the avenue. She became a waitress instead. It was the kind of avenue where you kept smiling even if your best dream got turned around.
You learned about things on Mt. Vernon Avenue. About things that hummed, that flew: life. I came to learn that it was the one avenue in our town that kept the town honest. It had honesty andalthough I didn't know what the word meant at the timeseduction. Things were done under the cover of darkness. My grandmother Emily was fond of sayingand saying it slowly, which gave the words a chill all their own"The things you do in the dark will come to light." A brother who hung out at the Vernon Club on Mt. Vernon Avenue and talked of going to Hollywood made it to Hollywood. But when I went in search of him years later, I found him on Skid Row in a cardboard box, the sunny look gone from his handsome face. My half-brother, Macaroni, the pimphow ridiculous that word now soundswas a Mt. Vernon Avenue legend. That is, until he had to flee. Bounty hunters were looking for him. I had to chase after Macaroni too, found him in California too, settled high on the Marin County hills by San Francisco with a beautiful view of the ocean. It was the west wing cellblock of San Quentin Penitentiary.
By the time my mother handed me my grandfather's watch, I had become a writer, someone always flooded with questions, accustomed to traveling and running down answers. Time haunts and a clock gets rewound; old unanswered mysteries start to pull. Fresh off Mt. Vernon Avenue, I too journeyed. My brothers went west; I went east, to New York City. I didn't drown in that dam, but I found myself staring at the world from a dingy seventeen-dollar-a-night room in New York, shaking with fear.
This is the chronicle of a family's odyssey, about how we got from there to here, and the misfortuneand luckalong the way. It is about the things that came to light. It is about Jimmy and Emily, my grandparents. And there are some things here about my mother's Mt. Vernon Avenue, the blood and rhythm it offered a town, that special way it could draw a long-necked woman out of her waitress uniform and into her girdle, her sequins and lame. I guess my mother wore a girdle to make her behind look tight. I guess that's what made those high heels so dangerous. Elvira preferred the Idle-a-While, a darkened bar up on the avenue. You might run across some rude characters; it could get a little raunchy. My mother thought the place had class. Pretty music floated from the jukebox. The bartender knew what she drank: she was a bourbon lady, always had been. When she was gone from the lock of my eyes, however, I pouted. I wanted my mother back. I didn't know what was out there in the dark. I wondered why my mother had to go to Mt. Vernon Avenue every Friday and Saturday night, leaving me wide awake to dream myself to sleep with this question on my mind: will she come back?
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