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UnbelievableThe Life, Death, and Afterlife of the Notorious B.I.G.
By Cheo Hodari Coker
Three Rivers PressCopyright © 2004 Vibe Book by Cheo Hodari Coker
All right reserved.
Chapter OneThe first time she saw the Manhattan skyline in all its splendor, Voletta Wallace gasped in awe. Miracles of glass and steel, the buildings reached upward to heights that seemed to taunt God. Nothing in Jamaica, not even the pictures she'd seen in magazines before she emigrated could have prepared her for the sheer enormity of New York City.
"There must be a lot of religious people around here," Wallace remarked to a Caribbean friend, looking out on the Bronx from a subway car soon after her arrival. "Why do you say that?" he replied. The only brick buildings she remembered in the bucolic coastal town where she grew up were places of worship, so naturally she assumed that these towers must be chapels. Her recently Americanized friend laughed.
"Those aren't chapels," he told her. "Those are apartment buildings. People live in them."
The year was 1966. Wallace's island home of Jamaica had achieved independence from British rule four years earlier, and the economy was already dangerously anemic. There was a widening disparity between rich and poor, increasing strife between political parties, and problems with everything from road maintenance to the educational system. Many Jamaicans were leaving the island for better opportunities elsewhere. Thousands went to England and Canada. But a small minority moved to another land that had once suffered under Britain's heavy-handed absentee rule: America.
Her Majesty's dreary cobblestone streets never held much appeal for Voletta Wallace. "I never saw a happy England," she explained. Her cousin Ethel had left for London years before, and had always wanted her to come visit. But Voletta never had any desire to go. America was different. She'd seen photographs of its beautiful mountain vistas and wide-open prairies. She'd heard about the abundant opportunities, the rags-to-riches success stories, the political freedom, and the fine universities. All the little bits of legend that made up the American dream appealed to her imagination. The U.S.A. sounded like the Promised Land.
The fourth of nine children, Voletta Wallace was born into a solid landowning family in the rural parish of Trelawny on Jamaica's north coast. Her mother ran the household while her father worked as a butcher. Unlike so many others on the island, she never lacked for food, clothes, or shelter. Comfortable but by no means rich, the Wallace family taught Voletta that hard work, thrift, and religious piety were the cornerstones of a happy life. She attended church every Sunday, and spent most of her free time reading books and fashion magazines, never visiting the rowdy dancehalls where other girls her age were dancing to ska, drinking, and getting pregnant.
While she was never one to rebel, Wallace realized that the last thing she wanted was to be married off as a teenager, exchanging her father's firm hand for that of a husband. She longed to see the world, to further her education, and to determine her own course in life.
At 17, she left Trelawny for Kingston, finding a job in Jamaica's bustling capital as a switchboard operator. But she still felt unfulfilled. The city was so crowded, and oftimes dangerous, she couldn't see much of a future for herself there. By the time she was 19, Voletta Wallace decided it was time to make moves.
A postcard arrived in the mail one day from the Jules Jorgenson House of Fashion that sealed her fate. Her name was on the list because she had once purchased a watch through their mail order catalog. A friend saw the card and said it looked so official that she could probably convince the people at the American embassy she was a model traveling to New York for a fashion show. With her looks, why not? She was a beautiful young woman: 5-foot-3 and 98 pounds with long flowing hair and a slim, shapely figure. She put on her best American-made dress and went to the U.S. embassy in Kingston.
She told them she was a designer, and she needed a visa to go check out the fall collections in person.
"Most of my clothes come from the United States," Wallace told the interviewer, clipping her words with just the right amount of fashionista attitude. "I usually send for my clothes through a friend who goes to New York, but they always come back damaged, so I would like to go there and select my clothes myself."
"You want to make your complaints?" he asked.
"I made my complaints already," Wallace said curtly, cutting him short. "I just want to go up there to select my clothes."
He looked at her, then looked at the card. "The Jules Jorgenson House of Fashion cordially invites you ..." The bluff worked. Voletta Wallace was granted a 14-day visa to do her shopping. She flew up to New York, applied for an extension, and never looked back.
And so began her adventure in New York, like countless other Caribbean people before her. She started out in the Bronx, and eventually settled in the New Lots section of Brooklyn. She worked day and night, using whatever spare time she had to pursue her high school equivalency. "In Jamaica, you don't have the money to send your child for higher education," she said. "I put a great value on education when I came here." The first time she took the test she failed by one point, which only made her more determined. "What am I gonna do?" she asked herself. "Cry?" Instead, the future educator resolved to "just read, read, read." The second time around, she passed the test.
Despite her triumph, life in New York was losing its luster. Wallace took a job answering phones in a psychiatrist's office, and the surroundings were making her crazy. Though the city was pretty by night, the morning light revealed a harsh reality. One day she looked out her window and said to herself "Is this the beauty I wanted to come here for?" Wallace hadn't fully appreciated the misty mountains and lush tropical climate of her birthplace until her first experience with soot-colored snow. "New York was filthy," she said. "The houses were ugly. And the people were rude." It was the general lack of respect that bothered her more than anything else. "My first shock was hearing a man use profanity toward a police officer," she recalled. "In Jamaica, that man would have been arrested and shot. But this man here was cursing out a police officer, and the officer just stepped back. I said, 'Huh?'"
Voletta Wallace was distraught. Disappointed. "I felt like I was a swan amongst featherless fowls," she said.
She decided to try and make the best of her situation. She wasn't going to sit and sulk at home just because she didn't like her initial impression of the city. "I prayed and prayed and prayed for New York to grow on me," she said. She was determined to better herself, to achieve her dreams of self-reliance. She enrolled at Queens College where she studied nursing and worked as a home health aid. But she quickly realized that nursing wasn't for her. "I couldn't stand the sight of blood," she said. "I couldn't stand the pressure and the sickness and all that." She transferred to Brooklyn College and began taking courses in early childhood education, moving closer to what would become her true calling.
And then in 1970, four years after arriving in the States, she met another expatriate "swan" who helped make her adjustment a little bit easier.
Tall, broad-shouldered, with kind eyes and an easy smile, George Letore had natural charisma. A welder by trade, he was also Jamaican, having emigrated to London years before relocating to New York. It didn't matter to Voletta Wallace that he was more than two decades her senior. She thought she was in love. She delighted in the man with the quick sense of humor who was twice her size and treated her like a little girl. "To be very honest, I can't say, 'Oh, my very first impression was love at first sight,'" Wallace said. "I like older men. For some reason, all my life, I have always dated older men."
She soon became pregnant. It should have been joyous news, but there was only one problem-Letore had neglected to mention that he had a wife and family waiting for him back in London. Although she knew there was a good chance he wouldn't be around, Wallace made up her mind to be empowered instead of feeling abandoned. She had feelings for Letore, but they didn't compare to the love she felt for the new life that was kicking inside her belly. On May 21, 1972, at Saint Mary's Hospital in Brooklyn, New York, Christopher George Letore Wallace was born.
He was a big healthy baby-eight pounds-and labor was difficult for the petite mom-to-be. The child had to be delivered by cesarean section. The last thing she remembered before the anesthesia was a nurse saying, "Doctor, it's 10:21.'" Next thing she knew it was 5 a.m. and another nurse was telling her, "Mother, you have a baby boy.'"
Of course it was love at first sight. "After my son was born I found out that what I felt for George was not love, because I loved my son," she said. "This was love," she added, folding her arms as if she were holding the boy with the soft tuft of hair on top of his head again for the first time. "You know, this little thing right here, in my hands, that's love. Out there"-she said, dismissively waving her hand-"I don't love you. I was too focused on this little innocent right here in my hands. So I gave this person all my love, and I guess his father realized, like, 'Damn, can I get just a little bit of that?' But I couldn't give him any," Wallace said. "It was like, 'You go your way, and I'll stay with this little critter here.' And we just made life on our own." Eleven days after his birth, Ms. Wallace took her son to the place that he would call home for the next 20 years, apartment 3L in 226 St. James Place, between Fulton and Washington. Theirs was a spacious apartment, with a large living room, a dining area, a study, and three bedrooms. The one opposite the kitchen on the far end of the hall was Christopher's.
Wallace spent hours looking down at her son, just watching him sleep. She delighted in every coo, every sigh. He was so playful, and he looked up at her with such devotion. Each moment with him felt too short. She hated to leave him and go to work in the morning. "When I did," she said, "I was miserable."
"From his birth until he was two years old, I made a secret prayer in my heart," Wallace recalled. "God, I wish he could stay like this forever. I never want him to grow up. Never never never never."
If he could just stay little, and under her protection, then he would never have to venture outside their apartment, and nothing bad could ever happen to him. She knew the world outside their door could be a very dangerous place.
Just south of the Wallace apartment lay Fulton Street, an east-west throughway that connected both sides of young Christopher's reality. At the western end was yuppified Clinton Hill, and to the east was rough and tumble Bedford-Stuyvesant. The border separating the two areas, Classon Avenue, was only five blocks to the east, but the perception gap between the two neighborhoods was canyon like. "If someone from the area did something good, the papers would describe him as hailing from Clinton Hill," one resident explained. "If they shot or robbed somebody, the papers said they were from Bed-Stuy."
In their late 19th-century heydays, both neighborhoods were among the wealthiest in New York City. The prominent people who built mansions along Clinton and Washington Avenues included pharmaceutical millionaires such as the Pfizers and the Bristols of Bristol-Myers as well as Charles Pratt, the oil executive who founded the prestigious art and design school, The Pratt Institute, at the north end of St. James Place. Those who couldn't afford mansions moved into beautiful brownstones. Victorian row houses and huge apartment buildings lined Gates, DeKalb, and Willoughby Avenues. Architects spared no detail, with sculpted gargoyles, roaring lions, wrought-iron gates, and Romanesque pillars on the exteriors, and high ceilings and intricate woodwork inside.
Emancipation, and the oppressive nature of life in the Jim Crow South, pushed many African-Americans north and west by the turn of the century. They came by train, bus, and foot, seeking a better way of life. The "Great Migration" saw huge numbers of African Americans settle in industrial centers like Chicago, Detroit, and the mecca of the so-called "Promised Land": New York City.
Excerpted from Unbelievable by Cheo Hodari Coker Copyright © 2004 by Vibe Book by Cheo Hodari Coker. Excerpted by permission.
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