I got a couple of scholarship offers through the cotillion. One was a four-year scholarship to Seton Hall, something else to Holy Cross, and a two-year scholarship to Rutgers Newark. I also got an offer, as a result of a test I took at the Y, for a two-year scholarship to Lincoln. A couple of these offers were even in the colored papers.
I decided I didn’t want to go to Seton Hall (or Holy Cross) because I wasn’t interested in religion. (Though, for some reason, much later I was to tell people that I once wanted to study religion!?) But I had the good sense then at least to nix the religious aggression. Some of the people I’d met at cotillion practice did accept those holy assignations. A doctor, a politician, a schoolteacher were the result and perhaps the conversion of a girl I knew’s brother to become a priest, a few years later.
I suppose the cotillion was some preparation for me going to college. Those were the people that made me focus on that more than I ever had before. The cotillion hookup was brown children for the most part (with both black and yellow connections) being readied for yellow farm. The underlying animation was definitely yellow with the necessary white blessing. Not just Mrs. B., who ran the thing, she was a light-skinned social worker-teacher, a frantic do-gooder who sped around rooms almost tearing her hair she so much wanted all of us to be somebody.
There was a dullness to these proceedings that stunned me and made it obvious to me that whatever this represented I wanted no part of it. We practiced waltzing and marching. And kids from Morton Street would be looking through the windows, under the shades, and sometimes banging on the windows. And after practice we went home in groups and I ended up walking with one group all the way into Clinton Hill, where blacks were beginning to move now in large numbers.
My partner in the practice was a slightly plumpish, oddly taciturn brown girl named Betty, who apparently had made a deal with another girl, a friend of hers whose partner I was at first, to switch up. And so we became partners, walked home together with the group, once or twice a week. And later she was my partner at the cotillion. But these partnerships in the cotillion did not necessarily mean that those two were “going together.”
In my mind, at that time I was going with D., the little light-skinned advertisement for sitting quietly in living rooms on one’s best behavior. It was her long brown mother I watched very carefully. But I assumed that I would be taking D. to the cotillion. But, as usual, the day-to-day contact with brown Betty took its toll. I found myself, on leaving after dropping her off, up across the tracks on Jeliff Avenue, wanting to kiss her and one night I did.
From D.’s friend, who was also in the cotillion, I began to hear that D. had got a special dress for this set and was wondering why I hadn’t yet asked her. Actually I was just shy, but I did think that we would be going.
From Betty’s friend, who walked with us in the group to their house after practice, I also found out that Betty thought I would eventually be more than just her partner at the official part of the cotillion, and I was moving closer and closer to asking her.
I had never before had such troubles. Not from my closemouthed perspective to the various subjects of my would-be amour. When I was little I had great numbers of instant loves easily forgotten. On the real side, one little girl sent me a note to meet her at the movies. But she didn’t show up. Another brown beauty with glasses she used to grin behind told me she “liked” me and I started walking her home to Baxter Terrace and we squeezed up in the hallway kissing. I thought I went with her too but then some rogue knocked her up and tearfully we took our leave. There’d been some little-boy attempts to rock and roll with a couple of brown girls and a few black ones too, but they were surprisingly minimal. I was young, I guess, even when I thought I was in full control of my senses.
But the Betty and D. thing I’d never been in before. Now, from a loose and quick-moving blue brown wraith of Belmont Avenue (and points in all directions) I found myself caught up in some stuff I didn’t even properly understand. The D. thing was dry and staid, like I said. Though it maybe could have been otherwise, had I been otherwise. But I was as what went on in these pages (and a buncha other things) had made me.
Finally, I think I took D. to the cotillion. Though Betty and I were still dance partners in the grand march, so called. When I told Betty a week or so before the cotillion that I was taking D., her face got pulled tight, her eyes rolled around like fire would come out of them. And when I left I could hear her crying.
I came home after the cotillion with D. and sat in her kitchen. My black bow tie untied, I talked and pretended I was drunk (I had had something in some Coca-Cola, probably Seagram’s Seven or some other abomination) and talked and talked, feeling daring in a way. But I never even made a real pass at her. A week or so later, Betty and I started sleeping with each other. It was my first time, on the real side. We made it on her couch mostly, after the family was asleep. But any and everywhere else we could. I think I might have talked to D. maybe another time or two several years later, when Betty and I had split. But for a long time, up into college, Betty and I were a well-advertised duet.
Now I was out of high school and began to go to Newark Rutgers. It was even whiter than Barringer. I was now taking another bus downtown to Rector Street and Washington Street, where the school was located in two office-type buildings. I felt even worse than at Barringer, completely isolated, though at least here no one spoke in a foreign language. But they were like foreigners to me. It was so weird they had an intramural track meet and I won the 100, 220, 440, and took second in the mile. I knew I was in some strange place then. I was pretty fast, but there was no way even in Barringer I was Jesse Owens. This joint is fulla deadbeats is the only way I could figure it.
And in school itself everything did seem a foreign language. There was a midget named Marks (really!) who taught us English literature, heavy on the Eliotic trip, and that sent me rolling into Eliot and Pound. (I asked a guy in a bookstore near Public Service did he have a book of Ezra Pound’s and the guy said I was “too erudite.” I didn’t even know what the fuck he meant, and he probably knew it.)
I sat in a trigonometry class and learned absolutely nothing except that some process they were fooling with was called “identities.” I was still wearing my Hill grey flannels. I got a light grey pair with the dark pair of the suit, both with twenty-two-inch bellbottoms. And I still walked the streets with a few friends looking for “The Music.” I began to read e. e. cummings in the library quite accidentally and brought some of the poetry home one day, for some outside reason, and told my parents I had written it and must be going crazy. No telling what they said.
That summer I took a chemistry course and at the end I could not even remember the symbols for simple elements and made up some stuff on the test. (Wrong again!) But there was a guy (white) sitting next to me from Princeton who knew about as much as I did and cared about as much. Khaki pants, seersucker jacket, striped tee shirts, bucks and sneakers and Princeton cut and I checked him out. That’s really what I learned that summer. My Hill suit was now an embarrassment.
The blue/black Hill was still the real world and downtown Rutgers some cardboard boredom somebody had dumped on me. I knew who it was, too. But could not have articulated it. The same isolation and alienation I’d felt at Barringer was the main decoration. Carrying books on a bus back and forth. It was the same.
I was in ROTC band that summer and we had to go up to Upsala campus in East Orange. There was an old white man who called us Sambo, me and a black kid named Conrad. He was telling us something about how to hold our horns. I was playing tuba in the band. I didn’t say anything and I could see Conrad’s eyes flinch and his skin turn sweaty. I walked off in a corner playing Miles licks I knew on the tuba and tried not to think about the sick gray old man even though he stood just a few feet away. Me and Conrad talked about the incident after practice, just briefly, but for me, I thought, fuck them. I’ll throw that motherfucker down a staircase and be a locked-up little nigger wanted to go to college. That was it, really.
It was a time for me of mixing and swirling. Like smoke or mist or some way-out position you are in and somehow witness to but cannot even see clearly. Betty and I still went together though we didn’t say a hell of a lot to each other. We were always together and she was always smiling or laughing, teasing me about something or being mock angry about something I did. She was a well-shaped little brown girl with pouting, smiling, luscious lips. And she was my companion just before manhood and I guess just before her own womanhood. There was another little girl I knew who lived closer to my house, but we were never intimate. I only saw her a couple of times when Betty and I had fought or something. Her name was Lillian and I gave her one of my track medals. She looked a lot like Betty. Plump, brown, quick-humored, and capable of a healthy heat. She got some blood disease that summer and died quickly. And I was treated like her deep boyfriend, even though I wasn’t. But I carried that because it seemed her parents wanted and needed it.
My band had also come to an end, just wandered apart as a normal circumstance of our own growth and widening. Sometime that summer I told my parents I wanted to go to Howard University in Washington, D.C., a “Negro college.” I didn’t really know why. Maybe it was the basketball game. My mother told me years later that she had kept showing me her Fisk and Tuskegee yearbooks and making suggestions. It must’ve worked and whatever else went into that “decision.” In the fall I was going to Howard. I was already saving money for clothes.
In some ways Howard was a continuation of the old black brown yellow white phenomenon. But now I was more conscious of what was going on. More conscious, yet not conscious enough and still with no means of full articulation. Inexplicably (and I didn’t even think about it) I stopped playing the trumpet. I just did not think of it. But the whole process of what Howard was and what it meant and means begins when I started thinking about it. Because from that time I began to make changes and to change in a number of ways.
Right off the bat, by the end of the summer, the coming trip to D.C. seemed real adventure. I was off, going away, really for the first time. I had gone away to boy scout camp but that was only for two weeks at a time. Though that seemed a long time then. But now I was going to be going off on my own. And what kind of people would I meet? I thought about a Howard basketball game I’d seen while I was still at Barringer. The clutch of faces I could recall. The people there had a kind of “importance” (to themselves) that I liked but at the same time this put me off. Or made me feel maybe because they felt they were that important what would they think of me who was only a brown boy whose hair did not always seem wavy.
That ball game seemed a place of note. (And a track meet I’d gone to.) I couldn’t think of much note I had — the “B” sweater and I could play football and basketball pretty well. I was fast. No note. Postman. Whitecollar worker. Night watchman. Ladies Aid Society. Hairdresser. Belmont Avenue. No note. Importance. (To whom? I never asked.) But that was something gnawing at me — quietly — silently, I wasn’t even clear that’s what it was. Note?
But there was something about those faces, the dress, the carriage, the air, that both intrigued and turned me off at the same time. What?
Now I was riding on the train headed for D.C. A trunk had been sent ahead and I sat with a couple of suitcases overhead. We were near Delaware — that godforsaken place — and I was very hungry. I had a bag of fried chicken and biscuits, a tomato, and some potato salad packed for me by my black/brown grandmother. She’d given it to me. I heard her preparing it in the kitchen and winced. Damn, she want me to have to carry some greasy bag down there. People gonna make fun of me. But I took the bag, which had a few grease spots on it, and hugged my grandmother, who I loved anyway. It was just that she was old-fashioned. Some chicken in a greasy bag, damn!
But, Jim, when I got near Delaware, after having hid the bag carefully when I got on so the important passengers wouldn’t see my brown origins despite my shiny face, I broke that bag open and ate like a savage. I didn’t care really, or maybe I did, but that didn’t stop nothing. I ate all but one piece and I stuck the bag rolled up tight back in its hiding place and ate it that night down in D.C.
In D.C. I finally got from the train via cab to the campus. And walked wobbling with the bags up the long campus walk to Clark Hall, my residence my whole stay down there. There were dudes sitting around on the campus. It was still warm and summerlike. I expected some stuff like when I got to Barringer or on The Hill, some kind of negative welcome from somewhere or another. But no, there was dudes sitting around rapping. Some in groups collectively “capping” on the women. And the women, wow, I screwed my eyes around and around, checking, the joint was full of a whole lot of women. And from what I could see they were very very fine.
I was taken upstairs on the second floor in a corner room overlooking the stadium and gymnasium. I was disappointed at first, because I wanted a room looking out on the campus so I could look out at the “gorgeous babes” (as they were called at HU). The first day I got there there was nobody in the room, though there were clothes being unpacked. I changed from my white bucks (too cheap and too new) and put on my sneakers. I walked out across the campus trying to look like I knew where I was going, but I was just going, walking fast as usual, but trying to take it all in.
I walked off campus finally, down by Freedman’s Hospital, where Howard’s medical students, dentists, and nurses trained. There was a basketball court down there and a group of HU students (it seemed) playing a pickup game. I got in it and played hard, hard as I could to dispel some of my anxiety. A couple guys in the game I knew later on, but that day, after the game, I walked back to the campus, sweaty and alone, and wondered what would become of me.
I had a roommate who was not altogether suitable (I remember he was square in a number of ways). But what was interesting and important is that everyday I met someone else, many from New Jersey and Newark itself. I’d known there were some Newark folks at Howard but I didn’t think it would be a bunch. But it turned out to be quite a few. And the New Jersey-Newark thing became a kind of binding point for some of us. We were “Jersey boys.” In fact throughout the campus there was a joining together to a significant extent of students who came from the same state and town. The “Philly cats,” the “New York cats,” who we considered the most sophisticated. Cats from “Chi” were high up in that pantheon. NJNY-Philly-Chi hung close together plus for some strange reason some Texas cats as well. There were sprinklings in our mob from North Carolina, Florida, even East St. Louis, but the NJ-NY-Philly-Chi grouping was the core of our thing. Because not long after being there on the campus and up in falling-down Clark Hall (built in 1880-something) I was part of a little mob, “the boys,” and we were something else again.
In this travailing motion from me to me (which is the underlying question in putting all this down, how did you get to be you?) different questions come up at different stages and states. We answer them in motion, casually, with our actions, no matter what comes out of our mouths. Whatever may be going through our heads. We are, meanwhile, actually doing something, actually going somewhere. There are all kinds of scenes (seens) on that road, all kinds of stops (like on an organ), what we call changes, chords, in traveling the way we do, in making the map of ourselves, though some of us may never even look at it, or even understand that it exists.
If I could have asked a question here? (And I asked many questions every day.) But the heaviest question. The question that would have summed up where I had come from and where I was and where I was going, right then, what would it have been?
Sometimes such a question can be heard inside other questions. For instance, “What do you want to be when you grow up?” (That’s a question from an earlier period.) At this stage, and stop, it might be heard inside statements like my own protestation that I was “taking a pre-med course,” therefore one would assume, as I did, that I wanted to be a doctor.
Obviously that did not prove to be true. Though I have been known to doctor on the truth. But why did I say it? (Which is the question on the inside, which one ought to prepare oneself to answer when one can.) So where did the “doctor” bit come from? I mentioned I had said that same thing in grammar school to a little dude who had the good sense to deny it. But where?
Perhaps it was a standard “intelligence,” a reaction to what others considered important. Obviously, if I had some of the Bethany banana tone stuck to me, trips to the Y when the masses were not there, practices for cotillions behind drawn shades, the Gettysburg Address at the Old First Church, some “good hair-bad hair” training, strange picnics and pacts, and lived in a vault of hardwood floors on the other side of a secret passage which would let you out on Belmont Avenue right in the middle of a group of unsuspecting black people. All this could contribute. Though my folks, I’ve said, denied they had a hand in that “decision.” “A doctor” is what I would say if pressed. “I’m taking pre-med.” Which sounded regular at Howard. Pre-med sounded about best.
The Secret Seven, Cavaliers, Hillside Place brothers were mostly lost to me. The canteen was gone and dark night trips to Lloyd’s. Though not so strangely, one dude I met, who was later a close friend of mine at HU, had been at the canteens and when he said it I remembered him in a flash. He’d been there once, I remembered. Over at the side of the stage. He and a dude named Split with a congealed wave over one eye. There were maybe four dudes and four girls with them and they did a “routine.” Prepared steps in unison, throwing the girls out and spinning them, together. It was like an MGM musical — Brownies Uptown. The one girl, Harriet, was considered the femme fatale of them neck of the woods for a certain circle, though not in the one I ran in mostly. But we Hillsides looked over at them and smirked and B. made an ominous suggestion that would have squashed that routine all over the Masonic. It was too cute and artificial, like Mickey Rooney and Judy Garland in brownface. And they were the yellowest of the browns and/or the brownest of the yellows. Actually, what we called “sididdy,” “hincty,” “stuck up,” “snobbery”-time motherfuckers. They gave that off the way they stood and related to each other and the rest of us. In the big black smashed-flat vat of our American concentration, we did not even hear the word “ghetto” then (unless maybe we remembered headlines from Poland in World War Two).
But now here I was with this dude Tony, and he was nice enough. With the same stuff going for him as then. The only difference was now that I was closer to him it did not irritate me in the same way. I did not feel excluded (by him), but he radiated exclusiveness like a cologne.
Yet this dude did come from somewhere in the Third Ward, in fact he lived in the apartments that my father had to bring us out of during the Depression because they cost too much. I guess they had been considered akin to some kind of semi-luxury apartments then. But this was twenty years later almost, though the apartments were still fairly nice and most of the people who moved in them never moved out. (Just maybe their sons and daughters “moving on up” to higher ground.)
These people obviously did still consider these apartments, Douglass-Harrison, some kind of luxury or aristocratic exclusive enclave of the browns and yellows. I remember always liking those apartments. Though white folks, to show them where it was really at, finally surrounded those apartments with the poorest of the black projects; in fact, dropped in the highest concentration of population per square mile in the whole country, yeh, just to show them what was happening with that cardboard exclusiveness. Exclusiveness without real money or real power!
There were quite a few folks from Douglass-Harrison at Howard. I remembered some of them. I had even heard of a couple of them. Like magic yellow celebrities “at Howard” at those yellow parties or in the Afro or Herald News. A few of them, of course, were sons and daughters of some of my father and mother’s friends.
There was a bicycle raid one early evening at Central Avenue playground. Somehow, through some connection my father or mother had made, a challenge was issued to the Sutter brothers, who were sons of a guy who had worked with my father at the P.O., but had moved up to work for the IRS. One of them was a good player and it was me who arranged the game. They all swept in on bicycles (which was unnerving in the first place). We never seen that many bloods on bicycles, about ten or eleven of them. They came in complete with bats and gloves and identical caps. And they were good. We had got together a pickup team, with some of the Cavaliers (called Newark Cubs for baseball) and some other playground stalwarts. But these other guys apparently played together all the time (we only did that with basketball) and they beat us. Then climbed back on their bicycles, without having said too much to any of us, and swept back off towards Douglass-Harrison. It was like those pictures about World War Two where you see the squadrons of planes coming in to do daylight low-altitude bombing. It made us feel like we were at Bremerhaven or Cologne.
While we playing, these guys kept to themselves and they would “keep a lot of chatter going” from the infield and outfield, just like in the big leagues, but that was all they said. You got the same kind of exclusiveness. That they were some kind of mystical unenterable lodge of Negro exquisites. And wherever I saw any of that crowd, I always got the same feeling. Some of them were in a social club called the Golden Boys. A little later they had a club called Los Ruedos. I always got the same feeling from them. The standoffish self-anointed wunderkinder. And that, all that, was very very yellow to me. They even had a whistle! Actually, it was the old slave whistle. The whistle the slaves gave when they wanted to contact each other in the process of some clandestine operation. The whippoor-will imitation. When I first heard it, I thought it was some exclusive invention of the Golden Boys, Los Ruedos (and a later spinoff called Los Cassedores) but I found out different once I began to consciously try to become conscious.
So now these were some of the guys walking around Howard and it made me uncomfortable. These dudes had never had anything to say to me, nor I to them, really. And now here they were. Plus I was a sophomore when I got to Howard. I had already been at Newark Rutgers, so I had to come into a sophomore class that had gotten seasoned down there last year, when it was the freshman class I tended to hang out with.
One by one and in small groups I ran into the Newark contingent, not only the freshmen and the sophomores but some of the older types as well who’d been down there for a time. East Orange, Montclair, and the like were also in evidence. People I couldn’t have known any other way.
There was a different thing happening with them now, it seemed, or so it seemed. I expected the straight-out straight arm of their normal elitism, but that was not there in the same way now. At least it was not turned toward me as sharply, like the “we cool — you ain’t” signs they wore in their eyes when they were home. We talked as if those rare encounters in Newark, when there were those, had no bearing on anything, that there was no social (emotional/political) character to them. And I accepted that, wondering why it was that we could now be friends and what had caused the distance before.
What was different was that I was there, with them, in a higher grade than some, though we were generally the same age. I was there with them. In whatever this was. And I didn’t know what it was. I was trying to find out, trying to see myself clearly, find a place for my feet to go down solid on.
As the “Jersey boys” grouping came together and its various departments from other states, Bill and I roomed together. One of the same Sutter boys who’d come swooping in in the bicycle raid to bomb us flat. Bill was a good guy, just a fraction of an inch taller than I but thick and muscular, a solid 140 pounds or so. My mother wondered did his mother feed him vitamins. That was in the days when vitamins were new and still had mystical advertising qualities. “Carrie must feed that boy vitamins the way he’s growing.” But she put it in a question as if it was something clandestine. And that was the only reason he was thicker and more muscular than her son. I was short and skinny and even though they came from families with taller, larger people, my mother and father were short and slight, in those days, as well. But I guess that didn’t occur to her at that moment.
Bill was an athlete, even short as he was. He was a football player and baseball player. In college, most colleges, football is the most holy of all athletics and the football players are regarded with the awe once reserved for the mendicants of the sacred orders. The Dragon Slayers and Crusaders, the rescuers of fair maidens. (And the unfair too, I found out.)
It meant that the room we had together became a kind of center. Bill the athlete, and the rest of the crowd that I hung with. So we had the football and baseball players there plus the sulky little mob I belonged to. This did not happen immediately, but it represents the most typical arrangement of myself there at HU. One highlight of my integration into that society, whatever that meant.
The room got to be called “The Boys Club” and I put a sign on the door: “13 Rue Madeleine,” which was the name of a Jimmy Cagney movie — Gestapo headquarters in the film. Perhaps the name meant to me some kind of subversive relationship to the whole — to the ideas I thought the school had of itself.
I was a member of the mob, of really great guys, in the sense of those times. We were great bullshitters (a trait I apparently appreciate), and we spent hours, months, years, sitting around bullshitting. And in the mob were my closest friends at the school. We thought of ourselves as city boys, somehow sophisticated, for all our youth.
The New Yorkers were the coolest and most sophisticated, we thought, I guess because they were from New York and that was the relationship Jersey had with New York and especially Newark to New York City. We thought they were among the coolest dressers. One of the coolest of the cool was a dude named “Smitty from the City,” who was for us the epitome of what school cool meant. Well dressed, “dap,” “clean,” “hooked up,” “down” were some of our words for what Smitty was. (He became an air force officer and later a dentist.) Smitty was around us, lived on the same floor, bullshitted with us, but Smitty was older and into some other things than the mob core. But he was one example we followed.
The dudes from Chicago we felt were the cleanest finally. Though they did not always, not all of them, show it. But they had, it seemed to us, the heaviest vines. The first time I ever peeped desert boots was on one of them dudes and it shot me out. What the hell are those, I thought, and immediately felt primitive because I’d never seen them before. Cashmere sweaters. This one dude Kurt had about five or six and another dude, Stone, had about ten of them! (There are probably white boys in some of these schools got thirty, but wouldn’t nobody hip go to those schools in the first place!)
Dress, style, those were some of our standards. How you dressed and how you carried yourself was a big part of it. Though what you had to say, I guess, went with how you carried yourself. Were you “cool,” “down,” or were you corny or “flait” (a Howard word which meant worse than corny, of no value, worthless, etc.)? A couple of dudes in the mob were not especially good dressers but they were “heavy,” meaning smart, and had a good rap. So they were in. Though sometimes the slicker cats would get on them about the way they looked. If they were too way out and still wanted to hang, they were the butt of unmerciful unending taunts.
We had our own language, on campus generally, but inside the group there was a sharper focus to it. Some of the stuff was even made up by us. Pretty girls were “phat,” pronounced “fat,” ugly ones were “bats.” We would even go to elaborate metaphors to let people know what we thought about their companions if they wasn’t up to snuff. We’d call somebody with an ugly girl “Bruce Wayne” (meaning Batman) or say something smart like “He the cat be with Robin all the time.” Or we’d make flapping motions with our arms like a bat flying when they approached. Or go up to the cat while he was with this unlucky child and say, “How do you do, Mr. Wayne, I’m a reporter from the Daily Planet.” The dude might just get embarrassed or get pissed off. But mob members took it as just our way of being with each other.
Really ugly girls (or objectionable people) we’d “blow up.” We’d make motions like we were throwing a grenade. I developed a variation on that which was to walk up to the person and make believe I was putting a wire in their hand or on their person, then retreat a few feet and make mashing down motions like I was pushing a detonator box. This was big in our circle. We would even “throw grenades” at teachers. Or we might go up toward the front to throw a piece of paper in the wastebasket, make the “contact,” then go back to our seats and blow the whole front of the classroom to kingdom come.
Something great was “way,” meaning past merely “too much” (the standard applause), but “way too much,” which was shortened to “way.” Oh, man, it was “way”! People could be “heavy,” meaning really bright or good in school or generally intelligent, or they were “light,” meaning they had nothing upstairs but the wind rustling through the trees. Woolright’s standard putdown of such people was that they were “lightweights.” He’d say, “All you lightweight cats gonna get run outta that valley.” The “valley” was just down a flight of stone stairs from the main campus where the physics and chemistry buildings were housed. One knew you had to be heavy to be in the valley. If you wasn’t, you would soon “punch out,” which meant flunk out of school.
Woolright was an austere, acerbic little dude who was a main part of our mob. He was not a great or flashy dresser but he was very very heavy. Plus he had a black background from Philly, a scholarship student who later had trouble passing the bar because of a slight juvenile record from gang bopping in the city of brotherly love.
Woolright was like a commentator of the mob’s doings, always slightly amused but never releasing more than a mere mirthless chuckle. He was a good man, very straight and trustworthy. Our conversations were like ironic exchanges, with Woolright (who was small himself, just about the same size as I was) calling me “this little cat.”
The footballers who edged into the mob on the fringes, really because of my roommate, came up with some of our language. “Over you” meant to hell with you, loosely. “Up your chest” meant you had been defeated verbally, in some activity or in some commentable way. That could be embroidered sometimes to “up your chest for ten yards” or “over you for a TD.” “Over you’s” and “Up your chest’s” were sprinkled liberally in all our conversations.
Plus one of the mob, a guy from Upstate New York, introduced a method of speaking which also caught on. He would say, “It’s me saying” or “It’s him saying” or “It’s me thinking” and we picked that up. He also called people suspected of or jokingly teased about fucking homosexuals “Dick Brown” for obvious reasons.
So we might sound like this: “It’s me saying that my man over here, the lightweight dude with the funny sky [hat], is nothing but Bruce Wayne disguised as Bruce Wayne. Now if you wanta see some phat babes, it’s you checking me out, as all the babes I have on my arm, Jim, are phat and way way too much.”
It was a campus argot mixed with the language of the black streets with the spice of the jazz musician. The core of that mob was like this. Woolright, I talked about. Donny, also from Philly, another heavy dude from a browner background, but he and Woolright were old friends before school. Donny was always thought the heaviest of our crowd. He was in chemistry and went on to become a doctor. He was curly-haired and always smiling. A guy who never got angry, straight and true.
Shorty, from the city, even shorter than I was and distinctive not only because he was always “clean” and had a little dough, but because he tried never to tell the truth, about anything, no matter how small. The dough he got from his old man, who was a gangster (on the real side, though he always embroidered his activities), he spent quickly and steadily. He was like the jester of the group in one sense but everybody liked him and he was a legitimate part of the mob. The only thing is that all of us got to know him better than to believe him.
Rip Day, from Newark, I’d seen maybe at some games in Baxter Terrace. He had cousins that lived there. I think he lived up the street somewhere, but I didn’t know him until I got at school. He was the “superstar” of the group, in his terms. Most of us thought he was a blowhard, full of shit, and not really a nice guy in the final go-down. A self-centered, grasping individual who was big and strong enough to threaten most of us, though we agreed he was corny. The dialogue that went on among us, between he and we, about how great he was and how corny we thought he was, was the unending background music of our collective relationship.
C.D. (the initials were his name), from North Carolina, later a little no-horse town in Virginia. He’d first shown up on the campus with highwater pants and a Mickey Rooney hat with the brim pinned up in front. I’d thrown the hat in the reservoir because it was obvious that if C.D. was going to hang with our mob he couldn’t do it with that sky. He was our archetype of a country boy, but in a few months he’d gone through some kind of thorough change, for the most part, though even as clean as C.D. attempted to get over the years, we would never let him forget how country he had been. And even when he did jump into our version of Ivy League, there would always be something about C.D. that was just a little off or sticking out.
We had our first argument about who was the best tenor player in jazz, Charlie Ventura or Charlie Parker, but he painfully recanted that and later used that as an example of how far he’d come in his sophistication process. C.D. was perhaps my closest friend on that campus. Certainly he was one of the longest-lived, though I still see Shorty even today, but he is much changed as well, for the better.
But C.D. also became a writer, though at the time he was pre-law. In fact C.D. and I later were among those few students at Howard that the great Sterling Brown taught something about African American music in a series of unofficial classes in the Cook Hall dormitory. At that time, Howard still did not admit nigger music to its campus. I think the first jazz to get on in an official concert was Stan Kenton. (AAAAHHHHGGGGGGG!!!!!!) Shit, I was liking Gerry Mulligan and them and Dave Brubeck and Paul Desmond when I was at Howard. Along with Lloyd Price and Claude McPhatter. “Work With Me, Annie” and “Annie Had a Baby” etc. A dude used to walk around in the hallways of Clark Hall and make up words for Buzzy that went: “Better get yourself a white girl, a colored girl ain’t no good.” That kind of stuff was always being shot at us.
For this reason and others with our background, what constituted “the intellectual life” was always complex and unclear. C.D., for instance, went high up into the Howard Players, whose plays I think I went to only once the whole time I was on campus. I thought they were just in some yellow shit, some sideways upside-down shit I didn’t have no use for. But then when I was in school, the idea that I might be an intellectual never occurred to me. Not really.
C.D. got in the goddam Howard chorus, too, the one hundred famous colored voices. The high point of their number was the choral part of Beethoven’s Ninth, which they got sent up to NYC to sing. I thought all of that was boring, not to mention corny. In fact, like I said, the only thing I know I did a lot of at school was sit around and bullshit. Tell jokes, lie, insult people, and try to get out of schoolwork. I learned to drink at school, to smoke cigarettes, and something else a little deeper but then I wasn’t even aware of that part of it.
I sat up in some heavy folks’ classes, too. Sterling Brown. The music classes were something intimate and wonderful to me. He was opening us up to the fact that the music could be studied and, by implication, that black people had a history. He was raising the music as an art, a thing for scholarship and research as well as deep enjoyment. Brown’s music classes were the high point of my “formal” Howard education. Almost everything else of value I learned outside my classes.
Nathan Scott, in a humanities class, gave me something, too. Not in the actual materials that he taught (though I did go back to some of them because of him) but in the enthusiasm of his teaching. He seemed actually to dig what he was teaching, to love it. Brown’s taking us into another context outside any provided by the school showed his love of us and of the material. But Nathan Scott’s preaching about Dante conveyed an intellectual love for literature that I hadn’t seen. It was like some minister pushing us toward Christ, but Scott was pushing us toward Dante Alighieri. And it was directly due to this that I later went back to Dante to read what I was able.
Miss Byrd taught us social science and whapped us cross the knots with Fichte and Kant and Hegel. She was OK, some of that obviously got through, without me even knowing it. She always looked like she had just woke up and that in itself was intriguing.
There was a Mr. McSweet (not his real name) who taught biology and who the mob (or prominent members of it, me, Bill, and Tony) almost drove crazy. Sometimes I feel sorry for this man even today. He was from Mississippi and a junior teacher not at Howard too long. And he had a Mississippi accent that we would wreak havoc with, especially in the kind of intolerant hippy elitism that I was being baked in there. I would stand up and repeat his name the way he pronounced it (Mac-Swe-at) and ask him some inane question. Like he pronounced intestines “in-test-eynes.” I would ask him, “Mr. Mac-Swe-at, what is an in-test-eyne??” Wide-eyed and cold as a brandished penknife. The class would crack up. He was so put upon by us that he told the three of us that we would most likely fail, that the highest mark we could get even if we got an A on the final would be a C. He was tired of being mocked. But we went into the office through an open window and stole the test, took it back to the dormitory, showed it to the mob members, then returned it. The next day in the test I finished so fast and looked up at McSweet, he knew something was up. He looked at me with real pain in his eyes. Goddam you, Jones, he was thinking. He said, “Mr. Jones, how is it you have finished so soon?”
“I studied, Mr. McSweet.” I softened the mockery because we had beat his ass to ribbons now. I got an A, the two others got B’s in the final, so he gave us a C and couldn’t flunk us after all. That’s the real shit I was learning.
In the mob was Lattimer, who walked around like a sharp maestro, always carrying his trumpet on campus. He was one of my first real friends, a music major from Virginia. Quiet and a good sport, who threw jibes, though soft ones, with the rest of us. He became a dentist, dropping music in his last year.
Lee, the artist from East Orange. A yellow boy with a yellow pretty sister we never ceased to tease him about. Though sometimes he would pick up his omnipresent umbrella and chase us down the halls. Lee was super-cool, so cool it almost turned into its opposite. We were close. And it was he who called Tony “Hollywood,” to capture that neon sididdy attitude Tony always had, even amongst us. I mean, Tony was a snob even when dealing with us. And there were dudes among us who came from families that had much more money than Tony’s. But with Tony it was a built-in attitude he’d probably been taught since his early days. He was from Douglass-Harrison, and his family lived in a tiny apartment where they had to fold down the “front room” (colored folks’ living room) bed every evening so Tony would have a place to sleep. But still he was “Hollywood.” His nose in the air, loping across the campus with a bowlegged strut, a cold-blooded elitist. So much so we openly called him on it. But Tony never changed or even explained, that was the way he was and we took it or took it. We talked about him, but took it, nevertheless.
Stone from Chi, who carried scotch in his big briefcase. His family owned shrimp stores on Chicago’s South Side, and he was always superclean even if he looked like he was about to come apart. Cashmere, desert boots, expensive tweed coats. But an open bad-mouthed two-fisted drinking dude. You just couldn’t rely on Stone if you wanted something serious carried out. We lived together in an apartment in the city in our junior year and I had to speed home once a week after a late philosophy class to catch him before he spent up the allotment his parents sent him. He was told to buy food but he would buy alcohol. That’s what he called it, “alcohol.” “You boys want any alcohol?” and he’d go in his briefcase. When you got to the spot the icebox would be loaded with alcohol. But all there’d be to eat would be hot dogs and those waffles you put in the toaster. And we didn’t even have a goddam toaster.
Kurt, also from Chi, short and intense, another pre-law. He and Stone always argued, because they were childhood friends. Kurt I stayed with later when I was in Ilinois in the service. When I visited Chi on the weekends, I would crib at Kurt’s place. He was a good friend, reliable, hot-headed (and I liked that). He took care of his school business but it was never a problem that caused him not to be able to hang out. His father was a lawyer too.
That was most of them. Me, Bill, Tony, Shorty, and Stone roomed together one year and that was wild and focused our lives together, perhaps more tightly for a time than the others, but these guys were our dormitory crew.
Some of us were in pre-law or government. Some in pre-med, pre-dent, some were taking just general courses, trying to figure out what kind of degree. I was taking, as I said, pre-med, a chemistry major. But I didn’t care nothing at all about that. So school was not the worst of my worries on the real side, although it clearly should have been.
It was a brown mob — I guess — really. That was still the stance from which I tried to understand and be in motion in America. (To the extent I understood that.) But look! C.D.-petty bourgeois/father a lawyer — yellowish. But Donny was a little smarter than that. He fell for certain doofdum but he could make fun of it, look at the whole of that, even his father’s little country squire bullshit (in really nowheresville) as essentially comic.
Anyway, Donny was brown and black, from Philly’s urban twist. And Woolright, black dude, scholarship-cunning to try to deal with America, USA! Bill, more yellow than brown, and Tony the same. This ain’t got to deal with skin color, exclusively — Tony was darker than me, skinwise!
Lee, straight yellow (on the rambunctious side), his brown quality — and so there’s a blue side to that.
Shorty, the criminal as middle class. If you mix black and yellow what do you get?
Our internal villain, Rip, was a penniless yellow. The worst kind. All grimace and illogic with the merest civil servant’s economic base upon which to base his wild antisocial acts and ideas.
Kurt and Stone, the Chi connection, the middle middle and even the pitiful small capitalist himself. Hey, if we had called Stone an “upper-class Negro,” he woulda grinned and said, “Look, Leee-Roy, kiss my ass!”
We were not inside the rumble of crazy Negro yellow Crazy. The stiff middle-class lie. We were touched, some bashed-smashed-ruined by it, but in the mob, our collective sense stared that shit down and laughed at it.
Johnny Jackson and Ned Smythe, two footballers who ran in on us noondays with my roommate, were brown kids from D.C. “D.C. boys” we called them, though that had real meaning only with the big hat wearer of S.W. And maybe Johnny was connected blacker too and came out on a scholarship tip. Though HU was playing “Ivy” and pretended not to give athletic scholarships. But they did, some kinda way.
(I had a track coach named Hart at Howard, reminds me now of Malcolm, those glasses and penetrating stare — ironic smile. He’d say, “Jones, I don’t know if you really want to be an athlete. You don’t want to work hard enough.”)
We even had connections with gorillas like Tippy Whittington the all-star fullback who rumor said had been at Howard ten years. He’d come in the room from time to time with his stiff-necked growling pronouncements. The other footballers joked about him and imitated his noncommunicative speech.
But it was a brown mob. Connected to reality, to black life, and the blues. You see, Howard itself was a blinding yellow. So eye-melting some out people might say “white” and try to mash it on the Capstone. (That’s what some of them dead yellow MF’s had thought of to call it, “The Capstone of Negro Education.” Boy, we mocked the shit out of that.) It reeked of it, that stiffness and artificiality, that petty bourgeois Negro mentality! And the top-upper Negroes is in on that, too.
We could define ourselves by where we’d come from. The teeming black cities. A whole other thing the “urban” shit defined.
So in a sense we stalked the campus as city boys connected to direct agonies of the black streets. (Though when we spun the combinations to the doors of our houses and went in off those streets, we were somewhere else.)
The geographic hookup was a social hookup. The jibes we used to throw at “South” and “country.” Even on big money, big shoe, big hat Texas friends, we talked about funny for coming from outside the urban thing. Though that wasn’t always altogether true.
All black schools have more peasants’ and workers’ children in them, though except for the very small schools, it is the yellow and brown sectors of the petty bourgeoisie that constitute their majority.
We had a sense of ourselves as being something other than the mainstream HU student, too. Even with the couple a buzzards we had in our group. The nuts were nuts because of their pretension. Not money. The really rich dudes did not hang with us nor we with them. Though Stone was the black bourgeoisie, in brown smoked glasses wobbling across campus with his bag of tipsy-getter. But Stone was cool. His problem (ain’t it?) is that he wanted to spend all his little bitta money on the wrong shit! Shit, Stone, we need somethin’ to eat! Not just no “alcohol.”
We were kind of like outlaws in a way. Neither school nor mainstream HU yellow-ass social functions were our real thing. (Though most of the dudes hung with us did get out in the normal way without “punchin’ out” like your reporter!) Our real thing was hanging out, bullshittin’ — talking bad to each other and about everything else.
“Shit, this funny-lookin C.D. and his homeboy Wilsey.” (Woolright talking typically one afternoon.) “Y’all is so funny lookin’, it’s a wonder they even let you on this campus. Funny lookin’ dudes.”
“Woolright say your mama funny lookin’ too.” (Shorty agitatin’.)
“Woolright, how you gonna call somebody funny lookin’?” (C.D. countering.) He laughs loud so everyone will get his point.
Woolright goes over and pinches C.D.’s big schnozzola. “Look at this big schnozzola. Colored people don’t have big schnozzolas like that, C.D. Who gave you this Jimmy Durante smellin’ machine?” (Woolright cappin’ — we howlin’.)
Donny: Who got the wine?
Me: You can’t drink no wine!
Donny: Woolright can. I’m his manager.
All: A wine drinkin’ contest. Get the wine. Get the wine!
And so to work. There were bid-whist freaks (some for poker, some bridge, but mostly freaks for real). Day and night and weekends and holidays. Chess dudes we thought of as visitors. But we didn’t play none of that shit heavy. A poker and blackjack game occasionally. But even that shit was too much effort. You had to pretend to be serious to play. And the dudes that was serious about bid-whist we talked bad about. A fuckin’ bid-whist freak!
We wasn’t in no mock-serious, artificial, school-time shit nor the unofficial official extracurricular stiff shit of the yellow peril. At first I did go to a few dances. You had to get “tight in the collar” for real — black tie. Some dudes wore white tie, tails, to the shit. Various frats and sororities giving their stiff funny shit. Naming various “queens” and super-Negroes to reign over that banana republic.
But the glamour of that shit ran out for me pretty quick, plus the other problems I had — like who was I gonna take, and whatnot. (A Jack Scott phrase — the same guy who gave us “It’s me saying,” etc.)
All of that was part of the fraternity-sorority hype in which we were all involved — at one degree of brainwash or another. Greeks! We wanted to be Greeks! Alpha, Kappa, Omega-AKA-Delta, and the rest.
Our mob were not real frat types (except for Tony and Rip) but some of us kinda drifted into one or another, we even took some sides around the shit. But it was never a passion for any of us. Most of the frat dudes were assholes as far as we were concerned. All that rah-rah shit. The Alpha sentiment, in the main, touched our group. That’s because there were bunches of Alphas from Jersey on campus. And they had a considerable influence.
I tried out for the shit the first part of my junior year and flubbed. For one thing, so-called big brothers banging on our doors or the door to 13 Rue were met with a variety of responses, mostly negative. They’d be coming in to get some note and try to order new pledges around. In Alpha, the new pledges were called Sphinxes. And me, Bill, Tony, Allan Shorter (Wayne’s brother) because we were older had pledged and were officially Sphinxes. The name had to do with some of their secret ass rituals and being inducted, which was characterized as “crossing the burning sands”!
A dude named Skeffton came into Rue one night. After we open the door, about six of us inside, we see this reject-lookin’ motherfucker. He was a third-string defensive lineman on the football team, even though one of his arms was withered.
Skeffton snorts, my roommate wasn’t there was the first answer he got. He snorts again, looking sterile, inamicable, around at our good-for-nothing faces. Like I said, most of us didn’t play on any of the teams (though I was on the track and cross-country teams), wasn’t in this dude’s accepted social whirl — that being the aroma of cheese back behind the mousetrap — so he feels, what with him being a “big brother,” not vaguely but distinctly superior. So he says, to nobody in particular, but actually to me because I was the only Sphinx in the room, “I need something from the D.C. Donut Shoppe.” D.C. Donut Shoppe was all the way downtown around them government buildings and shit. All them dudes in the room, their eyes light up like somebody flipped a switch and they all peepin’ over at me.
I told him I had a sore foot or sore knee or had a stomach hurtin’ or something, but I wasn’t goin’ to the D.C. Donut Shoppe. But these dudes in the room couldn’t let well enough alone, they start agitatin’. Like, Woolright with his shit, “Hey, man,” to the lame “Ain’t this little cat over here supposed to be your little brother, a pledge and stuff?” Dimwitted Skeffton is getting more heated up. C.D. throws in some stuff. Donny comes in with some stuff. Skeffton still rising.
Finally he peeps, “So you ain’t goin’ to the D.C. Donut Shoppe?” That seemed obvious before. “Well, you know payback is hard, right, Jones? You gonna get yours.” Then he turns and stalks out the room. All these dudes start howlin’, but somehow it was not that funny to me. But fuck him, is all I could say. I definitely was not going to no D.C. Donut Shoppe in the middle of the night.
The frat, not just that one, but all of them, had a collection of creeps no doubt. There were some real lulus in the Alphas, but I’m knowledgeable just about them. The Omegas and Kappas had some easily identifiable nuts you could spot without even having to rub up against them too tough. But Henry Lucas, for instance, Reagan’s new star knee-grow from California. He was the president of the Alphas when I was coming through. This dude wore a three-piece suit to school everyday. I never saw Henry Lucas on that campus, or anywhere else, without being totally “pressed.” He had that stiff goofus quality about him, very formal and mirthless with a gigantic set of lips that must have distressed so turned-around a dude as he. When he saw me he would say “Good morning” or “Good afternoon, Jones.” He always called me “Jones” like at Barringer. In all the years we knew each other on that campus we might have said a paragraph to each other. And even then when I saw him it was like seeing somebody official. Lucas was stiffer than even the professors and everybody called him by both his names, Henry Lucas, not one or the other.
That goddam Tim Bodie, who is now a three-star general in the air force, he was in there too. But he was a much nicer dude, though he was an ROTC freak even then. But Tim would laugh with you. He was an upperclassman but you see where that ROTC shit could lead.
There was a football player, a Kappa, Andy Chambers, who was a pretty popular dude on campus, he’s a goddam admiral. I could rattle off a bunch more, not just frat dudes, although I bet these top-flight American warrior types were all frat dudes. But HU filled some of the needed spaces for yellow bellies. If you look and see how many of the chosen coloreds sashaying through America with “good jobs” you’ll find the HU kids personable and finally in the shit after all.
Probably even psychopaths like Harry Johnston, Leon Harris, Don Bradford are hooked up somewhere. As a matter of fact I know Harris is a big-time dentist not far away in one of the suburbs, Johnston is also some kind of doctor (both these dudes were officers in the service for a while), and Bradford is some kind of bureaucrat in city hall, which was one constant hookup for folks like these. But these guys were all jangle-brained. Johnston, a light-skinned dude with a white streak down his chin like George Macready, he liked to torture people coming into the frat. He called himself a torturer. He would think of different ways to inflict pain on people.
Harris was just a violence lover. He loved to punch and beat. He always seemed slightly frantic about his kicks. Johnston was grim and chuckling — You never seen a George Macready picture?
Bradford was big, he played football until his grades got too shaky so he dropped it. He was barrel-chested and a good guy in some ways but he was so egotistical that being in the frat and an upperclassman meant that he thought he actually was a great great guy, so he could be used by real torturers like Johnston and Harris.
These, along with Skeffton, jammed me up once at one of the “sessions,” actually what the white frats and shit called “hazing.” We just called them “sessions.” They would take us somewhere and beat us. Behind my refusing to go to the D.C. Donut Shoppe these four got me, and Johnston and Harris actually rolled up Esquire magazines (these have been formative in my life), wrapped them in tape, dipped them in water, and put them on the radiator to dry, so they were hard. I was running track at the time and Skeffton with his ruined self got much pleasure saying this aloud as they prepared to beat and while they beat me, on the legs and thighs until red welts and large hardening black swellings covered my legs, thighs, and butt. I could barely walk when they got through.
At the next day’s track meet I couldn’t run. My coach hit the ceiling. He didn’t like the frats anyway though he was a goddam Alpha himself. But who really got pissed off was my roommate Bill and the mob and some of the other athletes. For them, this was beyond the call and kin of what the frats were supposed to do. Yeh, everybody knew they paddled people, but this shit was out. (The Kappas actually got suspended for a year when Lee’s sister’s boyfriend, PeeWee, got his arm broke by the Kappas and he was a popular kid.)
No official shit went down in my case but there was a kind of mass uprising. A few nights later at another session down on Banneker Field the pledges led by Bill and a couple other footballers erupted and turned Johnston and the others on their heads, knocked them in the mud, and generally whaled the daylights out of the big brothers under the cover of night and confusion. I ripped a few shirts and fell on a couple motherfuckers.
But that was it for me anyway. The shit seemed too unconnected to my real desires. What were they? I donno. But this shit wasn’t in me. I now got much more passive about the frat. I just was not available for anything. Neither meetings nor anything else. Where before I would have great fun ducking these nuts, now I was just not around. It didn’t matter too much. Both Shorter and I got blackballed (only one blackball could keep you out). Shorter used to show up for ROTC without his socks and with a “war hat” with no grommet in it so it was pulled down over his eyes like Diz might wear it. Shorter was playing tenor then. And I told you the frats were full of ROTC freaks, later generals; you know what they thought about that “weird” Shorter. In fact, I heard that’s why he got blackballed, being weird. But that was not true. For me, it was said that I was a snob, that I did not mix well. But that was not true, I was still much mixed in the middle of me own mob and we would hang out with anybody (long as they wasn’t square). But the real trick was that my grades had got so out that I didn’t have the grade average to join the fraternity anyway. I got drunk one afternoon and fell out up against a clothes hamper lamenting my waywardness which always seemed to disqualify me for what I wanted, though who knew what I wanted. “Pre-med” would come out of my mouth, but that was so far up and away from what me wanted, when I said it it echoed like in a huge open corridor, no lights, just echoes. And sometimes it hurt my ears.
It was clear to me even then that if Howard represented something, it was something quite different from blue Newark. I said the urban troops had some special panache on the campus because we brought a kind of outside blue/black quality onto the campus. We were aware of that, too. Just as we were aware of the group of actually yellow folk who sat in the cafeteria together. And just as we were aware of the parties we weren’t invited to. Like the ones given by the Turtles. They even had a password, but it got leaked due to some romance between the colors. “Are you a turtle?” was the question they threw at you on the door. “You bet your sweet ass I am” was the countersign. Except if you were not known (i.e., were a trifle brown and unruly, etc.) you couldn’t make it. We mostly ignored such shit, though Tony was always sniffing around for just such as that so he could try his luck. Tony and Rip did connect and got into a lot of the high-yellow sets. Rip could have qualified anyway, though he was broke, but he had some jingling money cause he was an only child. Tony was an only child too and a cheap motherfucker, so he was always pulling hidden dough out of his safe-deposit vault somewhere inside his room. But the two of them was high up into such things as the Turtles and whatnot and other light-skinned stuff.
The med students were the pinnacle of that society. If you was light-skinned and a med student and had a car and an apartment, you were on a par with Zeus or one of them other gods. Dent students were next, then law students. I mean up in the med, dent, and law schools, not the “pre’s.” Tony and Rip’s conversations always had a lot to do with what the fashionable med (and dent and law) students were doing. The sets they’d been to and how grand life at the top was. We listened but it was like movies to us, something to pass the time until somebody thought up something really out to do like that time we played hockey on the second floor with brooms and bottles till old man Butts came up on the floor and we scattered. He came to the door of Rue anyway, and busted all of us. “Mr. Jones,” he’d say, “Mr. Jones. What can we do about you?” In real despair.
The doings of the real socialites at HU were relayed to us by yellowish-brown Negro radio, two of ’em, so that’s really as close to that shit as we got. We did get uptight one day in the cafeteria and was close to popping some little pale Negro motherfucker in his jaw for saying something too far out while he was sitting with a dazzling collection of yellow babes all with their noses pointing at other galaxies. (Of course we were jealous, and we hated that part of it, too, since we knew they were vapid little flowers of unknowing, yet why should they be allowed to think they shit didn’t stink?!)
But the divisions on the campus were known by all but the most unconscious. And we could get very loud talking about “sididdy yellow bitches and these jive lames” who are gonna get their asses broke in a minute. Tony and Rip, however, were tipping on all those scenes.
There was some big hullabaloo when a brown (skinned) girl, really gorgeous babe named Pat Adams, was elected Homecoming and Alpha Queen. She was a very stiff number on the real side and split for nothing but bananas, her boyfriend was Mordecai Johnson’s son. When Mordecai was stalking out of his house right across from the girls’ dormitory, like God walking across campus. (Mordecai used to have our ass for a whole semester sitting in chapel every Sunday, mandatory if you were a freshman or transfer student. Chicks had to be in at 7 P.M. their first semester and it would be light outside and warm and great love affairs would be getting formed. And much thrashing and moaning and loud lamentations as to the cruelty, etc., of fate and Mordecai but that made it like some Romeo and Juliet shit and that spiced it up for some.)
The frats and yellow folks ran Howard’s official student life. Everything else was improvisation. We’d find ourselves trailing through black night in southwest Washington headed for parties. Dudes would say, “Some a them D.C. boys gonna split your heads open!” But we, being officially fearless, would go on and come to a joint looked just like those sets we’d left back home. Big hats and all. And the only problem we ever had was one night Tony went with us and some little black chick he wanted to impress threw an aspirin bottle at his ass, and we all thought it best to vanish.
The D.C. connection was then a connection with real black life, though Howard itself to a certain extent is black life no matter its yellow distortion and the class repression the one-sided class struggle on campus enforces. (Though probably in the ’60s there could’ve been something else happening for the same reasons, mass uprising and a general influx of black and brown types from the cities came on campus. You’ll have to ask Stokely Carmichael about that!)
The woman thing could spell it out further. All the time I was on campus I went with about four girls, and “went with” is too strong in most of those instances. On campus it was only three on the real side. Elizabeth Donald and I were tight, after a fashion. I took her to a couple of them dress-up things when I first was getting hooked up with campus life. They seemed flashy enough, but no real laughs though Liz seemed happy to be there amongst it all. She in a gown and I in a black tie. We talked to some people and posed and even danced.
But we were tighter than that. We had a couple of classes together. Zoology and physics. I was beginning to write some poetry, at first, under the Elizabethans — Sidney, Vaughan, Shakespeare, the rest. I would send her fragments of poems for her to add a stanza, then I would add another stanza, this is while the class was going on. By the end of the class we’d have a whole poem of sorts. But it was great fun and we would write poems about Peanuts (the comic strip characters) juxtaposed with our “Zo” teacher’s ear or some acquaintance’s droop in a chair close by on the way to a peaceful sleep.
And Liz was a really nice girl. She was always cheerful and smiling and I think she was a “Zo” major, on the heavy side. (Her sister went with one of them goddam Alphas, a big brother, now a New Jersey architect. I came to the house one time this blood gets drugged thinking I’m coming to see his squeeze, such cross-eyed explaining especially in those days I thought the Alpha gestapo would mash me up but he cooled out but was never what you’d call pleasant.) I think we went to a couple of movies, a couple of dances, I walked her home a few times, more than a few. Anyway, I began to think that Liz and I were “going together.” Dudes would drop her name in a certain way so it seemed like people were picking up, had picked up that that was happening.
Then one day I said something at a mob “meeting” as to how I was gonna take my old lady out somewhere and these dudes all looked at each other and me with a smirk like I had just shit on the floor. (Or like the time Mr. Butts was banging on the door to make us shut up and I didn’t think it was him and I called out “All right Butts, grease your nose and slide under.” Then we opened the door and it’s him — that kind of look.) There’s a skinny four-eyed turkey whose name I can’t remember (fuck you Freudians) to this day. Or was it another guy? Hmmm. But anyway there’s this four-eyed dude who had been around a few times, no he was known to all of us, Philip, I think his name was. He says, like a guy asking directions of a traffic cop, “Your old lady?” These dudes look at me, Woolright is about to split open with his jive ass. “Liz and I are going together.”
Particularly I remember there was some kind of deadly set coming up and Liz and I had been discussing whether we wanted to go to that (the on-campus dress-up) or see the ballet. But obviously there wasn’t much discussion going on on the real side. I remember this Philip saying, or was his name Al, “Liz and I are going together.” Uhh, man, did that sting. And these cats fell out. You could see some concern in some of their eyes but they had to laugh, otherwise it would have been admitting too much and they didn’t want to have to go through that so they howled.
“God damn,” was about all I could get out. “God damn.” And took his word. I saw Liz a day or two after and she was gentle and somewhat melancholy but she did confirm that she and Al were going to the campus set, but it was more than that and we both knew it. (Plus half the goddam campus!) I spoke to Liz the rest of my time on campus and we remained good buddies in class, but not like before by no means. And she went with this dude, a pre-med who actually did become a med, and they lived happily ever after, I guess.
Liz was a brown girl, she was, hooked up by the same yellow strings of gold and manipulation. But she could laugh at certain of the things that make those little phony worlds go round and this is what I liked. I couldn’t understand why she did what she did. Perhaps she was always going with the dude and I was imposing my dull ass in the way. Maybe she should have told me if that was the case. No, I think it was the pattern of lackadaisicality she saw in me. Perhaps I was too casual and my jibes were too shrill. Certainly she saw that my steps did not lead into med school and I was almost ready to admit that too. This dude was also on his way into the frat. He was a good solid dude. And what was I?
No sour grapes now, Jim. But that could tell somebody something, I hope. I went with two other girls on campus, one named McKeesport. That’s not her name, it was Blanche or something, I can’t even remember. So that will tell you about that. She was inordinately skinny and quiet and from that ugly steel town. We went out a couple of times and became friends more than anything else.
Audrey, from another wild place, a West Virginia coal mining town. These were both brown girls. Audrey was very tiny and plump with big, almond shaped eyes. Also quiet. I never found out what she liked. But we went to a few flicks. (I didn’t know what I wanted to do. Some of the movies blacks couldn’t even go to. We used to drive these crackers in the Peoples Drugstores crazy by ordering stuff then they’d bring it in a bag, like a Coke or something. And we’d say we wanted to drink it there. And they would say they couldn’t serve us and we’d leave the shit on the counter. But you had to hat up cause they would call the law.)
The only girl I could really say I went with, in a kind of heavy way (and even that didn’t get heavy as all that — not on the flesh side), was Baby. That was her name — not a nickname, her parents named her that. So she was from the country, High Point, North Carolina. She came from the same town an old crazy vet we used to holler at lived in, Terry. Terry was drunk a lot and loud but a very good dude. Kinda dude you liked to drink with. Could think up all kind of weird shit to talk about.
I mighta met Baby through Terry. She was a student at Miner Teachers College, which was right down the street, cross the street, from HU. Shootin’ at Miner girls was a pastime for one sector of Howard students. But it was generally frowned upon by the mainstream. Hey, they was who? They had no note. A lot of ’em talked country (Baby shure did!). There was a few cracked yellow ones but not many. The Miner ladies was at another level (“lower” than our own coeds on The Hill. That meaning had changed for me. “Hill” now meant the yalla lights, the Capstone, not Third Ward/Central Ward black and blue folks). That was vouchsafed.
But I ran into Baby. And she was not brown, dear readers, she was very black. Skin color and whatever otherwise. Black gleaming skin unblemished and these bright sparkling eyes, behind pinkish-brown plastic frames.
It didn’t strike me as anything until I got the campus reaction. Baby was sweet and the way she sounded, that black belt peasant twang tripped me out. But she was high up into readying for the teaching thing. She was maybe a year ahead of me and was already getting ready to practice teach.
I’d go up there a couple times a week. She had a new yellow Ford. An apartment she shared with another Miner student. And she dug me, I’d say. She’d even cook most times I showed, or at least had something ready. Which was great because my old man only sent me $30 a month for odds and ends. The food money he sent directly to the cafeteria people after I’d spent it up a couple times in a week then had to go broke for the rest of the month.
But she’d have some grit because everybody knew most of the Howard students was walking around kinda hungry. Except the blindingly yellow! Mostly we’d talk and laugh a lot. She was a bright girl. She was always teasing about my (HU) origins and how HU students acted generally, which was wild to hear from that side. It even made me clearer that there were sides. But she was definitely country. Terry’d come up there sometimes and we’d get to drinking, though I still wasn’t no heavy drinker.
We went to a few parties her friends gave in D.C. and to flicks and stuff in the D.C. community. I had already passed my dress-up frat period — which I guess is obvious. (And the stuff was just idle window shopping to Baby.) But I hadn’t summed up as a categorical anything. I was just going along, living my life, trying to love it and let whatever happened happen.
Baby, as I said, was not particularly interested in HU society either. I think myself (and Terry) were the closest she wanted to get at that point. But we had laughing, sometimes riotous, discussions about HU and environs and the mores and customs therein.
Baby came up on campus a couple times. One Saturday afternoon she pulled her bright yellow new Ford outside Clark Hall. I was supposed to be out front waiting, but was still inside bullshitting, so she tooted the horn. The front-step jockeys got her message and my name and began screaming them out. More from a few other reasons than mere communication or aid. One was they had nothing else to do. I could hear my name ringing outside, the horn, and now in the hallways. And they all wanted to sound like Baby, Leeeeeeeee Royyyyyyyyy Jooooooonessss. And I came running downstairs and when I hit the bottom step out in front, heads were thrust through windows all over the front of the building. It was somebody in our mob that started it but they were calling in unison Leeee RooooyyyyLeeeeee Rooooyyyyyy — and waving at us. You could even hear some of their comments as we got away — she had a convertible. “Broad with a car,” “Goddam,” “Who’s that chick?” etc., etc.
For Bill and Tony and Rip and some others, however, Baby’s looks (albeit her car and apartment), and the fact she went to Miner, made me Bruce Wayne. And that’s what I was greeted with when I returned. “Hey, Bruce” and whatnot. And these dudes kept it up, they even had some of their hambone friends continue it and they weren’t even proper in the mob. I’d cut my eyes funny at them. But mostly I just took it and continued seeing Baby, mainly cause I dug her and it was about the best place I knew to go around those parts (HU mores to the contrary). Anyway one time up in the room, I don’t know quite how it got started, Rip starts this shit about Bruce Wayne and he was going with this little limp starlet, a candidate for Homecoming Queen in a couple of years from the looks of her. And I made some remarks as to what a dead-ass bitch whassername was. Goin’ with her was like lookin’ at pinups in Esquire, all it did was get his whatname hard, as he definitely wasn’t gettin’ any of that! And what’s more, half these Negroes on this campus walking around talking about this girl like she’s Lena Home or somebody, so really, Rip, you sharin’ what you ain’t gettin’ with all the other dumb jerkin’ off lames on the campus.
Rip didn’t like that and began to imitate Baby’s speech. He built a great rep in his countless monologues about his prowess as a “cocksman.” And to have someone imply that he masturbated, that just wouldn’t do. But it got very nasty and ended with fists being rolled up though Rip was a big guy, a swimmer, and though there was a little dancin’ around the room no blows were struck. What was struck was a gong inside my knot that twanged some realization. The dudes in the mob generally did not give a fuck who I went with. Though there was a streak of plain out envy. These little babes on campus had to be in the dorm at certain hours and to get out overnight they had to go through elaborate lies and for those frosh and sophomores they wasn’t getting out except in extraordinary circumstances and most would not put their behind so squarely on the chopper as all that. So whatever Rip was doing, which wasn’t anything anyway, it had to be done in broad daylight, off campus. You went to flicks and ate dinner in Georgia Avenue restaurants, sat up in the dorms giggling, and held hands crossing campus with the Howard ladies. But stashed back in an old northwest apartment after finishing a big dinner and then sippin’ some grog squeezed up in the shadows of your own spot with a lady of your own choosing, that was what them med students and other royalty could pull off. But one of your own? “How the fuck did you luck up?” That was Woolright’s comment and Donny and the straight-ahead dudes. But we had, as I said, some yeller bellies in the group. The only good thing about that is that they were like antennae then for the rest of the joint, they would be letting us know what a whole lot of the messed up and soon to be messed up would be thinking about or not thinking about.
Rip and dudes like that were into the social fabric of the Capstone mainstream and their sashayin’ across the campus like the Easter Parade being looked at by others under the glass bell was all they needed. It was a form that was being followed. The little limp yellow girl (his was a blonde), being gladly and humbly craved by potential frat brothers, going back and forth to class or sitting in the cafeteria, was a distinct social form as well as a readying for service in the great lost cause of petty bourgeois hypnosis. Slave mores. Exactly what the racist gurus prescribe for keeping us under wraps. Except down in southwest D.C. or on U Street or T Street they wasn’t under these kinds of wraps. They had to keep the blue/black actual strugglers under gun wraps, that’s the only wraps that work on them.
I made no great rebellions, no explosions. (Cussing some future government bureaucrat out in his Ivy threads.) Just went on my way. Just moved on where I was going. Not even fully conscious, except I would do such and such and not do something else. I would like something for some reason and not like something else, and maybe not even have a reason.
I would sit up in the room sometimes with green glasses and put a yellow light bulb in the fixture. Why? Who knows? I would paint big paintings on the wall of the room — 3-D paintings of Tony’s high society babes and put curtains over them so they could be drawn back dramatically to reveal the painter’s madness. Or sit out on the campus eating half a watermelon and scandalize poor Butts and the patron saints of middle-class Negroes way off in Negro heb’n.
The next year is when some of us came off campus. We’d got too grown up to relate to dorm life anymore. Mr. Butts was clearly overjoyed. But that summer more wild things were happening, like being blown through a wind tunnel and the wind tunnel is inside your head. You trying to “concentrate” on something and a thousand-mile-an-hour wind is blowing behind your eyes, blowing all kinds of shit through your head blotting out your vision.
I had been blowing science courses regularly now. They didn’t interest me, yet the form of what I was supposed to be doing called for science. Laboratories. I was blown out of organic like with a timebomb. I never understood qual and quant and rushed out of there in near panic. It seemed like I couldn’t understand anything. I couldn’t learn. Maybe that’s why all the other shit was strange. Why I couldn’t get in a frat or even get a “respectable” girlfriend. I was one center of a mob yet it seemed that that ring of friendly faces had receded to the edge of the horizon. The best of these dudes, the straightest of them, were my friends (some have remained close friends until this day and almost any of them I run into on the streets or in some airline terminal or wherever, we sit down and can get ecstatic talking about these HU days), but still, now it seemed there was more space around me than I could use. Space between me and them. Space where strange lights and shapes and voices could get in. Weird decisions and postures. The frat thing, the woman thing, seemed like they cleared space around me or something.
That summer in Newark something similar was happening but it was happening under camouflage. I was now cut off from the Hillsides and had been cut off from the Cavaliers. But there was a whole new cast of friends and people to run with by way of the HU and general college hookup. The college thing in a town like Newark did provide a special bond and the college kids even from different colleges tended to run together. There was a social club formed, really while we were in school, called the Esquires. It seemed like the requirements for membership was going to HU or some of the other schools (a couple of dudes went to local colleges like Bloomfield, Newark State, etc.), paying the dues, and wearing Bermuda shorts, which were just coming out in our generation. The Bermuda shorts with the long socks, we thought that was really hip and that was our badge that summer. I had a cord jacket, tuxedo pants, and white sneakers I also started sporting, snaking through the streets late nights by myself.
The Esquires were really Los Ruedos, Golden Boys, etc., plus a few stragglers like me now pumped in my college. We gave one big successful set which was the social hit of our circle that summer. But the one dude who didn’t go to college and who’d got a rep as a kind of drugstore Lothario/cut-rate pimp got accused of lifting some dough from the kitty and Bill and a couple of the athlete dudes jacked him up in the back. I guess it was true.
We went to parties in the Oranges and Montclair, exotic places. Me and a dude named Joe Brown would sit on the stoop outside the parties after passing through looking at the babes. We’d sit outside and talk to whoever or just with each other, or sit in the car with the door open. Joe was the key, he had the short. We’d be out there listening to Symphony Sid and talking shit, passing comments on the women that went in and out and the dudes too. Joe was very hip, a little like me I guess, but carried to the extremes. Joe would not talk to anybody he didn’t know, not because he was some kind of snob but because he was shy and he didn’t know how people would react to the things he wanted to talk about and be about. Joe ended up a writer as well, plays and short stories. But in those days we’d talk about the music, about the girls, about our Northeastern version of the mob. He was going to one of those local colleges as well.
The other cats would be inside cattin’. Moving around in there talkin’ to babes and drinkin’ punch and we’d be outside bullshittin’ on the steps or in the front seat with the car doors open listening to Sid.
To me the whole party thing we did, though I really liked it, to get away from Newark and soar up through these other sparkling places, was more Howard stuff. Though I didn’t think I felt anything about Howard except digging it. The funny shit was just that, funny shit, but I dug Howard, it had become my identification of myself to myself. Yet really? Beneath that? What were the other modes of response being built up? I cannot say with any more precision than this narrative.
It was tinselly, glittery in an artificial way. There were people I liked in between all that. For instance, though I looked many many of those little girls up and down with serious intent it was no realer than what I thought the rest of that tableau was. It was admiration. But I couldn’t even conceive of what I would say to any of them, I didn’t know what they talked about. When I took a girl out I still went out most times with Betty, and the people she hung with were still on a basically Newark scene. But the college thing always threw a damper on those kinds of romances unless one had pledged undying love, which we hadn’t, even though we seemed to like each other, and still rolled around clutching each other in her house or mine on couches or on beds or cots or whatever. I wish I knew what she was thinking about all this. I do know that one evening I was talking and said “Bawston” for some reason, maybe that was the first evening I ever said it, certainly I have not said it too much before or since. And Betty said, “What? What are you saying?” And grinned.
And I repeated it, “Bawston.” And that probably told her something. Also since I had gone away to school, actually just before I left, I had started spelling my name with an “i” on the end instead of as it was given, Leroy. My justification was that my father’s name, seeing his birth certificate named him Coyette Leroy, was French, so why wasn’t the “y” an “i”? But also I’d read that summer, just before I went away, Roi Ottley’s New World a Comin and I think that’s what did it. At any rate, after my first year at Howard I spelled my name with a capital “R” and an “i” on the end. LeRoi.
I knew what I was doing saying “Bawston” to Betty and she knew what she heard (maybe she even knew what I was doing too) but the grin, later a laugh, “What are you doing?” was all she asked. (And then we made love in a new, more exotic way — but that was later!)
A sense of isolation had developed again. It had never left, maybe. Just quieted down by the roar of new surroundings, new faces, and a new set of customs to imbibe and assimilate. Driving around to the parties was great, sitting out front with Joe listening to Sid was great, but what? I worked in the grocery store, went to summer school trying to take scientific German. It was at Seton Hall in Newark. Across the street was a bar that looked like it had been shipped straight from Heidelberg. After the last class we all went over, mostly whites, and each bought a round — about ten of us in the class. So that was ten glasses of beer (they only cost about fifteen cents apiece) and I got really trashed for the first time in my life. Wobbly spitting-up drunk. I got home some way. We had moved when I went away to school that first year down to Hillside Avenue, across Clinton Avenue. We lived in a two-family house with the colored landlord downstairs. A little brown and yellow house with a porch on the first floor and one on the second out through our living room. I reached the downstairs porch and plopped into the rocking chair and fell out sick and twisted. My mother and father had been out that night too, so they came in and there I was blasted flat like some ominous casualty. My mother cried, she clutched my father and cried at her poor son her only son her oldest son and so forth being dead drunk right out on the street. I tried to explain the next day, it wasn’t serious, but the words did not even impress me, coming as they did through the Plexiglas construct of the great primordial hangover I had. I thought I was dying.
But it was like being backed away from everything and everybody. And no whys came in. I knew what was happening to me, and even the “Bawstons” and name changes were false alarms, diversions, from what was happening to me. But what was happening to me? I felt like a lost child. When I wasn’t careening around the streets with Joe and them in search of the great party, I was, for some reason, feeling almost sorry for myself. But I did not know why. The isolation, the aloneness, sometimes it was almost sweet. And I had started reading in school. Whether from the urgings of teachers or what, but suddenly I was going into Howard’s library looking for Gertrude Stein. And who the hell was Gertrude Stein? I read her “Primer for Dogs Who Are Learning to Read.” I showed it to Liz Donald, a girl I “went with” for a while, and we laughed and quoted from it, but why was I reading that in the first place? I had had the Pound book, a thin little collection of selected poems, but I couldn’t understand much of that. What with the Greek, some of the Latin I could piece together, but I had no idea, for the most part, what he was talking about. I still read the Elizabethans. But I had got a book, a really heavy book, that I liked very much. It was Selden Rodman’s One Hundred Modern Poemswith Apollinaire’s “Zone” and work by Blok and Lorca and Rilke. I couldn’t understand a lot of that either, but I liked that book and found myself looking at it from time to time trying to decode it.
The next year at Howard was my last year, though I didn’t know it. I began by moving into the city with Bill, Tony, Shorty, and Stone. We painted the place a wild shade of pink. It was riotous. I was always walking in on Tony trying to seduce some suspecting charmer or we stayed up all night “studying,” drinking beer and scotch and wine and bullshitting. We hung in places like the Kenyon Grill, where the elite drank martinis and I learned to drink martinis too. But not many. I got drunk and fell out at one party just as I was about to impress this sensuous beauty (we met a few months ago and she is married to a white advertising executive) who thrilled me because she was a painter.
Now that all my money was being sent directly to me again I was even broker than before. I would go to my aunt’s once a week in northeast D.C. and eat like a starving soldier. My Aunt Bessie would smile and fill up a big bag for me to take back. I would try to ease it in but the niggers would spot it and gobble it down like locusts.
What Howard connect I still had weakened and drifted even further. Where before we would lay up in our corner room and watch Bill play football with our feet hung out the windows screaming, now we would only go to the stadium and get a big megaphone, put a bottle inside the megaphone, holding the bottle by the ring at its neck, and when something would happen we would “cheer” and by halftime drain a gallon of cheap red.
I would go to class, hang around on campus and up in Clark Hall, and then shoot home about four blocks over and a few blocks up. We liked living off campus because it made us feel more adult than we were. But most of the people we knew off campus were HU students and I could never get hooked to the little House of Love routine that these apartments were supposed to be according to student mythology. We had a couple of parties there, got threatened by the landlord; but personally it was just another step away.
I found myself more interested in reading and personal revelation than in the laboratories and science courses I supposedly existed for. I had a philosophy course that was interesting, teaching us bullshit like syllogisms and useless logic, but at least I could understand what they were talking about. The great silent creep of my organic chemistry class, who came in and merely wrote equations on the board that we must commit to memory and who rarely talked longer than one sentence at a time (he was so heavy, said the yellow press), bored the shit out of me. I would be sitting in class dozing, shot out, uninterested, except in the chirping of the students afterwards, what they said and made out of the shit was more interesting to me but it didn’t stop me from being on Georgia Avenue alone, moving swiftly up the hill to see if Stone left any grit in the icebox.
I began to live in a halfway world, of mostly shadows and silence. With advertising of unknown whatevers slowly crawling through my head in klieg lights and marquee-type bulbs. Dazzling obscurities, questions. Embarrassing gaps in my concentration. I had not the slightest idea what I was thinking about nor much of the time what I was talking about. Unless I was bullshitting with what part of the mob remained in some focus. I thought there was a sickness around that place. It was in the stiffness and artificiality, the walking-on-water quality of references to a life that none of us would ever see. We were being readied for “good jobs,” “professions,” prestige and wealth. I did not have the energy to be a doctor. I was not willing to try hard enough to master the things I had to master. I was not interested in any of the shit I could understand. I didn’t even feel like running too hard after the girls. I drank wine and smoked cigarettes because that was easy to do. I read books, but mostly thin ones because fat ones repelled me. I did go to movies whenever I could. I listened to music but the Howard jukebox went from Gerry Mulligan and Dave Brubeck to “Work With Me, Annie” and few of us had record players. I went to the Howard Theater. I saw Diz and Bud Powell down there and that was something I did regular. I especially liked the midnight shows. I would go down-town where the big white folks’ stores were and look in the windows. I even put money down on a slick suit I saw at Lewis and Thos. Saltz and never got it, so they got my dough. I continued to go to parties out in the city. But something had drifted for good.
I think I understood that I was not getting any closer to reality. Not understanding it any better. (Though I was, just that dissociation makes you heavier, by several ounces.) Words in the wind, dull classrooms, dead folks. Corny people laughing. Rules and regulations and customs and mores. What people did. I couldn’t use it.
The second semester I even moved out of our apartment, or more exactly the landlord threw us out and Bill moved in with another footballer. Tony and Shorty and Stone moved back on campus and I moved just a few short blocks into a house that was filled completely with West Indians. In our U.S. chauvinism we called the African students the “Suji boys” and the West Indian students the “Mon boys.” And we mostly never mixed. They were rather separate circles. (Ain’t nobody knew nothin about no Pan-Africanism!) One of the guys was in my class and he told me about the space at this house they all rented and I jumped on it. I got to know a few of the West Indians, mostly Jamaicans and Trinidadians, well. But people wanted to know why I was with these Mon boys all the time now. I didn’t know. I lived with them. They had their own parties and I was in the house and started going. One night a bunch of white marines followed one dude who had brought a white girl and tried to turn the place out, so I found myself punching white dudes in the face and running in the street trying to smash some with bottles before the white police came and pacified us. But there was no more to the incident.
Actually they had a nice thing going down there. The woman who rented them the whole house said she liked to rent to West Indians because unlike these sorry U.S. bloods the West Indians had the dough and would pay. So now it was not only space but a cultural warp I had stepped through, a whole nother set of folks I found myself with. Not that I was cut off entirely from the old mob or the bloods on campus. But I could come down to the house, which was only a couple blocks from campus, and go into my room, which was clean and quiet. There might be some calypso playing somewhere, which I dug. And I’d be there mostly by myself. I could do homework (which I almost never did except the night before the test) or do what I did mostly look at stuff and think about stuff, maybe read something, or maybe go for a walk or eat or drink a beer, or just let strange stuff fill up my head in absolute silence.
By now, it was clear that I was flunking out of school. I had some good marks but in my major I was hitting on naught but the lonely heart. I went through some frantic changes, told myself and some other people some tales. But in a month or so I had “punched out” and went reluctantly on my way. (Which was where?)
Actually, I went through to the end of the semester and when I made my various goodbyes there were some deeper goodbyes being made. But still I thought maybe I would come back to school. I had nowhere else really to go, I thought.
The summer was something else, and was actually prelude or preface to another stage of my life that began much later. But I spent some time that summer going to the Village, in New York. I hadn’t known anything at all about Greenwich Village, but now a guy I’d run track with and idolized in high school, Stephen Korret, was rumored to be living there and being “weird.” I did not know around what this weirdness manifested but I was vaguely interested. But somehow we got invited to a party, a dude named Willie Washington and I. His sister Cynthia really interested me, but Willie was a new acquaintance. I met him, I think, through Joe Brown. Willie was very hip, always clean, was interested in and followed the music. I saw him at a few parties I went to. Another guy I knew was trying to be an architect and had an apartment on Hillside Place painted all black. He was part of it. It had to do with music and maybe painting, I didn’t know. With some kind of social adventure I couldn’t quite piece together. A face here and there, a name. I was at a party then and Cynthia was there. I tried to see her a couple times that summer. But at this party she was enthralled by Korret, who was now tall, slender, dark as he had been, very dark, but bearded. I remember digging the beard, what it gave to his face.
I had remembered him a slim half-miler in high school, city champ one year. Then rumor had it he had started living with a girl, her name was Cynthia too, but not Willie’s sister. Then he started getting beat and seemed out of shape. This is what the scuttlebutt was around the locker room. The fact that those kinds of rumors could be spread about him, true or not, made him even more fascinating from my point of view, though he always kept me at more than arm’s length. I was younger and screwy as hell I guess.
But that summer I was drifting into something else of complete unintelligibility, to me. Me and Willie hung and a couple of other guys. I tried to press his sister and she seemed willing but in a way unavailable. But it was probably me, cause I was twisted up inside in so many ways. Who knows what I sounded like or looked like or seemed to want? I might have thought I was saying one thing but something distinctly else was coming out.
I think I might have gone over to Steve Korret’s house with Cynthia one day. Korret was “married” or maybe really married, I didn’t know. It didn’t matter. His wife was a black Canadian who’d lived in Newark for a few years and they’d come to the Village to live. Steve Korret was the talk of one aspect of one part of one circle of Newark’s college-aged youth. Cynthia and I rode the subway that day and she had on some sandals with a little flower that came out between her toes where the strap was. I really dug those, and the way her feet looked in them. We’d talked when I came up to see Willie, and then I was coming up to see her and Willie, and then came up to see her alone. But Willie and I were still tight. We were cool with something else rolling in us. What? The music? He talked about painting. I knew nothing about that. He had some books I knew nothing about. Or maybe just enough to talk surface about. But now Cynthia and I sat up in Steve Korret’s bright orange and white apartment on Bedford Street. And he talked, in an English accent, and she was very impressed. So was I, really. Plus his wife, Lita, was very slender and brown and lovely, with an accent that was her real Canadian one and that was fascinating. They had a wall of books in the apartment that I glanced at but that was all. Somehow we were speeding through this visit, though it obviously pleased Steve to impress us. But I had the feeling of being rushed out and suddenly we were outside starting home. I had heard some words I didn’t understand, some I did, but in new contexts, from people who lived outside of Newark, I mean way outside of Newark, and maybe in what? Another world?
In the fall I returned to Howard, but I couldn’t get back in school. I knew that anyway, but went down just for the trip, I guess. Just to see people coming back to school. September, the fall. I like the new tweeds and flannels dudes wear then. The raincoats and hats. The briskness of the air without its being a menace. The clarity of it, the seeming clarity of it.
I wandered around campus a day with nothing really to do once I was certain I was being put out. I could come back next semester or the next year, if I could go somewhere else and pull up my chemistry grades. But I gave not even a small shit about chemistry, except not giving a shit carried a penalty which I only began to understand. I hadn’t known any other kind of life but a student life.
I bumped into friends, mob members mostly, and told them some criss-crossed stuff about why I wasn’t coming back. Rip was with a group and said, “Hey, look at bohemy look at bohemy.” And I realized then that my trips to the Village were known about and not only that but had been judged, by one group. “Hey, look at this little beard” and he plucked at a little nothing growth of peach fuzz on my chin. I had never shaved or had reason to. Maybe since seeing Steve Korret’s beard the idea of it had poked out at the point of my chin. That’s the only explanation I got, I certainly didn’t think I had any beard.
Some more bantering, distorted discussions, lies, bullshitting, and laughter and I felt myself leaving, waving for real and now in my head waving at that place. What had I learned? A great many things, most of which I could not speak about. I had not the tools. For one thing we were being made sick. We were being gathered with the fondest motives but being made sick. (And I was not with the sickest, or only a few.) The brownness of me, in me, I certainly had been touted off of and me always yearning for an even darker explanation. At least that was what had been my measure, the blue/black streets of Newark. The gray steel of its relentless hardness. Love, for me, was music and warmth, high-pitched sounds and jagged or regular heavy grinding rhythms. It was collective and so dark you had to tighten yourself up to look it in the eyes. Stop your shakin’. Is that the way you want your hat to look? Is this the way you want to walk? How you sound? On the real sound, who did you sound like, the yellow picnic churchboy alien or the smooth blue rolling down the streets laughing at your collective hipness? (It was always dangerous, in Newark, to be alone! Or anywhere else.)
We’d been readied for the blowout, the vertical sweep up to sunkissed heaven. It was clothes and words and postures, the seeking of a secular Jordan. In coldly sociological terms, under national oppression, it was the Sisyphus myth given numbers to chart the exact degree of pain. Or ants piling up tidbits of zero to build the Empire State Building, and then not even own it. But the piling-up motion was all. We were not even being taught to pile up, like the common petty capitalist of the xenophobically abused South and East Europeans. All we were being readied for was to get in, to be a part of the big ugly which was that ugly because it would never admit us in the first motherfucking place! We were being taught integration and nothing of the kind existed. If so, why were we here in the second motherfucking place? We were readied for a lie as a lie. We were readied for yellow and the best of us were black and brown. We were readied for utopia and that is bullshit in the third motherfucking place. Only craziness could be the result. (E. Franklin Frazier was on leave when I was in school. Locke had retired. Sterling Brown taught his best classes unofficially on his own time.)
We were not taught to think but readied for superdomestic service. (Super to who?) The school was an employment agency at best, at worst a kind of church. Hypnosis was employed. Old cult practices. Collective individualism. A church of class and caste conceit. Church of the yalla jeeeesus. And so we worshiped there and loved it.
HU was the great launching pad of the flight to this God’s heaven. The launching pad of the projected verticality. The pimple of pretended progress by the “colored” few. But because within that desire is a legitimate need by the whole black of us to rise up in reality, the sugar and butter on white bread sandwich can get over to some extent in places you wouldn’t expect.
So you say, Come on, prove the pathology, Jonesy.
My roommate became a Secret Service man. After playing a little professional baseball (double or triple A) he was magnetized to the “good job,” some place he could use the muscle and continue to drink the excitement of the field. And so he’s been a field man, going ahead to make certain that various cities are safe for the president. To see if all the known nuts have been sequestered or are under surveillance, like his old roommate. He has been in the protective entourage for Johnson, Nixon, Ford, Carter, Reagan. He who slept on the other side of the room.
At least five of us became generals, and many more at lower levels. An admiral or two. Reagan’s top Negro. Agnew’s top Negro. Negroes at all levels of state bureaucracy and madness. Negroes in the society pages. Negroes grinning just behind the robbin’ hood on television strewn through the pages of our ebony sepia hue jet Afro-defender dam news. Mostly hugging a lie and laughing or hugging a laugh and lying. — He works for She works for He’s the first Negro to murder white people for bigger white people You remember whassaname, well she Remember whatnot, he got they got we got Still masquerading at the top of a hill distant silhouettes removed from the blue/black streets of our collective reality. The cheap little political manipulators and bureaucrats gesturing hypnotically in black people’s faces promising freedom but delivering more bondage. The yellow rat on a chain dancing for the slave masters’ amusement as “the best” of “the worst.”
(And do not intentionally misunderstand, the black schools have taught most of us. What we have of value and what we must despise. We did not even consider these other folks at these white schools as being in it. They’ve got their own sad stories to tell! You bet. Howard. The barbarians at Lincoln. Fisk. Hampton. We fought with the niggers at Morgan and broke folding chairs over their heads. In our crackpot little elitist world, if you didn’t go to these schools you wasn’t even in the world. No, really. You wasn’t even in the world. But what did we know?)
I turned with tears in my eyes and whispered so that I couldn’t even hear it in my brain, Goodbye!!