Brandon Forsythe / Geoffrey Craig

I suppose, for a black man growing up in the United States of Racism, you’d consider me lucky; and I was for a time. Momma – by working her ass off as a medical assistant in an office where she was smarter than the doctors – managed to scrape together enough to move me and my two sisters to the suburbs. Not quite the suburbs but sort of a halfway point between the inner city and the real – meaning white – suburbs. That Paradise started across Woodrow Wilson Parkway. We lived in Laurel Gardens, which were no gardens but rather row houses crowded together on forlorn streets dotted with potholes. At the end of our street, a scruffy park with scraggly trees climbed a low, steep hill. A solitary jungle gym sat on the crest. As kids, Momma took us there in nice weather but warned us never to go on our own.

In summer, with heat radiating off the cracked sidewalks, the park provided some relief. When I got to the age where Momma couldn’t boss me around, I hung out there with my friends. In winter, you could kill yourself climbing the icy paths so we didn’t go. Winter storms were something else in Laurel Gardens. The plows piled the snow so high cars and driveways were blocked in tight as a drum. Some of the cars didn’t get dug out for days. Before long, the fresh snow got so encrusted with soot I’d have sworn the stuff came down black. I’m dreaming of a black Christmas sort of thing.

One time – just one time – I walked over the bridge that arched high above the Parkway. It was like going to another country. The pavements were smooth as glass and, lo and behold, no cracks in the sidewalks. I sauntered along leafy streets with evenly-spaced houses that got bigger by the block. You could’ve played football in those yards. If you threw a football in my back yard, you’d have to run into the neighbor’s yard to catch it, which always got Mr. Jenkins yelling at us to keep off his flower beds. If Mr. Jenkins ever crossed the Parkway, he’d know from flower beds.

I saw houses with huge porches and slender, white columns. Any moment, I expected some dude in jodhpurs to come riding up to the front door and holler: “Hey boy, come take my horse.” “Ya sir, I be coming right away.” Gigantic houses of stucco and beams looked like someone had jacked ‘em up and carted ‘em over from England. Now I knew what the word “mansion” meant. I liked the brick ones best.

The fathers playing catch with their kids and the mothers sipping iced tea on the porches pretended not to look at me as I strolled past. We have the right to go where we want these days; but I could feel their eyes boring into my back so I headed home, wishing I had the nerve to mutter loud enough to give them a real scare.

I bet no brothers and sisters shared bedrooms in those palaces. Until junior high, Stephanie, Carrie and I slept in the same room – fortunately with two beds. Then I moved into the basement. I slept in a bed set amidst boxes of junk that no one had opened for years. I had to climb two flights of stairs to use the bathroom, but at least I no longer had to tell my sisters to turn around when I got dressed. All of us shared the one bathroom so there was often a line with tons of pounding on the door.

“How long does it take to do whatever it is you’re doing in there?”

No reply.

“Are you almost done?” I would say a little louder.

“Quit your hollering.”

“I got to go,” I would say a lot louder.

“Pipe down. The neighbors’ll hear.”

If it got bad enough and it was early enough, I would water Mr. Jenkins’ flowers. He never caught me, and the flowers didn’t seem to mind.

Momma said our house might be cramped but it was paradise compared to the rotten-smelling apartment back on Jefferson Avenue. Why anyone would name a street in the city’s largest black neighborhood for a slave-owner beats hell out of me. The stairwell in our five-floor walk-up reeked of piss, garbage and fried chicken. We couldn’t tell which was worse. Sounds of love-making pierced the paper-thin walls. When, at an early age, I asked what it was, she turned up the TV. Drug dealers hung out on the corner, and rival gangs fought over turf. Momma didn’t allow us to go out on our own. There was no Father; he had flown the coop right after Carrie was born. He must’ve figured there was no end to Momma’s fertility. He was wrong. Momma allowed no man near her after that; and as far as I know, she still doesn’t.

The last straw for Momma was stepping over a dead body on the second floor landing. At least, she assumed he was dead. She called 911, but he was still there an hour later. I was eleven when we moved to Laurel Gardens. Momma said it was a huge step up. Cleaner and safer and schools where you actually learned something. Momma was a nut on education. If we wanted to move up in the world, we’d better keep our noses in books and not in funny business. Pay attention in class. Don’t back talk. Keep away from bad company. How many times I heard that I cannot tell you. But I got to credit Momma, much as she turned against me later. She practically doubled her commute, moving us to Laurel Gardens. And God knows what it took out of her pay check.

Oh, and drugs. She spit out the word, infusing it with all the venom of which she was capable. I can repeat the lecture in my sleep. To this day. Drugs were not sold openly in Laurel Gardens, but they were there. A stall in the school john. A corner of the playground. A bench in the park. I refused to have anything to do with them. I had bought into Mother’s philosophy. I intended to make something of myself.

Sex was altogether another matter. As a fourteenth birthday present, Ladona Haynes let me put a finger in. For Christmas that year, she let me put something else in. We stayed together for a year. This was during my lucky time ‘cause she didn’t get pregnant despite the fact I was too stupid to use condoms. In high school, I had a number of girl friends. Those were very good times. Not that I was a sex fiend, mind you. Come senior year, I didn’t have anyone special so I took Ladona to the prom. She gave me one hell of a graduation present.

Then I was off to community college where my luck still held ‘cause I met Heather, a drop-dead-gorgeous white piece of ass with wavy blond hair, green eyes, trim breasts and a butt that, swaddled in jeans, set your mind on fire. Heather only dated black guys, which got her ejected from the family mansion. She shared a house with four other girls – three black and one white. She had her own bedroom – a good thing since I didn’t. Heather pretended to take courses at the college and worked behind the candy counter at a movie theater. Now while she liked her men black, she was no black-dude groupie; when she was into a guy, she was into him. No fooling around. To be clear on one point, she didn’t think we had bigger dicks or put them to better use. She simply liked the picture of black on white.

Heather was pure dynamite. When she exploded, duck your head. I loved every minute of it. But I don’t believe we’re better in bed than white dudes. It’s an individual sort of thing. I’ll bet there are black guys who are total duds in the sack. When I mentioned that to Heather, she said: “I haven’t met any.” She had a great sense of humor, that Heather. Always had me laughing. Mostly at silly, little things, which is what made it great. We could settle this question once and for all, she told me. A door-to-door survey on the other side of the Parkway, starting at her house.

“Excuse me, ma’am: I’m doing a research project for the Institute of Biracial Relationships. Just a couple of questions, if you don’t mind. One: do you sleep with black guys? Two: if so, are they better in bed than white guys? In what way? Please be specific.”

I hated to break up with Heather, but I didn’t see a choice. She started making wedding noises; and if I was to get married, it would have to be to someone whose ambitions extended beyond a movie-house candy counter and making love every day but Sunday. I wanted a wife who would pull her own weight, and that wasn’t our Heather. But in the bedroom, she was in a class of her own.

After community college, I landed a job in the produce department of a grocery store. Part of a big chain, they had promised that if I did well, I’d go to a training program at headquarters after a couple of years. Then I’d get promoted to department head and ultimately assistant store manager and maybe store manager. Lady Luck was doing her thing. I worked hard and kept out of trouble although there was enough around. I liked the work, and my boss – who was an Irishman with freckles and red hair – treated me fine. I lived at home and took a bus to work. On fine summer days, I took long walks after work. Stephanie and Carrie were still at school, and I helped Momma with the rent. It made us both proud. That training program was just around the corner.

I was basically content with life except that I didn’t have anybody special. It was three years since Heather, I was going on twenty-three, I had rampaging testosterone and no one to benefit from it. Sure, there’d been women here and there but nothing steady; and let me tell you, diddling yourself ain’t the same. So I asked Lady Luck to take a hand, figuratively speaking; and she did: Monique of the velvety, black skin and the thick mound of pubic hair that I loved to run my fingers through. A friend introduced us, and I fell hard. Ba-doom! Not only was Monique a beauty, she had ambition. Music to my ears. She had finished her degree and started training as a legal assistant. She even talked about law school. Her parents were crazy about me and hoped we would get married.

Then we slipped up. Monique got pregnant. I figured her folks – not to mention Momma – would strangle me; but they all got together and started planning the wedding. The three of them talked about nothing but their grandson.

“A girl don’t count?” sniffed Monique.

“Does for me,” I said.

Monique’s father worked construction and said he and his buddies would build us an addition on the back of their house. The thought of my own bathroom sent shivers up and down my spine. Monique’s mother said she would adjust her hours at the department store to take care of the baby while Monique and I were at work. You’d think this was the first baby ever to get itself born. But they wouldn’t hear no objections from yours truly. Monique and I planned to start work on number two as soon as number one was properly settled. Really give her mother something to do. I walked around with a big smile on my face, thinking up names. But then events overtook us.

Out of the blue, my cousin, Jorell, called. I hadn’t seen him in years. He wanted me to come into the city so we could hang out. That’s all he said: “hang out”. I didn’t tell Momma, figuring she wouldn’t be pleased. She had put that world behind her. I had no clue if Jorell had a job; not many young black men did in the inner city. The following Friday, my first day off, I caught a bus late in the morning. We had agreed to meet at the Sam’s Fried Chicken at the corner of Twenty-Ninth and Jefferson.

I don’t remember everything, that’s how fast things went down. This is what I do remember. It was a scorching, humid summer day and I had on a lime-green tee shirt and khaki pants. The heat rose without relief from the sidewalk and hung between the jammed-in apartment buildings. Sweat began rolling from my armpits and down my sides before I had walked two blocks. I wished I had stayed at home where at least I could sit in front of the big floor fan and read or watch TV. People were walking along the sidewalk, but slowly. Young men and women sat on stoops, talking and smoking. Not a white face in sight. Without warning, two cop cars screeched to a halt midway along a block; and four cops – three white and one black – erupted from the cars and barked at some of the young men to assume the position. I stopped dead in my tracks. Of course, I’d heard about this – what black person hadn’t – but I’d never seen it. I stared transfixed. Something told me to move, to get the hell outta’ there, but I couldn’t.

“What the fuck are you looking at?” the black cop snarled at me. “Get over here.”

Next thing I knew, my hands were on top of a police car, my legs forced apart and his black hands searching all over me. In a matter of seconds, he pulls a plastic bag from my back pocket that I never put there. He was a pro ‘cause I noticed nothing until he held up the bag. Practice makes perfect. I doubt I was the first brother he’d framed. Lady Luck had just flown the coop. Not that I didn’t think I would get off – if I could get the right person to believe me. Naïve jerk.

“Got one,” the black mother shouted, waving the bag.

“That’s not mine,” I cried out.

I tried to turn around, but the cop pushed me back against the car.

“Then whose is it? he snarled.

“I don’t know.”

“It was in your pocket.”

“I didn’t put it there.”

“Fell out of the fucking sky, huh? Just happened to land in your fucking pocket?”

Another cop came over.

“What’s the uproar, Officer Sanford?”

“Kid’s mouthing off.”

What’s your problem, kid?”

“He put that bag in my pocket.”

“Are you accusing Officer Sanford of planting evidence? That would be a serious matter.”

“I only know it’s not mine.”

“You read this little shit his rights?” the white cop asked.

“I would if he’d ever shut up.”

The white cop smacked the back of my knee with his night stick.

“Shut up, kid.”

I screamed in pain. The black cop cuffed me, read me my rights and, lowering my head, guided me into the patrol car. After cramming two more guys into the back seat, he and a white cop got in; and the car slid into the flow of traffic. The driver turned on the siren. Black Beauty turned in the passenger seat and said through the grate:

“Want to make sure you boys get to your destination on time.”

“You know I didn’t do anything,” I said.

The other two guys looked at me like I was from Planet Stupid. “Do you know who you’re fucking dealing with?” one of them asked. “Give it a fucking rest.”

“You don’t call this something.”

Black Beauty held up the plastic bag.

“Someone’s going to believe me.”

“Is this asshole for real?”

“I don’t know, but he ain’t from around here.”

“Hey you dumb, little prick,” said Black Beauty. “Why don’t you tell the Assistant DA it fell out of the sky.” Black Beauty roared with laughter. “He’ll certainly take your word over mine.”

*

Momma couldn’t afford a lawyer although Jorell told her he knew one with experience in these cases and that he could get her a good price. Momma told him she appreciated his concern but no thank you. Truth of the matter is she didn’t believe the cop had planted the crack on me. A white cop, maybe, but no black cop would do that to a brother. Besides, she had heard he was a good cop who was active in the community. He even lived in the neighborhood, not like the white ones who wouldn’t set foot there after hours. This guy gave nice little pep talks in the schools, telling the kids they could be anything they wanted by working hard, behaving right and staying away from drugs and sex. What a fucking hypocrite. He got to be what he wanted by fucking over guys who worked hard and behaved right.

Momma told me how disappointed she was and while she didn’t want me to go to prison and probably wouldn’t for a first-time offense, she hoped I had learned my lesson and would give up drugs.

“Have you heard one thing I’ve been telling you, Momma? I don’t do drugs. Never have. The guy planted that stuff on me. I’m innocent.”

“Don’t you lie to me, boy. After everything I’ve done to raise you up proper, this is the thanks I get. It’s like I don’t know you.” She paused for breath. “I’ll bet it was that white whore got you into this. I should’ve put a stop to that nonsense Day One. This is what comes from not sticking to your own kind.”

“Momma, I haven’t seen Heather in three years.”

“No matter. That’s how it got started; and once the drugs get their hooks into you, they don’t let go so easy. Just when you were gonna’ get promoted and married. What are Monique and her parents going to say? You think they want their daughter married to a drug dealer? Why did I struggle all these years so we could live in Laurel Gardens? So you could do like those punks on Jefferson?”

Her own son and she didn’t believe a word I’d said. Then she started in on Jorell and what a credit he must be to his family.

“A shame I hadn’t seen Jorell in all these years,” she said. “Seems to have turned out a proper young man – well-spoken and well-dressed although I’m not clear where he works. He said something about sales.”

Jorell dealt drugs. How else would he’ve known a lawyer with experience in these cases?

After her second visit, I didn’t see Momma again until I got out of prison two years later. And Monique? Wrote one letter when I was in prison to say she had met a fellow she was marrying and who would adopt my son as his own. Felt so lucky we had never married. If I tried to see her or the kid or anyone in her family after I got out, she’d put the cops on me for harassment. Must’ve gotten some advice from the pricks in that fancy law firm.

I was on my own with nothing between me and a bunch of years in the joint except Ms. Lily-white Public Defender, who looked not much older than me. Her hair was cropped short, was poorly combed and needed a wash. She wore a boxy gray suit that had last seen an iron in the factory. We sat across a table in a depressing room in which Lysol fought against body odor – and lost. Ms. PD was on the winning side. Her overflowing brief case stood on the floor beside her chair, and she had a stack of files on the table. She picked up one and glanced through it. After a few preliminaries, like a couple of questions about my job and personal life, she dug in like a steam shovel.

“This is your first offense…”

“What offense? I’m innocent. I don’t do drugs.”

I don’t know if I was more angry or frightened at that point, but I was determined to be heard.

“I’m sorry. First arrest. I was going to say that if you cooperate with the prosecution, I might be able to get you off with two to three years’ probation. No jail time, but you’ll have a record.”

“Why should I cooperate? That asshole cop…”

“Let’s keep a lid on the language. Neither anger nor obscenities will help your case.”

“There is no case. That … officer … planted the shit … the stuff … on me.”

“Have you got any evidence to that effect?”

‘What kind of evidence would I have?”

“Do you know of anybody who might’ve seen him do it? Someone willing to testify?”

‘Nobody. I was on my way to meet my cousin.”

“But you hadn’t met up with him yet?”

“Nope.”

“Could he … or she…”

“He.”

“…testify as to where you’d been before meeting up?”

“Not really.”

“As to your character? That you’re not involved in drugs?”

“I doubt it.”

“Why?”

“Just take my word for it.”

“Anyone else that can testify to your character besides your immediate family?”

“My girl friend. We’re going to get married.”

“Too close. Anyone else?”

“My boss, but I think he’s pretty pissed. I called him and explained what happened. He hoped I could prove my innocence but that he’d have to replace me if I weren’t back in a few days.”

She heaved a sigh and looked at the file some more. She was stalling. I could smell it.

“This officer … Sanford … has a mean reputation.”

“In other words, he out mother-fucks the mother-fuckers.”

“What did I say about language? You need to put aside your anger and stay focused.”

“Right.”

“We’d need some kind of proof that he planted the drugs. He’s mean, but he’s never been accused of falsifying evidence. He’s also known to be active in the community so lots of folks think he’s simply tough on those who deserve it. If it’s your word against his, you’ll lose. So how about that cooperation?”

My stomach had fallen about as far as a stomach can go.

“I don’t want to cop a plea,” I said in a chastened voice. “I’m innocent.”

“I believe you, based on what I’ve learned: community college, good job, engaged to be married. On the other hand, kids like you get caught with drugs. Some even deal. The Prosecution will charge possession with intent to sell. There was enough in the bag, and they’ll find a way to throw in some extra charges to be on the safe side. If we go to trial, you could be looking at five to ten. Prosecution and judge will be pissed off. Figure we’re wasting their valuable  time. And like I said, with what we got now, it’ll be your word against Officer Sanford’s. How would you calculate those odds?”

I was wrong. My stomach could fall further.

“I don’t want a record, and I don’t want to go to jail. I’m supposed to get married in a few months.”

“Nothing I can do about the record. Jail’s another matter. Depends on their mood. Your background will help. So will first-time offense. I’m sure you’ll get a reduced sentence. What’s it going to be? I’m looking at a stack of cases.”

Even without a prior record, the fucking Assistant DA wanted me to do time. Part of the department’s get tough on crime campaign. Two years in the state penitentiary over in Rockingdale. No parole either. The bastard said I should be grateful.

*

Rockingdale was the most shit awful place in the world. I smelled the fear the instant I got off the bus. Didn’t know how I would survive; but the second day, a huge guy with biceps bigger than my thighs said he’d protect me so long as I did what he wanted. Otherwise, lots of other guys would do what they wanted. He didn’t have to ask twice although I was disgusted by what I knew he wanted. It took a while; but I got used to it, and there were times when maybe it was okay. I mean it wasn’t totally a one-way street. He also kept his word. The gangs gave me a wide berth, and the guards didn’t fuck with me. Nobody stole my food. Nobody spat in it. My only fear was that he would tire of me or get paroled. Fat chance: doing ten for armed robbery. So I made it – without being terrified twenty-four-seven. He hugged me when I left and told me to stay clean and move up in the world.

“You got brains. Use ‘em.”

They gave me twenty dollars and a bus ticket back to the city. Looking out the window at rolling hills, woods, fields with grazing cows, and red barns, I wondered if I was now gay. I mean what else had I been for the past two years? Other than that, I wasn’t worried about the future. I would find a job easily enough. I hadn’t forgotten what I knew about the grocery business. Even though I hadn’t heard from Momma, It didn’t occur to me that I might not have a place to spend the night.

Momma said I couldn’t stay with her. Stephanie and her husband had the second bedroom, and Carrie had the basement. Husband … what husband?

“How about the couch?”

“You didn’t write me a single letter.”

“I was waiting to send you a thank-you note for coming to see me.”

“Some of us got to make a living the honest way. Don’t have time to travel halfway across the state.”

“Four fucking hours.”

“I see prison has improved your mouth.”

I grabbed the beat-up suitcase she had filled with clothes and stormed out the door. The homeless shelter had two big rooms: one for men and the other for women. Three rows of cots stood like soldiers on parade. No one messed with me or my stuff. I said I’d been in the joint for assault and battery. The prison food was better, but I was starved so I wolfed down the mystery meat smothered in grease-flecked gravy, the mashed potatoes and the wax beans. Next morning, I showered, put on my best clothes and left my suitcase with the attendant. He said I could pick it up in the evening as the shelter was closed during the day. I prayed he’d heard assault and battery and wouldn’t touch my things.

The produce manager at my old store was young and black as night.

“Where’s Mr. Corcoran?” I asked.

“Left about a year ago,” she said. “Different company. Better job.”

“I was hoping to get my old job back. I’ve been away for a couple of years.”

“Doing what?”

Her tone and the look she gave me said it all, but I asked for an application anyway. She got one from the manager’s office. She went through some order sheets while I sat in front of her desk, a clipboard on my knee. I put down Momma’s address and telephone number, hoping she would at least take a message. I glanced up when I came  to the box about ever having committed a felony. She wasn’t paying attention to me. I checked yes, signed the damn thing and handed it to her. She read through it like lightning.

“We’ll be in touch if anything opens up. Thanks for stopping by.” She paused as if trying to think of something else to say. “Take care.”

My cheeks were as red as a black man’s can be.

Over the next few weeks, I went to grocery stores, department stores, restaurants and delicatessens. Some places had advertised in the Help Wanted Section; others I stopped by just in case. I always got that knowing look when they glanced through the application. At a sandwich shop that had advertised for a counter person, I stopped when I got to the felony box. I looked up. The manager was watching. He smiled – trying to be nice or polite or some damn thing – and said: “Might as well be honest. We can find out.” I checked the yes box and left without a word.

I stopped by Momma’s every day. Told her I was job hunting and using her number. She said okay, but there were never any messages. I returned to a few places, especially groceries and delis; but they all said I lacked the right qualifications. Bullshit. I knew produce backwards and forwards. And what does it take to make a fucking sandwich? One guy was decent enough to tell me: “You might as well forget it. No one’s hiring felons. Not with all this unemployment. Not now, probably not ever.”

So I went to see Jorell. He had moved from his folks’, but I had no trouble finding him. He was well-known. He hired me on the spot and said I could move in with him until I built a clientele and found a place of my own. For a couple of days, I just followed him around. He said I was his new man, learning the ropes, and that I could be trusted. Never mentioned that we were cousins. One glorious September morning, he gave me some bags of crack and told me to have at it. The sun glistened on the sidewalk; the breeze was invigorating; and I was on top of the world. Jorell told me not to worry about cops. He had protection. Just mention his name. He also had a fine lawyer, if the occasion arose. Neither would any street toughs hassle me. Everyone knew where Jorell’s turf began and where it ended. I finished by midday, with enough money in my pocket to treat Jorell to a fine dinner.

So now I’m a lucky black man again. I got a steady income and a decent, if small, apartment. Sure I might go back to prison – if an honest cop crosses my path or if Jorell’s lawyer is not as hot as Jorell claims – but the odds are with me, and what else can I do? So much for life in the United States of Racism.

Oh, and I haven’t been to see Momma although I sent her some money. She didn’t return it.

One other thing. Ran into Heather recently. I had forgotten how beautiful she was – and how good in the sack – and I’ve decided I have enough ambition for both of us. She’s moved in with me. We’re looking for a bigger place and talking about having a baby. I’ll be a hell of a father.