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Scars and Memories
The Story of a Life
By Odie Hawkins
Holloway House Publishing Co.Copyright © 2011 Odie Hawkins
All rights reserved.
As though the brick was caught in midair by a mad ass slow motion process I saw it moving into the middle of my forehead. The dull thud it made in the center of my forehead makes me ache, even now.
Sometimes, when I've been drunk, or doped up, I drift off, seeing, feeling the half of a house brick Junior threw into my skull.
There were other bricks of different kinds but they were never as vivid. I couldn't've been older than seven or eight and I'll never remember what provoked our fight.
My mother was holding my arms to keep me from kicking Junior's ass when the brick came. I know how she felt because it was normally against her nature to be nonviolent.
We were living on 50th and South Parkway (King Drive now) in a basement with Uncle Thomas and Aunt Mamie, my mother, sister, father and sometimes Marthann (and her ol' man) and Aunt Bessie (Marthann's mother).
I don't remember where we all slept but we lived there. I revenged on Junior a few days later. I spotted him, snatched a rope from some girls playing Double Dutch and went hyena on his ass.
I'm sure I gave him a good lashing but the feeling is vague. Just goes to show you how pale revenge can be.
A hole in the center of my head, a lifetime scar, a heavy way to relate to a time zone. But that wasn't all. A guy on a horse with a sword stuck up in the air, on permanent duty, stood across the street from our basement, right in front of the Grand Hotel.
It was years later that I learned that it was a statue of George Washington, slave master. By then I had enough sense to realize that it was an insult to the black community. Memories ...
The southside was my community. I loved the southside. I loved the westside too. And the northside too, and still do, whenever I think about what they were like.
The memories are so sharply etched that I have to think wine, snort coke and smoke Indica in order to make certain that some blurring occurs, that way what I'm writing doesn't simply become a report.
Haphazardly, I jumped off the fifth step of the stairs leading down into the basement we lived in at the time and landed squarely on a rat's hind quarters.
Po' rat just happened to be making his move 'round about that time. He squeaked and drug himself away, crippled. I stood there, a two square landing, shook up.
I can see my father and cousin Claude, men who loved each other and life, sitting in a doorway on a humid summer day, flies buzzing around the corners of their cheap wine-sweet-ened lips. They weren't burns, just drunks for the day, brothers who didn't give a damn.
And running into the car from between two cars, smack dab into the side door.
Incredible feeling, that daffy feeling you feel, running into the side of a car. You see and hear but you feel too hurt to say anything.
They took me to Henrotin Hospital. I lost my two front teeth but others grew in. I must've been young enough to be starting on my last set.
So much was happening so fast at times. I'd be living on the northside, in Uncle Eddie's basement (jumping onto rat backs) and then suddenly, I'd be living in Aunt Mary's basement on the westside.
Washburne Avenue, from Racine on the western border and Blue Island (Blue Island?) on the eastern border, was one of the streets I got to know in a way that I've never known any other place.
It seems, in some ways, that I became totally aware of where I was, on Washburne. (I may say the same thing about the Almo Hotel, or the Avon, when I get to them.) It (Washburne) was a small town with realistic people.
On the south side of the street, at the corner, was a Jewish owned grocery store. A brother who worked there had learned how to speak Yiddish. The memory of him reminding one of his employers (who had been speaking Yiddish to someone else) that he had something else to do on that particular day sticks/stuck in my mind.
This Black man (boy, actually) had understood what these people were saying in this weird language. Fantastic.
Next door to the grocery store was this bus that someone had converted into a candy store/notions parlor.
It was the place to buy your penny candy. Funny, no one ever thought of it as a converted bus.
Next to that, going east, was Mrs. Richardson's beauty shoppe. Varnette Honeywood does Mrs. Richardson's beauty shoppe to artistic perfection.
I can close my eyes and see women (my Aunt and other ladies getting their hair done) squirming slightly as the hot combs probed the "kitchens." I can't recall the reasons for me being on the scene, but I was there.
A narrow passageway and a window leading down into a basement where an old man sold coal through his front basement window.
We called him Mr. Something or other. He had a peculiar status based on coal. Which meant, if you ran out of coal in the middle of the winter, he could be your saviour. A primeval coke dealer in a manner of speaking.
I see Moochie and Edna and Tweet in Aunt Mary's basement. My sister and I, Aunt Mary, Uncle Percy, Uncle Eddie (my father sometimes) and maybe two or three other guests-people who'd hung onto the cards or dice too long.
The rats used to sleep with us in this basement. We knew they had slept next to our warm bodies the next morning because we would find their prints beside our bodies and their little tight black droppings. And sometimes we would know they were there because they crawled over our bodies. Terrible place, that basement at 1150 West Washburne Avenue. Terrible. But the vibes were good.
Across the street, on the first floor, was a couple or a trio of teenaged girls, friends of my cousins, one of them introduced me to Spanish. The book was titled El Camino Real and I think she was astounded to discover that I could get off on "El burro no es inteligente."
"You came a long way from St. Louie ..." a piece of music for the time slithers through my consciousness.
The dances were very African men, the boys danced and the girls danced back, holding on for dear cultural life, with rhythmic blossoms stirring them on.
Underneath the first floor of this building was a gambling house called "The Hole." It looked and smelled like a hole too.
Nasty, filth-ridden street, filled with joy. We all knew each other and there was an order to life.
A passageway between the "Hole" and the stone building next to it. Funny building, what I recall about it most is that it was a pale grey brick and felt supercool to the body on a hot day.
Next door was the building where O' Quincy and his sister Bernice lived. There were quite a few others in their family but I can't remember their names.
I remember O' Quincy because he dared me to walk into a bat he was swinging, 'round 'n 'round, one evening. In a classic case of misunderstood signals, I walked into the swinging bat and fell to the ground with a battered right knee. It hurt for years, and may hurt some more.
O' Quincy's sister Bemice, high on religion one fall evening, once hugged me in front of a bunch of people standing around in front of the Sunrise Baptist Church.
She was wearing some kind of fur (rabbit?) and I tripped on the warmth of her embrace. Being young and stupid I simply relaxed and stood there.
Around the corner, on the side of O' Quincy's building was a row of "apartments" that looked like dens. Or caves that had been converted into bunkers.
A beautiful girl, blue-black skinned with porcelain white teeth, lived in one of the bunkers. They had formerly been stables and the smell of hay and manure was always on the air.
The beautiful Black girl's name was Honey and everybody loved her because she was so beautiful. They were very poor, Honey's family. I didn't realize how poor until I popped into pick up one of her brothers on the way to school and found them eating their cornflakes with water.
A vacant lot where we sometimes played jive ass baseball. Vacant lot filled with glass, rusty nails, cast off bricks, dead cats 'n rats, whatever gravitated to the ground. It's a wonder we didn't kill ourselves on all that shit. It was worse than the lot behind the Bowen Hotel on Bowen Avenue.
It stimulated a rare passion, this daily romance with the ugly side of life. And yes, it was ugly. The dregs place was what it was, but we didn't recognize that, taking refuge in survival games.
House next to the lot contained a lady who was so fat that she hadn't ventured beyond her front room window for years. When she died the firemen had to chop the doorway away to make room for her final exit. Real big woman, real big.
Something skips past my consciousness and then we get to an alley, and across the cobblestoned alky is a junkyard.
The junkyard sticks in my mind because someone once shot a rat that was as big as a full grown 'possum. I saw it.
Crossing over to the other side of the street, the north side of the street. The northeast corner, to be exact. A supermarket. An A & P (whatever that meant) with an airplane propeller oozing 'round in the ceiling and fragrant aroma of Maxwell House coffee being stirred around.
It was different from the Jewish mom'n poppa store across the street, more rigid, no credit. Right next to the "supermarket" was a house on stilts.
I think the people who lived in the house on stilts was the poorest family on our street, like they were absolutely poor. Their "house" was made of wooden planks, badly joined. Some of the older, taller boys used to stand underneath the house and look up through the floor boards.
If we (the neighborhood rascals) happened to be up late, roaming around, we might ease the back door of their house open (there was no lock) and peek in at the sleeping bodies scattered around on the pallets.
Dicky was my friend from this household. He couldn't talk normally for some reason. He made sounds that I understood and he was not shy about yelling 'n squeaking his opinions.
In recent years I've connected a big plastered out spot on his skull with his inability to speak. The rumor was that he had been hit in the head with a ball-peen hammer.
I don't know what the deal was, we were friends and had a lot to say to each other.
Lubertha, his oldest sister, sometimes spent the night with the coalman. The next day her brothers would lug four, sometimes five bushels of coal across the street. A real case of tit for tat.
Everybody knew everything about everybody else on Wash burne. There were no secrets on Washburne.
"Butterbeans" was Dicky's oldest brother. He had beautiful white, buck teeth, kept his fingernails filed and super clean — and hated his nickname. Couldn't blame him realty, who the hell wants to be called "Butterbeans"?
I didn't know his middle sister's name but I opened the door one night (just roamin' around) and there she was, on a blanket with her dress hiked up over her hips. A lush, moving sight by oil lamp.
I never really related to her but I was forever fascinated by the fact that I had seen her pussy. It formed an interesting relationship, her lack of knowledge of my knowledge of her.
Next to the house on stilts there was a three story red brick building. The place rests on my head because it's where I saw my first dead person.
There was this old man who lived in the basement, surrounded by slabs of newspapers, who had died. When I stared past the elbows of the adults he seemed to be laying on a slab of newspapers. Coldblooded basement.
Next to the brick was 1150 West Washburne, the basement home of Mrs. Mary Fant alias Aunt Mary alias whatever she had chosen to call herself.
Quiet as it was kept, 1150 West Washburne was where it was! We had the charisma! We had the glamor! We had the cards and dice!
The action would begin to happen on Thursday. 1150 West Washburne basement. Two ways to get in and out.
The front way was down some stone steps that took you below the street level.
The front door faced the coal bin where my aunt usually kept five or six dogs (depending on whether it was before or after puppies had been born ... then there might be fifteen or twenty). Most people used the rear entrance.
Rear entrance; down ten steps leading to the alley, through a narrow brick passageway (real cool in the summer) to the doorway on the left after fifteen paces or so.
In the back of my mind the rear entrance to Aunt Mary's (somehow Uncle Percy just never received as much attention, despite the fact that he had once killed a man and served eleven years in Leavenworth) was the essence of what crummy alum living was about.
At night, with no light in the passageway, it was black-black-black. Dark black. To the immediate right of the entrance was where the garbage was kept in a couple bushel baskets (also used for coal) and, inside the baskets underneath the garbage there were rats.
In the summer, if you were bold enough to kick the baskets or throw ashes from the coal stove on them, they would waddle up from the bottom of the baskets, loaded on watermelon rinds, corn on the cob and whatever made them fat, irritated enough to bite the disturbance. In the winter they were always hungry and irritated and best left alone.
The toilet was a few steps beyond the garbage baskets. The toilet was a nightmare space. The door hung on one hinge, the toilet seat was cracked in a few places, the area around the stool trashed over with scraps of one kind or another.
The place staek and, overhead, where the first floor toilet was situated, the ceiling was rotted out, dripping toilet stool water on your head.
At times, the rats, more robust in their play than at other times, would fall through the ceiling. A big one fell on the back of my neck one day, bounced to the floor and stood staring at me for a moment, as though making a decision as to whether or not he wanted a piece of me.
A decision was reached in my favor, he finally wandered off to rejoin the game.
We didn't have to talk about rats, they were a fact of life There was nothing we could do about them. Living the way we did, underground, meant that we were on their turf, in a manner of speaking.
They were too wise to go for poisons or traps and, in addition, there were so damned many of them it would've been a wasted effort to kill a few at a time. We were at the mercy of the rats.
The slumlord? Never laid eyes on him.
Knock! Knock! and the proper verbal identification was sufficient for admission.
It was the kitchen diningroom all purpose space you strolled into. A potbellied coal stove in the middle of the space. Two bedrooms on the north wall of the space with a pantry in between (where Aunt Mary kept her chickens I wrung their necks and slit their throats for many a Sunday dinner).
Pull the curtain back and there was the front room. The front room had a bed off to one side. And a fold out bed stacked against the closet door. (I opened this closet door once, curious because it was the only part of the house I'd never seen. I peeked in on a startled mother rat and her ratlings. I quickly closed the door and never opened it again. The ratlings did not look cute to me.)
When bedtime came, Uncle Percy would unfold the folding bed and create more sleeping space (for whoever needed it) by placing planks on milk crates and a mattress on top. Man was a bed making genius.
My two girl cousins were teenagers, nubile, beautiful. Edna was dark and had the look of a Tutsi princess. Moochie was light snuff colored and looked Ethiopian, complete with a semi-Semitic nose.
I loved Moochie and when she got married and moved away I understood what heartbreak was about, especially the kind you can't talk to anyone about.
A bunch of things happened in that basement but that was a biggie for me. I'll come back to the basement later.
Next door was what I now think of as the "Pit." There was this metal pole/tight rope running from the sidewalk to the house in a front yard that was below the street.
Odd situation, the whole street, architecturally. Anyway the big game was to crawl over the wall and do a high wire act the length of the pole and back.
What made it exciting was this crazed, medium sized dog who lunged up at your body like a small crocodile, trying to disturb your balance.
Over the years, having caught a few unbalanced asses he was neurotic enough to know that he might scare you into slipping if he snapped and lunged enough. The dog was really insane but I don't know what was wrong with us.
Odd, I think, years later, how many "refreshment" points we kids had around the neighborhood. No wonder our teeth were in such sad shape.
The neighborhood was laced with passageways. Some led from the street to the alley, some led to other passageways, some of them led nowhere. The passageway between the candy store and Reverend A.T. Tilly's Sunrise Baptist Church was an incredible place, spiritually, emotionally, communally. A basement where church supper and social events were staged. Four, five steps upstairs and you were in the church proper. The stairs leading up to Reverend Tilly's home slanted over the rear section of the church, an aisle fed worshippers to the altar, the choir areas and the heat of the pot bellied stove.
The congregation was devout but real. My Aunt was a deaconess as well as the lady who ran the gambling house a couple houses away. Uncle Percy was also a deacon.
We went to church because we wanted to.
Excerpted from Scars and Memories by Odie Hawkins. Copyright © 2011 Odie Hawkins. Excerpted by permission of Holloway House Publishing Co..
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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