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Chapter 3 Homeboy

I looked like Li'l Abner. Mason, Michigan, was written all over me. My kinky, reddish hair was cuthick style, and I didn't even use grease in it. My green suit's coat sleeves stopped above my wrists, thepants legs showed three inches of socks. Just a shade lighter green than the suit was my narrow-collared, three-quarter length Lansing department store topcoat. My appearance was too much foreven Ella. But she told me later she had seen countrified members of the Little family come up fromGeorgia in even worse shape than I was.

   Ella had fixed up a nice little upstairs room for me. And she was truly a Georgia Negro woman whenshe got into the kitchen with her pots and pans. She was the kind of cook who would heap up yourplate with such as ham hock, greens, black-eyed peas, fried fish, cabbage, sweet potatoes, grits andgravy, and cornbread. And the more you put away the better she felt. I worked out at Ella's kitchentable like there was no tomorrow.

  Ella still seemed to be as big, black, outspoken and impressive a woman as she had been in Mason andLansing. Only about two weeks before I arrived, she had split up with her second husband-the soldier,Frank, whom I had met there the previous summer; but she was taking it right in stride. I could see,though I didn't say, how any average man would find it almost impossible to live for very long with awoman whose every instinct was to run everything and everybody she had anything to do with-including me. About my second day there in Roxbury, Ella told me that she didn't want me to starthunting for a job right away, like most newcomer Negroes did. She said that she had told all thoseshe'd brought North to take their time, to walk around, to travel the buses and the subway, and get thefeel of Boston, before they tied themselves down working somewhere, because they would neveragain have the time to really see and get to know anything about the city they were living in. Ella saidshe'd help me find a job when it was time for me to go to work.

  So I went gawking around the neighborhood-the Waumbeck and Humboldt Avenue Hill section ofRoxbury, which is something like Harlem's Sugar Hill, where I'd later live. I saw those RoxburyNegroes acting and living differently from any black people I'd ever dreamed of in my life. This wasthe snooty-black neighborhood; they called themselves the "Four Hundred," and looked down theirnoses at the Negroes of the black ghetto, or so-called "town" section where Mary, my other half-sister,lived.

  What I thought I was seeing there in Roxbury were high-class, educated, important Negroes, livingwell, working in big jobs and positions. Their quiet homes sat back in their mowed yards. TheseNegroes walked along the sidewalks looking haughty and dignified, on their way to work, to shop, tovisit, to church. I know now, of course, that what I was really seeing was only a big-city version ofthose "successful" Negro bootblacks and janitors back in Lansing. The only difference was that theones in Boston had been brainwashed even more thoroughly. They prided themselves on beingincomparably more "cultured," "cultivated," "dignified," and better off than their black brethren downin the ghetto, which was no further away than you could throw a rock. Under the pitifulmisapprehension that it would make them "better," these Hill Negroes were breaking their backstrying to imitate white people.

  Any black family that had been around Boston long enough to own the home they lived in wasconsidered among the Hill elite. It didn't make any difference that they had to rent out rooms to makeends meet. Then the native-born New Englanders among them looked down upon recently migratedSouthern home-owners who lived next door, like Ella. And a big percentage of the Hill dwellers werein Ella's category-Southern strivers and scramblers, and West Indian Negroes, whom both the NewEnglanders and the Southerners called "Black Jews." Usually it was the Southerners and the West Indians who not only managed to own the places wherethey lived, but also at least one other house which they rented as income property. The snooty NewEnglanders usually owned less than they.

  In those days on the Hill, any who could claim "professional" status-teachers, preachers, practicalnurses-also considered themselves superior. Foreign diplomats could have modeled their conduct onthe way the Negro postmen, Pullman porters, and dining car waiters of Roxbury acted, stridingaround as if they were wearing top hats and cutaways.

  I'd guess that eight out often of the Hill Negroes of Roxbury, despite the impressive-sounding jobtitles they affected, actually worked as menials and servants. "He's in banking," or "He's in securities."It sounded as though they were discussing a Rockefeller or a Mellon-and not some gray-headed;dignity-posturing bank janitor, or bond-house messenger. "I'm with an old family" was theeuphemism used to dignify the professions of white folks' cooks and maids who talked so affectedlyamong their own kind in Roxbury that you couldn't even understand them. I don't know how manyforty-and fifty-year-old errand boys went down the Hill dressed like ambassadors in black suits andwhite collars, to downtown jobs "in government," "in fir nance," or "in law." It has never ceased toamaze me how so many Negroes, then and now, could stand the indignity of that kind of self-delusion.

  Soon I ranged out of Roxbury and began to explore Boston proper. Historic buildings everywhere Iturned, and plaques and markers and statues for famous events and men. One statue in the BostonCommons astonished me: a Negro named Crispus Attucks, who had been the first man to fall in theBoston Massacre. I had never known anything like that.

  I roamed everywhere. In one direction, I walked as far as Boston University. Another day, I took myfirst subway ride. When most of the people got off, I followed. It was Cambridge, and I circled allaround in the Harvard University campus. Somewhere, I had already heard of Harvard-though Ididn't know much more about it. Nobody that day could have told me I would give an address beforethe Harvard Law School Forum some twenty years later.

  I also did a lot of exploring downtown. Why a city would have two big railroad stations-North Stationand South Station-I couldn't understand. At both of the stations, I stood around and watched peoplearrive and leave. And I did the same thing at the bus station where Ella had met me. My wanderingseven led me down along the piers and docks where I read plaques telling about the old sailing shipsthat used to put into port there.

  In a letter to Wilfred, Hilda, Philbert, and Reginald back in Lansing, I told them about all this, andabout the winding, narrow, cobblestoned streets, and the houses that jammed up against each other.

  Downtown Boston, I wrote them, had the biggest stores I'd ever seen, and white people's restaurantsand hotels. I made up my mind that I was going to see every movie that came to the fine, air-conditioned theaters.

   On Massachusetts Avenue, next door to one of them, the Loew's State Theater, was the huge, excitingRoseland State Ballroom. Big posters out in front advertised the nationally famous bands, white andNegro, that had played there. "COMING NEXT WEEK," when I went by that first time, was GlennMiller. I remember thinking how nearly the whole evening's music at Mason High School dances hadbeen Glenn Miller's records. What wouldn't that crowd have given, I wondered, to be standing whereGlenn Miller's band was actually going to play? I didn't know how familiar with Roseland I was goingto become.

  Ella began to grow concerned, because even when I had finally had enough sight-seeing, I didn't stickaround very much on the Hill. She kept dropping hints that I ought to mingle with the "nice youngpeople my age" who were to be seen in the Townsend Drugstore two blocks from her house, and acouple of other places. But even before I came to Boston, I had always felt and acted toward anyonemy age as if they were in the "kid" class, like my younger brother Reginald. They had always lookedup to me as if I were considerably older. On weekends back in Lansing where I'd go to get away fromthe white people in Mason, I'd hung around in the Negro part of town with Wilfred's and Philbert'sset. Though all of them were several years older than me, I was bigger, and I actually looked olderthan most of them.

  I didn't want to disappoint or upset Ella, but despite her advice, I began going down into the townghetto section. That world of grocery stores, walk-up flats, cheap restaurants, poolrooms, bars,storefront churches, and pawnshops seemed to hold a natural lure for me.

  Not only was this part of Roxbury much more exciting, but I felt more relaxed among Negroes whowere being their natural selves and not putting on airs. Even though I did live on the Hill, my instinctswere never-and still aren't-to feel myself better than any other Negro.

  I spent the first month in town with my mouth hanging open. The sharp-dressed young "cats" whohung on the comers and in the poolrooms, bars and restaurants, and who obviously didn't workanywhere, completely entranced me. I couldn't get over marveling at how their hair was straight andshiny like white men's hair; Ella told me this was called a "conk." I had never tasted a sip of liquor,never even smoked a cigarette, and here I saw little black children, ten and twelve years old, shootingcraps, playing cards, fighting, getting grown-ups to put a penny or a nickel on their number for them,things like that. And these children threw around swear words I'd never heard before, even, and slangexpressions that were just as new to me, such as "stud" and "cat" and "chick" and "cool" and "hip."Every night as I lay in bed I turned these new words over in my mind. It was shocking to me that intown, especially after dark, you'd occasionally see a white girl and a Negro man strolling arm in armalong the sidewalk, and mixed couples drinking in the neon-lighted bars-not slipping off to some darkcorner, as in Lansing. I wrote Wilfred and Philbert about that, too.

  I wanted to find a job myself, to surprise Ella. One afternoon, something told me to go inside apoolroom whose window I was looking through. I had looked through that window many times. Iwasn't yearning to play pool; in fact, I had never held a cue stick. But I was drawn by the sight of thecool-looking "cats" standing around inside, bending over the big, green, felt-topped tables, making bets and shooting the bright-colored balls into the holes. As I stared through the window thisparticular afternoon, something made me decide to venture inside and talk to a dark, stubby, conk-headed fellow who racked up balls for the pool-players, whom I'd heard called "Shorty." One day hehad come outside and seen me standing there and said "Hi, Red," so that made me figure he wasfriendly.

  As inconspicuously as I could, I slipped inside the door and around the side of the poolroom, avoidingpeople, and on to the back, where Shorty was filling an aluminum can with the powder that poolplayers dust on their hands. He looked up at me. Later on, Shorty would enjoy teasing me about howwith that first glance he knew my whole story. "Man, that cat still smelled country!" he'd say,laughing. "Cat's legs was so long and his pants so short his knees showed-an' his head looked like abriar patch!"But that afternoon Shorty didn't let it show in his face how "country" I appeared when I told him I'dappreciate it if he'd tell me how could somebody go about getting a job like his.

  "If you mean racking up balls," said Shorty, "I don't know of no pool joints around here needinganybody. You mean you just want any slave you can find?" A "slave" meant work, a job.

  He asked what kind of work I had done. I told him that I'd washed restaurant dishes in Mason,Michigan. He nearly dropped the powder can. "My homeboy! Man, gimme some skin! I'm fromLansing!"I never told Shorty-and he never suspected-that he was about ten years older than I. He took us to beabout the same age. At first I would have been embarrassed to tell him, later I just never bothered.

  Shorty had dropped out of first-year high school in Lansing, lived awhile with an uncle and aunt inDetroit, and had spent the last six years living with his cousin in Roxbury. But when I mentioned thenames of Lansing people and places, he remembered many, and pretty soon we sounded as if we hadbeen raised in the same block. I could sense Shorty's genuine gladness, and I don't have to say howlucky I felt to find a friend as hip as he obviously was.

  "Man, this is a swinging town if you dig it," Shorty said. "You're my homeboy-I'm going to school youto the happenings." I stood there and grinned like a fool. "You got to go anywhere now? Well, stickaround until I get off."One thing I liked immediately about Shorty was his frankness. When I told him where I lived, he saidwhat I already knew-that nobody in town could stand the Hill Negroes. But he thought a sister whogave me a "pad," not charging me rent, not even running me out to find "some slave," couldn't be allbad.

  Shorty's slave in the poolroom, he said, was just to keep ends together while he learned his horn. Acouple of years before, he'd hit the numbers and bought a saxophone. "Got it right in there in thecloset now, for my lesson tonight." Shorty was taking lessons "with some other studs," and he intended one day to organize his own small band. "There's a lot of bread to be made gigging rightaround here in Roxbury," Shorty explained to me. "I don't dig joining some big band, one-nighting allover just to say I played with Count or Duke or somebody." I thought that was smart. I wished I hadstudied a horn; but I never had been exposed to one.

  All afternoon, between trips up front to rack balls, Shorty talked to me out of the corner of his mouth:

  which hustlers-standing around, or playing at this or that table-sold "reefers," or had just come out ofprison, or were "second-story men." Shorty told me that he played at least a dollar a day on thenumbers. He said as soon as he hit a number, he would use the winnings to organize his band.

  I was ashamed to have to admit that I had never played the numbers. "Well, you ain't never hadnothing to play with," he said, excusing me, "but you start when you get a slave, and if you hit, yougot a stake for something."He pointed out some gamblers and some pimps. Some of them had white whores, he whispered. "Iain't going to lie-I dig them two-dollar white chicks," Shorty said. "There's a lot of that action aroundhere, nights: you'll see it." I said I already had seen some. "You ever had one?" he asked.

  My embarrassment at my inexperience showed. "Hell, man," he said, "don't be ashamed. I had a fewbefore I left Lansing-them Polack chicks that used to come over the bridge. Here, they're mostlyItalians and Irish. But it don't matter what kind, they're something else! Ain't no different nowhere-there's nothing they love better than a black stud."Through the afternoon, Shorty introduced me to players and loungers. "My homeboy," he'd say, "he'slooking for a slave if you hear anything." They all said they'd look out.

  At seven o'clock, when the night ball-racker came on, Shorty told me he had to hurry to his saxophonelesson. But before he left, he held out to me the six or seven dollars he had collected that day in nickeland dime tips. "You got enough bread, home-boy?"I was okay, I told him-I had two dollars. But Shorty made me take three more. "Little fattening foryour pocket," he said. Before we went out, he opened his saxophone case and showed me the horn. Itwas gleaming brass against the green velvet, an alto sax. He said, "Keep cool, homeboy, and comeback tomorrow. Some of the cats will turn you up a slave." When I got home, Ella said there had been a telephone call from somebody named Shorty. He had lefta message that over at the Roseland State Ballroom, the shoeshine boy was quitting that night, andShorty had told him to hold the job for me.

  "Malcolm, you haven't had any experience shining shoes," Ella said. Her expression and tone of voice told me she wasn't happy about my taking that job. I didn't particularly care, because I was alreadyspeechless thinking about being somewhere close to the greatest bands in the world. I didn't even waitto eat any dinner.

  The ballroom was all lighted when I got there. A man at the front door was letting in members ofBenny Goodman's band. I told him I wanted to see the shoeshine boy, Freddie.

  "You're going to be the new one?" he asked. I said I thought I was, and he laughed, "Well, maybeyou'll hit the numbers and get a Cadillac, too." He told me that I'd find Freddie upstairs in the men'sroom on the second floor.

  But downstairs before I went up, I stepped over and snatched a glimpse inside the ballroom. I justcouldn't believe the size of that waxed floor! At the far end, under the soft, rose-colored lights, was thebandstand with the Benny Goodman musicians moving around, laughing and talking, arranging theirhorns and stands.

  A wiry, brown-skinned, conked fellow upstairs in the men's room greeted me. "You Shorty'shomeboy?" I said I was, and he said he was Freddie. "Good old boy," he said. "He called me, he justheard I hit the big number, and he figured right I'd be quitting." I told Freddie what the man at thefront door had said about a Cadillac. He laughed and said, "Bums them white cats up when you getyourself something. Yeah, I told them I was going to get me one-just to bug them."Freddie then said for me to pay close attention, that he was going to be busy and for me to watch butnot get in the way, and he'd try to get me ready to take over at the next dance, a couple of nights later.

  As Freddie busied himself setting up the shoeshine stand, he told me, "Get here early . . . yourshoeshine rags and brushes by this footstand . . . your polish bottles, paste wax, suede brushes overhere . . . everything in place, you get rushed, you never need to waste motion. . . ."While you shined shoes, I learned, you also kept watch on customers inside, leaving the urinals. Youdarted over and offered a small white hand towel. "A lot of cats who ain't planning to wash theirhands, sometimes you can run up with a towel and shame them. Your towels are really your besthustle in here. Cost you a penny apiece to launder-you always get at least a nickel tip."The shoeshine customers, and any from the inside rest room who took a towel, you whiskbroomed acouple of licks. "A nickel or a dime tip, just give 'em that," Freddie said. "But for two bits, Uncle Tom alittle-white cats especially like that. I've had them to come back two, three times a dance."From down below, the sound of the music had begun floating up. I guess I stood transfixed. "Younever seen a big dance?" asked Freddie. "Run on awhile, and watch."There were a few couples already dancing under the rose-colored lights. But even more exciting to mewas the crowd thronging in. The most glamorous-looking white women I'd ever seen-young ones, old ones, white cats buying tickets at the window, sticking big wads of green bills back into their pockets,checking the women's coats, and taking their arms and squiring them inside.

  Freddie had some early customers when I got back upstairs. Between the shoeshine stand andthrusting towels to them just as they approached the washbasin, Freddie seemed to be doing fourthings at once. "Here, you can take over the whiskbroom," he said, "just two or three licks-but let 'emfeel it."When things slowed a little, he said, "You ain't seen nothing tonight. You wait until you see a spooks'

  dance! Man, our people carry _on_!" Whenever he had a moment, he kept schooling me. "Shoelaces,this drawer here. You just starting out, I'm going to make these to you as a present. Buy them for anickel a pair, tell cats they need laces if they do, and charge two bits."Every Benny Goodman record I'd ever heard in my life, it seemed, was filtering faintly into where wewere. During another customer lull, Freddie let me slip back outside again to listen. Peggy Lee was atthe mike singing. Beautiful! She had just joined the band and she was from North Dakota and hadbeen singing with a group in Chicago when Mrs. Benny Goodman discovered her, we had heard somecustomers say. She finished the song and the crowd burst into applause. She was a big hit.

  "It knocked me out, too, when I first broke in here," Freddie said, grinning, when I went back in there.

  "But, look, you ever shined any shoes?" He laughed when I said I hadn't, excepting my own. "Well,let's get to work. I never had neither." Freddie got on the stand and went to work on his own shoes.

  Brush, liquid polish, brush, paste wax, shine rag, lacquer sole dressing . . . step by step, Freddieshowed me what to do.

  "But you got to get a whole lot faster. You can't waste time!" Freddie showed me how fast on my ownshoes. Then, because business was tapering off, he had time to give me a demonstration of how tomake the shine rag pop like a firecracker. "Dig the action?" he asked. He did it in slow motion. I gotdown and tried it on his shoes. I had the principle of it. "Just got to do it faster," Freddie said. "It's ajive noise, that's all. Cats tip better, they figure you're knocking yourself out!"By the end of the dance, Freddie had let me shine the shoes of three or four stray drunks he talked intohaving shines, and I had practiced picking up my speed on Freddie's shoes until they looked likemirrors. After we had helped the janitors to clean up the ballroom after the dance, throwing out all thepaper and cigarette butts and empty liquor bottles, Freddie was nice enough to drive me all the wayhome to Ella's on the Hill in the secondhand maroon Buick he said he was going to trade in on hisCadillac. He talked to me all the way. "I guess it's all right if I tell you, pick up a couple of dozen packsof rubbers, two-bits apiece. You notice some of those cats that came up to me around the end of thedance? Well, when some have new chicks going right, they'll come asking you for rubbers. Charge adollar, generally you'll get an extra tip."He looked across at me. "Some hustles you're too new for. Cats will ask you for liquor, some will wantreefers. But you don't need to have nothing except rubbers-until you can dig who's a cop." "You can make ten, twelve dollars a dance for yourself if you work everything right," Freddie said,before I got out of me car in front of Ella's. "The main thing you got to remember is that everything inthe world is a hustle. So long, Red."The next time I ran into Freddie I was downtown one night a few weeks later. He was parked in hispearl-gray Cadillac, sharp as a tack, "cooling it.""Man, you sure schooled me!" I said, and he laughed; he knew what I meant. It hadn't taken me longon the job to find out that Freddie had done less shoeshining and towel-hustling than selling liquorand reefers, and putting white "Johns" in touch with Negro whores. I also learned that white girlsalways flocked to the Negro dances-some of them whores whose pimps brought them to mix businessand pleasure, others who came with their black boy friends, and some who came in alone, for a littlefreelance lusting among a plentiful availability of enthusiastic Negro men.

  At the white dances, of course, nothing black was allowed, and that's where the black whores' pimpssoon showed a new shoeshine boy what he could pick up on the side by slipping a phone number oraddress to the white Johns who came around the end of the dance looking for "black chicks." Most of Roseland's dances were for whites only, and they had white bands only. But the only whiteband ever to play there at a Negro dance, to my recollection, was Charlie Barnet's. The fact is that veryfew white bands could have satisfied the Negro dancers. But I know that Charlie Barnet's "Cherokee"and his "Redskin Rhumba" drove those Negroes wild. They'd jam-pack that ballroom, the black girlsin way-out silk and satin dresses and shoes, their hair done in all kinds of styles, the men sharp intheir zoot suits and crazy conks, and everybody grinning and greased and gassed.

  Some of the bandsmen would come up to the men's room at about eight o'clock and get shoeshinesbefore they went to work. Duke Ellington, Count Basie, Lionel Hampton, Cootie Williams, JimmieLunceford were just a few of those who sat in my chair. I would really make my shine rag sound likesomeone had set off Chinese firecrackers. Duke's great alto saxman, Johnny Hodges-he was Shorty'sidol-still owes me for a shoe-shine I gave him. He was in the chair one night, having a friendlyargument with the drummer, Sonny Greer, who was standing there, when I tapped the bottom of hisshoes to signal that I was finished. Hodges stepped down, reaching his hand in his pocket to pay me,but then snatched his hand out to gesture, and just forgot me, and walked away. I wouldn't havedared to bother the man who could do what he did with "Daydream" by asking him for fifteen cents.

  I remember that I struck up a little shoeshine-stand conversation with Count Basie's great blues singer,Jimmie Rushing. (He's the one famous for "Sent For You Yesterday, Here You Come Today" andthings like that.) Rushing's feet, I remember, were big and funny-shaped-not long like most big feet,but they were round and roly-poly like Rushing. Anyhow, he even introduced me to some of the other Basie cats, like Lester Young, Harry Edison, Buddy Tate, Don Byas, Dickie Wells, and Buck Clayton.

  They'd walk in the rest room later, by themselves. "Hi, Red." They'd be up there in my chair, and myshine rag was popping to the beat of all of their records, spinning in my head. Musicians never havehad, anywhere, a greater shoeshine-boy fan than I was. I would write to Wilfred and Hilda andPhilbert and Reginald back in Lansing, trying to describe it.

   I never got any decent tips until the middle of the Negro dances, which is when the dancers startedfeeling good and getting generous. After the white dances, when I helped to clean out the ballroom,we would throw out perhaps a dozen empty liquor bottles. But after the Negro dances, we wouldhave to throw out cartons full of empty fifth bottles-not rotgut, either, but die best brands, andespecially Scotch.

  During lulls up there in the men's room, sometimes I'd get in five minutes of watching the dancing.

  The white people danced as though somebody had trained them-left, one, two; right, three, four-thesame steps and patterns over and over, as though somebody had wound them up. But those Negroes-nobody in the world could have choreographed the way they did whatever they felt-just grabbingpartners, even the white chicks who came to the Negro dances. And my black brethren today mayhate me for saying it, but a lot of black girls nearly got run over by some of those Negro malesscrambling to get at those white women; you would have thought God had lowered some of hisangels. Tunes have sure changed; if it happened today, those same black girls would go after thoseNegro men-and the white women, too.

  Anyway, some couples were so abandoned-flinging high and wide, improvising steps andmovements-that you couldn't believe it. I could feel the beat in my bones, even though I had neverdanced.

  "_Showtime!_" people would start hollering about the last hour of the dance. Then a couple of dozenreally wild couples would stay on the floor, the girls changing to low white sneakers. The band nowwould really be blasting, and all the other dancers would form a clapping, shouting circle to watchthat wild competition as it began, covering only a quarter or so of the ballroom floor. The band, thespectators and the dancers would be malting the Roseland Ballroom feel like a big, rocking ship. Thespotlight would be turning, pink, yellow, green, and blue, picking up the couples lindy-hopping as ifthey had gone mad. _"Wail, man, wail!"_ people would be shouting at the band; and it would bewailing, until first one and then another couple just ran out of strength and stumbled off toward thecrowd, exhausted and soaked with sweat. Sometimes I would be down mere standing inside the doorjumping up and down in my gray jacket with the whiskbroom in the pocket, and the manager wouldhave to come and shout at me that I had customers upstairs.

  The first liquor I drank, my first cigarettes, even my first reefers, I can't specifically remember. But Iknow they were all mixed together with my first shooting craps, playing cards, and betting my dollar a day on the numbers, as I started hanging out at night with Shorty and his friends. Shorty's jokesabout how country I had been made us all laugh. I still was country, I know now, but it all felt so greatbecause I was accepted. All of us would be in somebody's place, usually one of the girls', and we'd beturning on, the reefers making everybody's head light, or the whisky aglow in our middles.

  Everybody understood that my head had to stay lanky awhile longer, to grow long enough for Shortyto conk it for me. One of these nights, I remarked that I had saved about half enough to get a zoot.

  "_Save?_" Shorty couldn't believe it. "Homeboy, you never heard of credit?" He told me he'd call aneighborhood clothing store the first thing in the morning, and that I should be there early.

  A salesman, a young Jew, met me when I came in. "You're Shorty's friend?" I said I was; it amazed me-all of Shorty's contacts. The salesman wrote my name on a form, and the Rose-land as where I worked,and Ella's address as where I lived. Shorty's name was put down as recommending me. The salesmansaid, "Shorty's one of our best customers."I was measured, and the young salesman picked off a rack a zoot suit that was just wild: sky-bluepants thirty inches in the knee and angle-narrowed down to twelve inches at the bottom, and a longcoat that pinched my waist and flared out below my knees.

  As a gift, the salesman said, the store would give me a narrow leather belt with my initial "L" on it.

  Then he said I ought to also buy a hat, and I did-blue, with a feather in the four-inch brim. Then thestore gave me another present: a long, thick-linked, gold-plated chain that swung down lower thanmy coat hem. I was sold forever on credit.

  When I modeled the zoot for Ella, she took a long look and said, "Well, I guess it had to happen." Itook three of those twenty-five-cent sepia-toned, while-you-wait pictures of myself, posed the way"hipsters" wearing their zoots would "cool it"-hat dangled, knees drawn close together, feet wideapart, both index fingers jabbed toward the floor. The long coat and swinging chain and the Punjabpants were much more dramatic if you stood that way. One picture, I autographed and airmailed tomy brothers and sisters in Lansing, to let them see how well I was doing. I gave another one to Ella,and the third to Shorty, who was really moved: I could tell by the way he said, "Thanks, homeboy." Itwas part of our "hip" code not to show that kind of affection.

  Shorty soon decided that my hair was finally long enough to be conked. He had promised to schoolme in how to beat the barbershops' three-and four-dollar price by making up congolene, and thenconking ourselves.

  I took the little list of ingredients he had printed out for me, and went to a grocery store, where I got acan of Red Devil lye, two eggs, and two medium-sized white potatoes. Then at a drugstore near thepoolroom, I asked for a large jar of Vaseline, a large bar of soap, a large-toothed comb and a fine-toothed comb, one of those rubber hoses with a metal spray-head, a rubber apron and a pair of gloves.

   "Going to lay on that first conk?" the drugstore man asked me. I proudly told him, grinning, "Right!"Shorty paid six dollars a week for a room in his cousin's shabby apartment. His cousin wasn't at home.

  "It's like the pad's mine, he spends so much time with his woman," Shorty said. "Now, you watch me-"He peeled the potatoes and thin-sliced them into a quart-sized Mason fruit jar, then started stirringthem with a wooden spoon as he gradually poured in a little over half the can of lye. "Never use ametal spoon; the lye will turn it black," he told me.

  A jelly-like, starchy-looking glop resulted from the lye and potatoes, and Shorty broke in the two eggs,stirring real fast-his own conk and dark face bent down close. The congolene turned pale-yellowish.

  "Feel the jar," Shorty said. I cupped my hand against the outside, and snatched it away. "Damn right,it's hot, that's the lye," he said. "So you know it's going to burn when I comb it in-it burns _bad_. Butthe longer you can stand it, the straighter the hair."He made me sit down, and he tied the string of the new rubber apron tightly around my neck, andcombed up my bush of hair. Then, from the big Vaseline jar, he took a handful and massaged it hardall through my hair and into the scalp. He also thickly Vaselined my neck, ears and forehead. "When Iget to washing out your head, be sure to tell me anywhere you feel any little stinging," Shorty warnedme, washing his hands, then pulling on the rubber gloves, and tying on his own rubber apron. "Youalways got to remember that any congolene left in bums a sore into your head."The congolene just felt warm when Shorty started combing it in. But then my head caught fire.

  I gritted my teeth and tried to pull the sides of the kitchen table together. The comb felt as if it wasraking my skin off.

  My eyes watered, my nose was running. I couldn't stand it any longer; I bolted to the washbasin. I wascursing Shorty with every name I could think of when he got the spray going and started soap-lathering my head.

  He lathered and spray-rinsed, lathered and spray-rinsed, maybe ten or twelve times, each timegradually closing the hot-water faucet, until the rinse was cold, and that helped some.

  "You feel any stinging spots?""No," I managed to say. My knees were trembling.

  "Sit back down, then. I think we got it all out okay."The flame came back as Shorty, with a thick towel, started drying my head, rubbing hard. "_Easy,man, easy!_" I kept shouting.

   "The first time's always worst. You get used to it better before long. You took it real good, homeboy.

  You got a good conk."When Shorty let me stand up and see in the minor, my hair hung down in limp, damp strings. Myscalp still flamed, but not as badly; I could bear it. He draped the towel around my shoulders, over myrubber apron, and began again Vaselining my hair.

  I could feel him combing, straight back, first the big comb, then the fine-tooth one.

  Then, he was using a razor, very delicately, on the back of my neck. Then, finally, shaping thesideburns.

  My first view in the mirror blotted out the hurting. I'd seen some pretty conks, but when it's the firsttime, on your own head, the transformation, after the lifetime of kinks, is staggering.

  The mirror reflected Shorty behind me. We both were grinning and sweating. And on top of my headwas this thick, smooth sheen of shining red hair-real red-as straight as any white man's.

  How ridiculous I was! Stupid enough to stand there simply lost in admiration of my hair now looking"white," reflected in the mirror in Shorty's room. I vowed that I'd never again be without a conk, and Inever was for many years.

  This was my first really big step toward self-degradation: when I endured all of that pain, literallyburning my flesh to have it look like a white man's hair. I had joined that multitude of Negro men andwomen in America who are brainwashed into believing that the black people are "inferior"-and whitepeople "superior"-that they will even violate and mutilate their God-created bodies to try to look"pretty" by white standards.

  Look around today, in every small town and big city, from two-bit catfish and soda-pop joints into the"integrated" lobby of the Waldorf-Astoria, and you'll see conks on black men. And you'll see blackwomen wearing these green and pink and purple and red and platinum-blonde wigs. They're all moreridiculous than a slapstick comedy. It makes you wonder if the Negro has completely lost his sense ofidentity, lost touch with himself.

  You'll see the conk worn by many, many so-called "upper-class" Negroes, and, as much as I hate to sayit about them, on all too many Negro entertainers. One of the reasons that I've especially admiredsome of them, like Lionel Hampton and Sidney Poiter, among others, is that they have kept theirnatural hair and fought to the top. I admire any Negro man who has never had himself conked, orwho has had the sense to get rid of it-as I finally did.

  I don't know which kind of self-defacing conk is the greater shame-the one you'll see on the heads ofthe black so-called "middle class" and "upper class," who ought to know better, or the one you'll see on the heads of the poorest, most downtrodden, ignorant black men. I mean the legal-minimum-wageghetto-dwelling kind of Negro, as I was when I got my first one. It's generally among these poor foolsthat you'll see a black kerchief over the man's head, like Aunt Jemima; he's trying to make his conk lastlonger, between trips to the barbershop. Only for special occasions is this kerchief-protected conkexposed-to show off how "sharp" and "hip" its owner is. The ironic thing is that I have never heard anywoman, white or black, express any admiration for a conk. Of course, any white woman with a blackman isn't thinking about his hair. But I don't see how on earth a black woman with any race pridecould walk down the street with any black man wearing a conk-the emblem of his shame that he isblack.

  To my own shame, when I say all of this I'm talking first of all about myself-because you can't showme any Negro who ever conked more faithfully than I did. I'm speaking from personal experiencewhen I say of any black man who conks today, or any white-wigged black woman, that if they gavethe brains in their heads just half as much attention as they do their hair, they would be a thousandtimes better off.



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