East St. Louis Blues  

LabiaLickLapper 41M
11 posts
5/29/2006 12:54 pm
East St. Louis Blues


EAST ST. LOUIS BLUES

I hate it when the evening sun goes down. I hate it when the evening sun goes down, but if it’s goin’ down, here is where I should watch it. Here, standin' on this hundred and thirty year old bridge starin’ down at the muddy brown river, the crooked letter crooked letter i. Starin’ down at the burgundy brick, rusted red steel. Starin’ west into the giant arch, the city across from where I grew up. Starin’ east, to where we grew up. Thinkin’ of the days when we were young. Anna Mae Lerner and I. Anna Mae call me Shanti please, no one but my mama calls me Anna. Thinkin’ about the days years and years ago when we’d climb the no tresspassin' fence–order of the state of Illinois–and walk the train tracks out unto the middle of this bridge. A place for us to do young-buck stuff. Curse, laugh, bust a freestyle, throw whatever junk we could find, down into the river. The ancient dusky river, swallow and choppy. Dirty and wide, full of death and soul. But back then I know we saw no such things in the river; I didn’t at least. I know Shanti did. So now here I stand on this newly reopened, rebeautified ole bridge, starin' down at the river. Here I kneel, laying myself down. Down to my stomach, poking my head through the rails, starin’ at the strong foundation of enormous bricks buried in river basin bedrock. In my pocket I have only one thin dime. And before I walk back to home, back across this river, back to East St. Louis, I think of her. I toss my only thin dime, rough around the edges, into the river. Fare, honey, fare well. Back to our block.
‘Ya’ll mu fuckaz just gonna stand there? What, like you ain’t never seen white folks ‘for? If ya gonna be starin’, stare your skinny asses on over here at stare at these boxes, pick em up wit your brittle little bones and help us move them into the house.’
My first introduction to Shanti. She hollered from across the street as me and the boys stood and watched as a new neighbor moved into our block. My Grams, whose house we were standing in front of, was sittin' on her porch. Sittin’ there, as we laughed at the nerve of this girl to yell at us, like she was our mama. Like she was queen bee of this hood. Couldn’t been but a few years older than us, if that. Just yellin’, tellin’ us, the locals, to help her. Grams interrupted our laughter by makin' a command of her own. Boys 'gawn over there and help them folks, ‘sides you ain’t doin' nutin' away, 'gawn and be useful and Terence you tell ‘em if they need anything, anything t’all that they more than welcome to just come on over and ask.
In this brown city boys and girls do what Grams and Gramps, moms and pops say. No question. It’s an old school city. A city where street signs lead in circles and folks are for the most part fine with being boxed in. Or maybe it’s more of a contentment. Regardless, this is a city where circles and boxes help breed soul. Real soul. River soul. So much soul that damn near ever block named after folks who some how or another found the momentum to propel themselves outta the circle, bust through the box, but rarely return to it. My forty-block squarcle was bound by Redmond Ave to the West, Baker Ave to the East, Handy St. to the South and King St. to the North. Pre-Shanti days I really only new ‘bout King St. and how it was named after B.B. King. But the ole cats always said that one was up for debate. Some swore it was named after Albert King and not B.B. Negro please, they’d say, B.B. done been gone fifty years and ain’t 'nair comin' back. At least Al, Al near by just over ‘der in Soulard. Shanti, as apart of her precocious personality, would school us all. She was a walkin frickin' history book, something that very few of the kids round here even knew how to react to. Miss smarty pants, miss know it all, miss always tryin’ ta make me feel like I’m ignorant, like she special and shit. She wasn’t any more intelligent than us. And we knew it. It was just kinda our way of tryin’' to enforce the loyalty of locals first. Outsiders and transplants, no matter how long they been around, or how real they were, would always be looked upon with suspicion.
‘I cain’t believe ya’ll mu fuckaz don’t know who Redmond and Baker was named after. That’s just easy shit, Eugene fuckin Redmond. Don’t ya’ll read, only one of the greatest poets ever. Still walk round dis block here, Brotha walkin around in dashiki and all, crazy African, I’m mean keeping it hella real.’

I did read. We all did somewhat; constantly bitchin' about the homework Mr. Gigalatto would give us in English class. But in a school system that was so under-funded that we didn’t even have a library, that we had to walk through metal detectors before entering the building, in a city that was bankrupt and its fiscal duties taken over by the state of Illinois, lets just say that readin’ wasn’t always at the top of our list to do. There was a poem I remember though. Remember memorizing it in my second year of high school. I don’t recall it in total now but I remember it was by a cat name Troupe. I remembered his name cuz I thought it odd how it was spelled. Plus at the time a few of us was wearin’ a brand of kicks called Troop. But the poem was about basketball and Jordan and how he was the ill shit. I didn’t even like ball that much, but I knew who Jordan was and I knew he was the best at what he did. J-Rock, my boy from diapers, and myself a couple of times would recite the poem switchin' off line by line, doin’ it up hip hop style. He rising up in time, me Michael Jordan hangs like an ikon, he suspended in space his eyes, me his eyes two radar screens screwed, double up screwed like nails into the mask of his face, and yes yes ya’ll, to the beat ya’ll. But this was a river town, packin' homes full of blues. Where men and boys stood like gladiators, swung hammers and pounded nails. Where poems were not the most macho thing, rather reserved for fags or cats that were sweet like kitties. But there again, I understand now, due to my friendship with Shanti, that it ain’t the folks that lived in this city to blame, but rather the folks who never gave a shit about our city. The folks that never bothered to visit, send funding our way, understand that when mom and pops is workin’ 70 plus just tryin’ to pay the bills and the white folks set up pawn shops, liquor stores and titty clubs all around, that when we’re bored, poor, and mentorless damn right we gonna be macho. Ain’t that what bein’ forced into survival does to a man. And like Shanti schooled me on, if your neighborhood is over-run with drugs that the white man implanted into your block, that the CIA and all the other alphabet suits purposefully planted to destroy the poor and black and guns just some how magically appear at the pawn shops (when you don’t even know anyone’s father who sold his gun to the shop) damn right men gonna be men, hold onto that something that they know can get them by. So as I stood on one of my 160 choices of corners, gladiator like, from age 12 on I left the poetry and readin’ to way back in the mind so that I could post up and spend my energy on more immediate concerns.
‘Come on ya’ll, you should at least know who the fuck y’own streets is named after. I mean you act like dis the only place on earth you ever gonna be anyhow, so you might as well know yo history. I ain’t even from here and I know that Baker St. is named after the beautiful Nubian queen Miss Josephine Baker. Ya’ll’d love her, like one of those freaks down at the titty bars, ‘cept not so hoochie like and nasty, she went around the world dancin’ topless and singin', makin' hella loot, just dippin' in da pockets of dem old white men tryin’ to live out they chocolate fantasies. Sister had game, a straight up pimpstress. I ain’t real sure about Handy St. doe, I’ll have to get back to you on that one.’

And that was her thang. Over and over for the nine years I knew her. Constantly spittin' shit like–you know dis, what about dis, I bet ya’ll didn’t know that–. From age eleven to twenty, when I enlisted about six months after she died. Shipped off here and there to rivers as large as oceans. Places she’d be happy to hear about. But pissed off that I was only able to see them at the expense of sellin' my soul to a government who never gave a shit about me, my block. Play that game doe Terence is what she’d tell me. If you gawn do it, use your advantages, but never forget about who you can help with those pretty straight teeth, that learnt learned language that will burn their throat when they throw you up, that smooth bald head and those bright green eyes. Keep speakin' to me Shanti, as I stroll this block. Send down to me the rhythm of the river, the courage I need, the wisdom from the folks I never knew when I was young. But the folks you knew could influence me. Ask Ralph if I’m doin all right by him. Ask Marcus if I qualify for Africa, am I a black star. Ask Frantz if in my mind I’m in the process of murderin' the oppressor how many times must I swing this machete. Cuz I’m swangin’ and I’ll keep on swangin’ cuz it carries me home. The only home I know. And I know I can never be fully down, fully there with them, with the folks that are a much darker shade of black than me. But gawn, preach to me my ancestors of poverty, as I stroll this block. Stroll this block, a grown ass man, struggling with identity. Shanti is there finally equal visibility up there in what you see? Am I only what they say I am? Reach over and touch a hero for me. Ask Richard if I’m wrong for wantin' to be his son. I’ll be the native and he can fetter and whip me as foster child, but still a son. So tell me ya’ll what am I suppose to do, as I stroll this block. There it is, I feel the rhythm of the river. I’m listenin’, gawn. Bring it back to the block, not out of pity or faux left thought, but out of loyalty to the folks who have raised you. Bring it back, be it that cash money that rules the world or that heart that reigns in the reality of yo block. You want to forget it. Forget the reality that it’s simpler for you, no matter how hard it’s been. You wanna forget because it hurts to know that shades of visibility offer certain sight. So that clear and invisible is what is clean and seen and dark and visible is what is dank and disregarded. Just bring it back to the river, but bring it with soul and they will know that it’s the same Terence that grew up here since age one year old.

‘Don’t worry 'bout me, I’m cool. I told pops not to be fuckin’ with that dirty ass river anyhow. I mean, I sure as hell ain’t ‘bout to eat no catfish or carp that feedin' all day on all that oil and shit that the white man lets just float on down our river. Naw, I’m cool, it’s moms I’m worried about. You know Ray-Ray was her life, the good one, one she had a second chance with. You mind stayin’ around for a while?’
Stayin’ around meant I slept on Shanti’s couch for nearly two weeks. I remember thinkin’ what does a sixteen-year-old boy say to his best friend, his best friend mother when a little brother and father drown in a river? I watched, not even sure I said one word to Shanti’s mom after the initial I’m sorry. I watched Shanti just place hands on her mother. Smile at her, kiss he forehead, whisper things that would only make her mother cry more. ‘She gotta cry if she ever gonna move on. Gotta realize pops and Ray ain’t ever come back. I tell her every day they her angels now, they speak to her if she’s open to it.’ Only once did I see Shanti cry. Once in nine years. It was ‘bout four months after her pops and Ray died. Shanti wasn’t in class, which was unlike her, since she enjoyed poundin' the teacher brow about how this and that was racist and how could you have us read someone who was a nazi sympathizer. I found her dead center in the middle of the bridge, brown baggin' it. Her head between her legs, starin’ down through the steel and I could see that she was with her right hand tossin' stuff down to the river. It was only when I sat down next to her that she saw me. Head up quickly and her heavy mascara running. One back of the hand to the nose to wipe away the flow of tears. And then one sniff in. Everything was dry. Eyes went from red back to their hazel origin.
‘Hey. You missed it. Mr. G. said he was pissed you weren’t there today. Said he had a book that we were gonna read that he bet you would love.’
‘What was it? I bet it was still some bunk ass old white man talkin all that borin' ass shit.’
‘Blues People. Said it was about rivers like this one and blues music and jazz and St. Louis and shit. Some cat named–‘
‘His name ain’t Leroi no more, don’t call him that. It Baraka and I already read that shit. God– can’t he ever just respect the black man and his wishes. Baraka ain’t carried his slave name for like twenty years and G still gotta refer to him with disrespect.’
‘Whatcha doin’?’
‘Shit. Just came up here to think. Throw these dimes in the river. I got one on a barge, right smack on top of a load of coal. It’s pretty chill, I could see the silver shine until it was in front of the arch.’
‘Gimme that bottle will ya? Whatcha got it for anyway?’
‘Fool, I am not about to feed my body this poison, it’s for libation you dumb ass. You know– ‘
‘I know what for Shanti, you pour–’
‘You pour for people who are dead, your own people who are dead. It’s a religious act, a sacred ritual that I know you ain’t never taken part in, you ain’t gotta 'nuff love for no one that you’d ever done shit like this.’
‘Whatever. You don’t know what I did before you moved here. Don’t come at me like that, like you the only one ever lost. Like that block ain’t never lost folks ‘for. Like you the only one that got love for somethin’.’
‘Shut up T, I ain’t talkin’ about that, we ain’t never gonna be like that, so get that crazy thought out yo head. I’m just tryin’ to perform a ritual here and you come up and interrupt.’
‘First off, I ain’t comin at you like that, you ain’t got 'nuff ass for me to be wantin’ to fuck witcha. Secondly, I was just worried about ya, thought I’d make sure you doin’ a’ight.’
‘Well I’m cool, and I don’t need you to be checkin’ up on me, you ain’t my mama. And I would appreciate it if you would leave me alone.’
We just sat there for however many hours. Stared with silence at that one brief moment when the evening sun is settin' that it reflects off the Arch bright colors onto the river. She poured her liquor over the railin’ and waited for the next barge to be under the bridge. Bag and all she dropped it straight down to a pile a coal headin' somewhere. She walked off, east, leaving me behind.

When Shanti moved down here from East Garfield, Chicago all sorts of suspicion ran around ‘bout who she was, whether she was fakin' the funk or for real. None of us knew nothin’ about East Garfield, only that it was in chi-town. J-Rocks cousin lived up in Chicago for a minute and said the place was a’ight. And without any of us havin' to ask he said it was rough, but nothin’ like down here and that girl, wuz her name, well damn, she musta been the only white girl up there in that project, just like down here. Any of ya tapped that yet? I should get me some of that. Tig o bitties baby, tig o bitties.
We found out that her pops had moved them down cuz he got some work at the steel factory just up the river. And her moms was dealin' with some sort of sickness all the time. I got that from overhearin' Grams talk to Mrs. Avery from next door. I never asked Shanti what was wrong with her moms and she never told, but all I know is that her moms was always real weak and tired, slept a lot, and woke up when Ray Ray came home from after school. Her pops was a quiet cat, like most the men on the block. And quickly he found some people that he worked with to walk the block at night, just to shoot the shit. My old man went fishin' with him a couple times since they worked in the same factory. Around here what grown folks do and say is they business and us young kids is suppose to simply just stay out the way and speak only when spoken to. Shanti never quite adhered to this rule, especially in her own family. It was like her mother promoted her to speak up, even if it was some rant that made no sense. Her mother would sit and listen to her after school talk ‘bout how so and so teacher said this and how Ms. Johnson' son Raphael was a nasty mu fucka always sayin' niggaspickjew stuff and how no matter how many times she asked him to recognize his ignorance and the historical significance to the racist statement he was makin', sooner or later she was gonna have to beat dat ass. Unlike Shanti, I followed the rule, so I never talked much with Shanti’s mother. Only when she would ask about my moms and how she was doin’ and tell her to come on by anytime did I respond. To be honest I am not sure my moms ever went and visited her, not out of disrespect but maybe just cuz she worked a lot and maybe she was suspicious of her as well, not being from these parts. There was just something about Shanti, perhaps just her boldness, that most the ole folks some how forgave her for speakin' off the hip, as if she was one them. We’d be in the store, or just walkin’ the streets and someone might say hello and Shanti would just speak her mind. Like the day she ran into Ms. Johnson and actually told her that her son was completely out of order in his racist behavior and that she would appreciate it if she would speak to him about it, so that she, herself, wouldn’t have to lay a beat down on his skinny little ass. Ms. Johnson just stood there, noddin' her head with those semi-silent hmm, hmm's. Yes, yes, naw you right that boy just act stupid ass hell sometime, like the devil in his soul. She gave her a hand on the shoulder and sincere thank you. At least around Shanti, Raphael never made any such comments again. Growin' up with Shanti, seein’ this nerve that she had inspired me, but I’m not sure I ever really told her that when she was alive. She knows now though, since we still speak. Since I often call upon our past and how she would handle a certain situation. Sometimes though I realize that her actions don’t fit me, ain’t never gonna be me, but I’m almost sure that it doesn’t offend her. It took me years to understand that Shanti was only promoting me to be me. To be simply Terence. To be conscious of everything that I am and was.

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