Neighborhood Drama, Training Wheels & Street Dynasties

08 May

boss-man-blues

Boss Man Blues

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Date: 08 May 99 12:55:00 -0400
From: Sue Hedrick

Well, Chris & Byron worked for an hour, then Chris rings the doorbell and says Byron has to work somewhere else today so he can be paid today, that he didn't understand he would be paid by the week. Byron says no, that being paid by the week is fine, but he needed some money today, so he contracted somewhere else to work this afternoon. I said to Byron would he be here in the morning, & he said yes & he understood he would not be paid tomorrow. Then it really looked like imminent rain, so Chris & Byron cleaned up. Chris said he would leave the paint & brushes there on the front porch so he could start early tomorrow morning without disturbing us. They put the big ladder back on the fence and washed the brushes.

Chris rang the doorbell again, and said Byron said he would like his hourly wage now, and I said to Chris, how much is Gabriel paying Byron. Chris said $8 so I gave Byron his $8 for one hour. They leave and a few minutes later Chris comes back and says he will get someone else to help him tomorrow, "Accream"?, and that Byron was not a good worker, that he went off down the road and came back & had another job. Chris said if Byron shows up tomorrow, we should tell him we got someone else. I said I would let Gabriel handle it.

I think Chris had some argument with Byron and just doesn't want to work with him.

Anyway, I am going out now & I wanted you to know what happened and where everything stands. I will call you later.

Love,
BABY

Sorry sweetie, that you were forced to "go native" today. You and I both know that Chris is next to nothing but harmless, especially to us. We've known him for over a decade now, and since that rather ugly beginning he has nothing but the highest regard within his somewhat limited powers for us. Navigating the world of Chris Titus is complicated business, an excruciating maze punctuated by petty weights and half measures, hurry ups and waiting times, fleeting experiments with truth that usually crumble like the lad himself as he works through his three primary goals. One is to defend us against the unrest of any the indigenous population, and the second is to assert his own favored position within the more troubling element. The third is when one on one, and there is something we do for him, like hire him to cut our five minute lawn so we can give him five dollars, he must show his independence by refusing to show up at the appointed time so that he feels he is in control of his own time, infuriating at the moment of impact but funny when taken as a personal trait so predictable that it's non-negotiable but damned near bankable. It's a subtle dance of two cultures clashing, not in spite but in deference to distinction, to markings, of momentum, of control. Unfortunately, that's just how it is, this plight facing our two races when we find each other deep in the neighborhood of the other, roles reversed but similar, and subject to the laws of continuity.

He actually told me I was the only person who came to see him there. I didn’t question him, but how could not his mother with whom he lived, or his cousin Bembo, well, they were often out of sorts with each other, and what about all those other people who lived in the same house, nobody? But…there was no point in me digging holes in his front yard on this issue or any issue because I didn't even know exactly where in the neighborhood he lived after all these years—just down the street somewhere in disguises and the bounce.
Battles which begin and end beyond each of us but are consumed with intrigue, battles to be won or lost, or pushed on down the road until the next time. Remember when Reggie ripped off my camera, my $500 Nikon at my birthday party after we'd invited him in to share in the festivities, no less.

Relying on Chris for inside intelligence puts him a particularly unenviable position, but he usually tells me the truth when pressed. Of course, I've had to exert my own school of hard knocks mojo over the years to earn this confidence. In his words, I'm his nigger, but don't say to him when he says he wants to join our softball Sundays, "Okay Chris, make sure you and your boys make it to the field Sunday at noon." He howled as soon as boys of summer left my mouth. Stunned, not by my own usage of a harmless figure of speech, but upon recognizing how deep race-baiting political correctness reaches into the vocabulary, and it took me a second, maybe two to even comprehend the playful enough reaction. I then quickly took the liberty of schooling him about the Boys of Summer, a traditional reference to baseball, and the men who play it. And just as quickly, that was that. But who's kidding whom, it's not like Chris is some PC fiend, or even a vociferous agitant...

No idea exactly how old Chris is, maybe 30-35? No spring chicken anymore. Beaten down by his own earlier poor choices from a rougher past he claims he has long left to others, the train stuck on the tracks at his station in life is hauling few passengers. He lives in a large noisy household, he escapes to the streets to survive one day at a time, so it's actually a classic snapshot of human dignity packaged in physical humor to see his lanky skeleton of a body slinking around the neighborhood just to be keeping an eye on things, as he might say.

Occasionally while we are standing around chewing the fat, he revisits the afternoon I made time with him at DC General where he was hospitalized for a highly contagious form of pneumonia. I was told by his nurse that I had to put on one of those white paper masks just to be allowed to duck into his private room for a few minutes. I stayed about a half hour. He was in pretty good shape, laughing and talking in his normal slow drawl in what was the middle of a two week stay. Need to find that polaroid I snapped of the three of us that day. Chris, myself, in mask. He actually told me I was the only person who came to see him there. I didn’t question him, but how could not his mother with whom he lived, or his cousin Bembo, well, they were often out of sorts with each other, and what about all those other people who lived in the same house, nobody? But—there was no point in me digging holes in his front yard on this issue or any issue because I didn't even know exactly where in the neighborhood he lived after all these years—just down the street somewhere in disguises and the bounce.

But these welfare divas could be heard screaming at U a full block away trying to get their point across. Problem was—they didn’t speak English either. I know I could barely make out half of what I heard being barked into U's plastic cage over the years, and I spoke in a rather thick unrecognizable crayon myself at times. It’s no slur to tell you some of these pistol-whipped, baby-toting, spam talking shoppers were thick in crayon…
Of course I would ask. In the beginning his responses were vague. Later they got a little more specific but never as easy as an exact address, something that I could remember. In a neighborhood of same-colored similarly designed row houses from the 1940s running west to east, north to south, well, you get the picture. Then at some point Chris Titus is rumored to have moved. I've moved (and relocated the precious things I keep close) often in my life, but never just a few doors down like he did, imagine how strange that must feel, or to the next adjacent street like big chested Angie did, and rarely even in the same zip code that Furious Big George with the huge stature and wonderful bass singing voice did—periodically—since the DC Jail tanked a few acres a stone's throw south of the nearby hospital grounds, and Big George liked to get drunk and throw his weight around, fire guns, slap his women around, and generally live poorly, but man, when we first moved to Eighteenth Street, we would hear this booming but sorrowful voice in the black night riffing through the back alley, a voice as powerful to our ears as what we remembered as Paul Robeson's gift to the B/W movies of the 1950s, a voice from the row of breeze-riddled trees along the punished and cracking alley but we could never to a face to the voice until we met the big man under the light of day a year or so later, under different circumstances, circumstances disguised as a man, as a stranger wanting to borrow two dollars to buy himself another forty while already standing in line to talk to Mister U. That is his correctly spelled surname. Vietnamese. Thai. Never pinned that down. But the bullet-proofed plexi-glassed cage at his bodega where we bought our six packs of Black Label did a whopping business. In DC entire stores are behind plastic. The vendor grabs the items from the shelves or refrigeration room, tallies the tab, asks for the money via a bullet-proof package passage, and once that is complete, he passes the bag or bags of merchandise through. Alcohol sales has to be his biggest seller, but lots of poor people with no immediately convenient mode of transportation will waste any dollars they've got at corner convenience stores. That's why this generation of immigrant shopkeepers risk their lives every day to buy and operate these death traps in neighborhoods like these. It's a living. Perhaps it's mildly lucrative. But no match for gun wonks looking for an easy score.

Mister U barely spoke English. He understood what he needed to understand, but don't try to engage him beyond what the tax man considers valuable assets, and he is offering to sell you. But these welfare divas could be heard screaming at U a full block away trying to get their point across. Problem was—they didn't speak English either. I know I could barely make out half of what I heard being barked into U's plastic cage over the years, and I spoke in a rather thick unrecognizable crayon myself at times. It's no slur to tell you some of these pistol-whipped, baby-toting, spam talking shoppers were thick in crayon...

© 1999 - 2013, Gabriel Thy. All rights reserved.

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