Patched and tarred. Hawked and bitten in the winter, smothered and melted in the heat.
Under its broad skies, pincered between two rivers. Within sight of salvation, the city’s lights, the jeweled bridges. Battered and besieged, on its knees, but unbowed. With blood in its mouth—
and listens for its savior.
The rest of the crew were giggling like schoolboys, shrugging off their kitchen uniforms in the cab. Struggling into suits that were more conservatively cut than Malcolm’s but still sharp—light blue and greens, and creamy whites, with bright, skinny ties that gave him a pang of consternation.
“I thought you said this was a righteous town,” he scoffed at them. “How’m I gonna be gunnin’ the hens with you three togged like that?”
“Listen to Mr. Samuel D. Home,” Paddy scoffed at him. “Son, you should latch on to the fact that this is the Apple.”
“You gonna get conked up good, you don’t mind us!”
Malcolm grinned back at them, feeling as if he would burst out of the cab.
“Hey. I’m mellow as a cello, rippin’ an’ rompin’, trippin’ an’ stompin’.”
“Uh-huh. This is Harlem, son.”
“What for, what for?”
He peered avidly out the cab window, wondering if it had anything to do with women.
“Then he saw him. A monolith. A fantastic hallucination, a human balloon swaying in the waves of heat floating up from the pavement. But there was no denying him—at least six-three and two hundred seventy-three pounds, standing right out in the middle of the street, directing traffic. A black man in a police uniform.
“There he is! Hey, Lacy!”
They waved out the window, calling his name, making mocking noises though there remained a note of pride in their voices. Lacy only stared at them balefully, planted inalterably in the middle of the intersection, lugubriously waving the cars on. Malcolm still gawking out the back window of the cab as they passed, unable to get his mind around the sight.
“A cop. A black cop,” he marveled.
“Sure, they got ’em up here, you know,” Lionel snorted. “You should see Big Ben Wallace. Ol’ Mr. Terror make Lacy look like a schoolteacher. Or the Four Horsemen—”
But Malcolm had already stopped listening, staring out at the amazing sidewalk scene emerging all around them. Suddenly there was color everywhere, as if someone had just switched the screen to Technicolor, like in The Wizard of Oz, which he had seen six times back in Michigan. Men wearing green, and yellow, and red sports shirts. Men wearing porkpie hats, and Panamas, and fedoras, men in white and lemon-lime and peach ice-cream suits—even men wearing sharper zoots, he had to admit, than what he had on himself.
“And women. He was sure that he had never seen so many beautiful women in his entire life. There were women everywhere, at least two for every man, not counting the clusters of soldiers and sailors who gaped and gestured at them from every street corner. Women wearing gold and ruby-red glass in their ears, and open-toed platform heels that made them sway with every step. Women in tight violet and red and blue print dresses, held up only by the thinnest of shoulder straps over their smooth, brown backs. Women striding up from the subways, stepping regally down from the trolleys and the elevated, and women, everywhere he looked, strolling out of smoking storefronts, as if their smoldering presence had touched them off.
“‘What—they on fire?’ Malcolm asked in bewilderment, squinting at the smoky little shops, the mysterious lettering in their windows that boasted WE OFFER: The Apex—Poro—Nu Life—Hawaiian Beauty Systems—
“‘Mm-hmm, you bet they are,” the cabbie laughed up front. “Those Thursday girls, they always on fire! Even when they ain’t getting’ their hair straightened—”
“You in luck, Nome,” Lionel told him. “It’s Thursday. Kitchen Mechanics’ Night. All those maids an’ mammies, an’ calkeener broads—Friday’s they one day off. They be gunnin’ for you tonight.”
“Course for real, Samuel D.!”
“Where you think we should take him first?” Willard asked the others. “Up the Savoy, beat out a few hoof riffs? Braddock’s? The Elks? Take him to a buffet flat an’ have a good laugh?”
“Nah, man. We gotta take him by Small’s first.”
“Yeah, Small’s. That’s the place to get him his first drink in Harlem!”
First they had the cab let them off at Mrs. Fisher’s boardinghouse, where they dropped off their train bags in the sliver-thin rooms where they would bunk for the layover. They clambered right back out onto the sidewalk—and it was then that Malcolm realized everything was moving even faster than it had looked from inside the taxi; as if the sidewalk itself had been set on some war-speed assembly line, activated the moment they put their feet to it.
“It caught them up immediately, rushing them past chicken restaurants and hamburger joints, and closed-up basement dance halls, and heat-dazed winos lying in the doorways. Past barbershops that advertised ‘Conk It Up! No Burning!’ and more of the smoking beauty parlors where Malcolm could now make out the women in pink smocks pressing irons down on other women’s hair like it was so much laundry.
“They moved past all the squatting curb vendors selling used book, and carved African animals, and jewelry that shone a little too brightly. Past men with carts full of wilted daisies, and roses and violets, and men selling long, red-orange slices of cantaloupe and watermelon, with glistening cut mouth of the remaining melon set just above their heads, so that they seemed to mimic their own red mouths and wagging tongues. There were men selling halves of oranges, and alligator pears, and rings of coconut slices floating in dishes of water and their own fragrance, while the men chanted ritually over them, ‘Yo tengo guineas! Yo tengo cocoas! Yo tengo pinas, tambien!’—and the peddlers who made sudden, high-pitched terrifying noises, shrieking ‘Wahoo! Wahoo! Wahoo!’ before throwing back their heads and singing out their ditties to the sky, or at least to the upper stories of the tenements above them:
‘Got blackberries today, folks!
Blackberries for the baby,
Blackberries for the ol’ lady,
Blackberries for the ol’ man—
If you ain’t got no ol’ man, take me!”
It started to rain before dawn that Sunday, hard little pellets that raked their bedroom window, so that Jonah knew he would have to be up early. By the time he eased the big, green Lincoln out of its back-alley garage, the rain had begun to taper off, but between the weather and the gas rationing, he was sure the buses would be out again. After he dropped Amanda off at the church, he trolled up and down Lenox, and Eighth Avenue, in the big car, looking for any members of his congregation who might still be waiting at a bus stop.
All along the way he saw the ministers from every other church in Harlem, doing the same. Exchanging friendly waves and honks with them—at least all those who still had a car, and the ration points to fuel it. Picking up entire families still huddled under the bus shelters. More women than men, as was always the case, but especially so now with the war on. The older church mothers in their proud hats, undaunted by the rain. The children with their hair and clothes immaculately combed and pressed. The boys in blazers that were too big too small, showing inches of white cuff, and the plastic tabs on their neckties; little girls in dresses that spread out above their knees like umbrellas, and shiny black patent shoes—
Jonah would fill the Lincoln with as many as he could, then move on to the next family, rolling down the window to tell them the buses were out. The mother or father would lean in, nodding—the news nothing they hadn’t expected to hear. They would thank him solemnly, and begin to walk slowly up toward the church, moving as fast as the youngest or the oldest among them could manage.
By late morning it had settled into a blustery, turbulent day; the dark gray clouds skittering across the sky, and the fleeting water rainbows forming and dissolving on the sidewalk. A day of illusions, and second glances. Passing “Beale Street,” at 133rd and Seventh, Jonah glimpsed the working girls there still staggering along the curb—soaked to the skin, disappearing into doorways. Men in uniform climbing up from the after-hours bars below the street, ducking back down behind the stoops when they spotted the armbands of approaching MPs. Harlem never did shut down anymore. Not even on Sunday—
At 132nd Street, idling at a light, he noticed a crowd drawn to a pair of women evangelists. He had seen them on the corner before. The one tall and slender as a reed, belting out Bible passages, the other one short and pudgy. The short one held the umbrella, stretching to raise it up over her partner, and the Bible—while at the same time she interpreted each verse in a shrill, raucous shout, and according to her own vehement theology.
“I ain’t talkin’ ’bout no Paraoh an’ the Israelites. I’m talkin’ ’bout the he-in’ and she-in’ a you Harlemites, right here an’ right now!” she ranted, while the crowd around her laughed and clapped.
“I’m talkin’ ’bout how mothers and fathers teach their chillen one thing in the South but they do another thing in the North, and they will surely pay the penalty. God will not be mocked!”
The people gathered there laughed some more. The Harlem of the simmering anger, of all the strange curbside congregations he had noticed, gone for the moment, between Sunday, and the rain. Just in front of him, at the perimeter of the crowd, Jonah watched a young man, still wearing the sports shirt and slacks he had no doubt put on the night before, smiling sheepishly. Telling the woman with him, “Man, that old lady is sure steppin’ on my toes! Gosh, that one hit my pet corn awful hard!”
After a little while he had become almost mesmerized by the drizzle and that steady beat of his windshield wipers, the every changing street scene before him. Making wider and wider loops around the neighborhood, swinging down past the Harlem Defense Center, where he watched the happy, smiling young men on leave, walking out with pretty, slim brown women on their arms. Driving past a group of sailor messmen, who stood and squatted on their haunches outside Jock’s Place—pulling on cigarette butts, their faces blank and desolate, while they listened to the jukebox blasting “Don’t Stop Now” through the open door. Still more families, still plodding their way toward church—his, or someone else’s. Walking with immense, careful dignity, trying to avoid stepping into puddles or being splattered by the passing cars, waiting every few yards for the children to catch up.
And watching them, Jonah was filled with a surpassing love, For the churchgoing families—but also for the high-stepping soldiers and the blue sailors, and the Mutt-and-Jeff evangelists, and the insecure young man. Even for the working girls, soaked to the skin out on the pavement. He was almost dizzy with it, in that moment. Feeling his love encompass all of it, here where he lived in Harlem, this little enclave of so much sin, and despair, and hopelessness, but also of such immeasurable beauty. At 125th Street, he noticed the Checker cabs already taking the more optimistic fans up for the doubleheader scheduled that afternoon at the Polo Grounds—each of them with enough empty seats to carry an entire family to church. The white faces in the back windows staring out alertly, awash in apprehension and distaste. Jonah was in turn filled with nothing but pity for them, to be passing through this wondrous place but to know it so little. Thinking of a verse from Lamentations—“Is it nothing to you, all ye who pass by?”