Monday, December 21, 2009


The men in the facility knew which trees to climb and what rocks to step on, as the old saying went. They were city detainees and preserved the system (most of them) by attaining the required state of institutionalization before reaching the legal age of adulthood. How many among them had not spent their formative years being conditioned in some similar structure? It ensured that their patterns would be repetitive. She knew this about them. And they knew this about her: The woman was a titan that was not to be toyed with. It was her job. She lorded over her area like Nzinga directing regiments of troops, and split easy paths between groups of bodies attempting to converge during her patrol of the room. This was a woman of the twenty-first century; a black woman who lived in a time of consequence falling from the very thing the Queen of the Ndongo struggled against; a woman whose blood was tied to those whom she supervised. The men in her custody were shackled in a new and inventive way and she was one of their many paid overseers. It was her job.

She had seen all that there was to see with twenty years of roving eyes; poking into the corners that the overhead cameras could not catch; peering under garments for weapons that might have to be frisked out; and reading the language that hung in the atmosphere, fishing for a forewarning. She sat at a large desk taking the names and commitment numbers of the inmates as they entered her vicinity, taking canes and walking sticks to store at the door, and taking pause to instruct one of the younger ones to pull his pants up. She pulled leather gloves over her hands and covered the elaborate designs on her nails before moving across the floors on a survey. She kept a heavy radio in her right hand for the purposes of calling in assistance or knocking an aggressor back a few feet. She had enough experience to not let the greater implications of her role be of any distraction from her duties. This was the job. She would weigh and evaluate such points with the rest of her own troubles later; side by side with her coworkers, with her ponytail unleashed and her diamond rings glistening and the mounted speakers rattling the glasses holding the shots of high-priced Tequila.

Thursday, December 10, 2009


In the middle of the melee, with a glass in hand, the photograph captures her looking way off somewhere. There is no expression of happiness on her face, not even the quiet contentment at just being present. At the holiday gathering, confusion is well installed, forcing bodies up and moving them around the house, but breaking no bones this time like the great song proclaims; just hands reaching out to lift bottles, pass plates, bring sweets to lips, wipe gravy from the babies’ faces, hold chests to control the volume of a cackle and to cut more pieces of meat from the platter. Maybe the camera only just missed her smile by moments when her visage would have been more vigorous and engaging and not so quick to belie…something.

Those who know can tell the story. Secrets are always held by two or three in a room. Glances might meet in the middle of a sentence while the rest of the crowd rambles on in ignorance. Lucky for them! What might his name have been? How would his eyes have looked? What would any of it had mattered when he started to totter across the room, master the way a mouth forms a word and sprout like these that were here? There was no sentencing for them, no final order of doom, no pressing out like wet fingers on the tip of a lit match and the world still rotated in its usual way. Woe begotten was the look, so ready to return to the bottom of the house, to the room in the back, to the other side of the wooden door, to the inside of the covers where tears could flow unabashed.

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Tuesday, December 8, 2009

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Wednesday, November 11, 2009

In Red Ink

Passion is in the pine trees, at whichever distance they may stand, swaying between branches at a condescending height, oblivious and giving everything to those with whom it is already familiar, those who need nothing. How heartless is such unawareness. How inconsiderate is such carelessness for others that wait. And here in the city, it is evasive still. The tossing wind descends on the town. People hurry to their destinations and their destinies, pulling jackets closer around them, pursing lips, shuddering and looking with a disbelieving sense of betrayal at the sun.

Bliss is sprinkled on the blankets in which the two clinging bodies lay, if only in the imagination of an outsider, somewhere in a far off location. They are so overcome by it; they will cause an explosion if they are not contained. So very selfish are they not to know that others are standing by. Sitting in the city bus, someone rides over a long and lonely bridge, observing that mighty skyline in anguish or swaying under the metal bars inside the subway car, staring at the moving blackness, surrounded by so many who promise nothing.

Affection lingers on the rim of a teacup holding the just-sipped brew made by a lover’s careful hands. It wavers in a room where two people need not speak for the fragrance that is floating between them, swirling happily upward like smoke lifting from a stick of incense and sweet, sweet, sweet. Such callousness has to be occurring on another continent, well worth its distance in kilometers from this barren place. There from the island window, the water looks gray and still, like mercury poured out into a bowl for all the wandering minds in the surrounding city buildings to draw towards and look.

Tuesday, October 13, 2009

Closing Time At The Auto Spa

I just dance, Diamond declares, and that’s all I do; them others can be had for fifty dollars, maybe less. She snickers. She turns herself halfway round in the swiveling chair. Her legs are crossed. She is in a jacket and jeans, looking square-faced at the men who come and go to and from the dance area. She sips vodka and cranberry juice from a plastic cup. Her work is done.

Diamond blinks and there is a fleeting spark underneath her eyelashes. All things seem to fall silent as she is brought into focus. Diamond is midtown in a glitzy hotel lobby. She is draped in heavy and expensive garments. She holds a hand against her face with rings shining. She has the freshly bloomed face of a woman who rests often and well.

Diamond looks pensive at the rendezvous point. Passersby gaze at her admiringly as she poses by a statuette. Poses under the chandelier. Poses by the row of plants. Poses in the vicinity of the piano not far from the revolving doors. In moments, a man will stride towards her. He wears an apologetic smile. He is more than slightly late. He will pull her into an embrace and hold her there. He will kiss her neck in a way only the truly devoted can. She will smile softly and grip his arm.

And with a bang, the door slams and breaks all concentration. The organizer walks away from it cursing. An open door attracts too much attention. It is an underground joint after all. The imagination is shattered. Diamond is there teetering on the edge of her chair. She crosses her legs in the other direction. Her toenails are painted in a surprising fluorescent color. It shows up suddenly in the light.

Diamond drains her cup and throws it in a nearby trashcan. Her eyes seem to have already departed the scene. She tugs at the material around her breasts. She draws herself up like a toddler trying to find its legs. Locating them, she recovers. Diamond gives a wide-hipped sashay back to the dance area. A group of men leer as she walks out of the room. Her work is done.

Saturday, September 26, 2009

After Hours At The Auto Spa

One light glows from somewhere in the back, illuminating the box of money that sits on the owner’s lap. Business is business. His eyes seem dull, but his fingers contradict him; working swiftly over the bills, collecting large notes, tearing off tickets, and handing out change. Not far from the owner, the bartender is leaning over the counter. She is almost spilling out of a black bustier and looks bored. She is quite possibly bored, for she is no novice at her art. And she sees all of this action regularly. She makes no effort at hospitality. The venue does not require it. From across the room, she could see Diamond spread over one of the rented plastic chairs like clothes after an undressing. Diamond is unclothed. She sends her toes to each corner of the equator. Her guest is thrilled in some kind of stoned-faced way. Barefaced. He releases a flash of bills in her direction and slides lower in his seat. Diamond reaches down to the wet concrete to retrieve her money. She resumes her entertainment of the spectator. Skillfully. They sit across from each other like opponents or a young couple on a date. It’s a symbiosis, a mutual understanding. No love is lost between the two, no love found.

Tuesday, September 1, 2009

Friday Night At The Auto Spa

Newspapers cover the glass through which a spy might peep and take the full gulp of his pleasure without paying. At the door, a man sits in a swiveling chair collecting an entrance fee, watching the burly bouncers at their work, looking mean and meaning it, and rocking from left to right. He informs an acquaintance that there are more dancers than people inside.

The Hip Hop is hard and heavy, inducing some of the seemingly solemn patrons to dance. But they think the better of it. Instead, they stand shoulder to shoulder with the other men. They form a line along the walls. They sway in discord, but in agreement with the rhythm. They sit in rented plastic chairs with backs reclined and legs splayed, sipping beer from dripping bottles.

Diamond is what she is called in the dark. Diamond is the name that she has chosen for herself. Diamond is announced as she enters nude and tattooed five, maybe six times in greenish blue ink. She holds a bottle between three fingers as she walks thick-bodied to the makeshift drywall stage. She puts the balls of her fists on her knees and shimmies her lower parts to the ground.

Diamond is dancing in the dark. The men swarm the square to look. Some female customers have also come to see, swaying their heads with arms folded; looking at Diamond’s pink stilettos with arms folded; staring, as the back of her thighs meet the heels; throwing dollar bills her way, finally. Over the speakers, the Deejay chastises the financially reserved.

Diamond is making a goalpost out of her legs for the money. She turns them into a trembling brown and there is a wave of sound from the crowd. The bills feel like dead leaves falling on her skin. The sensation makes her move with more conviction. She keeps her eyes on the ceiling; she lets them slide to the wall; she notices the paint peeling. Someone in the crowd cries, “Bitch, goddamn!”

Wednesday, August 19, 2009

To Look Like Cheikh Ahmadou Bamba Or Any Of His Distant Kin In The New World

Out of the unknown he comes, the lonesome God, with a net cast a thousand yards further out to sea hoping to retrieve…something, wishing that all of this living has not been in vain. He wears a cap, with an insignia facing front like the sweat drenched faces of those old colonial soldiers going to war for the mother country, or cocked to the side in defiance maybe, or for the sake of fashion. Maybe he carries a gun to rob with, making those popular beliefs true after all.

Thrust from the wreckage of the past is he, stumbling in confusion, dreaming in secret that his father would call him by name, claim him the same and without shame. For he has not left. He has been brave enough in spite of it all; brazen to the point where he can stoop down in the face of the child and with one outstretched arm say, you too can survive this, you must. But alas, it has not been so and in the eyes of this descendant of the divine could be seen a hurt that is locked so far away.

Here at the heart of the modern world, a desert shawl is at his neck or under the insignia fitted cap in defiance maybe, or for the sake of fashion. The passions are dulled so swiftly and so soon, he is numb without even realizing it; given the sludge to drink, as brew is sipped, aged and refined in another part of town. The sun rotates for another day. The waves rise and fall wherever they are. The stars drop and freeze like sugar crystals in glue and he is none the wiser. This path has already been set. He reacts and destroys himself.

There is a recluse living in the guarded recesses. No conscious hand can touch him. No head can nod with authority at his derision. No mouth can articulate his dreams with upturned lips. At this place, resilience lives, controlling his own fate, dictating the terms of his beginning and end, finding no fault with what comes between; giving in to it knowingly; succumbing to it piously, like the knees that bend at the holy city of Touba; like Ahmadou’s distant kin in the new world…taking it day by day.

Monday, July 27, 2009

A Scattering

Where is that old man who gives the records from his mouth? Where has he disappeared to? Where is he when the channel blares, shining with those who might have been his offspring, grinning as it pulls back the curtains to show them dancing? Dancing…as if nothing has happened, as if it had all been some terrible foretelling that slipped from the cord of this current history and fell with a thud onto another plane. And no one is awakened by the noise.

In the apartments above, backs are turned upon the noise, glasses are raised despite it, ears are pressed up against plastic buttons hearing nothing; knowing nothing as the child walks through rows of traffic in the streets cussing with his arms outstretched, looking (some say) like the son of God at his crucifixion; swearing and tugging at his jeans right there in the middle of traffic. Still, the curtains fly in the window, uninterested, and spectators sit placidly in their air-conditioned automobiles.

But where is that man who sits on the tree stump with ragged bare feet, with eyes silvery and foreboding, and the waiting faces to gaze down into as he leans on his staff? What has become of him? Where is he when the shots ring out and the young girls squeal and hold their heads and run up the pavement in their summer sandals? Five or six others will sprint in the opposite direction, bellowing like half-crazed wildebeests as they join the cussing child on a rampage.

On the opposite side of the boulevard, a kind of war is occurring and the onlookers inch-inch their cars to the stoplight, unbothered; watching the crowd meet at the intersection, knowing nothing, feeling nothing as the pummeling begins and ground rumbles; doing nothing as the hand-held canon rings out. A resident steps back inside her door. The whipping red flames speed in the distance to swallow all within their reach. Somewhere, a woman cries for her child. Somewhere, a woman does not.

Monday, July 20, 2009

A Full House

There on the corner it stood. A house; with four walls around it, and within, more besides. It was a deceptive place; crooked. The steps to the front door seemed as if they had been built in a hurry. Inside, there was the patter of toddler’s feet, microwaves, rounds of carefree laughter and music coming from the television.

Upstairs, the rooms were built opposite one another and close together. The occupants held more space between them. A husband, a wife, a visitor, and child lived together. The staircase seemed as if it had been built in a hurry with carpeting stretched so thin that it had grown pale. A map of Africa hung on the wall.

There in the back room lived another visitor, a witness to life in its many stages; someone who had seen more than her share of crisis happen and was fearful still. Satin curtains hung in her enclosure, blankets folded despite the season, books that were read and some unread and a back yard splattered behind the window.

Downstairs, the rooms stood behind each other, slanting to the front in unison. The walls were painted in a serene pearl to match the external view. In the kitchen, an occupant could move without notice, drinking a cup of water perhaps; overhearing by chance the shared hot words and the distinct sound of muffled sobs. Soon there would be music coming from the television.

Monday, July 13, 2009

On Survival

Had it rained? It was not so easy to tell. Under the street lamps, the road held a soft moist glimmer, as if someone had just sprayed a cleaning formula on the solid tar and was about to wax it to a high sheen. I stood at the window watching. I felt like a tourist must feel; uncertain and unknown, inhabiting a city that had no compassion for me. But I had loved this place. I had always loved it. I loved it in a way that made me want to return when I went away. I loved the pandemonium, loved the centrality, loved the familiarity with things I had had knowledge of from birth and the intense solitude that one sometimes feels even in the heart of all the commotion: Yes. I loved even that.

I remembered days when the season had darkened the streets prematurely and I had stepped through the pillars that upheld the Brooklyn Public Library marquee, gripping a bag of books in the cold. I was hard-pressed to find any other objects that excited me then. I had already suffered and nurtured a catalogue of injuries that had affected me in ways that are too profound to write about. It was not so easy to tell. I fantasized often about how my adult life would certainly reward me for such trials. I satiated myself with the weekly doses of religious doctrine I had relied upon then. I was naïve. Life had not turned out the way I expected it to at all.

Had it rained? The woman had wanted to know. I walked into her bedroom the way I had done every week. We embraced. She smiled at me from behind her reading glasses. I held her hand a moment longer. She said that she felt insulated, not always knowing what the weather was doing outside the walls of the house. She could not roam the streets as well as she once had. She was paying the price of age, she said. It was not so easy to tell. She sat upright. Her head was wrapped in a material similar in color to that which she wore. She closed her journal and marked the page with her pen. Over her feet was a blanket designed in the pattern tigers wear on their skin. I leaned against the wall watching.

She told me that she had just spoken to her daughter; my mother. She looked pleased. I thought to myself that there could never be enough written about this woman. She was magnificent. She adjusted a ring on one of her fingers and offered me a chocolate from her bowl. She asked about the week I had, my only living ancestor of her generation. The week was not too bad, I said. She smiled at me without looking. It was not so easy to tell. Perhaps she could tell, after ninety years of telling, that my mind was ripe with worry; that panic reached my open eyes in the dark; that I satisfied my debts with precision and despair and waited.

Had it rained? The woman asked once more. I answered again, as I always did. I wondered more about her. Someone was reading scripture on the television. She recited it from memory. She talked to me with eyes straight forward, saying things about struggle. There were truths we knew respectively that had sustained us in our own trials, bringing us yet again to each other’s company; she, with over nine decades of telling and me, with a meager one-third of the same. This life is not easy, she said. She was quietly an expert on the subject. It was not so easy to tell. But things eventually improve, she continued, after one time comes another. It is the way of The Divine. This was what we both knew; thinking our own thoughts, falling into silence, and feeling hope unfurl and flower as we sat on the bed watching.

Sunday, July 12, 2009

Love & Trepidation

They found him dead. That is what the man had pulled me aside to inform me of. They had found him dead and I threw myself unto the concrete. I sobbed and sobbed. I grazed my fingers on the hard stone walls and cried bitterly. It was what I had always been afraid of. And now it had happened. I felt sweat forming on my brow. I gasped and sat upright with wide eyes.

I could hear the sound of the radiator. I could see the shadowy drapes in the dark. I felt the heat coming from the electric blanket. My breathing slowed down as the realization came. It had only been a dream. I was stunned at first and then relieved.

When we had been younger, he never questioned me. Everyone had always been required to work, even I had started a weekend gig. But I was responsible for him and the younger one. There would be no lingering for me after school. I would hop the bus down Bedford Avenue and hurry to my grandmother’s place to pick them up. That was the routine. We walked the five blocks to our apartment daily. We stopped at the corner store for quarter juices and the processed desserts in their plastic packaging. I threw together corned beef and rice or boxed macaroni and cheese for them to eat and we would watch television and wait for the adults to arrive. Every now and then I might have instructed him and the younger one to clean their room or take out the garbage while I cleaned things up in the kitchen. He never questioned me.

I imagine, though I never asked, that the transition must have been difficult for him. My private journal and wet pillow knew that I had my own issues to deal with. Brooklyn had not been easy in those days, especially since we had previously known a different life. Circumstances had called for me to stash a six inch box cutter in my puff coat and walk the streets with a hood pulled over my face – not wanting any trouble. If ever I saw him on the street corners with the other males, lounging like lions that had just eaten the kill, I would call him in. For the woman said that she did not want her son on the street corner and I was obliged to follow her instructions. She had known her reasons…trouble was his constant companion and many was the night that we were unwilling companions of those very corners, trekking across them and looking for him. I imagine that it must have been difficult for him; that he had his own issues to deal with - only he could truly say.

This world is a precarious place for our brothers, someone said to me. And I knew it firsthand. I knew it as literally as I knew the shades of my own palms. It was one more bitter fact of our existence. Because we are men, and since we had been so raised…I showed more than I could say that I loved him deeply and unconditionally. Love was not a word to be thrown around loosely among us. I had never uttered the words. I never once whispered, when no one was watching, that I loved him more than my life…that I worried about him…that I wanted to grip him close to me and keep him safe…that I would watch over him forever; for we were pulled from the same womb. His pain is mine. His joy is mine. He is me. Because we are men, and since we had been so raised, I hoped these things would be implicit. I knew these things would be evident in the smile I gave him across the dinner table, in the way I nudged him as we shared a drink, and in how tenderly I held and rocked his son to sleep.

My mind was with him and so was my heart. I thought about him as I moved through the day. I frowned over something that had occurred to me and remembered a look I had seen in his eyes. His spirit was on me and my mind was with him. My heart was his as it always will be. When the phone call came I was not surprised. The woman was distressed. I heard it in her first hello. They locked him up again last night, she said. I sighed.

Prince Muhammad G

They had incarcerated him intending to make it a permanent arrangement.
This Prince who may have well ruled nations at a time of our own making; a time
in history past when we knew ourselves and our divinity; when we took the feel of water, sun and air for granted and stood on rich soils in ownership.

He was indeed great, sitting at the typewriter, majestically, and finally taking his destiny into his own sun-kissed hands. He sat on the worn swivel chair, posing in the same way Mansa Musa must have perched on stools carved out of gold. He slanted his head in thought like some other citizen of Mali; some statesman, some craftsman, some warrior, some priest, some uncle, some scholar, some lover, some thief, some official, some subject, some mentor, some fiend, some merchant, some father, some honored son…with a dignity and identity all their own – untouched by western winds and free from the injury that was to come.

Yet they had incarcerated him, housing him in the lower depths with dust and staleness and the state central air system blowing more through the overhead vents. It was there underneath the barred windows that he held court; as focused as a scientist on the verge of discovery. Only The Supreme God could be truly acquainted with his trials. Only God and those who genuinely loved him could fully realize his worth, his beauty…his nobility.

He was glorious indeed, one to be feared for his good qualities and not out of envy and self-consciousness. He moved as if onlookers should have bowed out of his path –standing upright only after he had withdrawn from their presence. He locked his vulnerabilities behind his gaze and hit the keys with the precision of an acupuncturist. This Prince who may well never see his talents bloom; they had incarcerated him.

Lady In The Looking Glass

They were talking politics on the television, Middle Eastern nations, the current administration and that man so spoken about; the mastermind behind the destruction of the trade centers…they said that he had permission to kill ten million more.

I wondered if I would be afraid should death arrive like a swift nuclear breeze upon my city. My heart was Brooklyn; my core another country on another continent, which contained things like cashew, guava and Suriname cherry trees. No, I was not afraid of death. Even though I felt that I had not known life enough. I was not afraid of death. If the breeze reached my nude body as it stood under a hot shower unsuspecting and defenseless…it would be divine will. I was not afraid of death.

Was she afraid, the woman that I visited the next day? This woman who held some of the secrets to my genetic code and had seen the inner sides of nine decades could not have been afraid. She may have had some anxiety though. I had heard somewhere that one becomes anxious as one’s destination comes into sight. She spoke things with finality. She stared often into the distance. She sang hymns that she knew from memory. She read romance novels and medical self-help books with equal relish. She moved with painful precision. She had raised a generation of adults, and raised another generation after. She had governed yet a third generation from a respectful distance and was satisfied. There could be nothing existing that could frighten her now.

I sat across from her, thinking that enough could not be written about this woman; wondering if it was not but a moment ago when she held my mother in her arms, and me. Now we laughed as she ate the bakes that I had made in my very own kitchen – following her instructions. I poured the flour into the bowl. I filled a wide pot with oil. I put a generous helping of sugar and baking power into the bowl. I added warm water and made the dough. Everyone had his own method of making them. In a few hours when the dough swelled a little, I would stand in front of the stove to fry the pieces of dough I had cut and rolled. It was not lost on me the fact that no one would be sitting on my couch smiling as I brought in the meal; no one to eat it as I sipped my Heineken and waited for a verdict on taste. Still, I never approved of pity parties and so I snapped out of it. Besides, there was nothing to feel sorry about. Things would occur as they were designed to. I practiced patience in front of the stove and smiled at the thought that I would watch her eat the results the next day.

“It’s good…it taste good,” she said. I smiled like a five-year old, knowing that she was probably refraining from commenting on the fact that she could taste slightly too much baking powder in the bake. We talked about my week. We talked about her week. We sipped green tea mango iced-tea. She asked questions about online banking and listened with mistrusting interest to my explanations and reassurances that it was safe. We talked about my nephew – a good baby she said. She knew about babies. We sipped green tea mango iced-tea. How much time you have left at that daytime location? She wanted to know. “Not too much longer,” I answered…thinking about it. I wondered about my own direction. I wondered if it were true that she was moving slower than she was the last time I saw her. But then again, I thought that thought every time I saw her. Who was the one that was really anxious? “The time will fly out,” she said confidently, stretching her piano-playing hands out to look at her painted nails. She knew about time and other things. I still had much to learn. We sipped green tea mango iced-tea.