What We Make

Norman Cain

CONFESSION*

 

Sadly, I
Convinced myself
To heave to “Come what may” Principles
embedded within
my essence
by praying grandmothers.
Tuff love uncles
The busy tongues of
Villages who raised
me to illuminate
Like a brilliant full
moon above the
Dark sinful ways
I’d embraced
*words to use: principle, heaved, sinful

 


 

FROM SPARK TO INFERNO*

 

So they enslaved us
Beat us down to a
Spark but the wind of perseverance
Turned the spark into an inferno
Fired us up to become Vesey,
Toussaint, Harriet, Turner –
We sang “Go down Moses”
“We shall overcome”
Sculpted our dignity
Created blood plasma
Saved a waning agricultural
South with multiple ways to use the peanut
*“So they beat him down to nothin’ but sparks but each little spark had a shine and a song” -Zora Neale Hurston

 


 

SISSY

 

One autumn night in 1955
my boys had gone on a pocket-
book snatching foray that had
gone awry—they ended up
in juvenile hall

 

and I ended up spending the afternoons
of the uncommonly winter-like fall of
that year lonely, leaning against
the wall at the end of my narrow
one way street.

 

Uncontrollable shivering, teeth clattering,
constantly sniffing, wiping watery pupils
with frozen fingers.

 

Companionless: marooned within
a monotonous Cocoon of Boredom
yearning for comrades, missing the rough
touch football games, slap-boxing, harmonizing,
listening to them fantasize about girls.

 

Then one day, as I leaned against my
lamenting wall, I saw a battered car
filled with parents and siblings being
tailed by a dilapidated truck, whose bed
was brimming with a mountain of tattered
furniture, sputtering towards me.

 

I quickly scanned the faces of the new neighbors
as they emerged from the car and then my attention
turned to the truck. Through a soot-laden
window, I saw a high-cheek-boned cinnamon-hued girl
with poverty stricken eyes.

 

When she departed the truck the expression
that obscured the facial features of this tall,
wiry girl transformed into congeniality, and she
saw me.

 

Her smiling eyes locked with mine—into
an eternity. Sissy and I became
inseparable, became an acute case of tender pre-teen
bonding. We spent the few daylight hours after school
leaning against the wall of our one-way
street shivering, communicating with united spirits.

 

Cloaked in enchantment, we were cozy
in bitter cold, and in the twilight we saw clearly—our kindred
spirits were lights, illuminating our impoverished lives.

 

We were oblivious to screeching alley cats, blaring sirens
and the boisterous, blustering, brisk autumn wind
whose Herculean breath would from time-to-time grace us
with swooshing multi-pigmented leaves across our glee-filled
faces, conjuring giggles from our adolescent souls.

 

The feeling that overwhelmed us was
inexpressible. It was like a flower emerging
from a bud and embracing the sun’s brilliance
for the first time. We rode cloud nine, heard crashing
cymbals unite with the syncopated drumbeats
of our resounding hearts.

 

I was not happy that the crew was jailed—
only God knew when they would return—but
I was happy they were not around to get
into my business and tease me.

 

One day Sissy and I saw the pack of wild dogs that had
been roaming the neighborhood trash-strewn streets
like famished Roman Legions in quest of pillage. They were
running down the opposite end of the street. Instinctively
we embraced, and tasted the sweetness of our first peck.

 

One morning I got out of bed and
my mother met me at the bedroom door.
“Norman,” she said, “there was a fire
last night—Sissy got burned up.”

 

Unhappiness gripped me. My soul became
a reservoir of tears that never found
my eyes. I could not speak, only
become the daze that
engulfed me.

 

I sat silently at Sissy’s funeral, held in a church
near the dead-end wall where
our love had blossomed. I can still hear the anguished shrieks
that emanated from the scantly-attended funeral
in the one-room church heated by an oil stove not unlike
the one responsible for Sissy’s death.

 

I spent the remaining portion of the fall and the frigid
winter during the daylight hours after school leaning
against the dead-end wall with the spirit of my beloved Sissy.

 

*

 

In the Spring my boys returned—rehabilitated. We played
stickball. We slap-boxed. I remained silent when they
fantasized about girls.

 

The relationship that Sissy and I had was not
fantasy, it was the pinnacle of authenticity—sometimes
I would stand by the wall and think of Sissy. When my family
moved, I would make pilgrimages to the wall.

 

The houses on the street and the wall have since been razed.
Weeds have taken their place. Sixty years after her departure
only the memory of Sissy remains, only the wall
in my mind. I remember Sissy.

 

How tall, lean, wiry—we strode across a kaleidoscopic carpet of
fallen fall leaves to our wall, our solace, where we spoke
in silence. How gazing into her moonlit eyes calmed the currents of
my emotional tides. How we immersed ourselves within magnetized
embraces and the sensation of Lollipop-flavored kisses.

 

I remember Sissy.

 


THE GREAT NEIGHBORHOOD DEBATE OF 1955

 

One Saturday afternoon me and my friend Bobby was heading back to the neighborhood from the movie where we had just seen two good cowboy pictures, starring Roy Rogers and Gene Autry. Bobby said that when he had been in the bathroom in the movie he had heard a couple of the neighborhood gang guys talking about Mr. Wilson and my Mother and this Muslim thing. So I asked him what they say.

 

Bobby said, ”First they say Mr. Wilson and your Mother is the best on the block.” By that, he meant Mr. Wilson and my mother was always helping people. “Then they said ‘the way they got into the middle of Olive Street facing each other was like a cowboy duel.’”

 

I’d been seeing a different kind of religious group in the neighborhood for a while now. Bobby too. They call themselves the Nation of Islam. The men dress in black suits, white shirts, bow ties and shiny black dress shoes. The men are lean and have narrow faces, look like they haven’t eaten in years and none of their women are big and fat. The women wear pure white dresses and white scarves. The Nation of Islam talk about Christianity and smoking cigarettes real bad; they talk about eating pork and drinking alcohol real bad. I can understand the liquor and cigarettes, but I can’t understand why they are against bacon and ribs and pork chops and sausages. And the most important thing is I can’t understand why they don’t like the Christian church. I am a Christian; I’m secretary treasurer of the Sunday school at my Church around the corner from where I live. All the church people say that is an important job for a 13-year old to have.

 

To me, to talk about the church was stupid because God didn’t play. If the Islam guys kept it up, God was going to slay them like it said in the bible when he drowned Pharaoh’s army when they were chasing the Jew people across the Red Sea. But it seemed like they knew all about God and Jesus, because one of them came to our Sunday school class and the teacher let him in. And the Islam guy knew about Moses and Abraham and Sarah and Paul and Silas and anybody else you want to talk about in the bible.

 

“A cowboy duel?” I asked Bobby. With my mom and Mr. Wilson?

 

“Yeah, a cowboy duel,” he answered me back. “And they said when they shoot their mouths be six shooters.”

 

Another thing about the Nation of Islam—they sold a newspaper they called Mohammed Speaks. Mohammed is their leader and the newspaper talked about white people real bad—called them “blue-eyed devils.” They bad-mouthed negro people real bad, especially negro church people. Who they think they is? And another thing, they didn’t have God’s word—that everybody with sense knew was the bible. They had a book called the Koran. And to make matters worse they worshipped a God called Allah. Now I know they must have heard of how God got mad with the children of Israel when they were worshipping Baal, but they still had a false God. The new religion caught on real fast, and once a week one of their big preachers (I guess he was like Father Divine to them) named Malcolm X was preaching on the top floor of the hardware store up the street at 43rd and Lancaster Avenue.

 

Bobby and me walked another block without saying anything. And then Bobby said he had heard that my mother ran away from college in South Carolina to marry my father in Philadelphia and that Mr. Wilson had brought her up in his car.

 

“Yeah,” I said, letting Bobby know by my tone that what he said was true. My mother and Mr. Wilson know each other from way back. Then I went on to tell him how Mr. Wilson’s family and my family were from the same place down South and how each summer when me and my family went down we would see them just like we would see them on Olive Street.

 

“You see them down there?” he asked.

 

“Yeah.”

 

Bobby asked, “What you all do?”

 

I told him how last year when we was down there we stayed at my grandfather’s and he gave my father his car, and me, my brother, and my two sisters went to Mr. Wilson’s family’s house in the country. He was there and my whole family was there and we had a good meal. After dinner my dad sang for everyone.

 

My father—one thing about him is he sing that ol’ timey quartet music, a moaning and groaning gospel at our house every Friday and Saturday night with his South Carolina friends. The songs don’t seem to have any words that anybody can understand—and my cousin James plays his guitar with a rock and roll beat. I don’t like that because neighborhood kids would be in front of my house dancing. It made me embarrassed. But it was something exciting to them and those kids were always looking for excitement.

 

Bobby and me passed a Muslim with his black suit, white shirt, and bow tie who was trying to sell us a paper. We kept moving without saying a word. We could hear him talking about Allah and a guy named Fard until we got out of hearing range.

 

When we reached Olive Street, Bobby asked, “So… are they going to duel tomorrow?”

 

“I hope not,” I said to Bobby. I was thinking again about how my father with his country time gospel singing and my mother arguing on the street with Mr. Wilson was bringing too much attention to me, and how that would give my friends more ammunition when it came to playing the dozens. I felt terrible when they’d laugh at my clothes and say “You need a haircut with your nappy-head self” or call me a “long skinny string bean.” Another one of my mother and Mr. Wilson’s arguments was more than I could stand.

 

Mr. Wilson was my mother’s old friend; he was also the guy that owned the store that the teenagers danced in front of, and the barbecue restaurant that served those delicious sandwiches, and also a barbershop. And he was in charge of the grown-ups from The Little Belmont Bar who took us to see Jackie Robinson and on ferry rides across the Delaware River from Philadelphia, to Camden, New Jersey.

 

Mr. Wilson had become a Muslim some time back and now he was trying to convert my mother. They would get into heated arguments about the subject and I would always manage to be around to hear all I could about this new religion. Lately, the arguments that my mother and Mr. Wilson had about the Nation of Islam had spilled from our house and into the street.

 

For the past two Sundays in a row, they took to the street and argued about what religion was better: Christianity or Islam. Now I had two things to be embarrassed about—my father and his down home gospel quartet and my Mother arguing with Mr. Wilson in the middle of the neighborhood.

 

*

 

The next day, the day I was hoping would just slip by, Sunday, did come. And more people showed up for the duel then I expected. Salmon, the funny drunkard lounged in a raggedy kitchen chair, a quart of Pabst Blue Ribbon Beer at his side, and on his lap a transistor radio that had hazy reception of a baseball game between the Phillies and the Negroes’ beloved Brooklyn Dodgers. A group of crap shooters stood in front of the lot that was their special Vegas casino, decked out in in two-tone shoes, tailored three-piece suits, crisp shirts with golden bones for the collars and golden links for the cuffs. Wide brim hats sat rakishly upon their heads.

 

Young boys with splintered, over-the-hill baseball bats held together by weathered black tape stood beside girls with Shirley Temple hair-do’s, frilly socks, and long fluffy dresses. Beside them was the local territorial gang, adorned to the man with yellow and blue reversible jackets with their name “Fabulous Kings” emblazoned on the back.

 

Then a guy all dressed from head to toe in cowboy clothes and riding a large white prancing stallion showed up and rode slowly down the street, hesitating briefly several times to let children stare in admiration. Suddenly the loud roar of a motorcycle caused the horse to neigh and rear up on its hind legs. The children squealed with delight. The action reminded them of a cowboy movie. Around that time a couple of members of the Fairmount Giants baseball team came on the scene, all dressed up in their red-and-white uniforms. You could smell Sunday dinner-fried chicken, yams, rice, and lima beans coming out of the houses.

 

And you also got a whiff of cheap perfume on the women and Old Spice cologne on the men. Some of the little girls held dandelions to their noses. Every now-and-then somebody brushed up against somebody but nobody got mad. The water-ice man happened to come by pushing his cart. Within an instant, he was surrounded by a crowd who waited impatiently for him to shave a huge block of ice with a metal instrument, place the shavings in a paper cone cup and pour thick flavoring onto the ice.

 

Me and Bobby took all of this in. To Bobby it was probably exciting, but to me—I kinda felt some pride, and some embarrassment. I was worried about the teasing I would get from what was happening, but at the same time I was proud of my mother. She wasn’t afraid. She was just as tough as anybody on the street.

 

It was a great day for a duel. It was warm. Squirrels ran up the sides of the few trees that lined the street and hid in between the buds, and then returned to the street out of the way of people. They knew something was about to happen.

 

The duel took place when my mother came home from church at two o’clock. My mother is short, and real black with a shining face. The way she carried herself, you would say she was God-fearing. You could see some pieces of her hair around the side of the lace cap she wore for communion. This short giant of women was a leader to the other women. They would never speak up like she did. She was the outspoken heroine for the women on the street. Her back faced the stone dead-end wall.

 

Mr. Wilson, the business man, he was a leader too, a man who believed a woman should stay in a woman’s place. He was dressed in his black high-shined shoes, suit, bow tie, small-brim hat, and white shirt. He was tall with a solid fat-free build. His face reflected his belief in everything he did or said. His back faced the mouth of the street.

 

The debaters were about ten feet apart. Both stood erect; their eyes were locked. The battle that was about to start was one of those high noon shoot-outs that me and Bobby saw at the movie the day before.
Mr. Wilson started the battle by saying, “Good afternoon Mrs. Cain” with the confidence of a man who owned a barbershop, corner store, and barbecue restaurant. He hesitated a few seconds, smiled, and continued, “I see you got your white communion dress on today. You know the Nation of Islam women wear white all the time. You are wearing white for the wrong reason.”

 

“And what is the reason why they wear white?” my mother asked. Before he could give an answer she went on to say, “You were raised in the church and you know that down home when communion Sunday came, white is what was worn.”

 

“Well our women, Islamic women, wear white all the time because it represents purity, cleanliness, and innocence.”

 

“Seems like to me that Christian women represent the same thing and as long as you got a good heart, what you wear don’t matter. You mean to tell me that they wear those white dresses to bed?”

 

The crowd, hanging on every word, got a big laugh at what my mother had just said, especially the women who were happy to see a woman standing up to a man, especially a man as important as Mr. Wilson.

 

At this point the duel went into full force. Mr. Wilson mentioned a guy named Wallace D. Fard. This was the guy who gave the message to The Honorable Elijah Muhammad, the leader of the Nation of Islam. My mother said that this Fard guy was not no prophet and the honorable whoever-he-was definitely wasn’t Jesus, and it seemed like to her that they was trying to steal the Christian Story.

 

Mr. Wilson got real mad and his voice begins to rise a bit and he said to my mother, “You would not be able to talk to a man the way that you are talking to me if you were a Muslim woman.”

 

“But I’m not a Muslim woman and never will be one,“ my mother replied. “I don’t know about your Koran talking about women, but the bible talks about women. Miriam was the one who saved Moses from being killed by Pharaoh and Deborah was a Judge. She was a soldier. She was a prophet and brought peace to Israel. If the women in the Bible can be important—that means that women today can say what they want to say.”

 

A murmur went through the crowd like a strong breeze and the people started looking at each other like they were saying, “Did you hear what Mrs. Cain said?”

 

Then Mr. Wilson started talking about prejudice and how Negro people should have their own land in America, and my mother said we still had land down south and reminded Mr. Wilson that his people and her people had a lot of land and Negroes shouldn’t just sell their land when they moved to the north. Then Mr. Wilson brought up something that made me think. First he said they killed Emmett Till. This was something that made me think because Emmett Till and I were the same age, and I went to South Carolina every summer. Maybe I could get killed down there.

 

My mother said that was sad but we got to stick together just like Dr. King and the people in Montgomery, Alabama stuck together so Negroes could ride in the front of buses. The crowd started chiming in with “That’s right.”

 

Mr. Wilson said then that the white man would never be right because he made by a mad big-headed scientist named Yacub, so winning the Montgomery bus boycott wasn’t nothing.

 

After that statement by Mr. Wilson my mother said that story sounded like a fairy tale. The crowd laughed and Mr. Wilson got real mad again and said, “I can’t reason with you,” and stormed into his house. The crowd sighed, discussed what they had heard and slowly disbursed. Me and Bobby was talking about what had just happened and gave our opinions until an adult told us to shut up because we didn’t know what we were talking about.

 

Me and Bobby walked away and talked about how we did know what we was talking about and, once we went back through the whole thing and were agreed, we shook hands.

 

Well, even if I didn’t know what I was talking about, I was determined to find out the truth because I was curious. I want to know why a guy named Abdul Mokum in my class was a Muslim that did not dress in a black suit, and why there was a houseful of Muslims not too far from where I lived that dressed in Arabian clothing. I also was happy that the Nation of Islam guys talked about fighting back.

 

Soon after the shoot-out my mother would say that she shut up Mr. Wilson by asking him if his dead grandparents had been wrong. Anyway, Mr. Wilson soon got away from the Nation of Islam. It was something about him having a barbecue stand that he refused to get rid of.

 

I was not ashamed after that, not of my father singing old time gospel or my mother taking charge in the neighborhood whenever she wanted to.

 


BEFORE I DIE

Arising from a peaceful night of dreamless slumber, you sit at the edge of your bed for several seconds before standing. You stretch. You yawn. You attempt to adjust your eyes to the pitch-darkness. You shuffle towards the wall on the opposite side of the room. Upon reaching your destination, your hands locate and flick on the light switch. Immediately, an illuminating glow descends from the high voltage lighting fixture that extends from the rooms ceiling, causing your bedroom-study to be transformed from complete darkness to a brilliant brightness.

Next, you adjust the thermometer, which is parallel to the light switch, to75 degrees. The room’s temperature has been transformed from a slightly irritable chilliness to a soothing warmth. Warmth and Light. You feel contented. Soon you will be set for a day of reading, writing, contemplating as you are finally en route to doing what you want to do before you die: write those two historical novels whose beginnings, middles, and ends, have lived within your imagination for decades.

But first, you must attend to matter of the morning toiletry ritual. You do so. After, you dress, make up your bed, light some Indian incense, inhale its aromatic scent, turn on your stereo to an excellent jazz station in time to be serenaded by an Afro Cuban piece by Dizzy Gillespie. You work better when you listen to jazz. Its rhythms coincide with your cadence of thought.

It is now time for you to commence working. You carefully scan your bookcase for the historical and geographical text you will need for the chapter
you’ve been working on. You see and retrieve the text that you need, amble to the center of the room where your computer sits on a mahogany desk. You place the book to the left of the computer. You pull your comfortable swivel chair from the desk’s cavity and gently ease your posterior onto its seat.

You turn on your computer, place a flash drive into its designated slot, momentarily savor the fragrant smell of the incense, let the sounds of Dizzy’s ensemble saturate your countenance, and commence on your journey.

 


SUNDAY MORNING ON LANCASTER AVENUE, 1953

Saturday morning is Lancaster Avenue’s busiest day. People come there to fraternize, shop, bar hop take in the sights. With the pace of a turtle, the crowd inches along the concrete-carpeted sidewalk, each individual traversing his or her personal path, taking care not to brush against someone coming from the opposite direction. On my journey, I meticulously creep, slither shuffling side stepping slipping and sliding between across and around slowly moving and brisk stepping between the multitudes of people. Around the sporting life men with wide brimmed hats, razor creased pants and two-tone shoes who are drenched in the aroma of expensive cologne, camel cigarettes, and rum. Around a group of scurrying squealing children, pursuing and being pursued.

I hop backwards so I will not collide with a baby carriage containing a sobbing infant who is being recklessly pushed through the throngs of pedestrians by a young gum chewing mother who attempts to console her child with a soft lullaby that is muffed by the conglomeration of rejoicing, booming, barking mumbling, begging voices of the avenue’s congregants.

Stopping suddenly and freezing like a statue so as not to make contact with an elderly lady who pushes a shopping cart filled with vegetables and fruits purchased from one of the multitude of outdoor stands located in front of the grocery stores that line the market place. Several more steps position me in front of a street preacher dressed in black. He vigorously thrums a weather worn guitar. His wife jubilantly bangs on a tambourine. Together they sing common metered hymns, southern-laced songs of salvation.

Several dandified, expensively dressed men languidly lounge in front of a bar in solitude, only speaking when a well-endowed woman in a dress that fits like a tight glove emerges from the women’s entrance of the bar. Oblivious to the concept of chauvinism they posture shout and coo to the attractive sister: “Hey, baby, can I go with you?” and “Must be jelly, because jam don’t shake like that.”

I stop for a while at the corner of 40th and Lancaster in front of the Leader Theater, first looking at the poster of coming attractions: Gene Autry, Roy Rogers, and Johnny Mack Brown, then watching, with the other gleeful children, a burgundy vested and capped monkey prance in time to the rhythm escaping from an a dark tan street organ being vigorously churned by a smiling short brown-skinned man.

Behind the organ grinder, there is a store from which emanates the thick stale smell that comes from chickens awaiting death. Having no space for movement in the wired cages in which they are imprisoned, they quietly huddle and pitifully wait their fate: a customer points to one of them and an attendant opens the cage, firmly grasps the chosen fowl ignoring their frantic quaking, places the fowl on a chopping block and chops its head off with a sharp meat cleaver.

As I pass Brooklyn and Lancaster I spot the Fabulous Kings in their shining satin blue and yellow reversible jackets hanging out on the corner. I
hover like a helicopter in animated suspension in front of the sea food shop where I ritualistically sniff, inhale, relish the pungent aroma of fresh and fried seafood flowing from the interior. I watch the throng of people make their selections by pointing through the spotless windows of sparkling white refrigerated cases that display beds of crushed ice upon which lay fresh shad, eel, mullet, salmon, trout, porgies, oysters, clams, shrimp, scallops, mussels, and crabs. Thickly gloved men wearing black rubber aprons set fish on hanging scales that abruptly sway and whose arrow points to the weight of the item that it accommodates on a circular clock arrayed with decimal numerals. They swiftly scale the fish with sharpened knife blades, gut the fish, wash the fish, and wrap them in sheets of newspapers before finally placing them in thick brown paper bags. Other white-aproned men carefully drop clams and oysters into vats of steaming oil and customers sit at a table eating their hot sauce drenched orders.

I’m pulled from my vision by the sound of clopping horse hooves upon the street. I see a weary horse being driven by a hustler who hawks food from his wagon. Walking on either side are three boys carrying baskets in which they will place the vegetables and fruits requested. Sometimes customers take their orders on the street. Sometimes the boys will deliver the orders to the first, second or third floors.

Walking toward 43rd and Lancaster I pass several young men taking unified/softly/ swaying/ dance-like long strides to a slow soulful doo-wop tune coming from a transistor radio. Because of the always-crowded bakery, on this block the scent is a seductive sweet smelling, fragrance of sugarcoated cakes, donuts, and pastries.

The number 10 trolley shimmies down the avenue, its steel wheels rattling upon the tracks, its whistle sending out a deafening series of clangs before it hisses to a jerking halt, and lets folk on and off of the green iron carriage. Two boys perched on the thin platform on the back of the trolley do not descend to the street. They have not reached their destination or they, perhaps, will ride up and down the avenue until they find a new adventure to amuse them.

 


MY EARLIEST MEMORY OF MY MOTHER

Stretching my arms upward and firmly clutching my mother’s hands, I ambled down Olive Street for what I believe was the first time. It was a long narrow alley-like street, the street where I was raised for the first fifteen years of my life. I am, perhaps, two years old. Judging from the pleasant temperature and the buds extending from the tree branches, it was springtime.

It was extremely bright. The street was lit by both moonlight andstreetlight, the latter being a fixture in every Philadelphia neighborhood during the 1940s. I was aware of, yet oblivious to, the shale stooped brick row houses that aligned both sides of the street like sturdy soldiers standing in formation. It was as if I were having visions. I was secure for I was holding my mother’s hands. I seem to be in sync with her spirit, bathed in love. I am enthralled by the beauty of the street, the serenity it rendered.

 

Norman Cain

Norman Cain was born in 1942 and raised on Olive Street in West Philadelphia. He graduated in 1964 from Bluefield State College in West Virginia where he majored in social science and minored in English. A retired social worker, teacher, father of five and grandfather of seven, he is active in several writing groups, including the Best Day of My Life So Far at the Germantown Senior Center.