'What Brings You Down Here?'

THE place was long and low, but exuded a kind of well-tended brightness. A red formica bar ran the length, with small tables hugging the wall opposite. Down toward the end, a four-piece band was jamming. An older woman, painfully thin, danced gently on the balls of her feet, her cropped head thrown back. A knot of 20-odd-year-olds were gathered by the bar, laughing and leaning into each other. It was all kinds of warm.

Except that this Boston neighborhood was supposed to be "a killing zone call it Harlem, Anacostia, East Saint Louis, or South Central, you name it. Nothing down here was supposed to be well-tended or intact, was it? "Well," said a woman, later on, after people started asking my name. "Glad to see at least one of you folks ain't afraid to come down here."

I was not, in fact, afraid to go down there. Some lines, once crossed, just disappear. I sat down at the end of the bar, where I could watch the musicians, and was made welcome in five or six ways within the first half hour.

"What brings you down here?" someone asked. It was, I suppose, an important question in these times. What brought me down there was that I felt at home. Why and to what effect are probably complicated, but are not the point of this story.

One elderly gentleman, after a time, began making me a bit too welcome. Acting as though I wanted to watch the sax player from close up, I left my things at the bar and sat down at an empty table in front. I had brought my wallet and my keys and had stashed the wallet at my feet when I thought no one was looking.

Once, about a year earlier, I had left this same wallet on top of a pay telephone in one of those indistinguishable gas station convenience stores at the bottom of an exit whose number I had not bothered to remark, off Highway 81 in Tennessee. After about an hour nosing my way back, exit after exit, I found the store, and my wallet, camouflaged against the black metal of the telephone. I don't seem to get tired of doing this kind of stupid thing.

That night, some of the 20-odd-year-olds had drifted over near where I was. They sat down at the next table, and we got to talking: 10 or 15 minutes went by before I got up to collect my things. Naturally, my wallet was gone. I say "naturally" not because of the place, but because it seemed like an ironic sequel to my first wallet experience.

I played it down. The last thing I wanted to do was make a scene. What, after all, could anyone possibly be expected to think? At best, that I was no different from the rest of them. Like an idiot child, sent out into the world." Or - at worst - that I had deliberately planted an incident, left it there on purpose so she can go back where she came from and say it's all true." Better just to let it go.

Still, I made some motions to look for the wallet; mentioned it to one of the folks I was talking to, an irreverent and extremely polite young man with a small gold chain through one ear. He checked around. When I asked the bartender, she was distraught: "Why didn't you tell me to hold it for you?" she said. This was easily enough activity to attract the attention of the keyboard player. He's a recent friend of mine and the one who had invited me down. Above the music, he wordlessly mouthed: "What's wron g?"

"My wallet," I signaled back.

He shook his head.

When the band broke between sets, he came over for the details, but we did not dwell on the topic. I was happy, instead, to let him bait me up onto my feet and dance to the funkier groove now pulsing from the guts of the jukebox. It was a nice time. We were good for some amused appreciation.

I swore to myself I'd only listen to the first few songs of the next set, but when the band got into it again, when the keys and the bass guitar started conversing, and the drummer got to lolling his head, savoring the delicious triple rhythm he was rapping out of the rim of his drum, I was, as always, seduced.

An hour went by before I finally took off. Folks hoped I'd be back again; told me, reaching into a memory - or a private parody - of how they'd been made welcome places, "not to be a stranger." I assured them I wouldn't. I knew, also, that I would have to call the place, or come down the next day, to see if my wallet had turned up.

"No, seriously?" It was 2:30 in the morning; I had the telephone in my hand.

"... You were taking that way too light. I don't know if you've ever had the experience of replacing everything in a wallet before...." My friend's voice was clear and measured. His first words had been "I have your wallet."

I, instantly awake, had accused him of kidding. "I wanted to make sure you had it tonight, before you started making a lot of calls...."

I told him to come on up - he was calling from a pay phone down the street - and in a minute he was sitting at my old gate-leg table, handing me the wallet.

"What happened?" I asked.

He said that he had noticed someone, a man, who had left early... . had on a red baseball cap; he didn't remember seeing him in the place before. Apparently, passing in front of the band on his way to the men's room, the man had hesitated, looking "kind of strange." At the end of the night, my friend asked about him, rather forcefully. It turned out that the bartender and others "knew some of his people" and were able to get ahold of him."

"And see, I know his mother," my friend continued. "I told him, 'I know she didn't raise you to be doing this kind of thing. Does she know you be out, stealing folks' wallets?' I told him, 'Later for the money, man. But we know exactly what's in that wallet, and you'd best get it back here, intact. I checked the wallet. It was, except for $23, intact. "Amazing," I said.

The various points of this story are clear enough; yet one of them may deserve emphasis. It has to do with something known as "home-raising," a decided and a unique reality, which I have encountered a number of times recently in the black community.

I have no intention of challenging the presumption that African-American family structures are in immediate peril. To take a random example, 70 percent of the children served by the East Area Community Coalition in Kansas City, Mo., live in fatherless households. The facts are incontrovertible. However, the implication has often been that this present deterioration is somehow inherent, that these structures in fact have no foundations to be undermined. This implication, as I have learned, is false. In th e African-American community, the sense of family and what it stands for are very much intact. They are a basis that is built upon every day. Further, I submit that if anyone asked me, or my little sister - during her difficult days when she was, if not stealing wallets, then acting quite as inappropriately Did your mother raise you to the question would simply be unintelligible.

My friend and I hung out some more. He has a kind of open-faced gregariousness that he uses as a shield sometimes to keep himself just out of reach. It melts away, though, in private. We sat and talked - about music; about language; about his little niece and nephew who were on their way up for a visit. It was just after 4 a.m. when he asked me the time. "Well," he said, "I guess I better let you get some sleep if you have to be up in the morning. Take care," he said. ll check you later."

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