THE BIRDMAN OF HARLEM - MICHAEL A. GONZALES
Sporting a massive pair of fresh high-top Pro-Keds on his feet, Birdman zoomed down the street with a James Brown beat banging in his brain. Faster than a speeding bullet, to me he was like a ghetto Superman.
Soaring down the steep hill dressed in loose gym shorts, a sweat soiled white t-shirt and a sweatband around his peanut shaped head, Birdman wasn’t bothered by anything. Lost in the white shroud of fluffy clouds, his shaved head was shiny under the gleaming summertime sun. Rain or shine, Birdman was ready to fly.
Every morning, leaning out of my second floor window, I watched as he approached the top of the hill. Stretching his limbs to avoid cramps, he stared intensely towards the rooftops. Grimacing at the dirty pigeons perched on concrete gargoyles, he took a deep breath, rubbed his eyes and ran in place until an imaginary starting pistol blasted towards the heavens.
Picking up speed with every step, Birdman raced to the bottom of the hill. Swiftly turning the corner, he ran along the quiet sidewalks of Riverside Drive. Not bothering to stop until he reached Dead Man’s Hill six blocks away, it was as though Birdman was possessed by the sheer joy of movement. He then ran up the hill and ran down Broadway, back to my block.
“Use distance to build speed,” he thought. His coaches at George Washington High School (which almost everyone referred to as G-Dubs) preached that gospel repeatedly and Birdman was a true believer.
“But what does it feel like to run like that?” I asked him one afternoon as we stood in Jesus’s candy-store, playing a game of pinball.
“It’s like being in your own world,” explained Birdman. Although he was a few years older, he never minded me hanging around. He had heard me cheering from the window and knew I was fan.
“You’re in your own world and every morning is Christmas and every night is the Fourth of July. And no one ever screams at you because of your schoolwork ain't done or the stereo’s too loud or dumb stuff like that.”
Pausing to flip the silver ball as though he had suddenly transformed into a pinball sorcerer, he finally said, “My coach at school told me, you know, the more I practice the better I’ll get. Maybe even get a chance at the Olympics like Bruce Jenner.”
Birdman slammed the ancient machine when the silver ball began rolling down the middle. “Stop fighting the machine!” Jesus screamed, his Spanish accent thicker than gravy. “Machine don’t fight back, but I do,” he laughed. Jesus’s shop was our personal chocolate factory, toy store and social club.
Some dudes spent more time hanging-out in Jesus’s than they did inside school, church or their own apartments. It was a festive joint, where salsa blared from the radio and young boys dragged their dates after leaving the picture show.
Unlike the other merchants in our hood, who reserved a special brand of hate for all teenagers, we felt as though Jesus understood us. In the fall, boxes of candy apples were stacked on the counter while in summer illegal fireworks were stashed underneath.
Hanging on the wall was a list of store rules that began ‘Please no cursing’ and ended with ‘Please count change before leaving.’ You had to be especially rowdy for Jesus to put you out of the store.
There had been a few fools who tested his niceness, and in the summer of ’78, a mulatto psycho named White Mike became a persistent problem. The son of a drunken Polish superintendent and his meek Black wife, White Mike had been banned from the store for being rowdy and stealing a bag of Wise chips.
“Don’t worry, old man,” White Mike screamed. “I’ll be back, you just watch your back.” A hyper-disco track called ‘Get Off’ blared from the radio, filling the small store with heated percussion and orgasmic wails. But that had been weeks ago.
After Birdman finished with the pinball machine, we walked outside. “You think you might make it to the Olympics for real?” I asked Birdman. On the color television set in my mind, I could see international crowds screaming loud, chanting, ‘Birdman! Birdman! Birdman!’ as his size 13s blazed across the track holding the trademarked torch.
Looking down at me, Birdman laughed, which was rare; he usually looked so sad. “Hope is forever,” he mumbled, sounding like one of damn fortune cookies from Chow Wong’s, where pork rice and chicken gizzards were the house specialty. “Catch ya later, dude.” He slapped me five and ran down the block.
The only child born to a wild beauty named Candi Lewis, even after Birdman was born, she preferred swinging her shapely sepia legs from bar stools rather than rear him right. Rather than squatting on park benches with the other mothers, Candi was a night crawler, a nocturnal creature whose simple life consisted of being fine, swilling drinks and laying down with other women’s men.
Birdman spent most days and nights at his grandmother’s place. He addressed her as ‘Ma,’ and she called him by his real name, ‘Norman.’ A kindly, wrinkled woman who retired from her factory job two years before, she lived only for her grandson. “I gave up on that girl of mine years ago,” she once wearily remarked about her loose daughter. “Saves me a lot of heartache that way. She belongs to the streets now.”
His grandmother’s only vices was watching game shows, playing the numbers at Big Daddy’s joint and a more than occasional sip of blueberry brandy. Lying in bed surrounded by old newspapers and faded photographs, she drank her warm liquor from a decorative glass and frequently talked back to the contestants who couldn’t guess the answers on The Price Is Right.
Although his grandmother was the only person who never called him Birdman, she still understood his dreams of flight, often shelling out cash to supply his sneaker obsession. She made sure her wig was fitted tightly when she screamed, ‘Go, Norman, go!’ at every track meet.
As his grandma sat in the gorgeous George Washington High bleachers, the chilly winds blew in from the Hudson River, causing her brittle bones to shiver. Surrounded by cheering crowds and gang members, usually White Mike and his menacing disciples, she silently prayed that she would live to see the day that her baby could fly away from those mean streets forever.
Of course, like Big Daddy the number banker used to say, “Prayers in the ghetto are like watercolors in the rain. If God moves in mysterious ways, then the Devil his own plans.”
Maybe if Candi had thought clearly, she never would have messed with Big Daddy. Hell, everybody in Harlem knew that his woman, the infamous Sheila Mae (breasts the size of overstuffed pillows, legs thick as tree trunks), was no joke. A colossal country chick who prided herself on hellraising and slicing the competition with the garlic-soaked straight razor, which she kept tucked in her cleavage.
Still, most of the broads who hung at the Oasis had cocaine for brains and stiff drinks for courage. As my own mother, who had worked at the ’O since I was a baby, told me after Miss Candi’s accident, “That poor woman was blinded by the cash, the flash and that big-ass Caddie.”
Dressed in a Flare Brothers three-piece crimson linen suit, a black silk shirt and a pair of spit-polished gators, Big Daddy was definitely on some Superfly shit that night. Swaggering into the bar like a big dick lion with Tarzan riding on his back, everybody greeted him like ghetto royalty.
Surrounded by two-bit glamour guys and sepia-toned dolls, Big Daddy sat down. Behind the bar, red and white Christmas light bulbs were strung up on the ceiling, creeping down the wall like illuminated vines.
“Drinks for my friends,” Big Daddy shouted, pulling Birdman’s mama Miss Candi into his lap. She laughed as he caressed her soft bottom; on the tattered jukebox Al Green’s sang, “Love and happiness…something that can make you do wrong, make you want to do wrong.”
As the night slowly inched towards daylight, my mom filled the numerous cocktail orders from processed hair slickie boys who were watching their dates soulfully sway their thick hips to the beat. The sticky stench of sweaty passion, spilled drinks and choking cigarette smoke tainted the air. With all the loud talk and bump ’n grind, girlish giggles and hard cock pelvis wiggles, nobody noticed when Sheila staggered drunkenly into the bar.
Dressed in high heels and a sky blue dress, she clutched the matching purse close to her chest. Without realizing it, Sheila stood directly in front of a black velvet zodiac poster of freaky couples in various sexual positions.
“You call this working, motherfucker?” she screamed indignantly at Big Daddy. A sudden hush overcame the boozy haven once Sheila had made her presence known. Big Daddy smiled foolishly, familiar with his woman’s antics. “You supposed to be a number banker, not a pimp. And this lil’ ho young enuff to be your own child.”
With her once pretty face contorted into a nightmarish image of disgust and evil, Sheila focused her blurry-eyed sight towards Candi. “Ever dance with the devil, bitch?” she slurred, her breath reeking of gin.
“Come on now, Sheila,” my mother yelled across the bar. After years of working there, she was used to being peacekeeper for Saturday night drunks. “This ain’t the time or the place. Y’all need to handle your personal business outside.”
Mom poured Sheila some Gordon’s gin, hoping that one more shot would calm Sheila’s nerves or knock her out. While most of the customers had scattered like roaches, the next day they would be back embellishing the story of how Sheila’s bloodshot eyes lingered over Candi’s sheer tube top, skin-tight mini-skirt, pretty brown thighs and knee-high boots.
“You right, Fran,” Sheila said, walking over the scarred oak bar. “But when these hoes gonna start giving a bitch some respect, huh? All a country girl like me wants is some respect.”
Downing the burning liquid as though it were water, she lit a Kool cigarette. Big Daddy and Candi were stiffly seated, too horrified to move. Sheila puffed the menthol cancer stick as though it might be her last in a long time.
“Be cool, baby,” Big Daddy barked. “Don’t do nothing you going to regret tomorrow.”
“You want that bitch, then have that bitch,” Sheila screeched. Coldly, she flicked her lit cigarette towards Big Daddy’s smooth face. He laughed nervously. Turning her back to Big Daddy, she slithered her fingers into her purse and pulled out an old applesauce jar filled with battery acid.
Turning back around, she opened the lid. In what seemed like slow motion, Sheila threw the liquid fire into Candi’s pretty face. “But, every damn time you look at that bitch, you’ll be thinking ’bout me!” Sheila’s laughter became uncontrollable, until one of the barfly’s cold-cocked her; she wobbled for a moment before crashing to the floor.
Candi’s piercing screams sounded like slow death. “My eyes...my eyes,” she howled, crawling across the floor. Like a bucket of water thrown on the Wicked Witch, the dazzling splendor that had moments before been Candi’s flesh began to melt.
She tried to scream again, but no sound came out. The bar’s spooky Christmas lights created an eerie effect as her skin dripped to the floor. Candi looked like one of those horrid creatures from the Coney Island haunted house. For some folks, this was just another savage Saturday night in Harlem. But for Candi, it was the beginning of a blind bitterness that would last for the rest of her life.
After his mother’s tragedy, Birdman disappeared. Nobody seemed to know what had happened to the brother who had once ran with such grace, practicing every day for his chance to escape the blue funk of Harlem: he was going to be a champion, before the shadows and vultures overcast his sun; he was going to be a legend, before the walls crumpled in his path. Every time I looked out of the window in the mornings, I expected to see my skinny friend racing down the block.
I tried to visit him a few days afterwards, but had zero luck. “Norman doesn’t want to see anyone,” his grandmother said. Her eyes were sad. “No one at all.”
Weeks later, my homeboy C.C. said he saw Birdman swinging lower than a sweet chariot, dressed in a denim gang jacket and sharing a bottle of Night Train with that thug White Mike. The dubious duo were standing in front of the McDonald’s on 145th and Broadway, scaring folks to death. C.C. had just come from tagging the walls in the subway station.
“It was crazy, man. They was all high and shit, talking high talk ’bout how bad they are and all that dumb mess,” rattled C.C, his hands stained with red spray-paint. “Ain’t never seen a brother flip-out like that Birdman done flipped. Look like he might be sniffing dope or glue or something. Hope he ain’t strung out on junk, because that p-funk is a killer diller.”
It was candy apple autumn again when I saw finally saw Birdman, although it took me a minute to recognize the brother. Talk on the street was that he was spending his days in a heroin haze and his nights in gang fights; the illicit influence of White Mike had destroyed whatever humanity he once displayed.
His hair was now a nappy nest. His clothes were in desperate need of soap ’n water. His once prized sneakers were now as busted as the rest of him. It was obvious, he just didn’t care anymore. Deferred dreams were one thing, but shattered hopes are worse.
As I stood in the rear of Jesus’s, watching a stranger rocking the pinball machine, I noticed Birdman standing out front, nodding like a needle park junkie. “Yo, Birdman!” I yelled, over the swelling congas and psychotic pianos of Eddie Palmieri’s wild Vamonos Pa’l Monte. “Yo, Birdman.”
From the bugged look on his face, it was obvious that Birdman was feeling no pain. For a moment, I thought he was going to completely ignore me, act as if he didn’t know who a little brother was or some shit.
A few minutes later, when it was my turn to play the machine like the pinball wizard I believed myself to be, I was startled when Birdman walked over, looking crazy. For no reason at all, he shattered the glass of the pinball machine with his bare hands. He was crying, howling like a wounded beast as blood dripped down his bony arms.
Jesus cursed loudly in Spanish, searching for his wooden baseball bat. Out of nowhere, as though he had merely materialized from the chaos, White Mike stormed into the store and grabbed the chipped bat from Jesus’s trembling hands.
Smashing the glass candy case with a swing that was straight out of the Reggie Jackson handbook, he laughed. “I told you I’d be back, motherfucker!” he hollered like madman. With a zonked-out look in his eyes, White Mike dented the ice cream freezer and bent the comic book racks, smashed soda bottles and rows of toys. While his rage lasted only a few minutes before the cops rolled up, Jesus’s Spot looked like a riot had occurred.
“What is wrong with you, Birdman?” I shouted, scared to death. “Birdman, you out of your mind or something?”
“My name is Norman,” he muttered sadly. “Just call me Norman.” Minutes later, as the cops angrily dragged him to the waiting patrol car, Birdman wept.
BIO: Brooklyn-based Michael A. Gonzales writes for Wax Poetics, New York magazine, Stop Smiling and the Village Voice. His fiction has appeared in Brown Sugar 2 edited by Carol Taylor, The Darker Mask edited by Gary Phillips & Christopher Chambers and Bronx Bi-annual edited by Miles Marshall Lewis. His essay on Chester Himes appears in Best African-American Essays 2010 edited by Gerald Early. He blogs at Blackadelic Pop.
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