A Boy-A Man: I Was. Be. Done Been.

Shahn Ben, 1898-1969, photographer, 1935, Farm Security Administration cropped

***Everybody significant to this memory is already dead.

There is still a Barbershop at the corner of Morrell and Walnut streets. Across the way is a rail stop and the roads are paved and level. Back in 1973 that area was an open field where some long gone business had left a broken slab and ridiculous patches of weeds, grass, pop bottle glass and gravel. One slice of that lot, furthest away from the bus stop, covered a water run-off ditch with high weeds and was good for hiding.

Jesse Lawrence was a pretty good hider. He was slightly built as we grew older and his once scatter shot laughter calmed into a silent, under-his-breath chuckle. We came to know that he was laughing by the twitch of his shoulders and corner of his mouth lifting to bare his dog tooth. He had changed when his right eye nearly closed after being hit by the playground swing. Now, he appeared and slipped away with silence and ease and remembrance. We practiced saying, “He was here, with us…Mr. Policeman” or to a staggering Mr. Lawrence. He was eleven. He ran fast and favored his left if you were throwing the football to him. He sometimes asked us to hold things for “a lil’ while”.

 At the Barbershop, Mr. Harold Milton was a model of The Talented Tenth Generation. Even now, him long dead and me at his age, I walk a line as thin as his mustache. I sorrow at my selfishness in not tucking my starched shirts above a belt and matching shoes, shined to a fit. My stride is neither as high or as tight. My interactions these days at the Barbershop, surely would fall below and behind Mr. Harold Milton’s gracefulness.

He spoke eloquently about standing upright and the legacy you built by ownership. His tiger’s eye pinky ring and cuff links were distinct elements of his haircuts, along with, the bay rum and a boar’s hair broom that finished off your time in his chair. His cash drawer was a blue, Savings & Loan deposit bag in the top drawer of a polished, five foot, cherry, oval mirrored stand. A thick brass rod encircled the white, marble basin and held a smoothing strope. Mr. Harold slid the razor along that leather strap in a fashion that suggested an undercurrent of recollecting violence.

What we knew on that late Summer afternoon when those two lives changed forever, was the rush and squealing tires of Mr. Milton’s red Cadillac a few blocks away. Ricky’s perfectly spiraled football whisked over the head of a new kid and thudded on the street. The red Caddy flushed into view and turned right with a fishtail, then chased onto Walnut Street, back toward Morrell. It was so unusual that nearly every boy playing that day cursed a very animated, “Damn!”

In the clearing dust cloud and riding the cusses, a slim figure stood up from the water overflow ditch. In unison another cuss ran through us as everyone recognized the Barbershop cash bag sticking out the leg of Jesse’s cutoffs. A moment later Jesse shook his pants and the frayed cutoff edged back his secret.

Jesse slipped away from the ditch and among us so quickly that we had to ask ourselves if it was really him. He grabbed the football away from Big Ricky and slipped a few feet away, tossing it back into the crowd and jogging a few away, waving his amazingly large and open palm for a return pass.

Just as the ball was pitched back to him Mr. Milton’s red Cadillac crunched to a stop behind us. It, like Jesse, emerging at its Master’s will…beck and command. Jesse tapped the ball down hard against the leg with a secret and stepped back into our group.

Mr. Milton’s gaze was certain and piercing as he lifted the cuff-linked maw of a hand to find Jesse. His commanding use of the word, “Son”, was a heavily stropped blade and boys peeled away from Jesse, who had squatted and was tying an already tight shoe lace.

Jesse rose to his full, five feet three inches, then spread his palms and fingers wide toward Mr. Milton. Mr. Milton advanced and we all froze anticipating an angry blow. Older men didn’t fight boys in our neighborhood, but his frantic street and alley searching for this boy signaled change. He stared into Jesse’s eyes and his angry posture relented. Mr. Milton stepped to the left of Jesse and spread out his huge, sleeved arm and an opened palm. “Give me what’s mine, Son”.

It took a minute to see that his sudden move had cut off Jesse’s escape. As Mr. Milton approached the boys around Jesse had spread. Now, we saw it. Jesse’s lip raised, exposing that dog tooth, then he tilted his head to Mr. Milton and the leather pouch slipped to the ground from up his pant leg.

Everybody stared at its thickness.

Mr. Milton waited for Jesse to pick up and hand back the money bag. When the boy crouched into the action we could see he had schemed to spring up and slice between the crowded bodies. Mr. Milton saw it too and spoke sharply, “I’ll need to see your pockets, Son”. The man’s loose fist jutted out and stayed Jesse in a crouch.

We spread away from the two of them as Jesse whispered, “I hid some of it under the Church. I ain’t got nothing else on me.” Mr. Milton pulled him up saying, “Well, let’s be on it, then.” and they started toward the Church, just half the block away. Jesse’s arm was swallowed in a tight grip as they ascended the short incline, passing the grassy ditch.

Three minutes later they were rounding the corner of the Church. Jesse was freed, but in close reach of a grimacing Mr. Milton and the Pastor. We were still grouped and swearing under our breaths about the whole thing when somebody said, “Awww Maaan…” and pointed beyond the Church to Mr. Lawrence hustling toward Jesse and the men with braided extension cords at his side. He began to swear and yelled at Jesse, “You bet not run!”, but the boy had already bolted.

Pastor and Mr. Milton turned and halted Mr. Lawrence with pleas and assurances that everything was returned. I watched a slim figure rising slowly against the Church facade at a spot flush with evergreen bushes and bordered by a brick planter. We avoided that spot for both the sickening smell of the bushes and the sticky sap on the sprig limbs. Jesse melded into place and calmed his breathing so as not to shake the hiding place. Mr. Lawrence and the men bustled past him and entered the Church side door assuming Jesse had sought its sanctuary.

Jesse stepped free of the hide, brushed the sticky green bristles from his head and face, then jutted across Morrell Street toward another hiding place. A moment later the men emerged from the Church. Mr. Lawrence’s braided extension cords were gone and he was apologizing profusely to Mr. Milton. Pastor draped an arm around the embarrassed, angry father and drew him back inside the Church. Mr. Milton slipped away and drew toward our bunch and his still idling red Cadillac with the open driver’s door.

His glance was brief. His nod, to us innocents, was joined with a wave and an embarrassed grimace before slipping into the red Cadillac. He sat for a minute, then stared up into the rise of Morrell Street that leveled out for about seventy yards in front of the Church, then gradually leaned into a slope, then ascended toward a tree-lined gully of the hill where Jesse’s family lived. Behind us the 47 Moore City Bus whined to a stop and expelled neighbors and diesel fumes and Mr. Milton stepped out his car holding some folded bills.

For some reason he picked me. “Junior, can you get this to Jesse? …just like I’m handing it to YOU!” His hand wobbled as it pressed the crisp half-fold against my dirty t-shirt. His other hand quickly came forward and placed a worn ten dollar bill atop the fold, ” This is for being my Man Friday.”

Mr. Milton turned back into his red Cadillac, shut the solid sounding door and sped off, passing his Barbershop and, eventually, the 47 Moore City bus.

Across Morrell and caddy-corner to the Barbershop was a place we called, the Little Store. There was candy, sodas and barbecue potato chips. The owners, Mr. Brown and Short Sam, had installed a row of washing machines and two dryers in a room next door. They had also put a pinball machine in the rear, near the always open door and exit to an alley. As a group we agreed to spend three dollars on pinball and junk food until Jesse slipped in from the alley to take his turn at getting the highest score.

Jas. Mardis is a 2014 Inductee to the Texas Literary Hall of Fame.

Demetri Cotton

The Demetri Cotton exhibition, “Transitions For Change & Distinct Physicality”, is such a blessing of homecoming and giftedness that you might find yourself weeping.

He returns to his childhood Ft. Worth neighborhood, a few blocks from his Grade School. Back then this Library was the Book Mobile of a African American woman hoping to reach the Black children denied Library access in the City.

Cotton’s 30 yards of wall art is the fulfillment of dreams and closes strands of the circle. Hope is felt in this space. Everybody that touched his journey, especially Curator, Tonya Stark, are pulling their own closing strand of the Hope Circle. Go and see what infectious hope can create. Ella Mae Shamblee Library 1062 Evans Ave Fort Worth, TX 76104

“What He say, Daddy? What He say?

When we were boys, my brother and I had the run of Cypress Street in North Little Rock, Arkansas on oursl porchia Summer visits down home. We ate like kings and fished almost daily between stints of wrestling and throwing rocks at wasps nests and some, mean-as-hell, blue jays.

Early mornings broke thru a small window above the kitchen sink. It was always lined with the hard-skinned, green tomatoes from Madear’s garden below. Every morning, sipping cooled black coffee from Daddy S.L.’s saucer and crunching bites of beautifully browned toast, coated with runny egg and grits, there was little else to satisfy our boyhood needs.

I am certain that the early morning dew of Arkansas is medicinal. We never remembered our shoes and wore threadbare pajamas when walking Daddy S.L. to his blue and silver station wagon, but we were sorely protected from the 5:45a.m. chill. I think now that his smooth, baritone chuckle was our warmth as we skittered back into the kitchen to argue over the last sip of cold coffee and bites of breakfast left on his plate.  We would be curled asleep beneath the small, press board and vinyl table within minutes of his leaving…every morning.

He returned home at 3:30pm and walked in giant steps thru the curled up grandkids watching the black and white half hour of Lone Ranger and a local BOZO The Clown Show. We made it a good luck charm to touch the dirt dusted leg of his work pants as he swiped by. In the kitchen MaDear hard fried them palm-sized perch and boiled hot dogs and beans for the kid’s dinner. We heard them kiss.

Other afternoons he stuck his head thru the door and called for us to “come run with me”.  On those afternoons we headed down to the ballpark at Whitmore Circle to watch men play baseball. The best part of those “runs” were the Mexican tamale cart vendors who surely over delivered on those one dollar, corn husk wrapped bundles. But, the best thing  ever about those “runs” was a singing ball player, they called, “Big Cole”.

From the dugout Big Cole ran thru, what I imagined were, old songs; rifts of blues and names of women and men who had done him wrong. He was older than the players and rarely made it to the plate. I recall him swatting a slow lobbed ball over the Pitcher’s outstretched glove just once. He couldn’t “run slow”, the men teased Big Cole, and he slung the bat and settled back into the dugout. After awhile he began to hum, then riff on the idea of  finding a woman who could “wait til the bottle run dry”. “What He say, Daddy?” my bug-eyed query brought chuckles from the grown ups.

Again, Big Cole rambled on about Birmingham not being a ham like the one his woman carried under her dress. “What He say, Daddy? What HE SAY?” Soon, recounting stories of thunderous home runs were overshadowed by the salty tongue of Big Cole.

Driving home, Daddy S.L. said that Big Cole was a “Caller” for the Gandy men who worked to straighten the tracks. The heavy loads of trees being harvested  from deep in the woods would damage the rail lines and could warp the creosoled drenched ties. He said the “Gandy Dancers” and work crews from the Penitentiary “throwed” them back in line. Big Cole sang to the men and got everybody on the same rhythm to make the job easier.

Daddy S.L. said that Big Cole hung around places and picked up stories to use in his songs. Later, in July, he drove me to the Little Rock Stock Yards and we parked near the junction where myriad train tracks snaked and fingered alongside the warehouses for delivery. We left the car windows down and a warm breeze had me nodding.

I awoke to a shadowy clanking of iron rods and deep laughter. A White man suddenly shouted, “Gwine up to de quarter head”, and men moved in unison toward a curved section of tracks. I sat up and leaned out the station wagon’s window just as the White man made a jerking arm motion and yelled out to the men.

On the hot breeze a long moan built quickly to a wailing, then nasally passage in Big Cole’s, familiar cadence.

Aahhh! Aaa-Ooohhh-Oh-Ohh-Oh

Aahh—Two Ol gals was court’n Me

One was blind & One caint see

My Grandma put a switch to me

When I come home wit a kiss on me

Ol boys pull t’gether

Ol boys pull t’hether—HUH!

At “HUH!” the men shuttered, stomped, whipped their iron rods in a hard, short burst and I saw the track jut to the left.

He did it twice more before the White man gestured with his hand and the men halted. On the wind, that carried dry and hot back to the station wagon window, was laughter. Behind the guffaws came a question. “Dem ol gals couldn’t hide Dey kisses, Cole?!”

Daddy S.L. shook his head, chuckled and started up the family car.

Sandlot Football in Oak Cliff: Recruited

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Ricky Miller: The Original Black Quarterback

When I was seven some boys spotted me and my brother, Steve, leaping onto the huge planters that fronted our Church. It was right before Baptist Training Union and we were avoiding going in until the last minute. The planters were beige stone structures that graduated in height from street level to the top of a stack of steps at the entrance. We leapt high and laughed hard when the other one fell on his landing. Our Buster Brown shoes were scuffed green and chalk white from the shrubbery and brick. Behind us the boys huddled on the Jacobs’ front facing yard and watched silently. At some point one of the boys; a tall, dark-skinned, muscular boy with long arms and huge hands yelled out, “Hey!”

I was landing bad and stumbled sideways with a big, falling forward motion when he had yelled. Looking toward his shout I saw a football slicing the distance and zeroing in on my face at the very spot where I didn’t know I was landing. I caught the ball with a fanatical squeeze and slap of my hands together and rolled forward onto the walkway. The boys across the street laughed and pointed and shook their surprised mouths closed with clasped hands and grass-staining rolls. It was the first time that I had EVER caught a football. The yelling boy smiled big and held up his hands in the same catching motion, expecting back the football. I walked to the edge of the street, pushing my torn shirt back in place against my road rash belly, and flung the ball sideways in baseball fashion. More guffaws.

My older sister came to the entrance and shouted, “Get inside“. Across the street the tall boy picked the spinning football off the sidewalk and jacked back his head in a familiar anti-nod. His close cut hairline was pushed back on his slender, black forehead.  As I turned and took the first step, he licked the tips of his fingers with a huge, dark pink tongue before gripping the leather ball and tucking it under an arm. Another of the boys waved as they began to stand. At BTU, Peter left the boat and walked, briefly on water.

Later that week my Stepfather called me and Steve out of our room and to the front porch. In the yard were the gang of boys with the tall boy spinning a football in his huge palm. “Go ahead“, my Stepfather prodded, “You can ask ’em yo’self, son.” The boy said, “Uh, my name is Ricky Miller. Ya’ll wanna come up to the high-line field and play some football?” My Stepfather turned back inside saying over his shoulder, “Get back t’the house before I hafta light the porch.” Me and Steve followed the boys to the field at the top of the Morrell Street.

The boys introduced themselves as we walked and most were brothers: the Mcpherson boys were Ricky Lane, Larry and Michael; Keith Wayne Jernigan and Chili-Wayne Epperson were singles; the Taylor boys were Mickey, Gilbert and lil Keith. The big boy was Ricky Miller and his younger brother was Clifton.

Once at the field Ricky Miller showed me how to hold and throw the football, then sent me trotting down the field to catch the ball some more. He quickly discovered two things: I could run faster than most and had no idea what I was doing otherwise. He took me aside and drew jagged lines in the dirt that I was supposed to follow. He promised me that the football would be thrown at the area marked with an “X” and that I was supposed to catch it there. I ran the zigzags faster than the “Safety” boys who tried to keep me from doing it. Ricky Miller yelled a lot and the ball zipped through the air and landed on the various imaginary “X” marks.

Walking us back home Ricky Miller asked, “Don’t ch’all watch the Dallas Cowboys games on Sunday?” We both replied, “Sometimes, before we go back to BTU, but Mr. Howard yells and cusses too much at the t.v., so Mama says to play outside.”

Do y’all know Craig Morton?”, Ricky Miller tried again. ” How ’bout Walt Garrison? Bob Lilly? Don Meredith? Lee Roy Jordan? Y’all never heard of Bullet Bob Hayes or Pettis Norman, either?”. Before I could lie about knowing these names, Ricky Miller said, “Try to stay inside and watch the Dallas Cowboys on Sunday”. Then, without my asking, he handed me his football saying, “Throw it to each other and bring it back up to the field with you next time”.

We were half a block away from the house and Mr. Howard stood watching for us from the screened in porch. Morrell Street was leaning into the early grays of evening, but everything around us was suddenly brand new, imaginary zigzag patterns and “X’s”. Steve took off and ran across Ms. Palmer’s front yard yelling for the football. I threw it like Ricky Miller had been showing me. The worn, brown leather ball rose in the air and wobbled like a shot duck before dying ten feet away and bouncing to a stop.

Steve ran back  a few feet to get it. As he chucked the ball back, a little less dying duck style to me, the bulb from our screened in porch sprang to an amazingly brighter life.

Jas. Mardis is an Award winning Poet, Writer and Art Quilter. He has been awarded the Push Cart Prize for Poetry and is a 2014 Inductee to the Texas Literary Hall of Fame.

Photo Credit: Library of Congress Photo collection Farm Security Administration collection

Jeffie and the Itchy Penny: Don’t Try This …Don’t

I grew up in Oak Cliff, Dallas, Texas,  just up the hill from the Jack In the Box on Corinth road and down the block from Greater Mt. Pleasant Missionary imageBaptist Church. Going a little further would land you at the Dallas Zoo or, in the other direction, the entrance to the legendary Dallas Sportatorium. No matter which direction we took back in the day we were guaranteed an adventure.

For my brother, Little S.L., and me there was nobody who took an adventure further than Jeffie Caldwell. Most of the time we walked wherever we wanted to go, so when we finally did get a bike Me, Little S.L. and Jeffie took turns riding and walking alongside it on our journeys.

Most days started with a yell across the neighborhood to find out what was going on for the day. Jeffie was always out before us and he stayed away from home longer and later than we were allowed. The next mornings would be spent sharing fried egg and Spam sandwiches while Jeffie told us what he’d discovered. We sat spellbound on flattened basketballs in the shade of our garage and apple-pear tree as he scared us with his escapes and unbelievable sightings. We learned to tell if he was making stuff up because Jeffie would pick a boring part and start poking a stick at the yellow jacket nest on the underside of the garage roof line. The hornets would swarm, we’d scream, swat, dodge and Jeffie would disappear.

One day there was no response to our yells. Me and Little S.L. went looking and eventually found him down the hill in front of the Jack in the Box. He was sitting on the curb, staring at two, white steel pennies on the pavement between his feet. Every so often he would scratch his unusually dirty palms, then rub them hard against his equally dirty handed down jeans.

“Hey, Jeffie”, we called out to him but he never took his gaze off those pennies. “What’s happening, Jeffie?” also went unanswered and it took a few minutes before he noticed that we had been standing there. Jeffie’s eyes were big, but he kept them closed to slits most of the time because he needed glasses. When he looked up at us his eyes were bugged, bloodshot and a little glassy. He called on me first. “Hey, Buggy, uh, can you do me a solid, man?” Without waiting for my answer Jeffie stepped slowly away from the shiny coins and asked, “Uh, can you pick up dem pennies for me, right quick?”

Little S.L. stepped in front of me and picked up the pennies, but instantly dropped them and yanked his hand away to scratch against his pants. He swore–“SHIT. DAMN”.  Jeffie didn’t say anything. He looked over at me and asked again, “Uh, hey, Buggy Man…can you pick up ‘dem pennies?” Little S.L. kicked at the pennies and said, “There’s something on the back of the pennies that stung my hand, Jr.”

We just stood there for a minute or two or longer, really deciding what to do next. I knew that Little S.L. would never swear in public and certainly not in front of the Jack-in-the-Box. I also knew that Jeffie could come up with some pretty “different discoveries” and didn’t want to pick up pennies that had been dipped in some kind of liquid. “Uh, Jeffie, where you been all morning?” was how I avoided the whole thing…for a minute. “Hey, Man…you know….just walking around and looking around for stuff…you know.” Little S.L. broke in quickly, “Where was you walking when you got dem Burning Pennies, Jeffie?” “I ain’t got no BURNING NOTHING…They Itching Pennies, Steve!”

Ten seconds later, with the pennies flying across the Jack-in-the-Box covered eating area. I agreed with Jeffie. As soon as I reached for the coins a string of pressure covered the tips of my fingers and thumb. Once I grasped the coins a quick, itch-burn-biting sensation came over my hand. I swore…in front of the Jack-in-the-Box.

That’s when the White Manager opened the side door and came out to run us off. Jeffie, showing us in real-time one of his “famous escapes” scooted over to the spot where the coins had settled and spoke up, “Hey Mister, we’re just practicing a magic trick, wanna see it?’ The Manager stopped and laughed at him, “What kind of magic trick has two white pennies thrown in the air for no reason, Jeffie?” (That’s why you didn’t cuss in front of the Jack-in-the-Box) “It’ll cost you two tacos to find out”, Jeffie recovered and the Manager lifted an eye brow and put his hand on his hip. Jeffie looked at the pennies then back at the man and added, “We only get the tacos if you can’t figure out the trick! Okay? Oh, and you don’t tell Rev. Caldwell that we been cussing next time he’s down here.” “Deal” the man agreed and went back inside for the tacos. 

When the Manager returned there were two neighborhood boys-workers with him. “Okay, show us the trick”

Jeffie made a big show of waving his hands over the pennies and muttering magic words we knew from comic books, but at the end he said, “The Witche’s Itches to anybody who touches her coins!” Then, to our surprise he picked up the pennies and placed them on one of the round metal table tops. “Now, if the trick works then the magic spell that I just put on the pennies will make your hands itch like crazy when you touch them…go ahead and see it…PICK UP THE TACOS..PENNIES!” Everybody laughed, but one of the boys reached out for the coins. He never made it. He snatched back his hand and looked oddly at Jeffie.

The Manager tried next and quickly dropped the coins and scratched madly at his palms before turning to a smirking Jeffie, who had already reached into the bag for his taco. “Boy”, the Manager whistled out, “What in the world is Rev Caldwell teaching you boys”. Then, he returned to the restaurant and said to get out of the customer seating area.

Jeffie handed us the remaining taco to split and used the paper bag to scoop up the pennies. He rolled the bag into a tight wad and dropped it in the waste can beside the building.

Jeffie was stone-cold quiet at our questions about the pennies. We could see him looking around for a wasp nest to whack, so we put him in the middle and kept walking. Stopping at his sidewalk, we waited for his answer.

Jeffie told us that he had been in an alley looking for cans and bottles to sell when he saw a White lady burying something behind her garage. He waited until she was finished and back inside before digging it up and, instead of jewelry or gold, he found her cat in a shoe box. The cat had those pennies Scotch taped to his dead eyes. He snatched them and ran. Jeffie had made it all the way to the Jack in the Box seating area before figuring out what was itching him so bad.

Finally, when Rev. Caldwell came to the screen and barked out, “Jeffie, was you boy’s cussin’ down at the Jack-in-the-Box?’ we knew it was time to run!

Ricky Miller: The Original Oak Cliff Black Quarterback

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A blog series: Part 1 

Ricky Miller: The Original Black Quarterback

When I was seven some boys spotted me and my brother, Steve, leaping onto the huge planters that fronted our Church. It was right before Baptist Training Union and we were avoiding going in until the last minute. The planters were beige stone structures that graduated in height from street level to the top of a stack of steps at the entrance. We leapt high and laughed hard when the other one fell on his landing. Our Buster Brown shoes were scuffed green and chalk white from the shrubbery and brick. Behind us the boys huddled on the Jacobs’ front facing yard and watched silently. At some point one of the boys; a tall, dark-skinned, muscular boy with long arms and huge hands yelled out, “Hey!”

I was landing bad and stumbled sideways with a big, falling forward motion when he had yelled. Looking toward his shout I saw a football slicing the distance and zeroing in on my face at the very spot where I didn’t know I was landing. I caught the ball with a fanatical squeeze and slap of my hands together and rolled forward onto the walkway. The boys across the street laughed and pointed and shook their surprised mouths closed with clasped hands and grass-staining rolls. It was the first time that I had EVER caught a football. The yelling boy smiled big and held up his hands in the same catching motion, expecting back the football. I walked to the edge of the street, pushing my torn shirt back in place against my road rash belly, and flung the ball sideways in baseball fashion. More guffaws.

My older sister came to the entrance and shouted, “Get inside“. Across the street the tall boy picked the spinning football off the sidewalk and jacked back his head in a familiar anti-nod. His close cut hairline was pushed back on his slender, black forehead.  As I turned and took the first step, he licked the tips of his fingers with a huge, dark pink tongue before gripping the leather ball and tucking it under an arm. Another of the boys waved as they began to stand. At BTU, Peter left the boat and walked, briefly on water.

Later that week my Stepfather called me and Steve out of our room and to the front porch. In the yard were the gang of boys with the tall boy spinning a football in his huge palm. “Go ahead“, my Stepfather prodded, “You can ask ’em yo’self, son.” The boy said, “Uh, my name is Ricky Miller. Ya’ll wanna come up to the high-line field and play some football?” My Stepfather turned back inside saying over his shoulder, “Get back t’the house before I hafta light the porch.” Me and Steve followed the boys to the field at the top of the Morrell Street.

The boys introduced themselves as we walked and most were brothers: the Mcpherson boys were Ricky Lane, Larry and Michael; Keith Wayne Jernigan and Chili-Wayne Epperson were singles; the Taylor boys were Mickey, Gilbert and lil Keith. The big boy was Ricky Miller and his younger brother was Clifton.

Once at the field Ricky Miller showed me how to hold and throw the football, then sent me trotting down the field to catch the ball some more. He quickly discovered two things: I could run faster than most and had no idea what I was doing otherwise. He took me aside and drew jagged lines in the dirt that I was supposed to follow. He promised me that the football would be thrown at the area marked with an “X” and that I was supposed to catch it there. I ran the zigzags faster than the “Safety” boys who tried to keep me from doing it. Ricky Miller yelled a lot and the ball zipped through the air and landed on the various imaginary “X” marks.

Walking us back home Ricky Miller asked, “Don’t ch’all watch the Dallas Cowboys games on Sunday?” We both replied, “Sometimes, before we go back to BTU, but Mr. Howard yells and cusses too much at the t.v., so Mama says to play outside.”

Do y’all know Craig Morton?”, Ricky Miller tried again. ” How ’bout Walt Garrison? Bob Lilly? Don Meredith? Lee Roy Jordan? Y’all never heard of Bullet Bob Hayes or Pettis Norman, either?”. Before I could lie about knowing these names, Ricky Miller said, “Try to stay inside and watch the Dallas Cowboys on Sunday”. Then, without my asking, he handed me his football saying, “Throw it to each other and bring it back up to the field with you next time”.

We were half a block away from the house and Mr. Howard stood watching for us from the screened in porch. Morrell Street was leaning into the early grays of evening, but everything around us was suddenly brand new, imaginary zigzag patterns and “X’s”. Steve took off and ran across Ms. Palmer’s front yard yelling for the football. I threw it like Ricky Miller had been showing me. The worn, brown leather ball rose in the air and wobbled like a shot duck before dying ten feet away and bouncing to a stop.

Steve ran back  a few feet to get it. As he flung the ball back, a little less dying duck style to me, the bulb from our screened in porch sprang to an amazingly brighter life.


 

Jas. Mardis is an Award winning Poet, Writer and Art Quilter. He has been awarded the Push Cart Prize for Poetry and is a 2014 Inductee to the Texas Literary Hall of Fame. For a long time as a boy on Morrell Street he was known as “Buggy” and “Crazyleggs”. If you are in the Houston, Texas area please stop by the Holocaust Museum of Houston and see my Art Quilt, “Am I Human to You Yet?: The return of the African Dodger” in the 4 month exhibition, Man’s Inhumanity to Mankind. .

Photo Credit: Library of Congress Photo collection Farm Security Act

Jas. Mardis Didn’t Die at 9 Yrs Old

JamesI will not lose hope when hearing News & Political reports that the Protest Marches around the Country are a result of the TWO POLICE ACTIONS IN BATON ROUGE AND MINNESOTA.

I’m from a community that has tracked “historic official wrongs” as far back as Chattel Enslavement thru the Tuskegee Syphilis Experiment, Cointelpro, Emmett Till, the MOVE Bombing, Eugene “Bull” Connor, Medgar…Malcolm…Martin…and that’s just up to my birth!

I don’t tell the story often but, I looked down the barrel of a Police revolver at the age of 9 in my Oak Cliff backyard. Those Police said that my 7 year old brother and I were acting as lookouts for “somebody who was robbing houses”. We were actually building a go cart.

Two old ladies from across the street: “nosey” Ms. Emma Palmer and our only White neighbor, Ms. Ginger, assaulted those Officers with a cackling, shaming protest until they let me up off the ground.

As I prepare to turn fifty-five I can offer you this one, true reality of being one Black boy who “knows what it means to have been spared”.

Every time a story is recounted of a boy, girl, woman or man fallen at the hands or gun of an “RADICALIZED POLICE OFFICER”…

Every time those Mother’s, Father’s, Girlfriend, Homie’s, SIbling’s, Pastor’s, Neighbor’s wails fill the air…

Every time a jury spits into the necessary blindfold of Lady Justice and redefines a technicality to free a Zimmerman or a corrupt bully officer…

Every time…for forty-five years, since falling to the ground and curling into a ball in my Oak Cliff backyard… wailing for my sister to “help” as she swung open the back screen door…waiting for the hard click and popping bang/boom of that Yelling Policeman’s big-assed gun to begin…

Every time I hear folks in this country just piss on the reality of facing random, ongoing, under-investigated cases of death by official Police actions…at 7, 13, 16, 18, 19, 20, 21, 22…40…50…53…54…55…70… years of age…

I involuntarily clinch and hold my bladder and bowels so that when I stand…no one will ever again see, as they did when I was nine, that I have lost all control.

 

26 Blocks: Oak Cliff Powerline Field Football Champs

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A blog series: Part 1 

Ricky Miller: The Original Black Quarterback

When I was seven some boys spotted me and my brother, Steve, leaping onto the huge planters that fronted our Church. It was right before Baptist Training Union and we were avoiding going in until the last minute. The planters were beige stone structures that graduated in height from street level to the top of a stack of steps at the entrance. We leapt high and laughed hard when the other one fell on his landing. Our Buster Brown shoes were scuffed green and chalk white from the shrubbery and brick. Behind us the boys huddled on the Jacobs’ front facing yard and watched silently. At some point one of the boys; a tall, dark-skinned, muscular boy with long arms and huge hands yelled out, “Hey!”

I was landing bad and stumbled sideways with a big, falling forward motion when he had yelled. Looking toward his shout I saw a football slicing the distance and zeroing in on my face at the very spot where I didn’t know I was landing. I caught the ball with a fanatical squeeze and slap of my hands together and rolled forward onto the walkway. The boys across the street laughed and pointed and shook their surprised mouths closed with clasped hands and grass-staining rolls. It was the first time that I had EVER caught a football. The yelling boy smiled big and held up his hands in the same catching motion, expecting back the football. I walked to the edge of the street, pushing my torn shirt back in place against my road rash belly, and flung the ball sideways in baseball fashion. More guffaws.

My older sister came to the entrance and shouted, “Get inside“. Across the street the tall boy picked the spinning football off the sidewalk and jacked back his head in a familiar anti-nod. His close cut hairline was pushed back on his slender, black forehead.  As I turned and took the first step, he licked the tips of his fingers with a huge, dark pink tongue before gripping the leather ball and tucking it under an arm. Another of the boys waved as they began to stand. At BTU, Peter left the boat and walked, briefly on water.

Later that week my Stepfather called me and Steve out of our room and to the front porch. In the yard were the gang of boys with the tall boy spinning a football in his huge palm. “Go ahead“, my Stepfather prodded, “You can ask ’em yo’self, son.” The boy said, “Uh, my name is Ricky Miller. Ya’ll wanna come up to the high-line field and play some football?” My Stepfather turned back inside saying over his shoulder, “Get back t’the house before I hafta light the porch.” Me and Steve followed the boys to the field at the top of the Morrell Street.

The boys introduced themselves as we walked and most were brothers: the Mcpherson boys were Ricky Lane, Larry and Michael; Keith Wayne Jernigan and Chili-Wayne Epperson were singles; the Taylor boys were Mickey, Gilbert and lil Keith. The big boy was Ricky Miller and his younger brother was Clifton.

Once at the field Ricky Miller showed me how to hold and throw the football, then sent me trotting down the field to catch the ball some more. He quickly discovered two things: I could run faster than most and had no idea what I was doing otherwise. He took me aside and drew jagged lines in the dirt that I was supposed to follow. He promised me that the football would be thrown at the area marked with an “X” and that I was supposed to catch it there. I ran the zigzags faster than the “Safety” boys who tried to keep me from doing it. Ricky Miller yelled a lot and the ball zipped through the air and landed on the various imaginary “X” marks.

Walking us back home Ricky Miller asked, “Don’t ch’all watch the Dallas Cowboys games on Sunday?” We both replied, “Sometimes, before we go back to BTU, but Mr. Howard yells and cusses too much at the t.v., so Mama says to play outside.”

Do y’all know Craig Morton?”, Ricky Miller tried again. ” How ’bout Walt Garrison? Bob Lilly? Don Meredith? Lee Roy Jordan? Y’all never heard of Bullet Bob Hayes or Pettis Norman, either?”. Before I could lie about knowing these names, Ricky Miller said, “Try to stay inside and watch the Dallas Cowboys on Sunday”. Then, without my asking, he handed me his football saying, “Throw it to each other and bring it back up to the field with you next time”.

We were half a block away from the house and Mr. Howard stood watching for us from the screened in porch. Morrell Street was leaning into the early grays of evening, but everything around us was suddenly brand new, imaginary zigzag patterns and “X’s”. Steve took off and ran across Ms. Palmer’s front yard yelling for the football. I threw it like Ricky Miller had been showing me. The worn, brown leather ball rose in the air and wobbled like a shot duck before dying ten feet away and bouncing to a stop.

Steve ran back  a few feet to get it. As he chucked the ball back, a little less dying duck style to me, the bulb from our screened in porch sprang to an amazingly brighter life.

*NOTE: Please encourage me by pressing LIKE/Thumbs Up or by leaving a comment.   The next installment will not be alerted on Face Book. You will only get this series as a SUBSCRIBER.
Jas. Mardis is an Award winning Poet, Writer and Art Quilter. He has been awarded the Push Cart Prize for Poetry and is a 2014 Inductee to the Texas Literary Hall of Fame. For a long time as a boy on Morrell Street he was known as “Buggy” and “Crazyleggs”.

Photo Credit: Library of Congress Photo collection Farm Security Act

Jr. Mardus: Now-n-Later Thief

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I have not seen Raymond Nathan Anderson since he fled Stafford’s Grocery on September 23, 1971, leaving me to explain the short pack of chocolate Now-n-Laters candy in my outer coat pocket.

On the store counter was a big moon cookie that Mr. Stafford had readied for one of our weekly nickels. In my mouth there was a chewed Windmill cookie. In my mind was the certainty that, once Raymond came from wherever he was in the rear of the little Grocery, he would pay up.  He did not pay.

In third grade, Raymond and I took turns paying five cent for two cookies from the clear, red topped canister on the counter at Stafford’s. That day Raymond came to the front of the store and bumped into me saying with a jittery voice, “I ain’t got no nickel t’day“. I stopped chewing.  A suddenly tight-faced and pale Mr. Stafford rumbled around the end of the counter. Raymond fled and the Grocer locked the heavily latched door.  Before I could figure things out he had snapped a picture  of me with a well-used, white Polaroid One Step camera. (Yes, that one) He started fanning the ejected, magically developing paper as he called for Clifton to come out from the stock room.

Clifton was the husband of our Pastor’s third daughter, Ethel. The  Store was just one hundred yards away and on the same side of the street as the Greater Mt. Pleasant Missionary Baptist Church. Just outside of the Store, was where the 47 Moore City Bus stopped daily at 4:00pm and discharged my Mother.  He came to the front,  saw me and the waving snapshot, then looked up to the clock above the locked door. Mr Stafford alternated his reddening face between me, Clifton and then back out the small, chicken-wired screened window where Raymond had been seen running.

Mr. Stafford pulled the black grease pen from Clifton’s apron pocket and wrote the word “THIEF” beneath my image. “That’s a pretty slick distraction plan you two had going there, Junior“, the Grocer said through a suddenly, narrow-lipped, minimal-tooth grin.  “But, I had yo’ buddy eye-balled the whole time you were up here pickin’ out yo’ cookie“, he added. “Next time you might want to have him do a lil’ less of that head bobbing when he’s stuffing the goods into his pockets. That’s a dead give away, Buddy!”, his voice rose a pitch with the last word. Before that moment he had always called me “Jr” or “Jr. Ma’dus”. It was clear that things had changed.

Clifton put his ashen hand on my shoulder and let the thick fingers of his grip “message” into my youthful and shocked core, “Jr. Madus, you thank’n dat frien’ boy of your’n musta want them candies in place of dem cookies t’day? He musta seen you chomping down on dat Win’mill an’.  figgard you want gon pay for his part!”. I was in the third grade. It would be sixth grade before this kind of logic easily caught up to me.  I coughed on the words as they spit up from inside me, “Clifton, we ALWAYS get the cookies! He know he was s’pposed to pay Mr. Stafford for the cookies. He didn’t say nuthin’ bout getting Now/Laters“.  Even in memory I hear my words blaring loudly and incredulously from my shaking, nine-year-old self.

Clifton side-eyed Mr. Stafford’s direction and looked back to me with a disgraced frown. “Well“, he said looking up to the clock above the door again, “Miss Rose ought to be getting off the 47 Mo’ in about an hour now.” Turning to his employer Clifton offered a well spoken parlay, “He can come work off them few nickels, Mr. Stafford, with that section of beans that come in today. I still got that rack of dirty RC and Nehi Grape bottles to wash out, too.” He paused and reached over the counter where a folded white apron appeared and was shaken loose. Not waiting for Stafford’s agreement Clifton slipped the apron over my head and pulled me toward the aisle of plank shelving. He pointed for me to start lining up cans.

Back at the front Mr. Stafford walked to the door and thumb-tacked my defacto mug shot to the door jamb. Clifton sighed and blew a whistle into the dusty air of the Grocery store’s closing in walls. The 7-Up advertising clock above the chicken-wired window churned its second hand faster and faster than I had ever seen time fly. I sweated in my overcoat as the clock’s short black hand fell toward the 4 and the long hand pressed closer to the 11.

Clifton stood with a grunt and headed to the front. I couldn’t hear what was being said, but Clifton motioned a thumb toward me and wagged his head alot before it was all over and the long hand fell between the 1 and 2 of the number twelve. I imagined the sounds of air expressing and the familiar squeal and braking of the 47 Moore bus and the opening of that heavy door until I was unable to lift another can.

With my head hanging and the tears started to build on the reality of being killed at 4:01pm, the two men suddenly stopped their hushed talking. The door was opening. It wasn’t the familiar push and pitched opening that most patrons used at Stafford’s. Instead, the door was slipping open inch-by-inch and I stood to see who was entering, anticipating my Mother’s thin, brown hand and silver wedding ring to break into view.

Just as suddenly, the men turned back to the window and I heard the bus slowing through the chicken-wired window. The bell above the door clanged a short burst and both men cursed as a tearing sound and pop of thumb tacks on the floor broke the silence of the little Grocery. “Dammit! Get him Cliff.” Mr. Stafford shouted from his side of the counter and Clifton rushed for the shutting door. The Grocer rounded the counter and joined him out the door where a cluster of the “THIEF” polaroids had been snatched.

I made it to the counter in time to see an older boy called “Slick”, wearing a familiar silver studded jean jacket, in a loping stride up the slope that lead toward the Church. Clifton was close behind him. His white apron untying with a long, stumbling stride. Mr. Stafford simply gave up at the street’s edge still yelling, “Get HIM, Clifton!” as the 47 Moore bus pulled forward and turned the corner heading back toward Downtown. In the confusion, my Mother skipped her stop at the little Grocery and glanced both ways before crossing the street toward home.

I took off the apron and, knowing that I would not be allowed back into Stafford’s Grocery, slipped Raymond Anderson’s big moon cookie and the short pack of chocolate Now-N-Later candy from the counter and into my coat pocket. The bell had broken off with one of the men’s exits, so I slipped out and around the opposite outside wall and waited for Mr. Stafford to head back inside. I slid across the two lane road toward home.

Later, when she called for me to go get a can of PET milk, my Mother told me to get it at The Market further up the block from Stafford’s. She had been thinking about all of his chasing and yelling and the shameful Polaroids on his door frame. Seeing that young boy “running for his life today”, she said,  “was the last straw. It’s only a matter of time”, she shook her head, “before that man accuses somebody like you!”

 

 

 

Jas. Mardis is an awarded Poet, Radio Commentator and Quilter. He is a 2014 Inductee to The Texas Literary Hall of Fame and has a 2000 Push Cart Prize Winner for Poetry.

 

Sharing Like It’s Going Out of Style

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One year, when we were still a family living in the white frame house on Morrell Street in Dallas, Texas, we ate beans and rice or collard greens nearly every day. Later that year, while out for Christmas break, we got used to inviting some new kids in with us for dinner. Of course, we were used to the food by then, but it was the first time that I had heard and got a different understanding of the phrase, “Like they going out of style“.

There were five kids in our family and we dared not flinch when those words came across the sparse dinner table from my brother’s invited friend, a boy called “Meatball”. He was squat, dark-hued, round with a bushel of uncombed hair and gave off the suggested shape of a big, well, meat ball. His rather large family was new to a duplex further down the hill that was Morrell Street. Even in the colder months most of them spilled out onto the porch and yard during non-sleeping hours. Up and down that block all of our families were just making due, but even our construction-job injured Stepfather had encouraged us to invite and share with the kids whenever possible.

Meatball didn’t bother looking up from his fast moving spoon through a bowl of crumbled cornbread and black-eyed peas. Even though he had used the bathroom sink to clean up it was not hard to find patches of differing colored dirt streaking his scrawny, short sleeved arm and pointy elbow as he ate. We had already prayed, passed the cornbread and Kool-Aid. Now, we waited on a spoon of steaming collard greens from a big, worn pot that sat at one end of the table when he blurted up, “Ya’ll eat beans like they going out of style!”.

We just kept passing our plates from one person to the next and waited for them to return with a layered serving of meatless collard greens. Secretly, we all hoped for one of the bacon or salt jowl halves that seasoned the greens, but that succulent meat often landed on our Stepfather’s plate. Meatball did not pass his plate. He continued to feast on the certainty of his beans and dodged the long arms that reached, grabbed and ignored his sloppy chewing. With all the plates in place our Stepfather called to the little complainer, “Gimme yo’ plate, son“. A moment passed before my brother grabbed and handed off the boy’s crumb-littered plate. Meatball started chewing faster.

For the second time that day neither of us five flinched as Meatball’s plate of hot collards was passed back to him. Mixed into the feathery stack of greens were the two curling halves of thick sliced, red meat and water pearled bacon fat. Again, the pain mellowed bass of our Stepfather’s words wafted toward Meatball, “You reckon dat fatback might be in style, Meatboy?” His mispronunciation kicked a big laugh into the room and nearly everybody corrected him, “It’s MEAT BALL, Mr. Howard“. It was the first time since being injured and returning home from two months of traction in a hospital bed that he smiled big and laughed a full throated guffaw. The bacon slipped in and out of Meatball’s greasy lipped mouth and the room grew brighter with his  addictive and toothy grin.

It would be a few more months of beans and greens and visits from Meatball and others hoping for the fatback on their plates, but never from us five.  Big laughs came slowly back into the white house at 1423 Morrell after the “meat boy” meal. There was new job with less pain and risk of injury for our slow moving Mr. Howard. Around the same time there was Christmas and five thunderous, overflowing, cellophane covered fruit baskets with hard, awkward nuts and candy canes with a single wrapped present. It all got shared on our screened-in porch, along with other toys from up and down Morrell Street…and the echoing, baritone laughter from just inside the door.

 

 

Jas. C. Mardis is a Poet, Quilter and Storyteller. He is a 2014 Inductee into the Texas Literary Hall of Fame.

 

Photo credit:   Rosskam, Edwin, 1903-,  Farm Security Administration – Office of War Information Photograph Collection 1938