In the Hands of Alchemy
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Black Luminous

Winter was coming; it was getting colder. The year before, I had given my gloves to an old black man by the name of Lester. Lester lived in the building next door, on the same floor as mine, so our windows were at the same level. Our view was the same, but we looked out onto different worlds. When Lester and I saw each other on the street, we greeted one another and smiled. I liked Lester and I had a sense that he liked me, but we never knew quite what to say as we passed on the street or met at the entrance to our buildings. From the dining area of my loft, I could hear Lester singing the blues through the wall as he splashed in his morning bath. Sometimes I heard him fighting with Louise, his wife. They were a sad and beautiful combination of characteristics. Lester and Louise looked alike, and appeared to be in their late 60s. They both had the unusual look of the Kalahari Bushmen—androgynous, with short, beady hair and pinched, smiley faces.

I was fascinated by the lidless garbage can that Lester set out in front of his building each week. It was always filled to the brim with empty gin bottles and discarded cigarette packs. Somehow, I admired the fact that he did not attempt to hide this from the world. I thought most of us probably would have. Lester and Louise sat in their upper-story window, drinking and smoking, every day, it seemed. Their window looked out onto the street below, and Lester called out to the people he knew as they passed by. I was often touched by the warmth and love I heard in his gravelly old voice as he acknowledged and insulted his friends.

Like deities looking out from the upper realms of a crumbling old Tibetan tonka, Louise and Lester sat three stories up, blessing those on the streets below with their loving attention. As people in the community passed by, they often looked up to Louise and Lester’s window to see if they were holding court that day. They were there together for many years.

One day I realized I had not seen Louise for several weeks. Eventually I heard Lester tell someone on the street below that she had died. Then it was just Lester alone, sitting in the window, drinking and smoking, blessing the people passing by.

One day I came upon Lester shoveling snow out in front of his building. He was blowing on his hands, trying to warm them. As I walked by, I handed him my gloves. He courteously refused. I could see that he wanted them, so I insisted. I felt I owed him that much for the gift I received whenever I sat in the chair closest to the wall, with my morning cup of tea, and heard Lester singing in the bathtub. Listening to Lester sing stirred my imagination. I felt privy to the recurrence of an original blues moment—the sacred moment of inception when the blues was first conceived. The sacred essence of the blues passed through my wall in those early morning hours. Lester’s song was a lonely prayer in the temple. I was the church mouse, listening unnoticed, savoring the tiny blues-seed, which contained original DNA, faithful to its origin. Here was the quiet suffering of an old black man who sang the blues for no one but himself. My only payment for the pleasure I received from this covert activity was the very deep gratitude, love, and respect I felt for Lester.

Giving Lester my gloves was a small personal ritual, the placement of a talisman on the altar. It was an offering to a black man from a white man. He was a respected, soulful patriarch to the black street community, and I wanted to pay homage to him.

I grew up in a mostly black neighborhood on Homer Lee Avenue in Spring Valley, New York. It was known as the Hill section. In that neighborhood, the white families were the minority. Lester’s singing somehow brought back memories of my childhood there. Mr. Woods owned a small private club in the neighborhood; he called it a “juke joint.” Mr. Woods was said to be rich because he had his own septic pumping business and a shiny new truck that always smelled bad, no matter how much he shined it. Mr. Woods had one eye. The story was that he had been badly beaten by a gang of white men. I heard from the other kids in the neighborhood that this was why he didn’t like white people. His “juke joint,” as he called it, sat a short distance from our bedroom window in the building next door to us. My young, black friends and I would peek in the steamy storefront windows at night while people were dancing, to see if the rumors we had heard about the notorious John Earl were true. We had heard from the older kids that our hero, John Earl, danced in the club with his fly down and had sex with the woman he was dancing with. John Earl was so cool that the women didn’t even know what was happening! He could also play the bongos very fast, which entertained and impressed us to no end. When we younger children banged around on anything that made a racket, we compared it to “playing bongos like John Earl.”

After his son Elijah Bagley Jr. died tragically in a car accident, things seemed to change all around for Mr. Woods. The juke joint shut down. Word around the neighborhood was that Mr. Woods was running it illegally and might go to jail. We were sure he was being shut down because the handsome and cool John Earl was getting the entire population of young women at the club pregnant on the sly.

Mr. Woods was a bit of a womanizer himself. He finally threw over his aging wife for a beautiful young girl from Mississippi. She was less than a third his age, and was his rapidly advancing and expanding “secretary.” She moved into the other house across the street that Mr. Woods owned. Shortly after she moved in, his wife left him. Mr. Woods’ new girlfriend was also the sister of my best friend, Sammy.

Sammy was different from the blacks I knew who grew up in the North. When he moved from Mississippi to our neighborhood, he and I quickly became best friends. Sammy was so different because he never had the opportunity to relate to white people on equal terms. In the beginning, our friendship was a very strange mystery to him. I went out of my way to assure him that things were different here in the North and that we could be friends. In the South, he was accustomed to crossing over to the other side of the street when a white person approached on his side. Now his best friend and constant companion was a white person! We spent a lot of time playing at my house. Until he met me, he had never even been in a white person’s house before.

When I first met Sammy, he informed me that his dream was to have a bicycle. That was certainly an easy dream to fulfill in our neighborhood! I was quite handy mechanically, so I quickly pieced a bicycle together for him. I gathered what I needed from the collection of broken and abandoned old bikes left for dead in the vacant lots and abandoned buildings around the neighborhood. It was Sammy’s very first bicycle!

There was some danger in putting together a bicycle from parts found in the neighborhood. If someone recognized a fender, or another insignificant little part, from a bike that they once rode, they tried to reclaim the entire working bicycle. Worse than that, if they were bigger than you, they might slap you around first for stealing their bike before they took it from you. Sammy was new to the neighborhood and a little naïve, so to protect him from having his new bicycle “reclaimed,” I kept my creation simple and left off the unnecessary extras. Finally, with a little red paint that I stole out of my father’s shop while Sammy kept watch, the bike was rendered unrecognizable. This covert activity and the gift to Sammy clinched our friendship. I had risked something on his behalf, and now we had a secret that we both had to keep to protect one another.

While I lived in that community, a part of me longed to be black. I wanted either to be fully accepted by my community or to live in an all-white neighborhood. Inhabiting the holy ground of life’s in-between places was, and is, challenging. It seems much easier to belong fully in one place or another.

Lester reminded me of Sammy and our innocent, loving friendship. When I saw the warmth with which Lester greeted his friends, I remembered the difficulty of being in between worlds. Somehow as children, it is easier for us to know that there is no separation between the souls of human beings. As adults, we must make a determined, conscious effort to override and work through the social and historical layers that create separation. To do this, and to return to that original innocent quality in which you simply know that separation does not exist, is the important, personal work of life.

My parents’ best friends, Chink and Dot Van Dunk, embodied the beauty of this wholeness. While I was growing up, they were the only regular guests to come to our house, outside of the occasional visit from a relative. Mr. and Mrs. Van Dunk were racially blended people, and as such, they made the in-between place real, in flesh and blood. Their beautiful coloring, features, and personalities were the product of many generations of mixed blood. The Van Dunks embodied the best of both worlds. There is a book about their bloodline called The Ramapo Mountain People. Anthropologists appreciate this “tribe” from Rockland County, New York as a beautiful and unique people.

As I was growing up, they were unquestionably family to me. When Mr. Van Dunk would take me fishing, it was the highlight of my life. And Mrs. Van Dunk was the reason I loved to spend time in the kitchen, preparing food with my mother and her. The Van Dunks have been in my life since I was born and still are. Just a month ago, shortly before my mother died, I sat in the room with her when she informed Mrs. Van Dunk over the telephone of her diagnosis: “Six months or less—cancer!” Mrs. Van Dunk broke down so completely that she had to hang up the phone and resume the conversation several days later.

To have the gift of closeness to black culture as a child, and then later, to experience the real world with all its unwritten and assumed limits, is a bit like getting a glimpse of heaven and then not being allowed to enter. This may have been a reason that I hardly spoke to Lester. I knew that the reality that I had known as a child was nearly impossible for adults, certainly for adults with no personal history to build on. Sometimes doing nothing is the most effective form of doing. I felt I risked interfering by even offering my gloves to Lester!

Smiling, feeling the love on the inside, and not actually speaking to Lester, was a kind of self-imposed, respectful penance for all things white. It was a way to feel close. A way to BE “I-am-sorry.” A way to say, I accept responsibility for everything white that stands between us, and I will not add one thing more.