Nearby Café Home > Food & Travel > Island Living
Island Living logo
Staten Island: Tales of the Forgotten Borough
Staten Island outline map

About Island Living  --  Island Notes  --  Island Links  --  Island Travel
Island Journal  
--  Island Photos  --  About A. D. Coleman  --  Contact

July 1998

Island Living 14: Mr. Democracy
by A. D. Coleman

Later that afternoon the heat would break, through a crashing thunderstorm that would freeze the skyline in a series of blindingly bright vignettes, send thick washes of rain surging and bouncing along the rooftops below his terrace, shiver the maple tree outside his bedroom window and provide a sonic boom timed perfectly to her shuddering explosion beneath the knowing ministrations of his practiced tongue. But at that moment in the late June weekend morning it only hung over them, over them and the streets that sprawled away from them down the hillside, as an invisible but palpable weight, a truckload of heavy air.

Sitting at the table in the sunlight in her pink slip, discarded bathrobe beneath and behind her on the white wire chair, she nibbled happily on the bits of pulpy canteloupe sprinkled with lime juice and chili powder he'd diced into the small round Japanese ceramic bowl she'd brought with her as a gift -- bringing only one, knowing that he disliked sets. It was white and light blue, little flecks of color, almost watery, almost transparent, like an improbably blue tapioca pudding, setting off the yellow, pink and orange of the melon. Which in turn set off the slip, and the healthy glow of her fair skin, within both of which she moved with the unconscious vitality of a girl and the emergent, heedless carnality of a woman learning that she was at long last beautiful to someone.

He watched her, as he did often, enjoying the act for itself, knowing also what it meant to her to feel or find his eyes on her, her disbelief in the possibility that someone might take pleasure in seeing her slowly fading into the realization that she delighted in being seen. At the moment, though, she was preoccupied -- with the bright blue sky and its billowing draperies of cloud, with the sweet fleshy texture of the fruit on her tongue, with the urban vista baking at their feet. She speared another bite of melon. Her motion as she did so brought her forward, giving him a glimpse down the front of her slip, damp shadowed curves. Her skin was dappled with tiny beads of moisture.

She motioned with her head, indicating something out of his field of vision, over his shoulder. Turning his head to the left, he saw Emil, the neighbors' teenage son, and Peter, his friend from around the corner, in a furtive transaction -- packages of fireworks, in their distinctive Chinese wrappings, being exchanged for a wad of dollar bills. "He's got them hidden under the ivy," she remarked, "and he's chosen a spot where his family can't see him out any of the windows." She was right. In a minute, his customer presumably satisfied and certainly departed, the boy bent down to slide his stockpile under the green camouflage. As he looked around, from his kneeling position, he discovered himself the subject of their observation, and started guiltily. From the terrace, the man waved nonchalantly to him, offering a "Hello, Emil," to which the boy responded with a relieved nod, assured that if his actions had been understood they would not be reported, and that his cache was safe. A moment later he disappeared around the corner of the house.

"I've known him since he was six," the man explained. "He's the youngest of three -- two older sisters, including the one we scared last night." Coming home after midnight from the opening of a friend's film in the city, they'd passed a large sedan parked halfway up on the sidewalk in front of the neighbor's house. As they moved alongside the open window on the passenger side, there was a girl's loud scream -- the eldest daughter's face, terror-filled, jerking towards them, mottled streetlight on her distorted features. He'd apologized, though the car was in fact blocking the sidewalk, and they'd walked on. ("Must've just come from one of those teen hack-and-stab films," he said, unlocking the vestibule door. "Why don't they park around the corner, where no one will see them?" she wondered.)

"The mother's a divorcée. Emil's had to fend for himself quite a bit; he's become something of an entrepreneur -- a newspaper route, comic-book sales, fireworks," he continued. His thoughts turned to the nineteen-year-old boy upstairs in his own house, angrily packing his belongings, leaving home, and he fell silent, closed his eyes.

Images from the years of tension that, like some implacable kudzu, had overgrown the love between the boy and himself flickered half-realized in his mind, like heat lightning. Finding letters addressed to him -- important professional correspondence he'd been expecting but never seen -- opened and discarded in the kitchen trash. All those moments when the bad blood between them (he'd come to think of adolescent hormones as a poison that had infected them both) made it impossible to express whatever affection they still felt. Himself standing in the kitchen, waving at the food-caked skillets and pots the boy had piled in the sink, left as usual for him to clean up, shouting his refusal to let his son "niggerize" him, using the term as he'd learned to in his days as a civil-rights activist. And the boy's defiant retaliation, his cartooning skills put to use on a large poster, a stylized self-portrait towering over a happy slave, captioned "Mr. Democracy and His Personal Negro."

After a few minutes he opened his eyes. "Did I tell you what I saw on the subway this week?" he asked her. "These two black men came on the IRT at Union Square. They came on with powerful energy crackling between them -- one of them had evidently recognized the other as having robbed him at knifepoint 'back in 1978' in front of or near someplace called Disco Fever in the Bronx. The one who claimed he'd been robbed, a well-mannered, casually-dressed man, said he'd know the other anywhere -- 'and your partner too.' Challenged him by taking his cash out of his pocket, a wad of bills, laying it down on the floor of the subway car between them, daring him: 'Let's see how brave you are -- try to take it from me now, without your friend or your knife.' Then, the other man making no response, he dressed him down in front of the whole rush-hour car full of people -- passengers, black and white, edging away, leaving room around the two in case of violence. 'Look at you now, just a bum on the street,' he said bitterly, viciously, sneering at the down-and-out aspect of the man's clothes, his obviously unwashed hair, his overall street-person appearance.

"The accused man just stood there, taking it like a deserved punishment, not turning away from it, not agreeing but not denying, not pretending that this wasn't addressed to him, that he didn't know his accuser (or at least believe that this could be a true accusation), not acting innocent. Also not meeting his accuser's eyes. Like a penance of mortification through which he had to pass.

"The recognition had apparently taken place on the platform because as they were getting on the once-robbed man had already begun his monologue, telling the other to 'stand right there in the car and listen to me.' And so the robber stood right in front of me, his back to me; I could see the muscles knot and twitch on his neck, the face of his angry accuser visible over the man's shoulder. Then I moved away, to another seat, though I really didn't expect anything physical to happen -- more to get out of the accuser's line of vision, to give them a kind of psychic space in which to act out this ritual of recrimination.

"It was wrenching and gripping at the same time. When we reached Whitehall Street I got off, but I thought about staying on, to watch it play itself out. I mean, where could they go from that? Do they ride together to the end of the line, the man's anger never dissipating? Does the accused eventually try to get off -- perhaps even at his intended destination -- only to be followed by his accuser shouting 'I'm not finished with you, nigger!' Does the once-victim interrupt himself and leave at his own stop? Or does the man finally exhaust his anger, let it go after all those years, maybe even take the other to dinner -- in order to ask him, over coffee and pie, 'How did we come to this? What system has put us at each other's throats?'"

She'd listened to all this in silence. When she spoke -- it was an aspect of what he'd begun to love in her -- she sliced through cleanly, to the issue and the need. "You're taking this pretty hard, aren't you? Come on upstairs and let me hold you for awhile. We'll get the dishes later." She took his hand, leading him into the house. Down in the field below a string of firecrackers erupted like gunfire. The sky answered with a premonitory rumbling.

back to journal index

© Copyright 1998 by A. D. Coleman. All rights reserved.
By permission of the author and Image/World Syndication Services,
P.O.B. 040078, Staten Island, New York 10304-0002 USA.