Your grandmother, born to slavery, married a full-blood Mohawk who’d served as a scout, cook and gravedigger for the Union Army.
Your father died during his first week in the first War to End All Wars, which was about to end anyway. Your mother named you Dread, after Dred Scott and the pain of life.
When you were four years old your mother married, Kurt, who wore a suit, made money, and let you call him “Dad.” When you were eight, Kurt and your mother had your little brother, Manley. The Depression came. Kurt stopped wearing a suit, stopped making money, started drinking. He smelled bad and beat on you, Manley, and especially your mother. You weren’t too upset when Kurt was stabbed to death in a poker game.
It fell upon you and your mother to bring in money. You worked odd jobs for whatever legitimate businesses would hire you, usually for the day, served as a “mule” for drug dealers, stole whatever food and necessities you needed to get by. Your mother took in white peoples’ laundry until your brother was old enough to spend the days with other children — their crowded street games a security tactic; in unity, strength — and the nights with you. She then stayed overnight six days a week cleaning a white family’s house and raising their kids.
You swept roads and streets under the WPA program then managed to survive the second War to End all Wars from Pearl Harbor to Nagasaki, cleaning and cooking for white officers, at first, then fighting German white people overseas.
After the war you were hired to cook for the same Harlem restaurant you’d work for for the next forty years (even when it became an “institution,” serving soul food to white Columbia students, poets, and professors, and downtown artists and musicians from the late 50s to early 70s when the clientèle became black again).
After the war you married a young teacher named Sara, who bore your first son exactly five years after Hiroshima and a few months before your little brother Manley was killed in Korea.
Your first son, Blake, was killed in Vietnam; your wife grew ill. Though your second son, Michael, came back physically unharmed, the war had done things to his head. During his short migration from prescription painkillers provided by the VA for the pain in his head, to sniffing, then shooting heroin, his girlfriend had two beautiful daughters by him, one a straight A student, the younger one not brilliant but bright enough to become a nurse. She cared for your wife, who died without health insurance, leaving you alone, sad, angry and confused. Your older granddaughter went to Harvard to study Law, and the nurse went into the Army to pay them back for putting her through school.
There weren’t many wounded Americans in this first war against Saddam, and most of the Iraqis were killed by planes and helicopters well before she reached them. She came home to work in a VA hospital. She had a child with a Drinker.
You knew enough about drinkers to predict the beatings she and the child would receive, but you could not predict the illness that forced her from her the Army, her job, and made her weak and tired of life at age 23 (the Drinker left when she could no longer support him). Her sister, a lawyer now, sent money, and you helped by renting two rooms of the apartment you’d spent your life in to two men your age. You quit the restaurant to spend the days looking after the baby until he was old enough for school.
Your grand-daughter the lawyer wrote letters asking why the Army would not admit to any such thing as Gulf War Syndrome, nor pay those who suffered from it, like her sister, disability or retribution or something. The Army answered all of her letters politely by saying nothing.
Meanwhile, your great-grandson, who could no longer be contained in the house by you or his sick mother, joined a gang, and in a few years was arrested for activities involving the gang, activities which could not be prooved, but, as the boy sharply noted, he was ultimately guilty of being part of a huge gang called “N–” He had a quick wit, but the authorities narrowed his life to two choices: jail, or the Marines. He chose to be shipped off to Iraq, where his mother had gotten sick, and he was killed.
You and your grand-daughter, the lawyer, took his body from the secretive military and had it buried and services performed. His mother was too weak, sick, stricken to attend.
So here you are, 89 years old on this hot May afternoon, on your way to the apartment of a guy known as “Medicine Man” for making two or three trips a week to Canada — depending on demand — for groups of mostly older folks who pay him to pick up their medicines cheap. Even with the sizable cut he takes, its cheaper than buying it from the supermarket drugstore and pharmacy chains.
You are approached by two young white men — late twenties — in expensive suits and corporate hair-cuts.
“Hey nigga! Hey dude!”
Your anger like a bullet ricochets off the walls of your skull.
Then you notice their Columbia class rings, six years old. They must have come back to alma mater to celebrate the current graduation or get together with old Frat brothers or who the hell knows what. Booze on their breath, fear in their eyes. Must have learned that talk from the rap albums they’d been listening to since high school. Drank too much and crossed the park for weed. Liquid courage dare cross Morning Side Park like in the Old Days, before the suits and haircuts and graduation rings. Before whatever cubicles imprisoned them. You want to punch their pink faces to pulp and explain to them that the “N-word” is no longer allowed to leave white mouths, for it was seized by black people long ago. Instead, you laugh out loud, for the first time in what seems many years.
Here, in America, Land of the Free, two young, clean-cut white men in expensive suits and Ivy League rings have to skulk around the region of their worst nightmares, a hot day in Harlem full of the angry black folk their parents and schools and TV programs had warned them about all their soft lives, just to buy a bag of herb. Weed. Dried up leaves of hemp.
“God Bless America,” you say as you brush past them on your way to “Medicine Man.”
“Hey, wait a minute,” they call after you. “Sir? Sir? We just wanna score a coupla joints. Sir?”
“I don’t smoke,” you call over your shoulder. “Bad for your health. Like being white and racist on 119th and Lex.”
ADAM ENGEL can be reached at: firstname.lastname@example.org