by Alene Lee
Catherine was sick. They were going to put her in a hospital. The doctor thought electric shock would be advisable. Alene recoiled. The third one. The last of her sisters. The most vibrant, the one who danced like a LaChaise woman, the one who had loved the most… why must they kill the ones who really live?
She remembered way back. Alene and Catherine had both belonged to the band. The Memorial Day Parade, with the bands from all over Staten Island parading past. Alene and her friends would sit high on the banks of one of Staten Island’s many hills. She never knew whether she enjoyed playing most or sitting high on the grassy mound of sidewalk looking down on the glorious array of clashing colors & instruments in the sun. And then, their band, pounding out wild exciting drum beats like war itself covering with blood the battlefield of life. The melodies were so wild and strong that the pale faces seemed ashen under the tumultuous riot of strict hammering beat that pressed itself out enveloping and deadening all other sounds and attained a threatening ascendancy. And there was Catherine, in her maroon & cream uniform, twirling the baton, an inspiration to the trumpet, drum and fife. She lifted each beautiful muscular leg into the air. Someone whispered admiringly, “An African Queen!” Her clear black skin sparkling, giving off light & vibrant color, so dark you could swim and dream.
The pure joy, the feeling of what you are, pulsating like heart beats, the suppressed pride breaking out—it more than made up for the cold winter mornings, waking up with wind soaring through the brown shackles into your spine. Waking up to a cold stove, chopping wood in the backyard and looking at the majestic hills that seemed to form the round earth itself. To me, those hills were the boundaries of the world. No matter in which direction you looked they seemed to curve round enclosing you.
The sun of band time and the sun of hot summer mornings in the box rooms, sweating and the smell of burning paper, which you had set to the iron bed last night, because it is the only way to kill the bedbugs. The sorrow of mornings, looking out the windows at beautiful stucco & brick houses on the hills surrounded with bushes & carefully tended plants & flowers, a pretty blonde girl tripping down the stairs. How could you not love those beautiful things?
“Hey man, stop doing that, look—here comes Catherine!”
The boys used to love to watch her walk with quick vibrant grace down the uneven sidewalks. Like a prancing filly. A leg swinging, stepping up, head high and, as a boy said,
“Watch it go down, man!”
She was the pride of self in being, that pleased by existing.
I carried these untold things, which I had not thought about in years, across the bright sunshined waters on the ferry, past the Statute of Liberty. The ferry docked on the Staten Island side and I walked up the winding hill towards the home which had once been the only home I ever knew. I passed the old schoolhouse with its 4 clocks, impossibly squatting on the highest hill. Yet despite the stops at what should have been historic streets and corners of my life, I could not feel that things were really very different from what I had known and imagined them to be.
But God, it’s something to have a home where the odyssey of your soul can be bound, even though you may end up defeated by pickles in a wooden barrel run by a man who liked little colored girls. And your mother hiding from bill collectors, leaving Catherine and yourself at the door with the strength of “we don’t know nothin.”
We stole peaches, Catherine climbing the highest and being the stealthiest. We picked berries from the hills. Memories of Catherine playing hide-and-seek and leaving me in a dark wooded garden. Suddenly I heard the splatter of glass, and Catherine sauntered into sight, “What happened?” “Oh, nothin.” And as we walked to the sidewalk a man, “You little bastards!” After a surprised startled moment of immobility, looking first behind at a huge dark figure, and in front at a quickly disappearing pair of fleet feet, we gathered our wits and broke into a run. And I was the one caught and walloped.
But that was later. Very much later. Before that there was the organ grinder man, a funny little man with a hunched back, an old Sicilian, with a parrot he loved. Every week he would come by and Catherine and I would dash out of the house, no matter what threats pursued us, rushing towards the faint sounds which neared as we raced, “bettcha I beat you” to the organ, which I would stand by transfixed watching the old man’s gnarled, sun and aged brown hands move and create a world they seemed to share together with the organ.
Catherine loved the parrot. The old man would let the bird perch on her wrist and she would coo and he would give them each a fortune. We followed him for as many blocks as we could after ducking around our own house singing with him, as people came out of their homes and bought their numbers from the bird. A parrot, an old man, and two little black girls. One in tattered cotton dress, with a naturally regal stance and a long leg usually poised in front, as though it would begin to run when the signal was given.
Catherine had been born on a farm. Afterwards our father ran off leaving our mother Maimie in the midst of the depression without food and money. He came back one day with another woman and he took Catherine. He was taken to the hospital several years later and after a couple of months he was declared “shell-shocked.” So then Catherine had to come to Staten Island to the bare little cold-water flat to live with our mother and us younger sisters, whom she hardly remembered as babies.
Mamma never bothered to tell us we had another sister. But there she was, one day, when I came home from somebody’s house, standing flat in front of my face, looking at us and the small rooms. “This is your next oldest sister. She’s ten,” and that’s all mamma said. Ethel embraced her wholeheartedly.
Catherine was clearly not happy to be there. She looked around the cold water flat, the center of which was the kitchen, like it was a prison. But Ethel’s friendliness touched her. I was distant and resentful. And things got worse when I was no longer the oldest whom Ethel had to mind. “Now Ethel has mamma and Catherine and she doesn’t need me any longer,” I thought. And Catherine Ethel obeyed, which she had never done with me.
But Catherine was my sister… and my mother said she’d come to live with us… and she had just come off her Daddy’s farm. And she was as big and healthy as a cow, too. And neither of us knew what to say or do.
Big, light-complexioned, with a heart shaped face and fine thin eyebrows (not like mine which were bushy and came straight across my eyes), and two of the biggest longest waviest braids that I’d ever seen, all the way down her back. I don’t exactly remember when I knew I was jealous as I could be.
And she had pretty fat legs, too! “Now I ain’t got no black wavy hair.” And she was lighter. No matter what Negroes say about “I’m just as good as anybody” I knew they was favored. And it wouldn’t be easy on me having her there. I had always thought I was the best thing around… and it wasn’t easy to see that maybe I wasn’t. I had never really looked at myself critically before and this was the beginning of it.
I was as skinny as I could be without falling for want of something to hold me up. I was a real tomboy and I used to fight all the time. And I used to win most of those fights, till one day a big hefty red-haired gal from Georgia came and hit me and won a fight outside the school. She didn’t hurt me, but she sure did have me pinned against the wall and I couldn’t get out from under… and I sure was embarrassed, since I realized I couldn’t go round fighting anymore, and that was hard, too. And now–Catherine.
Course, I thought for the longest time that I loved her madly and was proud of her cause I couldn’t take admitting otherwise. But I would dream all day long, sad things that’d make me cry out loud, even in school, about my sisters and mamma. How Catherine took ill and died, or lost a leg, or how her face got burned and how people would take pity on me when they saw how bad I felt about all this tragedy, and they’d say what a good sister I was. I must’ve killed, burned, and mutilated Catherine at least once a day… besides funerals and tragedies I had going for my mamma.
Before Catherine came and before I lost the big fight, I played mischievous pranks on any adult who seemed easy to prey upon. I once sent an old woman rushing up three flights of stairs in the adjoining apartment to her house after knocking on her door frantically and with mock hysteria screaming, “Miss Sadie needs a kettle of hot water right away. Something terrible has happened. Hurry.” It was not necessary for me to witness the ensuing surprise and anger in person. I rolled on the grass with laughter behind the tree on the hill across the street. Of course, I was always punished properly and harshly for these pranks. But beatings did not leave much of an impression on me.
Only Ethel, the youngest of the Garris sisters, had always lived with our mother. And, they had that closeness that develops with the youngest child… an understanding. She was born understanding mamma and she knew she was some strange kind of comfort to mamma. Not like a responsibility, but something of her heart. She was our mother’s pet, loved with mixed tenderness, protectiveness, and resentment. She was not pretty like the three of us older sisters. Bird-like with darting eyes and a small sharp face and rather longish nose, brown enough so that even she was aware of the difference in skin color between herself and us. But mamma was dark like her. And her great strength was in our mamma, who she knew loved her.
Our oldest sister, Ressie, was grown and had long ago left the island after graduation. With memories of breadlines and starving, she married in Washington D.C. After a year or two in the civil service she and her husband had gone into the ‘numbers’ business. Ressie visited us when Ethel and I were very little. She seemed always to be in two positions. Either in bed, smoking, with long curved nails hanging or sitting in front of the coal fire smoking with a cup of coffee. Smoking and drinking coffee, that’s what I learned from Ressie. Maimie had been very proud of her oldest daughter. She would observe Ressie as closely as she could, anticipating the drama that would seem to follow in the wake of such stunning clothes, beautifully coifed hair and beautiful hands. Later, Ressie sent clothing home, expensive clothing, but what was the sense of a $60 suit with no shoes to put on, and no blouse to wear under?
There was always something missing. Something we didn’t have the very next morning—shoes, money for a school book or to go to the cleaners, but none of that really mattered until later, when we were old enough to know. Catherine took a housekeeping job at nine years old to have money for school and clothes and shoes. She was fiercely protective of Ethel, as she would be of a crippled bird.
Our mother worked two jobs, one early in the morning and the other in the afternoon to early evening, yet barely would ends meet. Always hiding from bill collectors because of some small thing, a radio or a chair gotten on the installment plan, a knock at the door, and Catherine at the door, “My mother isn’t home.” “When will she be home?” “I don’t know. She is visiting a sick friend.” “Well, we’ll have to take back the…” “Well you can’t, my mother isn’t home and I don’t owe anything,” slamming the door. That was the home motto, “Don’t let them in.”
I dreaded summertime. After the anticipation of freedom when school ended, nothing ever seemed right in the summer. Although I knew that a good part of the Island went swimming, fishing, and dancing, these activities were few and far in between in my life.
With the arrival of my sister Catherine, the death of my foster mother, Miss Janie, and approaching puberty, my dreams took a mournful cast. I began reading a great deal. I had never belonged to any group, I had no friends, my family was my enemy, and the neighbors with their incessant fighting during the summer nights made morning light become shame.
I began to withdraw from the intimacy and familiarity of neighbors, and became more conscious of the world around me. I began comparing. And, I always came out second best. I envied everyone. Even the ‘everyone’ that I didn’t want to be. My sister Ethel, I envied for her nonchalance and her ability to make light of everything and take the best she could get from life, my sister Catherine, for her beaus and friends and dances, in spite of the poverty of the: ‘not-the-right-dress,’ ‘the hem isn’t straight,’ ‘no handbag to match my shoes,’ and ‘my hair needs doin.’
I don’t know exactly when I stopped liking my sisters, in particular Ethel. But I started thinking that we weren’t really sisters. I can invent some real definite reasons why I didn’t like Ethel. First, she was younger than me. When she was little Mamma made me drag her around with me. She was ugly, she was dark, and she was noisy. And, she was treacherous. But she was smart too and she knew what I was feeling and probably knew why. She was a thief and she’d lie right in front of your face and even if you caught her doing something she’d tell you it wasn’t so and not crack even a bit. I’d know she had the better of me and as a result I would have to show her I was both older and bigger than she by cracking her on the head a little. And that only made me madder ‘cause I had to do it.
But Ethel was a wiser and more quick-witted child than I. And I knew it. I viewed her with a hate mixed with envy and a sort of respect for Ethel’s vibrant swift body and quick mind. The way she always seemed to sink but for a moment and then would be buoyed up and full of irrepressible gaiety and curiosity. I hated her without knowing how much I really hated myself.
One of the places I would take her to was a nice clean playground in a different neighborhood. One day we went to the playground and sang together. I suddenly realized that all those people were white and I perceived what we were in those people’s minds. No one—not one other kid—was colored. All their parents were there with them. And we, Ethel and I, were little “colored” girls who couldn’t make fools of ourselves because we didn’t count in the first place, and that’s what “we” did—sing and dance. Little colored boys and girls singing and dancing for white people. Nothing else. Just little niggers.
And suddenly I didn’t want to be a ‘nigger’ and I never sang or danced there again. And whenever I saw Ethel dancing for anyone, like that grocery store man, who sold pickles in a barrel, with his fat belly and cigar, sitting outside the store, throwing pennies at her, I could have strangled Ethel. But the words for the problem hadn’t formed in my brain yet and I didn’t know how to name the difference and therefore I couldn’t explain to Ethel. I would tell her, “They’re laughing at us.” And Ethel would look up and say “They’re supposed to laugh and enjoy dancin’.” And I would hate Ethel because she reminded me of how I had looked at it too. And, Ethel could really dance and she did not care how she looked to others. She did what she enjoyed and she did it without fear. Ethel was my living past, in the face of a new hate of self that I wanted to forget, pretend never existed.
When Catherine started babysitting, my mother tried to get me to do the same. But I loathed the idea of working for a family as my mother had done all her life as a domestic. It seemed like worse than suicide to me. Any suggestion of my mother’s made her all the more an enemy. I could see no reason why she didn’t manage to provide me with all that I needed, including a home. I hated her for the way we lived. She would nag me, cajole me, beat me, trying to get me to clean the house or put my clothes in order. She would accuse me of lack of pride and I would only tighten up and harden my feelings, redoubling my determination to do none of those things. She would scream, “Do you think I’m your slave?” and I would wish she was.
I was determined to “wallow in filth” (as my mother sarcastically reiterated) before I would lift one finger to make right a condition I felt I should never have been in. I was too afraid of the consequences of any action on my part. Any compromise with the life we were leading, anything done to make it pleasant, seemed to me would lead to destruction through the acceptance of that life.
I would sit on the curb in front of someone else’s house, that was pleasanter, and stare at the red-bricked road. I began to hate the ramshackle house we lived in. That house was so very brown and beat. I have never seen a house so beat. I would try to avoid being seen entering it during the day. If it were absolutely necessary to do so while anyone was passing by, I would pretend that I was visiting someone, stopping to stare upwards and peer at the number on the door, as though I had no idea where I was.
I’d been raised by my foster mother, Miss Janie, since I was a little baby… and, like a sing-song recital, parts of that childhood would come to me from mamma and from Miss Janie, the few remaining times I saw her– ‘How Miss Janie took care of me’… ‘how she loved me’… ‘would I like her to adopt me?’… ‘how’d I like to stay with them for good?’
It ain’t good to give a child that many choices… and sometimes I wanted to be adopted and sometimes I didn’t… and sometimes I wanted my mamma and sometimes I wished she wasn’t my mamma and didn’t take me back.
My foster parents had raised me in a clean, orderly apartment. We had a garden, chickens, and a way of life that made it possible, to this day, for me to remember almost every detail of daily living. Saturday’s I polished the furniture. After school, I went to the store. After supper, I washed the dishes. And in the summer, I was allowed to play for a couple of hours. The kitchen table was round and made of mahogany. The kitchen clock hung on the wall above the refrigerator. The coal stove, which was later converted to oil, was large enough for a restaurant. The wine sat behind the stove. King, Miss Janie’s husband, made his own wine. Paul, their son, slept in the sun-parlor. When I was smaller, I slept with him. The dining room was almost too small to hold the large dining table with at least ten legs and the six knobbed chairs I polished every week. The living room, which faced the street, was wide with a player piano, and a couch with a red-jacketed huntsman and hound dog above it. I slept there. I lived with them until I was six and a half years old. And at about the same age Catherine was when she returned to us, before she got left at mamma’s door, I went back to Miss Janie’s for a short time.
While at Miss Janie’s, I was sick a good deal. I had most of my childhood illnesses there. I remember them pleasantly. I was waited on hand and foot. I was given castor oil, orange juice, ice cream, and treated solicitously.
When I was taken back by my mother and I caught a month long illness, I was cured of being ill for good. My mother accomplished this by making it unpleasant. Whether I made it more difficult for her than I would have for Miss Janie, I don’t know, but I do know that after calling her five times within the hour her voice began to take on a sharp edge and I knew she wished she could slap me. I would brood and feel put upon. Up until recently, I have always considered my mother cruel, unfeeling, and hateful, and though I am past twenty-one, I have harbored ill feelings towards her as a result of her nagging, and supposed ill-treatment of me. However, she did cure me of any desire to be ill and physically dependent.
We lived on York Avenue and we girls went to School 17, on the hill. Our house was the ugliest and most beat up on the street (and in all of New Brighton, for that matter). That house was rain washed brown, with withered worn splitting wood and rusting nails from head to foot. But the view from the hallway was beautiful. You could see the island as round, with trees and an occasional house. I loved that hall window. It gave me a feeling of majesty, surveying my imagined kingdom, to escape the sorrow within.
Six families lived in that old building. Three apartments on each side, one on each of the three floors. And, in the backyard, down a little back-alley hill, there were six different scraggly vegetable patches. And though it wasn’t the country, everyone grew vegetables—and don’t you think they were growin’ em for fun, like some folks do, it was so they could eat during the summer, till winter when there were lean salt-porked times again.
All of the six families weren’t all families to each other either. We were family of sorts, cause we had to be, my mother and I, Ethel and Catherine. We lived on the top floor on the school side of the building (every morning five minutes later than I ought to have—I looked out the window at the red school house with its big clocks, 4 of them, with different times on each, to see I was late again).
Life was eventful at 205 York. I not only thought so but so did the other inhabitants, the neighbors, and the police. There was Miss Sadie, running down the middle of York Avenue with a hatchet, tryin’ to kill her old man. And she had religion too, the fire of religious fervor and conviction. And there was Mrs. Perry and her beer in the sink and in the icebox and the card games. And the iceman comin’ and the woodman comin’–a bushel of wood for 25cents and the coal and a big black dusty bag of coal in the coal bin and the cellar full of ashes, white grey ashes and little half-burned coals. The steady tingle of coal pouring into the bin. That sound of that tingling coal, through a child’s ears, was so absorbing.
And ol’ man Johnson, the number’s runner with his numbers slips and book, a quiet ole man with his daughter Francis and her hunched back. And the Smith girls, three tall, skinny girls and their men who would show up at 205 after midnight, in cars. Miss Ethel out on the streets on Saturday nights with ice picks and knives, cursing and fighting, but who never seemed to get hurt but was always hurtin’ somebody. And me getting’ out of the police car after freckle-faced Ray took us walking all over Staten Island we got lost. And on the first floor, as you went in the door, Miss Minnie (who mamma was real good friends with) and her daughter Ethel. I used to try to figure out what they were friends about cause mamma wasn’t friendly… didn’t think much of anybody. Downstairs, underneath us, Mr. Hicks and his girlfriend, Lucille, stayed. Mr. Hicks was a tall, slender, wavy-haired brown skinned man—an image of konked-hair aspiration. He was real nice to Ethel. He was her hero. Mr. Hicks always had girlfriends and card games. When he wasn’t beating Lucille, there were card games all night long. Men and women would come and leave all night and all day long, drinking King Kong beer, and even whiskey. And sometimes they would play cards for days.
And sometimes Mamma went down and played cards, and of course we found ten thousand different things to ask her, til she would get mad at us. I didn’t like to see Mamma down there playing cards, and she knew it. It made me look like I didn’t want to look. And there were a lot of rough women there too, and she was my mamma. Some of those women came to our house at times and I didn’t like them either. They talked rough and acted rough. Then Mamma would drink too much and I would come down and ask her something and she would kiss me in front of all those people… saying nice things she never thought to say in the dim cold morning or the afternoons when I came home from school. How could I be anything if she was going to be like that? Kissin’ me and showin’ me off in front of all those people… and in front of men I had to run from when I met them in the dark hallways… and her kiss mixed heavy with the smell of beer and wine and snuff to cap it off! And her with such a pretty soft sensitive brown face with high pronounced cheekbones, black hair parted in the middle like a placid Indian… grabbin’ at my hair and tryin’ to show them the streak of red hair right in the middle… why’d she always do that? Not giving it the credit from a father and creating doubt in me about that because I didn’t know where it came from either… and didn’t know why she did it or what it meant.
Winters at 205 York were without insulation. In the winter it was cold. I started making the fire in the stove in the morning for fun when I was seven years old, and I made it so good that mamma stopped getting up til it was warm and before I knowed it was something I had to do.
My sisters and I didn’t love each other none, but in the winter with cold air seeping through the wood slats at night, we’d begin to like each other more. All three of us shared a bed and we’d snuggle up under one another and play writing games on each other’s backs. And we’d get up under one another like puppies ‘til Mamma came and then we were all strangers again, fighting and hating.
In the summer it was hot and the smell of burning paper, used to burn out bedbugs, would permeate the house. Summer mornings I would cautiously awake while everyone was still sleeping, surveying the bed for blood spots and bedbug stragglers. I would feel triumphant. The very fact that it was morning and I was there and they weren’t was a victory of sorts. Out of sight out of mind. I would go back to sleep with relief. The day had not yet come cause dreamin wasn’t done with ‘til Mamma called us, warningly and finally.
My mamma was somethin’ else. She was always complaining either about what we didn’t do, me and my sisters, or about what we didn’t have. When she was drinking she’d promise me a nice house… always talkin’ about that house we were gonna have… and how nice we was goin’ to live in it… and every time me believing it… settin’ me thinking about that house all the time… and mostly looking through the windows of other people’s houses, all over the island… and wishing I was in them… warm and good inside… with us sittin’ down at a dining room table and eatin’ and invitin’ friends in to visit awhile. In reality, we never invited friends to 205 York ‘cause Mamma would sit there and act evil and say real unpleasant things to us while they were there and downright nasty things about them when they’d gone after a strained half-hour or so.
But then that’s a longer story… my mamma… she knew how to create dissatisfaction, alright. I guess she kind of hated us all ‘cause she couldn’t give us anything we ought to have and we were always there to remind her of it.
After Catherine’s arrival I had to start thinking about what I could do that nobody else could do real well. I couldn’t be a big fighter… cause there was always somebody bigger… I couldn’t be the prettiest because not only were there all those movie stars but because of Catherine. I thought, “I gotta do something, be something that nobody can take away from me.” And I pondered, and thought, and I read. And I read many a day and months, and thought… and one morning I woke up and knew that I could get something and be something that I didn’t have to ask anyone for and nobody could take away from me. I could feel harder, think harder and take riches from the world that they couldn’t stop me from having cause most people didn’t know they were there for the taking. And nobody could stop me from having them as long as I didn’t let them know what it was I wanted. And that became mine, my dream. And being black didn’t matter, cause schools, the principal, nobody could take from you what they didn’t know existed. And all I had to do was guard it, and believe in it and it would be mine some day.
Now, I was walking back to that ramshackle house to see if I could stop our mother from putting Catherine in for electric shock. I would try to save my older sister. I wondered, as I walked, how I grew so far apart from everyone on the island? It was easy to know. I had stopped being a part of anything all those years ago. When I became absolutely determined to shake free of my family, I would latch onto other people or be taken up by others for short periods of time. It would be with other girls I liked, or girls whose lives I liked. I always followed people for some quality. I was never sure whether they possessed it or if I endowed them with it. What it came down to was that they seemed free. They were not like me, they were not like my family.
And now, I was coming back home and I thought I should feel glad to know that all I was and felt and desired and been and been thought of by others would be admired. But the world I was walking back into had not changed with time. Only the buildings had gotten more ragged and worn or torn down, but mamma, Ressie, Ethel, and Catherine were all still stuck in the time and place they never moved from. Almost the same as when I had left them years before. I would enter their world and try, try to pluck out my sister Catherine, and try not to fall back into that time warp where I became little skinny, lonely defiant unheard child again.
When Alene submitted this and other stories to Fred Jordon of Grove Press he rejected them, telling her that they would not (at that time) be of any commercial value. And so deterred she stopped writing about her sisters and about Staten Island. But all of this was who she was when she first met Kerouac. All Kerouac seemed to see was a girl who looked Indian and who was sexy and who was available. All he saw was the ‘black thing.’ That is, the ‘black thing’ that only existed in his mind and erotic imaginings.
From Beatdom #15 - Available now on Amazon as a print and Kindle publication: ...
Dear Readers, We certainly hope that you like to look at pictures - because this is about ...
This essay originally appeared in Beatdom #15: the WAR issue. By Pat Thomas &n...
August, 1968, Chicago. It was the Summer of long hair, and long hot nights. Small wonder A...
“When you look back over a year on the junk, it seems like no time at all” — William Bu...
I hopped the BART train for the short ride under the bay from Fremont to San Francisco. It...