A short story by Gaither Stewart, Sr. Editor.
[E]ven though from day to day the raw evidence clubs people over the head that something has gone wrong in our world, few of them pause and attempt to formulate a gentler social world outlook of their own. Instead, bowed heads is the rule. People somehow plough ahead, getting by with less and less and accepting more and more of the contagious moral degeneration visible around them.
So when they had dined, Jesus saith to Simon Peter, Simon, son of Jonas, lovest thou me more than these? He saith unto him, Yea, Lord; thou knowest that I love thee. He saith unto him, Care for my lambs.
(In memory of the German writer, Heinrich Böll, who remembered the lambs in his country.)
Meek people in Harlem are like the meek in Rome or Paris in that they accept what Power hands out to them in the vain hope that things do not worsen while their mild demands for improvement surprisingly diminish.
Perhaps nowhere else is raw reality of life more manifest than from the perspective of a New York foot patrol policeman with a mind of his own. On a morning in the early summer days that year as they walked their beat on the streets of central Harlem the two police agents had begun trying to articulate their growing awareness that something was rotten in City Hall. As Howard and Derrick left the Donut House and bought coffees in Styrofoam cups from Starbucks, Agent Derrick remarked to his partner that even though gentrification had inched its way northwards into central Harlem, it was curious that corners of resistance to the corporate invasion hung on right in the very center of the Harlem showplace. Agent Howard repeated his motto that you only have to be a cop to understand the realities of life in New York City.
Agent Derrick was in his early thirties, of average height, blondish hair already thinning, and enough overweight so that to his embarrassment and despite workouts in the gym at headquarters his belly hung slightly over his belt. Agent Howard was coal black, tall and thin as a rail with however a tough set to his jaw so that few people at the precinct station wanted to mess with him. They both lived across the river in Queens and were good friends—evenings a beer or two in a neighborhood bar and frequent exchange visits between their families. Both were police mavericks, ribbed and denigrated for refusing car patrol work, for their dislike of the obligatory periodic visits to the shooting range where neither distinguished himself, for their proposal that foot patrol officers remain for longer stints in one area and above all for their request to patrol the streets unarmed. Both boasted that they had never withdrawn their pistols on duty.
It was a pleasant day in Harlem. Drops of sweat marked Derrick’s hairline just under the bill of his service cap and darkened the armpits of his summer uniform.. Howard, looking as cool as a cucumber, chuckled and nudged his buddy playfully. “Hot, eh? You know you gotta work off that ring around your waist. Or do want to go back into that air-conditioned freeze and eat another donut?”
Derrick who knew he ate too much junk food grunted. “Even colder in there than on the subway … these New Yorkers are nuts. They freeze from air conditioning in the summer and die of the overheating in the winter. Anyway we’ve got the best beat in New York.”
“You mean the best of the foot beats in New York, Howard said. “That young captain warned me again this morning that we have to be careful up here,” Howard said. “Those precinct assholes seem to think this is a jungle out here.”
“They don’t know their asses from a hole in the ground,” Derrick retorted. “They’ve never even been out on the streets. And they should see what goes on some of those beats in Queens. Now that’s really scary.”
“I always wanted to move the family up here but with all the new apartment buildings, chain stores, art centers and the accompanying crap, who can afford it?”
“Right! Hey, Nigger, if you’re not going to eat the rest of that donut, I’ll take care of it.”
“I’m sure you would, Whitey,” Howard said, grinning and then sticking the last piece of the sugar donut into Derrick’s mouth.
In that same moment, a ram-shackled bus, painted blue, yellow and red, stopped in the middle of 125th street and a voice called, “Officers, officers! We’re looking for the bus station!”
“Looking for the bus station?” Derrick echoed the question, a tad suspicious and shifting the donut remains to his right cheek. “You’re the driver and you don’t know where the bus station is? Where’re you from anyway, kiddo?”
“I’ve never been in New York before. We’re just down for the weekend from Ithaca. Nobody on this charter bus knows the way. Somehow we ended up here.”
“Yeah,” Howard said, “you took the wrong exit lane after the bridge.”
“After what bridge?” the driver twanged in his nearly foreign accent. “You mean the big one?”
“The George Washington Bridge. What other bridge could you take?”
“Sorry, Officer. So where should we go?“
“Look, sir,” Derrick said patiently, just take a right here and go straight ahead—more or less—to 42nd street. Turn right and you’ll be there.”
“Thank God. Thought we’d never get out of this jungle. Passengers were a little scared … but not me.”
“That’s brave of you,” Howard said with the sarcasm that only Derrick recognized. “And I wish you a safe trip, uh-h, back to civilization.”
As the two cops ambled toward Lenox exchanging commonplaces and greeting here and there one local resident or another, they noticed the thin little boy with a big doll in his arms standing a few steps away on the corner of 125th Street and Lenox Avenue. He was skinny and tallish but with the face of a baby. The thumb of the boy’s right hand was lodged in his mouth. His left arm cradled across his chest a ragged doll almost as long as he.
The two agents were most amused by the contrast—the boy was as black as Howard and had bulging staring eyes, while the gangly doll in his arms had a pale white face, heavily rouged cheeks, two dots for eyes and long stringy blond hair, strands of which hung down the front of the boy’s too small short-sleeved tan shirt.
“Hey there, kid,” Howard said pleasantly, “where’d you get that big doll?”
The boy focused his eyes on the two patrol policemen, seemed to register Howard’s same color as his own, removed a wet shiny thumb from his mouth and said, “Found it in de trash,” and stuck his thumb back into his mouth.
“What are you gonna do with it, kid?” Derrick asked with a big smile, as if about to tease the boy.
The boy looked at the second cop, a white man, fat but friendly looking, again took his thumb out of his mouth, and said, “Take it home and play with it … if they let me.” And back in place went the thumb.
“What’s your daddy gonna say, son?” Howard asked. “What you say your name is, boy?”
“It’s Sammy,” the boy said, his thumb hovering at the corner of his mouth. “He ain’t gonna say nothin’. He don’t care none.”
“Oh, I bet he does,” Derrick said. “You just wait, Sammy. Uh, what’s her name anyway?” he asked pointing at the doll.
“Donna,” he said softly. “her name Donna.”
“Donna,” Derrick repeated. “ That’s a nice name. Donna who? Does she have a last name?
“I give it her,” the boy said. “I give her last name too. She called Donna Lamb.”
“Lamb? Why that?” Howard asked leaning down toward the boy and looking into his eyes.
“Because she like a lamb. My mother she call me Lamby.”
Howard and Derrick had worked in the neighborhood a couple of years and knew many of the residents well enough to call them by name. Toward noon they usually bought sandwiches in Herbert’s store just around the corner, one of the few independents remaining in this part of Harlem. Afternoons they chatted with the proprietor of a jazz club down 125th near Adam Clayton Powell Jr. Boulevard who always bragged about his expansion plans now that the rich were arriving. Or they strolled toward the Apollo Theater just to see what was playing there. Or they exchanged pleasantries with patrons of one of the bars. They greeted women coming out of brownstone houses and chatted with teenagers from the local school. Shopkeepers and street vendors called out to them by name and liked to exchange news and gossip with them.
No one they met ever talked about the neighborhood’s past. Most talk was about the future. Their beat, the agents bragged, was a quiet neighborhood. Its inhabitants were their joint responsibility. In fact for most people there they were just Howard and Derrick. A source of pride to them and a promise of their personal security. Everyone lived the moment but with an eye on the future which all were somehow convinced was theirs. City police cars and militarized police in battle gear belonged to the world of downtown or far away in northern precincts.
As they watched the boy shuffle down the street toward the Apollo, Derrick looked at his partner and shook his head in uncertainty. “That kid’s gonna have a mountain of trouble with that blond baby … People are gonna think he just wants to be white.”
“Or be a girl!” Howard added. “Yep, however you look at it, his daddy’s not gonna be happy with Donna Lamb.”
A couple of days later, they found Sammy standing on the same corner, thumb in his mouth, a lonely look in his eyes, the anxiety of a lost lamb in the quick movements of his head from left to right, right to left, his arms empty.
“That boy looks as if he’s gone far astray from the flock,” Derrick said quietly as they approached the kid, expressing a metaphor he had heard in a Sunday sermon in his parish church.”
“You mean to say he looks fucked royally,” Howard retorted in his usual cynical manner even though his voice, Derrick noted, was unusually subdued.
“Where’s your doll, Sammy?” Derrick asked, hoping for a tolerable explanation but fearing the worst. “Where’s, uh, where’s Donna Lamb?
“Jimmy, he steal her from me. And give her to his sister.”
The dark distant look in the boy’s eyes seemed to mask a silent accusation that he had been wronged and unfairly punished by his world. There on the street corner, isolated and abandoned by family and the entire neighborhood, his very countenance exuded the air of the exile in hisworld. Derrick sighed and he and Howard could imaginethe kid’s lonely life. Each morning his mother stormed out furious to the early shift at the supermarket. His father was always out in search of another of his odd jobs—or still asleep. His two little brothers were already at the nursery school in the church. He must have been confused by the disparity between his sad world of loneliness and desperation and the promises of his dreams of soaring high to the backboards as a star forward for the New York Knicks. Today, fearful of the wrath of Jimmy the bully, he had run out of the tiny apartment on the back street and trying to be as anonymous as possible quickly turned the corner and once on the main street looked around in the hope of the miraculous restitution of his only playmate, Donna Lamb. But the streets were empty so for want of any other secure place he had wandered back to the busy intersection as if it were a safety island.
“You want us to look for Donna Lamb?” Howard asked the boy paternally.
“Oh, no sir.” Sammy said. “Jimmy he git mad like my Daddy did.
“Now don’t you worry about that,” Derrick said. “We don’t tell him nothing. We work like secret agents. You just tell us where Jimmy lives and we’ll get your doll back … if you just have to have it.”
“Donna Lamb my only friend.”
Shortly afterwards, the two policemen knocked at the door of the rear apartment of a rundown brownstone a few blocks farther uptown. “Police!” Howard called and grinned at Derrick when they realized that they both had their hands on their service revolvers.
“Who knows what dangerous persons are hidden in the dark rear of this building?” Derrick whispered.
“What if they don’t open up?” Howard responded.
“Have you ever shot your pistol on duty?” Derrick asked.
“Not yet … and I don’t plan to now,” Howard said, removing his grip on his pistol.
They both sighed in relief when the door opened. They found themselves face to face with a tallish girl who said her name was Martha. She was twelve years old. She didn’t invite the officers into the apartment but said, yes, her brother Jimmy gave her a doll but their father screamed and yelled and made such a fit that she be a nigger girl and she don’t grow up dreamin’ of white skin and puttin’ on white airs and did she wanna be a whore like her mother and weren’t she proud of her race and that her mama go into a fit too and throw the white doll out the window onto the trash pile and a homeless ragman named Ole Oscar he grabbed it and he run away with it under his arm.
“Thanks for the information, young lady,” Derrick said crisply. Nudging his partner in the ribs, he said, “OK man, let’s go find Ole Oscar.”
“Have a nice day,” Howard said sheepishly to Martha. They both touched the tips of their service caps and turned back down the tenebrous corridor.
They had not gone a block back down Lenox when a wiry old man stepped out of an alley right into their path. “Hey, you,” Howard said spontaneously, “you know Ole Oscar the ragman? We lookin’ for him.”
“I ain’t done nothin’.” The old man backed off several steps as if to run away. I ain’t done nothin’. An I got money too,” he added, pulling a crumpled dollar bill from a pocket somewhere under his multiple layers. “You cain’t rest me! I ain’t vacancy. I ain’t no vacancy.” The old man was so afraid the Mayor’s men would arrest him for being a vagrant that he proclaimed to one and all that he’d never been south of Duke Ellington Square but that he couldn’t live in the Mayor’s shelters cause his back hurt too much to work at forced labor and if he didn’t work they would ‘rest’ him.
In their duty tour in Harlem, Agents Howard and Derrick had adopted a geographical response to City Hall’s “class-based and race-based crackdown”—as Howard called it—and the criminalization of the homeless: “Don’t go south of 110th Street,” they advised their homeless. Howard said; “What’s the Mayor wanna do, arrest them all?” “Man, if it’s a crime to be poor,” Derrick said, “we’re gonna have our hands full up here.” Though considered dissidents and very unpopular downtown, the two agents could talk freely like that up in Harlem where nobody had ever been to the Oak Room Bar or the Morgan Library, where people didn’t know that two million people in the city were today celebrating Hanukkah, where people didn’t realize that their city was the center of the universe.
“Don’t worry, old boy,” Agent Howard said, “we don’t want to arrest you. We just want some information and maybe you can help us. We want to know where the doll is.”
“I don’t steal no doll. I finded her in de trash. But she done gone. I selled her to de store. Here’s de dollar Ole Smithy he give it to me. So,” he added, now smugly, “I not be no vacancy. This be my surance.”
A few minutes later the two agents-detectives stared into the windows of Ole Smithy’s tiny general store. “This is turning out to be a complicated case,” Derrick said. “I don’t see no doll here.”
Ole Smithy, toothless bald skinny and jovial with bright bulging eyes, explained that the white doll wasn’t in the store more than ten minutes last evening before Rashun Smith—no relation, he hastily added—saw the blond beauty and bought it for his girl friend, Sharon. “For only two dollas! She live just across the street and she at home now. A good-looking girl too, only bout 18 but she a woman. Sweet woman. A real flower. An she got three big brothers to protect her—Harold, Malcolm and Luther. Luther be the biggest and smartest … and meanest.”
“A piece of cake,” Howard said as he rang the bell at the fifth floor apartment. “If private eye work is always this easy we should retire from the department and open our own agency.”
“Don’t know,” Derrick muttered. “That Luther is the meanest doesn’t promise anything good.”
The two agents were leaning against the opposite wall near the stairs when the door banged open and a loud “What do you want?” yanked them erect. The tall, muscular youth, black as onyx and with an African hairdo, scrutinized them both as if measuring the degree of threat they posed. It was Luther. Apparently neither their uniforms, badges and holstered pistols—nor Howard’s size—impressed him. After a second cursory glance at the white man, Luther ignored his presence as if he didn’t exist.
“We wanted to speak with Sharon,” Howard said in a friendly tone.
“With Sharon? What has she done now?, Luther said in a precise cultured voice. “The prissy empty-headed little girl! Her problem is she never recognizes her limitations.”
“No, she has done nothing at all,” Howard began suavely, involuntarily imitating the other’s speech. “Well, to get to the point, our visit concerns a doll we’re trying to find for a little boy in the neighborhood.”
“You mean that blond white doll? You want it for a boy? A black boy? What on earth for? If he’s black why does he want a white doll? Sharon wanted it as a decorative object for her room but my brothers and I discussed the issue and decided she could not keep it. It’s hypocritical, poor taste and is a reflection of the kind of subconscious desires that must be eliminated if African-Americans are ever to achieve cultural and racial dignity.” Luther’s tone was intense and accusatory, his anger and the flame of his voice simmering just under his tongue, a voice that shouted that he didn’t want approval but respect.
“Right,” Howard said rather dismissively. He agreed with Luther, he believed, but he simply couldn’t bear the rhetoric. His too many grim years on the fringe of racial politics. You think you’re only a cop but try as you might you’re also involved in their dirty hypocritical—as Luther just said—their racial political games. This reactionary Mayor whose every thought is climbing the political ladder. What does he want anyway? The Presidency? Climbing over anyone’s body, over whole races and classes, like they all do? One good political defeat and he’ll be fucked … unless they make him Governor! What do they mean that the homeless have no right to sleep on the streets? And that they’ll be arrested if they leave the shelters that they’re forced to leave if they refuse to work in the Mayor’s workfare program. A vicious circle. It’s a crime to be poor. Or black. The black disease. And the Mayor says this is the compassionate thing to do! I’m a cop but what I think this rich city needs is a good dose of old-fashioned welfare. It would do everyone a world of good.
“I myself threw the doll on a distant trash pile,” Luther said. “But not before I desecrated it. A symbolic act, I admit, but I felt much better afterwards. I’ll only tell you this much—the doll’s appearance has changed radically. Sharon is better off without it and the doll too is in a better world now,” he added with a sardonic laugh that seemed to underline his belief that order and everything of social significance in this country hinged on race and sex. Above all in his life black correctness counted.
“Now, if that is all, I won’t hold you gentlemen any longer,” he said, looking finally at white Derrick before gently closing the door.
“Well, I guess the case is closed,” Derrick pronounced as they sauntered back toward their favorite observation point on 125th Street. “Luther’s right,” Howard said, “if we blacks don’t respect ourselves, do you think that Fascist Mayor will?”
“The problem is he don’t esteem nobody,” Derrick said.
As they neared the corner, Howard exclaimed: “Well, I’ll be goddamned. Isn’t that little Sammy there. And what’s he got in his arms? Another doll?”
“Another doll?” Derrick began as they approached the boy who they saw was crying. Pale tears streamed down his face. Sammy looked up at them and removed his thumb from his mouth to wipe his runny nose.
“What’s the matter, kid?” Howard asked.
“It’s Donna Lamb,” Sammy said and held her at arm’s length for them to see. Her hair had been cut short and her face and hands painted black as spades. The boy’s eyes were a study in pathos. Again the eyes of an exile. They seemed to hold a great solitude that would stay with him for a lifetime.