. . . We
Jazz June. We
“We Real Cool”
The last time I saw Jesus was in the milky white cloud inside my water pipe. The encounter took place weeks after the passing of the 1970s, a decade that saw me undergo conversion into a street disciple and fisher of men’s wallets. As members of a hip generation turned stale, we often boasted about making it real, but what many of us worked hardest to do was escape for fleeting moments from the concrete reality to which we were bound. Some of us aspired to journey to imagined forever lands, and when I found myself wooed by Freebase Jesus, I decided to accompany him to his hazy domain in cocaine heaven.
I was a virtual squatter at the time in a North Side studio apartment over on Grace Street in Chicago. Jesus was a nightly visitor, but only as a highly holy spirit and not yet in the bodily form of a silk-and-wool-attired haint. The studio served as my nighttime abode in the early weeks of the new decade, but for someone who had developed a nocturnal spirit, the place was less than ideal. Leaks in the blinds during clear winter mornings exposed my eyes to the disinfecting light of day much too early. That’s why I rose prematurely on that portentous morning and went out for some diner pancakes before heading over to the rusty old movie theater in Rogers Park to catch the matinee. Figured I’d get a bit of rest while nodding through Apocalypse Now. During the movie I sat slumped in my seat with my head resting on the armrest, viewing only the slice of screen that was visible between the vacant seats in front of me while wondering if I would have been better off at eighteen if the draft lottery number I received from Uncle Sam had come stapled to a ticket for Viet Nam. I thought without thinking that any holes blasted into my body over there would have been better than the holes I now had growing in my soul.
Before I took up residence in that studio, I spent months as a frequent guest in the Pine Park Plaza condo on Irving Park owned by Donnie Digby* and Katie, his wife, sleeping in their guest bedroom on the sixteenth floor until Donnie offered me a month in his sister-in-law’s vacant apartment. The malodorous three-story building, just a half-mile down from the Digbys’ cloud-busting skyrise, lacked the scrutinizing eyes of a doorman or a registry to track the names of customers coming by. Despite its location, walking distance to the lakefront, the place was little more than a step above a housing project despite many of the tenants being white, and it would not have surprised me if most of the roaches living on the premises were on welfare. Inside the studio, a phone sat next to the single-sheet twin mattress on the floor, but Donnie told me it was probably deaf and mute by now because Tammy, to whom the place was leased, stopped paying the bill. That didn’t bother me because I kept plenty of coins in my pockets to drop into the pay phone near the corner when I needed to call the numbers that popped up on my beeper. All Tammy wanted in exchange for me using her pad during the last month of her lease was a gram to celebrate moving in with her new girlfriend, although I’m sure Donnie failed to give her half that amount after he took a cut to powder his own nose. The thought never occurred to me that Donnie’s offer was a passive way of evicting me from the space in his condo that both he and Katie one night, with white rings around their nostrils, insisted I think of as home.
I got used to sleeping on sofas and floors after I abandoned my apartment in a South Commons high rise on Michigan Avenue two years before my immaculate encounter. South Commons was a comfortable spot and a great place to do business until I added blow to my inventory and cokeheads to the people dropping by for visits. Most reefer folks came across cool and mellow and never stuck around unless I offered them an opportunity to blow a quiet joint. Coke heads, on the other hand, could be as loud and obnoxious as bratty children making a ruckus over penny candy. They demanded sample lines on a mirror along with a rolled-up Hamilton to use for snorting before they’d do any business, and after that it was time to party. It didn’t take long for the grapevine to inform me of an uppity neighbor who ratted me out to the men in blue because of the highlife spilling out of my apartment into hallways and elevators. It was my supplier who warned me to stop doing business in my twelfth-floor crib—a place where I had lived since the end of my short-lived days as a college student—if I wanted to avoid getting pinched.
A Chi-town hustler had to transform into a gingerbread man at times. With a new beeper in hand, I delivered my product in white boxes with wire handles from a restaurant supply store that made me look like a Chinese food delivery boy. I often snoozed in the pads of customers or friends, but when I felt the need for solitude, I’d find a place where I could let the driver’s seat of my baby blue Camaro all the way back, and I’d cool out in it like a sardine.
When I started crashing at the Digbys’ the place was a bit too sanitized for my liking, especially with their housekeeper wanting to clean my room only an hour or two after I fell asleep most mornings. I usually stayed there after Donnie and I worked the same concerts or social galas, or when I went out with him and Katie for dinner. I also occupied it on other nights when they wanted me to bring something by for their own consumption. Donnie was slimy enough to always claim he had only enough cash on hand to cover twenty-five dollars’ worth of blow and a dime bag of weed, knowing I never wasted my time flipping those petty amounts. He knew I would end up breaking out a full gram and joints from my personal stash. Considering I spent those nights in high-rise luxury, I wrote them off as a recreational expense.
By the time I fled from South Commons, I cared for few things other than my water pipe and not enough to notice that Donnie had troubles of his own. I profited from riding shotgun with him in his silver Mercedes. When he’d take the liberty of offering samples of my product as payola to DJs and other players in the local music industry, they, along with some of his other business acquaintances on the South Side, became my customers. But it was still the Age of Disco and Donnie had dedicated his business to the promotion of disco records, disco artists, and heavily invested in an upcoming disco extravaganza that was to never take place. Disco, as a cultural commodity, became toxic in 1979 after a shock-jock held a disco demolition promotion between games of a doubleheader at Comiskey Park the week following the Fourth of July. On that hot and sticky night, hard rockers from Bridgeport and similar neighborhoods, places from where people had come in the mid-sixties to throw rocks at Martin Luther King and spit in his face during the march he led in Marquette Park, gathered to blow up a mountain of disco LPs in an early strike of a populist war that would sweep Ronald Reagan into office the following year. Donnie didn’t have the game needed to transform his Syncopated Promotions into a money-making operation in the newly developing pop music culture. Syncopated’s demise killed both my cover and my access to those elite cash-paying customers I gained through my connection with Donnie. It didn’t matter much to me because by that time I was already living in an ether-filled bottle like a pig at a trough.
Without introduction I knew who Donnie was when we met in the early months of 1978 after a concert at the Park West. He strolled around looking as full of himself as a cream-filled doughnut. Digby’s Records over on Drexel was the one of the city’s largest Black-owned record stores, but it didn’t carry much jazz, blues, folk, or any other music that wasn’t on the playlists of Black pop radio stations such as WGCI. Both the Daily Defender and Jet Magazine ran features on the light skinned Digbys that touted them as examples of successful Black capitalism, but on the street they were known for treating their darker customers worse than the Middle Eastern and Asian store owners on the West Side treated people like me in their flea-ridden grocery stores. I used to feel uneasy around South Siders because older dudes in the hood used to tell me how South Siders thought they were better than us because their families moved up from the South first, but that was before I stepped outside of the world of my youth. I might not have been on Donnie’s radar that night, but when he heard a crew member say, “That’s some fire shit that nigger’s got,” he zeroed in on me with calculating eyes. Moseying over in a way that only a cream-filled doughnut can, he stuck out his hand and introduced himself. I said, “You’re one of the Digby Records folks, aren’t you?” “Naw,” he said. “That’s my pop’s store. Syncopated Promotions is my independent record company and you and me need to hook up.” I looked at the dangling hand and an impulse told me to slap it away. But that would have been counterproductive since I abided by the hustler’s motto that says money talks and bullshit walks. I embraced his hand in a soul shake and said, “It’s your world, my man. I’m just living in it.”
Growing up, I was a frail, timid, and audacious kid, and when I entered young adulthood I carried less than a hundred thirty pounds on a five-eleven frame. Even if I was light in the ass, while growing older I learned to keep people around me at bay with a dispassionate stare and a baritone voice that Kool cigarettes helped to further deepen from a bearded face and head that I seldom subjected to clippers. I eventually sacrificed my true self for a hustler’s persona, one as fake as a masquerade mask from the Woolworth’s over on Cermak. As much as Donnie wanted to partner with the product I carried in my ever-present shoulder bag, he also wanted to run around with what he perceived to be my audacity at his side.
As a thirteen-year-old I was part of a group that met with Dr. Martin Luther King in his Chicago West Side apartment, marched two years later with high school classmates along riotous streets in protest of King’s murder, got schooled by local Black Panther leaders over the next year until Chicago cops assassinated Fred Hampton and Mark Clark, and devolved from a Future Scholar of America to a dropout after I got kicked out of Farragut High at the beginning of my senior year by a proud white history teacher who objected to my demonstration of racial pride. It was the year Farragut students succeeded in changing the school’s traditional Negro History Week observation into a Black History Month celebration, and I was involved in demanding the change. When February 1970 arrived, old fat-bellied Mr. Chessman responded to a memo from the school’s office about the month’s scheduled activities by saying “Negroes who call themselves Black are too stupid to look in the mirror.” When I got up to walk out of the classroom in protest, he told me, “Sit back down or I’ll make sure you’ll never graduate from this school.” That was decades before “stand up to power” developed into a slogan as important as “people to the people” was in those days, but after I heard what he said there was nothing else I could do but slam the door behind me. That led to me being removed from the building for threatening a teacher despite the voices of classmates telling the principal and the school’s disciplinary officer, “But he didn’t do anything.”
There were other adventures, too many to mention, including an August graduation ceremony in Lena’s Lounge with several of the school’s teachers who found a way to give me credit for a summer school class I never attended because someone from Farragut High School with my ACT scores, college acceptance letters, and potential deserved a diploma. That led to an empty year in the new public university, Chicago Circle, that looked like a gleaming white architectural model enlarged to gigantic proportions and superimposed over the poor ethnic city West Side neighborhoods it displaced for the purpose of giving well-to-do suburban kids a safe urban space to attend college. While there, I represented one of a few grains of black pepper in a gigantic vat of homogenous salt.
I couldn’t wait to get away each day on the el and rush back to my own world so I could absorb its plethora of colors to help me overcome the effects of salt blinding. After dropping out I spent the next year on the South Side as an intern in the Black cultural nationalist publishing house and educational institute headed by the city’s popular poet of Black pride and undertook my first foray into a very different colored world, one occupied by the Black bourgeoise and their high yellow-nationalism. Around the same time, I also ran around with Bob Brown and other organizers from Stokely Carmichael’s All-African People’s Revolutionary Party. They provided me with lessons on how to artfully use political rhetoric to take sisters to bed for revolutionary purposes. Those experiences, and another aborted term at the university, led to my first significant job as a summer replacement driver of what my friends and I called the transit authority’s long green limousines. With the option to remain on the job fulltime as opposed to returning to school in the fall, I let that summer linger for the better part of four years.
Bus driving money was good, and the job put me around other young hires who lacked my political savvy and book smarts, but they came from different neighborhoods and aided in my transformation from a social greenhorn to an urban jetsetter. Most of the old timers on the job were potbellied types who had driven the same routes day in and day out since the era when the vast number of operators out of Kedzie Station looked like Ralph Kramden and Ed Lilywhite Norton from the Honeymooners television show. Most carried Preparation H with them during their frequent visits into bathroom stalls, and they were never seen behind the wheel without a padded seat cushion under their butts. The lucky ones put in time enough to retire by their mid-fifties, if they lived that long, but most of us as young Black males believed we had little chance to survive the ghetto world we inhabited much past our thirties because high blood pressure or cancer was bound to land our mugshots on the Tribune’s obituary page. Few of us feared we’d be victims of violent deaths unless we became fatalities in car crashes or train derailments or got snuffed out by the random terror inflicted on our kind by members of what we considered to be an occupational police force.
Transit Authority regulations required drivers, young and old, to wear bland gray ties around the collars of our bland gray uniform shirts in addition to gray regulation sweaters and jackets, but after checking in for our routes for the day and transfer books many of us hotshots replaced our ties with tropical bandanas as a way of putting a little color into the city’s frequent gray days. We also tilted our mandatory gray hats far to the side while leaning to the right with arms braced against our fareboxes as we cruised down vacant-lot-filled West Side streets such as Kedzie Avenue, where the station was located, nearby Jackson Boulevard, Roosevelt Road, Madison Avenue, Central Park Avenue, Homan Avenue, and Cermak Road in addition to a number of routes that required us to work congested downtown streets during both rush hours. There were several young guys in our ranks who valued their badges, the opportunity the job gave them to parade around in a uniform, and the twice-monthly paychecks so much that they became regulation men, but my running buddies and I seldom took the wheel without first firing up a joint.
Reefer started out as something a few of us peddled around the station and sold to friends in the hood as a way of subsidizing what we smoked ourselves, but several of the more ambitious drivers conceived of it as the means to pay for a loaded Cadillac or the kind of revved-up Corvette that a transit authority employee could never afford without working endless hours of overtime or shifts on a second job. We called ourselves the Wild Bunch, even though there were no brothers in that film, because of our strong identification with anti-heroes. While talking with Larry Swank, Roderick Carr, and Terrio Townsend one day as we sat together eating Cincinnati chili in Sal’s diner across the street from the station house during breaks in our routes, I questioned the name because the characters we liked all suffered violent deaths, but Terrio said, “That’s what makes them like soul brothers.” I didn’t agree, but I laughed along, regardless.
I scored the best connect out of everyone in our group, an acquaintance from my second quarter in college who supplied me with some of the best weed on the scene, including Jamaican Red, Oaxacan still damp from the ground, Acapulco Gold, and the much-coveted Gold Hawaiian. He was a pimpled-face white boy named Pete Spivey who offered to share a joint with me when we cut our intro to American literature class one day and headed over to one of the campus’ Greek-style concrete forums that looked like miniature craters from John Carter’s Martian terrain. Before Spivey dropped out to push weed big time, he offered me his number. He liked getting high and talking with me because we both found greater literary value in Daredevil comics than boring-ass chapters from a Henry James novel. When I dropped by his flat one payday while still in uniform hoping to cop an entire pound, Spivey fronted me with a kilo at a discounted price because he knew I was good for the money and he appreciated the fact that I had a built-in clientele made up of dudes who walked around with deep pockets for a few hours on the first and fifteenth of every month.
I never planned to become a dealer and never thought of myself as one even though dealing soon became my primary occupation and bus driving a poor investment in time. I had sampled the product we called white girl but seldom wasted money on it unless I thought it might help me get in tight with a jitter jane who liked to powder her nose. A guy I met, Nattie Watts, or Doc Watts as everyone called him, convinced me one night as we sat in the stands at Comiskey Park sipping watered-down beer and sniffing from a nose inhaler full of snowflakes that flipping weed was like being a baseball player getting stuck down in the minors, but coke would put me in the big leagues. “You can flip both,” Doc Watts said, because “people do both and nothing’s wrong with having a diverse clientele.” He had an ounce of rocks to flip before he could ante up again and figured the safest spot in town to sell grams in the middle of May was the left-field grandstand at a sparsely attended White Sox game. We sat near an exit that was close to where a bank of pay phones stood on the concourse next to the bathrooms. Doc Watts left and returned to his seat at least a half-dozen times while bugging hot dog vendors to change dollars into dimes and quarters along the way so he could call the numbers that flashed across his beeper. For anyone who came by to cop more than a single gram, Doc deducted the price of their ticket. I copied his example that fall when I began to conduct business in the premium seats on the main level of the Stadium during Bulls games. It was now six years from the time when I punched my first transfer, and close to two years after I surrendered my operator’s badge to the transit authority, but I continued to wear my unassuming gray uniform around because it helped to keep cops from profiling me as closely as they would a blood in fly attire.
No one could have predicted the path I had taken during the decade, although it could be that the path had taken me. As a shy, awkward, and unathletic kid growing up during the sixties who could not dance, sing, or signify, I endured ridicule from primary school classmates for an attention deficiency back when the condition was often considered a form of mental retardation. I had the ability to read sports stories, compute batting and earned run averages, and study the exploits of Flash Gordon and the Phantom in the Sunday funny papers, but for some reason I had an inability to focus on Dick and Jane readers. My reluctance to see Sally jump or Spot run forced me out of my regular room twice weekly during my early years at Nathaniel Pope Elementary School and into the clutches of the school’s notorious special ed teacher who wore red on her teeth in addition to her lips. It all seemed so dumb: no clean and fluffy-looking dogs lived in my neighborhood and I had never seen a wooden picket fence except while watching episodes of Dennis the Menace. Another problem was the slow Kentucky drawl I talked with while timidly overthinking and under-speaking responses to the questions thrown at me by alien teachers that were always about their world—but never my own.
I survived as I grew older only because of the way providence chose to toy with me. One of the major magazines that was still in circulation during my teen years—Look, Newsweek, or possibly Time—published a feature on Chicago’s greater West Side after one of the summer heat-related riots that erupted before 1968 and portrayed it as one of the most depressed and violence-ridden places in the country. I didn’t think the block I lived on was that bad, but there were other blocks and entire stretches of neighborhood streets where I knew it wasn’t safe for someone like me to venture. We occupied a reality in which, according to Charles Darwin, boys like me were not likely to survive.
Many of the boys I knew in elementary school who possessed similar physical frailties disappeared during summers or in the middle of school years because their parents were astute enough to realize they would end up either physically or emotionally ruined after serving as prey to those who roamed the streets as our fittest. Some of us stayed because our parents could only afford to relocate to worse places such as the Henry Horner Homes or Cabrini Green, or because they had fathers like mine who were comfortable with the area’s low-cost deteriorating housing and liked living in what might best be described as an up-South community. After all, where else could someone like my old man buy pickled pig ears and feet from a giant jar in a corner store?
When alone, boys like me chanced losing what little money we had in our pockets or anything else we possessed of value to neighborhood bullies. The only bicycle I owned—until I traded a half-pound of fresh weed for a new Peugeot on my twenty-fifth birthday—was a twelve-inch with threadbare tires that I got in exchange for scores of books I filled with the S&H Green Stamps I hustled from neighbors when I was ten. It stayed in my possession for less than a week because I got reckless and rode over to Kedzie Avenue, two blocks away, where a thug named John Caven, who was twice my size, knocked me off and claimed he would cut my throat if I told anyone who took it. Boys like me who endured nothing more than getting robbed and hit in the jaw every so often were the lucky ones because others got turned into what dudes in the hood referred to as sissies and punks. Even if the acts of physical abuse didn’t ruin them, the verbal abuse they received from peers often did the trick.
Before I met Doc Watts the year before I fled from South Commons, the only cocaine I had sampled was powdery stuff that had been stepped on so much that I came to regard the drug’s effect as lightweight and a waste of money. I had seen him on the scene at various places but only vaguely recalled him as one of the South Shore students at the university who were too uppity to waste their time around the few of us who came from the West Side or the city’s housing projects. They also frowned upon members of the Black Student Organization for Communications of which I was an officer. Doc Watts still wore black-framed eyeglasses, but he now sported a newsboy cap in place of the faded blue bucket hat he used to wear around campus. There were times when I tried to hand him a flyer for one of our Black student rap sessions as he approached the entrance to the Pier Room or tell him about the guest speakers we invited to discuss issues ranging from reparations to apartheid, but each time he walked by like I wasn’t there. I tried to ask him and Marlise, his girlfriend, to sign a petition one day that protested budget cuts to the Black Studies program, but he said, “To hell with you and your stupid ass Black shit” and looked at me like he was ready to throw down if I didn’t like it. I wasn’t much of a fighter, but I was ready to fire a shot with my fist upside his mug until Jen, the BSOC’s secretary, grabbed me by the arm and said it would make white students respect us even less if two brothers got into it in the middle of Circle Center.
Almost five years had passed before the night when bony little Doc Watts with his chipped front tooth approached me at a party during the peak of my reefer hustling days. I was lounging at the time with Amber at my side in the paneled basement of one of the snooty bungalows on Colfax Avenue near the corner of 92nd Street, and most of the people in attendance appeared to be former college students attired in their old school pullovers and sweaters. It wasn’t my typical scene but Amber, who had belonged to a different South Side clique back when we were both at Circle, invited me to join her there. She had been a member of the Ginger Girls, a group of light-skinned coeds who dyed their hair the same blond shade and showed up wearing matching dresses most days. Amber moseyed over to my table in the back of a lounge in Hyde Park earlier that evening after she spotted me finishing up a deal with one of my regulars. She looked my way with a sly smile as she approached like we were old friends from the past and it was funny running into me. There was no “Hello.” Instead, after looking at my drink, she said, “I didn’t take you for the type who goes out to drink milk.”
I picked up the glass and twirled the ice cubes around. “Yeah,” I said, “if the milk has a shot of Courvoisier in it.”
“Is that right,” she said, while sliding into the vacated seat. Reaching out her gold-painted fingertips, she finessed the glass from my hand. “Don’t mind if I do,” she said, before taking a long slow sip.
“I’d be happy to get you one,” I said, wondering what was up. I couldn’t have been much better looking than I was when I used to see her on campus, especially since I was attired in my old transit authority grays.
“I can get one for myself,” she said. She rose and headed over to the bar and soon returned with two drinks.
“What am I supposed to do with this?” I asked. I wasn’t a drinker and only ordered white cognacs because that’s what an old Black Studies professor of mine preferred when I’d meet up with him at a blues club on the city’s far South Side. I liked the way the drink looked untouched while sitting on a table.
“Drink it or don’t drink it. Don’t matter to me, because what I want is some of what you got in your cute little bag.”
Despite my efforts to keep my reputation in check, Amber had heard I peddled some serious weed and she made it clear she planned to get from lid me. I knew my fair share of Ambers and knew she had no intention of paying for one. But I followed her out to a party she invited me to attend anyway, and while sitting snug-close together on a basement sofa Doc Watts tried to get my attention. I didn’t recognize him at first from our Circle Campus days, but I was involved with the Black student movement back then and he didn’t want to be bothered by what he called “Black shit.” He needed weed and was willing to make a trade, insisting I stick some of his crushed rocks into Amber’s nostrils. I did and we became business associates.
In a spy movie Doc Watts’ character would have been a mad scientist working for an evil organization with a name like Spectre or Hydra. He was the type of dude who would give a shiftless customer a lump of white acid from an old car battery as a complementary sample of a new kind of coke. I have no idea if he ever did anything like that, but he often spoke of insidious ways to mess up people who owed him money. He refused to consume or sell anything that wasn’t pure, and he had no respect for anyone who peddled product cut with milk sugar. He liked me as long as I didn’t talk any of that Black shit around him. Marlise was still his lady, but it bothered me when I saw how her skin now looked like an old peach. The two of them dropped out of school around when I did because of Doc Watts’ desire to become a Black Hunter S. Thompson who didn’t give a shit about writing. I hung out with him at a half dozen Sox games in the spring and early summer of ’78 because of my affinity for the South Side Hitmen from the year before. Doc Watts never paid attention to a game, but I tried my best to watch the action on the field as I listened to him talk about his love for Nixon and hatred of Jimmy Carter, and the need for niggers with money to invest in gold and diamonds instead of trusting banks and Wall Street. When he got around to the trade, Doc Watts spoke about the danger he felt while riding around with his driver to make deliveries. He tried to avoid traffic at his North Side stash house and Marlise’s in South Shore because that was the easiest way to invite a police raid. “That’s why this is so cool,” he said to me one day, “because who gives a shit about what you do at a White Sox game?”
Doc Watts turned me onto freebase at one of the rare gatherings he held at Marlise’s house late that year. Those of us who were able to hit the streets during the early stages of the blizzard that hit Chicago at the end of 1978 gathered there with plenty to smoke and snort but nothing to eat except for a half-filled tub of stale Garrett’s popcorn. It was my first time around freebase, but I had heard Doc Watts and his friends brag about nights when they smoked the stuff well into the next morning. My impulse was to steer clear of anyone shaking drugs in a test tube full of chemicals and then smoking the residue from a pipe. I understood the stripped-down product was supposed to give you a rush that snorting couldn’t, but I saw bodies turn lifeless after taking a deep hit. I remember watching Tina, a skeletal young woman, whose body Doc Watts offered to me like it was no more than a bag of peanuts, fall out like a believer in a Sanctified church after receiving the baptism of the Holy Ghost—only church people usually wake up joyful and not like one of the creatures from Voodoo Island. I was stuck there due to the snow and had no idea when I’d be able to get away since plowing streets in Black Chicago neighborhoods was never the city’s priority and my little car wasn’t made for sledding, so when Doc Watts stuck the pipe up to my lips and lit the bowl with his gold-plated lighter, I tried to pretend like I was down for the experience. I had a habit of fooling myself into believing that dope and booze didn’t affect me the way it did others and that’s why I thought I could take a half-hearted toke this one time and walk away unscathed. I’m not sure if it was the coke or the ether that grabbed hold of me, but I got a whiff of something that compelled me to try it again. That night I got pulled into a realm in which its inhabitants were all ghostly representations of their prior selves.
A year and three weeks later, mere days into the new decade and a week before Ronald Reagan placed his hand on a Bible and then turbocharge the nation’s war on drugs, you could count me among the spiritually dead who’d cheat and steal from their own families to spend another night living the highlife. Chicago winters were always apocalyptic and that last night I spent in Tammy’s apartment proved to be especially apocalyptic for me. It was a far cry from Donnie and Katie’s condo, but as the faithful disciple of a freebase pipe I now felt more comfortable around dust balls and aging crumbs than vacuumed carpets and sinks scrubbed down with Comet. The coke I had on hand came on consignment from Doc Watts. He was out of it when I met up with him on my way back from seeing the apocalyptic movie that Pete Spivey told me I had to see because it was based on one of the stories that neither of us bothered to read in our old literature class. Doc Watts’ quest for the highest high had left him with little more than a thin layer of parched flesh clinging to his sharp bones. His appearance might have offered a mirrored reflection of my own, but it wasn’t like I still cared about how I looked. We were still on good enough terms that the coke I convinced him to front me with hadn’t been stepped on as much as the half-lactose stuff he now peddled to most of his customers. Our good terms didn’t prevent him from shorting me nearly a half gram from the quarter ounce I told him my reefer connect wanted me to deliver, although he had to know each grain would soon go up in smoke.
I didn’t have a toothbrush, so I brushed my teeth again at Tammy’s kitchen sink using the index finger of my right hand coated with some stale baking soda I found in one of the cabinets. To freshen my breath most days I sucked on Lifesavers, but that night I planned to test Doc Watts’ product on my tongue and didn’t want sugary fruit flavors suffocating my taste buds. With the water still running I grabbed my pipe from off the card table Tammy left behind and filled its hull three fingers high. I had smoked a joint along with the characters in the movie that afternoon, but the buzz wore off when I went outside and tried to pull my car into North Side traffic. I had another one rolled in my cigarette pack that I considered firing up, but I dropped the idea. Weed helped me get through the day, but now it’s time for an evening high. All it took was a quick dab of a powder-coated fingertip on my tongue to rouse me like a vampire raising for the night to the scent of bloody air. By shaking a test tube filled with ether and what my eyes and tongue had already let me know wasn’t Doc Watts’ finest, I performed my most strenuous exercise of the day. I dumped the small heap into the pipe’s bowl and took my first hit of the evening. It was little more than an appetizer, like the breadsticks I often ordered with dates back when I used to like women and cared about food, but it did the trick since I knew in a short while I’d have a main course ready to broil with the flame from my Bic.
While under the influence you can know without knowing and that’s why I knew that night I was ready to traverse the chasm that divides life from lifelessness. While pouring the chemical into my glass tube for the third or fourth time I heard “Slippin’ Into Darkness” play through the tissue-thin walls from the next apartment. I was cognizant enough to wonder if Tammy had Black neighbors or if there were some white folks next door who were into War. I laughed despite being in the midst of my most lamentable moment, and it made me recall a passage from an irrelevant essay I once had to read for a Black Studies class by or about Ralph Ellison that said blues people spend their days leading tragicomic lives. I scoffed at the notion, thinking there’s no tragedy here, but then laughed at the conjured image of some grungy white dude and a woman with rag doll hair making love to a bong while listening to Black music. My critical self blurted out, BUT WAR IS NOT BLACK. It was true, but I refused to dismiss my belief that a band with a sound like War’s and a song to their credit titled “The World Is a Ghetto” had to be a Black band, and that made me laugh. While taking another hit from the pipe, I saw a figure inside the glass globe standing on top of the still water. It had to be Jesus because who else had the power to stroll around on a dope-infested sea inside of a freebase pipe, even in a moment of delusion. Besides, he reminded me of the picture I grew up seeing on Sunday school cards in our neighborhood’s Baptist church, although this Jesus sported a scarlet walking suit in place of a robe and had a head covered with long processed hair under a scarlet Homburg with a wide black band above the brim. It confirmed what I believed before I broke away from my mother’s church as a young teen when the sight of an offering plate made me wonder if King James mistranslated the original Hebrew when he characterized Jesus as a shepherd and not a pimp. This Jesus let me know he had a place for me in his kingdom once I allowed him to take me higher and higher down into the pit of that pipe.
It was a funny thing, my willing embrace of the pipe’s Jesus. In those days, nothing pissed me off more than to hear someone run off at the mouth about religion. What I hated most was to run into women from my parents’ church during my excursions back into the old neighborhood because they would refuse to let me pass without asking me how I was doing before saying, “We’re praying for you, son.” Hearing those words made me curse those women under my breath while throwing all kinds of terrible thoughts their way. My mother knew not to talk to me that way in public, but while on the phone she always let me know Mrs. McNeil, Mrs. Wilson, Miss Washington, Mrs. Davis, and others had asked about me and wanted me to know they were praying for me.
I sucked on the pipe so hard with the flame dancing above its chimney that it must have created a vacuum that pulled me down to the surface of the water and under the shadow of the satin-legs savior inside. It was an environment saturated with cool white smoke that formed into softly textured clouds. I studied the finely draped presence standing over me and wondered if it was a false spirit trying to impersonate Jesus, but since I was tripping, his true identity didn’t matter. He encouraged me to lay myself down on one of the plush clouds that were beginning to evaporate while graying in the process. While down in the pipe, I no longer heard War playing but instead the refrain from the old spiritual telling me to lay my burdens down. Freebase Jesus gestured to indicate that I needed to act quickly, so I began to close my eyes in an act of surrender when the apartment’s phone rang with the sound pulling me out of the bottle’s deep pit. I’m not sure why I reacted to the ring like the call was for me, especially since I had no idea the phone worked. I stumbled over to where it sat on the floor in front of the mattress and bent over to pick it up. Hearing my mother’s voice on the line both angered me and hurt my heart. It was already two in the morning and I had no idea why she was still up. I knew she would say something to blow my high if I gave her the chance and I had already freebased six grams. The little I had left would not yield enough to satisfy one of the brown creatures scurrying about on the floor and that meant there would be no way for me to find my Jesus again. My mother called out, “Reggie. Reggie. Are you there?” She repeated herself several times. If my mind still knew what to do without knowing, I would have known to hang up, but instead I said, “How’d you get this number?” The words came out mumbled.
I made a stronger effort to sound normal when I said, “Mom, now’s not a good time,” but she said, “What’s wrong with you? Do you need help? Tell me what’s wrong.” I tried to assure her everything was fine and that I didn’t need the police or an ambulance, although it was difficult for me to come up with the right words and then translate them into coherent sound. Our conversation lasted for no more than three or four minutes and consisted of her asking about my condition and me babbling until I finally blurted out, “I’ve got to go.” Before I could pull the phone from my ear and place it back on its base, my mother rattled off the names of several women who spent the night praying for my soul. I felt desperation in her voice and that made me sad because I never heard my mother sound that way before.
“Momma, I’ll be alright. I promise.”
“Reggie, are you sure?”
“Mom, I promise.”
“Then do one thing for me,” she said. “Come back home.”
I collapsed on the mattress and died, but only for the rest of the night. The low winter sun shining on my face through the bent-up blinds on the nearside window led to my resurrection late the next morning. Without knowing why, I tried to tidy up the place as best I could while moving about like a man walking on the bottom of a pool. Cleaning included throwing out all my coke paraphernalia and flushing the last half gram down the sink. I knew repo men were on my trail wanting to get their hands on my dented Camaro since I stopped paying the note not long after I experienced my first taste of freebase. Instead of sneaking off in it again, I left the car next to a meter on Grace Street and took off on an urban odyssey by bus and shoe leather, spending nights on park benches in frigid weather until close to midnight that Saturday evening when I showed up on the porch of my parents’ building lacking the determination to ring the bell. I didn’t know how my mother knew I was sprawled out in front of the house at the time. I later learned one of the neighbors called and asked if a strange man was on her porch or if it was only Reggie. Mom must have looked out the window before she opened the door wearing her gown and rollers because she came out with a blanket that she wrapped around my shoulders. She led me to the steps of the unoccupied apartment upstairs and stuck a key in my hand.
“Go up there and lie down. I’ll set some towels and a few of your old clothes outside the door so you can clean yourself up in the morning.”
My old man looked at us from inside the door of their first-floor apartment like an owl staring into darkness, but with my mother’s help I began to make my way up the lit stairway.
*His name and others have been changed.
I submitted my first serious piece of fiction to Another Chicago Magazine in the mid-eighties while in UIC’s graduate creative writing program. Editor Barry Silesky sent me a rejection saying he liked my story but didn’t like its “O. Henry” ending. Having only eaten Oh Henry! candy bars without having read the author, I had no idea what he meant. But I changed the ending anyway and published the story elsewhere without showing it to Silesky again. That rejection left me disappointed, but over the years I’ve published poems and prose in Chicago Review, Oxford American, African American Review, and other leading publications. I’m not sure if any of those were as sweet as having “Prodigal Blues” appear in Another Chicago Magazine today.
Joe Lugara took up painting and photography as a boy after his father discarded them as hobbies. His works depict odd forms and objects, inexplicable phenomena, and fantastic dreamscapes, taking as their basis horror and science fiction films produced from the 1930s through the late 1960s. He began creating digital paintings in the 2010s; they debuted in a 2018 solo exhibition at the Noyes Museum of Art in his home state of New Jersey. His work has been featured in several publications and has appeared in more than forty exhibitions in museums and galleries in the New York Metropolitan Area, including the New Jersey State Museum and 80 Washington Square East Galleries at New York University.