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Authors: Walter Dean Myers


BOOK: Juba!
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Portrait of Juba


“It's not right,” Stubby said. “That's all I have to say. It's just not right.” Sunday morning, and Stubby Jackson was trailing after me, complaining.

“Stubby, I know it's not right, and you know it's not right, but what can you do about it? You told me they only need nine waiters to work a shift. Isn't that what you said?”

“That's not the point, Juba,” Stubby said. “I'm the best waiter they got. And this is Saturday, so they're going to need the best. I should be one of the nine waiters. I was looking forward to working tonight because I need the money. Plus I got the cleanest shirts.”

“You want to stop and watch this street party for a while?”
I asked. “It'll calm your nerves.”

“Me working will calm my nerves!” Stubby said.

Mott Street was filled with people. There was a little band—an accordion, a drum, and a tuba—playing halfway down the block. Children were running through the crowds like ants, weaving in and out of the people selling meat pies and other foods from small carts. In front of the band some men were putting out chairs in a big square.

“They're probably going to make some speeches or something,” Stubby said. “I don't want to hear any speeches. I don't know why people in New York City have to give so many speeches about how they want to change things. This is 1842, and if things haven't changed by now, they're not going to change.”

“They're not about no speeches,” I said. “Those are Jews, and I think they're going to dance. You ever see Jews dance?”

“I live in New York, don't I?” Stubby was pouting.

Some men in the street were forming lines, nothing too straight, just as if they were walking in rows, very casual. Then the little band started up. First the drum, beating out a rhythm that seemed off at first, but I could feel it was three-eighths time. The men moved toward the center of the chairs as the people around them began clapping along with the drum. Without a signal that I could see, the men took each other's hands and swayed together in a small group—but when they separated, they were in a circle.

“Stubby, you see how they formed that circle?”

“They look out for each other, that's what that circle means.” Stubby still had his mad face on. “They all got jobs, I bet.”

The men danced together in the circle, first going one way and then reversing. They all knew the steps, when to stop, when to change direction, when to pause and let their hands go. The dance wasn't much in the way of steps, and the rhythm was strange to me, but what made it work was how happy they looked.

“I wonder if something special happened, or is that just the way they always look when they're doing that dance?”

“I don't know anything about Jews,” Stubby said. “Except there's a hundred and fifty things they don't eat. You know they won't touch oysters, right?”

“That has nothing to do with us,” I said. “Lots of people don't eat oysters. I just like the way they dance.”

“Why don't they dance with their women?”

“The women will get into it, after a while,” I said. “They don't touch the men, but they dance in circles like the men do. I have never seen any Jewish people dancing and looking mean or sad. Maybe you should go over and dance with them. It'll cheer you up.”

“Let's go on home,” Stubby said. “I don't want to see any happy people today.”

“If you want me to, I'll get a stick and beat myself on the way,” I said.

Stubby mumbled something about people trying to stop his career and then mumbled some more just to be mumbling. He had his ideas about becoming the most famous cook in the world. All his plans were laid out, and they seemed to be reasonable, too. His big plan was to work at the Broad Street House restaurant and learn how to make all the dishes there, and then he was going to move into another restaurant as an assistant to the chef. The way he had it figured, everything would take him four years to complete, and by the time he was twenty-one, he would be the best cook in New York.

I liked Stubby. I liked anyone with a plan, but I couldn't be sure of my own plans the way he was. Stubby would figure out things in secret and then spring them on people. We both worked for Jack Bishop, our landlord, whenever he needed us, and Stubby had surprised us both one day when he whipped us up a batch of creamed smoked oysters. They were all right to me, but Jack thought they were just the most wonderful food he had tasted and went on about them for almost an hour, until I thought Stubby was going to swell up and explode, he was being so prideful. What I knew was that Jack sold his smoked oysters to rich folks over on the West Side and he knew he could make money selling creamed oysters in pots.

Jack was a good man. He had been married for almost thirty years, and people told me that he almost drank himself to death when his wife died. They didn't have any children,
and Jack lived alone on Baxter Street. He said he was just about ready to jump into the river and end it all when Grace—that had been his wife's name—came to him in a dream and gave him a piece of her mind for even thinking about dying.

“She told me to get on with my life,” he said. “She said get on with it like you got some sense. And I knew she meant every word of it!”

I think he rented me and Stubby a cheap room just to have somebody to hang around with. His business hadn't been doing that well, but he owned the building we lived in, so he didn't need that much money. Then he came up with the idea of smoking the seafood he bought.

In the mornings he would go down to the fish market and buy whatever looked good to him, and me and Stubby would help him smoke the fish and the oysters for sale. Sometimes, because Stubby kept himself looking so clean and fresh, Jack would take him on his selling trips. He wouldn't take me.

“Stubby doesn't look as black as you,” he told me. “You're liable to scare people to death, knocking on their back door.”

I didn't care about what Jack had to say, because I knew he was a fair man. Maybe the fairest white man I had ever met. He didn't charge me and Stubby that much for rent, and if we were a little short once in a while, he didn't make a big deal of it. In his heart, though, I knew he thought more of Stubby's plans than he did of mine. Everybody had to eat, and Stubby
wanted to be a cook. You couldn't beat that. Me, I wanted to dance. In
mind you couldn't beat that, but Jack Bishop didn't see it.

“You're only a kid now,” he said. “And hopping around feels good to you. You reach my age and it won't be so much fun.”

Me and Stubby got home and he went on in and lay down. In two minutes he was asleep and snoring. I don't know how a man who looked as bright and lively as Stubby could snore so loud and so strong. I had to make a decision. Should I wake him up and listen to him mumbling and grumbling about how the world was treating him or let him sleep and listen to him making noises like a pig? We lived on the third floor, and I decided to go into the hallway and sit on the steps for a while.

It was almost noon, and I was sitting on the stairs waiting for Stubby to sleep off his mad when Margaret Moran came out into the hallway with the boy. Miss Margaret was not young, and not exactly pretty. But she was the kind of woman who put herself forward, and as Jack said, she was as Irish as she was tall.

“Joey, if you didn't want to dance with the group, you should have spoken up a long time ago,” Miss Margaret said.

“I want to dance, but I just can't get it right,” the boy answered. “You got too many things going on at the same time!”

I looked down through the banister and saw Miss Margaret.
She was wearing a loose green blouse, tied around the waist, and a long green and yellow skirt that came down almost to her short boots. There was an amber necklace around her neck and a lace scarf around her shoulders.

The boy was skinny and pale, with long hair that covered the tops of his ears and a look that said he wanted to be anywhere but in the hallway.

“There are not too many things going on,” Miss Margaret said. “You are just too thickheaded and dumb to learn them. You did all right until you got to the cross. Everybody has to do the cross at the same time. You flick that right foot across the ankle—not all the way across the ankle, just halfway across—and then you bring your foot right back to the floor. You don't pick your foot up and swing it across your knee!”

“I didn't mean—”

I guessed he was going to say something about not meaning to swing his leg so high, but Miss Margaret gave him a slap across the top of his head.

“Now do it!” she said. From where I was sitting on the stair, all I could see was the back of her head, but I could tell her nose was right on the boy's nose.

She backed off a bit, turned her head sideways, and started humming a little tune. It was the same Irish tune I had heard coming up the airway to my room. The boy didn't want her on top of him like that, but he was scared to move away. He
hunched his shoulders a few times to get the rhythm of what she was humming, and then he started an awkward little dance. It looked a little like a step dance and a little like the boy was a puppet bouncing on a string.

Sure enough, when he got to the part where he was supposed to be crossing his foot, he brought it up across his knee and got another slap for his trouble.

“Joey, it is one week to the recital and you are still getting it wrong!” Miss Margaret said. “Try it again, and this time—are you listening to me, Joey Curran?”

“Yes, ma'am.”

“This time don't cross at all!” Miss Margaret said. “When you get to the cross, you just wait a half beat and go on with the dance!”

She stepped back and I could see the boy, his face white, his eyes squinched up tight, and his shoulders moving forward. I thought he was going to run, but when Miss Margaret started humming that song again, I saw him nodding his head along with her. When Miss Margaret got to the cross, the boy just stopped. He froze up and didn't move a muscle.

She slapped him on the right side of his head, and before he could get his hand up, she had pushed him against the wall with her big bosom and slapped him again as he bounced off.

“You know, Miss Margaret, he's doing it okay,” I said. “You
can bring your leg up higher on the cross.”

Miss Margaret turned to see who was talking. Only she didn't turn like she was surprised, more like she was mad. She had both hands on her hips and moved slow, like a ship turning in the harbor. Her mouth got tight and she started coming toward me. I knew she was going to let me have it.

“Well, if it isn't Mr. Juba himself. You know, Mr. Juba, I don't need some black fool telling me how to do an Irish step dance!” she said. The words came out with a hiss.

“You need somebody telling you,” I said. “Because you don't know how the dance goes. I can see that. All you're doing is bumping that little boy around. That's not dancing. That's just bumping a kid around.”

“Why don't you just shut up and crawl back up to your room, sir,” Miss Margaret said. “And maybe see to it that it's your own business you're minding on a sunny afternoon!”

“You hum that little tune for me and I'll show you how it's done,” I said, standing and coming down to the landing.

Miss Margaret didn't back off. She was nearly as tall as me and maybe had thirty or forty pounds on me.

“I'm not humming anything for no lopsided, ignorant, fish-smelling fool!” she said. “Now, if you don't get away from here, I'm going to get somebody to beat the back side of your head until it gets to be as ugly as the front side. Are you understanding me, bucky?”

I knew it wasn't any use exchanging words with Miss Margaret, so I started clapping my hands in rhythm.

“This is the way the rhythm is supposed to go, lady,” I said.

Then I began to dance. It was a simple step dance she was trying to teach the boy, but she had drained all the fun out of it. I moved through some of the introduction, crossed at the ankles like she wanted the boy to cross, and watched her face.

She kept her eyes right on me because she didn't want to let on that she wanted to know how I was taking what she thought was her dance and running with it. I did a turn and moved away so she could see more of my body. She was still mad, but she hadn't stopped watching yet or left the narrow hallway.

That was when I heard Jack Bishop coming up the stairs.

“Juba, come down and help me with this basket!” he called up.

I kept dancing. I moved into a more complicated step, all the time keeping my crossing low. Miss Margaret was shooting daggers at me from her gray eyes, but she still hadn't turned away. Jack came up a few steps and watched through the banister.

“You can't push anybody into dancing,” I said. “When you're dancing, you're supposed to be happy. Isn't that right, little man?”

The boy looked over at Miss Margaret, but he didn't dare say anything.

“And if you get really happy, your feet don't want to stay that close to the floor,” I went on. “They want to lift themselves up and show how happy they are.”

I was crossing higher and higher, and I saw Miss Margaret's eyes flick down at my legs and I knew I had her.

“Come on, boy, dance with me.” He was still flat against the wall, but I knew he was ready.

When the boy started out, he was kind of awkward-looking, so I slowed down and kept a steady rhythm that he could follow. When I got to the cross, I clapped my hands twice in the air, something no real Irish dancer would do, but it was enough to get Miss Margaret looking at my hands and not noticing the slowdown. It was just enough to let the boy get that leg higher on the cross and keep on going.

Moving a little closer to Miss Margaret, I gave her a big grin, and she meaned up her face the best she could and got her hands back up on her hips.

BOOK: Juba!
9.85Mb size Format: txt, pdf, ePub

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