The Last Days of Louisiana Red (2 page)

BOOK: The Last Days of Louisiana Red
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CHAPTER
2

Ed was a Piscean, and so he had a whole lot of passion. Too much passion. It was all that passion that made him fall in love with the beautiful Ruby who had been Miss Atlantic City. Maybe it was those cowgirl clothes and boots she wore the night he asked her to dance at Harry's, the businessman's lunch place. (Its booths resembled those of a victorian law office; it was dark inside all the time. That's why exiled New Yorkers drank there: it reminded them of home.)

Ed and Ruby danced all night to Al Green's singing of The Oakland National Anthem. They danced so they didn't even hear Percy, owner of the jack-johnson black derby and '39 Pontiac, announce “Last Call.”

It was all passion and no intellect that made him take her home to his italianate cottage on Milvia and succumb to her clamping squeezing sensual techniques. Before he knew it he was in her vice.

 

Now, Solid Gumbo Works was becoming so prosperous that when they were married they were able to move into a fine old home in the Berkeley Hills equipped with fireplaces, gaslight medallions, stained-glass windows, and rooms with 12-foot ceilings; in the back was an old stable which he had made into private rooms.

He didn't want to have children, but she was always miscalculating her “phase of the moon”; she was always talking that way as if influenced by forces in the remote universe, like she was born of a comet or meteorite. How else could you explain Ruby's strange power over people; she always got her way. She could lie so cleverly that you became convinced that it was the truth even though you knew it was a lie. She would control people and abuse them, but they always forgave her and loved her even more.

Ed was no dummy. Nobody in the Business was a dummy. He was patient; but after sifting the facts and meditating to Doc John he decided to get rid of her. Doc John was the head of the Old Co.'s western field office and stood in an oil portrait on the wall behind Ed's desk in Ed's study. He was a tall negro man who, in the painting, was wearing a strange yellow top hat and red jacket and standing next to a handsome auburn-colored horse with a silver-trimmed saddle on its back. In the painting's background was the old steepled skyline of New Orleans.

Sometimes Ed's youngest daughter Minnie would peek through his office's keyhole and see him there in that black silk robe with the jet cross hanging on a chain around his neck. Not the cross of anguish and suffering, the
crux simplex
, but the oldest cross made of two straight lines which bisect each other at right angles.

There Ed would be kneeling, consulting with Doc John, while white peace candles burned on a long table of brilliant white linen in the center of which was a beautiful silver cup.

His problem wasn't difficult because Ruby Yellings wanted to leave too. Her husband would never discuss his Business with her. He spent most of his time at the Solid Gumbo Works. And she didn't like those people who worked with him. That Ms. Better Weather, Ed's assistant Worker, who sometimes wore a veil.

Ruby liked to spend her time at the Democratic Club. Though she ran for councilwoman and lost, she was building quite a machine. She was always flying from Berkeley to D.C. and partied with the black caucus.

One day Ed came home to find her closets empty and her valuables gone. There was a note on the dresser. She had run off with an up-and-coming Democrat and had gone for good to Washington, D.C., to enter national politics.

Ed was left behind with four children: Wolf, the oldest; Sister, the second; Street; and then the youngest, Minnie.

He wanted his children to believe in Labor, Work and Occupation.

He was successful with Wolf, who at an early age displayed cunning and self-reliance and the ability to finish projects he started. Sister was that way too. An industrious girl who was good with the needle, she sewed the clothes for the family. She was destined to become an internationally known fashion designer, famous for her eclectic prints.

Young Street was a disappointment. He walked about with a pugnacious swagger and was pretty much a bully until someone would give him a licking.

As for Minnie:

During the International Congress of Genetics held in Berkeley the week of August 20, 1973, an important paper was read whose prominence was overshadowed by the sensationalistic headline-grabbing race theories of a Berkeley geneticist. The tenure of this less heralded paper was that psychic as well as physical traits are inherited. Of course, we knew this all along, for didn't old folks used to speak of how so and so took after his mother or father or was the spitting image of some remote ancestor in “ways” as much as in physical appearance. How many of us have looked in the mirror and seen an unfamiliar pair of eyes staring out of our heads?

So it was with Minnie, the Yellings' youngest daughter. She was so much like her mother that they could have been twins, and she had her mother's “ways.”

No! she wasn't going to wash the dishes; cleaning up your room was for the birds; if he didn't like what time she came in at night, that was his problem; she went out of her way to come on “field” just like her mother. The only person Minnie would mind was her Nanny, a hefty spread-out woman Ed hired after Ruby went east; what luck, Ed had thought at the time—Nanny had showed up asking for the job before he had placed the “help wanted” ad in the
Berkeley Gazette
. Nanny had come to them straight from New Orleans. Minnie loved this jolly, robust, happy-go-lucky creature.

Ed never spanked Minnie; he characterized spanking as “Louisiana Red”; he had a cryptic way of expressing himself. As the years went by he became weary of fighting with his youngest daughter and would try to appease her with gifts he'd never give the other children. When she reached her teens she was the only member of her set who owned a Porsche.

As time passed, more and more of Ed's hours were spent at the Solid Gumbo Works; the booming Business of his enterprise wouldn't allow him to spend as much time with his children.

The Berkeley Hills where they lived was located in the northern section of the town, called “White town.” Negroes and poor whites lived in “Dark town” or “Bukra town” which was the area located below Grove Street in the “Flats.” The area running through the border segments was referred to as “Japtown.”

A good portion of the “Dark town” and “Bukra town” was located, you guessed it, across the railroad tracks which traveled across University Avenue. Ed liked it in the Berkeley Hills house, secluded by eucalyptus, oak, bay and sycamore trees, even though, once, a cross was burned on his lawn. What luck, Ed had thought at the time. And, faithful to her promises, Nanny was good with the children and especially good with Minnie. They were always in a huddle, whispering.

CHAPTER
3

Minnie still pouted and wise-cracked when Ed greeted her in the morning. She was rude to Ed's fellow Workers. Sometimes she'd get so angry she'd fly into Nanny Lisa's apron, whereupon Nanny Lisa would fix her some pancakes. That would make the child happy. She loved pancakes, especially topped with syrup. She would gobble them up, and Nanny would smile broadly—real broadly—and say, “That child loves to put away them flapjacks”; after which Nanny would bathe her and tuck her in, perhaps while singing a rousing version of “Take It Right Back,” and other songs depicting negro men as brutish wayfaring louts. After the child was tucked in, Nanny would tell her those stories about the “Widow Paris,” and her running combat with Doc John, a mean uppity diabolical smarty pants.

Minnie loved these “Louisiana Red” stories in which the Widow Paris, Marie, would always best Doc John; prevail over this no-account ruffian. (She liked Marie to win and would laugh her little chirren chitter when Doc John was brought down to size.)

Minnie was becoming suspicious of her father.

What was this Gumbo? She would ask Nanny about this Gumbo, and Nanny would cook it for her; but she knew that her dad wasn't in the restaurant business, so what kind of Gumbo was it? Nanny was as in the dark about the operation as she was. Once Minnie had seen her Nanny going through her dad's papers, and Nanny and Ed had a fight about it until Nanny had finally convinced the man that she was merely looking for some change to pay the paper boy. Her father was touchy and uptight. What did he have to hide? Why did he use the code “Gumbo” for what he was really up to?

 

Years passed. Minnie enrolled in the University of California at Berkeley in Rhetoric (they have a Ph.D. program) because she was good at that. Sister opened a boutique business on San Pablo. Wolf went into his father's Gumbo business, which was no surprise to Minnie; Wolf had been just like her father: secretive, taciturn, smart. Too goddamn smart for Minnie's money. Bro. Street went to jail for busting one of his street companions on the head with a lead pipe.

Minnie stayed out a lot on Telegraph Ave. She'd go into the Mediterranean Restaurant for exotic coffee. It was there that she met T Feeler, who was propounding the idea known as “Moochism.” Moochism was being whispered about in cafés all over Berkeley; people had rallies about it. The administration in Washington began bugging it; its propaganda machine based in Berkeley and San Francisco rivaled Ezra Pound's in the same places. Herb Caen's column dropped names from time to time: Big Sally, Rev. Rookie, Cinnamon Easterhood and Maxwell Kasavubu. The Moochers had lots of parties to acquaint people with the idea; often T and Minnie would be the only “minorities” present.

 

Moochers are people who, when they are to blame, say it's the other fellow's fault for bringing it up. Moochers don't return stuff they borrow. Moochers ask you to share when they have nothing to share. Moochers kill their enemies like the South American insect which kills its foe by squirting it with its own blood. God, do they suffer. “Look at all of the suffering I'm going through because of you.” Moochers talk and don't do. You should hear them just the same. Moochers tell other people what to do. Men Moochers blame everything on women. Women Moochers blame everything on men. Old Moochers say it's the young's fault; young Moochers say the old messed up the world they have to live in. Moochers play sick a lot. Moochers think it's real hip not to be able to read and write. Like Joan of Arc the arch-witch, they boast of not knowing A from B.

Moochers stay in the bathtub a long time. Though Moochers wrap themselves in the full T-shirt of ideology, their only ideology is Mooching.

Moochers aren't necessarily poor, though some are; Moochers inject themselves between the poor and what other people who are a little better off than the poor set aside for the poor. Like the hoggish Freedmen's Bureau crook, or the anti-poverty embezzler.

The highest order of this species of Moocher is the President, who uses the taxpayers' money to build homes all over the world where he can be alone to contemplate his place in history when history don't even want him. Moochers are a special order of parasite, not even a beneficial parasite but one that takes—takes energy, takes supplies. Moochers write you letters saying reply at once or at your earliest convenience, we are in a hurry, may I hear from you soon, or please get right back to me—promptly. Moochers threaten to jump out of the window if you don't love them. The Moocher drug is heroin; the Moocher song is “Willow Weep for Me”; Moochers ask you for the same address over and over again. Moochers feel that generosity should flow one way: from you to them. You owe it to them. If you call a Moocher wrong, he will say, “I'm not wrong, you're paranoid.” Freud gave the Moochers their greatest outs. Moochers talk so much about “integrity” when in fact they lead scattered, ragged lives.

Moochers are predators at the nesting grounds of industry.

Moochers decided to start an organization themselves.

 

T Feeler had spent many years on Telegraph Ave. before meeting Minnie, and he was getting grey. He wore beret, boat jacket, sneakers and would bicycle about town calmly smoking his pipe.

T taught a course at U.C. Berkeley called “The Jaybird As An Omen In Afro-American Folklore.” Just like him. T, Minnie and Maxwell Kasavubu, who was a “white” Literature instructor on loan from Columbia University, struck up quite a threesome. Kasavubu was writing a critical book on Richard Wright's masterpiece,
Native Son
, and had been teaching at U.C. Berkeley in the English Department. He wrote short stories in which he would cite all of the New York subway stops between the Brooklyn Ferry and Columbus Circle. This impressed his colleagues who like many members of the northern California cultural establishment felt inferior to New Yorkers. He derived his power from this and was able to get a job.

T would entertain Max and Minnie while they sat in the Mediterranean Café drinking Bianco. T tried to impress Maxwell Kasavubu, a real “right-on chap” as T would say, by showing off his knowledge of Old English.

Max would smile indulgently when T rattled on about obscure English poets, but one night Max got drunk at a faculty party and before the startled guests, including the Chairman of the Department, some kind of Bible devotee, announced: “T Feeler is destined to be the first nigger to be buried in Westminster Abbey.”

The guests were too polite to laugh. They don't laugh in Berkeley anyway, they go around smiling all the time. T was embarrassed and went into the kitchen, only glancing from time to time into the main room where the party was taking place and where Max and Minnie were doing a pretty fierce grind. After a few beers T rose, went into the room and said: “Well, if I'm buried in Westminster Abbey, I hope I'm dressed in the manner of the bard.”

The people laughed then. Minnie laughed too. T Feeler liked that, them laughing. Max came up to him and slapped him on the back.

 

In Berkeley, Moochism was becoming the thing to be. Books on Moochism appeared on the bookstore shelves, while the
Partisan Review
was hardly moving. The prose style was a little too “dudish” for this old-west town.

Minnie was happy about the outpouring of Moocher buttons. She was particularly pleased with one which read: “I Am A Moocher.”

Minnie had risen in the Moochers' ranks, making quite a name for herself as orator and rhetorician. For her appearances she was provided with female bodyguards known as the Dahomeyan Softball Team who dressed in black knee-length pea jackets, dark pants and waffle stomper shoes. Sometimes they toted carbines.

There were Moocher songs, Moocher tie clips and Moocher bumper stickers; Wall Street predicted that Moochism would be one of the top thirty-five trends in the U.S. to succeed.

Minnie was content. She wriggled about Telegraph Ave. like a chicken without a neck. Then it happened.

Solid Gumbo Works had invented a Gumbo that became a cure for certain cancers. Crowds gathered, submitting their loved ones. Newsmen came. Gumbo came to be seen as a cure-all dish, and the health-food stores were in trouble. The Co-ops had to slash prices to compete, and if this happened to these economical and consumer-minded stores you can imagine the panic at Safeways. The people didn't want to Mooch when they could have Gumbo, and so the Moocher recruits fell off. Minnie was even heckled.

Even though she was eighteen, she clung to the massive heaving bosom of her Nanny, and Nanny would rock her to sleep like she used to, staring at the child with her old shiny mammy eyes as she prayed to Saint Peter to look down on this chile. Outside, the Dahomeyan Softball Team, Minnie's crack bodyguards, would mill about as Nanny issued hourly press bulletins on the state of Minnie's despondency. They were some fierce, rough-looking women led by this big old 6-foot bruiser they all called the “REICHSFÜHRER.”

Ed, Wolf and some Workers came up to the house one night to discuss some Gumbo business and ran into this strange vigil. The Dahomeyan Softball Team camping out stared at the men angrily; Nanny was in the midst of telling Minnie one of those stories about Doc John, and how when Marie, by that time the “last American witch,” finished with him, she had him eating out of her hand.

“What's wrong with Minnie?” Ed asked as he led the guests and Wolf into his study.

“Ah don't know, Mistuh Ed. Seems she haint feeling too good. I going to fix the child some buttermilk and put her to bed.”

“I hope she feels better,” Ed said as the company moved into Ed's private room.

 

Nanny undressed Minnie and put her to bed. When she was half asleep, she had the child drink some nice warm buttermilk. Minnie's body possessed all of the fertile peaks and valleys of young womanhood. Nanny stared at her a long time.

As Minnie climbed into bed, Nanny started to tell her the stories. Stories about Marie and how she had showed Doc John that he wasn't such a big deal. Minnie dozed off, smiling. She began to talk in her sleep. She was thinking of how better things would be if her father would just take a walk and not come back. Nanny shook her grey head sadly at the mutterings of this troubled teenager.

The next day Ed took off early. When he arrived home he told Nanny to fix him a rum and Coke. He went upstairs and climbed into bed.

 

Around the Bay it was April Fools' Day. A pig leaped from a truck in S.F. and was pursued by housewives waving meat cleavers and about to make mincemeat of it, until it was rescued by incredulous policemen, finally convinced that the farmer's bizarre tale was on the up and up. In the same town on the same day a man found a four-foot anaconda in his toilet bowl. A “bottomless” fight was being waged by café owners whose performers had been warned to cover up their Burgers. Rev. Rookie of the Gross Christian Church preached a powerful jumpy sermon replete with strobes, bongos and psychedelic paraphernalia.

This was part of a three-day ceremony celebrating Minnie's ascension to Queen of the Moochers which ended with an old-fashioned torchlight parade to Provo Park in Berkeley. Sister went to hear Nina Simone at the Rainbow Sign on Grove St. that night.

A book called
White Dog
, on how to train dogs to check negroes, was on sale at The Show Dog, a pet shop at 1961 Shattuck Ave—“Whitetown.” The North and South Hills Berkeley was getting ready. Dazed-eyed beasts big as horses trying to jump over the fence at negroes while their masters with those stupid-looking gardening hats on grinned at them.

The old feud was coming to a boil between the North and South Hills and their traditional enemies in the “Flats”: niggertown. A councilman, popular among the University people and the “Flats,” was recalled, unfairly many thought. People made comparisons to the Reconstruction days when many negro legislators were expelled from their seats and even lynched by the whites. There were more parallels than people thought. The councilman in question even wore a modern version of the post-Civil War clothes associated with the carpetbagger's nigger dandy: spats and such. The ex-councilman thought he was in New Haven; instead he was out here in Poker Flats, in Dry Gulch, in Tombstone. How did the old saying go? “There's no God nor Sunday west of Tombstone.”

But the most startling development on this April Fools' Day was Street's escape from prison. He had had his “consciousness raised” in prison and was immediately granted asylum in an “emerging” African nation.

BOOK: The Last Days of Louisiana Red
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