I tried on a brand new blues this morning;
'Cause my old blues don't fit no mo' . . .
The words of the blues song lodged inside my soul like static in an old radio—the dial set somewhere between stations.
My Great Gramma's words got all tangled up in that static. She always said, "Jeannie, you gotta know when to fight and when to run away. It takes a wise soul to know the difference."
Well, I don't know how wise a decision I had made, but I think I was running away so I could fight.
Early that morning, at the crack of dawn, I'd arrived at the Greyhound bus station and said hello to the jackbooted policeman on duty. His job was to stop and question all arrivals as they descended the bus steps. The city of Akron did not tolerate drifters. You had to show the cop your money or a letter about a job, or he would send you to the ticket agent, who would hand you a one-way ticket right back to wherever you had come from.
The policeman said, "Going out again, Miz Evans?"
I nodded yes. He was used to seeing me and the musicians I performed with, or M'Ma's gospel choir, or just me alone, going to play somewhere in the tristate area—Youngstown and Cleveland, Ohio; Erie, Pennsylvania; West Virginia; and all the little places in between. This morning's journey was different.
Got to change the way I'm living
Ain't nothing like it was before . . .
The lyrics were pounding in my head. A new song crying out to be born crept unbidden into my brain. My head began to ache. I rubbed my temples and thought, maybe someday I'll finish it.
I looked at my watch. There was still some time before the bus pulled out, so I headed to the restroom.
The room was spotless and deserted, too early in the morning to find an attendant on duty. The silent space felt like a sanctuary for those few moments. I took a deep breath and let it out slow. I was ready for change, but that didn't mean I felt confident about what I was doing.
Then my reflection flashing out at me from the restroom's mirrors caught my eye. Dark brown skin clear. Big eyes dark blue-brown. Lips thin, with Max Factor cherry red lipstick carefully applied. I pressed them together again to even out the color. One quick turn so that the long, full grey wool skirt flared out from my hips. I put my hands on my waist. The matching jacket was princess style—nipped in, with six self-covered buttons marching to the top of the neat little Peter Pan collar.
"I'm just a little too skinny," I said out loud to the empty stalls. I weighed ninety-eight pounds, with a size 0 bra. Well, really size 30, with rolled-up stockings stuffed inside to fill the cups.
After one quick pat of my freshly curled coal black hair, I took a nickel out of my big ol' purse and said, "Okay! Heads or tails—Cleveland or Columbus?"
Up! Up! The coin twisted and turned in the air. I caught it with my right hand and quickly clapped it onto the back of my left. "Tails—Cleveland! Heads—Columbus!"
I peeked under my hand. "Heads it is! Columbus, here I come!"
Turning on my high-heeled grey pumps, I wriggled my toes so that I could feel the hundred-dollar bill stashed in my right shoe and marched out of the restroom straight to the ticket window. I bought a ticket to Columbus and boarded the Greyhound bus, headed south from Akron.
I was eighteen years old, it was 1945, and the whole world was in flames.
I seated myself halfway between the driver and the john. The Greyhound started filling up, so I put my pocketbook on the seat next to me to ward off obnoxious characters. Most of the time the ploy worked superbly. Most men hated to ask you to move something from the seat so that they could sit in it. Besides, men had a short pipeline to their bladders and preferred sitting back by the john. Women didn't mind asking at all.
Sure enough, a tall skinny spraddle-legged white woman, her dishwater blonde hair swinging over her right eye, climbed into the bus, looked up and down the aisle, then indicated that she'd like to sit down beside me. I looked her over to see if she was a lonely soul who might talk me to death, or one who would just nod and smile and quickly fall asleep. Checking out the circles under her eyes, I decided that she was younger than she looked and had been hanging out all night long. She'd probably "kak" out as soon as the wheels started turning. So I shoved my big ol' pocketbook under the seat between my feet.
"Well, this is a great day for a long ride," she said hoarsely.
With the lyrics still loud in my head, I wouldn't meet her eyes, and said to myself, Damn! Did I read this wrong? Is she gonna talk all the way to Columbus?
But no, thank God, she promptly leaned her head back on the clean white square of cloth the Greyhound people supplied, and immediately fell sound asleep.
I breathed a sigh of relief and stared out the window as the bus lumbered out of the station, leaving a cloud of black smoke behind. Almost at once, practically everybody on the bus lit up a cigarette. It didn't really matter to me, 'cause the night before I had played piano all night long for a comic, two shake dancers, and the band finale in a crowded smoke-filled nightclub.
The bus rumbled through Akron, shifting gears, lurching through sudden stops and starts before finally hitting the two-lane highway due south. Tall buildings and bridges soon gave way to homes with backyards and swings made of old automobile tires. As the sun climbed in the sky over patchy gardens and giant sunflowers I knew I was on my way. Somewhere.
I was thinking that my life up until then had been just like that Greyhound bus: shifting gears, sudden stops and starts, clouds of smoke, and now a journey into the unknown.
"Lordy!" I sighed and tilted my head back, shifting, turning, trying to find a comfortable space for my neck, so stiff and tense I thought the bones might snap. Back and forth, back and forth I rolled my head, until finally some of the static in my mind started to clear.
I thought, I'm through with all of them! I had been a "good little girl"—going along to get along—working my fool head off trying to get somewhere in this world!
It seemed like all sorts of folks wanted to get in my way. The policeman who patrolled a small village between Cleveland and Akron came to mind. He was white and we weren't. That meant he could position himself so that he could stop us on our way home after performing Saturday nights, and force us to unload all our instruments by the side of the road. Then he would ask, "How much money y'all got?" And he'd hold out his hand. We'd have to fork over money so he would let us repack our stuff and go home.
Once we tried to outsmart him and said we'd played but hadn't gotten paid. He smiled with his lips—not with his ice blue eyes. "Well," he drawled, "y'all get that junk back into yo' automobile and y'all follow me back to the jail!"
We exchanged anxious glances and hurriedly reloaded everything, then jumped in the car and did exactly as he ordered. We were sweating, our hearts beating wildly, but nobody said anything.
We followed the police car, its siren wailing, back, back into the lonely woods on a narrow bumpy road. Finally we stopped in front of a little dark house. The lights and siren died, and he climbed out of the police car and walked back to our car. "Git out!" he barked. Malicious, he added, "Welcome to my home."
We felt anything but welcome. He hustled us up the worn wooden front steps, unlatched the door, and turned on the light inside. There wasn't much furniture: a scarred dark red leather sofa with the stuffing coming out, two spindly chairs, one leaning left, one leaning right.
Behind a wooden desk, O Lordy! stood a cage-like structure with bars on the front. "What y'all think of my jail?" he asked with a little sneer. "One of you is gonna stay here as ransom while the rest of you go home and git me some money."
My knees were shaking, but I wouldn't let on how frightened I was. The drummer, my cousin Charles, was a big guy—in stature and in spirit. He wanted to be a minister. He spoke up in no uncertain voice, "I'll stay here. You guys go on home and get the money." We knew what he meant. Get goin' and get back!
We did. We drove a ways and waited the time it would take to drive to Akron and return. Then we made our way back through the shadowy woods to the little jailhouse home, paid the money, and Charles was a free man. Glory!
We had a conference on the way home. Since there was no way to get to and from our gig without driving through that village, we decided to quit that good job for fear he would kill us one dreary night for resisting arrest, or some other redneck lie.
The bus lurched, and something bitter came up in my throat. I swallowed fast to keep it down and blinked even faster to hold back unwanted tears.
College? A lost opportunity! Working three jobs—running the elevator part-time at the YWCA, teaching piano to young people, and playing jazz with bands at night—never brought in enough money to allow me to continue college past the second year.
Art school? An impossible dream! I'd won a scholarship with my portraits and still lifes. But when the white officials had found out that I was colored, suddenly I wasn't qualified for anything but a token $50 worth of clothes. I wanted to kill them all! I had forced my tears back and stomped out without taking the money.
Now, I looked around at the other riders on the bus and took a deep breath. In my mind, angry thoughts twisted one upon another. Nobody's gonna make me cry! Nobody and nothin'! No more bending over backward—no bitter tears for me!
My whole body burned with fury, and the powerful words of the new blues song fueled my rage.
I'm gonna buy me a hatchet!
Cut down my weepin' willow tree . . .
"Aw, foot!" I muttered to myself. "I'd sure like to take all the fools that used me and abused me and shoot 'em in the face with a shit pistol!"
A roaring sound filled my ears. I shook my head, closed my eyes, and sat very still. After a while a cold calm descended over me, and I knew I had to settle down. Keep this up, I told myself, and you won't be worth a dime when you get to Columbus.
But the painful memories would not be denied, and my rage returned with a vengeance. I opened my eyes and stared down at my clenched fists, thumbs turned in like a little child's. "I'm gonna show them all!" I whispered.
There was only one thing certain. I was headed someplace, somewhere, somebody needed a good musician. As long as I kept my spirits high and my soul intact, I figured my ten fingers and the eighty-eight keys on a piano would take me anywhere I wanted to go.
"I don't need none of them!" My tone was fierce, my voice pitched low, it did not disturb my sleeping seatmate.
I felt a delicious stir of freedom and, at the same time, a shiver of fear and, way down deep inside, a shadow of sadness.
Nobody had bothered to say goodbye.
I was born on a sultry August afternoon in 1927, in a small red house built by Greek immigrants down by the clear blue waters of Summit Lake in Akron, Ohio.
M'Ma was very young—so was M'Da. Since I was the first child of either, it took them quite awhile to notice that though I was born healthy and lively, for some unknown reason nothing was going in and, worst of all, nothing was coming out. Pretty soon it became apparent that I was becoming very uncomfortable.
The family doctor was completely mystified and could suggest nothing to relieve my condition, so Hattie was called in.
Hattie was M'Ma's mama, a tiny copper-colored woman with blue-gray eyes. Mac, my grandpa, nicknamed her "Fing" because, he said, "Her waist was so small, you could slip a finger ring around it." The child of a six-foot-four-inch Blackfoot Indian woman and a five-foot-four-inch Irishman, Hattie became a Christian Scientist in the South in the 1920s, and, being of very independent mind and spirit, she was sought after by everyone for her wise input and sage medical advice. She ministered to both animals and humans.
Hattie came to my cradle and peered down at my still, little brown body. Then she said, "Looks like nothin's goin' in and nothin's comin' out!"
Everyone nodded in solemn agreement.
"Give me that child!" she said quietly. "We'll see if she really wants to stay here with us or not!"
She took me home with her to her farm out in Springfield Township. She owned sixty-two acres that she'd acquired by buying up land that was in foreclosure. She worked as a maid and did husbandry for an old white man who was a real estate salesman and developer. They had enjoyed a long and fruitful friendship.
The farm was a fairyland, filled with fields of corn both sweet and seed, green grassy fields surrounded by one-hundred-year-old oaks, tall pines, and wildflowers in every color of the rainbow. Singing birds, bobolinks, redbirds, robins, whip-poor-wills, cardinals, and, every once in a while, a chicken hawk would come freewheeling in the blue sky. Hattie would grab the old gun stashed behind the kitchen door and take a shot—Boom! Boom!
"That'll learn you," she'd shout. "Go get yo' own farm!"
Near the farmhouse nestled Blue Pond, full of eating fish. Grandpa Mac would help us catch them, but we had to throw most of them back. "There's plenty of food at the house—we won't need the fish," he would say. "If you catch more than you can eat, you'll surely starve someday. Everything balances out," he'd chuckle. "Now, let me touch the hem of your garment." He always referred to that portion of the Bible when he hung out with us.
Everything on Hattie's farm was white—the ducks, the geese, the chickens, the dog, the cats, the goat, the house—even the outhouse.
Hattie used to say, "I got power and dominion over all these white things. Only God got power over me!" (Which is why she and Grandpa Mac got divorced in a real court of law—none of that reverse broom-jumpin' stuff for her.)
When we arrived at the farm she carefully checked me out and administered hot mineral oil to my swollen belly and gently massaged my little brown body—and lo—pretty soon—a miracle! Stuff came out, making room for stuff to go in, and thus began my odyssey on the earth.
Hattie said, "Well, that's that. The way this child holds on to everything, she either gonna go to jail or she gonna be famous."
She was right—I did both.
Life was sweet on the farm. Every evening Gramma Hattie would play the pump organ and Uncle Richard (M'Ma's youngest brother) would wind up the Victrola or play his trumpet. Big bands and Bessie Smith and Jay McShann—I was too little to know the difference, but Gramma had saved my life.
Finally, I was taken back to M'Ma and M'Da, just in time to be moved from the little red house to the little brown house on Bina Avenue in Akron. My sister, Charlotte, and my brother, Jerry, were born soon after.
Bina Avenue rose steeply from Summit Lake at the bottom to Manchester Road at the top. We lived a half block from the lake, and it was heaven to wake up early in the morning and breathe in air nobody else had breathed. On the right was a lovely piece of land covered with peach trees and with grapevines bending over with luscious dark purple fruit. You could look beyond the tall ancient oaks and rest your eyes on the grassy knoll that swept down to Summit Lake. This land belonged to Great-Aunt Catherine and Uncle Sid.
At the top of Bina Avenue lived an Italian family—Grampa Mac called them Eye-talyins—with two children who were our playmates, Jovie and Eddie.
Then came the home of Aunt Bessie (M'Ma's sister), Uncle James, and my three boy cousins, Junior, Charles, and Bobby.
At the bottom of the hill, on a corner lot, lived a couple of the "Caucasian persuasion"; they had moved to Bina Avenue all the way from Georgia. They were quiet people. Oh, they'd say, "How do?" when you passed their house, but they would get up off their porch swing and go into the house to avoid having much contact with us. Every once in a while the woman would cross the street, march halfway up Bina Avenue, pass the Reverend Frank's big house, and come down the walk leading back to our little brown house.
The woman knew that my little brother, Jerry, could be found sitting on the bottom step of the porch in his little white suit, swinging his feet in his little high-top white shoes, waiting for M'Ma to come home from work. Every once in a while he would look around and then say in his deep voice, "Ah want . . . my . . . Mama! Ah want . . . my . . . Mama!" He had a funny voice for a baby. For almost two years he didn't say anything. But once he started speaking, everything came out in a bass voice. It really startled grown-ups, but we were used to it.
The woman would walk up to our porch and sidle up to Jerry and say, "Hello there, little one. May I pick you up and hold you?"
He'd look up at her with his solemn little face and then look at us—Charlotte and me—then back to the woman and nod yes. She'd stoop over, pick him up, and hug him, all the time making little clucking noises. Then she'd kiss him on his round brown cheek, put him back down on the steps, say, "Goodbye, little sweet boy," and walk slowly back to her house.
M'Ma said, "Well, she doesn't have any children, and I guess her arms are hungry and empty for someone to love." M'Ma smiled at us and said, "You-all did the right thing, reporting her, though. Very good!" M'Da shifted his Red Man tobacco to the other side of his mouth and declared, "Yeah . . . one of her arms is probably hungry all right, but the other arm realize that the cute little brown baby surely gonna grow up to be a six-foot Negro one of these days!"
On our side of Bina Avenue, at the very top of the hill, lived the China-Man and his invalid wife. He wasn't really Chinese; he was an Irishman who had a beet-red face and hair to match. His arms were red. His neck was red. We expected he was red all over, but we didn't dare tell M'Ma and M'Da about that. We called him the China-Man because we had never seen anybody else who looked that strange. We reasoned he had to be a China-Man.
He would get really drunk every week and beat his poor invalid wife. We'd hear her crying in a high weird whine, "Stop! Oh, Red, please stop!" So M'Ma and Uncle Sid would go up to his house and stop him from torturing that poor pale slip of a woman. Then he would start to cry and cling to them and plead, "Take me to the Reverend Uncle Frank. I want him to baptize me so I can be forgiven of me sins." Then he'd pass out. Everybody would return to their own homes and thank God it was finally quiet.
The next house belonged to Great-Aunt Ouida and the Reverend Uncle Frank. Named for a river in Africa, Ouida was Grandpa Mac's sister. She was the mother of my girl cousin, Edna, who was born twenty days after I came to earth. Edna was considered a miracle baby because Great-Aunt Ouida was fifty-four when Edna was born. Edna practically lived at our house since her brothers were so much older.
The house at the bottom of the hill was occupied by a Hungarian family—a big tall hairy father, a little plump pleasant mother, and two little girls, Minka and Evie. They practically lived at our house, also.
It turned out that the social life of the neighborhood swung between two focal points. During the daytime, all the kids hung out at our house: three boy cousins, two Hungarians, one girl cousin, two Eye-talyins, me, Charlotte, and Jerry. Now, we weren't allowed to let anybody into the house while M'Ma and M'Da worked: strict orders that were scrupulously obeyed. My aunts would check on us throughout the day, and we all had a wonderful time playing football, baseball, kick the can, and hide-and-seek. The field and our big old yard gave us plenty of room for plenty of fun.
After work, the grown people ate dinner, washed their dishes, and in the soft light of the evening, gradually gathered at Great-Aunt Catherine and Uncle Sid's house to listen to their big floor-length Philco radio. They'd talk politics—about the Rooshans and Mussolini and Roosyvelt—and listen to Amos 'n' Andy and Wings Over Jordan, filling up with pride when Joe Louis would wallop somebody.
That's also when we'd have dessert.
Someone, mostly M'Ma, would bake a 1-2-3-4 cake or some cookies, or my Aunt Bessie would bake a pie. Aunt Catherine supplied lemonade in summer on the porch, and coffee or hot chocolate in the parlor in winter. Fireflies flickered and streetlights came on. Then someone, usually the Reverend Uncle Frank, would stand up and stretch and say, "I guess we better call it a night and get a head start on tomorrow." One by one everybody said "Good night" and slowly walked to their homes.
All the big events were celebrated at Aunt Catherine and Uncle Sid's home. The first automobile on Bina Avenue was delivered brand-new to Uncle Sid. The whole neighborhood gathered around to exclaim and admire.
"Look at the wheels!"
"Wow! There's running boards!"
The men all looked solemn. The China-Man said, "This calls for a celebration." Of course, they all ignored him, since he was always looking for any excuse to celebrate.
Then at last, the Reverend Uncle Frank said, "Well, Sid, why don't you give her a spin?"
We all exclaimed, "Yes! Yes! Give her a spin, Uncle Sid."
That automobile was delivered right from the factory. The man brought it, parked it, and left in another car driven by his sales partner. Now, Uncle Sid was rather impulsive and barked a lot instead of talking. But he didn't fool us. We knew he was a kind and gentle soul who blustered and sputtered to cover it up.
"What's the hurry?" he said. "What's the hurry?" Crossing his arms over his chest, he added, "It took them a long time to make this car in Detroit City. It took a long time to deliver it here, right in front of my house. I guess I can do a few more minutes of admiration before I crank her up."
M'Ma said later that Uncle Sid was really trying to reestablish his credibility on Bina Avenue because the week before he had been caught red-handed down in Kenmore with another woman. We children heard the whispers and watched lips disappear into thin straight lines on the faces of Aunt Catherine, Aunt Bessie, Aunt Ouida, and M'Ma.
That fateful day, Uncle Sid told Aunt Catherine that he was going out. She said, "OUT? When will you be back?"
"When I get good and ready," he barked and out he went.
Well, Aunt Catherine rounded up M'Ma, Aunt Bessie, and Aunt Ouida. Armed with a broom handle, mop handle, a flatiron, and a galvanized iron bucket, the four of them marched down Bina Avenue, turned right on Summit Lake Boulevard, tromped the six blocks into Kenmore, and knocked on the scarlet woman's front door.
When she answered the door and saw the Bible brigade, she flung the door wide open and stepped aside. They marched in, weapons at the ready, and cornered Uncle Sid. They gave him a "Mississippi Camp Beating" while he tried to retrieve his clothes. They gave the woman "what for" also, but had a little mercy on her because she wasn't married to Aunt Catherine—Uncle Sid was.
Then, full of righteousness and the sweet smell of victory, they marched my uncle back down Summit Lake Boulevard, back up Bina Avenue. After that, each marched to her own home to lie down and sleep the sleep of the just.
So, Uncle Sid was understandably a little cautious about everything after that episode—even the new car. He opened the door of the new Buick, looked around grandly, cranked her up, and took off.
We all cheered, "Hooray, Uncle Sid! Hooray!"
He drove down the hill, turned right, and continued around the block. When he came back into view again, he drove to where we were all cheering wildly, stopped the car, got out, and took a deep bow. The China-Man ran back to his house to start celebrating. The Hungarian picked Uncle Sid up in a giant bear hug and said something that nobody understood, but sounded complimentary.
My Uncle Sid felt good all over. He turned to Aunt Catherine and said, "You get in and I'm going to show you how to drive."
She threw out her hands. "No! No! I don't wanna drive."
"Just like a woman," he retorted. "When you want them to do something, they say no. When you don't want them to do something, they say yeah."
Aunt Catherine could not resist the challenge. With a toss of her head, she got behind the wheel of the shiny new Buick, cranked her up, and stepped on the gas. The Buick lurched forward and started speeding down the hill. Intending to make a right turn on Summit Lake Boulevard, she stepped on the gas instead of the brake and drove that new Buick straight into Summit Lake.
We all—grown folks and little children—stood stunned. Nobody spoke a word. Then my Uncle Sid exploded into a paroxysm of curses and blasphemies as he ran down to the lake. Fortunately, the Buick had stalled on a sandbar with lots of cattails growing on it, so that only the front of the car was partially submerged.
My aunt jumped out of the car on one side, and my uncle jumped in on the other. He cranked her up, and with the help of the men of Bina Avenue, he backed out of Summit Lake, all the time calling on all that was holy to strike all the women down dead. He backed all the way up the street as the whole neighborhood —men, women and children—watched. He stopped the Buick, leaped out the door, and ran up to Aunt Catherine, who was soaking wet from the knees down. "Fool!" he roared. "Fool woman!"
Now, he was a short man, and my Aunt Catherine was taller than he. She caught him in midair as he hurtled toward her, and began hammering on him as if he were a tenpenny nail.
"Don't you use that kind of language around here," she shouted. "We're ladies!" Then she began mopping up the sidewalk with his short body. It took Uncle James, M'Da, the Reverend Uncle Frank, and the Hungarian to pull her off him.
My aunt stomped haughtily up onto her porch, then turned, unable to resist one last aside. "I guess that'll teach you. When a lady says no, a lady means no!" With that, she strode into her house and slammed the door.
Well, nobody ever forgot that day, but nobody talked about it either. At least not in front of Great-Aunt Catherine or Uncle Sid.
I think Uncle Sid had had his belly full of fornication and blue phrases. He opted for running numbers instead. That's when you bet on three numbers—in this case, each number represented the number of a horse in three successive races in New York. You paid twenty-five cents, or some such, for your numbers, and if your horses won, you got paid one dollar for every penny you bet.
His territory grew quite wide, and since the odds of hitting the numbers straight were less than a rat's chance in a cat contest, he did quite well. He tried to convince Aunt Catherine of his fidelity and civility by buying her a new floor-length Philco radio and, wonder of wonders—the piano.