Your right pinky finger please,” Officer Hertz asked.
First Fonse had to find the finger, then reluctantly he placed it on the scanner. The officer wrapped his four fingertips on one side and his thumb on the other, rotating it so that the bottom edges clearly appeared on the monitor. His touch was gentle, reminiscent of the way Fonse’s mother, Claire, touched his hands as a child, examining how well he had cut his nails or, more importantly, kept them clean.
Why yo’ fingers so damn soft, my dude? You out here on these streets, tusslin’ with these niggas but yo’ hands soft as hell? Fonse was perplexed, roving the blond strands of hair that lay on the upper limbs of the officer’s fingers. The officer’s hands behaved as if he suffered from a mild case of Essential Tremor though Fonse knew it was a more serious condition: uneasiness.
He had been to this station before, here and there, with his homies’ mothers or their girlfriends, posting bail for mild misdemeanors, always on the other side but feeling twice as guilty as the friend who had been apprehended. None of them really broke the law, they just rammed up against it. They’d bruise, he didn’t.
One time, when he was pulling up, he counted the parked squad cars out front while admiring the way the Chicago and US flags rippled in the city’s wind. One might have thought he was entering a place where justice was upheld; not a place where a man could walk in whole and leave with just the scrapings left behind from the carving and deboning done unto his inner being.
Fonse once felt untouchable. Not by way of arrogance, but by divine intervention. Somehow, someway, he wasn’t in the car when Marty, his ride-or-die, was caught driving after just downing a forty from Leo’s Liquor and Grocers. It just so happened that Fonse wasn’t at Big Mike’s house over on Bishop Avenue the day it was raided and Pierce, his ace boon coon, was charged with possession—though innocent—right along with the real culprits. And it was luck the night he was dropped off at home right before the others were pulled over for cruising down 47th Street in the Buick that none of the passengers knew was stolen.
Even counting the times he had been there to rescue his guys, he was not a regular at the precinct. Being on this end of the counter finally inducted him into the pantheon of the rappers he hailed, all heroes with tarnished backgrounds, made saints after their persecution. As glorifying as that felt, he was still a nigga, locked up, among the rest.
They apprehended him just steps from his front lawn, half hour before dawn. He was traversing the alley, using a shortcut to get from the trouble he had just made. He should have done what he had done in the past: dipped through Ms. Rogers’ backyard and crept behind Buggy and Prezo uncle’s garage. Once the flicker of their LED lights faded, he’d come out and run half a block down to the side door of his house. It always worked, the nights he had done nothing wrong, just coming home from practicing at Marty’s or hanging out with Pierce. But because he always “fit the description,” it was a measure he had to take.
“Alfonso Anderson?” the officer said, fishing out Fonse’s wallet from his front pocket.
“What I do, officer?” he asked, his arms touching the sky.
Before he could offer an alias: “Byron Reed,” the cop said to the other. “Yep, it’s him,” shining his flashlight on Fonse’s expired state ID.
The officer’s badge read Norbert. Fonse knew that much. He insisted on keeping the flashlight shining in his face, requesting that Fonse leave his “fucking eyes open” and remain unflinchingly still. After a while he had to decide which pain he could better tolerate, the rawness of his knees on the concrete or the inferno roaring in his eyes from the flashlight.
He really couldn’t focus on any particular object in the small, enclosed room where his fingerprints were being taken. His vision was still a bit blurred, posing for his mug shots, the flash from the camera creating shapeless sepals of the fuchsia flower (like the ones in Aunt Latoya’s backyard), floating in a blurry haze. His eyes had already been suffering from sleepless nights, burned bleak, riddled with reddened askew veins. Seeing was hurting, but he still tried getting a good look at the inside. It wasn’t the “jail” he thought he’d see.
He could still remember Adam, Pierce, Marty, and Goo, as newly released inmates, each at different times, walking out, shoulders stooped, heads dangling below their collars. Their lives dried out of them like the addicts thronging 51st Street by the second of the month, now low from their cocaine highs, pockets flipped inside out, having deposited their entire SSI checks with the boys on the corner. Just making bail, Fonse would watch as they used their fingertips to graze the welts on their wrists from the constricting metal pythons a Blue and White had chained behind them. They’d grab their plastic “possessions” bag, staring at their belts and shoelaces within, possibly imagining making a noose.
The ride home would be lined with monosyllabic dialogue, punctuated with “I’m cool,” “I’m straight,” and the most fraught—but vague, “I just ain’t tryna go back.”
From where Fonse stood, he tried to find this purgatory, this place where his boys had to have been while there, this dungeon that had chafed their pride, reducing it to fragments of manhood, this place that made them so sure that they’d never “go back.” He stood on his tippy toes, searching for a pitchfork with razor edges; a red devil, beckoning him to step forward. Nobody. Nothing.
The walls were bare, only framed city ordinances hanging in no particular fashion. He heard forms flipping, ruffling, toppling over, being stapled and filed away while dispatch radios of varying volume levels chirped in his ears. No Devil. No lakes of fire. Only Officer Norbert’s deriding facial expression could be found as he left the other one, Officer Hertz, there to finish the processing.
“This corrupt system just keep failin’ me,
But it never fail to be jailin’ me,
My boys on the streets just straight haaaaailin’ me,
But not one of dem niggas up here tryna post baaaaail for me…”
His voice was a melodic Brillo pad, coarse and barren. His neck swayed, as if to balance the bobbing of his head, as he rapped the lyrics to another song he had written with Pierce and Marty.
Hertz stared at him as he lifted Fonse’s finger off of the scanner. “Niiice, who’s that, Nas or somebody?” he asked jovially, one of those few officers with whom Fonse had come in contact who took a different approach when arresting suspects. There was a time or two where Fonse and his guys were pulled over, and though they were speeding, they only received a warning. For once, they weren’t asked to get out of the car to be nearly strip-searched and insulted. There was also that time when Fonse had lost it with his mother’s then-boyfriend. The officer allowed Fonse to leave her home for the night and didn’t instigate his mother or her boyfriend pressing charges. These instances were anomalous and cherished, but trusting any of them, for him, was still incomprehensible.
Hertz seemed to have taken an interest in him while on their way to the station, asking him questions as Norbert, who looked even younger than Fonse, kept his face on ice. Hertz told forced, corny jokes their entire way to the station, as if he were apologetic about having to arrest him. Even when Fonse was Mirandized, Hertz practically whispered him his rights, his face looking more annoyed than the one being arrested.
“Nawl, not Nas,” he replied, stretching his neck from side to side.
“Or lemme guess, Biggie, right?”
“Nawl, this me. Me and my boys wrote it,” Fonse replied matter-of-factly, his face emotionless, featuring rusted lips that barely parted as he answered. The officer moved from beside him to the other end of the desk, examining the prints as they appeared on the monitor. Then he came back, a plastic smile developing on his face.
“Oh, that’s cool. I knew a guy that could come off the top of his head with that stuff. He was pretty damn good too. Ring finger, please.”
Fonse tried not to roll his eyes at Hertz who he felt was trying his best to play the “good cop” role. Even if he were one, the fact remained that he had arrested him. Fonse replaced his pinky with his right-hand ring finger. Hertz tended to it with caution, in the same way he had done the ones before.
“Yeah, I can freestyle too.”
“That’s it. Exactly. Freestyling. That’s incredible. Got one for me?” His face was luminescent, letting go of Fonse’s finger.
“You gon’ lemme out this joint?” Fonse joked, without a smile or any inflection in his voice.
“Man, you’ll get an I-Bond and be outta here in a few hours. Just as long as your prints are cool. No warrants, right?” He lifted Fonse’s ring finger off the scanner and then reached for his middle finger.
“Nawl,” Fonse sighed, shifting his weight from one leg to the other.
“Yeah, you seem like a cool cat. But you gotta stay outta trouble, bro.”
Fonse sneered at him. “Cool cat?” “Bro?” This his way of makin’ me feel like he down or somethin’? he snapped inwardly. He remembered his “training” and decided against cursing out the doughnut-eating bastard.
Around 79th Street, west of the Dan Ryan, all of the young dudes went through “training.” As more prepubescent boys were being brutally harassed by policemen, Pastor Jenkins from The First Baptist Church of Jesus Christ down on 85th and Stewart urged the mothers in the congregation to “train” their “boys.”
Jenkins would wipe sweat from his forehead with a handkerchief taken from his suit jacket and continue, “Get ’em prepared, fathers out there; and if ain’t no fathers in the house today, you mothers, all you beautiful mothers, servin’ The Lord—as both parents, gettem trained.”
“Come on!”; “Yes Gawd!”; “Amen!” women in the first pew shouted, electrified by the fervor in Jenkins’ voice. The musical director would play a few chords of the organ to add emphasis.
The call for this “training” to take place in all of the neighborhood’s homes was just one of TFBJC’s many initiatives to be reactive to community issues in the late eighties and early nineties. They got their point across through the Pastor’s explosive sermons.
At the cross is where you must be, near, ain’t close enough!” the pastor demanded.
“No it ain’t!”
With the hall doors open, his voice could easily be heard, bellowing out of the speakers down to the street corners, sending inhibitions through the conscience of even the most Godless of the ’hood’s subjects: “Yo, let’s take this shit down the block, my nigga.”
85th Street, where First Baptist lived, had a row of two-flats and single-family bungalows just across the way, two of which had boarded windows. Next to three of the most “attractive” houses (and even calling them such was a stretch), empty lots squatted, forsaken with knee-high grass. One had a bullet-holed fence, yards of it leaning to where it touched the ground. These fields were littered with bottles, McDonald’s sandwich boxes, and brown paper and plastic bags. On both sides of the one-way, the curbs were filled with even more debris: discarded potato chip bags, beer cans, and empty cigarette boxes.
However, the church radiated a defiant beauty from the spirits of the people who gathered there for Sunday service, a sharp contrast from the ugliness outside and around it. The potholed streets, howling in ghastly echoes, grunting to hide its pain, would be drowned out by Lynell Brown, the boy soprano in the youth choir, or muted completely by Deacon Reed’s organ.
Still, the landmark pained the eyes of the congregation’s twilight members who could remember when the church pillared the community, the days when taxpayers gave it more attention than their own residences. These seasoned folks shook their heads in disgrace, moving their aching bones through the entrance, just beneath an inoperable clock and an eroding cross.
The building had been on the edge of disrepair before they used “the restoration fund” to hardwood floor the stage, replace a few doorknobs, and cover the cracks in the walls with gold-colored paint. The fumes triggered his Aunt Latoya’s asthma and she cursed about them using “that ole cheap paint.” The once ruby bricks, outlining the building’s foundation, trapped in an acrid smell. It was rumored to have been emanating from the walls containing the asbestos later found in the basement.
Yet, Pastor Jenkins’ voice had the quality to hypnotize its audience, blinding them to the crud around them. “Why look back at yo’ life, missin’ things you never gon’ have, cryin’ over the things you may never do, when there is much to have and will be plenty to do in God’s palace?” he asked.
“Praise him!” Sister Brooks shouted.
“But today, we’ll talk about what we can do, what we must have while we’re still here on God’s green earth,” he paused, peering at those whom he could forge direct eye contact and then said, “our boys.”
“Talk about it!”; “Go’on nah!”; “Testify!”
“You grandparents out there, havin’ to be the mama, the daddy, and the grandmother or grandfather—”
“Yes, Lord!”; “Tell ‘em, Gawd.”; Organ played.
“Perk up yo’ ears! ’Cause through me, The Lord is speakin’ to ya, in here, this mornin’,” Jenkins insisted, coarse voiced and frantic. He was a baritone; most of his words were sung like a Negro spiritual, belted from the diaphragm of a tortured slave.
I think the old cats are better anyhow. MC Hammer, Run DMC, Public Enemy, man, those cats made real music, right?”
“No doubt, but we in different times now. Sh—stuff change. Like people do. Well, some do.”
“Guess I’m not into change then. That’s what your stuff is about, change?” The officer examined him, rotating Fonse’s index finger with way more pressure than he had used before.
“It’s about whatever’s in my head, feel me. I ’on’t plan no rhyme. It just be happenin’.”
“Like this, you being here right now? Did that just happen?” he chuckled.
Fonse’s eyes thinned. He chewed his bottom lip and calmed himself. “Yeah, and I ain’t plan it.”
“Sure ’bout that?”
Pastor Jenkins grew more impassioned; his vocals jumped two octaves, in an airy falsetto way above his range, resulting in much of his message being inaudible. His sandpaper sound disagreed with his good-looking, relatively young appearance. He was fairly new to the church and he turned many heads with his flashy suits and Florsheim shoes. He kept a razor-sharp haircut with a neatly trimmed texturizer on top. The whole congregation believed in looking their best for The Lord, and he was a forerunner for that campaign.
“When you get home, you put e-ve-ry-thing aside. Do you hear me? E-ve-ry-thing aside. I don’t care what bills ain’t paid. What dishes need washin’. The time is now to take yo’ boys, look them in the eye and say, ‘I love you.’”
“Yes!” Organ plays.
“Say, ‘You know God loves ya.’”
“Yes, he does!”
“And we both want you safe out here in these streets. So when them men in the blue and white approach. You stop. You hear? Say, ‘You stop right in your tracks and you listen to what they say. You agree to what they say, you shake yo’ head to what they say.’ You hear? Tell yo’ boys this tonight, ladies and gentlemen!”
Man, this damn machine acts like it wanna vacation or somethin’. I gotta do the whole hand again, shit,” Hertz said, squinting at the monitor, pressing the space bar on the keyboard repeatedly.
Young Fonse sat between his mother and Aunt Latoya, barely ten years old, feeling the collar of his pressed shirt cutting off the circulation in his neck, his tie too long for him. He squirmed and wiggled on the hard wooden bench, sandwiched between the two round-thighed women. Wack. His mother’s fleshy palm slapped his arm, warning him to be still. He complied for a few minutes only to begin fidgeting again, nervously waiting for the long, dramatic, drawn-out sermon to conclude.
“Tell ’em, ‘if they say you stole from the penny-candy store on Vincennes, you agree.’ If they say you causin’ a disturbance down on Carpenter, you say, ‘yes, officer.’ Whatever The Devil is tellin’ them that you’ve done, you done it, hear.’” The pastor’s voice yowled, cracking on some words.
“And I know that’s right,” Sister Grace agreed, rising to her feet, clasping her hands.
“If Sister Ernestine’s grandson done that, he’d be here today!” he continued, wiping only his neck and forehead though his face was drenched. Fonse had been on that stage twice himself, dripping sweat during his youth choir performances. It was a sound-proof cave with no ventilation.
“Yes, Jesus!” Sister Williams sung, seated in the same row as Fonse’s family.
“Had Brother Earl had done what I’m tellin’ y’all to do today, his son wouldn’t be hauled off doin’ time for a crime he ain’t do. See, these young men thought that they could stand up and tell the truth.”
“They thought that integrity was the key. Because that’s what y’all done taught them, you see.”
“Yes, they did!”
“But they realized that it ain’t in-te-gri-ty, it’s hu-mi-li-ty that sets our young men free! But that ain’t what Satan wants. Is it?”
“And he ain’t gon’ get it. Will he?”
“No, sir!” More voices joined the call and response. The room was erupting with testimonials articulated in prayer, stomping, clapping, and shouting.
“He can’t win if we keep our boys unharmed and safe. And this is what you must do to keep Satan down, ladies and gentlemen!” He pounded the bottom of his fists on the podium then pulled the mic out of the holder and charged to the apron of the stage and said:
“It’s cruelty they spring upon us (ha!)
But in God and only in God do we trust (ha!)
Life is filled with temptation (ha!)
But we ain’t gotta fall to damnation (ha!)
We are blessed (ha!)
Hence why we’re put to the test (suh!)
And if there’s one thing I never have to guess (suh!),
That in His hands we’re at our best (ha!)”
He encored the rhyme with somewhat of a praise dance. He glided across the stage, using the balls of his feet, toes, and heels, moonwalking like Michael Jackson in his prime. His neck moved like a woodpecker, poking out and retracting, synchronized with the movement of his feet, as the pianist went into an extended rift on the organ.
The room was filled with the calls of banshees: “Yes, Lawd!”; “Nobody better than, Jesus!”; “Thank you, Father!”
I went to a Wu-Tang concert in college. They played at Rosemont. Bro, they fuckin’ yelled in the mics the entire time. I didn’t know what the fuck they were sayin’,” Hertz snorted.
“’Cause, when you in that moment, you feelin’ it, you gotta bring it out. They fans knew what they was sayin’,” he replied like he was giving him instructions, envisioning himself being up there, spitting out the words to “Gravel Pit” next to Method Man, Ghostface Killah, and U-God.
Mama, he was rappin’!” Little Fonse was hysterical.
“Nope, baby, he preachin’.”
“Well, then he’s rappin’ for The Lord,” she compromised, smiling down to him.
Fonse observed the growing pandemonium around him. Sister Ernestine fainted and Deacon Johnson and his wife ran over to her from their seats on the side of the stage and scooped her up. He cradled her lame body as his wife fanned her. Seated just down the row from Fonse’s family, Sister Williams’ beaded purse fell from her lap as she jumped up and down, flailing her hands. She just gonna let it stay on the floor? Fonse stared at the purse, wondering how the sermon made her stomp on it as she screamed, arms reaching to the ceiling. The hall had a sloping floor, which made the purse slowly slide under the chair in front of her, just escaping her crushing it to death. And she didn’t even care. At that moment he remembered Aunt Regina scolding him just a month before, “Stink, don’t you never put no black woman’s purse on the floor. We broke as it is. It bring bad luck.”
There had been excitement when Pastor Jenkins’ sermon began but when he started his rap, there was a billow of electricity that tornadoed through the room. Fonse saw how even in the church, rap had the power of moving people. The seeds of his dreams had been planted.
“Ladies and gentlemen of this church, please let us read Psalm 91.” Pastor Jenkins walked back to the podium; wiped his entire face; and opened his Bible, a blue, glossy hardcover edition. Fonse had never seen a Bible in such pristine condition. The pastor cleared his throat, gazed at the congregation and read: “He that dwelleth in the secret place of the most High shall abide under the shadow of the Almighty. I will say of the Lord, He is my refuge and my fortress: my God; in him will I trust. Surely he shall deliver thee from the snare of the fowler, and from the noisome pestilence…”
Sister Williams’ purse was still on the floor.
The uproar of the congregation was still ringing in little Fonse’s ten-year-old ears by the time his mother got him home, as promised, and “trained” him. She positioned him in the center of the living room as she sat down on the couch with her arms folded and a no-nonsense look on her face. Her lips were pursed in a way that threatened “play with me if you want to.”
“So what do you do when they roll up?” she asked.
“Freeze,” he sung. His voice was quite high, almost indistinguishable from a girl’s. He refused to look her in her eyes. Even then, at ten, he felt that she was making a punk out of him with this “training.”
“What do you say when they first address you?”
“Yes, officer,” he whined, his voice lowering an octave.
“What if you don’t know an answer to one of they questions?”
“I say, ‘I’m sorry, Officer, I ’on’t know.’”
“Do you ever disrespect—?”
“Nooooo,” he interrupted her.
“Look at them—?”
“In they eyes.”
“And you walk away when…?”
“When, they gets back in they squad car and drive off,” he answered, swaying side to side, dying for it to be over. Her face finally wilted into a smile, one returned by her young, handsome son who she knew really hadn’t realized the importance of it all. He tried bringing up the pastor’s rap twice more but she quickly dismissed it.
Yeah, they felt it all right. No doubt about it. Maybe they all shouldn’t ‘ve been screaming into the damn mic at the same time. Just got one more finger. It’s acting like it wanna work now.” Hertz’s neck stretched over the scanner, holding onto Fonse’s left middle finger.
“It’s about bein’ one voice, man.”
“That was my argument. One damn voice, in the mic, at one time!”
Little Fonse was reminded of what he had been taught that night whenever Claire had the chance: before going outside to play ball, leaving for school, or even when running errands for her. But it wasn’t until Marty was threatened with spending sixty days in the Audy Home that Fonse really took heed. They were playing off-the-wall in the school’s parking lot. The tennis ball bounced into the street and found a new home by the curb. Marty went after it. The Blue and Whites didn’t like the idea. Eleven-year-old Marty had mouthed off to the one who had harangued him for “J-walking.” The frigid certainty in the officer’s eyes convinced them that he was determined to make good on his threat. Young Fonse had never seen any man so sure of his words. That incident made him and his boys believers in the infinite powers of the law.
How old are you again, partna?”
“That’s right. Man, you look ’round twenty-one still.”
Fonse nodded, the officer’s eyes still on him. Irritated by the “partna”s, “bro”s, and “dig this, man”s, Fonse wanted to vomit his anger out into swinging closed fists. But he knew that as “cool” as the officer wanted to appear, he was still the same man with that frigid certainty, gaping at young Marty, hands already on his handcuffs. They all were that man. They just came in different forms.
“It ain’t integrity, it’s humility that sets our young men free.”
He could have burst into a freestyle verse. With the shuffling of the police forms, static voices coming through the radios, and the staccato heard in his head, his body was filled with music. Lyrics were oozing from all five of his senses. But what did he have to prove? Dude ’on’t give a fuck about me, man. He remained silent, offering him his only undocumented finger. Dealing with them in this way kept him safe all these years. There was no need to change anything now.
Two hours after his booking, Fonse sat in a small, gray cell by himself, his arms resting on his knees, back against the wall. A tickle in the back of his neck cried for a cigarette. He cleared his throat repeatedly, fighting sleep and his thoughts.
“Alone I was born, alone I will die,
Best believe, I need, not a nigga alive,
Solo, hello, in-di-vi-du-alized,
And to all you fake niggas, I’m breakin’ all ties.”
“Yo, Anderson.” Fonse’s head rose. A smiling voice rang from a stiff face. “Your prints came back clean, Buddy. Your girlfriend don’t look like she’s coming down to press charges, so you’re set to go.” He wiggled the keys in the cell lock and slid the door ajar.
Fonse nodded, his eyes coming back alive. He wanted his bed but he didn’t want to go to sleep. Now on his feet, he inspected the cell one last time, as if to see if there would be a chance that a burst of fire would appear from out of nowhere. Nothing. He rode the 8:10 Ashland bus home, still silenced by his training.