They emerged from the subway and walked from 116th Street at Riverside Drive near Columbia University, the top Ivy League school. He admired how Martha kept pace. It was true, Martha was no shrinking violet. She was a gal who knew how to hustle.
They would find the address for a care package, sent to Curtis from Georgia. He left her waiting outside, while he ran up two flights of stairs.
There was no one around but he heard a throbbing bass beat and voices coming from inside. He saw the package sitting on the floor. It had a crinkled note roughly taped, in child’s handwriting from his mother Cora. He looked around, snatched the parcel and barreled back down the stairs. He didn’t want to be accused of theft.
“Okay got it. Come baby doll. We’ll cut up to Harlem through a park,” Curtis said, tugging her case and holding the small package under his arm.
“Curtis, let’s take a break in the park. Aren’t you curious to see what your mother sent you?” she asked.
“Okay let’s do that,” he smiled.
They sat at a picnic table, on the north end of Morningside Park. He was excited. In the Navy he didn’t trust his mail hadn’t been tampered with, by prankster bunkmates.
“I love seeing you so excited,” she said.
His sweat showed through his military pocket breasted blue shirt. He wore light slacks and aviator sunglasses. His shoulder badges had little white stars, sparkling in the sun.
He took a breath and savored, the hint of a cool breeze shimmering through the trees. He unstuck the rectangle shaped brown paper, affixed with colorful stamps. Martha reached out to help him tear it open but he brushed her fingers away playfully.
He couldn’t imagine what was inside. He pulled out a framed family photograph, of them sitting at the coast and a letter. “Would you look at that. This here’s Ma and Pa, my brother Will and sister Louise. Would you mind reading the letter to me?” he held it up for her. Give him a stack of numbers and he could add them easily in his head but reading out loud embarrassed him.
Martha obliged, smiling warmly, “Sure. What a lovely family photo Curtis.”
It was a good thing Mama had learned to read and write.
I do hope you are healthy and eating well, on those Navy ships only God knows where. We appreciate the help you’ve been sending home. Your brother has opened a general store and sweet Louise is taking a class, thanks to some of the money you wired over. She also says there’s a nurse you might like!
There was a helluva flood on the Savannah last week. The river swole and flooded all the way up to Telfair Street in Augusta. Your Gramps is getting old and frail too. It’s day by day.
I saved the best for last. The biggest news is Ole Man Johnston passed on. Didn’t he go and leave us a plot of land. The one our house sits on and the lower field too. We had to go to town to hear the will read to us. Said it was for gratitude, for generations of service. Can you believe it? No more monthlies for us. We is like that TV show Beverly Hillbillies! Mabel says it was like Jesus saved us in this life, instead of making us wait for the next one.
Please think on settling down back home.
We miss you something terrible.
Curtis choked up thinking she probably neglected her housework, collecting farm eggs and feeding hired hands to write the letter, “I’ll be damned. They’ve inherited the house!” he said, looking at Martha.
“The house you grew up in? Who’s Old Man Johnston? Is he related?” she asked.
“A relative you could say. For five generations my family has lived on or within 5 miles of the same tract of land. At one time it was a booming cotton plantation. Those relatives weren’t there by choice. When cotton moved to mass production, the tract became a grain and vegetable farm.
“Well your momma sounds happy. What is her name?” Martha asked.
“Cora” he said. The letter raised his dread of breaking the news to them, about Martha being a white girl. They would steer clear of Georgia indefinitely.
“Maybe we should settle in the South!” she said.
He started to laugh, thinking of tough Cora, ‘you boys get on in the house or I’m gonna jerk a knot in your tail.’ Mama was sweet in the letter but one look at Martha’s pale skin, would send her over the edge. She’d be worried sick. Why d’ya have to make things so hard on yourself Curtis? He imagined Mama’s face and felt a pang of loneliness in his heart.
“The South is tricky Martha. I’ll tell you all about it one day. I promise. For now let’s think of ourselves!” he said.
“But surely times have changed. Do you think the South has gotten more tolerant since you left?” she asked.
God love her. Only an innocent white woman could ask that!
“Nope. The news channels may say a lot of good things up here but you can bet the local stations, are reporting at least one negro man, wreaking havoc each and every night,” he said.
The thought of going south made him tense. At least in Harlem black people, could willfully rebel in a defiance they couldn’t in the South. It was dangerous and exciting in one way but looking around Harlem’s poverty and chaos, he wasn’t a 100 percent sure this would be any better. He was less likely to be embroiled in mischief and there was financial opportunity in New York.
In the past few weeks he’d noticed people of color in Harlem, following their own rules. They were second and third generation city people, instead of subservient farmers. Their relatives had come up from the South, slowly discarding the massa and yessir attitude.
He was a country boy at heart so nervous about adopting urban life and protecting her. The 60s were amazing, riotous and groovy but Martha stuck out like a sore thumb. If he hadn’t met her he could easily have gone back home to work at his brother’s store. There was a rich history with black people pioneering trade schools in nearby Augusta, infirmaries for decent education and plenty of trade jobs. You could live your whole life in Georgia, without interacting with white folk, if you kept to the right areas.
What right did he have to ruin her life? He could spare her future grief and send her back to Montreal. She’d get over it in time.
Then he became thirsty realizing, he’d wilt and die without his spunky Martha. He felt sick in his throat just thinking of her in Montreal, happily married and raising children without him.
He’d find a way to protect her, from the brunt of stares and comments. He’d love her till death do them part.
“Cora has been through a lot but she’s an old softie. There ain’t much for us down there. I’ll make enough dough, to take care of my woman,” he said.
He lifted her lithe hand and caressed it to his beard giving himself sparks of excitement. Her hands on his face, could have him in a heap of trouble back home. He felt stiff passion at the excitement and sin the of it. What could be better than forbidden fruit?
She was in danger for defying not only her family but every white person, who would be offended by their union. He wondered if the defiance was a thrill for her. The fact that he was the cause of her defiance, made his stomach leap.
Martha stood up enthusiastically, “Alright enough resting. Rest is for the wicked and the lazy and that ain’t us! Lead the way my prince,” she said, with newfound energy, as she slid the frame and letter into her valise.
He smiled at her spunk.
“I got out of there so I could make a living. We’ll try our best here in the big apple and if we can’t we’ll move into a shoebox, as long as we’re together,” he said. Even though the stinking breeze blowing through reminded him baby shit the sailors would call smelly grease on the ship.
He hoped Dougie meant what he wrote in his letter, “If you’re ever up in Harlem, just let me know…” Of course this was the same Dougie who used to get by on pommie baths, only changing his clothes instead of bathing for days at a time. Curtis had been partial to the long hot Hollywood showers himself.
Before coming to New York, Curtis didn’t know a lot about Harlem. He’d heard of Sugar Hill, just to the north known as a mecca for musicians and writers. Movement authors Thurston Hughes, Here on the edge of hell; and Richard Wright, Native Son hung out in bars and cafes there.
People of all backgrounds, headed to Harlem for the music, fun and racy frivolity. The Cotton Club was one of the more famous places but there were many others.
He found out being black in Harlem, made it tough to get a job. Harlem couldn’t support itself because business owners, were racketeers and police were mainly white. You needed a network or connections.
Harlem had once been a proud black capital until it was devastated by depression and ghettos. It turned into a slum without opportunity, had substandard amenities, squalor and tuberculosis.
It had seen the New York Slum Clearance Program, where slums were turned into high-rise project buildings.
A Robert Moses city committee had uprooted more than a hundred thousand black New Yorkers and forced them into Bedford-Stuyvesant and Harlem. The people affected most were those with the least voice. (15)
Blocks of historic brownstones, were demolished and replaced by high-rise apartments. Many of those who lost their homes to demolition, were not re-housed. Those who were relocated, found themselves in large apartment projects, in towers segregated from the community.
Dougie got them a flat at the St. Nick, a decade old super-block apartment built on a large swathe of land that had displaced hundreds of residents. Curtis thought it macabre, like living on sacred burial ground.
The St. Nick was the only building black people didn’t need to pay more rent than white people because white folk refused to live there. On the street it was known as A sparkling complex of buildings with an entrance but no exit. The city didn’t think it was worth creating parks, or anything beautiful in the poor areas.
Curtis saved telling her too much about the flat and the fact he only had four days, before heading up and down the Eastern seaboard again, unless he could get his U.S. Navy orders changed.