American Snapshot, 1993

Note: This story, more on the experimental side, is reprinted here in its entirety.

There was a boy in the other fourth grade, in the class that was not designated the opportunity room. The boy was black and alone, and I do not remember his name. This was in the fifth year of five years in Ohio. I remember him, though he is the only one I remember from the fourth-grade class that was not the opportunity room. He wore a white shirt, his eyes luminous in the dark hallway which snaked around the stairwell.

In New York there is a woman who dances. If you see the page in a given New Yorker where dead Sammy Davis Jr. leaps in his khakis in a cinnamon-colored ad for the Gap, if you pass the page where a pale and beautiful black family discovers a greenhouse, the young father falling out of the composition like a stranger, if you then wander back through the good woolens and Ralph Lauren athletes and forward again, you will find her: Twyla Tharp announced as demonstrating process without benefit of costume at seven thirty on the day before and the day after Dave Winfield, at home in Minnesota, hit a baseball safely in the Big Leagues for the 3000th time. Neither The New Yorker nor the third edition of the American Heritage Dictionary of the American Language mentions Ms. Tharp’s race. She is not black.

In New York and, yes, profiled in that same New Yorker, there is a director who replaced Joseph Papp’s successor at the Public Theater. He is intellectual, gifted, African American. He is from Frankfort, Kentucky, as far from Ashland, Kentucky, as Ashland is from the school near Chillicothe, Ohio, where the boy I remember was not in the opportunity room. Of the Catholic school’s three black children in Ashland my six months there, one was in my fifth-grade classroom which was neither opportunity or not-opportunity. I remember his name. François. I remember the soft Caribbean accents of his English: Our Father who art in Heaven. I remember him.

But in The New Yorker, George C. Wolfe, gay and the director of Angels in America, considers his race, his past: What was in the shops of Frankfort? “What was so precious that a little six-year-old boy couldn’t touch, couldn’t walk inside of?” In St. Paul, my neighbor upstairs, who is not black, is gay, angelic-looking, and racked with coughs. Is this a connection? When I play the piano (poorly now, as if my hands are covered with dust), I worry that the sound disturbs him. I skip “Ase’s Death,” going straight from “Morgenstimmung” to “Anitra’s Tanz.”

Perhaps this piano belongs in New York. It is historic in the way of the first hit that might lead to 3,000. In New York a pianist—young, gifted—was the first African American to win a major piano competition, and this piano is the first that he played. His sister would have played it, too. For a month they were angels in my parents’ house, both of them in white nightgowns for kisses goodnight. Menah and Awadagin. Menah and Awadagin Pratt. At my mother’s funeral, Menah played the piano and Awadagin the violin, their father having announced they would, driving up in the early morning, and, for the instant, piercing the shock of my father’s grief as, numbly on schedule, he hauled garbage cans out to the curb. This is Ted: “Mark, the children will play.”

For Awadagin, still gangly, it was pre-dreadlock days, while for Menah—a decade before the funeral of Arthur Ashe (intellectual, gifted, black, and not gay but dead of AIDS)—there was still hope for Wimbledon Center Court. Would we have predicted Wimbledon more than The New Yorker announcement of the city debut: “Awadajin Pratt in recital at Alice Tully Hall”? It is as text, actually, that I mention The New Yorker once more, because we midlanders with our weekly magazines and our own printing of the Times are wired in, an inevitable part of the hot center, the radiating diversity: New York’s gunshots and sleek fantasies land here.

From my home, it is fifteen blocks (eleven on the crow’s-flight hypotenuse) to Dave Winfield’s childhood home and to St. Paul’s Oxford Playground where he played his early ball. It is not necessarily a safe walk. The police crime grids and a day’s log of sirens suggest this. In the 1930s and 1940s, those Depression and war years that preceded Winfield’s birth on October 3, 1951 (a birth date precisely two years, seven months and two weeks before the Supreme Court decision in Brown v. Board of Education that was announced on perhaps the last day of my life I saw the boy who was not in the fourth-grade class that was the opportunity room), the blocks of his neighborhood were the prestige address for a striving black family. Enter the child who eighteen years later was the one black face on the all-city baseball squad. Enter the child who grew up in the neighborhood’s years of blight, though perhaps he did not notice this, living just doors from the neighborhood sandlot in a modest house ten blocks from where a teenage boy, named for two presidents, was shot to death twelve days before the 3000th blow. Is this a connection? Possibly. Possibly not. There is a loose circle of time and place, but still light-years of distance: a death for a boy who could not strike even a single hit toward 3000. A death, that is, at zero.

What if I had a party? I mean no disrespect. Not a wake. Not about the dead boy. What if I had a party for these people in my life I do not know? What if the cheap fares were on and each person outside of walking distance could fly in and some of the zillion questions that go unanswered in a lifetime—those questions we could wish for a god, however computerlike or in need of patience and all eternity, to answer—would be answered for us, for me?

When I work on the guest list, the party wrestles me like an octopus, changes. The roster is past ten, not sit-down anymore. There’re names that are for sure—Twyla and George C. from New York. And Awadagin. And Menah from Vanderbilt, though perhaps she’s moved on, and maybe she and Awadagin have forgotten I exist. Which is all right. They are important to me, loved, but we are, nonetheless, nearly strangers. I think they would laugh, talk in low voices, the brother-and-sister game, and Menah would twist her jewelry: a gold medallion at her throat, bracelets on her arm.

The hardest reach is the boy from the not-opportunity room who would be a man long since, though possibly a dead one. (Why do I think this?) I could try a search. Pick up the phone. Write for school records. Write for census records. Did his father farm? Find a copy of the school yearbook that has his name. Maybe he lives in the forever darkness, but does he remember what I remember—the buckeyes on the autumn grass, the pear tree on the far edge of the school grounds close to the scandal we children all knew (the plain but passionate woman who lived on the school road and gave up her twins and a pretty husband to live with a stranger—une affaire de coeur), the basement bathrooms with the concrete troughs and the stench that flashed stronger when the water pumped through for the hourly flush, and on the playground the layout of a lost house in the grayed two-by-fours we strode, testing our balance at recess?

I have questions for this man. What has he done his whole life? Who is he? Does he love the name Sojourner Truth the way that I do? And if the thing could be arranged, would he want African Perfection, the neighborhood drill team, outside the window right now, all flashy uniforms and sharp moves, dancing in the street light?

François, too. Our fathers worked together, and perhaps somewhere there’s a paper trail to check for a lead. But François must come.

I’d want Johnnie Mae New. I mean, shouldn’t this party have a life? She was here the college summers I worked in St. Paul, and maybe she still is. Then, if she got mad, got hurt, it didn’t show. Instead she did her job and she laughed. She made jokes with the nurse’s aides about the doctors’ finger cots in the hospital supply room—mini-rubbers, sheaths by the dozens—“What do they do with these?”—though it’s really serious now, isn’t it? Her uniform got its edge from her black skin. You knew the whiteness of a hospital dress when you saw Johnnie Mae New.

I would like Nelson Mandela as well, and also, though less so, de Klerk, F. W.—his dimming counterpart on the started journey from a forked path. They are forging a government while the large question here is what to do with the one we’ve got, this big tent of peoples. Would they want to know all this? see this?—that the genie grown out of the bottle stays polymorphous, slippery as hell?

I am quiet at the thought of Nelson Mandela and Dave Winfield together in a room of my home. What could hold the presence? The careful, suit-and-tie dignity that is both burden and command: respect me. Fear me if you must, but always respect me. Maybe somebody’s mother said it—that dignity is a mask for rage. Maybe it’s me who’s that mother.

Twyla and Dave are an easier pair. Besides New York (Dave, the ex-Yankee) they have this in common: both are about the body and about legs, about what the mind chooses to do with a physical self uncommonly graced. She is a wild card, the random choice here with her white skin and her bookend appearances bracketing the 3000th hit. I do not know why it feels she belongs. I do know I would ask about her name—that is, if the two of them are not talking of process together, if she and Dave Winfield are not standing in front of the dining room window where the streetlight on Laurel, caught in the slip between two buildings, glows in a night that never quite darkens the city. In the daytime white squirrels circle its base, rocket through leaves. But it is night and the movement of this man and woman, who are angled toward each other to accommodate the difference in their heights (which is also about legs), is largely implicit, a geographical history that resides in nerve-drilled memories and in the memories of people who’ve watched them. What are they saying?

My body was the opportunity. 
For me it was always the art.

Invite Harry. I would want Harry here, our first neighbor from across the hall. “Harry, I like your sweater. You knew, didn’t you, you’d look that good in the hallway?” Laughter. Happy, book-reading Harry, aching for his family to sell their house in Hyde Park and move with him up to Dayton Avenue, Harry with the gold-black skin in the hot wool colors.

This is a true thing. As a people, a white people, we did not always know that more than the eyes of a black man are uncommon. We had not studied skin so well—the olive and blue hues and sheen—the august power of pigment. But this also is true: a balding black man with a golden tint to his skin looks better in a carved oak hallway than a balding man who is pink.

I have had Alice Oliver in my dining room. When the ad went into the paper for the NordicTrack that wanted a room I wouldn’t give it, she came as a surrogate, a trim black woman from Marshall Avenue, writing her check for a Spanish friend whose husband wanted the ride. They had beaten out a hundred callers, I think it was more, and Alice Oliver, who arrived as a gracious encyclopedia with entries on mansions and on the Laura Ashley–primped gingerbread on Summit Avenue, and on the houses built a century ago for the mistresses of prosperous men, went right ahead and slid her lady’s feet onto the skis and nearly flew out the window.

I would want Alice back and Evelyn Fairbanks, not precisely her contemporary, I think, but close enough, the person who knew the uptown side of Dave Winfield’s neighborhood before he got there (the middle ground between Oatmeal Hill and Deep Rondo and gone now because of the freeway), and who wrote it all down wonderfully, a life, for a child, that was without race. Except for this: “I knew blacks were better than whites. I also knew whites thought they were better than blacks.”

There are possibles: Garrison Keillor, who once lived up the block, and Trish Hampl, who lives down the street, though she might be in Prague, and the ghost of F. Scott Fitzgerald, who was born in the brownstone I see from my window. But I don’t think that they’re coming. I don’t think it’s a fit.

I would like a glittering affair—crystal gleaming, a new chandelier, African prints. We would start in the living room, though it’s small for this crowd, and it might be sad with the cough upstairs, but it’s good he’s still coughing. Thank God he’s still coughing.

I see George C., taking a cream puff, wince at the sound, and that’s one of my questions. Does it matter for him if the one crusade piggybacks on the other, gay rights, civil rights? To be born into a manner of being, to be born into a manner of desiring—does he find the first case the broader class and demanding of precedence? Or is this all about want, about need?

The list isn’t finished. There’s the mother of Cleveland Washington, dead boy, shot boy. Of course she’s invited. Do we ask her to tell her story, to say what it’s like to bury a child?

And, definitely, definitely the Triangle Market folks who gave us Christmas when we’d just moved in and had not known that the stores from one end of St. Paul to the other end of Minneapolis would close early on Christmas Eve. “I got steaks. You want steaks? I got a turkey.”

Their baby girl was in a basket, behind the counter, next to her father, and this year there’s a boy baby instead, even tinier and with a name like Awadajin, though I know that’s not it. The father, twenty-something, brings his family into my hall, cradling the baby in an arm, holding his daughter by her hand, and I do not ask him or his wife if it frightens them as much as it frightens me: a child in the city right next to a cash register.

There are physical players besides Twyla and Dave: here is Menah on tennis, Awadagin on performance, and the grocer on meat:

For me it’s about extension.
For me it’s the back and the arm weight.
The butcher know it’s all in the wrist.

I take a picture of everyone together—the tripod set up for the $15 Holga from China, the camera with imperative settings: single portrait, nuclear family, committee, the Alps. Even so, choices. But I can place people by heart: taller in the center, shoulders interleaved, a second arc of people sitting in front with the baby on a lap, the little girl—beribboned and flounced—leaning against a chair.

Click. Freeze again. Click.

There is the instant smile after each snap and then, the photographs done, bodies loosening, the chairs back in place, the return to sound, and one afterthought: a single picture of Nelson Mandela holding the baby. For posterity. And this done, drinks and more food.

They are making a fuss over the baby. Nelson Mandela unhands him. The women pass him around and, when he wants to cry, his mother takes him again, rocking him on her shoulder, eating, carefully, one slice of kiwi.

Awadagin plays Franck, then a lullaby, and maybe this is matchmaking. Perhaps Awadagin Pratt, son of a mother who comes from Pittsburgh and a father born in Sierra Leone, will play in South Africa.

Drinks all around. A toast to Dave Winfield, man of the hitched killer swing, longer than even his very long body—a belated tribute to Dave Winfield for batting in all kinds of weather and for being safe three thousand times.

Plus a toast to the end of apartheid.

The women hum. Johnnie Mae sways. The little girl circles, dizzy with tiredness, and pulls at a hem.

The baby is sleeping. He is lying, not in a basket, but in an infant seat propped on the table, his quilt breathing its jigsaw color above the lace cloth. Dreams come, flutter his eyes.

And when he falls, it is not so much that the table is jarred or that his sister, trying to see, has pulled at the cloth. It is just that there’s been a collapse. The seat has malfunctioned, toppled him, lurched him to his father’s one-motioned catch. He hiccoughs awake. His sister, startled, buries her face in her mother’s leg.

Legs to choose from. Everyone’s legs. They arrive in a wave.

You caught him, man.
Oooh, rock-a-bye, baby!

“You all right. Shhh now.” The mother talks to her leg, reaches the baby into her arms, counts him safe in each part. “It’s your brother about broke hisself. You all right. You look out for your baby.”

A voice almost calm. The baby unharmed.

But the South African worry crease is back on the face of Nelson Mandela. Fright has come like a spirit, and arrived with a voice. Low at first and then rising, it is the keening of the shot boy’s mother: “That boy baby. Don’t you watch him out of your sight.”

“Sister, Sister.” All of them touch her, New Yorkers and not.

And I am crying, crazy, the lone white face here, with F. W. a no-show and Twyla gone after the twilight, and they look at me, these dark, stern faces, look at me as though I haven’t the right, but I keep crying anyway.

I hope it’s OK.


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