(For Mable Kenyon)
On the lawn of our elementary school
my bully brandished a wooden bat
and yelled a warning at me across four lanes
of traffic. “Don’t come back here after school!”
His rage was my sentence for some made-up
crime he had assigned to me — again.
Baseball was his other hobby. He played
the game with skills I envied but would never
obtain, and since he liked to hit, I opted
to disappear. If not into thin air
then by hitchhiking to Milwaukee,
where my mother’s baby sister lived.
But Mama wasn’t having it. She was
raised by folks from Mississippi, Willie
and Elizabeth, married just ten days
before the Crash of ’29, the start
of the Great Depression. They hunkered down
in Black Bottom on the east side of Detroit,
first on Mullet, then to Hendricks Street,
six kids between the two of them. It was
there that Willie’s oldest daughter learned that
bullies are sheep masquerading as wolves.
“You have to go back and face him,” she said.
It wasn’t enough to chase away doubt, yet
“magic” and “Milwaukee” never left my mouth.
The return walk to school does not exist
in memory. What does is that bravery
is not the absence of fear. What makes us
brave is behaving as if we are, like mothers
sending off sons to face their bullies alone.
Lefty and Cannonball
People who debate whether Detroit is a baseball town or a hockey town are missing the obvious because deep in its bones Detroit is really a bowling town.
Bowling: a proletarian pastime without glamour or steroids or fist fights or corporate sponsors, just 16-pound balls, rented shoes, the holy grail of the 300-game and beer, no need for ice or skates, the lanes look as slick as ice anyway.
No need for a team, either, you can bowl alone, the ball comes back automatically, machines do that now, not like back in the day when pin boys sat on a little ledge above the pins, their job to clear away the fallen wood whether strike or spare, then shove your ball back down the return lane for you to roll again, but not before assembling a pyramid of ten white pins; over and over again they did that, the same routine by those sons of Sisyphus, all of them gone now, unlike bowling, which still thrives in Detroit, a bowling town.
My father bowled.
He slung steel at Ford’s, helped raise four kids, ran the numbers on the side and still had enough energy to bowl on the weekends. A lefty, he bowled on countless leagues, “UAW Local 600” sewn on the back of his sleeveless bowling shirts…cool shirts, every year a different color, and never tucked inside the slacks.
Then as now he drank 100-proof Old Grand Dad Kentucky bourbon (none of that 80-proof jive for him), and some bowling nights he drank so much it must have affected his hearing because he came home and played his albums loud enough for the sidewalk to hear. The music woke up us kids or drowned the sound of the picture tube if we were allowed to be up late, but sleep could wait and TV, too, because Daddy’s downstairs throwing strikes.
He owned enough jazz on vinyl to keep the neighbors up for weeks without repeating himself but he knew that at some point the bourbon was going to put him down and he couldn’t or wouldn’t let that happen without hearing “Autumn Leaves,” the first cut from the album “Somethin’ Else.” Miles is on it, yes, and Hank Jones and Sam Jones and Art Blakey and they play as only they can play, but it is the leader, Cannonball Adderley on alto sax, that my father anticipates more than all the others.
The tempo is medium/slow for the now-familiar five-note vamp by Hank on piano and Sam on bass, with brush work by Blakey.
From the beginning, the volume is at a level at which Braille would be helpful as Miles lays down the melody. At these decibels the master’s muted trumpet could put a hole in your chest, it’s like sucking on a mentholated cigarette six months after you quit.
Two seconds exist between the moment that Miles steps back and Cannonball steps in and my father uses that instant to turn the volume up two or three or four more notches yet again. Now Cannonball is standing next to you, he’s kicking over the furniture as he launches into 64-bar solo that is bluesy, sassy, a little bit nasty and replete with the flourishes that are his signature sound. Half-way in he unleashes six screaming notes, each one more urgent than the last, and thankfully my father has been caught up, he can’t move, you’d have to strike him to get his attention because nothing else will reach him now. He can only smile and listen, eyes closed, as Cannonball buries himself in the pocket of “Autumn Leaves.”