Aunt G and her husband G ran a prosperous Funeral Home in a section of Philadelphia called Germantown. Aunt G was my great-aunt, my grandmother’s sister. She and G were in their seventies. I moved in with them, taking the top floor of one of their three three-storey houses. I brought an antique trunk full of books and a duffel bag with clothes in it. From the train station to the Funeral Home was a seven dollar cab ride that Aunt G had paid for in advance.
The ground floor of the middle house in the complex housed a chapel and a morgue and each room of the middle house had a powerful identifying odor of formaldehyde or flowers or G’s Old Spice. Living in the Funeral Home with G and G, I became quite familiar with certain properties of the elderly. Certain properties also of their not-too-distant cousins, the dead. These old folks, G and G’s circle, were inscrutable as antiquarian objects but as experienced Amateur Scientists of Race they were not opaque to me.
G and G’s friends were bourgeois light-skinned blacks. They were thin-lipped and straight-haired and they sunburned easily and had come of age during an era that had bluntly preferred them to Blacks endowed with too much black (the very endowment I believe explains my relentless health, my unnatural apparent youth and the one stereotypical bonus I don’t mind claiming because, in claiming it, I’m not obliged to put it on public display, or make anyone laugh with it). Frantz Fanon would probably have been more amused than disgusted by Aunt G and her husband G and their circle of friends. I can recall, my first week there, opening the door of the Lincoln Continental for Aunt G as she climbed in and quipped “Give me some of that brown-skinned service!” and my face going numb as though I’d been slapped. I didn’t realize it was an inside joke.
They kept to themselves as a group, avoiding, whenever possible, the company of blacker Blacks and Whites as well. There is a periodic table for classifying the hyper-fine increments between varying degrees of Black or Negro and they were masters of it and noted researchers in the field. The oddball of this group was Mr. Jimmy, who was chocolate brown but found himself in the company of these colored racists under the provisional aegis of his mulatto wife, Tilly.
Mr. Jimmy lived a few doors down the street, in a typical Germantown row-home. Every three-storey stone house, on both sides of the block, was tall and narrow and pressed in the contiguous series, each with its little yard and iron gate. The Funeral Home’s complex interrupted the pattern and presented a wide expanse of four deeply green, manicured and unfenced, lawns with a driveway down the middle. The driveway, created at the turn of the century, for horse-drawn traffic, led back to a concrete plaza in front of a four-car garage. To the right was the rear of the strictly-residential house I lived in when I first moved there and to the left was the back door to the morgue and, even further left, the loading ramp for acquiring clients or sending them back out to the cemetery.
The driveway was a path between the schisty sides of the buildings and these schisty walls had to be planed down with heavy machinery to make the driveway wide enough, but only just, for modern vehicles like the hearse or Uncle G’s Lincoln Continental or the “dead wagon,” a converted ’64 Chevy station wagon. Navigating the narrow 120-foot passage between the buildings, with a literal two inches of leeway on either side, required the empty-headed fearlessness of a Zen master. I never tried it but I’d seen Uncle G. hurtling down that driveway at incredible speeds, untroubled by even a moment of doubt or over-thinking, his sleek gruff head as empty as an eagle’s.
On warm evenings you’d find the people of these row-homes out on their porches soothing themselves with church fans, or on their knees worrying the weeds, or watering rose bushes with indolent flicks of immemorial garden hoses, husbanding the red eyes of cigarettes in the haze. I would be out there too, under the beacon of the G and G Funeral Home sign, which glowed on a pillar in the front yard, switched on by a timer every evening. The rapturing cloud of moths the sign gathered were orbiting a local icon of Negro mortality. Eternity, if you believe in Jesus, but imagine how disappointed future tomb-raiders will be with the proceeds from that generation.
Those were sweet evenings. I’d sit on the neo-classical porch steps and water the lawn and vibrate with longing. Longing for what? Longing for whomever: a coffee-ice-cream-colored girl named Dawn at the sister school of my all-boy college prep; girls I’d glimpse on the jangling trolleys; girls in 18th and 19th century poems; tawny Octoroons with Farrah Fawcett hairdos; girls with faces and arms and legs and exposed midriffs of pure obsidian; girls who snapped their gum when they chewed; Beverly Johnson; Donyale Luna; churchgoing girls; girls in the Sam Goody record store thumbing through the Joni Mitchell or Sam Cooke albums; girls in the National Lampoon and Psychology Today; the girl on the cover of Eric Clapton’s Layla album; Jenny from The Jeffersons; foxy girls in girl gangs; Kate Bush. I saw Kate Bush perform on Saturday Night Live in what looked like a baby-blanket catsuit and I went quietly nuts for a fortnight. I embarked in erect denim on long walks along the surprisingly woodland paths beside the rocky rapids of the Wissahickon and the Wissahickon, in its sheaths of grasshopper-green and flanks of ruddy Earth, smelled like the source of girls to me. There were more girls, that year, of my earliest manhood, than there had ever been before or since. There were a few dozen young men (including The Beatles) on the planet, lots of children, piles of Old Ladies and Old Men, but billions of girls.
I’d take it in with the gorgeous misery implicit in every night, the Black-smacked babies and soul music and living room battles with backdrops of TVs-on-carts blaring The Jeffersons or ball games and Gospel from deep in open windows. I would sit there and think how sad the Gospel music sounded, how tragic, this music that Whites too often equate with simple-minded joy. My longings were focused on pretty girls while their longings were firing, full blast, at a dead spot in outer space… the celestial dump for Negro prayers.
In Germantown, Jesus may have been the number one pin-up for the elders but Uncle G was a close number two in that libidinal hierarchy and his business model ran chiefly on such longings of old Black dames, old Black dames who had been flappers during the Harlem Renaissance and who now had enough pennies saved up (by skimping on donations to the collection plate?) to pre-hire Uncle G. Uncle G, with his pencil-thin mustache, a suavely nightmarish figure from an Egyptian frieze, would spread them ashy and stiff-limbed on a stainless steel table and penetrate their midsections with a precision-tooled trocar and send their blood through a machine, like a cherry milkshake, before a young/old woman with hard hair and boobs, whose name I forget, would drive over to paint the finished lips on the client and continue to try to set me up with her daughter.
Sitting there on the stoop with the hose, I could eye and judge the entire population of the block except for Mr. Jimmy, because Mr. Jimmy was never out there, snipping and raking, for Mr. Jimmy’s garden was forsaken and brown. Mr. Jimmy spent all his time in the cellar with an electric model railroad. He’d put half of his working and all of his retired life into it. It was so enormous that his cellar was too small for it, this model railroad. There are several references to Baptists in William James’ The Varieties of Religious Experience but precious little about Mr. Jimmy’s train set.
I first saw it years before I actually came to Philly to live, on a Christmas visit, spending every day of a snowed-in week in Jimmy’s dank cellar with those trains. At the age of ten I considered Mr. Jimmy a visionary.
When I came back to live in Philadelphia, six years after that Christmas visit, a refugee from Vegas, survivor of the Oedipal Conflict with my father and his young wife (except, as the gods are my witnesses, I never wanted to fuck my Mother; I only wanted to “kill,” rhetorically, in debate, my father: it was my Aunt Elaine I wanted to fuck), Great Aunt G and her grumpy husband G were under the absurd impression that I might still be interested in Mr. Jimmy’s model trains. They sent me over there to visit, as a kindness to the old man, when I would rather have spent that precious time reading the National Lampoon and jerking off.
The first month, I obeyed. I visited Mr. Jimmy as a 16-year-old. Aunt G and Uncle G were rich, after all. As I relaxed into a groove, however, I began winnowing the Mr. Jimmy schedule from three visits a week down to two, then down to one and soon enough I only touched his doorbell monthly and even that was too much. When I graduated from jerking off, to blowing myself, though, that was the beginning of the total end of Mr. Jimmy’s model trains.
Jimmy was always thrilled to receive me on my increasingly rare visits and he always smelled pleasantly of talc. It occurs to me now, of course, that Jimmy may have been some rusty species of pederast (it’s hard to imagine sincerely wanting to spend so much time with someone else’s grand-nephew); I’d detected that kind of attention, the kind of attention I presumed belonged entirely to girls, coming my way, from older gentlemen, before. For example, I remember a wealthy-ish, retired, three-piece-suit-wearing acquaintance of my father’s wanting to take me to a ballgame and my mother, wisely, putting her foot down (leading me to wonder if my father was offering the miracle of my presence in exchange for some kind of business opportunity). All I knew when I was young was that Jimmy bored me increasingly as I grew but that it touched me how his wet-eyed head would wobble as he stood there with that toggle in his hand. He had tales to tell but he only had to open his mouth and that bug-eyed wife of his, Tilly, would aim a glance that knocked the guts out of him.
Jimmy and Tilly didn’t have kids. It was hard to imagine that there existed the mechanism between them sufficient to have produced any. But there must have been a time, before his big blind eyeball of a belly, before the years his Formica teeth practised threatening grins in a glass of water every night, when Jimmy had looked at that frowzy old snake and seen bounty.
There must have been swinging nights Jimmy jumped her yellow bones and there must have been lazy evenings he diddled those peach-fuzzed titties by electric light in the parlor. Imagine her even-yellower mother clearing her throat demurely to get Jimmy’s grabby hands off her daughter’s rubbery tits and back into their Zoot Suit holsters as she brought them lemonades on a Bakelite tray as the wireless broadcast swing bands from a segregated deco ballroom downtown. There must have been grinding jukebox jitterbug dances on Fridays and hand-jobs by graveyard moonlight. Jimmy must have courted and wooed that bitch with all his Liberty dimes and quarters. He must have thought, there’s nothing I can’t do with this yellow gal by my side. How could he have known that the time would come when she’d curse their marital bed with masculine farts and sit around concocting lethal ironies all day, the wall paper smelling of hair-straightening chemicals, 12-minute eggs, rotten ovaries?
She scared me. Sometimes I’d happen to glance out of my third-storey bedroom window, overlooking the toy cars and miniature street, and I’d see her ambling down the sidewalk, jaundiced face a sagging cake and I’d duck behind the blinds as if her eyes could shoot lasers.
Poor old Jimmy, backed into a corner of the cellar with a ten dollar toggle in his hand! I embrace modernity but I reflect on the story of Mr. Jimmy sometimes and nearly think the back-to-Africa lunatics had a point. At least for Mr. Jimmy.
I finished high school and left Philly for college. Offered generous scholarships to several Ivy League schools, I ended up choosing the institution that happened to be the furthest away from any living relative, a tricky calculation. (And I hate to disrupt the tone here but I can’t skip the story of the time my chums Ben and Bill and I drove out to Haverford, in Bill’s parents’ VW bus, to check it out, dressed as collegiately as possible, and right before we were scheduled to walk those hallowed halls and sit with our respective admissions officers, Ben slipped down a tiny hill and fell into a huge and deep mud puddle … it had been raining all morning… and was so thoroughly covered in gunk that it looked fake, it looked like a Chevy Chase movie, and Bill and I bent double, we couldn’t breathe it was so funny, I’m laughing as I type this…)
I visited Philly, which I considered home, returning from college, in the Upper Midwest, only twice a year, for Christmas and Easter, electing to live on campus during the summer. I brought Mr. Jimmy a fruitcake every Christmas and a basket of chocolate eggs every Easter, keeping the deliveries short and sweet. I would even leave gifts on Jimmy’s stoop sometimes, with a dashed-off note, when I could get away with it, hurrying back down the walkway beside his neglected lawn and the patch of dead garden at the front corner of the fence and up the shady side of the street into the sunlight with a sigh of relief. What could I have possibly discussed with that flat-headed old man? Did we even have our humanity in common when our humanity had been contingent upon conditions defined at the time of birth?
Uncle G had his first heart attack during my first year of college. I met a girl and shared a dormitory bed with her for a week, met another and shared my bed for three months and got better and better at figuring out what all that was for, or what it could do, how dangerous it could be, even, but not remotely how to control it. I took a writing class with a guy named Mistuh Greenberg and sat among all those long-haired, Birkenstocked girls with their granola-sweet ambitions to be the voice of the prairie or the voice of their Jewish grandmothers and also among the army-surplus-jacket-wearing boys who wanted, that year, to be Hunter S. Thompson or John-Boy Walton, probably, and the first thing I wrote, or tried to write, was a short story called Mr. Jimmy. But I couldn’t do it. Just couldn’t. Started and failed a dozen times. I know now why…
… because for all those years I was hellbent on writing something nice.
I came back to Philly for a longish stay in 1980.
The furniture was not only unchanged, it was arranged exactly as I had left it years before, the feet of the snooty antiques grinding the same black divots in the sarcophagal plush of the carpets. The kitchen’s deep freeze featured rime-encrusted lobster tails I had eschewed before I could shave. The same old quaking spinsters rattled their cups in the living room on Sundays but Jenny, the tallish secretary, the blue-eyed Southern Octoroon with long white hair and big tits and a trim figure, good posture, who Uncle G had probably hired to blow him weekly, despite her age (she had to have been 70 the day I first arrived), the one who I recalled once lost a negligible amount of control over her bowels, in the entrance hall of the chapel, as she stooped to fetch the morning’s mail, leaving a Milk Dud-sized dropping on the linoleum mere seconds before I arrived on the scene, she trying then to cover for it by loudly demanding that I immediately clean up this abomination that our filthy dog Hans (locked up next door) had left there; Jenny had been dead a year when I came back. But I bet she looked the same as ever in her night-box, unable to sleep, showing off her prized blue eyes. I was the only item in the picture that seemed in any way changed when I returned to Philly in 1980. But not entirely. Not yet.
I was careful to creep in and out of the houses at such times that Jimmy was unlikely to be outside, just standing there, sun-struck, as he had taken, unnervingly, to doing. I hadn’t phoned or visited him once since returning to the Funeral Home to live, for a short time, as a college drop-out and an adult, a liberated adult, and, as I postponed the inevitable, the inevitable became impossible. Aunt G would sometimes mention rather sheepishly that Mr. Jimmy had asked about me. I was 21 that year and I’d been 16 the year I first arrived. To put it in perspective, if only for myself: our Daughter is 16 and I can’t imagine sending her to spend time with Mr. Jimmy.
For almost a year I managed to maintain zero contact with Mr. Jimmy until one morning when his wife called to inform G and G that Jimmy was dead, he’d died overnight and was lying so peacefully on the couch in the living room you’d swear he was napping. It was Tilly’s responsibility now to take a train into Center City and file the proper papers and call on relatives who might help. She wondered if it was at all possible for G to send Steven ova to keep an eye on Jimmy while I run mah errands …?
When Tilly let me into the darkened parlor where Mr. Jimmy, with his emptied sockets, lay in state, she fixed me with those sticky prehensile eyes and pecked me on a cheek and stood back to appraise me with perfect sarcasm, the sarcasm of Kings, the practised sarcasm that probably hastened Jimmy’s end, drawling that I’d grown since the last time she’d seen me.
In those days as I sat on the neo-classical front porch steps, of The Funeral Home, the Ghetto was to the left a ways, a part of the street I rarely walked as far as, but, as I write this, all of Germantown has long-since been overrun and fallen to seed, in jungle vines of graffiti and archeological ruin, like a special effect from a George Pal film.
So be it, I think. So be it.