When I was discharged from the Navy I didn’t go home to Fort Lauderdale. I had no home to go to. My mother no longer lived there; Southern Bell, now Southcentral Bell, had transferred her to Birmingham. The only other reason to go to Florida was to see my best friend Geoff, but he was living in Los Angeles now, a producer for the TV show Extra. When I was declared a civilian at Treasure Island outside San Francisco, I flew to LA to see Geoff for a few days, then went on to Alabama to crash at Mom’s while I figured out what to do with the rest of my life.
Mom got sick of me after two weeks and told me it was time to find my own place. I was still unemployed, so I had to find a place I could pay for out of my savings and my meager unemployment check. An apartment was out of the question. I flipped through the classified section of the Birmingham news, but the “roommate wanted” section had only a couple of listings and both specified “female.”
However, the next heading was for Boarding Houses. I didn’t think such things still existed. I thought of old black and white movies with kindly old spinsters preparing meals for a group of suit wearing bachelors, home from a hard day’s work at Amalgamated Insurance Company or the First National Bank. Ernest young men courting the librarian in the parlor or the front porch.
I thought of Mrs. Madrigal and her bohemian misfits on Barbary Lane. This was the life for me! I didn’t smoke weed, but I was willing to take it up. With a motley bunch of characters sharing a quaint old brownstone (did they have brownstones in Birmingham?) I’d have enough material for a dozen books.
I called the number in the paper and took a bus to meet the owner of the house in Smithfield, having no idea where or what the suburb of Smithfield was, and being too naïve to ask anyone.
I found Dave working on another home in Edgewood. He offered to drive me to the house he was advertising, which wouldn’t be ready for another week. It was a hundred years old exactly. Hardwood floors, three stories with an attic and basement. It was everything I’d pictured, even if it wasn’t a brownstone. “I’m still working on the upstairs bathroom, so you’ll all be sharing the downstairs john for a while,” Dave said. “You’ll share the kitchen, of course. Fridge, too. I’ll provide the cable and a big screen TV in the living room. The rooms are furnished. You’re the first one to call about the place so you get your pick of rooms.”
I chose a downstairs room, figuring I’d want to be close to the bathroom. It was small room, barely enough room for the twin size bed and chest of drawers. One window looked out onto the back yard. Another onto the closed in back porch where the refrigerator was. My room also had the biggest closet, another plus. Dave said it would be ready Monday. I gave him my eighty bucks (a week’s rent) and he gave me a key and drove me back to Mom’s place.
A week later Mom drove me and my seabag to my new digs. She didn’t want to come in and see the place. As soon as I was out of the car she locked the doors and burned rubber. I went inside and met my housemates.
These weren’t my first roommates. I’d had roomies in college and the in the Navy. I’d shared rooms with Asians, White people and African Americans and gotten along fine with all of them. But it was disconcerting being the only white person living in the house.
And the only person who didn’t own a gun.
And the only person who could legally own a gun.
Because I was the only person not on parole.
I’d dreamed of smoking weed with fellow bohemians, but these people had graduated from weed when they were weened from their mother’s breast. I’d worried that my house mates would object to me smoking cigarettes. They were too busy smoking crack to notice what I was smoking.
I spent the first week locked in my room praying I wouldn’t be murdered in my bed.
They were a friendly bunch of crackheads and eventually coaxed me out to watch TV and share weenies and chicken wings. One of them, an ancient black man with no teeth, boiled a single crab leg every night, but passed out before it finished cooking. The water boiled away, and the crag leg danced and hopped in the pot until someone turned off the stove—if anyone was in the kitchen to notice. Jackie always got mad when he woke up and discovered his crab leg had been “messed with”. “Goddam, I tol you bastids don’ fuck wid my crab leg! I’ll kill the neks bastid what fucks wid my crab leg!”
It was either fuck with his crab leg or risk burning down the house.
Every night when he went to bed RJ took the large screen TV into his room with him. RJ was huge; I wasn’t about to challenge him. Toot was watching Letterman through crack addled eyes when RJ unplugged the TV and dragged it down the hall. “Yo! What the fuck RJ!”
“You don’t want me to leave it,” RJ rumbled.
“Da fuck I don’t.”
RJ shrugged his mammoth shoulders. He left the TV where it was in the middle of the hall and went to his room. Toot asked me to help him with effort, the two of us put it back on the stand and hooked the cable up to it again. I went to bed when Toot passed out.
The next morning Toot was still sleeping on the sofa. The TV was gone. Lacey had stolen it in the night and traded it for crack. The rest of the house was in an uproar, demanding the return of the TV. Lacey yelled Fuck You indiscriminately in various directions. RJ ate his shredded wheat in silence. He’d known what would happen if the TV was left unguarded all night. Toot was angrier at RJ than at Lacey, which seemed unfair to me.
When Stella, the only woman in the house, went to her room and came back with her pistol, demanding that Lacey replace the TV or else, I figured I was no longer needed and went to my room, locking the door behind me.
In the month I’d been living in the boarding house I’d become all too familiar with Smithfield. Dominoes refused to deliver to our address. So, did Steak Out, Wing Out, and any other delivery service. I got used to the sound of gunfire, not just at night but during the day, too. After my first walk to Frannie’s Grocery I wouldn’t go by myself but Toot or RJ was usually willing to go with me if I bought them a pack of smokes or a package of catfish or chicken wings or if we stopped at the Tired Texan BBQ or Hong Kong Fish Market on the way back for some fried fish.
I took the bus on job interviews three days a week.
The fuse box (hundred-year-old houses don’t have circuit breakers) was in the closet in my room. The fuse that supplied the lights to Jackie’s room was forever blowing. He’d give me a new fuse if I was home and I’d replace it but it didn’t always fix the problem. We called Dave who might send someone to fix it or might not. If Jackie was drunk (which was most of the time) he accused me of deliberately rigging the fuse box. “Goddammit Bob if you don’ fix my lights I’m gon take my pistol and fuck you up. I’m gon kill you, you don’ stop fucking wid me, you hear me white boy?”
I yelled through my locked door that I wasn’t fucking wid him. I offered to let him see for himself. It made no difference. Usually he passed out against my door. I’d have to step over him when I left for a job interview or to turn off the stove when I smelled his crab leg burning when the water had boiled away.
The final straw was the night Bill Clinton was reelected I’d been in the dining room, writing at my laptop. Lacey never had replaced the TV. I’d gone to the AME church that morning to vote and I realized mid paragraph that the polls had closed, and returns should be coming in. I had Rent-A-Center TV in my room. I wouldn’t put it in the living room for the rest of the house to watch, lest Lacey steal it.
I ran to my room to see if a winner had been called. No such luck and I got sucked into the returns. It was an hour later that I remembered my laptop, still on the dining room table.
Except of course that it wasn’t.
I suspected Lacey, but it could have been any of them. I called the police. The detective that came blamed me. “You left it sitting on the table? In THIS house? With these felons? Damn, son, why didn’t you just throw it in the dumpster if you didn’t want it anymore?”
I called my mother and told her I was moving back in with her whether she wanted me there or not. She wouldn’t come pick me up, not at night, not in Smithfield. If she knew the reputation of that hell hole, why did she let me move there in the first place?
I moved back to her place. I got a job at the phone company myself, and two months later moved to downtown Birmingham.
Fifteen years later we were looking for a nursing home for my grandfather. We were touring a place in Helena, Alabama and I heard a voice say, “Didn’t you used to live in Smif-field?” I turned around and there in a wheelchair was Lacey, now a quadriplegic. He’d been hit by a car while running from a crack dealer he’d stiffed. Maybe it was because he was no threat to me now that he was paralyzed from the neck down, but we reminisced like old friends, things like stolen TVs and stolen laptops forgotten.
Before I left he asked me for a smoke, then for twenty bucks. I turned him down twice. I told Mom we’d have to find another place for Papaw. This one had too many crackheads.