Symbols and Signs "Symbols and signs are for the conscious mind!"
Silently, these words screamed at me, echoing, bouncing off the walls of my mind like a rubber ball. They leapt desperately, like a man jumping to his death from atop a tall building, off the front page of the printed program the usher handed me. I wrestled with them, trying to keep them silent as I stepped through the swinging, double wood doors of the church. Behind me, I heard the big doors, still rocking smoothly on their hinges, squeaking gradually to a stop. The icy January air pushed and shoved rudely in after me as my face began to thaw from the warmth of the room. The smell of leather, wool, perfumes, colognes and flowers in one sober mixture became a bitter reminder that I had stepped into the essence of a celebration of life where death on Earth had the final say. The large wood beams intersecting to a high point at the ceiling led me like a compass, pulling me slowly down the center aisle, past the many familiar faces that I had seen only sparsely since I was a child. The faces became one huge blur in slow motion. A good portion of what was left of my old neighborhood rested uneasily on the red-cushioned pews. The parents of my childhood, once strong, boisterous and vibrant, had been silenced and softened slowly by time. Some were greying and bent, dependent on the help of canes and walkers. Some even pulled oxygen tanks. Others had simply become pleasant memories in death. I finished my walk to the front of the church, and stood still with my arms behind my back, feet sinking deep into the thick red carpet, looking at Johnny. The words on front of the 1
program were his. He had written them in prison. I was nine years old when I moved to Lyndon Street. Johnny, a short dark kid with large brown eyes and a small afro, was the first person I met on the block. I was the new kid in the neighborhood near Industrial Avenue. The smell of burning oil and the sight of black smoke from the top of the auto plants lingered in the background. I sat alone on the thick cement stairs that led to the large yellow duplex apartment. The bottom unit belonged to me and Momma. The upstairs belonged to Great-Grandma Millie, a tall lean woman with light brown skin like soft, smooth leather; short, straight hair; high cheekbones and sunken jaws. She was the matriarch, the thick thread that had held us together since my grandmother-her daughter--had died at age twenty-eight, leaving behind the one-year-old child that was my mother. There were no men, no grandfathers or great-grandfathers, and now my own father was out of the picture as well. My parents' divorce was why we found shelter beneath GreatGrandma. Momma had no siblings and neither did I, so there was not even a sense of extended family--no aunts, uncles or cousins. We were all we had. In this new neighborhood I had no friends, either. I had seen the boy from next door looking my way a few times as I sat there on the steps, shielded partially by Great-Grandmother's six-foot-tall purplish-red rooster cone flowers. Suddenly, I saw the boy walking toward me. I felt uncomfortable the closer he got, but sat there and tried not to show it. "Hey, man, my name is Johnny. What's your name?" he said with his right extended, like some business man or diplomat. "Brian--my name is Brian," I said, shaking his hand, completing the deal. "Where you from, man?" "We just moved here from Dupont Street."
"I just moved here last year from Alabama. I was living with my grandmother down South." "So, what's this neighborhood like?" "It's cool, man, ain't nobody gon mess with you. C'mon." Johnny urged me off the porch. "You like sports?" he questioned as we walked. "Yeah, I like boxing--Muhammad Ali." "Can you fight?" "A little bit." "Let me see." "Naw, not right now, man." "You scared?" he said, crouching low, ducking and bobbing, throwing punches. "I'm Frazier. I hate Ali--he talks too much." "Hate Ali," I said, dancing on my toes, bouncing on the balls of my feet, moving sideways and throwing jabs at the air. "How can anybody hate Ali?" Johnny caught me with a left hook to the body, despite my best Ali impersonation. The punch took me by surprise; it hurt. Suddenly I could see a serious look in Johnny's eyes. I threw a combination to the face, busting his lip. He rubbed his lip and saw the blood. Johnny went crazy, yelling and screaming. He charged me, grabbing me by the waist, throwing me to the ground. There we were in the middle of the day, rolling and tussling on the sidewalk, until a neighbor came out and sent us both home. Not knowing anyone else in the neighborhood, I was forced to go back to where I started: the porch. I sat there with my elbows resting on my knees and my head in my hands. I hate this neighborhood, I thought. I just wanna go back to where I came from. But there was no going
back. This was my life now, in the yellow duplex across the street from the large house with the faded light green siding. On each side of that house was a church, a small Baptist directly across from my house and a large Pentecostal on the other side. At the green house sat Mrs. Johnson, a large, dark-skinned woman who sat rocking on her porch-swing, humming old spirituals. She was there, but in another place altogether. I never saw her talk to anybody. Her words, it seemed, were the tones that flowed from her. They seemed to be sounds of pain and sorrow, and yet also of peace. The Johnsons were from Mississippi. They raised rabbits behind their house, right in the middle of the city. Seemed every family on this block was from some part of the South. They all moved to Flint to flee Jim Crow for the promise of the North--good jobs, good schools and neighborhoods free from violence. Great-Grandmother was from Texas. I would have to go upstairs to stay with her when Mom went to work her night job as a nurse's aid. The only job Great-Grandmother had, besides raising Momma and me, was cooking and cleaning for white families. But by now, she was approaching eighty years old. She had developed a nervous condition that caused her head and hands to constantly tremble. Her full-time work now, in great part, consisted of worrying about Momma and me. In the middle of the night, whenever she would hear a siren, no matter how distant, the phone would ring. She would be checking to see if we were all right. Whenever she heard the strange sounds that no one else heard--voices plotting, screams, cries, gunshots--the phone rang. If a broom touched the top of your feet, it was bad luck. If a woman set her purse on the floor, she would be broke soon. If your right hand itched, it was a sign that money was coming. If a black bird got into the house, it was a sign that death was coming. During a thunderstorm, all electricity had to be turned off and you were to sit still and quiet while God did his work. The tan, tattered and torn dream book she kept on the dresser
provided numerical translation for dreams. She would invest in those dreams for as little as a nickel or a dime with Mr. Clarence, a dark, heavy-set man who wore a grey derby hat. He looked mean, but had a pleasant demeanor as he sat respectfully with Great-Grandmother, holding his white pad with carbon paper tucked beneath the pages. Even for the nickels and dimes, she was a worthy customer. He paid her faithfully when her dreams came true, and she tipped him out of her winnings for the trouble. She referred to her space as a "studio" apartment. A long flight on stairs led up to a short hallway which connected to every other part of the apartment--the kitchen and small bathroom barely big enough to stand or sit in, a bedroom and a living room. The kitchen brought forth food from the old South, mustard and turnip greens, pigs' feet and ox-tails and corn bread. The small white television in the living room had a blown picture tube. I would sit there with GreatGrandmother in front of that television, watching her laugh and follow the story. She never fixed that television or bought a new one. It didn't need fixing. She was a product of the radio era. She was born in 1895, roughly thirty years after the Emancipation Proclamation. She sat on the knee of her grandfather, a slave, half Native American and half African. He was called "Bush". He used his hands by the light of night fires to create images of small animals, their shadows cast on the walls of the slave quarters. At night, with the light coming through the window of her apartment, Great-Grandmother used her hands, too, to show me the shadows of the animals. On many of those nights, her stories would mix and mingle poetically with the tambourines, organs, electric guitars and shouting voices of the Pentecostal church across the street. The sounds blew in through the window as naturally as the night air. During the day, I went back to the porch. Johnny returned, this time with a group of guys.
"Hey, man, I wanna be cool with you. We get'n ready to play football. You wanna play?" "Yeah," I said, and ran inside to change clothes. Instantly, the space right there in front of my house became a football field. Telephone poles in front of each church became end zones. It was tackle on the strips of grass that bordered the street and two-hand-touch in the street itself. When we didn't play football, we roamed the neighborhood, which was filled with fruit trees. There were cherries in the Kellys' yard, apples in the Clemons', peaches at the Lillys', plums at the McCains', and a garden in a field grew watermelons. At the end of the block was the cemetery where we played, collecting snails, frogs and small snakes. It was always Johnny that led the way on the run through the cemetery. We became good friends. But once we reached high school, I saw changes in Johnny. It started with car thefts, then robberies. Next it was drugs. By age forty, Johnny had spent more than half his life in prison. Now, a steel-grey casket held his body. We had always dreamed of becoming sports stars, but I became a police officer and Johnny became a homicide victim. Lying in his casket, he was still a beautiful dark chocolate brown, with his long, straight hair slicked neatly back. He wore a dark suit with a smart-looking striped business tie. Near his body was an old picture of him in younger days, handsome and self-assured; a young lion with a huge afro as his mane, wearing a v-neck sweater. In the background of the picture were a multitude of books on a shelf, as if he were in a study. The hint at intellect, however, was overrun by the power of two words stamped on the picture: "True Soldier." The war couldn't be denied. Flint, Michigan had become one of the nation's most dangerous cities, and black men made up the majority of the casualties. We could never have
imagined, as kids, that the spaces in which we were born and raised would become a war zone. Johnny and I had been on opposite sides of the war--or had we? I'm a police officer yet a citizen, I thought, or am I a citizen first? If there is a war, which side am I on? The words on his picture brought clarity and confused me all at once. Standing there looking at Johnny, my mind went back to the battlefield. I was a rookie officer. "Shots fired, possible shooting," were the words that rang through the radio from dispatch. It was after two a.m. on a warm, quiet summer morning. Quickly, my training officer turned on the lights and sirens. The transition from a slow, uneventful patrol to a high-speed drive through mostly vacant streets had my heart racing. We were the first unit on the scene in front of the large green house. It looked haunted, sitting on its hill, the porch light dim, but illuminating the overgrown brush on each side of the stairway. There was no activity on the street, but there was a large moving truck parked in front of the house. "We'll check the truck first," my training officer instructed. We got out, guns drawn. I used my flashlight to check the cab and saw nothing. I grabbed the door handle--it was locked. Just then, I heard movement beneath the truck. I turned and pointed my gun in the direction of the sound, ready to fire. It was two large raccoons running from their hiding place. As we reached the back of the truck, I saw that the large pull-up door was ajar. I yanked it open, my heart pumping, as my training officer covered me. Ready, again, to fire, I looked inside and saw a pile of blankets in a clump. "Flint Police," I yelled as I walked toward the pile, my steps echoing off the metal floor. I snatched the blankets back, and nothing was there. I exhaled, but my relief lasted only for a second, because we still needed to check inside the house.
My training officer took the lead up the front stairs and I followed him. As we entered, we found the large living room cluttered with displaced furniture and boxes. Looked like someone was moving; the truck outside made sense. "Someone may be shot inside, per an anonymous caller," was the update from dispatch. As we walked toward the dining room, the house was still quiet. "Who are you, what are you doing here?" my training officer shouted suddenly. A small-framed white man was seated comfortably in a brown leather recliner in the dining room, a deer rifle lying on the floor beside him. "I live here," said the man--a tiny, intimidated voice, like a child's. "Is anyone else here with you?" my training officer said as he placed one foot on the rifle. "Yeah, him," the small man said, nodding his head to his right, behind the large dining room table. As we approached, we found a large white male, lying on his back on the floor. The rear half of his head was completely missing and one leg had collapsed and contorted in an unnatural direction beneath the weight of his body. "What happened to him?" my training officer questioned, now in a soft tone, matching the smaller man's demeanor and contrasting the horror we beheld. "He was bullying me, pushing me around and hitting me, so I shot him," the man replied, as if this had been nothing more than a squabble on the playground at recess. "Arrest him," my training officer ordered as I stood there, almost in trace, looking at the dead man. He looked like a mannequin or bad prop for a horror movie lying there, and yet this was real. The murdered and the murderer were right there before my eyes. The magnitude of reality hung heavily in the air with the casual attitude of the suspect. Without any warning or
preparation, I stood instantly at the feet of my first homicide victim, my heart beating in way that I had never felt it before. All of the breath had left my body. My flight instinct was kicking in, but I had to suppress that emotion. Like the suspect, I had to adopt a demeanor that this was no big deal, just par for the course. I placed the man in handcuffs and walked him slowly out to the cruiser.
After the initial shock of the first death scene, the blow lessened each time. Still, seeing dead people was one of my biggest fears. I conquered it, but I never got entirely used to it. Death and I had become close companions. As I stood before Johnny, all of the deaths between his and the first became a blur. Johnny was the first person that I knew very personally who had been murdered. I tried to humanize the anonymous crime victim as much as I could. I always asked myself, "What if this was your family or friend--how would you feel?" But I realized, looking at Johnny, that the rational fell short. It wasn't the same. We try to see the best in people we know, despite the obvious. Though I knew Johnny's unlawful past, "criminal" was still not a label that I could easily place on him, because I had known him before he had changed. The last time he had gotten out of prison, months before his death, I had gone to see him. Every other time I'd heard he was out, he had been back in before I could see him. I clung to the part of Johnny I knew before he went to prison. It was the only way, maybe, I wanted to know him. I walked into his mother's home, feeling a little awkward as our eyes met. It was the same home that he had grown up in. We hadn't stood there together since we were kids. The room shrank the closer we got to each other. There was a short silence as we
stood face to face, neither of us knowing how the other might judge. Was this a meeting of a cop and criminal, or just two childhood friends? "Hey, B." "What's up, J?"
We hugged. I still saw the nine-year-old boy in Johnny, but I wondered what he saw in me. "It's been a long time." "Yeah, I know." "So you the police now. I been reading about the work you been doing out here on these streets, man, with the kids. I'm proud of you." "Hey, somebody did it for us, man. Remember Coach Wilkerson, Mr. McCall and all them? I'm proud to see you out of prison, too, man." "Yeah, B, I'm staying out this time. I ain't ever going back. Prison is no place to be, man. The shit I seen done to grown men in there, man, I wanna tell these kids out here, 'You do not want to go to prison.' Maybe you can help me." He hesitated, not sure how I would feel about it. "You already with the kids," he added. It was a great idea, the two of us doing anti-crime work in Flint. It was something the community needed. But Johnny would run into problems finding what he needed most: a job. "Everywhere I turn, B, they won't let me forget I'm an ex-con. I'm trying to do things the right way, but they won't let me. I got kids and I don't wanna live with my mom for the rest of my life." Johnny and I never made good on the idea of speaking to kids together. Soon old friends
from the neighborhood began telling me that Johnny was headed back to prison. He had been seen recently driving a new, expensive SUV, despite the fact that he was still without a job. Even I was in denial as to what the vehicle symbolized. "Hey, B, why people out here saying I'm headed back to prison?" he said, with a hint of nervousness in his voice, when he called. I sensed that his question to me, as his friend, was also an inquiry to see if, as a police officer, I had knowledge of an investigation against him. "Johnny, man, you know I ain't that type of police. There are different police that do different types of work. I work with kids. I don't know anything about drugs and don't want to know. But trust me, if you are doing something wrong out there, there are people just as passionate about drugs as I am about helping kids, and they will find you." "Hey, B, I ain't doing nothing wrong, man." "People say you are driving a brand-new SUV out here, J. If they see it, anybody who might be watching you can see it. You know what I'm saying?" "Yeah, I hear you." "You don't have a job, man, and that's why people who care about you fear that you are headed back to prison. They ain't gossiping, they concerned for you. I'm concerned for you because the police might be the least of your worries. You over forty now, J. These young cats out here in this game are ruthless now, man. They don't have respect for a old guy like you trying to come back on the scene. Ain't no seniority in these streets, man. If anything, they got something to prove by taking you out and showing you that they run the streets now." "Symbols and signs are for the conscious mind. What is understood need not be explained," he said. "Okay, man, talk to you later."
"Later, B." That would be my last conversation with Johnny. He was found shot to death in that same SUV in what was thought to be a drug deal gone bad. After taking in the sight of Johnny lying there in his casket, I took my seat. It was the same church Momma, Great-Grandma and I had joined when we first moved to Lyndon Street--the small Baptist church, where my mother was on the nurses' guild, wearing the white dress and white cap that rested on the front half of her head. The hand-held church fans were adorned with the image of Martin Luther King Jr., his eyes piercing through me each time like the picture of the white Jesus on the walls of the black church. The walk across the street to church, dressed in a suit, under the authority of my greatgrandmother and mother, had been an embarrassing parade before my friends, who were in street clothes, ready to play football. The restraints of parents and religion were somehow against the code of a child's freedom in the streets. The cars that lined the streets for services at both churches, too, were but obstacles to the thing that we really worshipped: football. I reluctantly entered the house of the Lord many days, wishing only that I could stay in the streets and the fellowship of my friends. Once inside, I would watch Momma use the Martin Luther King fans and glasses of water to help comfort the women who screamed, shouted, danced and cried after catching the Holy Ghost. It was there that I shivered and cried, too, after feeling the chilling waters of baptism on Mother's Day, at nine years old, in 1974.
I could still hear the congregation singing "Wade in the Water" as Momma pinned a white cloth around my shoulders, preparing me for the moment when the pastor would dip me backward into the baptism pool. My head had crashed suddenly through into the water, filling my ears and nose, drowning the loud, haunting congregational song to but a faint, sweet whisper. Now, the voice of Johnny's step-father thundered through the speakers, shaking the walls of the church and penetrating souls. People stood, shouted and cried, and I sat silently crying and listening to him speak, stuttering all the while, reaching into the depths of his being to find wellarticulated words. "The ship has come in, the ship has docked, the anchor has been lifted, the sail has been raised and a strong wind is blowing. He's going home. He's going home. He's going home!" But when he finished, God spoke through the preacher from Psalms 9:9, "The Lord also will be a refuge for the oppressed, a refuge in times of trouble." And then from St. Matthew 5:35, "Blessed are the poor in spirit, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven." "Blessed are the meek, for they shall inherit the earth." Finally we sang an old congregational hymn "Farther Along." It was a song I had heard the elders sing many times, back in my childhood in the Baptist church. But as a man, now the meaning of the song suddenly struck me all at once. "Farther along we'll know about it. Farther along we'll understand why. Cheer up my brother; live in the sunshine. We'll understand it all by and by." As Johnny's casket was closed, I wondered if any truth or understanding would ever come from any of these words.
The white-gloved pallbearers placed Johnny's body in the back of the hearse. He would
be buried in the same cemetery that we once played in. After the burial, I returned to my old house. The streets that were once transformed into football fields were now, too often, crimes scenes. The reasons our forefathers came to Flint-good jobs, housing, good schools--were all but gone. The violence and the poverty of Jim Crow had revisited in a different time, in a different land, in a different way. The space where my great-grandmother's flowers once bloomed was now overgrown with weeds. The fields behind the house, once gardens, were now a dumping ground for rubbish. Walking up the stairs where I used to sit as a child, the rotting wooden banisters that had once held our weight, now gave way. Looking at the old mailbox, I was shocked to see that my great-grandmother's name, MILLIE, was still affixed to it, the worn metallic letters placed there by my mother many years ago. A legal notice stapled to the house read: On the property known as 747 E. Lyndon Ave., the structure is open and vacant, roof has deteriorated shingles, rotten sheeting, windows and doors broken, damaged and missing throughout. The electrical, heating, plumbing systems are in disrepair. The ceilings and walls have flaking paint and holes. Cellar walls have cracks and bulges. This structure is hereby declared a hazard, nuisance and danger, unfit for human occupancy. I took a seat on the stairs, placed my elbows on my knees and my face in my hands, and realized that Johnny's death was just a symbol, a sign of a larger death of a community and the American dream.
Brian Willingham, a poet/photographer/police officer in Flint, Michigan, writes about the life and death of Johnny, his best childhood frien...