"They always start off with A Love Supreme at this place", said Martin. "It gets kind of boring after the 33rd time you come here. Why are you here anyway? How did you get in? They check IDs."
It was a mid-March evening, and we were sitting at a table in the Summerland club in Harlem. The lights throughout the space were low, and I could barely see my brother's face in the gloom. It didn't help that he was especially tall, and most of the light was on the stage. Fortunately the band was doing a cool piece, so I could talk without having to shout. Then again, a space full of noise is good for concealing conversations.
"You assume I used the front door. If there's a cover charge, I'll leave it with the door person when I exit. I'm not planning to drink, Martin, you know me."
"Oh, do I?"
"you damn well know what happens if I get drunk," I said. "That was the last time I saw you. That was the only time Marina ever had to save ME instead of the other way around, and I have no idea if they ever fixed that subway car, and I only found pieces of the cow." I sighed. "Anyway, I'm here because I figured I could find you here. This is your hangout, right? Your home away from home? Your Third Place? Grandma has the liquor store, Jo has the NY public library, Marina has the river, and you have Jazz."
"I'm surprised you remember, considering how long it's been." He turned to the stage. "Listen. They're going into Love Supreme again. That's the third time this evening. Have they run out of ideas or something?"
"That can't be," I said. "You never run out of ideas when you play Jazz."
He turned to me and raised his eyebrow. "So you're not completely cut off from being Black. I was worried that you'd gone so far down one branch of our family history that you'd no intention of coming back to the center."
"Jeez, what's with you?" I pouted. "Grandma wasn't nearly as sharp about it as you are this evening."
"You see her every Sunday, don't you?"
"Only in the morning, ahem, ahem."
"Right. Right. I remember having to put my foot down about that."
"I can't believe she had no idea!"
"Maybe she was trying to give you the tools to talk to Dad's side of the family, you ever thought of that? They're pretty damn evangelical, from my experience. I get along by smiling and nodding and not saying much, and they don't ask why I'm not free on Saturday evenings."
"There's a cross pasted on the inside of the front door of the apartment, James keeps trying to convert Ms. Lei, and St. John went off to be a missionary in India."
"Wait, he's actually named Saint John?"
"Aunt Esther is well-read. If you were more familiar with a certain half of your family tree, you would know that already. But yes, he's named that, and he went off to be a missionary. I don't even know if Indians are interested, but he went anyway. And your aunt Esther keeps asking if I've found Jesus. I always ask her if she has approximate GPS coordinates so I can start looking. She gets mad and serves me too much hot sauce on the chicken. It's...I'll grant you, it's kind of Yikes for anyone in our family. But, you know, they ARE part of our family. And they do have a lot to tell you if you were willing to listen. They know what this city used to be like. They can tell you stuff Nonna can't."
"So you're familiar with them, are you? Is that why you never have time for me?"
He sighed. "I am rather lucratively employed as a plumber, Pat. I've got less time for anyone than I'd like. Grandma reached out to me and she offered a free chicken dinner every sunday. How could I refuse? I'm sorry I haven't called you or Dad much, but Dad kind of ran away from his side of the family when he married Mom. That's what Nonna told me, anyway."
" That's not what I heard. Mom told me that he got quietly disowned by them."
"Well, I stoppd hearing from Aunt Esther after Marina was...how do I put it..." He hissed through his teeth.
"That's a super-awkward conversation that shouldn't happen until we know exactly where she came from and where the original Marina went. I mean, she's not like any fairy I've ever heard of. She lives in a city full of iron and I've seen her dancing high on exposed girders, for Heaven's sake. I mean...not the original Marina, the...oh, God, how do I even -- "
"Leave that for another day," said Martin. "And let me ask you, why do you never call me? My number hasn't changed. You could text me, or leave a voicemail, or...anything. But I don't hear a word from you. What exactly do you do when you're not doing homework? Do you have friends that take up all your time? Or are you out looking for adventure?"
"Usually adventure. I mean, ever since you told me about that golf course... And Nonna told me about Big Jake...and Marina told me about Coyote...what exactly do you think I would have done? Sit on my ass and wait for all the cool stuff to wander by? You knew I wanted to be a Shaman since I was young. And now that I look old enough that people won't wonder where my parents are, I can go around and have a look at this city. Meet the spirits and talk to them so they'll be willing to bargain later. Understand how the energy in this city flows. I have to know this city if I want to lead my people through it! That's what being a Shaman is about, right? Calling on the spirits to help guide your people."
"And who are your people, Pat?"
"You. Jo. Dad. Nonna. Mom. That's about it. So far."
"And what happened to 'blood is thicker than water'? Hm?"
I groaned. "Everyone gets that one wrong. It's 'the blood of the covenant is thicker than the water of the womb." The family you forge, the family you choose, is more important than who you're born to. Let me put it another way -- family means nobody gets left behind. before you start, I didn't leave Dad's side of the family behind, because I never met them."
"But you left me behind."
"And you left some of your heritage behind."
"Did it ever occur to you that maybe I don't WANT people to automatically think of me as Black? I don't understand why they can't just see me as an American. A New Yorker. A Brooklynite."
"You have an ancestry," said Martin, "and it's worth remembering. You've got two wildly different ancestries, and even if you don't want to be bound by either one, you could at least take the time to learn from them. We're not all The Same here, that's not what this city is about. This city is a plethora of peoples living in their little neighborhoods and jostling elbows and occasionally getting into riots, and where else in this country could a daughter of Italian Jews meet and fall in love with a Black man?"
"It happened in Canada, didn't it? Drake's pretty public about being Jewish."
" Well, then, follow his example. You've got two branches to think of. Don't leave one out."
"I know...it's just, it's so much easier to tell people I'm Italian-American and have everyone assume I'm from south-of-Naples, or something. I tell them I'm black and they're all like oh, well, ahem, you know, I have a couple black friends myself. There's something about being Black that's so...political, the way it isn't for italians. You know?",
"I am aware of the phenomenon," said Martin. "It's an old problem. But think of it this way -- here and now, in the 21st century, you can talk about your mixed heritage in ways that would have been impossible a hundred years ago. There were laws that were made specifically to prevent anyone from even CONSIDERING the idea of a mixed-race person. Not just the miscegenation stuff, but specific racial cateogies enshrined in law that nobody was allowed to step out of. The One-Drop Rule. A hundred years ago, you'd be Black and that would be that, because the Law said so. And if you had tried to fight the law...well...white people tended to get very angry and scared when that happened. Surely your history class didn't leave that out."
"They made fucking postcards out of photos from lynch mobs. The white southerners were murderously insane."
"Oh, but who did they send the postcards to?"
"Relatives in the north. 'Wish you were here,' and all that."
"And besides," said Martin, "You're also a Jew."
"I have no intention of forgetting that."
"Ah, so you ARE interested in heritage." Martin grinned. "That's what I like to hear."
"Look," I said, "when I say political...it's not really just about white people feeling vaguely uncomfortable. I'm more than a bit scared, Martin. Scared of actual harm. You know. Police officers deciding I'm one of the Young Hoodlums who need to be Taught A Lesson. Doctors and nurses thinking I can somehow stand pain better than white people. Some angry nutcase who thinks I need to be shot in order to send a Message. That sort of thing. If I open myself up to Grandma's world, there's a danger coming my way I don't know how to face. All I know how to do is run. It's what I'm best at. Nobody in the city is faster than me, but if I get cornered, somehow, I can't just call down a ton of bricks upon human beings. I would never ask the bricks for such a thing. Ghosts and spirits and living mailboxes are SO much easier to deal with than human beings. If someone decides I need to be knocked down a peg...I don't know what I'd do."
"Knocked down a peg, hm? Funny you should mention. There's a story I've never told you."
"A very relevant story to our discussion."
"And it's the story Grandma told me, the first time I came to her place. This is one of the things Nonna wouldn't know about."
"You see...Look, have you heard the story of Tall John the Conqueror?"
"What, are you saying he's real? God, Martin, don't tempt me like that! Now I have to go and find him."
"No. No, I have no idea if he exists physically. That's not the point. Grandma told me that she knew what he meant. What he stood for. He stood tall, Pat. Taller than anyone trying to whip him. He could never be beaten, not for long. He was wise and proud and he never let any puny white man get him down. Never let the poison of opression enter his mind, never stooped to do the things the whie people wanted him to so that he would survive. Who cares if he was never an actual person? He's a spirit. An ideal. He's almost like the Ayn Rand type of Ubermensch of the Super Man, you know. Always a force for building and positive change. Never raised a hand to anybody, or needed to." Martin sat up straighter, and he had a faraway look in his eyes. "Because he's better than that. He can't be pulled down."
"Can he be cut down?"
"Oh, sure. He's kind of a tall poppy, really. But he keeps coming back. That's the thing. You can cut him down, but it doesn't keep him down."
"You're sounding like this tall John fellow is an actual person. What exactly did Grandma say to you?"
"She told me that she had seen him. Every year. In one man or another. Always a tall black man with a strange gleam in his eyes, and he was there, and then he was gone. She swore he was real. I told Grandma she was seeing things."
"There's only one way for me to find out, isn't there? Where should I begin looking?"
"Where else? Harlem. But how would you call upon him, if he was real? He might not hear your voice in the midst of a crowded city."
"Calling the spirits has been easier since Rabbit Levy gave me a Shofar. I'll just blow it everywhere and see if he turns up. I can tell people I'm doing Improv Jazz or something. I think that's fitting for Harlem, don't you?"
"I want to see that Shofar next time I come to visit you."
"Next time would be the first time since you left, brother. And maybe if you actually come to Temple for once, maybe you'll get your very own Shofar, and a nice sticker, and maybe a goody bag. Why not venture into that part of YOUR heritage?"
"Oh, God, with the guilt! I'll swing by next Saturday, how's that."
The set finished with "A Love Supreme."