2013 Brooklyn Non-Fiction Prize Finalist
I can still see the glow from the blue lightbulb from our floor lamp as it illumined our livingroom in our fifth floor apartment in Brownsville, Brooklyn. To me I was living in not the concrete urban jungle as Brownsville was often referred to, (Journalist Jimmy Breslin wrote in 1968 that Brownsville reminded him of Berlin after World War II; block after block of burned-out shells of houses, streets littered with decaying automobile hulks. The stores on the avenues are empty and the streets are lined with deserted apartment houses or buildings that have empty apartments on every floor. It was an oasis.)
Brownsville to me, the Van Dyke projects in which I lived with my parents and sister was a
place I proudly called home. I had friends above and below me and in buildings across the
walkway. I had Betsy Head Pool to stick my toes in on a hot summer day. I had a Jewish
neighbor, a kindly old woman who opened her apartment door after peeping through her
peephole when she saw me coming down the hall to offer me freshly baked cookies. And I had
I was around seven or eight then, spending time with the most perfect man in the universe, my father on a Friday night. To say I was biased about him, an inspiring jazz musician would be an understatement. I was tone death to everyone else’s critiques, incensed sighs, and loud enough for me to hear whispers especially my mother’s.
Music was the heart and soul of my father. He had saved up what little money he had working odd jobs to buy a pretty golden saxophone in a red velvet lined case. As his baby girl, the one who was always underfoot, I learned early on if I wanted to be in his company, I had to learn to tolerate if not love his music.
My father, James Dillard Rushing, was the only son out of three daughters of my paternal grandparents. Spoiled like buttermilk,” was what my grandmother referred to him as being and, not within earshot of my mother, she’d also say he was, “A lady’s man.”
He was tall and dark and had natural not processed waves in his slicked back hair. It was what had won my mother over when they first crossed paths, she living in a tenement on Sumpter Street in Bedford Stuyvesant Brooklyn. He living a block away on Herkimer Street with his parents and sisters and neighbors with comical names like Mr. Boatride and Sweetcakes.
My father, who allowed me and my sister to call him by his nickname Sonny, put everything on the line to play his music even his marriage. Having a steady job wasn’t important which caused my mother to fuss and nag. Sometimes I’d take a glass and press it against my bedroom wall which was connected to theirs to eavesdrop on their late night rifts.
“The rent is due,” my mother would say.
“Your daughters need some new school clothes,” my mother would say. “You need to get a job.”
“I’m trying my best. Got a gig in Harlem…” my father would say.
I could hear the enthusiasm in his voice when he talked about “his gig”, playing his
saxophone. It was like he was a child waking up on Christmas morning to see a Tonka truck or a bicycle or model train set under the tree after his parents told him Santa Claus was going to bypass their house that year because money was short.
I loved hearing that shimmershine in his voice when he talked about his music. I wished at times I could have put it in an empty coke bottle and sealed it up to offer to him when he needed a boost. At that young of an age, my concerns weren’t the same as my mother’s. It didn’t bother me that my stomach growled when hungry or knotted up from a week of black eyed pea leftovers. I didn’t care about shopping downtown on Fulton Street at Mays Department Store for new clothes. I longed for my father to play his music just as much as he longed to play it.
Whenever my father had a gig or jam session with his musician friends, I plopped myself on the edge of his bed to watch him practice. He’d set up his rickety music stand in my bedroom, put a number two pencil behind his ears so that he could make notations on his sheet music, a handkerchief over one shoulder for his sweat, and would play. After that he would shower and I’d still be there watching him get ready. Pants were ironed to a crease, a white shirt from the cleaners was pulled out of plastic from the closet and shoes got a quick swipe of black polish.
His face was slapped with Old Spice, his rosary was put around his neck and saxophone wiped
of any thumbprints until it twinkled like gold.
Watching him I’d stick my bony chest out with conceit wanting to call all of my girlfriends to see the treasure that was in my house; both my father and his saxophone.
I hated to see my father leave though. Sometimes I was always afraid he wouldn’t come back. In our housing project that we lived in on Blake Avenue I had seen many fathers do that. Some for far less than to follow their dream. A neighbor once told my mother her husband went out for a pack of cigarettes and never came home.
So I kept vigil even if my father’s gig or jam session was on a school night. While my mother and sister slept, I’d wait for him as I sat on a pillow on my bedroom radiator watching the L train at the Sutter Avenue station go by. Sometimes after watching at least six trains rumble by I would finally see him coming up the walkway with saxophone case in hand.
And then listening for his footsteps and deep hum to spill out of the elevator, I would open the door.
“Tell me what you played? Who was there? Did you get a standin’ ovation?” I bombarded him with. And he whispered in my ear names to this day I don’t remember, names he could have made up just for me, before picking me up and tucking me in my bed.
Friday nights were the nights I anticipated the most. It was then my father offered me lessons that would carry me through the cycles in my life especially when he was gone.
Lesson number one under a blue light. I learned about the importance of rituals; how they create a sacred place in your heart for something you are passionate about. My father had a ritual he performed each time he listened to jazz. First he opened a window even if it was the dead of window. And then he watched as the curtains danced in front of him as if they had an innate rhythm in their fabric.
Next, he placed a bottle of Ballantine beer on the floor for himself and handed me a can of orange Crush soda. He filled a small plastic Tupperware bowl with potato chips and pretzels for us to snack on. He’d then put a blue light bulb in our floor lamp before finally spreading his collection of jazz albums on the floor like giant dominoes, asking me to pick one out.
I’d always pick the dark skinned man who looked like him, Miles Davis. Their expressions were analogous for they both seemed bitter and sweet at the same time. After he poured a glass of beer, and was satisfied that I was comfortable he’d inspect the album I had picked, take his handkerchief and rub its vinyl slowly, methodically, wiping away any minuscule particle only his eyes were trained to see. Then he’d place it on our record player and wait until needle and vinyl connected before he sat down.
“Good choice,” my father would tell me as I crossed my legs Indian style on the couch crunching a mouthful of salty chips and pretzels and taking a swig of soda in the same manner I saw him drink his beer. When Miles began to serenade us with his trumpet, all sounds around us ceased. The rumbling from the L train at the Sutter Avenue Station, a stray cat’s meowing for food, an ambulance speeding through the streets, people cursing and fighting, were all blocked out. We were frozen in some kind of rapture and shut out the world.
Nestled close to him, I inhaled an aroma of serenity in my father. And I witnessed my father’s metamorphosis what I could testify to the saved and sanctified at my grandmother church, First AME Zion on Macdonough Street. It was like he had stepped through those doors and the preacher had laid hands on him.
Thus I never wanted his vinyl albums to stop spinning on my mother’s prized French Provincial record player that she scrimped and saved for from a furniture store on Broadway in Brooklyn. I wanted our Friday nights to be endless, ever embryonic. But those nights ended the usual way, with my mother calling my name for bed, and her hands on her hips letting my father know the music was too damn loud and the neighbors were going to start banging on the pipes or worst call the police.
I would stomp away with an ugly pout that my mother said would stay if I didn’t straighten up my face. Slowly, like the sand in an hourglass though a smile would tease my lips. There was always next Friday and the Friday after next.
Lesson number two under a blue light. I learned the importance of the word “Hush.” When you are silent you can hear the nuances of life and reap introspection. My father taught me to hush when I was in attendance of anything magnificent such as his music. He taught me that mediocre music was music that could be interrupted but great music by such artists as Miles Davis, John Coltrane, Oscar Peterson, and Thelonious Monk required concentration and the hush of everything around you including your voice. That was the only way to get to know an artist’s story. So I learned to “hush” in the midst of not only magnificent music, but people and even food.
Lesson number three under a blue light. I learned not to let my dreams dry up like those wrinkly raisins in a stale box of cereal. I watched a slow death in my father when he let his dream die. He eventually got a good job at the Post Office in Manhattan and pawned his saxophone at a pawn shop on Pitkin Avenue before I graduated from my elementary school, P.S. 255 in Sheepshead Bay.
Although at times I blamed my mother for killing his dream, deep down I knew it wasn’t her. She had once believed in him. She had bragged about how my father played the saxophone at their wedding. It was just that the rent had to be paid and she wanted the world for her two girls. I know that now. She wanted us to leave Brownsville Brooklyn, and move on up like the Jefferson’s. It was my father’s own demons; demons of self-doubt that slayed his dream.
My father died in 1996 from kidney complications after spending many years on dialysis in the same apartment we listened to his jazz music in under a blue light. Married then with a family of my own, I was living in East New York. We didn’t talk much. When we did our words were scarce. I knew it was because of his failing health.
I often wish I could write a different chapter for our lives at the end of his. If I could I’d remind him of his schooling; something I would have never received from books. I would have picked at least one Friday night a month to have a listening party of two, spreading his old jazz albums on the floor for old times’ sake, putting a blue light bulb in the lamp to take his mind off of dying. Music does that you know. It carries you away from your troubles to a better realm. It was what my father had done for me, as a little black girl growing up on Blake Avenue in Brownsville. He bequeathed me with a piece of Heaven on earth.
Langston Hughes once stated, “Jazz is a great big sea. It washes up all kinds of fish and shells and spume and waves with a steady old beat, or off-beat.” Thanks to my father, jazz artist James Dillard Rushing who lived in Brooklyn all of his life, I’m a swimmin’ in that bottomless indigo sea and staying afloat.
Jimmy Breslin’s reference to Brownsville Wikipedia article: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Brownsville,_Brooklyn