The Hall of Justice downtown smells every bit its age, and it’s moldy and unkempt. Finding the way to our courtroom was like searching for a dormitory in Hogwarts.
“Jesus Christ,” I said. “They don’t have anybody around that can tell you where to go.”
“I know,” said Paula, my partner of three years.
It took us 20 freaking minutes to find the right room.
Paula and I had been subpoenaed to testify, because we’d helped a woman named Rose (not her real name). On March 12, 2010, Rose parked her car illegally on Washington Street in Hillcrest, to run inside Alberto’s and pick up an order.
Her assailant had different plans.
“Hey, Paula, there she is,” I whispered. “The woman we helped.”
I was surprised that I recognized her; the last time I saw Rose, she was being viciously beaten on a sidewalk.
“Oh! Oh, my God, that is her,” Paula said.
I remember leaving the CVS parking lot that night in Hillcrest. Paula was driving, and I was texting. “Hey! There’s a fight over there,” Paula announced. I looked up from my cell phone and saw a beat-down happening on the sidewalk across from the parking lot.
“Damn, let me call the cops,” I said.
While I waited for the touch screen to unfreeze and catch up to the speed of my fingers, Paula drove across the street, honking the horn.
“Is that a woman he’s beating up like that?” I said.
Paula had tears in her eyes. “It is.”
I jumped from the car still holding the phone.
The woman on the sidewalk was covered in blood, dazed from multiple blows to the head. I calmly walked up and put myself between her and her assailant.
I could hear the 911 operator. “Is everything okay? What’s happening?” I hadn’t spoken into the phone since I jumped from the car.
“Where is the guy right now?” the operator asked.
“He’s right here, in front of me.”
“Well, where are you?”
“I’m standing in front of the lady. I’m in the middle of her and him.” I wanted to make sure the operator could hear all that was happening. If I was forced to fight this guy, I wanted everybody to know why.
∗ ∗ ∗
Almost six years ago, a Greyhound bus let me off at 120 West Broadway, with too much luggage to carry.
It was my second attempt at living in Southern California, far from the black-iced streets and racial divisions of Michigan. I stood on the corner of Broadway and First like a boxer waiting to face an old adversary. Los Angeles had beaten the dreams out of me, but San Diego would not. My grandmother would be proud.
“It ain’t no easy win,” Grandma used to say.
In the 1940s, Gram left South Carolina for Detroit in search of something better. She didn’t know a soul in Michigan, yet, back then, there was a sense of community, and people acted out of kindness. Gram soon made her way.
A hush would come over a crowd whenever she entered a room. She was like a gunslinger in an Old West saloon, but instead of Dodge City, it was the barbershops and juke-joints of the Motor City. Gram inspired an unspoken respect, maybe even a tip of the hat as she walked by.
She seemed like a giant, but she was probably only 5'3" or 5'4". She had broad shoulders. To hug her felt like embracing a suitcase. She kept her bra packed; she stored everything there. She had several keys: one to the deep freeze in her basement, others to her gate, the house, and the bedrooms. She had two openers for her Pepsis (always ice-cold and in glass bottles). She had handkerchiefs — some for sneezes, some filled with coins, some wadded with cash. Then there were the sticks of Wrigley’s Juicy Fruit gum, and, who knows, maybe even the deed to her house.
As a little girl, I loved to sleep in the same bed as Gram, my skinny little legs sandwiched between her calves. Some might have said Gram was in danger of getting no rest while I was with her in the bed. But it wasn’t my legs or my elbow in her back that caused her discomfort. It was the lump under her pillow, from the loaded .38 Smith & Wesson she kept there.
“Shida,” she’d yell at me, “if you don’t stop messin’ with that, you gon’ have to go get me a switch.”
“Ah, Gram, I just wanted to peek at it.”
“You don’t touch it or just peek at it, you hear me?”
Gram would rearrange her pillow. She’d fluff mine and tuck me in for the night. She’d soon follow and we’d assume our positions, her head on her pillow, one hand underneath. I never slept better.
One night, there was a rustle in the hallway. The door to Gram’s room flew open; my aunt, who stayed in the room next door, had pressing news to share. Before she could scream or slam the door, Gram’s .38 was pointed at her.
“Queen Esther,” Gram said, “you don’t come in here like that. I didn’t know who you was. I could have shot you where you stand.”
“I’m sorry. I’ll tell you tomorrow,” Queen said with a shaky voice.
“Nah,” said Gram, “come back in and tell me now. I know it’s you. I ain’t gon’ shoot you.”
Gram and I giggled all night about how she almost shot her daughter. “Sometimes you got to laugh to keep from cryin’,” she said.
∗ ∗ ∗
Her expressions were some of the funniest things I’ve ever heard.
“I might have a little heart disease, but I ain’t never had no ass-trouble,” Gram said. Ass-trouble was the term she used to describe sexually transmitted diseases. My cousin, who contracted many of them, had gotten food out of Gram’s pot without washing his hands, and Gram was certain that everything in her kitchen was now infected with ass-trouble.