We laughed! We laughed like somebody with no home training, laughed through our oppression and everybody else’s living in Birdland. We laughed racism right into our innards, sexism too. We laughed at people’s disabilities, addictions, economic injustice, mental illness, mean-ness, traditions and religions, poverty—even death! We laughed up and down Trent and East Hanover Streets, and especially on our way to downtown Trenton. We laughed at the stores where poor people shopped. “Your momma shop at John’s Bargain Store.” We laughed at how people danced, talked, walked, and especially when they fell!
Mornings, from the very last seat on the school bus, we sniggled, sometimes mean, at Veronica Johnson’s wig in seventh grade. Veronica was a thin caramel-colored thirteen-year-old girl with saucer eyes, a cute round African nose, and full lips that looked as if they were puckered. She wore a reddish-brown wig, Diana Ross style, that fell just below her ears. My best friend, Ella, would whisper “Wiglet wiggie” and sniggle her mean sniggle, “Hnn, Hnn, Hnn.” I didn’t want to sniggle at Veronica but I returned a lighter “Mnnn, Mnnn, Mnnn” while secretly wondering why a thirteen-year-old was wearing a wig.
Then there were those explosive laughs that you had to hold in till they busted out! Those got my little brother, Joe, and I sent from the dinner table back into the shed just off the kitchen. When our parents weren’t looking Joe would mouth “Daddy got a football head.” Then we would both blow up our cheeks with uncontrollable vindictive anger laughs. It felt so damned good!
“Just git from this table until you can come back and act civilized,” my mother ordered. “You just act like something wild!” We didn’t care. We were laughing at Daddy. It was the only time I wasn’t scared of him. When we went to the shed, we laughed out loud. Joe was afraid of everything from Jack in the boxes to loud trucks but with me in the shed, he felt safe. The light reflected off his little round head of closely shaved hair. For some reason Daddy never got up to beat us and make us come back to the table—probably too greedy eating potato salad, pork chops, and corn.
Trent Street. What a lucky place to live! Our house was on the path that Aunt Rose, Tookie, Miss Lisa, Sheila, Henry, Pete, Chally Bowles, Mr. Jimmalee, Aunt Lou, and Mr. Decatur took to the Big E every day. The only ones who didn’t take the path were Uncle Clarence and the Peters. Uncle Clarence hadn’t walked in years due to a stroke. He sat on his bent aluminum and green plastic woven chair. His dingy-yellow leather-looking cast stank. He gnarled out words while he dug spastically into his dirty pocket. “Hey, gal . . . gggoooo, bbbring me aaa a half pint.”
Without words, I was taught that it was only polite to laugh at ourselves. As the West African saying goes, “I am because we are.” Helen, Cynthia and Tookie, Chally, Hezzie, Sheila, Pete, Henry, Aunt Rose, Aunt Lottie, Twig, the Gilmores straight out of the Georgia fields on that rickety truck, Debbie pee-the-bed and Hook, named for the shape of his head, Mr. and Mrs. Peters, nontalking Lamar and skinny Andre. We were a people, a village, a tribe.
Chally Bowles got drunk—every day and stumbled down the street. He was short with a mottled-brown complexion due to years of drinking. The whites of his eyes were brownish and yellow like his teeth. We waited in front of our houses when we saw him at the corner, and when he got near our houses we’d go on the porch and kind of hide as much as you can hide behind those woven, aluminum lawn chairs. Sometimes the hot chair would scald us like a hot comb that nicks your ear. Some days we’d get lucky and Chally Bowles would fall flat on our eight-by-five lawn and Ella, Joe, and me just rolled! Flies would buzz around his eyes and mouth and we would laugh so loud my mother would holler. “Come get in this house right now! That is not funny, it’s very sad. Somebody need to pray for that man.”
“Yes, Mommy.” Getting caught meant we were inside for the rest of the day. It seemed worth it. We’d sneak to the window for another sniggle but he was usually gone. Looking back, I guess my mother called somebody to come get him. Chally Bowles wore his suffering like a new shirt.
Everybody helped take care of Cynthia and Helen but we still laughed at them. Helen had what they used to call mental retardation and so did her daughter Cynthia. They were both the color of honey. Their eyes were large, light brown and always seemed to be looking beyond everyone and into the clouds. They constantly had a hazy expression, as if they were wondering about something. While we laughed, we were dedicated to making sure nobody came to take Cynthia away. No social worker better dare come into Birdland. Though solidly in the city, there was a feed factory and railroad tracks at the bottom of the street and our four blocks had more pigeons than New York.
My friend Ronnie and I would see them walking like two penguins holding hands down Trent Street. Ronnie said, “Helen, take that coat off that girl, its summertime and hot as hell out here.” Ronnie often acted as their volunteer caregiver and guardian, strictly stating what others whispered.
Helen stared at me. She took a long time to think about what she was going to say. Finally she said, “Okay, Ronnie. Cynthia, baby, let’s take off our coats.”
Ronnie said, “White people see you dressed like that, they gonna take Cynthia away and lock you up in the state hospital.” Helen laughed in response with her slow, guttural, hee, hee, hee.
We laughed at everybody we were afraid of.
Aunt Rose marched down the street wearing a housedress in one of her spells. She always had her knife. She was short and round, about as wide as she was tall. She would stop about twice every block and throw the knife in the dirt next to one of the curbside trees before the city cut them all down. Catching the light, her spinning knife shone until it blurred like when you look right into the sun, and in a quick moment, it was in the ground. “Taught you to fuck with me, motherfucker,” she cursed at no one. Aunt Rose was Ella’s aunt but we all called her Aunt Rose. Ella was the most afraid of her. She’d whisper to me, tears in her eyes, “Come on, Aunt Rose is coming, Aunt Rose is coming, hurry, it’s Aunt Rose!” I’d go over to Ella’s porch and we’d hide behind the chairs. She’d squeeze till her nails dug into my palm and then I’d start to sniggle for her; she was crying. Pretty soon she’d start to laugh until we laughed together. But we whispered sniggles when we heard Aunt Rose approach the tree in front of her house. She stabbed the ground. Then she would retrieve her knife and continue her routine, around the corner to the Big E Liquor Store.
The Big E delivered liquor to Mrs. Peters and her son. Another store delivered their food. Everybody was scared of the Peters. Mrs. Peters was a tiny, bony, bent woman, so wrinkled and dry I thought a good breeze would blow the skin off her skeleton. They never went past their front porch except for the one time Mr. Peters came running to the sidewalk chasing a rat that escaped their house, like he was trying to bring it back. His hair and fingernails were long and yellow; he and his mother had both turned yellow. They were supposed to be white but they turned yellow. She always wore a long white dress and he always wore white hospital pajamas and they both had yellow stains on the front and in the butt. Boys would go look in their windows, knock on the door and run away, laughing. I laughed from my steps across the street.
All of the houses on my block of Trent Street were identically built. Two brick houses connected by a common wall, then a narrow driveway that two families shared, taking turns and moving cars to accommodate one another. The Peters’ grass grew as long as nature allowed. Every once in a while some neighbor would get sick of it and sickle it down before being able to mow it. The long grass was often burnt and dry in the summer. Their porch was dusty and bare for lack of sweeping and lack of use. You could smell the baked dirt on the porch when you walked past their house, or maybe that smell came from inside. The blinds were always closed but you could see that they were dirty and no hint of light ever shone through their windows.
While my mother taught us plenty of good manners, I often heard her laughing at the same people with her friends, on the porch or on the phone. She never laughed mean though, kind of good humored. She would help anybody. She told us all kinds of funny stories about growing up in Kentucky, like how when somebody was real sick they would call Miss Nanny ’cause there was only one doctor in all of Hart County. When my great-grandfather was dying, Miss Nanny would come over every morning and feel his feet and tell my grandmother, “Lula, he’s dyin’—feets cold, he’s dying.” Her final announcement was always, “Call the Hi-talian; he’s dead.” I still don’t know that doctor’s name, just that he was a “Hi-talian.”
Nothing was sacred. No one was spared on Trent Street, including the neighborhood queers.
Miss Lisa took her place on Trent Street as the court jester, switching down the street, both hips and one arm quickly swinging. She opened and closed her mouth with each chew and smack of her bubble gum, rhythmically, in meter with her walk. She was the color of a penny and had the profile of the Indian head on the nickel. She straightened her hair like Helen, just over the top, nappy underneath, and never curled it. She wore heavy pancake makeup and often a scarf tied like a bandanna while just hanging around the neighborhood. Miss Lisa preferred wigs for going out to church and dates. Poor thing had a huge Adam’s apple that she sometimes tried to hide with a chiffon scarf or a turtleneck. When she was very young, Sheila, her sex-worker sister, let her wear her outgrown clothes until Miss Lisa joined her in the workforce, working for her big brother, Henry, and could buy her own clothes.
One day she staggered down the street bent over and holding her stomach, complaining of menstrual cramps. That’s how I learned about having a period before the sixth grade movie or my mother getting around to the subject. Miss Lisa staggered up Ella’s porch steps. “What’s wrong?” we asked. She stood straight up and looked down at us with the most serious expression. “Girls, this will happen to you! The blood will run all down your laaiiigs.” She bent over again. “And ooowww, oooh, the pain.” Few could easily understand what she was saying due to a severe speech impediment. We not only laughed at her speech impediment, we learned it. It became our secret language. (If Miss Lisa and Ella weren’t dead, I’d be speaking Lisa-speak with them today. Every once and a while when I go home to Trenton, I see Ella’s sister, Carol, and we go right into Lisa-speak.)
We laughed our way out of church. Miss Lisa loved the Lord and she loved church. She joined choir after choir until someone told that she was a man in a dress and they kicked her out. But the street took her in.
The summer I was fourteen we settled for a tent revival because Miss Lisa still wanted a church home. A church that would pack up and leave at the end of summer would have to do for a faggot and her two ghetto friends. The tent church was led by a white, beet-faced preacher, Reverend Hollbrook. He seemed to be at the start of a long moneymaking career of passing the plate to collect poor folk’s money. His hair was black and parted on the side, like all of the white men on sitcoms in the fifties and sixties. He was comfortable leading a tent full of Black people and ordering around the ushers, who really seemed more like security guards.
His tent church was just down the block and across the street from the Big E Liquor Store. Miss Lisa wore her purple dress and her red Tina Turner wig. On the way to church we sang “High Heel Sneakers”:
Put on your red dress, baby
Cuz we goin’ out tonight
Put on your red dress, baby
Cuz we goin’ out tonight
You better wear some boxing gloves
In case some fool might wanna fight!
Put on your high heel sneakers
Wear your wig hat on your head
Put on your high heel sneakers
Wear your wig hat on your head
I’m pretty sure now pretty baby
I’m pretty sure we gonna knock ’em dead!
Inside the tent church we were shape-shifted from R&B to gospel. Good thing we were good at shape-shifting because we had to shift our asses back onto the street when Reverend Hollbrook requested from the pulpit, “Will the man in the purple dress please leave my sanctuary?” Of course, Miss Lisa didn’t move. Months before Stonewall, she was doing her own protest all up in Jesus, rhythmically fanning and shouting “Heti, heti, heti law Jeza” (Help me, help me, help me Lord Jesus). Two male ushers swooped down on her like prom queens wrestling for a crown. We stomped and shouted our way to the sidewalk, where we all busted out laughing. We laughed all the way down the street and into the bar. It was a valuable lesson. The church would put you out but the bar had an open-door policy.
The church was the only institution that put people out in my community. It was not the heart of the Black community to me; the front porch and the steps were my foundation, the heartbeat of belonging.
By the time I was a teenager, I was tired of laughing at everything. Ella still expected me to and I often played along. Ella started to drink when she was twelve. I still loved her. I tried to keep her company but it wasn’t in me. We explored our bodies as they changed, going to her room to admire our new and quickly growing breasts, pubic hair and new shapes. She always had more hair than me but always told me how pretty my leg hair was while she rubbed Avon cream on them. Somehow, for reasons I still don’t get, I started to see her sadness and to feel my own. We laughed together but we cried alone. I heard her at night, and I’m sure she heard me through the screens and across the narrow alley that separated our bedrooms. The bricks made everything echo and we often whispered to each other long after we were supposed to be asleep. The Figueroa brothers, two caramel-colored Puerto Rican teenage boys from East Hanover Street, made their way into Birdland to court a couple of colored girls. They serenaded us from the alley, doing their best to sound like Smokey Robinson. “Oooh, la la la la. I did you wrong,” until our fathers cursed them out and ran them ran off.
I moved away to college in Connecticut in 1973 and Ella moved deeper into addiction. My letters came back when she was using; she was never in one place. She was just getting settled and I finally got one letter from her and actually talked to her on the phone. We were just starting to be girlfriends again when my mother called to tell me that Ella had been murdered. She had been stabbed 131 times by a crack fiend in withdrawal who was mad because she didn’t have any money or drugs. It seemed that after three years clean, she had gone back out, relapsed, nobody really knows. We all thought that once she left her abusive lover, Rosemary, she would get clean and be all right. Her killer turned himself into the police twelve hours later, saying that Ella’s words haunted him. “Why are you doing this, you know I love you like a son.”
I cried at her funeral. I knelt before her casket and wailed until my mother picked me up because I was scaring her. I still resent that. The rest of my Ella cry is still inside after all these years. Miss Lisa had died years before. A “date” murdered her and was caught throwing her body into the Hudson River, where so many of our transgender sisters took their last breaths.
After Ella’s funeral, her sister Carol and I laughed. We still do. We laugh about the old days and Aunt Rose and Chally Bowles. We laugh about Ella and Miss Lisa and how we had a tribe of crazy folks. The white social workers were too afraid to come to Birdland! We laugh at how we did the best we could to take care of one another.
There’s no more mean laughter in my life. I’m not so afraid anymore. But the old stories still well up the chuckles, especially “Daddy got a football head.”
He never laughed at Miss Lisa. He said, “Goddamn queers; niggers ain’t shit.” He said that at least twenty times a day.
Several years ago, at Thanksgiving, my mother told me that my father loved men, Yep, Daddy was on the down-low, but my mother found his closet door wide open. She said they never talked about it but she always knew, and even had proof. My father died at sixty-one, a miserable, diabetic, double amputee, self-hating Black gay or bisexual alcoholic who would not even try to take care of himself.
I wish he could have laughed. I try to be out and proud, Black and loud in his memory. I try to heal my internalized oppression. Most of the people in this story are dead, most did not live to see forty. After sixty-seven years Black, I look back with gratitude that I can still laugh.