They say nobody gets rich overnight, but I did. Today, I deposited a check for $500,000. I have never seen so many zeroes on one check in my whole life. It was left to me in a trust fund by my grandma. We buried her last month.
While I am still processing this devastating loss, I found out she had been saving money all her life and she also owned a few rental properties I never even knew about. Yesterday, I made $25 an hour. Today, I’m a millionaire.
She was the most amazing person in the world. Everyone loved her because her wit and unpolished charm wouldn’t allow you to be mad at her for long. She had a way of making everyone feel like family. One minute she’d be cussing you out. A few minutes later, she’d invite you over to eat like it never happened.
Grandma died while she was asleep at the Heritage House Senior Living Facility, a place she’s called home for the past eight years. Our roles had changed over the years. I grew up in her house under her loving care and guidance. She was the closest relative to a mom I had and she loved me like her child and I loved her fiercely. Naturally, she lived with me when I became an adult. But stubborn as always, Grandma made me put her in that place because she wanted me to focus on my own life without having to look after her. It didn’t matter how many times I told her I didn’t mind caring for her. She had it fixed in her mind that she was not going to be a burden to me. If you had the chance to meet her, you’d know how incredible she was. Both judge and the jury, she would always see to it that things went her way. That woman was something else.
A development group is planning to build a shopping plaza with a park and a new apartment complex in the neighborhood where I grew up. Grandma’s house is barely standing and most of the homes around it are decaying as well. Of the few people still living around here, I don’t recognize anyone. Lattimore Developers has offered me $3.5 million for this newly acquired land I now own. I flew back to Louisiana from Atlanta to make a decision to either sell it or rejuvenate it. Standing here looking at these old houses, I can only reminisce about the wonderful times I will always cherish growing up in Pinchback Heights.
As I sat on Grandma’s rickety porch, a cool breeze blew through the leaves of the old magnolia tree in her front yard. I opened the envelope her attorney gave me and found a notebook Grandma left for me. It stored important financial documents, old pictures, and sticky notes, but it also had a detailed history of each of the properties she owned.
The notebook was filled with stories and anecdotes of people whose names I remembered very well. It was like her personal diary or something. I recognized my grandma’s handwriting. Nobody could make a cursive R like her.
I remember the day I told her we had to take Computer Literacy in school. It was the early ‘80s and all people talked about was how computers were going to change the world. I was in the 8th grade and nobody in Pinchback Heights owned a computer.
A computer...shoot, only a few people even had a VCR. “Dey say computers gonna change the world, but I b’lieve dey gonna ruin the world,” Grandma prophesied. “They make people be rude to where dey lose all dey manners.”
Grandma liked to take me to the bank with her, but she hated how the banker’s computer monitor wasn’t visible to her. She asked the teller, “Can you turn this thing around so I can see what you’re imputing in there about me?”
The lady plucked her computer keys and corrected Grandma, “Input.”
Grandma blinked. “Huh?”
The lady pulled her glasses down to the edge of her pointed nose and looked over the glasses at Grandma. “Imput is not a word. We input information into a computer.” Grandma didn’t care if it was input or imput, but one thing you never did was insult her intelligence. “Well, after you pull my foot out yo’ ass you can decide if it’s input or imput. Lady, just give me my deposit slip receipt so I can get back before Dynasty comes on.”
I already knew the second that white lady said what she said how Grandma would react. She hated computers. She said people with computers thought they were more intelligent than everyone else. Grandma’s advice was, “If it’s important, just write it down. If the computer stops working you will have to write it down anyway.”
Grandma didn’t play and everybody in the neighborhood knew it. She had a lot of influence, but I couldn’t tell if it was earned or if people were just afraid of her. There were all these stories people told about her, too, but she would never address them. “Chile,” she said to me, “You can’t believe half the shit you hear in dem streets."
As I leaned on Grandma’s wobbly porch column, I recognized the steeple still standing from the old Calvary Missionary Baptist Church on the corner. The church mostly burned down several years ago and the community never could revive it. They sold fish plates and hosted car washes to raise money, but they just didn’t have enough to rebuild. Now, homeless people and crackheads stayed in the charred remains of the church, but for most of my childhood it was the mouthpiece of the neighborhood.
Somebody Stole the Offering
I’ll never forget the time someone stole some of the tithing envelopes after church. After questioning several of the members, Pastor Mitchell gave up trying to find the missing tithes. Grandma found out hers was one of the missing envelopes.
Pastor Mitchell questioned all the youth who had previous behavioral issues and none of them were proven guilty. He questioned Donzell Simmons, too. Donzell was recently released from jail after robbing the washeteria for $27.15, but he wasn’t even at church that day. Pastor even accused his own son, Rico. Pastor’s son had been caught several times using the church’s drum set to play with his band on Saturday nights. He questioned Kathy Burns. The ushers were always complaining about her putting a twenty-dollar bill in the offering plate, but demanding they bring her $18 change in all ones during service. Kathy stayed broke because she lost all her money playing bingo and drinking whiskey. None of them had the tithes, though.
Grandma had a suspicion and went straight to Deacon Otis’ house, dragging me along in case there was a moral lesson to be learned. Deacon Otis tried to get loud with Grandma, but she got even louder.
“Turn it over Otis or I will shoot you dead in yo’ ass and pray about it later!”
Deacon Otis’ eyes got big. “You ain’t got no right coming up to my house accusing me of stealing, Sistah Mo’head, ‘specially in front of a little girl,” he whined, shifting his eyes over at me.
Quick as a lick, Grandma picked up a small plate and cracked it down on Deacon Otis’ head. As the blood seeped from the gash on the right side of his bald head, he whipped around turning his back on me and Grandma and walked over to his desk. He yanked open the drawer and flashed back around so fast with something in his hand I thought he was going to shoot us where we stood. Instead, his hands shaking with rage, he held out the envelopes in front of Grandma.
“Here, take ‘em,” he shrieked. Sistah Mo’head, you’re going to hell!”
Grandma snatched up the envelopes and headed toward the ripped screen door. She flung it open and didn’t miss a beat. “I’ll be sitting right beside your bald-head ass when I get there!”
Grandma was a hairdresser and half of the older women in the church got their hair done in my grandma’s kitchen. Deacon Otis’ wife got her hair dressed by Grandma that same week. She told Grandma her husband, Otis, had a gambling problem and he owed money to some bad people. He had even pawned his wedding ring to get more money.
“If a man will pawn his own wedding ring, he will sho’ nuff steal from the Lawd,” Grandma told me. Desperate people don’t respect rules.” Grandma wasn’t wrong and she returned the tithe money to the church.
After that day she was skeptical about giving cash to the church. She said if Deacon Otis could steal money that easily from the church offering so could anyone else. From that day forward she only put money orders or checks in the offering basket and asked for a receipt every Sunday after church.
Grandma was a professional cusser. The first time I heard her cuss, I looked at her with a question on my face like I wasn’t sure if grandmas were supposed to talk that way.
“Sabrina, honey” she explained, “Cusswords are like extra helpers. They’re necessary at times to make your point clear. Some people don't think you mean what you say until you throw in a cussword or two.”
Muhammed owned the closest store in the neighborhood. It was strange because three different men worked there and all three men answered to Muhammed. People knew they were lying about their names, but no one cared. Theirs was the only grocery store within daily walking distance where you could get summer sausage, beer, groceries and lottery tickets.
“Dey prices high, but by the time I pay for bus transfers on the 6 Bus to get to the supermarket, I’m paying the same damn thing,” Grandma reasoned. The 6 Bus was the only bus that came to our neighborhood.
She shopped at the Muhammeds’ store every afternoon for a pack of cigarettes, salted peanuts and an RC Cola. Grandma didn’t subscribe to alcohol, but she drank that RC Cola like a fish breathes water. The doctor told her caffeinated soft drinks would tear her kidneys apart. “Yeah, that doctor is just racist against RC Cola ‘cause it’s colored soda,” she smirked.
Even though she was joking, nothing stopped her from knocking back an ice cold can of RC Cola when she finished her workday. Not even when the doctor’s prophecy came true and she landed in the hospital with kidney stones. The doctors dissolved the stones and she went right back to drinking her RC Cola.
On some occasions, she took me with her after I got out of school and she would buy me my favorite candy, a Butterfinger bar. One time when I was with her, Muhammed #2 put unsalted peanuts in Grandma’s bag.
When she got to the edge of the parking lot, she opened her soda and popped a few peanuts in her mouth before she crossed the street to walk home. Upon realizing the peanuts were unsalted, she spit them out of her mouth and huffed back to the store to exchange them.
“We no take back. You open already,” said one of the Muhammeds with a thick Middle Eastern accent chopped with broken English. “But it’s not what I asked for,” Grandma insisted. “I asked for salted peanuts and you gave me unsalted.”
“We no exchange. Miss, you must leave. Go!” Muhammed shouted.
I already knew Muhammed’s head was going to be smashed between the cash register and the front counter. Again, he yelled, “Go!” but Grandma told him she wouldn’t leave without the right peanuts. “I PAID for my peanuts. My SALTED peanuts,” she emphasized. “Leave,” he said again, waiving his arm toward the door.
Grandma stomped her foot. “I ain’t going nowhere,” she said with a snap of her neck, folding her arms stubbornly. He got louder. She got louder. Suddenly a monstrous voice roared from Grandma’s mouth.
“Give me my God damn salted peanuts you jackass!” Everybody in the store stopped what they were doing and looked directly at the front counter. Muhammed #2 grabbed those peanuts from the display quicker than a fire catching on to a gasoline-soaked towel. Grandma yanked the packet from his hand, rolled her eyes, and stomped out of the store. I could hear the three Muhammeds arguing with each other in their foreign tongue as she slammed the door behind us.
Outside a little way, Grandma stopped. “See, Sabrina, it’s just like I told you. I kept asking for my salted peanuts nicely, but ol’ Mr. Muhammed there kept disrespecting me,” she said, pointing her finger in the direction of the store. “Adding the cusswords made him give me what I paid for.”
Then she looked up at the sky kind of vacant like she was thinking hard about something. After a few seconds, she leveled her eyes at me and said seriously, “Negotiating is when you don’t know how to get what you want. Prayer is when you need God to get it for you, so I also added a little God in the mix.
Walking toward the house again and as if talking to the air, Grandma contradicted herself. “But really, people need to quit bothering God to do what one cussword can get done.”
Black People on TV
One day, Grandma was on a mission. Every five minutes she’d peek through the living room curtains. She’d wash a few dishes then run back to that front window. She lived for the “Young and the Restless” TV show because she had a crush on Victor Newman, but this particular day she was glued to a new channel. She said a Black man owned a new TV channel and it was important that Black people watched it. Despite all they did was play music videos all day, the channel became very popular in our neighborhood. When people weren’t watching the stories, they were watching Black people’s videos on a new channel called Black Entertainment Television or BET. By 1983, it was the talk of every Black neighborhood in America.
Michael Jackson and Prince were basically the only Black artists you saw on TV back then, but Michael Jackson was really the only artist our parents allowed us to watch. Grandma liked him because she remembered him as a kid in The Jackson 5. Plus, she said he was Diana Ross’ godson and she loved Diana Ross. Although she like Michael Jackson, she said he played with himself too much.
“Why is he always feeling on hisself?” she asked. “Every time I see that boy dance, he puts his damn hand down there between his legs playing with his thang!” She let Michael Jackson slide, but she said Prince had the devil in him. None of the parents in our neighborhood let their kids listen to Prince.
“He look like a woman and all he does is hunch and grind all over the stage,” Grandma said, shaking her head and making a ‘tch, tch’ sound with her tongue and teeth. “That man, if that’s what you want to call him, is possessed. I don’t want that devil music in my house.” Of course, we snuck to listen anyway.
A girl in my class, Cynthia Hughes, brought a poster of Prince to school. His hair was curly and he had on a shirt exposing his chest hair. The shirt was more like a woman’s blouse with ruffles around his shoulders. He wore high heels and leather pants so tight you could see the outline of his penis. All the girls fantasized about losing their virginity to Prince.
Cynthia was suspended for bringing her Prince poster to school. Our principal said the picture was considered pornography and he suggested Cynthia’s mother talk to Pastor Mitchell about casting the demons out of her. Next Sunday at church, Cynthia stood in front of the congregation and admitted her sin. “I have the demon of lust in me,” she said, soft as a whisper casting her eyes down at the floor.
“Get out of her right now Baal!” shouted one of the women on the Mother’s Board. “Yes, get out NOW, thank ya Jesus!” shouted another woman bowing her head down and stretching her arms toward the ceiling.
All the women were praying and shouting. Pastor Mitchell laid hands on Cynthia to cast the demon of lust out of her. He directed all the older folks to focus and point their hands toward her, shaking their fingers as if to generate and push an invisible shockwave of demon-killing energy at the sinful target. Next, Pastor Mitchell pushed Cynthia’s head back, threw holy water on her and forced her down to the ground. Mother Higgins covered Cynthia with a blue sheet while she laid there on the floor. I guess she expected to see Cynthia and the sheet rise somehow as evidence of her holy cleansing, but the only thing we saw was the sheet moving up to the outline of Cynthia’s face. Cynthia sobbed, then blew her nose into the sheet.
The exorcism was a bust because she brought another Prince poster to school the very next week.
A Black man owning a TV network was major. Immediately, all the kids’ dreams switched from being a doctor or a lawyer to being the next Michael Jackson. It was as if BET was a sign that major opportunities for Black people were possible. This station also showed Black news during an era when most Black people felt they were being manipulated by local and national news outlets. For the first time in America, Black culture had its own platform and Black people all over the country were paying attention.
Poopsie in the Yard
Grandma had one of those wall phones with the long spiral cord. The cord was so long it could probably stretch across a football field and still have a few inches left. “This cord is so long I can cook, fold clothes, wash dishes, and do my hair all while talking to Shirley on the phone.”
Shirley was Grandma’s good friend. She drove the church van.
Grandma was on the phone with Ms. Shirley when she heard a dog bark in the front yard. I had never seen her get off the phone so fast. Shirley was still talking, but Grandma was unraveling herself from the beige spiral phone cord.
Still in her pink hair rollers and wearing her favorite pink and white flowered mumu with her off-white fuzzy house slippers, Grandma picked up a small paper bag from the floor and shuffled out the front door. “Hold it right there, Henry Givens. I got something for you,” she said walking hastily toward him.
Mr. Givens lived down the street. His wife died a few years back, but he found comfort in raising their dog, Poopsie. I swear he treated that dog better than some people treat their children. Poopsie had a yellow dog house with her name on it and he dressed the dog in little tutus every day.
Mr. Givens used to work at the Post Office. Nobody in the neighborhood got along with him. I don’t know if it was because he knew everybody’s business or if it was because he wore a different toupee every other day.
He wore one on Sundays that looked more like a combover. He had another one that he pulled to the back with a small pony tail at the end of it. He wore it like that because he said it made him feel like Steven Seagal. The one with the big curls stunned everyone. He was a big Prince fan and when he wore the toupee with the big curls, he tried to dress and talk like Prince. Nobody saw anything remotely close to Prince when they looked at him. All we saw was a short man with a belly who wore polished shoes with skin tight slacks. Either he ate a lot of Church’s Chicken or he applied extra lip gloss to his mouth because his lips always shined like Armor All.
There he was standing at the edge of the yard looking like he had just washed his face with Johnson’s Baby Oil. He had no idea what was about to hit him.
Mr. Givens smiled at Grandma real big when she walked toward him as if they were best friends. Grandma gingerly carried the little paper bag in her hand. “Boosie, what’s that you got there?” Mr. Givens asked in that fake ‘suggie’ voice. "You didn’t have to go buying me a gift. Chile, my birthday is not until next week, but you can bet it will be epic, honey!" he laughed, winking at her.
Mr. Givens stuck his hand out to receive the gift Grandma pulled from inside the paper bag. His face changed instantly from glee to horror as she put it in his hand. Mr. Givens stared at it for a second, then threw it on the ground and jumped back yelling, “What the hell?!” Grandma had scooped up some of Poopsie’s poo from the yard earlier and put it in a Ziploc bag and put that inside the little paper bag.
“The next time I catch that lil’ shit dog of yours crapping in my yard, I will scoop it up and smear it all over your car windshield. Keep that damn dog out of my yard!” Mr. Givens picked up Poopsie, squinted his eyes at Grandma, then walked away quickly with Poopsie barking in his arms. He almost tripped on the curb trying to move so fast.
“You ain’t right Boosie! Poopsie is barely a puppy! She don’t know no better.” He stroked Poopsie’s hair. “Daddy is so sorry baby. This mean ol’ lady is evil!” he said, poking his lips out at Grandma. “She is a mean ol’ heifer! How dare you talk about my sweet little Poopsie like that and put that crap in my hand?”
Grandma folded her arms and yelled back at him, “Let Poopsie ass come shit in my yard again and see what color that windshield gon’ be!” Mr. Givens stopped walking, looked at Grandma, then shook his head back and forth while rolling his eyes saying, “Mm, mm, mmm.”
He sauntered on down the sidewalk with Poopsie still barking in his arms. He was a very strange individual. The neighbors, who had come out to see what all the hollering was about, were still standing around laughing as Grandma went back in the house. She washed her hands, checked on her beans, picked up the phone… and Ms.Shirley was still talking.
Oh yes! Everybody knew Linda Gail Moorehead didn’t play. I always knew where people knew my grandma from by the way they addressed her. If they said “Sistah Mo’head,” it was one of the people from church. If you ever heard someone call her ‘Ms. Boosie,’ ‘Linda’ or ‘Linda Gail,’ then they probably lived in Pinchback Heights. Grandma considered anybody in Pinchback Heights her family whether she liked them or not.
“You won’t always like the people in your family. You just got figure out how to live with them.”