Nobody in our neighborhood had cable TV. In fact, I don’t believe people knew what it meant when it first came out. Everyone I knew rented movies on VHS tapes.
The Muhammeds opened a VHS rental place next to their convenience store. They didn’t make much money because the folks in our neighborhood were cheap. When we rented a movie, we watched it immediately so the next person could watch it before it was time to take it back. Nobody wanted to mess the cycle up on their turn because everybody wanted to watch each other’s rentals. If you didn’t share your rental, no one shared theirs with you. And if you didn’t bring the movie back, the Muhammeds made you pay the retail ‘price to purchase new’ even though they paid wholesale. A new VHS tape could run you $90. Add in the Muhammed’s $30 markup on top of that for lost rental business and you were looking at a week’s worth of wages.
The Muhammeds soon found out what people were doing so they changed their 48-hour rental policy to 24 hours. They figured if they gave people less time to keep it, fewer people would share the movies. That didn’t stop anyone on our street, though.
Grandma organized movie nights. Every Friday people met up at a neighbor’s house to watch rentals. The “chi’rens” as the grownups called us, watched movies like E.T. in the back room while the adults watched Friday the 13th in the front room. If the movies were new, as many as 25 people crammed into one house. Everyone brought a dish and the women helped clean the kitchen by the end of the night.
Pinchback Heights had a lot of problems, but my grandma made sure lack of unity wasn’t one of them. Of course, she always figured out a way to make money, but she never let outsiders divide us. She was like the unofficial security guard. “There was still a lot of tension around the country because people had had enough of Black folks being mistreated in our own neighborhoods. Upset that police in Miami, Florida killed an unarmed Black man, riots erupted in the Overtown and Liberty City neighborhoods where mostly poor Black people lived. It was all over the news. Eighteen Black people were killed. We couldn’t believe these acts of racism were still apparent in the 1980s. It was the deadliest riot in America since the race riots of the Long Hot Summer of 1967 kicked off a further storm of race riots across the US in the mid-1960s.
People were angry. They were disgusted. They were tired of the same scenario from the plantations to the factories. From the North to the South, America had no respect for people of color and Black people were tired of it. Even in our own little neighborhood, people felt the sting of being disrespected.
Grandma was very abreast of national issues, especially when they concerned Black people. “Our people are facing the same struggles everywhere,” she claimed. “It’s important you know your rights. They don’t expect us to be smart enough to stand up for ourselves.”
The Muhammeds raised the price of their bread by 15 cents. They also raised the price of their canned goods by a nickel. It doesn’t sound like much, but most people in Pinchback were on fixed incomes. Grandma said every dime mattered. According to the Muhammeds, it was supply and demand, but we all knew they were taking advantage of us.
A crowd of 30 went down to the corner store to have a meeting with the Muhammeds, but they paid no attention to the people. “You’re trying to play us for a fool. We can get this loaf of bread for cheaper elsewhere,” Grandma shouted. The crowd agreed and there was a vigorous nodding of heads and hand clapping. A few ladies shouted “Amen” and “All right, now.” As the people stood in front of the main entrance to the store shouting, Muhammeds #2 and #3 told the rowdy crowd to go home or they would call the police.
Grandma told everyone to go ahead and leave, but she had a plan. Grandma called a house meeting the next night and the neighbors met in her living room. Grandma told them her plan. Each day of the week, two people would be assigned to walk to Max’s. It was the next closest store about eight blocks away. Neighbors were to give their money and grocery lists to the walking team for that day. Grandma nicknamed them ‘walkers.’ They’d buy groceries for the folks on our end of the street and bring the groceries back in the kids’ wagon.
“Don’t you buy a thing from the Muhammeds,” Grandma told the group, so no one shopped there for a while. Word got out in the neighborhood about what Grandma had done to help the neighbors on her street take charge of the grocery situation and a few more folks formed grocery task forces of their own.
Grandma had another scheme worked out for the VHS movie rentals. She withdrew money from her savings account to buy a second VCR. She was one of the few people who could afford to save money because most people in our neighborhood lived from check to check. The white people she cleaned for had all the latest movies on VHS and they didn’t mind her borrowing their tapes as long as she brought them back the next day. Grandma took the movies home, recorded them with the second VCR, then took the original movies back to her cleaning houses. In no time, people were renting movies from Grandma. She charged two dollars less than the Muhammeds and she made a good profit over the cost of the blank tapes she bought.
It took about two months for the Muhammeds to realize they were losing money on VHS rentals so they dropped the price so low folks rented their own. Their new price was 99 cents for old movies and $4.99 for the new releases. People got the new releases from Grandma and rented the old movies from the Muhammeds. They still refused to lower their food prices and their store took a big hit.
They fired Leroy Austin. He was the only Black person from the neighborhood they hired. People said his elevator didn’t go all the way up to the top floor. “No, that boy has special needs, but God still has a plan for his life,” Grandma said in firm belief. He didn’t bother anyone and the Muhammeds took advantage of his disability. They paid him $15 a week. He brought in the boxes off their supply trucks, swept, mopped, and pretty much jumped when they said jump. Poor Leroy was so slow he was just happy to have some money.
He lived with his aunt who had been taking care of him ever since his parents died while he was a kid, but the whole neighborhood looked out for him. Leroy did odd jobs around the neighborhood. People gave him $5 to rake their leaves and sometimes they gave him $1 just to laugh at him pretend to be Michael Jackson.
Grandma met with Mr. Max Leonard who owned Max’s. Mr. Max was a white man who was the former head coach at Pinchback High School. He got fired years ago for taking money under the table to influence the best players to go to specific colleges that paid him. People kept the truth about it very quiet because he gave money under the table to many of the local pillars of the Black community.
Blacks ‘round here didn’t care because he hired our people. He let you put your groceries on credit if you were between checks. He found jobs for the players’ mamas who couldn’t find work and he made sure a lot of our boys had opportunities to go to college no matter how selfishly he went about doing it. He wasn’t exactly racist. He was just a roguish businessman.
Mr. Max was also running for City Council in our district. Grandma told him our people would support his business and buy groceries from him instead of the Muhammeds, but she needed him to hire Leroy Austin. Mr. Max didn’t want to hire Leroy. “I’m not running a daycare for retarded kids.” Grandma hated that word. She, like everyone else, loved Leroy as if he were her own son and nobody was allowed to call him retarded. Sure, we laughed at him sometimes, but we would never harm him or allow anyone to ridicule him.
“You may not be running a day care, but you are running for office,” Grandma reminded him. “Don’t fuck with me Max. You know I carry a heavy influence around these parts when it comes to them polls.” The next day Leroy was hired and Mr. Max paid him $20 a week. When the Muhammeds found out about this, they were highly upset with Grandma. She didn’t care. “They can only count us out when we forget to count ourselves in,” she said wisely.
One Friday night it was raining very hard outside. You could feel the thunder in your chest. The lightning struck quick and bright like Polaroid flashes. People gathered at our house for the Friday night movie and the poor drainage made lakes in the yards.
Learning to Live with It
Grandma complained to the city several times about the drainage problems in our neighborhood. Every time they arranged a hearing, they scheduled it during work hours. On record, there were no formal complaints about the drainage because no one could afford to miss work to attend a public forum. It meant there would be no urgency to fix it. Consequently, whenever we got the slightest rain, even a drizzle, water backed up into our yards for years.
It was so common folks learned to live with the problem. We did that a lot – learned to live with things. The school system made the bus stop for the kids four streets over. They claimed it was hard for the buses to turn around in the back of the neighborhood. The little kids, five- and six-years-old, had to walk to the bus stop by themselves. Working parents left earlier than the kids to get to work on the other side of town. Grandma complained off-and-on for months, but nothing came of it.
Not one to quit, Grandma came up with an idea. She assigned a high school kid each day to supervise the little ones since the teenagers’ bus usually came about fifteen minutes later and their bus stop was just one street over from the little ones. That system worked until Alonzo Johnson skipped school on his watch day.
During those times you didn’t need permission to discipline someone else’s child. Grandma didn’t call his mother. She went looking for him herself. It didn’t take her but an hour to find ‘Lonzo. She caught him and Yolanda Harris having sex behind Brenda Simmons’ house. Ms. Simmons was living in the Heritage House Senior Living Facility and her house had been vacant for three months. That day was the first day Grandma realized there was a For Sale sign in the yard.
The sign caught her attention. She walked toward the sign to get close enough to write the number down when she heard a female voice repeating “Yes God! Yes! Oh, God!” She rushed to the back of the faded wood frame house to find Yolanda and ‘Lonzo butt naked doing the nasty. “’Lonzo Johnson!” she shouted sternly. He jumped like he had been busted by God. “Ms. Boosie? Wha you doing back here?” Alonzo stammered as he and Yolanda tried to pull up their clothes and cover themselves. They looked like Adam and Eve trying to hide themselves from God in the Garden of Eden.
“Both of you are just trifling. You don’t even have enough respect for yourself or Yolanda to wear a rubber,” Grandma admonished. Alonzo told Grandma he didn’t have enough money for a condom. “If yo’ ass can’t afford a condom how in the hell you gon’ ‘ford a baby?” Both Yolanda and Alonzo stood there quietly looking like idiots. They were embarrassed and had nothing to say for themselves.
Grandma pulled a cigarette out of her purse, but her nerves were so bad her hand shook. Yolanda finally mustered up the nerve to say something, but she said it so softly it was just above a whisper. “Ms. Boosie, please don’t tell my mama. She gon’ kill me.” Grandma looked her up and down. “Heifer,” she shouted, the veins in her neck popping, “I’m the one who gon’ kill you!” Grandma yelled so loud her wig twisted around to the front of her head. Yolanda was so scared she fell back and grabbed at her clothes on the ground to hide her naked body parts.
“Wait. Let me calm my nerves. Just don’t say a God damned thing. Neither one of you.” She puffed the cigarette with those shaking hands then looked up at the sky. That’s when she got the brilliant idea of how to solve all the recent neighborhood problems. It was like God gave her the solution.
“Since you two want to be together so much, you both will give the older peoples a break for a month. You will walk the groceries every day. On top of that, both of you will supervise the youngsters at their bus stop for the rest of the school year. Do you understand me?” Alonzo and Yolanda replied quick, “Yea’ma’am!”
“And if I ever hear of you skipping school again, I will skip my foot so far up in your narrow asses you gon’ need open heart surgery to get it out. Do you hear me?”
"Yea’ma’am!” they said in unison. As they put on their clothes and slowly walked away, Grandma said to Yolanda, “You be mighty quiet in church on Sundays, heifer.” Grandma took a puff. Yolanda shrugged her shoulders and asked, “What dat mean, Ms. Boosie?” Grandma blew out a puff of smoke and continued, “But all I heard back here was you calling God. From now on every time I look at you in church, I want to hear you shout ‘Yes, God,’ the same way you were shouting it back here with ya ass out!”
Needless to say, next Sunday every time Grandma looked at Yolanda she shouted, “Yes God!” She did it so much she even shouted it loud when the lady was reading the church announcements. The whole church looked at her like she was crazy. Grandma just smirked, but she was probably dying laughing inside.
It was a mistake Alonzo and Yolanda learned to live with. Grandma had a secret that kept both of them in line for years. Funny thing is, years later ‘Lonzo and Yolanda married each other and they actually turned out all right. I mean, their kids were bad. Their youngest son got kicked out of the library for drawing stick people with semi- anatomically correct private parts in sexual positions in the books, but ‘Lonzo and Yolanda were good people.
Who Dat Called the Police?
I will never forget this specific Friday. It’s the Friday that changed Grandma’s life. Rain didn’t stop our Friday movie nights. Everyone gathered to watch National Lampoon’s Vacation. Right as the Griswalds made it to Wally World, we saw police lights in front of the house. Grandma heard a bang on the door. As she walked toward the door, the guests in the house became quiet.
Grandma asked, “Who dat at my door?”
A man with a deep Barry White voice responded, “Open up. It’s the police. One of your neighbors complained about loud noises coming from this address.” Grandma looked around the room and asked, “Who dat called the police?”
The guests shrugged and looked at each other. No one knew. The officer restricted future home gatherings to no more than five extra guests. Grandma was hot about this. She knew who called the police and she headed straight toward them. After everyone left to go home Grandma marched down to that corner store like a clarinet player in a Black high school band.
“Which one of you Muhammeds called the police on us?” she fumed. Nobody said anything. “Oh, so can’t none of you hear now?” Muhammed #1 is the older one and seemed to be the one in charge most of the time. “Miss, what are you talking about?”
“We were all minding our own business when the police came to my door. They said somebody called them complaining. This has your name written all over it!” Muhammed #2, the short one, told Grandma no one in the store called, but he told her something that moved the earth under her feet. It made her skin burn. “I saw Crazy Lou on the pay-phone about four turty, miss.” Grandma looked at her watch and figured that was around twenty minutes before the police showed up at her house.