It just dawned on me that we used to go to the corner store and buy loose gingersnap cookies from out of the jar on the counter of Mr. Jenkins grocery store and never gave it a single thought as to whose hands had been washed or who’d just finished scratching or digging in any old crevice of their body. We just paid him our nickel for two cookies; received them in our own dirty little hands, and gladly left the premises.
Not to mention that dirty old man that my friend Monalisa worked for in the store on Smallwood St. He was the craziest man. Seemed like he was transported into our Baltimore neighborhood from the backwoods of Mississippi somewhere…with his old black self. He would call us children all sorts of names, and it irked me to no end when he started calling me Dry Bones. Old bastard. I was skinnier than a rail and already sensitive to being called “boney,” and he came up with that. Monalisa used to crack up laughing at me. He constantly accused me of stealing out of his store. I never stole anything out of his ol’ store. At least I don’t remember stealing from him. The worse I may have done was gyp his bubblegum machine with a wooden toothpick or a matchstick. You could stick a matchstick in the slot where the penny was supposed to go, and it would turn and give you a bubblegum. If you got a bubblegum with a yellow stripe around it, you could get a nickel’s worth of something. I’m sure he never saw me doing that. He was just crazy.
Then there was Mama Luchie’s on the corner of Clifton and Pulaski. I don’t know why we called her Mama Luchie. It sounds Italian, but she was a black lady. A very nice lady as I recall. I think that she was some relation to Thelma, who was in my third grade, elementary school class. I went to church with Thelma and her family one time. They were Holy Rollers.
I didn’t know the background of anyone being called a “holy roller” at the time. Didn’t seem like a bad thing to me. I thought the Holy Roller church on the corner of Walbrook and Pulaski was quite interesting. Of course, that wasn’t the name of the church. That’s just what we called it. It was probably named something like The-Church-of-the-Lord-Jesus-Christ-and-Prophecy-of-the-God-of-Heaven-and-Earth-and-the-Holy-Ghost, or some all-inclusive, long name like that– whatever they could fit in painted writing on the storefront window. We hung around there sometimes when they were cuttin’ up like nobody’s business. I wasn’t thinking about all that having anything to do with God or Jesus or whatever. I just liked to listen and watch them. The music was so good — the bass guitar and the drumming and the organ. Then there was that one night that I went to church with Thelma.
We must have traveled a long way, and I swear we ended up in the woods somewhere; what we used to call “out in the country.” Inside, the church building was a big, wide hall with lots of skimpy wooden pews and blue carpet. We weren’t there fifteen minutes before everybody started hoopin’ and hollerin’ and dancing. Not regular dancing like the Hitchhike or the Twist. It was closer to like what John Belushi and Dan Akroyd used to do as the Blues Brothers. “Wow,” I thought. “I’m actually in a Holy Roller church.” With the church on the corner of Clifton and Pulaski, I just used to look in through the windows, but now I was in there. I was one of the pack. So I thought I’d better get with it and do what everyone else was doing.
I picked up on this one lady who I thought had it all down pretty well. She looked like an expert at holy rolling. I got as close to her as I could without being conspicuous – so I thought- and whatever she did, I did. She’d spin around a bit, and I’d spin around. She’d do a little fancy footwork, and I followed as well as I could. Did pretty darn well, if I do say so myself. She’d fan herself and hold her back with one hand. Me too. Then finally she just fell out. Fainted — dead out on the blue-carpeted floor. That caught me off guard a little bit, ‘cause I wasn’t quite ready to just hit the floor like that. So I kinda’ went down in stages. You know, a kind of dramatic layout. I lay there with my eyes partially closed, peeking out now and then in case the lady got up and re-commenced her circuit.
The brother who was going around either picking people up slowly or gently laying a nice large kerchief over their legs, made his way over to me and jerked me up by my arm. I think he knew I was acting and he didn’t seem to appreciate my mimicking skill as much as I did.
That night on the church bus returning home everyone was talking about how I got “saved and filled with the Holy Ghost” on my first night. I was a kind of hero. Thelma and her family were so proud that they were the ones who had brought me. When we finally got to my house, I happily waved goodbye to my new holy rolling family. I knocked on the door to my house, and they pulled away before my mother opened the door.
My mother snatched that door open and looked at me like I was a criminal. Then she yanked me by my arm into the house. That was the second time I’d been yanked in one night. It was one o’clock in the morning. “Where have you been?” She had my father’s belt and was folding it in half– her regular preparation for giving a huge butt-whoopin’. She grabbed my hand and was just about to go into the whipping mode when I threw up both my arms and exclaimed, “I’VE BEEN SAVED!”
I could hear my father’s booming laughter come from upstairs. My mother let go of my arm, looked at my silly little face, shook her head and said, “Go to bed child.”
I shot upstairs to my bed. My father broke out into fits of laughter several times during the night before I fell asleep.
My mother never laughed once.