BY LESLIE BROWN
I never been on this part of Hastings Street. This part is not like Grandma’s street. Maybe it’s different here cause all the buildings come up to the sidewalk, and the street starts right next to the sidewalk, so the only place that grass has to grow is between the sidewalk’s cracks.
Even in this heat, there are a lot of people on the street around here: People are standing in front of buildings fanning themselves, playing checkers, or just standing around and gossiping. Ladies and girls standing on the street, all made-up red lips, like the ladies in the movies, fixed-up for a party. There was one lady who didn’t have on make-up. Her hair was messed up, and her face was puffy; she looked sad.
Sometimes Grandma and me have to step into the street to get around the people. I don’t think they were trying to keep us off their street. They just didn’t have no other place to be, the sidewalks around here is just too skinny for people to be sitting and for people to be walking.
Even the cars on the street act funny, the people driving them didn’t seem in a hurry. I saw a car stop near the ladies and the sad looking lady went over to the car and lean against its door, and talked to the person inside. Then she opened the door and got into it.
“Rose, you too slow.”
Grandma grabbed my arm and we begin to walk fast.
Grandma said, “Pay them no mind. Nice girls don’t act like that.”
Then she said, “Women like that ain’t got no self respect. They think they found an easy way to get by; they just fools, fooling themselves.”
I know I was supposed to understand her. So I just nod my head and said, “Yes Ma’am.”
I kept my head down and tried not to stare at the ladies. “Look where you’re going, Rose.”
I try to do what she tells me to do, but it’s not easy to do all the time. I keep messing up.
I saw Flossie and Shirley, leaning on the windowsill of one of the apartment buildings across the street. I wave at them and they wave back at me.
“Who are those girls?” Grandma asked me.
“They’re Uncle Eddie’s friends. He talks to them at the skating rink. He likes them. I don’t know which he likes the best, ’cause sometimes they both skate with us, and sometimes Uncle Eddie goes outside with them to get a cigarette.”
“Does he take you out with them?”
She didn’t wait for me to answer her. She frowned and mumbled, “I’ve got to talk to that boy.”
The air is real still. But when we cross a street or walk by a big empty lot, a fluffy wind, soft like my cat’s fur, brushed against my face and legs. We left behind the busy street. Here the people and buildings don’t hang over the sidewalk. There were plenty of airy places. I looked ahead for them. Then I make giant steps to get to where the lots are and stand and let the wind blow over my arms and legs until Grandma caught up with me. She is not walking so fast anymore.
Grandma was breathing hard and sounded like she had just blew up ten, twenty, maybe forty balloons. The sun through her straw hat made yellow round freckles on her face. She kept trying to dry her face with her hanky, but it didn’t help much. I slowed down to stay next to her. It seemed like our walk wasn’t going to end until the moon came out. And then Grandma stopped.
There wasn’t a house or building where she stopped, just an empty lot, dirt and rocks all mixed-up with pieces of glass, paper and chalk. There wasn’t much grass but somebody had put a garden inside an old beat-up wire fence. The garden had corn, cabbage, and tomato plants like in Mama and Daddy’s garden. We walked around the garden across the lot until we saw a bunch of trees near an alley. In the back of the trees was a big house with a big porch.
Grandma knocked on the door. We waited but nobody came to the door. Grandma knocked again. Somebody yelled, “I hear you!” We waited some more for the door to open. A big tall lady opened up and looked down at us. She didn’t say “Hello” or “Come- in,” Her skin was yellow like butter, or maybe it was her lips that were shiny, and she was so bright colored. She was almost as big as the door.
“Miss Thompson,” Grandma said, “Miss Sally told me to come see you. You did her granddaughter ears a couple of weeks ago.”
The big lady didn’t smile. She grunted, opened the door to let us into the house. It was dark and cool inside. She took us into her kitchen. She sat down in front a plate of greens with ham slices and corn bread on the table and picked up her fork and shoved a big fork of greens into her mouth. She talked while she chewed. She didn’t give Grandma a chair to sit on. Most people offer you a chair saying, “Sit! You give me a headache having to look up to talk to you.”
She talked to Grandma about me. “How old is she? What day of the week was she born, what time of the day?” Then Miss Thompson got up and took a paper book off the shelf and thumbed through it. She stared at me and frowned, and looked back at the book. “Her planet’s not right,” She said. “This’s the wrong time, I can’t do them today.”
Grandma looked at her and said slowly, “When would be good?”
“Let me see.”
She looked into the paper book and read a couple pages.
“Bring her back at the end of the month around three and I’ll take care of her then.”
Back outside on the street, it didn’t seem so hot anymore.
“Why can’t she do my ears today?” I asked.
“Miss Thompson said it’s not a good time to do it.”
I thought that Miss. Thompson was being mean and didn’t like our coming while she was eating. When we got home Grandma fixed dinner for me and Grandpa, but she didn’t eat. She sat at the kitchen table with us. While we ate, she put on her Woolworth glasses and read her horoscope book. I figured it was something like the book Miss Thompson used. I knew Grandma checked the book to find out about the planets and the right day to do things. I figured that Grandma was checking to see if Miss Thompson was right. I don’t know what she found. It didn’t matter. Miss Thompson had told her to wait and Grandma was going to do what she was told to do. Grandma and me were like each other; we didn’t like to argue and get upset.
“Nothing good comes out of acting up,” Grandma always said. So we waited.
Waiting is hard. Grandma’s earrings are on her dresser in a jar with a pretty cover. Grandma’s Mama gave her these earrings. Mama, Aunt Bessie, and Aunt Kay, all said “no!” when she asked them to get their ears pierced. I didn’t say “no.” So I get them when I get my ears done.
The earrings are round and bright yellow-colored — real gold. I like looking at them; they shine even when the room is dark. Grandma won’t let me open the jar and hold them. But I can touch the top of the jar.
“This tiny star is the North Star pattern,” she told me. “It’s like the one on the quilts my Mama used to make.”
I like feeling the star pattern with my fingers.
Saturday nights the kitchen is always steamy. Grandma boiled water to fix the chicken for Sunday. Her hair wet from the steam sticks to her neck. She stood straight over the pot holding a chicken by its legs, dunking its head and body in the boiling water. As she raised the body from the water, she’d pull off big handfuls of feathers. Without its feathers, the chicken had ugly goose-bumpy white skin. It wasn’t naked, cause there were still tiny feathers, like the gray fuzz on grandpa’s face. Grandma showed me how to pick out the fuzzy feathers. I wasn’t good, but I sat next to her and tried.
After we finished, I would get Grandma’s comb and brush and comb her hair. She closed her eyes and I brushed, and brushed her long hair until it shined. “Why did you stop wearing your earrings?” Every time she told the story I learned something new about her. I thought she was going to tell me she was too sleepy, but she closed her eyes and told me.
“I just came up north and found a job in a big house. I heard that white people in Detroit were different from the white folks in the south. I didn’t know exactly what that meant. So I just kept my eyes and ears opened.
“The cook lived with the family. Most of the time, she acted like I wasn’t around. It’s a shame. We shouldn’t be stand-offish with each other like that. I did my job. I washed and ironed the family’s clothes and I minded my own my business. So I was surprised the day she came up and talked to me like we were friends. I kept busy ironing while she talked.
“She said, ‘The people here they’re really strict, they got their own ideas about God.’
“I didn’t know what she meant.”
Grandma wrinkled her face, but her eyes were still closed.
“Millie. That was her name, funny I’m just now remember it after all these years.”
I undid the braid I was working on. I combed and brushed her hair some more. Then I tried to part her hair straight down the middle, from her forehead to her neck. The part wasn’t very straight; I tried again and almost got it right, so I started braiding.
“Millie told me, ‘They keep a religious house here. They don’t want the wanton ways of the street inside it.’
“I said, ‘I try to be a good God-fearing Christian. I go to church three times a week. I read my Bible every night.’
“And Millie said, ‘Well, the Missus thinks that jewelry and make-up are for the Devil’s Pleasure.’”
Grandma opened her eyes, and said, “My Mama had given me these earrings when I little girl, younger than you are. I wore them under my head rag, they could hardly be seen.”
I finished one side of Grandma’s head, and I started plaiting the other side.
“I needed to work there, I didn’t have any money, and I didn’t want to cause a fuss, so I took them off.”
“Is that why you put them in the jar?” I asked.
“Yes, I had those earrings so long my Mama’s mama gave them to her and Mama gave them to me. But I didn’t have no choice. I was all alone. This happened before my Mama and brothers came up here to Detroit. So I crocheted the star, and sewed it on a piece of cloth to make the jar pretty. I was just going to leave them in it until I found a place to work where it wouldn’t matter what I wore.”
“Did you wear them again?” I asked as I finished her hair. The braids looked like a movie picture Indian Princess. I wish my hair was thick and straight like hers, I wanted to be just like her.
“I tried to wear them when your Grandpa and I were about to get married, but I couldn’t get them to go through. My holes were gone. I thought that was it, that was the way it was supposed to be.”
“I hope nobody tells me I can’t wear my earrings.”
She smiled at me.
“What will you do if they tell you not to?”
“What should I do?”
She didn’t give me no answer. I thought I would I do what Grandma had done cause I thought I was just like her.
We went back to Miss Thompson’s house at the end of the month. The day we went it was raining. Grandma didn’t wait for it to clear up. She took her big black umbrella to cover our heads and we walked to the streetcar stop. She put two dimes in the box for us to ride. When we got off the streetcar, we only had to walk three blocks to get to Miss Thompson’s.
This time we didn’t have to wait outside long. She opened the door after a couple knocks. But she still didn’t smile. Some people don’t think they have to smile when they say hello.
Miss Thompson took us into a little room with a small table and chair, a light bulb on a chain that came down from the ceiling. There was a sink with shelves above it filled with bottles, jars, baskets, candles, books, and things I couldn’t see. Miss Thompson made me stand in front of her. She put her hand under my chin and lifted my face up. I saw her eyes staring down at me like she was trying to see though me, see what was down deep inside me. She turned my head from side to side.
“Earrings will look good on her,” was all she said.
She went out the room and came back fast with a bowl of ice cubes. Miss Thompson burned the tip of a needle with a match; she put white thread through the needle. Then I felt the cold ice behind my ear. I wiggled trying to get away from her, but Grandma told me not to move. The coldness stopped, and I didn’t feel anything. Miss Thompson burned another needle, and then she took my chin and pushed my face to the other side. I felt the ice cube behind my ear, but I didn’t wiggle much this time. I held my breath. It was going to be over. I was going to get to wear my earrings. When she finished, I had sewing thread in my ears not gold earrings. I started to cry.
“You have to keep this thread in your ears,” Miss Thompson told me.
She gave Grandma a bottle of ointment for my ears. Grandma paid her and they talked by the sink so I couldn’t hear what was said.
I wore the threads in my ears for a week. Then Grandma said that it was time to get rid of the strings. She pulled a couple of pieces of straw from the broom. She broke the straw into small pieces. I watched her burn the ends of these pieces. She told me that this purifies them. Then she rinsed the straws down with alcohol. While they dried, she cut and pulled the threads from my ears. Grandma eased the straw through the holes. It didn’t hurt too bad. She said we had to be careful to keep them clean and not let my ear holes get infected. Every morning and every night Grandma cleaned my ears with the soothing liquid and rubbed with the ointment Miss Thompson had given her.
“How long will it be Grandma?”
“It’ll be a while; you want them to heal right. You don’t want the poison to build up in them so you can’t wear the earrings.”
I waited and waited. The summer was almost over when Grandma said my ears were ready. She took her earrings out of the jar. She tried putting one through the hole but couldn’t get it through, then she tried my other hole, but the earrings still wouldn’t go through. I twisted and cried while she tried to put them on me.
Grandma looked strange. She said, “She didn’t do it right. Your holes ain’t big enough. I can’t get the earrings through the holes.”
“Can’t Miss Thompson fix them?”
“She should have done it right the first time. I should have known better. She should have doubled the threads to make these holes large enough. I shouldn’t have trusted her.
“Go out on the porch, I’ll take care of you.”
On the porch the Sunday dinners’ chicken was strutting around lifting his
wings. He couldn’t fly away because Grandma had tied one of his legs to a long piece of clothesline and the other end to the porch’s rail. He cluck-clucked and eyed me and I eyed him right back. Grandma came out with a glass of ice cubes and her sewing basket.
“My ears are sore, can’t we wait?”
She didn’t pay me any mind. She acted like she never heard me say, “I don’t want no more holes in my ears.”
She put on her Woolworth reading glasses, picked up an ice cube, and put it on my ear and told me to be still. I cried and wiggled. She yelled at me like my Mama does. Sometimes I think she didn’t kill a chicken on the same day she put holes in my ear. But sometimes, I think she picked up her axe and grabbed the chicken by his wings and chopped his head off the same time she worked on my ears. I keep seeing that chicken run around and around with blood shooting out of its neck cause it didn’t have a head. I don’t know if I can remember right.
Leslie Brown grew-up in a close knit working class family in Detroit and now lives in Virginia. Where many playmates went south during the summer, she spent many fondly remembered weeks at her grandparent’s apartment near Hastings Street before the area was urban renewed. She retired from work as a librarian, working in public as well as university libraries. She enjoyed work helping students discover literature and information. She was an editor for American University Graduate magazine where she received and MFA in creative Writing. Since retiring, she has explored various writing forms, multi-media formats. She created a video imagining the black migrant’s experience, “Detroit Great Migration Impressions.”