©Carla Williams-Namboodiri, 2013

©Carla Williams-Namboodiri, 2013

Janet’s mother kept up a tight calendar of activities at church and ran the house as if she worked on a Navy submarine. The kitchen’s aging linoleum tiles from the original homeowner sparkled as if polished by hand, which they were. After Sunday dinner and before dessert, Lula said they should all talk about Janet’s new job at the barbershop.

“I think it would be better if she got to work with you on the Saturdays. I do not think she should always be up under me,” Lula said. “She is getting to be grown and needs to know where she fits  in the world. It’s time.”

Her father Sidney fidgeted with his spoon, looking at his face in the silverware as though he could read his fortune there.

“It’s not a job she’s ever gonna do, Lula. Most men don’t want a woman to do their head. In fact, men go to the shop to get time away from women,” he added, staring her hard in the face.

“I know that, and more too,” Lula said. “You gotta understand, though, that your daughter is more of you than you think; she has a real head for numbers and could help with your work.”

Janet looked up when she heard her mother’s endorsement, a rare promotion in her earshot. She sat up straighter, and poked her chest out a bit farther so that her budding breasts almost touched the table’s edge.

“Daddy, I help mama a lot. I know this whole neighborhood from 95th to 63rd street and way west to Cottage Grove.”

Sidney looked away, wondering if they had put their heads together and plotted. That was how women did, he thought. On the other hand, as far as he knew, Janet was the only child he had, so he had to think. He glanced at his daughter.

“Daddy, I know how to keep money straight and my teacher says I have very clear writing,” Janet said quietly, finding herself agreeing with Lula, but not wanting to say so.

Sydney sensed a surprising poise and saw her eyes on him. “I don’t know. Maybe she could work the register and handle the odd cleanup, sterilize combs and clippers…” his voice trailed off.

“Let her see what you do and how you do it. She won’t be there forever, if you know anything about her. She has a mind of her own.”

After the lengthy kitchen debate, Janet’s father had permitted her to join him at the barbershop on Saturdays when her mother tended to sewing clients. The reason being that Janet did not enjoy sewing quietly in the cool back room her mother used. She tired of her mother always finding odd jobs for her. If it wasn’t her pie orders and baking, it would be cutting out patterns off fabric, basting stitches or matching buttons pulled from discarded clothes. The button work was fun, a kind of puzzle within a treasure hunt. She imagined lost companions meeting on a journey toward a woolen coat or linen dress. But the other work, bent over the machine, was tedious. She would often drift away to read or sketch imaginary worlds, neither of which helped her mother at all. The only part of the work she enjoyed was getting paid.

Before her job started at the shop, Janet never saw her father much, unless she stumbled into him while sleep-walking to the toilet. When she was 14 years old, she began riding with him and taking on different tasks. In her mind, she could not help but smile at having made a bold escape from women’s work. Janet answered the phone and kept up the appointments book. Sometimes her father would send her round the corner to buy sour pickles and sandwiches for the customers around the shop as well as his barbers. She would place reservations for dinner if a client needed it, or run and buy magazines for anyone staying a while. When Gus, the numbers runner, came through the shop, she would go from station to station, picking up the orders and handing Gus the bids. Her father always checked her list, but after about six months, he’d listen in only for a moment or two before hearing the jangle of bells above the door as Gus saw his way out.

Janet’s father Sidney owned the shop with a silent partner. Gus also worked for the same benefactor, whom everybody knew as “Uncle Charles.” Sidney kept the shop going even during his stints as a waiter for Pullman railway. During the 8th year of running the shop, his interests had shifted from cutting hair to making grooming goods and accessories. Janet’s tasks included writing out the labels on the medium jars of pomade, shaving soap and hair oils that her father produced in a makeshift lab at the rear of the shop.

That was where her father was when Frank walked in, asking about a job. He was 19, but looked much stronger than a boy just out of high school. He peered at her breasts through the lace trim of her scooped-neck jumper. Then he caught her eyes with a megawatt grin.

“I’m looking for Sidney Collins, the owner. Are you his daughter, Janet? He’s talked a lot about you, but I’d guessed you were younger. You seem all grown up.”

He turned away as her face changed a full hue, and pretended to be looking down at something on his shoe. She stuttered, a gust of air caught in her chest, “H-h-he’s out back.”

Her first impression of Frank defied words. She had met many men in the year since her dad let her working in the barber shop. It was a men’s place. When she first started working she had spoken easily to clients in the voice of a young girl. After several months, her voice grew fuller, and she picked up threads of local crises, political battles and money woes and wove a picture of spaces outside the shop.

Middle-aged customers would sometimes brush their hand across her bottom as though patting her cheek like a baby they knew. She never minded, but took care not to lean too closely between two men, and to smile behind her hand rather than laugh as loudly as them. She had started noticing some cute guys her age stopping buy and shouting “line me up” with broad afros that smelled vaguely of smoke. None of them left her holding on to the edges of the cash register and staring like a guilty four-year-old at the floor. This was it, she thought, with a flash of heat somewhere near her navel. There’s the man I want. She was still thinking how she would look standing next to him when her father came out of the back room with his arm across Frankie’s shoulder.

“This here is my old buddy Frank’s son, Frankie Jr. He’s going to be working around here,” he told the few people around the high seats and oval mirrors. Then he turned and guided the young man to the front, saying, “Frankie, this is my daughter, Janet. You may as well know up front that I don’t want you messing with her. I got bigger plans for her than I imagine from the son of a porter.”

Janet threw a startled glance at her father. She had heard Sidney and other men in the shop often talking about the brotherhood of Pullman waiters and porters alike. Her father hadn’t noticed, instead telling Janet to show Frankie around. He murmured over his shoulder how Frankie was to be a sort of apprentice as of that day.

******

Was it how she had told him he had no choice? When Frank thought back to the moment when his mother sent him to join the business of the man she called “Uncle Charles,” he felt his entire life had been set in motion by those words: No choice.

How could it be that he should not play, when all along, his father had encouraged him to play sports. Baseball, mostly, but basketball was what he loved most. His father Frank Sr. argued there surely was no money in it and that made him less inclined to have Frankie, as he was known, get too involved with it.

Another thing, he said, baseball is a national obsession, after that, came the religion known as football. If basketball takes off, it would always occupy third place. He told Frankie that throwing a ball through a net could be fun in the parks and alleyways, but the game would never make him a millionaire. Frankie refused to listen to his dad, instead making a name for himself on the courts, hustling up games of two-on-two and three-on-three for small bills and drinks.

His plan to attend college had been murky until that point. With a 6-foot 2-inch frame slicing through crowds as a blade of athleticism and confidence, he thought that he could maybe play in the pros, or at least tour with some carney shows, in joke games with feats of glory, something like the Harlem Globetrotters.

When he turned 19, with only a few months left in the spring semester, his mother told him playing days were over; men his age and size needed to work out their way in the world and stop with games. Some old heads wagged their chins, that if he didn’t already have a job once he quit school, then he might soared into the college game at the time the American Basketball League collapsed into the National Basketball League six years later.

Blacks who played in the pros made good money, but the life of an itinerant gamesman was not what his father wanted for his eldest son. “No way-no how,” his father had said. “We got bills to pay and mouths to feed right here. Where you think you going?” it had not dawned on him that Frank Jr’s main idea of manhood was to do what he wanted, when he wanted.

Frankie had known his father’s devotion to family, because he often was made to join him on odd jobs, supplementing his work as a porter for the Pullman Company. Most of these piece jobs were for a clean up business that looked after small businesses that could not afford a full scale janitorial service.  Rich folks who liked to throw big parties out in Oak Park and up along the north shore of Lake Michigan also sought its services.

It was on one of these jobs, in a swank house for some guy who was a sort of supper club impresario, that Frankie first started to recognize that he wanted much more than his father could conceive for him. He was 12 years old, and his father had taken him out with three industrial buckets and mops, plus another bin filled with dusting rags, squeegees, Windex bottles, bleach and vinegar.

“Watch me, then do like I do,” his father said. Frankie watched as his father took up the mop, dunked it in water and sprayed a patch of the floor by his feet. He used the spray bottle of bleach diluted with water and mixed with Joy liquid soap. He grabbed the mop and began swirling it in the sprayed patch, until it was soapy. “Now look at how I makes it go,” he said. Frankie watched for a moment, then copied the spray motion, wet his mop and began moving the mop back and forth in front of him, as if raking the grass.

“Stop right there,” he father shouted. “You are doing it the wrong way when I showed you the right way.”

Frankie looked up, glaring at his father. “This is good and wet, ain’t it?” he said.

“Yes, son,” Frank sighed. “But you are wasting a ton of chemicals and time, cause you gonna have to spray again every five feet or so. Watch again.” It was a different wrist motion to his, Frankie noticed, a twist that made the mop swish into a large ‘s’. One move covered three times the space Frankie had done.

For a moment he could not help marveling at his father’s technique. Still, he did not see what difference it made. “Mopping is mopping, pops,” he smirked.

Frank Sr. put the mop down. “Any job worth doing is worth doing the right way, son.”

Frankie would never forget what happened next. Taking out a roll of masking tape, his father laid down a dividing line on the massive ballroom floor. He then balanced out the cleaning solution equally into two bottles.

“You go run ahead and do it the wrong way, and I’ll do it the right way. Then we’ll see who has the best stretch of floor and the most soap leftover when we’re done. Loser buys lunch.”

Frankie had finished first, but when he looked at his floor, bubbling with soapy patches and slippery wet, and compared it to his father’s, he saw a glistening surface, nearly dry, while more than a third of cleaning solution sat tidy in the spray bottle.

“Frankie, now you see that bottle’s empty and your floor looks like shit,” his father laughed. He took out the mop he’d left untouched in the corner, showing Frank his ‘s’ swirl one more time with a quick dry mop of Frankie’s half of the floor.

“Let’s go now for lunch. Where are you taking me?” Frank queried, with an arched brow and a stifled laugh.

Over lunch at a hotdog stand, Frankie learned that the cleaning solutions were the most expensive part of the supplies. Mops could be strung together with rags, his father said, but chemicals are not cheap. Even though his father worked for another man, he would finish his main job, then take on two other shorter jobs in the same part of town, private clients he’d made on his Pullman runs. He used his boss’ equipment and minimized his own overhead. “If you get the hang of this job, pretty soon, you’ll be driving, so you can handle a few of these gigs yourself.”

Frankie paid for lunch, taking an advance out of the wages his father would give him at the end of the month. He could only guess at how much his father made on his various jobs, but he knew it was barely enough to feed them all while he steady worked every day.

Against his father’s best advice, when he was 17, he tried out for a pro team known as the Spirits of St. Louis. Based on a connection his aunt Mabelle had put him onto, they offered him a “practice slot” with the team.

The coaches told him, “You’re young and you’re good, but we’re full up on your kind of player.” He got it in mind to tell them off, that they were making it out like he did not fit the bill when it was because he was a colored guy. Looking back, he realized they had been honest about his style of play. He had the fundamentals of the game, but not much of the rhythm and sense of improvisation it demanded. He lacked showmanship. But most of all, he could not execute the most flamboyant moves that made the league worth seeing: he could not dunk the basketball.

Frankie’s hands were large, almost the size of a Polish butcher’s gloves.  With slab fingers and wide, flat thumbs,  he could pound balls to a hard and fast dribble, and his passes snapped like sparks from a fire. He was quick to shoot, but also faded to assist  in a running and gunning whirl. Still, he could not jump high enough, or grip the ball firmly to swoop above the rim and add dimension to his movement in the air.

When he came back from St. Louis, though pleased with himself for taking the train alone and pushing his way to a tryout, he couldn’t help but spy into the letter of introduction the Spirits of St. Louis coach gave him. He copied the address and Ray Meyer’s name onto a fresh envelope, using his best imitation of his mother’s handwriting. Then he opened the original.

It was distinctly printed in what seemed like a schoolboy’s note in large print.

Dear Ray,

“I am sending you a boy who came on his own steam to me. Poor ass kid with a lot of physical quickness… smart but no real flair. Pedestrian with strong mechanics. Plays with heart.”

Two weeks after he posted the letter to DePaul University, he received an offer of admission. It included a partial scholarship, but he did not know what that meant exactly, until he spoke with his dad who helped him with a bunch of paperwork over the next month.

“They are giving you a trial run,” Frank Sr. said, “but you gonna have to prove your own way, keep your job money straight, and stay the hell away from any kind of trouble.” He glowed with pride, yet barely contained his concern over how much Frankie would have to juggle.

Midway through his freshman year at DePaul, he wandered off the team for a taste of the freedom of the streets, but finished up the season after some coaxing from coach Meyer. He really had no idea at the time that in stopping the game, he would start to become a man.  His father had encouraged him into the sport, while his mother kept on saying enough was enough. Sure he’d drifted for a month, but his father acted like he’d skipped to the end of a story and already read how Frankie would not survive.

Making Frankie see that book learning mattered more became his father’s obsession. Frankie thought it strange how his father could be so quick to tell him to quit when basketball had already carried him so far.

The two Franks argued late into the night once his first year of college was over. At first, Frankie would not listen at all.

“Pops, you were the one who first told me I was good. Now you act like the game is all bad. Next year, I may play varsity, after that, I’m made for the pros. The pros. Do you know what that means?”

His father, however, was as hard-headed as him.

“Son,” he said. “Sit down. You so much of a man now, it’s probably right about now I should tell you the truth. Even if you do make varsity next year, 98 percent of the time, you gonna find you won’t have time for your books. Then you do not graduate and you stuck.”

From there, he went on about opportunities in businesses and other cities he had seen,  doors opening for black folks like never before. He said, “Jim Crow is dead and buried. Now is the  time to catch onto the bigger game, the money game white folks have had all along. I think you can do it, if you push yourself. Seize the time.”

“Dad, I never did any business, and that clean up company ain’t for me. You know that,” Frankie said.

“Sports is a business, fool. You are playing for free, but DePaul is making big money,” Frank crowed.

He went on about how he knew Frankie had his own side hustles, and big dreams about the pros and all. “My bottom line: you need to finish college, not just start. Right now, you are already behind with credits, but I won’t allow you to stay there.”

“I can make up credits in the off season, pops,” Frankie came back at him. “Everybody does.”

Frank Sr. pointed out he would be working full time that summer. Frankie nodded, then smiled, as though listening to a foolish man, until his father gasped in rage and choked out the words, “I owe you better than I had.”

Frank finally told him something that wiped the smile from his face. “When you were born, I was not your father. A man named Sidney believed he was. I owe him for raising you the first two years with your mother in New Orleans. Your mother here is my wife, but not your real mother. I told her that when you got grown, she would get back all the love and toil put into you because she took you in when she could have split.”

Frankie fell silent, then ran out the back door and did not come back until the woman who’d raised him called him for dinner. When they sat down to eat, she said, “Eat your food and grow strong,” as if nothing had changed. But for him, everything had.

Starting at the job in Sidney’s barbershop had been the only choice. He got help with fees for three and a half years of remaining school tuition, majoring in economics with a minor in chemistry. He had never thought much about chemistry before messing around with the potions and compounds in the back of the shop. Yet he became good at smelling a cream and guessing what was in it after a while, which made Sidney tell him about all his work with herbs and oils learned from a relative in New Orleans. Eventually, Frankie realized what his dad already knew. He could learn how to do practically anything.

Frankie became good at keeping money. Everybody could tell, so they liked keeping him around. Sometimes he rubbed on you in a good way so you picked up some of his smarter tricks.  Other times, it was the opposite, because he knew too well how to rub somebody the wrong way.

One of his favorite expressions was, “I don’t like to brag,” but the fact of the matter was that he did enjoy talking about himself, in elaborate stories that pretty much amounted to the same thing. It was not a conscious act, because consciousness implies volition, which Frankie decidedly lacked. His gift was instinct and gab. He knew how to talk so people would listen to him, find him intriguing and want to help him in out. In short, he was a special type of man.

©Carla Williams-Namboodiri, 2013

Carla Williams-Namboodiri, BAWP Summer Institute 2010, works for Oakland schools as a humanities educator in the Home and Hospital program since fall 2012. After pokes and prods, she joined the BAWP manuscript group to produce a work of fiction set in her hometown, Chicago. This short story is a related background piece.

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