East Harlem, NY 1983
“…Sheeeeeet, brotha she ain’t gonna give you no rhythm Jack, you might as well go on ahead and let me rap to her if Sharkie ain’t already got to that foxy ass already.”
“Stop puttin’ my business out in the street, punk…….”
“You take that back right now, I love my black nation but I will cut you nigga…….”
“Okay, calm down Akbar, or is it Leroy, it’s hard to keep track these days……..”
“…He won’t never be better than Sugah Ray Robinson, ever, you jivin yourself if you think otherwise, ”
“So the only way we can rise as a people….”
“Shut that black power shit up, you ain’t Malcolm X…………”
“You know, that Johnson Publishing is doing interesting things with that Jet Magazine……….”
“Only thing interesting ’bout that is how barbershops and beauty salons keep Jet in business.”
“What about Mondale?”
“Mondale is gonna lose, sit your Nat King Cole, Zulu lookin, black ass down talkin’ bout that voting…………”
“Say, Sharkie, let me get 10-25-65, that’s the wife’s birthday, gotta bring me some luck, I know she ain’t bringing me none…………”
“Negro, what I tell you bout messin’ with reefers, are you crazy? You think I wanna get pinched, taking bids in a barbershop? I don’t know whose finkin’ in this mothafucka, holla at my man outside!”
One wouldn’t even know who is talking here, they all talked to, with and over each other. And in the company of gangsters, hustlers, pimps, bus drivers, cabbies and even policemen and lawyers, one could find themselves conducting their own social experiment at a Harlem barbershop. Ray’s on Lenox Ave is no different and Ronaldo is enthralled by men he can look up to, particularly Sharkie, the dapperist and coolest of them all. His attention is centered on two propped up leather chairs at the far corner of the shop, which he walks over to. At the base of the chairs is a large brush next to some black shoe polish. Ronaldo picks up the brush.
“Hey lil’ man put that down,” said a man in the barber’s chair.
The man they called “Shark man” turns around and smiles, looking down at his shoes and then goes over and sits up in one of the chairs.
“Leave em’ alone,” said Ray, the owner of the shop. “Hey boy, you hear for a cut?”
Ronaldo nods no.
“So you a shine boy,” said the Shark on the propped up chair.
“You shine?” Ray seconds.
Ronaldo gives him a look that told them he wanted to “shine,” whatever that was. He knows shine is a good thing. The sun shines so why couldn’t he?
Shark man takes the brush and grazes it against his iridescent shoes, following that he takes the cloth and it makes a smacking sound covering his shoes as it runs and forth rapidly of the dead alligator.
Ronaldo is enthralled by the rhythmic movement.
“I used to do this when I was bout’ your age,” says Sharkie finishing the shine job. “Here you try.”
Ronaldo follows every movement like clockwork.
“What’s your name?”
Sharike wants to know my name, Ronaldo thinks.
“Rrrrronawldo? This lil’ brotha got a accent on him. What are you part, Mexican.?”
Ronaldo frowns comically and shakes his head.
“Dominicano y Negro Americano.”
He doesn’t know them or trust them yet, no English, even though he needs them to know he understands it.
“Oh you Dominican, uh the Republic, like them baseball players huh?” asks Ray.
The boy smiles, points, and nods.
“You a cool lil’ nigga. Look here, I’m Sharkie, that’s my handle and with me, the women always turn out the lights and light a candle.”
“Awwww shit, here we go,” Ray said laughing.
“How old are ya,” Sharkie asks.
The boy holds up seven fingers. Everyone in the shop laughs. The two men outside come inside to witness the festivities.
“Smart lil’ booga. Where yo mama at?.”
The boy shrugs and Sharkie frowns and leans down.
“You ain’t got no mom and pop, where you stay at then?”
“Orrfahnage, ’round the corner.”
Meanwhile, Sharkie leans down again and puts one hundred dollars in the pocket of the boy’s starched white shirt. All the boys at Divine had white shirts and blue pants with black shoes.
The boy looks up and smiles and his eyes lit up as if to say “this is what I get for just putting a rag on your shoe and making it clean?”.
“These two cats gone get shines,” Sharkie says.
One of them the men protests.
“I don’t need no….”
“Yes you do,” Sharkie replies with authority and then goes and sits down, cracking open an Amsterdam News and sipping on apple juice as he holds court on the edge of the seat.
Sharkie, then quickly folds the newspaper, looks at his diamond-studded Rolex and gets up, starts to walk out and stops at the door turning around saying goodbye to Ray and the political lawyer guy, that’s what they called him, he was cool and dapper but nobody says much to anyone that did anything related to law.
“You gone vote in the primaries though Shark?” asked Ray.
“Oh yeah, I’m going to vote, you have to vote for the spirit of what it could mean for the principle of what it’s supposed to give us. You underdig what I’m sayin?”
“Hey ‘Nardo, if you need anything at all, I mean anything, Ol’ Sharkie come to Ray’s every Monday,” says the exiting gentleman gangster with the crisp peach suit.
The boy nods and grins continuing to shine the men’s shoes.
“Yeah Ronardo the shop is closed on Monday to everyone but the VIN’s.”
“What’s a VIN?” one of the men in the shine chair asks.
“Very important Negroes.”
Ronaldo’s head turns to hear booming music. It’s coming from the Peach man’s big black 1983 Caddy, clean, whitewall tires, gangster whitewalls.
So fine. Helps to relieve my mind. Sexual healin’ baby it’s good for me.
The rest of the shop bursts forth with laughter.
“That boy Sharkie is that Nigga!”
“He’s doin his thang that’s for sure.”
“Look at them Whitewalls.”
“Yeah, them gangster whitewalls.”
“He’s a gangster?”
“Alright everybody shut up, political lawyer man, asking questions again, nigga might be a Fed, I’m just kiddin’ with you brotha. You a Fed though?”
Political lawyer man smirks, taps Ronaldo on the shoulder with the newspaper, and addresses him jokingly.
“This is the gangster right here I think, yeah this little man here, he’s the real don, isn’t that right?”
The barbershop explodes in laughter.
The boy shrugs and laughs along with them.
Four hours later at the end of the day he has $180.56 in his pocket. The sheer feel of the bills and coins in his hands makes him hold his head high. He scoops up his bags after hearing Ray tell him that he should be there early every morning because that’s when all the big spenders come in to get “prettied up for the day.”
At nightfall he comes back to the orphanage amid hysteria as his roommates ask him all kinds of questions. But the questions stop when he opens the bags producing candy, comic books and bags of potato chips.
Then they hear Sister Modesta stalking up the stairs, and hide all the stuff quickly, planting themselves like statutes in front of their beds.
Ronaldo, gone all day, is ready for the tongue-lashing. He just stands there and takes it when she storms in. He’d heard it all before.
“We were worried sick. Don’t do that again. You’re going to be in big trouble if you ever do that again!”
And so, on and so on.
The boys hold in their laughs as Ronaldo smiles and nods saying he understood.
“Yes seester. I’m sorry seester. I won’t do it again seester”
He so knows he’s going to do it again, who could pass up that much money?
Then he holds out his hand and receives the obligatory loud and painful smack with what the boy’s affectionately call Sister Modesta’s “dip stick.”
It hurt but the cute boy shows no outward signs of injury.
Sister Modesta leaves in the same way she comes - in a comical fury, her boots making door- knocking sounds as she walks out.
“You my man!” Lil Black Brown yelled out embracing the boy. “He didn’t even flinch. That’s some real shit. You took that like a man.”
“Where was you at?” Preston inquired.
Ronaldo shakes his head as if saying “wouldn’t you like to know.”
TO BE CONTINUED!