By Ernie McCray
Tucson is a place where
several times a day
you hear somebody say:
“Damn, it’s hot!”
That’s a tradition that will never stop.
Because it is, indeed, hot,
so hot that no matter
whether a person is religious or not,
when that sun drops
down behind the Tucson Mountains on, say,
a July day,
Christians are born right away
because everybody has to say:
“Thank you, Jesus!”
But the sun will be back the very next day
Don’t even try to pray it away.
I once heard a Tucsonan
describe 80 degrees
as a cool breeze
and that’s what it is, indeed,
when days of 100 plus degrees
have melted your body down below your knees.
But I love the place.
It’s where I joined the human race.
It’s where question marks
first hovered above my face,
where I first went outdoors to play,
where I first heard nursery rhymes,
where I learned to run and skip,
where I first entertained the idea
that I might be cool
or ever so hip,
indicating that it might be
where I first tripped –
which I did
after they wheeled my mother
and me out to the curb
at St. Mary’s where I was born
and somebody honked a horn
and I looked up at a mouth
just as it was letting go with a
that went airborne
and at two days old
I formed my first words: “Oh! Oh!”
I could see already
that there was going to be
no honeymoon period
for this little Negro.
All that “In the sweet by and by”
and “Mama’s little baby loves
was a diversion from
a status quo
wherein for people like us
there was going to be a long road to hoe!
And I have been hoeing non-stop
for over 27,580 days in a row.
Courtesy of Jim Crow,
but I’m not going to get into
all the indignities
that came with second-class citizenry.
Ain’t nobody got time for no atrocities.
This is about sharing a few minor remembrances,
whatever comes to my mind randomly.
Wow, my very first thought
is, of all people,
Eddie Williams. Piano playing Claydie Lokey’s
one bedeviled son-of-a-gun
whose life was like a curse,
telling me how he had driven his car
from Tucson to Nogales in reverse.
I just went “Uh-huh” timidly
as Eddie was not one you would
question regarding the authenticity
of something he had claimed to be a reality.
My mama didn’t raise no dummy
when she brought up me.
Man, what gathered up that imagery?
Talking about a blast from the past
that was way out of sight
and out of mind
Oh, but here comes other visions
from my memory –
I see Mrs. Warner, the mother, not the daughter,
hiring little old me
to trim the lawn
with a mower that was taller than me
at the house she kept clean
for a white family.
I see me sucking a rapidly melting cimarrona
under a chinaberry tree
while the sun just waits patiently.
I see Minnie Earl Marshall
walking that walk of hers down the street,
arousing my sexuality,
which I didn’t even know I had
because I was probably about age three
– oh, she was that sexy.
I see Roy Jr. Walls.
A man is all up in his face,
spouting un-niceties about the whole “colored” race,
right when the civil rights movement was moving at a fast pace,
much too rapidly for this man jabbering away with his chest all stuck out
until my boy, Roy, said
“Hey, fool, I ain’t one of those non-violent Negroes
you been reading about!”
I had to shout!
I see Toby chomping on his cigar,
driving his beat up old truck through
chanting “Black eyed peas and okra”
because he knew us well and good.
I see a young adult me,
father, student, athlete,
tucking a twenty dollar bill
in my wallet that was handed to me
as a tip on top
of my life-guarding fee
from a mafia boss
after a pool party
where I was responsible for his progeny –
felt like I had hit the numbers
with money like that
in the late 50’s.
I see, after holding my ears and my breath one day
while tires screeched and smelled of burning rubber
and a car decapitates a fire hydrant,
a fugitive taking off running at 10th Avenue and Second Street.
But Mr. Do-Right and company were faster on their feet.
I see the school assembly clapping
as I accept a first place prize for a story I wrote in 4th grade
about a dodo bird.
I stood there heartbroken when I heard
that because it was a savings bond
I had won
I wouldn’t be able to spend it
for many years to come.
I see the moment I tried to get in the last word
in an argument with Helen Wafer –
trying to calm a tornado
or do a handstand on a stampeding buffalo
would have been a whole lot safer.
I see dudes spitting “Yo Mama” rhymes featuring the signifying monkey,
then they commence to duking it out in the sawdust pit
freakingly sweaty and funky;
what seems like a million students
spilling out of the “sardine can”
uncontrollably angry and spunky,
the bus driver reduced to a babbling flunky
cursing in tongues
at the top of his lungs
as his riders continue
piling out of the bus
like all those clowns
in the clown cars
at the circus
a school I rank at the top of the rung.
When society said we were dumb
Dunbar asked us to be the best
so we had the Best Band,
the Best Chorus,
the Best Teams,
the Best Drum major
some of the best people I’ve ever met,
friends for life
who are, in a myriad of ways, superbly witty and clever and bright,
each a member of a community that wanted us
to grow up right.
So many in my corner:
Geneva, who let me tap out my ditties
on her Smith and Corona
and say stuff like
“Boy, you go’ be the next Langston Hughes”;
Mt. Calvary where every now and then on Youth Sundays
I would get to share my budding views
with the good brothers and sisters in the pews;
my Great-Aunt Lillie
who always treated me as though
I was good news
and I knew not to confuse
that love as a ruse;
my mother and grandfather
who helped me choose
paths to walk upon
as I paid life’s dues.
And so many of you
in ways I could never compute.
Here we are gathered
in the Dunbar Auditorium
still breathing after all these years,
having been buoyed by multitudes of joys
and having shed rolling seas of sad tears.
We find ourselves at what once was the hub
of our very being,
a stabilizing booster
of our humanity
enabling us to survive
those who hung to their dreams of depriving
us a good life, a victory.
Jim Crow, you see,
built Dunbar Elementary/Junior High,
thinking in terms of “pie in the sky”
wherein we would never achieve
what he assumed was only his to receive
with absolutely no idea that you and I
would exit the premises
and move “on up to the east side,
to a deluxe apartment in the sky”
and get us a piece of the real pie.
And, I say to him,
You were bound to lose the contest
because we had no choice other than
‘Be the Best!'”
don goyette says
Ernie, that was beautiful. Thank you for sharing it.
Frances O'Neill Zimmerman says
Wow, Ernie. This is the best. You have a gift. Thanks for sharing.
Dan Simonelli says
Ernie McCray says
It was fun piecing it together.
Kim K. says
Thank you for taking us down memory lane. I felt I was watching everything happen as you described it. When is your book coming out? Your experiences from Tuscon to San Diego are apart of a colorful, blessed and amazing life. So glad you were able to revisit Dunbar with your childhood friends.
charles greene says
you forgot me and Pat Benson
gloria sharkey says
Ernie, You are the greatest! Hope to see you soon in the ‘hood. Much love this holiday season and hugs all around. Gloria Sharkey (Ty’s partner)