ISAIAH — Prologue to The Magnolia Code

 

I never saw Isaiah mad, even when Mother asked him to do five things all at the same time.  “Izirre,” she would call out.  This mispronunciation of his name drove my sisters and me crazy.  “His name is Isaiah — I ZAY ah,” we said with adolescent irritation.  But she ignored us; in fact, they both ignored us.  Mother and Isaiah had a connection of their own.  They almost spoke in code, Mother’s North Carolina soft accent taking on some of Isaiah’s cadence, a black man who had grown up in Jacksonville, Florida.

It was early fall 1959.  I was fourteen years old, preparing to leave home in New York for my first year at boarding school in Massachusetts.  Anxious for the change, angry that my two older sisters had left me alone with my bickering parents—Alicia had already gone to her boarding school and Barrett had recently married—I was ready for a new surrounding.  The day before, on my way to my room to finish the school’s dreaded summer reading, I stopped unseen at the end of the kitchen hallway to listen to the easy chatter of Isaiah and Mother.

 Although the kitchen was toward the back of the apartment, the sounds of the car horns on Park Avenue blowing their impatience, and the trains rumbling on the rails under the Avenue divide created a hum.  Mother and Isaiah didn’t let those noises bother them; they were immersed in their own putterings.   Preparing ten prune cakes for the Fifth Avenue Presbyterian Church Fair that coming week-end captured their full attention.  She and the other volunteer women were proud of the money they earned for the “meal outreach,” for those bedridden at home.

 

Mother and Isaiah always shared the labor for the Prune Cake Project.  Mother’s recipe—on a card smudged with old food spills—sat propped up against the salt and pepper shakers in front of them.  She never looked at the recipe, she just put in what appeared to be the right amounts:  two cups Presto cake flour mix; a “world” of sugar; some cinnamon, nutmeg, and ground cloves; and, of course, a jar of Gerber prune baby food.  Crisco played an important role, as it did in most any Southern cooking.  Isaiah tried to make sure the spices weren’t just flung in: “Miss Alice, that’s just not balanced right,” he would say.   And he paid special attention to the timing and temperature in the oven, knowing that Mother had a habit of leaving the kitchen for “five minutes” which turned into twenty. 

  After the cakes were out of the even, Mother cooled them on wire racks, finally transferring them onto paper plates, ready for the following Saturday, two days hence, when she stood behind the booth at the fair, selling at a good pace, and sharing the baking credits with Isaiah.  She had to: Isaiah’s cooking had a reputation.

Nothing seemed to bother Isaiah, not my mother’s mispronunciation of his name or her haphazard lifestyle.   His patient face hid a smile waiting to be realized.  He remained calm even in the middle of their cooking when Mother would suddenly put down the wooden spoon, remembering an urgent task:  

“Izirre, I need your help.  I almost forgot, I must go across town to that thrift store to return this big box of china.  Remember?  I bought it yesterday, but it’s all wrong.  That nice man, Sam, said I could bring it back but to do so right away.  Now don’t tell Mrs. Thompson.”  

Isaiah knew that Mother’s best friend, Mrs. Thompson, could embarrass her, especially when Mother bought things she didn’t really want or care about.  “No’m,” Isaiah told Mother, “Just made a mistake, that’s all. No one needs to know everything.”

“Can you go get the car?  If you would do just this one thing for me, that’s all I ask.”

“I will, Miss Alice.  Let me put these dishes away, then I’ll get my driving jacket.”   He spoke with amused resignation, as though he was quietly figuring out how he was going to put the afternoon in order.  “Anyway, good thing we’re going now;” he mumbled, speaking mostly to himself.  I’ll just put the roast on slow.  I expect you’ll want to go to the grocery after the china errand.”

“My errand won’t take long,” Mother said with a slight annoyance at his realistic presumption.  “And, then, Izirre, you are absolutely right, I will have to stop by the grocery for just a minute, I forgot the ice cream for tonight.”

 Isaiah shook his head and breathed out a soft hum.

“That’s fine, I do thank you, I really do.  Now, if you would just go get the car and not take too long, I am ready.  I’ll get myself together, take off this apron—you laugh when I forget to do that,” she said, smiling. “Then I’ll go choose a hat.”  

“Oh, lord, there’s the telephone,” Mother called out to the apartment.

                                              

Isaiah entered our family in 1954 when I was ten, Alicia twelve, Barrett eighteen.  He had worked for Father’s parents in Jacksonville.  When they died, Father asked Isaiah to come to New York.  “Going north to the big city will be an adventure,” Isaiah told my cousins when they asked how he could possibly leave his good life with them down South for those Yankees.  The cousins added, “But we know you always liked our uncle best.”

Isaiah had presence.  He walked the fine line between the position of “best-to-know-your-place” servant and a self-possessed man.  I believe he liked us; I believe even more that he “saw” us, understood each one of us, the white people family.  He knew little things about us and he cared.  To Alicia and me one morning, he said,  “I brought y’all some more gold fish for your fish tank.”  Sometimes he asked which teachers we liked the best and why, what were the tough subjects at school.  

I look back and realize that we didn’t, for the most part, “see” him—didn’t want to really—other than to recognize him in his role as the wonderful man who came to our apartment in the morning, took care of us, and then went home at night, somewhere Uptown.  His life was worlds away from my family’s.  “That’s just how it is,” Mother would say.

There wasn’t room in our apartment for Isaiah, even if he had wanted to live with us, which he didn’t.  He wanted to live in Harlem, and he found himself a good place— so my parents guessed—on 121st Street and the West Side.  Definitely he would choose to live on the West Side, or Central Harlem; the East Side was Spanish Harlem.

Isaiah was a handsome man, a bit of a dandy, a “dresser.”  At my age of eleven or so, I once told him, “You look like a sun-tanned movie star.” He laughed.  I remember his long, graceful fingers.  When leaving our apartment to go up to his place, he sported the latest-in-fashion straw hat and his brown and white Spectator shoes were polished to the hilt.  Long and lanky, he walked with pride, wearing a smart pair of yellow-tinted sunglasses, just like my father’s.  

I didn’t tell Isaiah I loved him but I did.  His easy way made me want to be with him, sit with him in the kitchen and ask endless questions.  My parents said I shouldn’t be so personal.  “Be proper, Joanie.  Let him have his life.  He doesn’t want you to ask and there’s nothing we need to know.”  I tried not to be personal but I was curious and longed to picture his life.  “What’s your apartment like?   What’s the view?  Do you have friends.  Does anyone come for Sunday supper on your day-off?”  I would sit with him after school–—me in my fourth grade uniform, he in his white jacket—white for his “inside-the-apartment uniform,” as he called it.  He described the dances he went to, the street games, the clothes people wore.  I’d seen photographs of hats worn by church women, and I wanted to know details about the shapes and colors that topped the heads of both women and men in his church, the Abyssinian Baptist Church on 136th Street.  He described the Harlem streets: vendors on the sidewalk selling magical potions “that will make men spin for the scent of you;” hawkers selling the latest lottery ticket to change your life’s fortune; booths of clothes, shoes, and, in the summer, fruits and vegetables driven in early from the Bronx.  He told me about “stoop life,” how neighbors in good weather sat on the steps going up to the brownstone building’s entrances.  We too had stoops in our neighborhood on the Midtown cross-streets but, in my imagination, the costumes—full of color—adorning the Harlem “stoopers” appeared far more exciting than those worn by the stripe-suited young executives on the Upper East Side steps who sat with a cigarette and glass of wine in hand.

Isaiah had a constant quiet laugh going on with himself as he painted a picture of Harlem.  “Isaiah, what are you laughing at?” 

“Well, Miss Joanie, there were some of us sitting on the stoop the other day and these two women—down on the first step—were telling the story of their friend Leona.”  Isaiah laughed so hard he could hardly tell the rest of the story:  how the women had seen Leona—large and round as all get-out —holding on to the lamp post, the wind blowing her crinolines up in the air, rain pouring down her neck.  They were sure she’d be carried down the street if she let go. His laugh made me laugh.

 

Harlem wasn’t safe, Mother would tell me with no explanation.  I didn’t understand;  Isaiah’s Harlem life had fun and magic in it.  He didn’t talk of the abuse: the race riots, the Jim Crow laws, or the small but significant victories of the civil rights movement.  I hadn’t heard about Rosa Parks and the 1955 Montgomery bus boycott.   I didn’t know how much Harlem was involved with the racial changes going on in the country, or whether Isaiah had his own personal troubles. 

“Why isn’t Harlem safe,” I asked her.

“Because I said so, that’s why.  Life is complicated.  Stop asking why all the time,” Mother added in an angry tone that made me back away. 

Isaiah, in his own manner, also showed me proper behavior, again with no explanation.  One summer, having just turned twelve, I had gotten in the front seat of the car, as I usually did.  “Now, Miss Joanie, I believe it’s time for you to sit in the back.”  

          “Why? I don’t want to, I want to sit up here with you.”

          He almost used the same words as Mother, “That’s just the way it is.”  But, he added,  “You’re older now.  Go on back there,” he said gently.  “Yes, that’s right.  Now go on.”

           I opened the door.  Isaiah pulled the red leather convertible seat forward for me to enter the cavernous back. “Darn, now I can’t see you.  I can’t talk to you from here.”

    I remember Isaiah shook himself with a laugh.

 

Mother had a habit of falling in to bad moods.  When Isaiah saw her nervousness, as he called her mood, coming on, he would gently suggest we stay quiet, and then he would hum a little louder.  Humming kept him in his own world and gave people around him assurance that everything was all right. 

One day I asked him what he was humming.  He said, “A hymn often sung in my church.  I’m learning the words.”  

“Oh, sing it to me, Isaiah.”  

He stroked his forehead—the way he always did—and turned his back to me.  Chuckling a bit, he slowly sangThe Beautiful River.” 

           Shall we gather at the river, where bright angel feet have trod

           With its crystal tide forever flowing by the throne of God?  

He stopped.Oh I do like that hymn.  Reminds me of a river in Jacksonville.  Makes me think of my mother.  She was such a church-goer, nearly every day.  She liked to hum that tune when she did her gardening.”

“What did she like about it?” I asked.

He picked up a silver plate for polishing and continued humming.  I waited, hoping, uncertain whether he would tell me more.  “I think Mama liked that hymn because she liked the St. Johns River near her home down there in Jacksonville.  She’d take a pillow, sit hidden amongst the palmetto bushes by the banks, and sometimes even take off her shoes and stockings, put her feet in the cool stream. ‘That’s when I feel good,’ she told me, ‘specially good if the magnolias are in full scent.”’

Isaiah paused a long time and turned back to his polishing.  He said he missed his mother, that he missed all those people he grew up with on Orchard Street. 

“Oh please tell me more about your mother.”  

Hesitating, he looked at the kitchen clock, “Well, yes, she was the kindest of all.  But she always seemed to be running, in a hurry, never did sit down much,” he chuckled.  He glanced down the kitchen hallway to see, I guessed, if Mother was nearby.

“You know,” Isaiah said as he put the silver plate down and started in on the asparagus washing. “This might seem funny, but your mother can kinda remind me of my mama, always running, same way in the kitchen, leaving things to be burnt up good, just like the other day with those prune cakes.”  He suddenly turned to me, asparagus in his hand, his brow worried with a wrinkle.  He said with urgency.  “Now, don’t you tell your mother I said that.  No, don’t tell her that.”

"Okay, I answered, knowing I wasn't suppposed to ask why?  

"You’ll understand one day.”  

He turned to chopping the vegetables on the small wooden cutting board.

I sat for awhile, unsure he would want to hear my continued comment. “You know that hymn, the one you just sang, ‘The Beautiful River’?  Well, you’ll think I’m making this up, but I’m not.  Last week Mother and I were crossing in the middle of the street and she said, ‘Joanie, don’t you jaywalk like I do.  It’s not right, but I can’t help it.’  She laughed and added, ‘But if I do get hit by a Madison Avenue bus, remember to sing that hymn, ‘The Beautiful River.’  I just heard it again on the radio, reminded me of my old Sunday school days.”

 Isaiah put down the knife, and looked straight at me, puzzled.  He said, in that thoughtful way of his, “Well, I’ll be.  Now that is something.” He wiped his hands on his apron and went back to chopping, all the while humming the hymn.

 Of course, I knew that Mother and Isaiah came from very different worlds—but I saw similarities in their community of southernness.   Besides her accent sometimes slipping into a black rhythmic way of speaking, I heard her admiration for their spiritual life, even though she would never have visited their church. “They just have a spirit in them, especially their songs, in their ease.  I guess they had to have that,” she said with a sigh.  But that expression was as much as she could give the black person.  She believed in racial separation, thought it was for the best.  When Southerners speak about black people “being family,” they mean a closeness that has nothing to do with equality; it is a presumptive fantasy.  I have never heard a black person say those words.

 

On vacation from boarding school in 1961—a springtime Sunday—my sister, Barrett, and I walked down Madison Avenue after church.  We looked at store windows full of current in-style outfits and at our funny reflections.  We were about the same height, but her high heels and recently created high-helmet streaked hairdo gave her at least two inches over me.

One store window featured TVs for sale.  We stopped and watched news flashes of the previous day’s Freedom Ride in Alabama on all ten screens.  The CBS camera panned the crowd:  a bus on fire, chaos, police swinging “billy-clubs.”

Barrett pulled me away from the window, “Come on, let’s go, I’m late.”  

“But can’t you wait a minute?  Look, this is horrible.  You always act like stuff doesn’t really matter.” 

 “I don’t know what to think. Oh, Joanie, I’m a lot older than you, I have other things on my mind.  And I know there’s nothing I can do about these problems.  And neither can you,” she said looking down at me from atop her heels.  Maybe black people should stay with their own.  You know, Joanie, there’s an expression, ‘Cadillac Liberal.’   Is that what you want to be, some high and mighty do-gooder who doesn’t see reality?  I heard you talking to Jane the other day.  You better be careful.”    

My friend Jane’s father, a lawyer, was involved with civil rights.  He wanted his daughter to know about the cultural changes he hoped were coming.  “Tell your friends, they should know,” he told Jane.  I liked her father. He treated un like grown-ups. 

“You think you’re so mature,” I answered Barrett.  “Well, maybe I am a...whateveryou called it.  I don’t know.”  I didn’t want to look at her.  Staring at the TV screens, I added, “And who are you anyway, just because you’re married and live in some fancy Uptown apartment.”

 “Come on, I’m leaving,” she said, looking annoyed, as she strutted down the street.  I followed and wondered about the meaning of “Cadillac Liberal.”  Seeds of doubt undermined my concept of injustice.  

 Since early age we had been silently informed that if you follow the rules of The Code, you would be given the enveloping warmth of a Southern embrace.  But, if you deviate and turn your back on propriety, propriety being the seminal word, you could very well be relegated to the Southern branch of hell.  

Once, on my return from visiting my aunt in the South, Mother cheerfully exclaimed, “And how lucky that you were there in magnolia time!  Oh, that divine smell.”  But for me the fragrant smell of magnolias was cloying.  Other people loved the scent. I didn't.  One afternoon after Mother had admonished me yet again—this time for wearing blue jeans to the grocery store—I told Alicia how I hated her correct ways.  I imitated her accent, "It's just not right, It's common.  Alicia, her rules are like the scent of magnolias, stifling, claustrophobic, I can't breathe."  From then on we thought it was funny to refer to Mother’s rulebook as “The Magnolia Code.”

 

My bond with Isaiah continued.   He said he still enjoyed his life in Harlem but that things had changed:  more crime, more drugs and danger on the street.  That’s all he would say.  I asked him about his church, did he still go to the Abyssinian Baptist?  Did he still love the singing? 

“Oh yes,” he said.  “That is my community, and I work with the fellowship as much as I can.”

I wanted to go up to Harlem to the blues and jazz clubs.  I played blues on the piano, and Small’s Paradise was the place, and a world I wanted to enter, just to see what was happening.  “Is there any way I can go up to a club with some friends?  I’m almost eighteen; they wouldn’t care that we’re not legal age yet, would they?”

“No, no, it’s not for you,” he said emphatically.  But he didn’t face me.  “You’d be looked at wrong.  Anyway, it’s not a good time right now in Harlem.  Some dangers up there.  You stay with your own.”

He didn’t often talk to me that way; he was usually more gentle.  I felt a blush coming on.  I didn’t want to seem stupid and look like a little white girl not knowing her place, so I quickly added, “I know what’s going on up there.  I’ve read about the crime, drugs, the run-down tenements that the city’s does nothing about.  I know there’e a lot of bad stuff in Harlem.  I just wanted to know if I could go to Small’s Paradise.

“Now, Miss Joanie, you go on and find places that are right for you and your age.  Best when you’re older.”

I left the kitchen.  Mother was in the hallway.  “Come into the den, Joanie,” she said with steaming fury.  “What’s the matter with you?  You know you can’t go up to Harlem, that’s not for you.  And that you would ask Isaiah, I’m shocked and furious.”  She stared at me.  I felt small.  “There are rules.  You better figure out how to live within them,” Mother walked out of the room but then she stopped and looked back at me, “Why do you have to be so different?”

I didn’t answer.

Different?  What did that mean?  I was curious, that’s all, just a curious child.  I did want to fit in, but in my own way, and I didn’t quite know how.

Isaiah knew how.  What I was soon to know of his double life would make me admire, even more, his seeming ability to balance, to negotiate his path.  He became a role model and I longed for his self-possession, his self-respect.        

 

At about the same time, and with my recently unleashed eighteen-year-old wisdom, I had a run-in with Father.  Isaiah was driving us downtown in the blue Cadillac convertible, top down—Isaiah in his black jacket and black cap and Father in a proper Wall Street suit and somewhat dashing Panama hat.  I was in the back seat.  Sleepy from having stayed out too late and from the luxurious smell of car leather, I half-listened to their chatter and laughter.  They had forgotten about me. 

Father thought he could say anything to Isaiah because he pronounced him his best friend.  That day in the car he started telling him jokes. “How many colored men does it take to screw in a lightbulb?” Isaiah gave a small uncomfortable laugh and answered, “Hmmm, Mr. John, how’s that?”

It takes three:  one to hold the ladder, one to screw in the lightbulb, and the other to sing Jacob’s ladder.”

“Yes, Mr. John, that’s a funny one.”  

I kept quiet.

“You know, Isaiah, I was thinking about my parents this morning.  They were good people,” Father mused.

“Yes, sir, they surely was.  Kind, always kind to me.  Kind to my aunt Mammy too.”

“Wonderful Mammy.  I will never forget that day when my brothers and sisters celebrated her hundredth birthday.  Brother Itch asked, ‘Mammy, what’s my name?’  She looked at him like he was crazy and answered, ‘Lord, son, if you don’t know your name, why should I?’” Father gave out a huge laugh.

I laughed too. They turned, surprised to find me there.  I said: “That was really funny.  What else did Mammy say?”

“She called us her ‘chilluns.’  I wonder what she’d think of things today,” said Father.  “All these marches, so much crime up there in Harlem.  Not sure she’d be proud of her people today.   I hear there’s lots of trouble.  Is it just bad colored people acting that way, Isaiah?”

 I blurted out loudly from the back. “And I hear from Jane’s father that the white landlords do nothing about their rotting tenements.”

“Joanie, you don’t know what you’re talking about and neither does Jane’s father, whoever he is.  You just hush up back there.”  

Isaiah fiddled with the driving wheel.  He adjusted the air conditioning—even though the top was down—and finally said to Father,  “Well, Mr. John, things aren’t so good anymore,” he said.  “Too much dangerous stuff is going on.”

“Your people, they are good people, that’s for sure, but they ought to take care of their own.  Like you do.  Is it jobs they want?  I could help.  Lots of work on Wall Street for porters, waiters in company dining rooms, things like that.  Would that help?”

“Yes, sir, Mr. John, that’s a fine idea.”

 Isaiah drove on in the silence of the car. 

                                                                 

A year or so later, the summer of 1964, I returned home from college.  We were in the kitchen, Isaiah at his usual spot by the sink, in his white jacket, and me at the table, dressed in what I hoped was a sophisticated outfit.  I now had a tall, athletic body, with hair swept back.  Curiosity and feistiness defined parts of me, but my mask of confidence belied my interior lack of worthiness.  

The familiar cornbread scents came from the stove.  “Isaiah, I’ve never really asked you why you decided to come North.  I mean I know my grandparents had died, but why did you leave Jacksonville, all those friends, everything familiar?”

“Oh, you know,” he said as he looked into the oven and re-arranged the pans. “I just have a restless part of me. I like seeing what’s out there.  Guess I’m born that way.  You know, you’re the one so full of questions.”

“I’m supposed to make my debut this year.  It seems stupid, don’t you think?”

“Why?  Parties sure are fun, I’m positive of that.”

“…yes, fun and now that I’m eighteen I can go to all those places.  That’s part of it.  It sounds awful—“to be presented”— like I’m some sort of piece of cake, but why not, my friends will be doing it: giving and going to parties, “bowing” at whatever balls in New York.”  

“Yes’m, sounds like fun, but you be careful.”

 I put aside my ability to mock the debutante in favor of fun and the idea of freedom in New York.  And Isaiah helped me expand the dare of self-confidence.  My best friend Abby was having her big party at The River Club but my escort had called that morning to say he was sick.  Isaiah was in the apartment, my parents were away.  I moaned to Isaiah how sad I was to miss Abby’s party.  

“You go on anyway,” Isaiah answered with a cautious compassionate urging.

“I can’t go alone.” 

“Yes, I believe you can.  I’ll drive you to The River Club, and I’ll promise, if you’re not having fun, you call me to come pick you up.”

 “Isaiah, you would do that?” 

 “Yes, because you want to go.  I know,” he uttered along with his hum.

 

Sometimes Isaiah had a pretty bad cough.  Alicia had recently told me that he’d been sick with tuberculosis before he came North.  I asked him if it was true.

“Yes,” he answered with a soft hum, “Yes’m, that’s right, I was real sick.  Your father sent me to the tuberculosis sanatorium over there in west Florida.  I stayed three months; they fixed me up pretty good, caught it early.  Your father, he was kind to help me like that.”  

I stayed seated at the table, wondering why I hadn’t known about Isaiah’s illness or Father’s involvement.

“May I ask you, Isaiah, what do you think of civil rights now?  I see on TV what’s happening:  the dogs grabbing people, water from the fire hoses knocking over protestors.  This is horrible. What’s going on?  Do you have hope, Isaiah?  Are you proud of your people?”

“Yes, I am proud,” Isaiah said walking over to the cabinets.  “Lots is happening.  Don’t know where it’s going.  Now let me get this cornbread out of the oven; don’t want to burn it all up good.”

“Isaiah, do you work for The Rights?”  I’d heard him refer to civil and human rights as The Rights.

He didn’t answer.  In my head, I heard Mother chiding me. “Joanie, don’t ask Isaiah personal questions.”   Giving me a quick glance as he put away the pots underneath the stove, Isaiah said, “When that good man, President Kennedy, got shot a little time ago, that was a terrible, terrible thing for all of us.  Now we don’t know the future.  We pray a lot at my church.  We have hope. 

 Oh, look at the time.  Yes’m, got to go pick up your mother.”

“I wish you’d tell me more, Isaiah.  Do you have to go right now?”

“One day, I’ll tell you some more—one day.”

 

Even as we all grew older, Isaiah’s curiosity about “what’s out there” remained.  He still asked Alicia and me about our lives:  “How’s your job, what do you do, what are you learning?”  In the late sixties, I worked for a public interest group—not as a bleeding heart, as my sister, Barrett, might have called me, but more as an explorer into other worlds, especially because this particular nonprofit world was located in the heart of Wall Street.

Several times a month I went Uptown to visit my parents and stay for dinner.  I always went to the kitchen to find Isaiah.  His temples had grayed, he had a slight stoop, and now, when his glasses slipped down his nose, he let them stay there.  He also let his hands remain in his lap.  Those hands that used to move so fast—dusting, cooking, arranging, grabbing for his keys and his black jacket—were tired.  He wasn’t old, but he seemed worn out.  He did still hum, yet his humming was quieter, less enthusiastic.

One evening, at the apartment, his look startled me.  He was thin, wan, not steady on his feet, and coughing.

“Isaiah, you don’t look good.  Are you all right?”

“Well, no, Miss Joanie, I’m going to tell you that surely I do not feel too good at this moment.  I don’t know what’s got into me, but I best sit down.”  He sat heavily and leaned his forehead on his hand.

“You better go home,” I said.

“Yes, I think so.  I’ll just finish up with the fixings here so when your parents get home all will be ready.  Lordy, I feel so slowed-down.”

I was worried.  I should take him home in a cab, although he wouldn’t want me to, I thought.  In his own book of “correct behavior,” that wouldn’t be right.  My parents wouldn’t like it either.  I could hear them angrily telling me to stop meddling because “he can take care of himself.”  But he looked so weak.  I didn’t care what they thought.  We took a taxi up to 121st Street.  

The divide on Park Avenue between the south and north sides of 96th Street is an enormous crossing into another culture.  The trains visibly come up from underground onto the Avenue, turning the quiet hum into a loud clanging.  Spanish Harlem begins: Bodegas, olive-skinned people, the end of formal apartment houses, the start of haphazard buildings.

The taxi stopped on West 121st. Street. “Thank you, I’ll now get myself up to my apartment,” Isaiah said with as much strength as he could muster.  But he could hardly get out of the door.  I came round to help.

“We’d better go upstairs together,” I said with unease, looking around me, wondering what people might think of our odd twosome.  I could sense him looking also.  The six o’clock rush hour from the near-by 125th Street subway gave the street a bustle.  Vendors were hawking colorful clothes and pronouncing the ripped-off hand bags as “the real stuff.”  Out of the corner of my eye, I saw three men sitting on rickety chairs banging down their playing cards on a little table.

“No, that wouldn’t be right. Doesn’t look right. You go on home,” he said pulling on my outstretched arm.

“You can’t.  I’ll just get you up to your apartment.”

The taxi driver asked if he should wait.

“Yes, I’ll just be a short time.”

We took the elevator, he got out the key and gave it to me to open the door while his other hand steadied himself against the wall.  “I’ll wait inside for a few minutes, to see how you’re doing.  You go lie down.”

I heard him sit on his bed with a sigh.

Standing stiffly in his sitting room, I felt caught between the correctness of not trespassing on his privacy and not being able to resist seeing another side of Isaiah.  To cross the boundary into his private life—into this tidy room—was a choice.  I wondered for a minute: would Isaiah really mind?

Circumstances, not direct intention, had put me in his apartment, I told myself as my eyes roamed the room.  I put my hands on the back of a green overstuffed chair positioned in front of the TV; cigars and matches were put neatly on a table next to the chair.  There was a sweet smell of old cigars, and the ashtray, with a half smoked stogie—as he called them—resting on its rim, had a big bird on it.  A picture of Olivia, Isaiah and two friends—all dancing—framed in a nightclub mat with the name the Big Bird Club embossed on the bottom, leaned against the table lamp.   I stood in his room with the ghost of his good times.

Hurrying, afraid Isaiah would catch me looking into his world, I opened the window so the street noises, quickly rising up to the third floor, would hide my steps.  A fold-up card table with four chairs pushed underneath was placed near the window.  A deck of cards —waiting to be dealt—sat on the table’s edge.  Positioned on top of an open magazine, with pages torn out, lay a black and white photograph of Isaiah and a man who looked familiar.  It was inscribed:  “To my friend, Isaiah Stallings.  With thanks for your conviction and help, Adam Clayton Powell, 1967.”  I stared at the photograph and felt a dizzying confusion.  Pastor Powell, the man who was a figurehead for the civil rights movement was Isaiah’s friend?   This side of Isaiah’s life was so far away.  I couldn’t put the pieces together.

“Are you still out there, Miss Joanie?  I kind of thought you’d be gone,” his cracking voice said with some anxiety.

“Just going now, Isaiah.”  I leaned out the window to see if the cab was still waiting.  In my hurry, I knocked the magazines and the photograph to the floor.  As I knelt to pick up the papers, I felt a longing for a connection I knew was slipping away.   I began to feel the harsh truth that this connection with Isaiah had been only half-real; it had always been focused on me, the little girl in the Park Avenue apartment.  I felt lonely.  I slowly put everything back as I’d found it.  I wanted to leave, go back downtown to a comfort I thought I had.    

“Should I phone a friend of yours to come over?”  I quickly called into his room.  

He mumbled something about just wanting to sleep.   And he quietly said, “Be careful now.  And we’d best keep this quiet, okay Miss Joanie?” 

“Yes, okay, Isaiah,” I answered.  As I closed the door, I wondered which part, or all of it, he meant to keep quiet. 

I ran down the stairs, took the cab to my apartment instead of to my parents’, as I had originally planned.  I didn’t want to talk to them.  I didn’t want to hear them tell me that what I had done was wrong.  And I didn’t want to concentrate on hiding my new knowledge.

 

Isaiah recovered some but he wasn’t the same.  Soon after the evening in Harlem, I visited my parents and immediately went to the kitchen.   Father had put on his new Duke Ellington record and, as usual, it was too loud.  I wondered if Isaiah was going to mention his apartment.  I sat at the kitchen table and looked down at my hands.  I wanted to say something meaningful.

Instead Isaiah looked at me. “You know, it’s time—and Olivia, she also says it’s time—that I return to Jacksonville.  I don’t feel so very well.  So, it’s not too far off that I’ll need to be going on home.”

I sat up straight and said too quickly, “Oh, why, Isaiah?  You’ll be all right.  Just wait a little.”   But a secret place in me had already known.  “Yes, I thought soon you’d be telling me that.”  Tears started behind my eyes.  I pushed back my chair and threw my arms around him.  “Isaiah, I’ll miss you so.”

I had never put my arms around Isaiah before.  He stood still and let me hold on for just a moment.