Chapter 1 of 'A Summer In Harlem' by Brendan Whitt
“Glad to see you‘re finally up,” his grandmother said. “I’m headed out to run a few errands. Your breakfast is downstairs but you have to make your own eggs. You know how they get when their cold. When I get back we can head for the train station.” She took two steps out of Thad’s room before turning around, “Oh, and feed Precious” she added. Almost instinctively Precious turned around and followed Thad’s grandmother out of the room. When he could hear her footsteps heading down the stairs he pulled his covers completely off of his body and got out of bed. Thad was a relatively scrawny kid with dark skin and short black hair. He had just finished his first year of high school and had aspirations of becoming an engineer after college. He wanted to go to Tuskegee where one of his idols George Washington Carver had taught. Thad was a very intelligent kid who always garnered high praise from his teachers in regards to his academic accomplishments and behavior. He rarely got into any serious trouble or mischief. Outside of school Thad hung out with his same friends from when he was a child. He was just your run of the mill teenager from Beloit, Alabama in 1948.
Thad stumbled out of bed and headed towards the bathroom. He brushed his teeth then washed his face with a hot rag. When he was finished Thad walked back into his room and sat on his bed. “She never makes my eggs,” he mumbled to himself. “She can kiss my ass, I’m not makin’ my own eggs.” On the chair in his room was a collared shirt with a pair of trousers. He put them on and made his way downstairs. Since his Grandmother was gone he decided to turn on the radio and listen to his favorite genre of music, Jazz. Thad especially loved swing music. The liveliness of the instruments always made him think of life outside of Beloit. Thad loved Jazz but his Grandmother hated it. She called it “that bullshit music”. Thad’s grandmother was a god fearing woman who’s preference were gospel hymns. Thad loved Jazz because of how every musician could play their own part of the song the way they wanted to but still manage to sound like one cohesive collective of musicians. He sat down with his bowl of grits and the few strips of bacon his grandmother had left him while he listened to the radio.
When he finished eating, Thad went back upstairs to grab his luggage. Thad’s grandmother told him that she would send him to Harlem to visit his Aunt Bird and three cousins for a few weeks over the summer if he was able keep his grades up. Thad did more than that, he finished his freshman year at the top of his class. “Finally,” he thought to himself “a nice long trip to Harlem. I get to ride in a cab, see the city, and most of all listen to live Jazz music.” Thad was more than excited to be headed to New York City. This was the trip of a lifetime. No one he knew from Beloit got to go to the Big Apple for three weeks.
When Thad’s Grandmother got back from running her errands she yelled up the stairs for him. “Thad, you ready to go?” she asked.
“Here I come Grandma,” he yelled back down. Thad grabbed his bags and headed down stairs. His grandmother handed him twenty-five dollars and a small brown bag filled with snacks. “Now this money should last you while you’re up there and this is a small snack for your train ride. It should hold you over until your stop in Chicago.”
“Thank you. Do you want me to call when I get to New York?”
“Yes. And be sure to look out for your Aunt Bird. You remember what she looks like?” Thad had no idea what his Aunt Bird looked like. He had only seen her twice his entire life and he was only about three years old the last time he had even seen her. All of the photos in the house of her and Thad’s mother were from the twenties before Thad and his cousins had even been born.
“Not really.” he said.
“Well you know she’s tall and scrawny with itty bitty chicken legs. Just look for a lady who looks somethin’ like your mother.”
“Oh yeah I know what she looks like now.” Thad was lying right through his teeth. He still had no clue of what Aunt Bird looked like. In fact, Thad had never even seen his mother. His widowed Grandmother had taken him in when he was born after Thad’s mother had died from complications during childbirth. He kept a picture of her on his nightstand to remind him of her. The only thing on his mind at the moment was getting out of Beloit and enjoying the beginning of his summer in Harlem. “I’ll be sure to keep an eye out.” he said.
Outside waiting for Thad and his grandmother was Mr. Harris who stayed down the road on his old family farm that didn’t grow much of anything. He was a tall fat man with very dark skin. His English was so bad that when combined with his southern accent the words came out sounding like gibberish. Mr. Harris had an old red pickup truck that was covered in rust. He had agreed to take Thad and his Grandmother to the train station. Thad hated catching rides from Mr. Harris during the school year. The inside of his pickup was full of trash and old cigarette butts. “Grandma you couldn’t find nobody else with a car,” Thad desperately asked.
“Boy you be thankful,” his grandmother snapped. “It’s only a thirty-five minute drive. You will not die from riding in his truck. And make sure you say thank you.” Thad walked outside carrying his bags and set them in the bed of the truck.
“Thanks for the ride Mr. Harris.” he said.
“Buah you know I can geh you a ride wheneva you need.” Mr. Harris said. Thad got into the truck and slid to the middle of the seat leaving enough room for his grandmother on the end. The smell of old cigarette butts was enough to make a person cover their mouth and nose. Mr. Harris leaned over and whispered to Thad, “No smoking whyle da lady in da cah now. Mannas.” Thad just stared at Mr. Harris before turning to the window, “Grandma we ready” he shouted.
As they drove down the road towards the train station Mr. Harris couldn’t help but to yap away. It was probably his favorite thing to do behind smoking. “Buah I tell ya, New Yawk is a big ol’ place. I had seent it way back ya hear. Buildins that go so high up you cain’t even see da tops of em ya hear. I mean, big ol buildins. Its way bigguh dan down here in Beloit ya hear.” Thad was tired of listening to Mr. Harris’ jibberish. He knew Mr. Harris was lying anyway. The only sound Thad wanted to hear was a loud train’s horn rumbling down the track followed by an “All aboard!” from the train conductor. At least by then he would know that he was that much closer to Harlem.
After a nerly forty minute drive down a long dusty road and hearing Mr. Harris’ gibberish, Thad could see the train station off in the distance. Thad couldn’t believe it. He was finally headed to New York City. He checked to make sure his ticket was in his pocket. He pulled it out and scanned it over before shoving it back into his pocket. Thad’s grandmother got out of the truck followed by Thad. Mr. Harris got out to help Thad unload his bags from the truck bed. That was the only thing he wanted Mr. Harris to do. “You enjoy yaself ya hear.” Mr. Harris said.
“I will” Thad responded smiling. Thad and his grandmother walked to the entrance of the train station.
“Want me to wait with you,” his grandmother asked.
“Nah, I’m fine.” he said.
“Ok then. Well remember to be safe and don’t get into any trouble. And hold on to that money. Don’t fall for no hustles. You don’t know what people can be like in that city.”
“Yes ma’am.” he said. “And I’ll be sure to give you a call when I get there.”
“Ok. Love you and be safe”. She gave Thad a big hug accompanied with a kiss on the cheek. As she walked away Thad could feel freedom and excitement sweep across his body. He was so happy to get out of little old Beloit and go see the world. While waiting on a bench facing the tracks Thad saw a man in an old dirty brown hat drawing a crowd of onlookers. The man was middle aged and black with a light skin complexion. Thad was curious to see what the old man was doing to cause so much commotion. He decided to stay where he was and watch the spectacle from a distance. The man had a piece of cardboard on top of a garbage can with three playing card on top of the cardboard. “If you can find the Jack of spades I’ll pay you two dollars, any Challengers? Just find the jack for two dollars.” The crowd of onlookers just stood around looking and talking amongst each other when a little boy who looked no older than six walked up to the man and placed two dollars down. “Where’d you get so much money from little boy,” the man asked. The boy didn’t respond. He gave the man a blank stare as the crowd continued to watch.
“Which one is the jack lil’ man?” The boy pointed to the card on the left. “You sure?” The boy nodded his head yes. The man took a moment to flip the card. As he flipped the card over the man had a look of disbelief on his face before quickly turning it into a smile. He handed the two dollar bills along with the two he had bet to the little boy. The boy took the four dollars and walked away. “Win some you lose some.” he said. “Who’s next?” Suddenly another middle aged man, this one white, walked up and placed two dollars down onto the old piece of cardboard. The old man shuffled the three cards and randomly placed them face down. The white man chose the card on the left. When the hustler flipped the card over it was the three of hearts. “Aww Goddammit!” the man shouted. Thad wanted to get closer but he didn’t want to risk being called out. The little boy winning two bucks was tempting to Thad but the one thing his grandmother told him not to do was lose any money to any shady people, so he decided to stay put and continue to watch from his spot on the bench.
The next contestant to walk up was a heavy set black woman and her husband. “I know this trick you old drunk, I got four dollars.” she said slamming the bills down onto the makeshift table. The hustler shuffled his cards and removed his hat to expose his balding head. “Then choose your card ma’am.” he said politely.
“The middle card you sneaky bastard” she snapped. The hustler flipped the card revealing the eight of clubs. The old man simply smiled. “Guess you don’t this game well enough.” he said. The hustler packed up his things and walked away. As the crowd began to disperse, Thad stood up and looked down the tracks to see if the train was coming.
Thad was growing more and more anxious by the minute. He had pulled out his ticket to look at it about ten times to make sure it was still in his pocket. Since him being so impatient wasn’t making time speed up, Thad decided to look in the brown bag his grandmother had packed for him. He had two sandwiches, one was a peanut butter and jelly sandwich while the other was a ham sandwich. He had one soda and the bottom of the bag was filled with a few of his grandmothers homemade cookies. He pulled out a cookie and began to nibble on it while he continued to wait on the train. Several minutes later Thad could hear a train engine barreling down the tracks. “Finally” he thought to himself. The moment he had been waiting for since the last day of school was here. He picked up his bags and held his ticket in his hand. When the train pulled up a huge plume of dark smoke escaped from the top of the train‘s smoke stack. Thad looked up and marveled at the size of the train. The cars stretched as far as he could see and had a shiny metal coat with a few thin red lines going down the sides.
The speakers over the platform crackled as a voice rang out, “P & R leaving for Chicago now boarding.” Thad walked to the colored car and stood in line to board with the other blacks. While he was standing in line Thad noticed the hustler sneaking onto the back of the train. When he got to the front of the line he presented his ticket and proceeded to board. When he finally got on board Thad walked down the aisle until he found his seat. It was a small area with a window just large enough for Thad to look out and see all of the different changes in scenery during his trip. He sat down and put his bags in the seat across from him. “Ten hours until we stop in Chicago,” he thought to himself. He decided to catch up on the sleep he had missed after being awakened by his grandmother earlier that morning. As the train began to pull off Thad slowly drifted off to sleep as he gently rocked along with the train as it barreled down the tracks. He knew he wouldn’t be able to get off of the train in Chicago but seeing the city’s skyline would be a good preview of New York.
A few hours later when he woke up, Thad looked out the window to see how far the train had gotten. All he could see were rolling green pastures and a farm house or barn every few miles or so. He knew they hadn’t gotten too far from Beloit, the train could still be in Alabama for all he knew. It took Thad a while to realize the little boy sitting across from him. He had taken Thad’s luggage and placed it next to him while he was sleeping. When Thad took a closer look at the boy’s face he realized it was the kid from the platform who had won the two dollars from the old man. Thad blankly stared at the boy who stared right back. After a few moments of awkward silence the little boy finally spoke up.
“Sorry I moved your stuff,” he said. “I just wanted to sit down. My name’s Fitz by the way. Lil’ Fitz.”
“I’m Thad. What you doin on a Train all alone anyway?”
“I’m not alone. My dad’s here with me.”
Thad was confused. “But back at the station you were by yourself.”
“My dad was the man with the cards.”
Thad looked surprised. “So you knew which card to pick,” he asked.
“Yep. I always know. He tells me which one is the jack and I pick it. Then more people show up. Sometimes he loses but most of the time he wins.”
“So you guys are hustlers?”
“That’s what my dad calls it.”
Thad looked up and happened to see one of the rail workers checking tickets. He looked at Fitz and looked back up. He knew Fitz didn’t have a ticket but he also didn’t want the kid to get into any trouble. Fitz got up and hid underneath Thad’s seat. “Hey kid, what you doin’?” Fitz put his finger to his lips signaling Thad to be quiet. Thad sat straight up in his seat and watched the rail worker make his way towards him. “Ticket please.” the rail worker asked. Thad pulled out his ticket and showed it to him. He kept his composures as best he could but on the inside he was a nervous wreck. If anyone saw Fitz hiding underneath his seat Thad risked the chance of being kicked off of the train. “Thank you.” the rail worker said. He shot Thad a quick smile before heading into the next car. Fitz reemerged from under Thad’s seat and sat back down.
“You can’t just do that,” Thad said. “I coulda’ just got kicked off.”
“It’s ok. I do it all the time.” Fitz said.
“What if you woulda’ got caught, then what?”
“I just tell them I snuck on with my dad.” he said. “One time the people on the train felt so bad they let us ride all the way to the next city. My dad told me don’t get caught so I just started doing that.”
“You’re a smart kid. Where’d you get the name Lil Fitz?”
“My dad’s name is Fitzgerald Wallace, so my mom named me Fitzgerald Wallace Jr. But everybody just calls me Lil’ Fitz.”
“Where’s your mom?”
“In Baltimore. That’s where I’m From. He picked me up from school one day and we hopped on a bus and left. We been riding the trains ever since.”
“Miss your mom at all?”
“Yeah but my dad says I’ll see her soon.” Thad was growing skeptical of Fitz’s story. “What kind of dad takes his son away from his mom and hops trains,” he thought to himself. He knew there was something else to the story. He just couldn’t figure out what.
“What does your dad do with all of the money he wins?”
“Buys us food and get us hotel rooms.”
“He doesn’t have a house or somethin’ in Baltimore?”
“No. He used to live with me and my mom until they got into a fight. I didn’t see him for a while until the day he came and got me from school.”
“So let me get this right,” Thad started “he wins all that money and you guys don’t live in a house somewhere? Where are you guys headed?”
“I don’t know. Back home I guess.” Fitz looked out the window, “Sometimes he spends his money on this brown stuff,” he said.
“What is it,” Thad asked.
“I don’t know. He has this needle and he heats up the brown stuff. Then he puts it in his arm. It might be medicine but the one time I saw him using it he got really mad. So now he only does it when I’m sleep.” Thad had no idea what Fitz was talking about. At that moment Fitz’s dad came walking down the aisle. He walked over to the seats Thad and Fitz were sitting in. He had a soda in his hand that he handed to Fitz.
“Hey lil’ man, who’s your friend”, he asked.
“His name is Thad.”
“Nice to meet you Thad”, He shook Thad’s hand before continuing his conversation with his son. “We’re gettin off in Chicago. I got the people to let us stay on until then. I got us a few empty seats.” Fitz smiled and stood up, “See Thad”, he said while smiling “it always works out.” Fitz and his dad got up and headed to another car. Thad wished the best for his young friend Fitzgerald Wallace Jr. As the train made it’s way closer to Chicago Thad could feel himself getting sleepy again. Thad figured if he caught a quick nap he could wake up in time to see Chicago before the train refueled and headed off to it’s final destination in New York.
When he woke up it was completely dark outside. Thad saw no bright lights, no people walking around outside, or even a train station. It was pitch black. It took Thad a while to realize the train wasn’t headed to Chicago, the train had already passed it. The train had refueled while Thad was fast asleep and was already headed for New York. Thad was upset about missing Chicago. He wasn’t sure when he would get the chance to see Chicago again. At the same time he grew more anxious to see New York. Since it was late Thad decided to eat the ham sandwich his grandmother had packed for him before going back to sleep. As he drifted off , Thad hoped the next time he opened his eyes he would be looking at the New York skyline.