Ernest and I emerged on to Court Street, merged right into the lunch hour traffic of people. I spied him looking across the street at Brooklyn Supreme Court. I looked over, at the revolving doors, saw people passing through them. Sometimes one passes through these doors and is not seen ever again, or not seen for a very long time.
We walked north on Court, turned left on to Montague Street. People seemed to part as we walked by, one of the things I like about being a Black man. It never ceases to amaze me, how Black men inspire fear. And how people will give us a wide berth. Even on the train, I am sometimes seated, and there is a vacant seat right next to me and a white woman, who I know wants to sit down because she has glanced at the seat and I caught her eye, would not sit down. I always try to give them a knowing look, but they always look away. I almost have a hatred for people who can’t look you directly in the eye. I know most of this is conditioning. It makes me though think of how we are told and trained not to look a wild animal in the eyes. Now, though, I caught numerous women looking at us, looking at Ernest, catching our eyes.Black women.White women.Latinas. He had that glow, what the ignorant called “the prison glow.” In Ernest’s case, I knew he had this glow before he spent one day in prison.
Women are by far more discreet than men when checking out the opposite sex. Normally men don’t even know they’re being checked out. One reason we miss out on so many opportunities. Women check out men as if they are window shopping, but discreetly. One of many things they have over men. Men generally don’t window shop. We know what we want. We go to the stores we like, go right to the section we know what we want to buy is in, and purchase it. And we’re out. Women, though, will try new stores, go to every section before the section they should be going to first, touch, try on, touch and try on again. Leave the store. Return. And do the same ritual. Miko has told me that women do this because they have greater imaginations than men, that when they look at an article of clothing, they are not simply looking at an article of clothing but that they are looking at myriad possibilities, imagining them, how they go together – accessories, color coordinating, hair styles, etc. Who am I to argue? She’s a very good poet. But I’m a very good observer. As Ernest and I walked on Montague, I observed the women window shopping and smiled, thinking of Miko.
Ernest and I shortly stood in front of Armando’s, an Italian restaurant on Montague. Inside we were ushered to a table for two, as I had requested, by a young white woman.
We were seated. I waved away the menu. I have eaten here many times. Ernest was given one, which he promptly opened. I looked around the restaurant. It was half-filled, mostly with the lunch hour crowd. Shortly thereafter a thin young white woman stood before our table. She gave us a big Colgate smile.
“Good afternoon, gentlemen. My name is Marabella, and I’m your waitress for the day.” She spoke clearly, enunciating her vowels, as if she was auditioning for a part. Probably a wannabe actress from Ohio. “What would you like to drink?”
Ernest had put his menu down, was looking directly at Marabella, giving her his undivided attention. “Water, with a wedge of lemon, please,” he said in that deep voice. She blushed for him.
“The same,” I said. She didn’t blush for me but smiled and walked away quickly.
“Life is good,” Ernest said, smiling.
I ordered ravioli and Ernest ordered the homemade lasagna.
I like Italian food, developed a taste for it when I was a kid. Our mother would compel our father to take us to dinner once a month. My father’s favorite restaurant was Anselmo’s, on the other Park Avenue, not too far from the BQE. Actually, this was the only restaurant he took us to. The owner knew my father and always treated us specially, like extended family. There were rumors that Anselmo had mob ties, you know, La Cosa Nostra, that thing of theirs that far too many Italians are wrongly associated with. Anselmo was simply a man who liked to cook who opened a restaurant in Brooklyn that wasn’t in an Italian neighborhood. It was at Anselmo’s that my father had taken the family, Hannibal’s girlfriend, or girl of choice, and Ernest for an early dinner graduation celebration in June of ’76.
As my brother could do, he was holding court – well, it was his day — talking about the uneasy relations between Blacks and Italians. “And people wonder why at schools like Fort Hamilton and New Utrecht, in Italian neighborhoods, Blacks going to those schools get caught up in mini race wars.” He expounded. “This goes back centuries, when Hannibal crossed the Alps.” My brother had a wicked sense of humor, from being too smart, my father would say. But he said this proudly. He adored his little generals in his own way, with his tremendous limitations.
“Is Anselmo’s still there?” Ernest said, as if he was reading my mind, or the fact that being seated in an Italian restaurant with the bother of his deceased best friend triggered the same memory.
“No,” I said softly.
Our food came and we ate silently. If only Hannibal was here holding court. During the meal Marabella returned to our table often, asking us if everything was satisfactory. Each time she got a nod and a smile from Ernest. I believed she was returning for his nod and smile. I wanted to stretch the moment, so ordered desert, cheesecake, before Ernest could protest. He had coffee with his. I took tea.
Marabella brought our tab, put it in front of Ernest. He lightly touched her hand as she placed the tab on the table. “May I ask a favor?” he asked.
She couldn’t get a word out, nodded her head.
Ernest reached into his messenger bag, pulled out a disposable camera, wound it, depressed a button, and said to Marabella, “Please take a picture of me and my friend.”
She took the camera from Ernest as he moved his chair so the two of us were side by side. Marabella took a picture, handed the camera back to Ernest. He wound it again and depressed the button again and handed it back to her.
“Always take two shots,” he instructed her.
She took another shot and handed Ernest back the camera. She turned to leave.
She turned and Ernest snapped a picture of her. “One more, please,” he said in that deep, commanding voice. “Now smile for the camera.” She smiled a big smile worthy of a Colgate commercial and the camera took another shot at her. “Thank you, Marabella.”
She nodded and managed to gracefully walk away. I reached for the tab. Ernest attempted to grab it.
“Remember, I asked to take you to lunch.”
“Okay. But I’m leaving the tip.”
The “tip” Ernest left was almost as much as the meal, definitely more than 20 percent for outstanding service.
“They must pay you well at Children Are Our Future,” I quipped.
We exited Armando’s.
“That was the best meal I had in 24 years,” Ernest said, referencing the time he had spent in prison. “And the best company, too. We have to do this again, real soon.”
“Yes,” I agreed. I extended my hand but once again Ernest moved into and hugged me and patted me on the back of the shoulder with a heavy hand.
“I have to make a home visit, in Fort Greene,” Ernest said. “Another teenage girl in care. And what a story she has. She could be out there with Capri, but she’s made of stronger stuff. Smart, too.” He turned to walk off, quickly turned around. “What’s your mobile number?”
I recited it and he repeated it once, committing it to memory. He walked off, east on Montague. He still had that strut, the way people walked who were confident, maybe cocky.
I walked west on Montague, toward the Promenade, which was my second, summer office. The one with the great view of the Manhattan skyline.
On the bench. I speed-dialed Khandi’s mobile.
“Hell-o, General Alexander.”
“That’s the second time today I was called general.”
I told Khandi about my meeting with Ernest Williamson. She was silent as I told her everything, even my thoughts.
“I feel like a piece of my brother is alive, has come back to life in the person of Ernest.”
“I have to meet him!”
“Gotta go. Duty calls. Love you, General.”
She always managed to hang up before I could reply in kind.
I had already programmed Erma Black’s number into my mobile phone. I called her.
“This is Alexander Jones.”
“Hello! Any news on my granddaughter?”
“Just wanted to give you an update.”
I let Erma Black know that I had talked to Wilhelmina Coles and Ernest Williamson of Children Are Our Future.’”
“The girls love Ernest!” Mrs. Black exclaimed. “He’s really working with my daughter, got Caymani in therapy.”
“Was Capri in therapy?”
“She was…years ago.”
“Mrs. Black, I need to talk to you, in person.”
“Do you mind stopping by our place?”
“Not at all.”
“I run a catering business, out of my home, working on a menu for a small get-together, one of those Oprah book clubs.”
“Say I stop by at around 5?”
“Works for us.”
“Okay. See you then.”
I hung up. I returned to the office, wrote down a number of things on a virgin sheet of lined paper, worked silently, no buzzing of flies, till about 1400 hours, when I headed out to go pick up my car to drive to the Blacks.