It wasn’t the first time I’d spotted him here. The sulk in his step was an indicator that this had always been his neighborhood. If that wasn’t enough, you could also tell by the way the crowd embraced him. As he stepped off the stage, gentleman and women alike grabbed his hands in adoration. The owner patted his shoulder, as he walked through the aisles and the barista made it her business to hand him a congratulatory coffee. He had them all under some sort of spell. Well, everyone except for me.
I was steadily approaching the six-month anniversary of coming home from school. Nothing was familiar about the Brooklyn I grew up in. Coffee shops and quaint restaurants appeared where bodegas and Laundromats used to be. The stoops that were filled with hyper brown children and elderly women were now bursting with hipster gatherings and young professionals. The only thing familiar about my nook of Brooklyn was “Free Verse.”
Free Verse was a bookstore and coffee shop located in an isolated brownstone on Fulton Avenue. You could tell it was once a part of a row of houses, but its family had been replaced by businesses. Mr. Mills owned the entire residence: the first floor was the bookstore, the second was the café, and the third is where everyone presumed he lived. For as long as I lived there, he’s always allowed the community in, through open mics, book clubs, children’s birthday parties, and so much more. When I was growing up, Mr. Mills was a small, stout, and handsome man who all the single ladies tried to get the attention of. Rumor had it that he and his wife, who was now with our lord and savior, started the store. Her picture was placed discreetly throughout both floors, a symbol of love and care, and I could tell that he didn’t plan on remarrying.
Mr. Mills and the poet that just got off stage stood in a corner conversing. If you didn’t know that Mr. Mills never had children, you would think this man was his son by the way he kept pulling him into an embrace. I’d begun to eavesdrop.
“We don’t see you enough Damali. You’ve got to make it your business to stop by more often,” Mr. Mills said.
“I know Mills. I know. I’ve been trying to make it my business, at least once a month.”
Damali wasn’t a frequent performer, on open mic night, but he was right, he did show up about once a month. Whenever he got to the mic, folks that usually whispered throughout poems were suddenly quiet. It was as if they knew that what he was about to perform would be incredible. The first time he’d gone up, he’d been wearing a simple black tee and jeans with a Raiders fitted. His brown hands clasped together and he bopped his head in preparation, as if he was listening to a song. I rolled my eyes, waiting to hear another rapper who’d slow down his violent rhymes and call them poetry.
He wrapped his fingers around the microphone and coughed, before he began:
What a real man is
And if you
Trying to remember
Listen to this
He’s prone to hit
Another man quick
If he dare disrespect
Whatever lies neath’
There to honor and protect
Capable of mental
And yes physical sex
But one without the other
Let’s not get all poetic about it
He’s daddy on Monday
When you lose tears
Cuz’ life ain’t fair
He’s mommy on Tuesday
When he greases your scalp
Parts your hair
He’s brother on Wednesday
As you sit and play NBA live
Not denying him
But alongside with him
He’s Grandma on Thursday
And strong chest replace bosom
Cuz’ you need somewhere to rest
He’s sister on Friday
When you need to talk
About all your mess
And on the weekend
A part of
Run his fingertips through your hair
No need for pretending
He already knows the real you
Always tempted to kiss you
Never dismiss you
Everything you say
Is of the utmost
He’ll linger on your every word
Like eyes on a Sunday sunrise
You are a prize
If you want Monday through Friday
Treat him like a man
Not a child
Don’t hold out
If he ain’t got none in a while
Don’t sweat the small things
Give him time to prepare
House, children, rings
No man ignores the inevitable
Men remember these things….
Like you’ll remember the beginning of this
What a real man is
And if you
Trying to remember
Listen to this
Let him love you
Like you’re the pulse in his wrist
The lifeline, by which you live
When it’s all said and done
I bet it’ll be worth it.
Damali descended the stage, as the crowd became a gradual uproar. After a poet speaks, there’s almost always a second of silence. It’s when the poem seeps into the audience’s skin, only to be broken by the first clap. It’s within this interval, that Damali’s familiarity wrapped around my heart. It’s within the first echo of applause that I tried to shake whatever I was feeling, off of my skin.
It’d been a few months since that first poem. I’m sure that whatever it struck within me was wearing off. I grabbed my bag and jacket and headed outside to catch a cab. While putting my order into an app that was far too costly, but extremely convienent, I recognized a familiar face leaving the restaurant, two doors down.
Malaki Mitchell was the office hottie. I worked at a publishing house, where he was an editor. I was an assitant editor to one of his colleagues, but I felt like a glorified intern. Between running out for lattes and dry cleaning, his face made the days bearable. He finally started to walk past Free Verse, when I caught his eye.
“Jai? Hey. What are you doing out here, this late?”
I smiled, “Don’t worry, I won’t be late for work.”
He laughed. His perfect teeth jutted, from his Hershey lips and his skin seemed to pour from the navy blue suit he was wearing. He held a to-go bag, in his right hand. I pointed to it.
He held it up, “Yeah. They make really great chicken alfredo. I live right around the corner.”
“Oh, wow. I grew up here. I live in Crown Heights now, it was too expensive to come back.”
He cringed, “Well, hope I wasn’t part of the wave that pushed you out.”
I smiled uncomfortably.
“Totally kidding. I’ll see you in the morning though. Have a good night.”
He grabbed my shoulder, in farewell, and despite his offhand comment, I swooned a little. Yeah, he was my boss. But a girl could dream, right?
I looked down at the app and realized that I didn’t press send on my order. Yeesh. I’d have to wait twenty more minutes, for my ride to show up. I pressed send and sat on the steps of the building. I was about to take out a book, when someone sat next to me.
“You like the stockbroker type, huh?”
I looked over my shoulder, it was Damali, “What are you talking about?”
“Your little friend you were out here talking to.”
“Oh. No, he’s just someone I work with.”
I hissed my jamaican descendant teeth, “Listen. You should really be minding your own business.”
He stood up from his seat and the street light hit his face. It was chiseled to perfection, reminiscent of his poetry.
“I’m just making conversation. You should be minding that attitude.”
I fell silent, hoping it would get him to go away.
He spoke again, “I wanted to say that I’m sorry about your dad. He was a good man.”
He had my attention, “You knew my father?”
“I loved your father, like he was my own.”
My cab pulled up as I turned to Damali, to ask him more questions.
He smiled, “It’s getting late. Catch that cab. You’ll see me around.”
Look forward to new installments of "Free Verse", every week! I'd love to hear your comments, below!
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