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Black Mask

The Life and Times of Big Poppa
by Michael A. Gonzales

Me and Mom moved into my granddad’s fourth-floor Harlem apartment in the summer of 1974. It was the year of Watergate, Patty Hearst, and Evel Knievel attempting to rocket-launch his fool self across the sinister-sounding Snake River Canyon. Back then, I was a somewhat shy, butterball ten-year-old kid who went to Catholic school and bought clothes in the husky department of whatever department store was having a sale.

A curly Afro-headed nerd who loved TV, comic books, and black gangster flicks like Superfly and Black Caesar, I also adored my grandfather, whose only fault was being too vain to let me call him Grandpa. From the time I was a toddler, the cool, gray-haired man with the pencil-thin moustache (some mornings I’d lean against the bathroom doorway as he straight-razor trimmed it) insisted I call him Poppa; when I was small, it came out “Paaaa Paaaa,” but I eventually pronounced it right.

Standing at six feet tall, his smooth complexion was the color of chestnuts left too long on an open fire and he sometimes flashed a toothy smile that was bright as the streetlights on Broadway. Poppa (or Parker) was what everybody around the way called him too, though I don’t exactly know the secret origin of it. It wasn’t until years after we moved in that I found out that his government name was Thomas.

Once, when I was six, I made the mistake of calling him Grandpa. His face froze and he stared at me coldly. “I mean, Poppa.” He looked down at me and grinned. “Now, David, it ain’t like I’m not proud to be your grand-father,” he explained in his deep-as-a-river voice, “I just don’t want folks thinking I’m some old man.”

Poppa Parker was a retired numbers banker who spent many years on the streets of Sugar Hill knee deep in the “policy” business, as the numbers game was called back then. He talked about “the game” with the same respect with which old sailors spoke about the sea. Choosing three-digits from 000 to 999, the numbers were drawn from figures on three races at Aqueduct, a track way out in Queens that most folks above 110th Street had never even seen. Each player had a theory about the game that they shared with friends as they waited until late afternoon when the last figure of the day was called.

In the mornings, as ugly pigeons perched on window ledges, cooing through dirty screened windows, many Harlem folks consulted worn dream books over cups of coffee and cheese Danish. “What did you dream last night?” Poppa asked every morning as he puffed on a Camel and sipped black coffee. As I poured milk over my Cap’n Crunch, I tried to remember those lost images whose memory often disappeared when I opened my eyes. Sometimes when there were no dreams to report, I’d simply lie.

“Last night I dreamt about white cats walking down the black-tarred streets of Broadway,” I told him once. “And then, all of a sudden the sky turned the color of blood and red raindrops began to fall.” Moments later he was consulting the well-worn pages of Aunt Sally’s Policy Players’ Dream Book that he kept on top of the refrigerator, and he matched the correct numbers with the strange images.

Later, after he walked me to school, he’d play his numbers in a shop on the corner with his friend Spanish Raymond, whose policy joint was as much a social club where Poppa bought the Daily News, the Post, and the Times, had another coffee, and chatted with the Puerto Rican who was running shit. Back then—as it would be until the game was chased out of the community by the Feds with their lottery tickets, Powerballs, and scratch-offs—winning the numbers was the ghetto fantasy, the uptown stock market, the get-rich scheme that was always going to make their hard-knocked lives a little easier. For Poppa Parker, those numbers, scribbled on tiny sheets of paper, were once his whole world, and he wouldn’t let go until his last breath.

*   *   *

Poppa started out in that life decades before, back in 1944 when he was a runaway teenager fresh off a dirty freight train that originated from, as Poppa always called his birthplace, “the killing state of Mississippi.” Contrary to the Depression-era folk tales that romanticize riding the rails as though it was easy peasy, during the five-hundred-mile ride he’d seen men and women robbed, raped, and ripped to shreds with rusty knives.

“By the time I jumped off that train on Riverside Drive, I was surprised to still be alive,” he laughed years later. “Wasn’t eatin’ too good either; man, I was thin as them rails I’d just rode in on.” Making his way up the hill, to the surprise of some white folks who were the majority in our hood back then, he kept walking till he saw some colored faces. No one had to tell ’im he was in the Black Mecca, Harlem.

Poppa knew no one in the chocolate city in those early days. No one came to greet him on 125th Street, there was no one to buy him a new brim or take him to Minton’s to see the boppers. There was also no one who could give him shelter, but he made a way out of no way by surviving on trash- can scraps and the spare change of strangers who felt sorry for the beady-headed teenager who didn’t even have a decent coat or shoes.

One kindly dude gave him the scoop that a Baptist church on Seventh Avenue gave away clothes and shoes and served hot soup daily. The lines were long, but he eventually got what he needed, sulking away to the nearest unlocked rooftop or tenement basement where he slept until dawn. “Being down and out in New York City isn’t a lot of fun,” he said, as though it had just happened the day before.

Poppa’s begging and borrowing (“. . . but never stealing; ain’t never stole in my life”) went on for a few months until he was “adopted” by a Harlem grocery owner in exchange for helping out around the small shop sweeping the floor, stocking the shelves, and helping the picky, demanding, and sometimes loud customers carry their shopping bags home. The generous gent who owned the place was also from down South and lived upstairs from the store with his pretty but fat wife. There was always some cornbread, collard greens, and a pot of pig’s feet on the stove. They let Poppa stay in the spare bedroom.

“I might’ve died on them streets if it wasn’t for Mr. Henry,” he said. “He was a good man, and you don’t meet many of them in this world.” Working at the store put clothes on his back and shoes on his big feet, but he was never going to get rich stocking shelves and toting bags for old ladies. “Them broads always lived on the top floor of some old-ass dark building,” he snickered.

Later he got another gig working with a fat candy-store owner named Jesse who took numbers while also selling kids their sugary treats. “Mr. Jesse used to say about them numbers, ‘It’s the only game the white man gave us to play, and these Harlem folks aims to play it to death.’ He come to Harlem hoping to blow his saxophone, be a jazz man, but Harlem had other plans for the man.” Poppa stayed on working with Mr. Jesse for a year until he got noticed by “The Boss,” a man with a lot more juice than Jesse.

Starting out as a pickup guy for the then-king of the Harlem numbers rackets, Bumpy Johnson, Poppa eventually worked his way up to controlling his own candy-store number spot on 145th and Amsterdam Avenue and was finally able to afford to dress sharp in custom suits and polished wingtips, handling business while holding court with his favorite customers.

*   *   *

My mother’s mom died when she was five. Besides a sepia-toned photograph of the pretty light-skinned woman in a flowered summer dress, fancy hat, and heels standing beneath the marquee of the Apollo, Mom had little memory of the stylish hairdresser who had given birth to her. Her beloved Poppa was the only parent she knew; he was the one who stood at the stove stirring her oatmeal on cold winter mornings, bought her stylish threads every few weeks, and sat in the front row for every head-aching piano recital and overly dramatic school play.

Years later, after my own daddy died in a helicopter crash in Vietnam, we moved in with Poppa at 628 West 151st Street, between Broadway and Riverside. Our brick building was a grand prewar structure with the name Rivercliff inscribed in stone over the metal front door. Walking down the hill, we had a view of the Hudson River and could see straight across to New Jersey. In the winter, I loved looking at the frozen water, often picturing myself slip-sliding across the ice until I reached the Jersey side.

Six stories high, the brick building had a huge red courtyard, knight-shaped gargoyles that peered downward, and a polished marble floor in the hallway. There were three bedrooms in our place; Mom slept in her old room while my window faced the front of the building. Although the building was old, it still retained a hint of its former glamour.

The neighborhood itself was mad cool, a real melting pot where Black folks and Puerto Ricans were the majority but there was still a few Jewish, Italian, and Chinese families around. Unfortunately, there weren’t a lot of children in our building that were my age. But a few months after I got there, a kid named Melvin Reid moved in and we soon became best friends. When I got tired of playing alone, I usually went downstairs to Melvin’s apartment on the first floor; his was one of the few households I knew where both parents still lived at home.

Mr. Reid was a jovial Jamaican who liked his beer, cooked a mean pot of curry goat with rice and peas, and collected old coins. Like brothers from another mother, me and Melvin, who was also an only child, did everything together including racing our five-speed bikes down the steep hill, going to the movies to see the latest Flagg Brothers-dressed macks flickering on the dented screen at the Tapia Theatre on 148th Street, and standing in front of the polluted river with our cheap Woolworth’s fishing poles as though we was Harlem’s answer to Tom Sawyer and Huckleberry Finn. We never caught anything except a few oil-slicked eel and wasn’t nobody trying to eat that.

That was the same year Mom got a gig tending bar at the Oasis Lounge from three to midnight, and it became Poppa’s job to pick me up from school. He’d be there every day looking dap in his vintage Adler’s suit and porkpie hat that was two decades old but still looked fly on him. Poppa stood outside the redbrick school building chatting with the young pretty moms, flirting in that suave old-man way that was alluring to some women.

“What up, Tiger?” he greeted me when I exited through St. Catherine’s metal doors. Tipping his hat towards the mothers, he smiled warmly as he gently grabbed my small hand. “You ladies have a wonderful day,” he’d say, and those women grinned and giggled like teenagers. Most of them thought he was my dad, but I didn’t mind and I never ratted him out.

Although I was still dressed in my school uniform and carrying heavy textbooks in a knapsack on my back, rarely did we go straight home. First he’d take me to Fat Ike’s Candy Shop where I bought Wacky Packs and candy bars and played the pinball machine in the back. Afterwards, we’d go down some Harlem street and visit his gray-haired cronies at Campbell’s Barbershop or climb dirty tenement marble stairs to their musty apartments. Most days we dipped into the Black Rose Tavern, his favorite dimly lit dive hangout over on St. Nick. There were bright-red vinyl barstools. Al Green, Curtis Mayfield, Lou Rawls, and other soul men sang on the color-lighted jukebox in the back. The bartender let me play what I wanted on it, and I never paid.

Read the exciting conclusion in this month’s issue on sale now!

Copyright © 2023 The Life and Times of Big Poppa by Michael A. Gonzales

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