I wanted to make a comment about the value of friendship. I wanted to say something insightful. I had never had a white woman as a friend, and this one seemed particularly at ease. Instead, I spoke about what was really troubling me to a complete stranger. “You see those three boys over there.”
Betty squinted from behind her black glasses. “Yes.”
“The three of them? All wearing fake gold chains and fake gold rings?”
“It’s really too bad that kids these days put so much value in the flashiest clothing, or the newest sneakers and haircut and fake gold. A waste of life.”
“The one in the middle waving his hands in the air wants to kill me.”
Her reaction was immediate. It was as though she had been burned, her soul singed, by my comment. “Did you call the police?”
“I’m a black man. We don’t call the police.”
“Of course you do.”
“We come from a world of different experiences.” I was instantly pleased with myself for spelling out the boundaries that separated us.
“So, Robert Hall, you think I come up to this neighborhood for my health? For the mineral water or the sandy white beaches? You think I live downtown in some swanky duplex and my chauffeur drives me up here so I can hobnob with the common folk and feed the pigeons?”
“I don’t know any such thing about you, Betty.”
“Then you’re not a very good judge of character.”
“I suppose not,” I said, not quite convincing enough. “I just don’t expect much from people.”
“Unfortunately, something we both share. But I know quality when I see it. I can tell. And you want me to accept that prancing clown is going to take your life?”
“It’s all he knows. It’s all his father and grandfather knew.”
“Well, we’ll have to do something about that.”
“What? Throw bread crumbs at him?”
“Now, you’re making fun of me.”
“I didn’t mean to,” I said thinking how easy it was to talk to this woman who I judged was not five years younger and sounded so much more alive. It had been too long since I felt the satisfaction of an honest, open exchange. The men I knew from the local social club were a mournful, grousing lot of bitter old fools. They were either married and angry or widowed and angry or, like me, single and disillusioned.
Maybe none of them were really angry, but rather the reflection of what I saw in myself, a man who had not achieved any of his dreams, or in fact had too few dreams from which to realize a full life.
“Will you tell me about it?”
“About why he wants to take your life. You don’t have to, you know, though it might make you feel better. I know it would make me feel a world better,” she said clasping her hand over her chest as though she had to see if her heart was still beating. “Please.”
I rarely told anyone the story. The anger in Frankie’s eyes was something that he came of age with, like a social disease he wore as a badge of courage. In the end, the tale only took a few minutes to relate. And it did make me feel better, though only slightly.
“How can you live like that?”
“I don’t know. I just do.”
“I don’t think he will do anything. Really. What’s in it for his reputation to kill an old man?”
“If his bitterness is as great as your cynicism, he wouldn’t need an excuse to settle an old score.”
“You can’t live your life in fear,” which was a lie or else why would I ever confess such a thing to a stranger?
After tucking the half-filled brown bag into her purse, she asked, “Would you like to go dancing with me?”
I was looking at Frankie when I heard the question. I just couldn’t bring myself to answer truthfully. “I don’t think so.”
“Why? Because I’m white and you’re black?”
“Well, now that you mentioned it, that’s as good a reason as any.”
“My husband would have been very hurt to hear you say that.”
“I think he would be more hurt to know that his wife was going around asking strange men to go out dancing.”
“My Alex has been dead for six years. He loved to dance. He would always take me to Roseland. I haven’t been there in years,” she said, pausing to reconsider her own words, “I don’t know why I thought about that now. Thinking it over, it might not have been the right thing to ask a stranger. Black or white.”
“And, he was as black as you are, Robert, only a lot more outgoing. A lovely man, whom I so adored and respected. He was a pharmacist. He learned it in the Navy.”
Frankie had no business even being near the playground. He had been thrown out of school along with his two friends years ago. The three of them spent their days roaming the streets, selling drugs, making collections from the weary storeowners, and running numbers for the more powerful neighborhood gangs. Doing anything they could to scrape up enough money to sniff themselves into a stupor, and then going out at night to get drunk.
Jimmy Williams used to be my best friend before he started stealing and taking the easy way out of life. When he was finally caught and interrogated by the police, he quickly mentioned my name, not as an accomplice, but as whom he was with when the robbery had occurred.
When the police came to question me, I was immediately compromised. I instinctively acknowledged that I had been with Jimmy all night. The police took down my statement. They returned the next day and arrested me for bearing false witness. They had found out that I was with my second wife Jean, dancing at, of all places, Roseland.
There were witnesses to my spending the evening dancing with Jean. It didn’t matter. Jimmy believed, in his drunken state, that friends do whatever it takes to protect friends. He didn’t see anything wrong with implicating me. Because of his extensive rap sheet, Jimmy went away for five years for that one felony conviction.
A week after he was released, he tried to rob a gas station in Westchester. The owner was an ex-Marine and skilled with a 9mm pistol and in the shootout, Jimmy was killed. The owner escaped with a broken rib and a permanent limp.
I got 18 months probation. And I now had a police record.
“When would you like to go?” I asked.
“Tomorrow is fine, if you’re up to it.”
Of course, I was up to it. What could she have meant by that? “What time would you like to go?”
“How about eight.”
“Do you want me to pick you up?”
“That would be nice, but I would understand why you might feel uncomfortable with that.”
“Maybe we could just meet there?”
“I’d like that too.”
We parted company after discussing Ella Fitzgerald, Benny Goodman, Duke Ellington, and of course, Cole Porter. And we both made it clear that we would probably make fools of ourselves on the dance floor.