Chapter 1: Crow
Crow wrapped a towel around his waist and headed out of the tiny bathroom he shared with two other rooming-house tenants. Padding barefoot down the length of the long, narrow hall to the single room he occupied, he left wet footprints on the worn linoleum.
He opened his door and shook his head as he surveyed the remains of his worldly possessions. Aside from the cutoff straws littering the table and nightstand, a ragged poster of Bob Marley, his clothes, and a few dozen dog-eared comic books stacked on the floor, the television was his only possession. He sat on the edge of the narrow mattress, leaned forward, and turned on the TV.
Angry, restless, and discontent, Crow switched from one channel to another, then finally turned the set off altogether. Damn, I need me some cocaine, shit, he thought as he reached for a pair of jeans he had draped carefully over the back of a nearby metal folding chair. He sighed and mumbled out loud, "Where in the hell am I going to get some money from?" He thought about it a minute. "Danny!" He'd paid his friend Danny back the hundred dollars he owed him last week and figured it was time to borrow it back. He finished dressing, grabbed his last twenty-three dollars and change off the dresser, and headed out.
Stopping at the bottom of the stairs, he inspected himself in the mirror there. Even when fiendin', Crow knew he looked good. At slightly over six feet tall, Crow Shade was wiry and well built. He had a head of short, curly black hair framing his thin, dark reddish-brown face. Even with a full beard he rarely did anything to, he always looked well groomed. He had clear, dark eyes that were almost constantly in motion -- darting about, surveying the territory, clockin' the scene. By the sight of him, you would never guess that he was seriously using. Damned near every day, though, for the last six months, he had been drinking, smoking weed, sniffing coke, trying to figure out how to get more, and doing little else.
Most of the time, he was deceptively conservative in the way he dressed. College boy, Ivy League style almost. And today would be no different, except for one thing. He wore his black jeans, tan desert boots, a dark charcoal-gray crewneck with a white Brooks Brothers button-down oxford underneath, and a worn black leather jacket -- a holdover from his gangster days.
His addiction had started almost the moment he'd returned to Brooklyn from Lincoln, Pennsylvania. He had been the oldest senior at Lincoln University -- the first college established expressly for the cultivation and training of "colored boys" in the United States, but what had it been training them to do? A graduate from there would surely be acclaimed "a credit to his race," or so Crow'd been told. But insofar as he had spent his seven undergraduate years partying and selling weed, Crow left school in the trunk of a ragged 1974 Chevy Camaro in order to avoid arrest.
That was ancient history. Now, he wanted a beer, badly. He knew he couldn't stop at the corner bodega because he owed the coke-dealing proprietor, Flaco, fifty balls for the blow he'd copped on credit two nights before. He figured he'd hold out until he reached the deli on the corner of Danny's block, where he could get a tall can of ale on credit.
He barely noticed the people sitting on their stoops, children playing, and other life happening on the way to Danny's Bed-Stuy brownstone. He stopped at the store and got a sixteen-ounce can of ale. After popping the tab, he plunked in a straw and took a long sip. Refreshed, he rehearsed his pitch. "Yo, Danny, you know that hun-nid I repaid you last week? Guess what? I need it back..." He paused a moment to think and refuel himself with more ale. "I'll tell him I'm behind in my rent. He'll go for that. He ain't gonna wanna see a brother out-of-doors."
As he got to the door of Danny's building, the second-floor tenant was leaving the house. He'd met her several times before, in the early morning when she was coming home from work and he was sitting on the steps talking to Danny. Today, she smiled, said hello, and held the door open for him. As they passed each other, Crow thought, Fine motherfucker too; too bad she got kids and a nigger. He thanked her and stepped inside.
He knocked twice on Danny's door. There was no answer, so he tried the knob. The door was unlocked, he let himself in. Crow knew that Danny was home because he could hear the mellow strains of some jazz virtuoso wafting from the studio in the back of the apartment.
Danny was doing all right for an artist, selling paintings and collecting rent. His parlor-floor apartment was airy and bright, with lots of bay windows. It resembled a small museum. Every surface was covered by some kind of traditional African or contemporary art. The deeply stained wood floors were polished to a high gloss. There were African hand-carved wooden tables and benches, leather couches made in South America, and several large steel sculptures that reminded Crow of cars mangled in horrible collisions that no one could have survived.
Walking farther into the apartment, he thought for a second about going into the studio. But when he saw several small painted canvases propped against a wall, he reasoned that he could probably get more than a hundred for a few of these pictures, and Danny probably wouldn't even miss them for a while. Without the slightest hesitation, Crow snatched up the three paintings.
He then noticed a folder filled with about two hundred typewritten pages, on a table nearby. This must be the book he's been working on. Might as well take some reading material along with me. I can always bring it back later. He grabbed the manuscript, tucking it and the paintings all under one arm as he ducked quietly back out the door he'd found unlocked.
Crow held down a momentary swell of conscience as he headed down the front steps. Stealing from a friend as good as Danny was triflin', and he knew it, but that wasn't going to stop him. He rationalized, I'll hit Danny off with half the loot after I down this shit and get me a decent hit. Clutching the paintings and the folder tighter, he hightailed it to the A train.
Crow hated riding the subway. He had wearied long ago of the sorry souls with whom he was forced to share his ride. It seemed to Crow -- too smart for his own good sometimes -- that at least half of 'em couldn't even count to ten, much less know what was really going on.
They always pretend they ain't looking. That fat cracker's either lookin' at me or that Spanish bitch's ass. Fuck him. Fuck him! And that pasty-lookin' old bitch next to him. Not a dime between 'em, I'll bet. Like they got any business thinkin' about what I'm doin'...
Crow was tweaking. The lack of cocaine had him edgy. He liked to think of it as hyperawareness instead of paranoia. But he'd been known to quote that old adage in jest, "Just because I'm paranoid don't mean they ain't out to get me."
In the tunnels between stations, you can see yourself in the darkened train windows and get lost in your own reflection or secretly ogle other passengers. There's usually a trace of fear in the older faces, while alienation or rebellion rages in the eyes of kids cutting school. On the stooped shoulders of others, you can almost measure the weight of long, empty years, as their bearers hurry home to dispassionate sex and fitful sleep. Predators pace from window to window, avoiding eye contact, perusing reflections, sizing up civilians, looking for the next victim. Like cats, they pace window to window grinning callously -- they can tell who rides alone.
I wish this damn train would hurry the fuck up. These motherfuckers get on my nerves.
Crow decided to take a good look at the Latina he'd noticed when he first got on the train. He thought she looked completely exhausted now, but she must have once been very beautiful. She was trying to hold it together while being pulled in different directions by four squalling niños, none of whom looked anything alike.
Damn, that bitch do got a sweet ass. Fuck her. Probably don't speak no English, ain't got no job, and stuck with a man who kicks that ass.
Crow noticed the fat Cauc who'd been staring at the Latina. He was probably hurrying home to a couple brewskies and the last few innings of American's favorite pastime on TV. Now he sat with a scowl on his face, trying to ignore her, her ass, and her kids.
As the train pulled into the West Fourth Street station, Crow gathered the canvases and the manuscript and stepped out of the car and onto the platform jammed with people. The thoughts that had occupied him during the ride were as gone as last night's cocaine. He was scheming to get back to the neighborhood before the Dominicanos closed up the bodega for the night. Crow moved through the crowd and up the stairs, oblivious to the bodies bumping and jostling him. He was intent on escaping that black hole and filling his lungs with what passes in the city for fresh air.
Copyright © 2003 by Danny Simmons