The chocolate man.
It's noon Sunday and I have slummed away whole sheets of morning on my twentieth-floor terrace, trying to make sense of what happened to me yesterday ... or, depending on how you look at it, what did not happen. My maiden jaunt through my new community, Bay View, was either a carpeted introduction or a stinging slap in the face. I can't decide which, and it matters dearly. It's the difference between inclusion and exclusion, night and day, stop and go, sanity and schizophrenia.
My loose-fitting navy blue sweat shorts and pineapple tank top flap in the breeze. Dark shades and a tinted acrylic terrace wall shield my eyes from the sun. Arms crossed, legs crossed, I sway in a giving chaise lounge in meter with the elegant ripples of glossy blue waves that comb the bay, oblivious to the din of the pedestrians way down below. Occasionally I pat my sandaled feet on the carpeted terrace floor to the straight-ahead, post-bop jazz streaming from a carousel of compact disks through stereophonic speakers in the living room.
I peer at the bay and the thought comes and goes that Bay View needs a lot more trees, shrubbery, and wildly growing things. Unfortunately, the idea is twisted with hypocrisy. My old Queens neighborhood had hardly any public plant life to speak of--a tree here, another there, reeds of grass squeezing through cracks in the sidewalk slabs that dominated the streets. On the other hand, Bay View is generously peppered with all sorts of flora--conifers, bloated shrubbery, ivy galore. The first time I gaped at Bay View from my terrace, I exclaimed to my girlfriend Fifi, "Why so many trees?" But now that I have been secularly baptized in my new surroundings, I no longer feel this community has enough plant life. I would prefer that Bay View be thatched densely enough to quench my newfound thirst for privacy. Toward that end, I have contemplated foresting my terrace.
However, I must be considerate of my shapely, tangerine-breasted next-door neighbor Susan Bayer. The verdant blotting of the translucent acrylic partition separating our contiguous terraces might be taken as a vile reenactment of Jim Crow cowardly hiding behind nature's dress. My built-in historical baggage would not allow me to brook the devilish fellow, so how could I expect my neighbor to accept him? But, who knows, perhaps she would applaud whatever initiative I took to buttress our division.
I suspect Dr. Bayer will come out, as usual, at six on the dot, to bask, too, but separately, in an ebbing sun--her own shrubs, her chaise, her flowers in their bulging pots, her sun-shades resting securely on the huge braid of hair running laterally across the top of her head. I would not be surprised if she did not say "Hello" today. Though not unpopular in this swirling city, the naked proximity of our contrasting skin complexions fosters uneasiness.
On the ground, the earth level, it is safe to say "Hi," smile broadly, and chat, but briefly. But height creates social distance, no matter how near the chocolate and cream-colored fingers. The higher the floor, the greater the uneasiness. Black and white. Beige and more beige. The wall dividing our terraces symbolizes the madness. I have lived here now for two weeks. The first time we met, we looked, smiled, exchanged identification, backed away from the wall, and thereafter each of us has assumed the other does not exist.
Perhaps her glass door will slide open a bit before or after six. If it does, I will ask if she's had dinner. If she is receptive, I will invite her over for baked chicken. If, as usual, she comes out at six sharp, I will assume the pattern sticks and cordially disregard her.
The weekend had begun with a bang. Friday afternoon, backed by a team of super management analysts, I gift-wrapped the findings of an exhaustive yearlong management study and proffered recommendations that, if implemented, promised resuscitation of the client's shaky bottom line. After a debriefing session back at our midtown Manhattan office, my associates and I celebrated at a nearby watering hole with salty pretzels and the happyhour libations needed to wash them down. A couple of beers into the celebration, I rose from the bar stool and bid everyone goodnight and a rejuvenating weekend. Draping my wool-lined London Fog over one arm and carrying my briefcase in the other, I exited the bar and stepped toward the subway station. For the first time in weeks, work would not follow me home. My briefcase was empty; my head was light. Roseate over the success of the day and cherishing the potential promise of things to come, I shunned the train and hailed a taxi with the haughty confidence of a person who lived in a New York community where cabbies are well tipped and never mugged.
"Bay View, please."
Early Saturday, I had hopped out of bed filled with playful energy. Rapt by the bay's beauty and mild temperament, I showered, put on my most colorful jogging suit and sneakers, opened the refrigerator, and gulped down several ounces of orange juice from the half-gallon carton, then walked bouncily to the elevator whistling. Downstairs, I asked the pompously uniformed doorman for the shortest route to the jogging path that rimmed the bay. His directions and animated gestures seemed unnecessarily flowery for a day meant for relaxation. As I walked leisurely in the appointed direction, an entrance to the path revealed itself. It was there that I lifted my legs and began my first excursion along the bay.
After gobbling up a few miles of breathtaking scenery, I turned and jogged across a bridge that leads back to the mainland. Catching my breath and wiping at the sweat on my face, I stopped at a nearby supermarket to grab a six-pack of Diet Coke. When I stepped on the entrance mat and the automatic door buzzed open, a cooled warm breeze ran liquid peppermint through my pores. Preparing myself for the soda search, I could not help but notice a little guy tiptoeing, extending his arm and body, reaching intently into his mom's shopping cart for something he yearned for or was curious about. He was a cherubic little fellow, auburn curly hair, donning a spiffy green jump suit.
"Harold! Get down from there!" his mother commanded.
The little guy just kept tiptoeing and reaching.
"How are ya, little fella?" I tried.
Harold craned his neck, the metal spokes of the shopping cart blurring as his eyes caught on to me.
He looked at once puzzled and amazed.
I smiled and peered up the aisle before me in search of the soda.
Then Harold cried out, "Look, Mom, a chocolate man!"
Heads turned. Harold's mom, in her excitement, accidentally dismantled an elaborate saltine cracker display, turning toward her son as if the world were crumbling merely to say, "Shhhhhh." I felt embarrassed because Harold's mom seemed embarrassed. She never did face my way. Instead, she busied herself juggling cracker boxes.
Chocolate man? That was the first time I had been called that ... must be the African, Native American, and European mingling in my skin, reddened by the sun, and glossed over by sweat dripping from my brow. My jogging along the bay at a moderately brisk pace had not given my new neighbors much of a gander at me. But now that I had paused in the market, I could be ogled more easily.
Little Harold kept right on looking at me, puzzled and amazed, still standing on his toes, his hands still clasping the rim of the shopping cart.
The other shoppers suavely ignored the complication by looking away without really looking away. Even then, they probably looked only because they wondered what in the world a chocolate man was. I wondered, too, and wished I had a mirror to see myself.
Quite frankly, I appreciated the way little Harold had looked at me. There was a twinkle in his eyes. As I moved through the store, I even wondered if I should be amused. If I was the least bit disturbed, it was with everyone except Harold. Presumably their nonchalance represented a sort of tacit apology. But an apology seemed out of order. A broad smile would have been fitting.
After all, little Harold had not called me a spook. He had called me a "chocolate man." Was not his reference Hershey's or Nestle's milk chocolate? The more I thought about it, the better I felt. Yet I could not convey my mild elation to any of those who thought it fitting to sequester themselves from what they consensually perceived to be a racial indelicacy. They would not have understood, because, at least at that moment, they were not positioned to understand. So I just winked at little Harold. I wanted him to know that everything was just fine.
Back at the luxury high-rise, my new home, a six pack of soda tucked under my arm, I awaited an elevator with a neighbor.
"These elevators are dreadfully slow," he complained.
"Live here long?" he asked.
"No, just a couple of weeks."
"How do you like it so far?"
"Although you must admit the rent is somewhat on the high side," he probed.
"Au contraire," I lied. "I personally can't believe the rent is so low."
"Oh." He paused momentarily. "Are you the footballer?"
"Yeah, there's a guy here who plays professional football for the New York Jets."
"Is that right? Well, I enjoy sports, but I am not a professional football player. I guess there is more than one of us here."
"One of what?"
Later Saturday afternoon, I invited Fifi over for lunch. As usual she had a lot to say.
"Baby, this twentieth-floor terrace is heaven ... a romantic vista. A bird's nest! Look at the tanned bodies sprawled along the luxurious swimming pool; the hexagonal refreshment stand ... mai tai, ummmm .... The water and the boats that dot the bay--big ones, small ones--look at them. Oh, baby, it's wonderful here."
Fifi keeps telling me how crazy she is about this place. While that pleases me, it doesn't affect my countenance, because my moving to the Bay View Luxury Apartments was her idea, not mine.
"Now aren't you glad you left all that squalor behind?"
Now why did I go and say that? I had succeeded, as I often do, in screwing up the mood. Fifi clasped her disarming denim-hugged hips, and her mouth shifted into overdrive.
"Don't play dumb. That creepy Queens neighborhood you lived in was the pits."
"It's not the pits, Fifi. Real people live there. So how can it be the pits?"
"It's the pits because it stunk."
"The garbage, the crime, the noise, the traffic--you name it, it stunk."
For the two weeks I've been here, and sometime before, I have argued with Fifi about this matter. Really, I am not very determined to win these arguments and she knows it. As soon as she starts throwing her miniature temper tantrums, I give in.
You see, the move from "squalor" to "luxury" has stirred my conscience. You don't make things better by leaving. As an octogenarian city councilman used to say back in Los Angeles, "Don't move! Improve!" But, according to Fifi, the old neighborhood was a real downer, absolutely no hope. I didn't budge, so she threatened me.
"Move or else ... !"
The threat came while I was in a particularly vulnerable position, so I pecked Fifi on the neck and swore I would look for a better place immediately. Of course, she had already searched for and found the new land, Bay View. Before I knew what hit me, I was here.
When this time I complained about the high rent, Fifi discarded my concern with a hand wave that just as well could have been used to swat a fly. "That's not your problem, ba-by ... maybe someone else's. So don't worry about it. You're a management consultant with unlimited potential. Besides you didn't kill yourself getting all those college degrees for nothing. Enjoy it, enjoy me."
"What about my friends?" I argued. "Do I callously forsake them?"
The question had the impact of a vacuous thud. My friends are my friends no matter where I live, aren't they? Truthfully, I loved my old Los Angeles and Queens neighborhoods. They were more like home than this place by the bay. In them, I had not felt like a minority. Fifi peeped the emptiness in my argument and lit into me.
"Forsake them? If they had the chance, they'd do the same thing you did, and invite you over for cocktails. I don't see why you don't just let go of that inner-city cultural bullshit. You know good and well you adore this place, you fraud. That's what's wrong with you high-yellow Negroes; you never know whether you're going or coming."
I had prepared an absolutely scrumptious baked chicken--marinated twenty-four hours in all sorts of wonderful herbs and spices, golden-brown crispy skin. But she talked so much, the chicken got cold. My appetite froze, so I didn't slice it. We didn't eat and she left. What the hell.
Fifi having gone in a huff, I felt edgy and courageous enough to give tennis another whack. On the first court, the tennis pro enthusiastically measured out a lesson to a middle-aged woman who behaved as if she had read books on tennis etiquette. Of the remaining four courts, only one was occupied--a short, stocky, blond-haired gentleman was practicing his service. In my eagerness to play, I asked him if he'd like to "hit a few."
"Of course," he replied.
Thirty minutes into our game, a zinging tennis ball deflected off my racket onto the core of my eye socket. I wanted to call it a night. But my ad hoc partner, Huntz, insisted I give my eye a rest; in maybe ten minutes the blurred vision and the headache would go away and we could resume play.
While sitting at an umbrella-enfolded patio table, I nursed my eye while Huntz spouted verbal palliatives. During our chit-chat, Huntz recounted his recent six-day vacation to Puerto Rico. On his first day, he had dozed off on the beach for four hours and awakened with what he thought were third-degree sunburns.
"Gee, I would have died under those circumstances," I suggested vicariously.
"No, probably not," he conjectured." I understand that your people have an extra layer of skin that protects you from the sun's rays."
Without a clear thought, all I could think to say was, "Oh." Then I asked him how he happened upon that knowledge.
"It is true," he persisted. "That is why you are not as affected by the heat as I am."
I suggested to Huntz that the reason the sun tolerated my skin more than his had nothing to do with the respective thickness of the two.
"But you do have an extra layer of skin," Huntz insisted.
Quite frankly, I had no idea whether Huntz was right or wrong. I had never heard anything like it. But having become a chocolate man, a professional football player, and a high-yellow Negro in the space of a day, I was a tad suspicious and scrappy. Picking at his logic, I suggested that, since albinos are doubly sensitive to the sun's rays, their skin must be thinnest.
"Hmm, I had not thought of that," Huntz said, nudging his upper lip with an index finger.
Adding another layer to this "layer" question, I noted that some albinos are black and, therefore, some blacks have thinner skins than whites.
"Hmmmm," he muttered.
And I "hummed," too.
"Then what is the reason...?"
Before Huntz could complete his question, I had blurted out the word pigmentation. I pointed out that he and I had different levels of melanin in our skins. The more melanin, the greater one's resistance to the sun's rays.
"But I'm white. I have no pigmentation, no melanin."
"Albinos are white: you do have color."
"Really?" he laughed.
"Frankly, we're very nearly the same complexion."
He laughed again. I laughed, too.
"So what might my complexion be?" he ventured.
"Brown, tan, beige. Take your pick."
"Well, now, what's yours?" he asked.
I was stumped. It didn't seem appropriate to say brown, tan, or beige. So I told him that my color was chocolate.
"Chocolate?" he mused.
"Sure, why not?"
"Okay," he laughed. "That's a nice color. Your eye looks better now. Come. Let us hit more balls before the night says 'No.'"
After a remarkably colorful Saturday, I have somehow zombied my way into Sunday. As Bay View spins away from the sun, my sense of self still eludes me. However, I take solace in having the means to deal with my dilemma up high in private. For the higher one lives, the fewer people there are.
Indeed, the true value of lofty abodes lies not in their provision of panoramic vistas of this stupendous city, or in getting one nearer to heaven. Rather, they enable those of us who can afford them to get away from it all--the maddening crowd, the heavy air of excessive personalities--perhaps a necessity if you perceive acutely that you are just one among an uncountable number of unknowable people, all literally within eyeshot. Here, if one cared to, the trappings of culture and etiquette could be dropped. Basic courtesies and facades could be eructed from the soul. Up high, there is simply no need to hold heavy gas in the bowels, massage a martini, and simultaneously chat with a pseudo-interest in the politics of the District of Columbia. You see, gas rises toward the stratosphere, toward heaven; cultural facades fall downward at the same speed as bricks (according to Newton).
So I'm up here airing out, feeling lofty but unsettled about who I am, and occasionally reflecting on the tension that grips the translucent dividing wall. Yet the wall could not have been meant for me, or against me, but rather for separateness' sake. Up high, it is not common to see a chocolate man basking in the sun...alone. Under these conditions, a beige young woman could not be protected by the earthly ethos of artificial cordiality. I was for some days a stranger; then she got the make on me (purely for security reasons). Now, to her, I'm a model neighbor (quiet and nonexistent).
I think perhaps I'll break the pattern tonight...even if she comes out at six sharp. After all, how could she not like chocolate--unless she's on a diet? But maybe she knows Huntz. I hope she doesn't know Fifi. I would prefer that she knew little Harold, for chocolate is a lot brighter than high-yellow.
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|Title Annotation:||short story|
|Publication:||African American Review|
|Date:||Sep 22, 1994|
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