A Mother’s Day story: Tiger Mother

Made-up holiday or not, today we honor all the good mothers who raised us. This story was originally written for Patti Abbott’s charity challenge, and was inspired by a 1930’s Harlem painting by Reginald Marsh. (Incidentally, Marsh lived in an artist colony in my hometown of Nutley). Happy mother’s day, here’s a real mother for ya.

Tiger Mother
by Thomas Pluck

When her boy Lewis didn’t come home that evening, Caldonia Peele prayed he wouldn’t break her heart. When he didn’t slink in weary-eyed in his slept-in clothes that morning, her chest fluttered with worry. But when he didn’t tiptoe into church, her heart went cold.

* * *

“He’s at the age, Callie,” Mabel said. They both worked at the Harlem post office. Seen each other through three husbands, four children, a riot, and a burst appendix.

Caldonia and Mabel navigated the Convent Avenue throngs after church. Had to get to Sylvia’s quick if you wanted a table. Their children walked behind them in their Sunday best. Jerome, Mabel’s second husband, walked alongside.

“I’m not about to lose my Lewis like his no-account father.”

Lewis Senior was gone five years now, same as Mabel’s first husband. Hard times drove men to gambling and drink, made them quick with their hands.

When they came to the corner Jerome said, “I didn’t think much of it, but I saw your boy with Cat Ferris. I hear he rolls dice behind Netty’s place. I can go ask for him, you like.”

“Thank you kindly, but I’ll handle my own business. Mabe. Will you watch Tara while I’m gone?”

Mabel scrunched up her nose as if offended to be asked. “Course I will.”

Caldonia turned on her heel, yellow taffeta a-twirl, and bent to stroke her daughter’s braids. Tara smiled. Going on five, cute as the buttons on her hand-sewn dress. “I’ll be good, Mama.”

“I know you will.”

“Netty’s can be rough,” Jerome said. “You should leave your purse.”

Caldonia smirked and tapped her carnelian hat pin. “Let ’em try.”

* * *

Nettie’s was by the Hudson, tucked behind a mechanic shop that had sold black market tires during the big war. Caldonia walked with purpose, face firm and lip curled. Angry her boy had been lured astray.

Soon as her boy turned thirteen, his eyes were tugged to their corners by the sight of rough men on stoops, calling out to women walking by, whistling at the fancy cars rolling down Broadway. Looking for a man to fill the hole his father left. Maybe Lewis missed the hard knuckles and cruel smiles.

The jukebox shook the clapboard walls outside Nettie’s. A fat man perched on a stool by the door, like a stout mushroom after September rain. One wooden leg and two mismatched shoes. Alf Nettis shook his head as Caldonia strutted to the door.

“Your man ain’t here, and if he was, he’s gone now.”

“I’m here for my boy Lewis. I’m told he’s with Cat Ferris, one of your regular customers.”

“Where’d you hear that nonsense?”

“Everyone knows he rolls dice in back of your place.”

“Anyone knows that, they’re lying. Don’t serve boys, only men.”

“A churchgoing man told me otherwise,” she said. “His word’s worth a damn sight more than yours.”

The alleyway was filled with bald tires and trash. Only way in was through the door. Or maybe the car shop. Caldonia pointed her chin that way.

“Maybe you prayed, your boy’ll be home when you get there,” Alf called.

Caldonia felt her slender fingers turn to fists. She spun and stomped to an inch from his face.

“Alfred Nettis, unless you want me to burn up every disability check you get from now on, you will stand aside.”

His sleepy eyes had skin tags around them like flies, swatted by his girlish lashes. They blinked.

“You have a cruel soul, Caldonia Peele,” Alf whispered. “What your Jesus think about that?”

“He says the Lord helps those that help themselves,” she said, and sashayed past.

* * *

The joint was crammed with hunched-over men nursing dirty glasses, a low buzz of mutter and chuckle muddling the ears like the scent of unwashed bodies and whiskey did the nose.

There was a brief silence as drinkers assured themselves their wife wasn’t the one invading the place. The bartender, lean as his brother was fat, sneered and wiped out a dirty glass with a dirtier rag.

She paid them no mind and ducked out the back door.

* * *

The caged-in yard was a mess of lawn beaten down by feet. Cat Ferris sprawled in a Chrysler’s leather bench seat planted in the grass, resplendent in his turquoise suit. Before him, Lewis ran dice for three men huddled over a slab of slate. Lewis wore his Sunday shirt and shoes, suit coat folded beside him.

Caldonia cocked her hips and planted a fist on each. “Hope you ain’t betting that suit of yours,” she said. “That’s my property.”

“Mama,” Lewis gasped.

The dice men laughed, and Ferris leaned back, baring golden fangs. “Your boy’s a man now, Mrs. Peele. He’s about to run off like his father did. Man can’t take a six-foot hellion telling him what to do.” He took a long pull at his can of Rheingold.

Caldonia’s cheeks went to stone as she saw her boy blush.

“My boy was a man, he wouldn’t be fawning over a coward in a silk shirt.”

“Who you callin’ a coward, woman?”

She slipped the .32 from her purse and fired, punching a ragged hole in the seat by Ferris’s crotch. Ferris kicked and squirmed into himself, spraying himself with beer foam. A dark stain spread across his slacks. Before the report was done echoing off the tin roof, the dice men had snatched their bills and scattered.

Lewis huddled in the grass, hands covering his head.

“Get your suit on, son. We’re going to supper.”

Lewis threw on his jacket, straightened his tie.

Caldonia offered him her arm, and they walked out primly.


Here’s the painting, by Reginald Marsh:

reginald marsh_high_yaller_print_1200

The Famous Jimbo’s Burger Palace

I noticed this burger joint near Firecracker’s hood, Hamilton Heights, about a year ago but it took a long time for me to meander over there. I had a hankerin’ for a burger, and the nearby One Stop Patty Shop was closed- a good thing, since they sell Jamaican Beef Patties- a place I’ll return to soon. Jimbo’s is on 145th street just off Broadway, with classic lunch counter decor and a bustling business in burgers. For under $20 I snagged three 1/2 lb bacon cheeseburgers with fries to go.
The word “famous” in restaurant literature is always taken with a huge grain of salt, with World Famous being a big warning sign. It conjures images of Nepalese yak herders pining for the cheesecake in some Iowa diner. But let’s give Jimbo’s the benefit of the doubt. They make a fine, classic juicy cheeseburger the old fashioned way, on a griddle. No flame broiling here- they use a steel serving dish, probably once used for sundaes- to cover the patty as it cooks, steaming it on the grill in its own juices. Mmm, steamed hams!

It’s an old-fashioned kind of burger, the classic served in greasy spoons across the nation. And it brought me back to my favorite childhood burgers- wrapped in tin foil, bought at a long-gone lunch counter called Nunzio’s, once on the corner of Washington & Chestnut in my hometown of Nutley. I was a crossing guard on their corner as a kid, and a burger with grilled onions was my favorite Saturday lunch, eaten while riding my Huffy bike as the grease ran down my arm. Jimbo’s makes a burger that good. It’s nothing fancy- no sirloin ground to order, no fancy cheese or brioche buns. They just do the Classic right. The bacon is thick and tasty, they don’t skimp on the cheese, and the fries are crisp and tasty. And you can’t beat the price.

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Who’s Buried in Grant’s Tomb?

Groucho Marx!

Oh, what a card. After visiting Firecracker in Harlem (cough, Hamilton Heights, sorry) for a year, I remembered that the tomb of Ulysses S. Grant is not far away. After our earlier trip to MoGridder’s Barbecue, we drove crosstown and down lovely Riverside Drive to see what we could see. Despite being the largest tomb on American soil, you can miss it as you drive alongside; shrouded by trees and set back from the road, it overlooks the Hudson from its shady perch.
Surrounded by garish and out of place murals, it looks like urban renewal attacked its spartan grandeur in a fit of pique. The site fell into disrepair by the squalid 70’s and was restored in the 90’s, so I imagine the mural is from that era. The front of the building is a popular spot for wedding photos, and that section of the park is well manicured.

Still waiting.

The building rises up on huge columns to a rotunda which proclaims, “Let Us Have Peace.” Within, two marble coffins entomb President Grant and his wife Julia in the center of the edifice. If you walk downstairs, the tomb is circled with busts of Civil War generals. As in all tombs, there is a sense of quiet solemnity in the soft echoes your footsteps make on the smooth granite and marble, and how the immense maroon caskets draw your eyes to the center of the room where they rest.
Mr. & Mrs. Grant were beloved by the country; he was entombed in New York to be close to his widow. The funeral was attended by former Civil War generals, President Grover Cleveland, the entire Supreme Court, and most of Congress. The procession was seven miles long.
Nowadays Grant is probably best remembered as Mr. $50 bill, and his Presidency and generalship are commemorated by this beanie baby.

Hamilton’s new digs

I finally got a chance to check out Zander’s new digs on 140th Street in Nichols Park. They haven’t lowered the building onto the foundation yet. It looks like it will be worthy of a founding father’s memorial.

The old spot looks empty now, and the statue is still there standing guard. There’s video of the actual move, on a remote control flatbed, at the National Park Service’s Hamilton Grange Updates page.

It won’t be open for visitors until 2009. We visited Grant’s Tomb instead, I’ll post the photos this week. It’s the largest tomb in the U.S., and quite impressive. Too bad the Hulk movie didn’t have its final fight there!

Alexander Hamilton on wheels

Even in Hawaii, thanks to the National Park Service’s Hamilton Grange mailing list, I have been made aware of the status of Alexander Hamilton’s manse. It’s currently sitting on Convent Avenue on a bunch of semi-truck roller skates, ready to be rolled around the corner to its new home. Let’s hope it doesn’t roll down 141st street and cream a bunch of taxis or something. Well, if it must happen, lets hope it is caught on film.

Alexander Hamilton gets a high-rise

Okay maybe not, but this photo Firecracker sent me shows Hamilton’s mansion above the church next door. Unfortunately (sort of) we won’t be around when it’s moved to street level and then around the corner to its new spot in the park. We’ll be in Hawaii, either being harried by sharks on a snorkeling expedition, falling off our horses into gaping maws of volcanic craters, chased by gangs of angry Samoans shouting “haole go home!” or choking to death on spam musibi and umbrellas in our Mai Tais.

Poor, Poor Pitiful Me.

Movin’ on up! to the East side…

Raise the roof?

That’s Alexander Hamilton’s house, known as Hamilton Grange, currently residing on Convent Avenue in upper Manhattan. The neighborhood is called Hamilton Heights and is in Harlem near City College, a nice brownstone enclave between the bustle of Broadway and St. Nicholas. The Park Service is moving the house because it’s surrounded by a church and apartment building, in a spot it was moved to years ago anyway; they’ve got a nice cozy spot in a nearby park a block away ready for it.

At normal height

They’ve got it raised up about 50 feet to get it squeezed out from between those two buildings. The original porch and facade were removed when it was placed there, so hopefully they will return. It’s a pretty amazing feat, lifting a historic building that high.

The park near where it will be moved.

I’m looking forward to seeing it in its new spot and checking out the interior next year once it’s completed. I imagine Alexander Hamilton will be prancing from his grave down in Trinity Church cemetery all the way up Broadway to return home, too.

The infamous prancing statue

Everyone knows the story of Aaron Burr and Hamilton dueling illegally in Weehawken and his subsequent death. He may have been a prancer in statuary, but he was a hardcore bastard. His cannon regiments may have turned the tide of the Revolution in the Jersey wars, and he reserved his fire against Burr without telling him. I guess he wanted to see if he could take on the man he’d verbally sparred with so virulently.

His final resting place

If you watched the John Adams miniseries on HBO, they picture Hamilton as a hot-head, but he was a bit of a sneak as well. He published a pamphlet rudely critical of Vice-President Adams anonymously, that was “meant for private circulation” but got leaked. Riiight. The whole duel with Burr started over things overhead at a dinner, and repeated by someone else- essentially someone wrote nasty things about Burr’s Vice-Presidency, and said “this is nothing compared to what Hamilton had to say about him!” Some historians think Hamilton was suicidal in accepting the duel and refusing to tell Burr what was actually said at that dinner. Hamilton’s son had been killed in a duel at the same spot 3 years earlier, after his father advised him to “throw away his fire” – miss on purpose. Hamilton did the same thing during his own duel. It was considered a mark of bravery, but in these cases it turned out to be foolishness.

So every time you spend a ten-spot, remember the Hamilton’s lesson. To hell with that bravery crap, shoot the other guy first.