I had a brother, and that says it all.
—From a conversation overheard on a New York City bus
When I was growing up in Harlem, there was a tough neighborhood bully, Lynwood, who had killed someone in a brutal shooting, and he was feared by all of us. Most of us knew other tough kids and many of us had heard rumors about them. Yet no one really knew if John had stabbed the fat boy, or if Frankie had smothered the pink-faced, scarecrow-looking vagabond, Raif; but Lynwood’s acts were verifiable: there were bodies.
My neighborhood was usually safe; murders were as uncommon as zebras or cobras on wealthy Park Avenue. On my street, 147th Street, everyone knew who did the shooting; it was only the authorities who were perplexed. Coloreds like to kill each other, one of New York’s finest was overheard confessing in a fit of candor, as he conducted the “rigorous” crime investigation, hauling in suspects who might have easily confessed to kidnapping the Lindbergh baby. One suspect was blind: he couldn’t see a gun; the other, one of the neighborhood’s true griots, had witnessed, just before the murder, “a comet strike a pharaoh’s house in the third century.”
Unfortunately, my brother, Paul, did witness the murder when he was merely eight years of age. It occurred in front of our brownstone, a few feet from him. Paul seemed preternaturally selected for horrible encounters, and if anyone were to find trouble, it was he. Paul seemed inevitably to attract the attention of the police, and for that reason, and a host of others, he hated them.
When he was six years old, Paul was held by a policeman for two hours in a dreary police station for stealing money from someone four years his senior—Paul was no saint, but he was not a thug at age six: I doubt if anyone is. At the time, Paul was going to the famous Collegiate School—the oldest independent school in America, where I too languished—and he was doing well. And though he never liked the school and felt rightfully that it was the white boy’s kingdom (his term), he was the usual boyish amalgam—a bit randy on Monday, taciturn on Tuesday, studious on Wednesday and Thursday, and skittish on Friday.
In his early years at the school, Paul easily made friends with the janitors and all the staff—they liked his easy-going camaraderie with them: they saw in his natural reticence a reservoir of respect, something that the other Collegiate boys, used to having their way with princes and kings, rarely evidenced. Paul brought Simeon, the custodian, a book he thought he would like, and Simeon and his friends held a birthday party for my brother—replete with a piñata, which Paul attacked like a prizefighter. Paul was never more delighted.
Paul, too, was very gifted at music—and he played the recorder well, often taking the instrument, after a Sonny Stitt–like daring solo and hitting it tenderly against the music stand, as he would later hit the skins of the drums, touching them lightly, as a feather skims the surface of a pond. Here Paul, characteristically, was acting out: he would be a drummer, not a reed player, but he wouldn’t state as much—you had to read his body.
Yet I well recall my brother being brought home by my father after his time at the police station, how much he was shamed by sitting among the dispossessed, envisioning what the world expected of him; my brother that day, moving slowly, vacantly, as if his spine had been infected with a deadly virus. Paul was literally half-stepping, his bones sidling against themselves, as if his locomotion had been eviscerated. It might have been funny if it were not my brother. From that moment on, he detested the police.
Paul, in truth, was oddly grafted to my family, as if the providential birth stork had somehow made a mistake and flew to the wrong house. When Paul was three, I recall him packing his bag and heading out of our Harlem residence, with that grim determination that is the hallmark of children. Although the young often anticipate running away from home after some tiff, nothing palpable had occurred to occasion this departure. Paul was simply giving bodily testimony to something ineluctable, although it hurts me now to admit it. Characteristically, Paul did not belong to us: he was a night person; my parents and I were morning people. Paul was usually quiet; we were story-rich. Paul loved the streets; they terrified us. My parents, of course, did not permit Paul to leave, although they did let him walk a hundred yards from our house, watching him from the window just before he engaged the corner and would become invisible, like Annie, a girl we had all heard about who had, on a bright Sunday morning, simply “disappeared,” a notion as unusual and frightening in 1954 Harlem as seeing the giant sinkhole in the Seventy-Seventh Street Riverside Park field—a place where all of us would go to play softball on weekends—a miraculous hole so enterprising that one could witness the water running under the field, like sluicing fingers of quicksilver, as if the world above needed a busy subterranean terrarium. In the three years I watched the hole, it would grow larger and more menacing, brimming with bottles, potato chips bags, broken dolls, condoms, all rising like a demented volcano; and you could hear the water gurgling, the city seemingly alive, the first time that I understood that the city was truly geologic, wondrous, nature-rich. Young Filbert—who had six fingers on one hand, five on the other, and had recently arrived from South Carolina, part of the Great Migration—said that even Annie might be in that hole: young Filbert who would later, on a simmering August day, slip into the Hudson River, head out toward the George Washington Bridge, swim farther than any of us could imagine, angle close to the mythic Little Red Lighthouse, and then head back to us, not damaged or deracinated, his body luminescent.
. . .
Read the rest of this essay in the Kenyon Review Jan/Feb 2016 issue, on sale now!