Wednesday, February 22, 2006

A Midnight Walker, A Sweet Soul Talker

Note: The following is a self-indulgent personal recollection that offers no insight at all on the critical issues of the day. Despite our suggestion that the author cease and desist, it contains the passing use of a derogatory slang term for the female genitalia which adds nothing to the pointless exercise. It is recommended for mature audiences. --- Hidalgo Hidalgo, chief copy editor and senior reader representative, Slampo’s Place

When Wilson Pickett died recently it got us to reminiscing about Preston W----. We haven’t laid eyes on Preston in a good 30 years, or had much reason to think about him in the meantime, but we remembered he used to go around singing that Wicked Pickett song, I’m a Midnight Mover.

We met Preston when we were in 11th grade. We were first introduced to his fist, punching our right arm as he said, “Hey, boy, g-g-gimme a dime.” He had a horrible stutter.

Preston was very black---blacker than midnight, as they used to say---and already had a couple of gold caps up front. He wore his hair in a short, neat Afro that he obsessively primped with one of those picks. His nose was large and broad, framed up top by two perpetually bloodshot eyes. He wasn’t much taller than we were, that is, on the moderately short side, but he was built like a bull, like someone whose naturally endowed physical strength had been enhanced by years of hard physical labor. He had an intense, musky odor. He was a full-growed man.

They had just integrated the schools in our town, after years of ignoring or trying various ploys to circumvent a federal judge’s desegregation ruling. In a typical move of the times, they---and by they we mean the white folks who were under the illusion they ran things---closed the one black high school in the city and split the student body between the two white high schools. Preston ended up at ours, and thanks to alphabetical ordering we ended up in P.E. class with a locker next to his, around a corner from and out of sight of the main body of lockers where the rest of the class dressed out. Back there with us were three other black kids and David S-------, a short, non-athletic white kid who was fairly strong but not someone we would count on to come to our assistance in the event of a fight.

The second day of class, Preston hit us again: BAM! “G-g-gimme a dime.” “I don’t have a dime.” BAM! “G-g-gimme a nickel.”

This went on for a day or two more. Finally, toward the end of the first week, we came back with a line we had privately rehearsed: “You can keep hitting me all you want, but I’m not giving you nuthin’.”

BAM! “G-g-gimme a quarter.”

By then we decided we had to come up with a new strategy. We were never one who would have gone running to a teacher for help---to us, at that time, most of the adults at the school (with a few exceptions) seemed to be sad, stunted individuals, not really attentive to much of anything that was going on in front of them, and the coaches were the worst. But for some reason Preston’s attempted shakedown didn’t bother us that much, maybe because he never seemed to be putting anywhere near full force into his punches, or maybe because we never detected actual malice in his demands. It was mechanical, depersonalized, like maybe he forgot we were the same white boy he was trying to punk everyday. We started to study him a bit and noticed that he was surreptitiously putting the squeeze on almost any other white kid who wasn’t a head or two taller than he was.

Strange days had found us, as a marginally popular song of the day proclaimed. The adults had slammed black and white kids together for the first time, with little guidance. (We think there was an assembly right after school opened at which an assistant principal sort of acknowledged the novelty of the situation and then basically admonished the 3,500-plus students to behave. It was like, OK, last this school was almost lily white, this year it’s 40 percent black, and nobody’s real happy about it, so deal with it. The job of multicultural sensitivity adviser had not yet been imagined.)

It was shameful, of course, the way they did it, and even a blunt 16-year-old could see that.

Things were changing on other fronts, too. Pot was starting to seep in beyond the few hardcore hippie types at the school---called “pies” in the parlance; people were coming to school and dropping acid or mescaline in first period and having life-changing experiences later in the day when they jumped on a trampoline in P.E. or cut class to buy donuts. A girl we knew was taking birth control pills. In the mornings, after our parents left for work and before we’d leave for school with our friend across the street who drove the little Anglia, we’d get pumped up for the day by cranking the volume on Black Angel’s Death Song from an album called The Velvet Underground’s Greatest Hits [sic], which a friend (now long dead) had shoplifted from a chain record store in the only mall in town (years later, we realized that the song was a paean to suicide, but at the time we just enjoyed its mad forward thrust).

By the second week or so of P.E. we dressed out to play basketball, for some reason. Maybe it was too hot to go outside, or maybe that was the first sport the class was supposed to play that year. We had a small talent for the game which we hadn’t been putting to much use, and when the class split up into teams we found our self matched up against Preston. The first time we got the ball he ran up and got in our face, waving his arms and cackling like maniac, but we drove past him and laid it in with such little effort that it made us laugh. We dropped in two or three more baskets on him, then throttled back.

He didn’t react they way we thought he would: At the second or third basket he hollered out, “P-P-Pistol Pete!” like he was cheering for us. Then he doubled over and exclaimed, “He shamin’ me!” He thought it was funny.

From then on we were his asshole buddy. Whenever teams were picked for P.E., whether it was for basketball, football, volleyball or softball, he had to be on ours. He would wrap us in a bear hug and drag us out of the milling assembly: “S-S-Slampo on my team!” It turned out he talked a lot but wasn’t that good at sports, although in retrospect we can’t understand why one of the dumbass coaches didn’t try to put him on the offensive line and have him clear a 10-yard hole upfield. He was capable of that, if someone had bothered to work with him.

For the first two or three weeks of that year we had been mistakenly (or perhaps not) placed in a regular English class, and while waiting for our mother to straighten it out with the school so we could be moved to the “smart” class we sat in the back with Preston and two disagreeable white assholes who both were repeating 11th grade. Most of the back-bench chit-chat revolved around Preston’s professed amazement that, as he put it, “You white boys eat pussy.” Whenever the teacher was writing on the board or had her back turned, Preston’s head would be on a swivel as he’d dart his tongue between the upraised middle and index fingers of his right hand. He’d crack himself up, and the first time we saw him do it we laughed, too, in spite of our self. By the 30th or 40th time it had gotten old. But this was a subject that endlessly fascinated him. “S-S-Slampo,” he’d say, “You eat that p-p-p-pussy?” “Oh yeah,” we’d say, “every day.” And he’d crack up, doubling over and letting out that cackling “Awwwww ….” kind of noise.

Whenever Preston would see us in the hall, he’d do a little James Brown spin, blurt out “Owww!” or “Hit me one time!”, then holler “S-S-S-LAMPO! What happen’?” Or he'd start singing, “Say it loud: I’m BLACK AND I’M PROUD!” He never stuttered when he sang.

We kind of dug those moments, as it was clear that not only did most of the white kids view him with fear and real loathing, but almost all of the black kids gave him a wide berth, too. After our senior year started we made the mistake of strolling out to the parking lot behind the stadium and sharing a smoke with him. He got buzzed quickly and fell silent. After that, when he’d spot us in the halls he would occasionally call out, “S-S-Slampo, you got a JOINT?” This was not good advertising at that particular place and time.

We’re not sure whether he finished out the 12th grade with our class. We didn't have any classes with him, so our contact was limited to passing in the hall. A few times during the early part of that year we would approach as he fiddled with his locker and could smell the stench of liquor. His eyes would be narrowed and unusually bloodshot, and he would look as if all the natural exuberance had been tamped out of him.

It wasn’t like we were close friends with Preston, or even friends, in the traditional sense. We never asked where or with whom he lived, or what he liked to do besides listen to soul music and act like a crazy man at school, nor did he so inquire of us. The one thing he and I most likely had in common was that neither of us had eaten any pussy at that point. Looking back, we realize he was probably lonely. For all the connection he had to anything that was going on at that school he might as well have been taking the bus to the woods outside of town each morning.

We last saw Preston three or four years after we graduated, at the Student Union at the local college. He was coming toward us from the other end of a long hallway, sauntering along in his diddly-bop fashion and pushing a broom, one of those big janitor’s brooms. He spotted us first: “S-S-S—lampo! Owww!” He did his little JB turn, holding on to the end of the broom handle. We stopped and did the soul shake and exchanged pleasantries, then he and I moved on down the hall in opposite directions.

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