“That’s it; next time there’s a fight on Collier Road, we’re moving,” Joe announced as Mr. Lee plodded down the porch steps outside, barely out of earshot. The proclamation arrived like many other important decisions Joe had made. Facts gave evidence to some tipping point; life called for quick action.
(1978) – The real life sound of concrete meeting glass interrupted TV, a Good Times wedding episode where sister Thelma marries a football player. Shanice and Yolanda Madison abandoned the summer rerun, and four skinny legs propelled by dusty bare feet instinctively raced to the front door, wide open on a much welcomed and rare breezy August night.
“You a dead nigger!” Mr. Lee was out in the street shouting, while scowling at his grown son Larry and hovering near the shattered front windshield of the brown and beige ’73 Chevy Nova separating the two. A chain reaction of flicking lights crept down inclined Collier Road and shadowy figures eased into the folds of curtain sheers, but nobody dared to go outside.
“Bring it on old man,” Larry said, his voice anchored by soul; a graveyard shift radio D.J. right there on the asphalt. He backtracked from the car and taunted his flabby father by flexing smooth brown muscle mounds and pointing at his thug’s gut— a scarred steel paunch, always readied for sucker punches, bullets fired from a .22; whatever it had coming. Mr. Lee opted for another concrete block. Into the center of the driver side window of the Nova, he delivered a two-handed strike. Crash!
Proud of the damage he’d done to an innocent second-hand car, its two-toned body freshly washed and gleaming under gold-tinged street lighting, Mr. Lee flailed his arms about and deliriously repeated “You a dead nigger Larry Lee! Dead!” Larry laughed and calmly fired up a cigarette, even as his only means of transportation was being destroyed. This ratcheted Mr. Lee’s anger to seething. With open palm chops accentuated by Kung Fu grunts, he forced the remaining stubborn window pieces into the car’s interior, hoping perhaps to increases the cost of a clean up effort Larry surely didn’t have the funds for.
The adolescent honey-colored pumpkin shaped faces of Shanice and Yolanda winced at the subsequent flurry of profanities, but kept fixated on the scene until from the distant sofa came their father Joe’s stern voice: “Girls! Get from out of that door! And Betty, call the cops! Them Lees is at it again!”
The two sisters regrouped on the top bunk in their darkened bedroom, situated in the front side of their one story ranch house and providing just as good a view of the street. Meanwhile, in the kitchen, their mother Betty could be heard on the phone with the police.
“L-E-E. Lee. L-E-E…” she said, slowly, loudly, and clearly to the police operator as if she were talking to one of her special students.
“All she got say is ‘Fight on Collier Road!’” Shanice, the older of the two sisters, whispered. “The police would know exactly who it is.” The girls nodded in agreement, divided a cube of Bubble Yum, and returned to the fight, framed and muffled by their bedroom window panes, which made watching the scene like sneaking glimpses of an illicit TV movie with the volume on low.
Enter Mrs. Lee. Having busted through the fence gates that enclosed the Lee’s front yard, she circled around the Nova in a tattered floral robe and hair rollers, no doubt hoping hysterical cries for heavenly mercy would embarrasses her husband and eldest son enough to call for a temporary cease fire, or at least take the commotion inside. Mr. Lee shoved his wife away and in the process, pulled open the front of her robe, revealing mismatched bra and panties sandwiching an oddly shaped, half-deflated belly comfortably protruding in all directions.
“Oh. My. God!” Yolanda said. She covered her eyes.
“Oh stop. You are so childish!” Shanice tried to yank Yolanda’s hands aside. Yolanda resisted until their tussling turned to play slaps and giddy laughter at Mrs. Lee shamelessly standing in the street, hands on hip, breasts nearing the boiling point, robe wafting behind her like Superman’s cape.
Three additional broken car windows later, a police cruiser rolled down Collier Road and Mrs. Lee finally discovered modesty. She clutched the top of her robe close to her neckline as a pair of young officers ushered each of the combatants to neutral corners like seasoned referees. The fight, for that night, was over.
Stealing the policemen’s line, Joe yelled to his girls that the show was over for the night and to move along, get back to watching TV. Shanice and Yolanda obeyed but ignored the rest of Good Times; they knew the familiar outcome of the show’s storylines anyway: J.J. fouled things up and the Evans family was stuck in their taped-before-a-live-studio-audience ghettoland for at least one more season. Instead they imagined endings for the final act being staged next door. Did the police drag Mr. Lee and Larry to jail? Maybe they let them off with another warning and drove away, leaving the possibility of a round two eruption later that night. Were the Lees wondering who called the sheriff on them and would they retaliate? Did Mrs. Lee go put some clothes on?
The next day, Mr. Lee– shamefaced, head bowed like an old hound dog, wearing a favorite sailor’s cap and oversized tortoiseshell sunshades– came ringing the front doorbell asking if he could speak to the Madisons all and if they would accept an apology for his family’s behavior. Joe tried to play ignorant, telling Mr. Lee he had no idea why such a visit was necessary. Betty however invited him in and offered a cold drink. Sitting in the Madison dining room, taking sips of grape flavored Kool Aid and fiddling with the edges of the plastic table covering, Mr. Lee blamed the fight on the multiple personalities of his son: No Account Larry being unemployed, Shiftless Larry smoking weed, Trifling Larry sneaking around with skanky trailer park white girls, and slipping them into his house and… Joe raised an eyebrow and nodded at his girls before Mr. Lee could further elaborate. Betty and Mr. Lee agreed that parenting children of any age was hard work. Joe sat there quiet, waiting for the last drop of purple Kool Aid, and Mr. Lee along with it, to be gone.
“That’s it; next time there’s a fight on Collier Road, we’re moving,” Joe announced as Mr. Lee plodded down the porch steps outside, barely out of earshot. The proclamation arrived like many other important decisions Joe had made. Facts gave evidence to some tipping point; life called for quick action. The Madisons had scraped and saved, and with Joe now securely entrenched as a supervisor at the county recreation department and Betty’s reliable income from the school system, they were poised to move out, move up.
“You can’t be serious Joe, I mean, all because of the Lees?”
“Just think of the girls,” Joe said. “Being exposed to this all the time.”
This. This mess. This ghetto, low-life ignorant tangled mess of unproductive lives, irresponsibility, and shameless gettin’ over, as he liked to say, shaking his head at a most despised mentality. Everything they escaped from downtown began to fester on Collier Road. “Just think of the girls.”
Joe targeted Betty’s soft spot with a familiar discussion-ender that appealed to her desire to provide the best for her children. A short dozen years before, Collier Road was just that. Proudly sprouting from golf course worthy greens of sculpted hedges and Bermuda grass, a trail of tidy new homes protected the hopes of two and half dozen nuclear families that all settled in within a few years of each other, who all wanted the best for their boys and girls. The connections ran deep. Old schoolmates, ex-boyfriends, fraternity brothers, in-laws, family friends for generations; all became neighbors on Collier Road. As cheap brickwork, bad foundations in hardened red clay, and a series of skillfully executed daytime robberies began sapping optimism from Collier Road, two of the better families—one headed by an M.D., the other by one of the first Black engineers hired at the nuclear materials plant — moved away. The Lees slipped into the engineer’s house a few months later. No Mayflower moving van or anything comparably civilized, just a caravan of dented Chevy pick-ups stacked to ridiculous heights with plastic orange furniture, saggy pee-stained mattresses, framed prints of fake African queens and rolls of bright red shag carpeting, tangled strings of beads, lamps and piles of clothing, a ragtag assortment of stereo equipment and more African queens. Betty did the right thing, carrying over a welcoming lemon cake and taking her girls to meet the new family’s kids, who turned out to be three grown men, who didn’t seem to have steady work, and whose residencies were unclear. Their leering crust-filled eyes, snail paced speech patterns, and ever present cigarettes frightened Shanice and Yolanda. The signals were obvious: The Lee boys—Larry Lee, Smokey Lee, and Gerard Lee– were bad boys, like Collier Road had never seen before.
“Hey y’all” the Lee boys would speak to their little neighbors in syrupy mumbles while glued to folding chairs in their driveway, intermittently lifting barbells, getting their Afros picked and plaited, downing cans of A&W, arguing over games of spades, or getting up to work under the hood of the Nova, which, despite a glamorously souped up exterior, always seemed to be under repair. Shanice and Yolanda learned to wave back cautiously, and be on their way. To the park, to school, to church, to piano practice. Back inside for afternoon TV.
“They’re like prisoners, in their own house,” Joe said. The girls mocked their inmate status with prison banter they heard on the Longest Yard, a movie they’d snuck and saw on Channel 6’s Midnight Cinema.
“No way to raise children.” Joe pounded fist to palm, and directed his eyes at the picture window and Mr. Lee, across the street locking the gates of his front yard. He shook his head. The Lee’s had put up a chain link fence around their front yard—an egregious violation of unwritten Collier Road homeowners’ codes—to keep danger out, when they were the ones endangering the spirits and property values of everyone else.
Sunday, driving home from church with a rousing morning message still buzzing about in their heads, the Madisons went house hunting. New enclaves were spreading out in all directions away from the center of the city. Swaths of bland dirt canvases considered “the country” just a few years prior, were now painted brilliantly with spiraling black roadways, sodded green lawns, azaleas and African violets, sparkling unsoiled white cement driveways, and brown brick homes with double garages. Joe had stopped for ice cream and with their tongues lapping the frozen chocolate flavorings of Fudgescicles, the Madisons slowed to a parade roll to gawk and gaze at the new homes being built in Chastleton Estates.
“Estates. Sounds prestigious. Out of our league,” Betty said. She unearthed a favorite rhyming refrain she would repeat several times during the visit to Chastleton: “I don’t know, Joe. I just don’t know.”
“It’s affordable,” Joe reassured. The houses were deceptively good-sized, not big, he maintained, noting the hidden side garages made to look like part of the houses’ interiors. Another family also in Sunday dress drove up to 2816 Chasleton Estates Drive, a “sold” sign leaning against its brick façade. The father in the family, a preacher-looking fellow in a three piece suit not much older than Joe ordered his teenaged sons to pick up trash left behind by the builders. They dutifully obliged without complaint. The man waved to Joe and Joe waved back. They both smiled eager reassuring smiles like they were happy to see one another and like they knew what was on each other’s minds, but were hesitant to start a conversation with forty yards between them. Instead, Joe encouraged everyone to acknowledge their potential new neighbors and wondered aloud about what the man’s mortgage payments were going to be.
A hundred dollars more a month would be doable, feasible, definitely worth his daughters’ futures. Betty and Joe drifted down the road into a fog of finance talk. Shanice and Yolanda finished their ice creams in silence, which was in abundance in Chastleton Estates. No bass pumping from stereo speakers. No sitcom laughtracks seeping through cracked windows. No yelling kids or skidding bicycles. No one visiting or laughing on front porches. It was completely noiseless.
During the drive home, Shanice and Yolanda suppressed protestations stirring within, and nodded in response to their father ticking off the benefits of Chastleton. As Joe, who’d never picked up a tennis racket in his life, was gushing on about the possibility of living yards from the tennis courts the county recreation department planned to build in the center of Chastleton, the Madisons turned the corner onto their Collier Road estate, where Mrs. Lee emerged from their front yard.
“Goodness, what does she want?” Joe put the car in park and managed a hearty hello above the sound of Betty, Shanice, and Yolanda slamming car doors in unison.
With crossed arms clutching herself as if to prevent her body from disintegrating, Mrs. Lee confided that she’d gone to church to pray over her husband’s and son’s conflagration, and per instructions from the Lord, she’d come over to apologize.
Betty gave Mrs. Lee an impromptu hug and repeated the line she’d given to Mr. Lee, about the difficulty of raising children, empathetically adding “in these troubled times” in apparent reference to nothing in particular. Mrs. Lee said that she wanted to make it up to the all neighbors in the form of a barbeque to be held the Lee’s front yard.
Betty smiled and a longing musical phrase overtook her voice. “That’ll be nice.” She volunteered to bring appropriate sides so Mrs. Lee wouldn’t have to do all the work. In minutes, the front yard cook-out turned into an all out block party, an All-Collier Road social event to rebirth the strained ties between new and old neighbors.
Larry and his brother Smokey worked all Friday night to wire their stereo speakers in their front yard, inaugurating their patchwork with the rubbery funk of the Bar-Kays, 7:30 a.m. the next morning. The other Lee brother Gerard stood in the middle of the street and gave the set-up an approving fist pump as they tested the volume knob. Around 10:30 a.m., Mr. Lee began manning hand-formed hamburger patties and hacked up chicken parts over an open flame. He’d burn a first batch and threw away the blackened thighs. “Why you do that?! They still good!” Larry shouted over the music. His father ignored him, staving off an untimely disruption on such an important day.
Mrs. Lee appeared around noon, to watch over card tables filled with foil covered containers of salads and sides and whoosh away bodacious flies. The Lees froze in picture perfect position and waited for their neighbors to arrive.
“Anybody over their yet?” Joe asked Shanice and Yolanda, who were taking turns all morning scouting out the activities across the street out of the corner of the Madison’s living room window.
“Nobody yet. But it’s time. Can we go. The food is smelling good.”
“Naw. Let’s not be the first.”
Betty held casserole dishes in the open palms of her hand, as if practicing presenting them to Mrs. Lee. “Let’s just go.”
“Five minutes,” Joe ordered. “Let’s give them five minutes.”
Standing in their doorway the Madisons waited and watched. No one showed up across the street, not a car passed, and not a door on the street opened.
“That’s it. This is ridiculous let’s go.” Betty ripped open the door, and, before Joe could respond, sang out to the Lees across the street. “Smells delicious!”
Mrs. Lee waved back. A veil of relief seemed to fall over her. She met the Madisons halfway, complimenting Betty on her summer squash casserole before she new what it was. Joe ushered the girls to seats at a card table.
A nervous trickle of neighbors followed the Madisons. Charcoal smoke meandered about them all in a confining fenced in front yard filled with tense laughter and neighborly conversation as they searched for a signal to dive into the food table. Shanice and Yolanda circulated, and caught snippets of the quiet exchanges; the relief about the upcoming school year, the complaints about the county’s plan to upgrade the drainage system, and the recaps of the Lees latest fight.
“I blame the parents,” Mrs. Walden from up the street said to her sister-in-law Mrs. Maxwell, who also happened to be her next door neighbor. The two women, sipping golden-brown iced tea from oversized plastic tumblers, had welded their wiry frames to metal folding chairs lodged in a corner of the yard. It was surely a continuation of an exchange begun earlier, probably on the phone, but maybe over the fence that separated their ample twin plots. They wagged protruding bottom lips in mutual disgust.
“Grown men have to become responsible at some point in their lives. This generation was given too much.” Mrs. Walden put down her tea and splayed her hands towards the Nova parked in the carport, its windows covered with plastic bags and layers of poor performing masking tape. “They never had to sacrifice like ours. Those boys don’t even have to pay rent.”
Mrs. Maxwell whipped over a look of sheer disdain towards the Lee boys, who were standing in a huddle, swallowing burgers, sucking on barbeque chicken wings, spooning up pork-and-beans and potato salad, bursting into loud laughter every ten seconds, ignoring their unfed neighbors. The three of them must have had seven burgers between them. “Don’t even have the manners to serve their guest first.”
Betty whispered to Mrs. Lee and the two of them unwrapped the food on the table, the salads and casseroles the Lee boys had skipped. Betty announced that the food table was open, and thanked Mrs. Lee for doing all of the cooking. Betty led the neighbors in polite applause for Mrs. Lee and the Lees. Joe smiled at his wife, who always had a knack for saying and doing the right things. It was the trait he hoped most she’d pass on to his girls. Betty motioned to one of the Lee boys to lower the volume of their music. Then she said a prayer, garnering a hearty unclaimed Amen after praying for the continuation of neighborly love and concern for all on Collier Road and its environs.
“Good God, let’s eat,” Larry said, concluding the chorus of Amens that followed Betty’s prayer.
“If there’s anything left,” Mrs. Walden shouted over the music– Mother Finest–which had been pumped back up.
Betty pointed Yolanda and Shanice to the rear of the forming food line. The Madisons had become the de facto hosts, to show the neighbors their solidarity with the Lees, and to show the Lees how to be neighborly. Joe went along with Betty’s conspiring; her silent signals sent him to assist Mr. Lee at the grill.
Yolanda and Shanice fanned their sweaty faces with paper plates and sulked, eyeing the rapid depletion of the once bountiful burger tray.
“They all gone be gone by the time we get up there,” Yolanda protested. “Will you split one with me if you get one first?” she pleaded to her big sister, who was, by birth order, supposed to look out for her little sister.
It proved an un-sisterly hollow answer. When Shanice reached the food table, she commandeered a bun, and slid in the last burger standing. She carefully prepared the toppings; ketchup, lettuce, a three-inch dill pickle spear. Then, with Yolanda watching in horror, Shanice smeared the bun and burger with a knifeful of bright yellow mustard.
“Ugh! You know I hate mustard!” Yolanda said.
Shanice twisted her hips and let go of a wry grin. She took a bit into the burger and licked her lips as if performing for McDonald’s commercial. “And I like mustard!”
“You want it all? Well you can have it!”
Tears dripped from Yolanda eyes, and before exhaling a piercing wail, she reached for the hamburger, balanced its soggy bun in the palm of her tiny hand, and shoved it meat-side up towards her sister’s smirk; a pie-in-the face response inspired by the previous afternoon’s Brady Bunch.
In one fluid movement Shanice wiped her burger grease and condiment-covered cheeks and slapped her sister’s forehead. Hard. The Lee boys all doubled over in laughter, cooing and alternately punctuating each returned slap with an exclamation. The tornado of slaps twisted groundward. Betty grimaced and charged towards the girls, conjoined into one and rolling on the grass, mustard spreading from face to face, gluing stray weeds from the Lee’s lawn to their foreheads and on their freshly ironed sundresses. Joe followed behind and scooped his girls up.
“Enough of this.” Joe turned and nodded feverishly. “You see! You see the influence this neighborhood has on them? You now understand why we have to move?”
Betty cringed with embarrassment and released her girls from beneath the clutches of their father’s biceps. The insulted and gaped-mouth residents of Collier Road parted a path.
“Humph,” Mrs. Maxwell said, for all to hear. “I blame nobody but the parents.” Repeating herself, she defiantly accented each word with a pointed shaky index finger, as Joe and Betty and Shanice and Yolanda made their way through the yard and across the street, never to look back again.