I woke up the other day to the sound of a voice through a loudspeaker crying something repeatedly in a beckoning voice and I had no idea what he was saying but it reminded me of back home when, from the Muslim Temple’s loudspeaker, a voice would croon “Allah U Akbar” over and over until the voice just became part of the background noise of the community. And, though it was a foreign language, everyone knew the meaning of the nonthreatening words. This was way before the American media made “Allah is the Greatest” synonymous with “infidels must die” and Jihadism.
When I was a child, influenced by my parents, I associated Islam with refinement, strict discipline, and incredible talent like the Rope-a-Dope and the Skyhook via Muhammad Ali and Kareem Abdul Jabbar, as well as charismatic leadership as evidenced by Malcolm X (El Hajj Malik El Shabazz.) I guess I was a lot luckier than my friends who were influenced by TV and also associated Aladdin, Ali Baba and the 40 Thieves, and I dream of Jeannie with Islam. The cry of “Allah-U-Akbar” while magical for me evoked images of flute-tooting Snake charmers and Sheiks surrounded by harems of belly dancing hotties from them.
However, with limited exposure to actual Asians, aside from those who owned businesses in the community like Mr. Chin at the corner Chinese restaurant and Mrs. Lee at the Chinese Laundry, I, like a good many Americans, initially learned about Asians through TV and movies, and thus I became one of those people who thought of Asians as funny talking ancient and wise beings. What this guy was saying over the loudspeaker could have been anything, from Fresh Fish for sale to For safer, cleaner cities- free of Foreigners and other trash- Vote for Tanaka. I really had no idea, but my inclination led me to believe he was performing a time-honored practice not unlike the drummers in some African village and the town criers in old European and early American cities; the modern take on some ancient practice.
In an ad campaign popular in my youth, a Chinese launderer would respond, “Ancient Chinese Secret” when asked by a customer “How do you get my shirts so clean?” And, though his wife would blow the Asian mystique thing he had going and expose to the customer that the secret was actually a laundry detergent that could be found in any supermarket in America (what the hell was she thinking?), the idea of the Chinese having ancient secrets stayed with me (even til this day). Confirmed further by the genius of the great fictional detective Charlie Chan and the sinister villainy of the Yellow Peril incarnate Dr. Fu Manchu. When Bruce Lee came on the scene, it only confirmed that there was a secret out there; a secret that could help me open a can of whupass on my bullying older brother Sekou, and by god I would know what it was.
Can this secret be the reason that, next to Peter Parker, Jim Kelly (see pic above) is the coolest motherfucker alive, I wondered. So, in addition to my almost daily acquisition of Marvel Comics and Topps Baseball cards, I started to “clip” martial arts magazines, as well. It was easy. I’d just stick them inside the Ebony I was buying for my mother and the proprietor wouldn’t have a clue. My brothers had
taught me how to steal at a very early age. They’d already been barred from most of the stores in the neighborhood at the time, but I had the kind of face that criminals would kill for, not so much honest but incapable of hiding a single emotion. But, this incapability was kind of a mask because in a tight spot I could lie my ass off and convince almost anyone I was to be believed. At the newsstand, I’d grab any magazine with an Asian bearing some Asian secret weapon like nunchaku (see pic: the thing in Bruce lee’s hand) or samurai swords or any of those not-so secret secret weapons of the Ninja society like shilanken or poison daggers, and none would be the wiser.
My two older brothers, Changa and Sekou, however, were extremists. While I was merely reading and learning about these ancient terrorists and their killing techniques they’d gone out and started their own gang of terrorists, with my oldest brother, Changa, as their fearless leader. They’d both gone and seen “The Chinese Connection” and “Fist of fury” and after watching Bruce Lee put those nunchucks to lethal use against a whole mob of Japanese they came home and got to work. Changa was the crafty one. He fashioned homemade nunchucks from the broom handle my mother not only used for cleaning but for knocking some sense into them (or knocking them senseless in their case) when they got out of hand, sawing it into four equal portions, and finishing them off by nailing shoe strings into the flat ends.
They practiced relentlessly and had actually gotten to the point where they weren’t clubbing themselves senseless with every attempt after a while.
“What the hell happened in here?” my mother asked one day when, while practicing with the nunchucks, a nail had come loose and one of the handles went sailing across the room and, in slow motion, through the glass doors of a cabinet shattering the glass shelves within that had once been used to display china but, having been appropriated by me, were being used as an altar to the
Amazing Spider Man. At that altar I would kneel and pray daily for a radioactive spider to come and bite me…please, Spidey, send him to Brooklyn. So, I was angrier than my mother. But I knew better than to cross my brothers. A radioactive bite wouldn’t have saved my ass in time. So I held my tongue.
Changa, who’d done it- for he was the perpetual culpable party,- had hidden the evidence, which allowed him, a natural thespian, to well tears and don an expression that was more innocent than Bambi’s, while Sekou, who could lie to a preacher in a church with his hand on a bible and a straight belligerent face, lied and said, “I don’t know. It just broke…things break, sometimes, you know.”
Which only confirmed what she’d known from the moment she’d heard the reverberating crash.
“Things break, eh? Well, I’m uh break my foot off in yo’ ass as soon as I find the brom. Where the hell’s my broom at? I haven’t seen it in days…” Changa was almost in tears…how can you use such an accusatory tone and direct it at me, Me, he seemed to cry without a sound. Sekou said, “Now, how are we supposed to know? We don’t sweep!” He’d had a point. Aside from my altar which I dusted and decorated with candles and whatnot, the room we three shared stayed filthy. But again he might as well had fessed up. She knew them too well.
“Wait til I find my broom…I’m uh kick some ass all over this place,” which I understood would include me just for sitting silently or maybe because I’d confiscated and converted one of the few things my father had bought her during their brief marriage into a shrine to my friendly neighborhood web-slinger.
Once she’d stormed away I glared at Changa whose eyes were still red but dry, and he laughed, “don’t sweat it. I’ll get her another broom tomorrow.” I understood his get but he misunderstood my glare. I didn’t care about the beating. Hell, beatings
were routine by that time in my life. I got my ass whipped occasionally for wetting the bed but that was nothing compared to the consequence of not doing my homework. I had teachers who had been sanctioned by parents to exorcise their sadistic demons on my rear end almost at whim, and the whippings I got at school were much much worse than my mother could ever dish out. Rather, I was enraged by his sacrilege. On that shelf had resided cover art of Spidey and Green Goblin battling above the George Washington Bridge with a murdered Gwen Stacy in his arms (I’m welling up now just thinking about how I felt when I’d first learned of her death) and Spidey surrounded and taunted by a half-dozen Mysterios. And, to make bad worse, when Changa had removed the offending nunchuck from the heap of shattered glass he mishandled my sacred art work. He was even about to use one as a dustpan for the glass before I interceded.
My brothers never really understood me at all.
But, they understood havoc, and with their new Asian obsession they proceeded to wreak it, recruiting a posse of near-do wells from the neighborhood, arming these knuckleheads with homemade nunchucks, and went about the task of terrorizing other neighborhoods just for kicks.
They eventually made upgrades to their nunchucks. Shoestrings proved to be inadequate for their purposes, so they began using chains stolen from local hardware stores to link the sections of broom handles. And, turned out, the garbage was replete with broom and mop handles, so they’d salvage through the garbage for an endless supply of materials. Unfortunately, despite the fact Changa had turned his friend’s bedroom into makeshift doojoo so that the crew could practice and improve their skill with the ‘chucks’, they simply weren’t able to keep from clubbing themselves as often as they clubbed their opponents, and came home from battles having sustained as many or more self inflicted head wounds than they’d administered.
Thus, the nunchuck phase passed quickly and painfully followed almost immediately by a type of ghetto-ized zip gun which proved to be a bad idea as well. Again, the materials were readily available: wood blocks procured from school, nails from the hardware store, rubber bands from the stationary store and potentially lethal (and consequently discontinued) can tabs as ammo were all over the streets. There was additional ease and safety (to themselves) of use, but…well, they came home one day and told me they weren’t going to use them anymore. Too much trouble. I never followed up on the reason but I suspect there is some one-eyed man somewhere in Bed-Stuy who could partially bear witness to the amount of trouble zip guns had been.
At the school where I received the discipline I would later lose we were taught as part of our disciplining Judo and Karate. My brothers took it to the natural (extremist) next step and turned our bedroom into a doojoo. Changa elected himself sensei and began training me how to protect myself from ten knife wielding assailants, using his friends armed with plastic knives, while Sekou taught me how to take an ass-whipping without crying to my mother about it. Every time I didn’t cry after a particularly wicked beating he’d dye my belt another color. By the time I learned how to roll after being thrown across the room by Sekou I was a brown belt.
to be continued…