My granddaddy is the only black man I’ve ever met who was never broke a day in his life. He ran an illegal liquor house in Decatur, selling moonshine for 50 cents a shot from behind a bar he built himself out of plywood and old scraps of carpet and red leather.
Granddaddy’s real name was George Walker, but folks called him Bear Cat or .38 for the two pistols he kept in his front pockets. Granddaddy didn’t believe in banks and didn’t trust anybody, either. He stored his jugs of corn liquor in the living room in a beat-up old refrigerator, which he locked up with a thick metal chain. And he stashed his money in a dingy white athletic sock he pinned to the inside of his pants.
Most folks were scared to death of my grandfather. I remember one night my uncle Skeet was acting a fool while Granddaddy was trying to watch Walter Cronkite on the evening news. Granddaddy said other than Jesus Christ, Walter Cronkite was the only white man he could trust. Yet here was Uncle Skeet, drunk as Cooter Brown, bouncing on the balls of his feet and shadowboxing right in Granddaddy’s face in the middle of the news.
Granddaddy waited till the commercial break, then he grabbed an old golf club he kept behind his bar and smashed Uncle Skeet right across the jaw, knocking out his front teeth. When the news came back, Granddaddy stopped swinging and sat back down in front of his little black-and-white set, cool as a cucumber, like nothing happened. After that, when the news came on, nobody made a sound.
Back then there were nine of us living with Granddaddy in his big yellow house on Arkwright Place: me, my mama Mildred, Mama’s boyfriend Curtis, my sister Sweetie and my three brothers. Also, Uncle Skeet, who broke into houses and stole (expletive) for a living, and Uncle Stanley, who was crippled and slow in the head and had to go to a special-needs school.
The bedrooms were in the back of the house and the bar was in the living room, up front. Granddaddy had decorated it with old bed sheets nailed above the windows like curtains, and pictures of Martin Luther King Jr. and Jesus Christ hanging on the wall. The main difference between a regular bar and a bootleg house is that a regular place closes at night and everybody goes home. At Granddaddy’s, folks drank, played spades, shot craps and hollered at each other until they passed out. On the weekend, it was like a sleepover with the neighborhood drunks.
I hated all the noise and commotion. At night I’d go to sleep hoping that I’d wake up and find myself magically living in a clean house where nobody punched each other, no matter how mad they got. But instead I’d get up and find some stranger passed out cold on the living room floor, covered in their own (urine) and puke. That’s the mess I grew up in. When I was 6 years old, I thought everybody lived that way.
“Mildred baby girl!” Granddaddy called for me one morning, his voice booming through the house. Mama had five children, to this day I am not sure if Granddaddy knew any of our real names. When he wanted us, he’d call us by the order we were born. “Mildred First Boy!” was my oldest brother, Jeffro; “Mildred Baby Girl!” was me. Everybody knew I was Granddaddy’s favorite. When he hollered, I’d come running.
“Help me fix these grits,” he said, when I found him in the kitchen that morning. He was holding a thick metal chain in his hands, because the same way Granddaddy kept his moonshine and guns locked up tight in a fridge in the living room, he also padlocked the fridge in the kitchen. Other kids knew it was mealtime when their mama called them to the table. We knew we were gonna eat when we heard that chain hit the floor.
Granddaddy pushed a chair to the stove and lifted me up so I could stir the pot while he fried up eggs and fatback in the pan beside me. “That’s real good,” he said, looking over my shoulder. “Baby girl, you a natural in the kitchen, musta got it from me.”
Granddaddy’s specialty was homemade cat head biscuits, which were the biggest, fluffiest biscuits you could ever eat, and came the size of an actual cat’s head. He also cooked chicken back, which is 90 percent skin and bones. Granddaddy would cook it in the skillet, drain it on some newspaper, and set it on the table with a bottle of Trappy’s hot sauce. Sometimes I’d pick up a piece of chicken and it would have the news of the day printed all over it.
Everybody used to joke that I stayed up under Granddaddy like a baby chick to a hen, holding onto his pant leg and following him around wherever he went. It’s true. I loved that man with every inch of my whole little heart. Granddaddy made me feel safe. But my mama — she was a whole different story.
“Move out of the way so the kids can cut a rug!” Mama hollered, pushing me and my sister Sweetie into the middle of the living room. It was Saturday night and the place was jumping. Anita Ward was singing about somebody ringing her bell on Granddaddy’s little record player, while Mama, drunk as a skunk, yelled for everybody to clear the floor so her two little girls could dance.
Mama was an alcoholic. She drank Schlitz Malt Liquor and Seagram’s Extra Dry Gin, which she called Bumpy Face because of the bumpy texture of the glass bottle. Mama’s drinking was the main reason she didn’t act like any of the mothers I saw on TV. She didn’t help with homework or give us kids advice. She didn’t care about bedtimes, or even where we slept. There weren’t enough mattresses for all the people who lived at the liquor house and it was nothing for Mama to stumble over one of her children sleeping on the floor. She’d just step right over us and keep moving. I don’t remember ever hearing Mama say, “I love you” or “You did good.” In fact, she barely took the time to name her own kids. I have three brothers; one is named Andre and another is named Dre. That’s the same gotdamn name, and those two aren’t even twins.
In the living room, Mama turned up the music.
You can ring my beeeeeeell, ring my bell Ring my bell, ring-a-ling-a-ling
“C’mon now,” she said, pushing folks out of the way. “Let the babies dance!” My sister Sweetie loved the way everybody was looking at her and started shaking her little ass with a big smile on her face. But I hated the music pounding in my ears and all those eyeballs watching me. There was no way I was gonna let loose and get on down. Instead, I did the two-step with my face fixed like I was sucking on a lemon. But it didn’t even matter, those drunk-asses still enjoyed the show. Sitting in a beat-up old chair by the window, Mr. Tommy, a regular, leaned back to watch my sister. He looked at her like she was a juicy piece of chicken and he was about to dig in. “Mmmm-mmm,” I heard him say to his brother, Po Boy. “She look real good.” Sweetie was 8 years old.
I hated when Mama made us dance, but she did it all the time. I never knew why until one night when I saw Mr. Tommy slip her a couple of dollars right before she pushed me and my sister onto the floor.
Mama would do anything for a little extra cash. Anything, that is, except get a regular job. Her big moneymaking scheme, the one she came up with when I was 7 years old, was picking pockets. Only she didn’t want to do the dirty work herself. Instead, she’d wake me up in the middle of the night and make me do it for her. I guess that was her way of giving me on-the-job training.
“Rabbit!” I heard her call the first time. I was asleep on a blanket on the floor in the bedroom Mama shared with her boyfriend, Curtis. Sweetie was beside me, curled up in a ball. I opened one eye and saw Mama standing over me. “Get your ass up,” she hissed, waving at me to follow her. She led me to the entrance of the living room and pointed inside. “See that?” she said. “They out cold.” The room was filled with leftover drunks from the night before. Mr. Tommy was asleep in a raggedy armchair by the bar with Po Boy knocked out beside him. Our neighbor Miss Betty was laid out, barefoot, on the sofa with her wig sliding off her head. In a chair by the card table was Mr. Jackson, the janitor from my brothers’ school, his head back and mouth hanging open.
Mama nodded toward Po Boy: “Go in there and pinch his wallet.”
“Huh?” I asked, confused.
“Take his wallet out his pocket and bring it to me. I’ll give you a dollar.”
I looked at Po Boy, then back at Mama.
“What if he wakes up?”
“Chile, he ain’t waking up.” Mama took a step toward Po Boy and waved her hands in front of his face. “See?” she said. “He asleep.”
I stared at Po Boy; he had a thin stream of drool running from his mouth. Mama reached over and shoved him on the shoulder. His head fell forward, then jerked back. She nudged him again and he still didn’t move. “I told you he ain’t gonna wake up,” Mama said, satisfied.
What I didn’t understand was why she didn’t pinch the wallet herself. She was already standing right there, pushing and poking the man. What did she need me for? But I didn’t say a word. As scared as I was that Po Boy would suddenly open his eyes, find me digging for his wallet, and whoop my ass, I was even more afraid of Mama. One time she told me to get her a cup of tap water to chase back her gin and I didn’t move fast enough. So she made me bring her three switches from the yard and soak them in the tub. Then she braided them together and beat me.
“Go on,” said Mama, pushing me toward Po Boy. “Go on and get it.”
Po Boy’s overcoat was hanging off his shoulders, making a puddle of cloth on the floor. I held my breath as I felt around for an open pocket and reached inside. When my hand touched the smooth leather of his wallet, I grabbed it and ran back to Mama who was waiting in the doorway — I guess so she could make a break for it if Po Boy suddenly woke up.
She opened the wallet, took out a wad of bills and shoved them in her bra.
“Where’s my dollar?” I asked, holding out my hand.
Mama’s eyes got real squinty. She took the stolen money out of her bra, peeled off a single dollar bill, and held it out to me. When I went to grab it, she hung on to it a second longer than she needed to.
“Listen,” she said, real slow. “Go put this wallet back in Po Boy’s pocket. Then go get the wallet from Mr. Jackson. Do it quick, before he wakes up. I’ll give you another dollar.”
That was the first time Mama made me steal. But I knew by the look on her face and the money in her bra, that she was going to make this a regular thing. Sure enough, from then on, almost every Sunday morning before the sun came up, Mama would kick me awake so I could help with her crime spree.
The upside was that with all those blackout drunks, I was making good money — five dollars was a lot for a kid in 1980 — and I spent it all at the corner store. I wasn’t stingy, either. I treated my brothers, sister and cousin to all-they-could-eat Laffy Taffy, Hubba Bubba and Pop Rocks. And I played so much Pac-Man that my name stayed at the top of the scoreboard: R-A-B for Rabbit, which is the name Mama’s boyfriend Curtis gave me when he came home one day and found me sitting on the porch eating a carrot.
But as much as I liked the money and respect, deep down I hated my job. My stomach went in knots every time Mama made me sneak my hand into somebody’s pocket. I wanted to tell her, “I’m a little kid. I don’t have the nerves for this!” Even Curtis tried to get Mama to stop. “This ain’t right,” I heard him tell her one night. “All you doing is teaching your little girl to steal.”
But Mama didn’t care. To her, there was no such thing as a bad hustle. It was all good, just as long as you didn’t get caught.
From the forthcoming book “Rabbit: The Autobiography of Ms. Pat” by Patricia Williams with Jeannine Amber. Copyright © 2017 by Patricia Williams and Jeannine Amber. Reprinted by permission of Dey Street Books, an imprint of HarperCollins Publishers.
ABOUT THE STORY
I wasn’t familiar with Ms. Pat’s comedy career when her memoir came across my desk, but I was so captivated by her harrowing story of survival and success that I devoured it in one reading. It helped that she brings to the telling a big dose of humor, a trait I’m guessing helped her navigate such devastating circumstances and come out on top in the end.
Suzanne Van Atten
Personal Journeys editor
ABOUT THE WRITERS
Patricia Williams is a stand-up comic who has appeared on TV Guide Network’s “Standup in Stilettos” and Nickelodeon’s “Mom’s Night Out.” She is a regular guest on the syndicated Bob and Tom Radio Show, and appeared on Katt Williams’ DVD “Kattpacalypse.” She has appeared on Comedy Central’s “This is Not Happening” and NBC’s “Last Comic Standing,” and performed at the Montreal Comedy Festival. She lives with her husband and three children in Indianapolis. For more, go to www.mspatcomedy.com.
Jeannine Amber is a senior writer for Essence magazine and the recipient of numerous journalism awards, including a National Association of Black Journalists Salute to Excellence Awards for her investigative series on domestic sex trafficking and a Henry R. Luce Award for her story about the killing of Trayvon Martin. For information go to jeannineamber.com.
Experience with wounded vets during Vietnam war inspires a global movement. Go to myAJC.com/personaljourneys to read last week’s story.
“Just a quick note of thanks for the touching and moving article on Laura Dorsey’s life and creation of peace gardens. Many years ago I visited such a garden in Kyoto and have never forgotten the serenity and peace that it inspired. I will now look to visit some of the local ones of which, without your article, I would have never known. I found the account of Ms. Dorsey’s life from a “proper” Southern girl to mover and shaker of gardens fascinating and moving as well.”
John Mulholland, Alpharetta