BOOK I: CHAPTER 1
“Miles, get down here!” screamed Sarah, Miles’ mother. Her shriek woke him from a sound sleep. Though she was downstairs, her yelling could be heard upstairs in the bedrooms and woke him from one of his favorite dreams. He and his boys were onstage at the Apollo later throwing down a heavy rap. Their music had the audience jumping to their beat. In the dream, Miles was about to do his thing, when suddenly, boom! A heavy clunk hit his head. “How many times have I told you to double-check the locks on the door when you get in?” Sarah wagged her finger in his face. “I can’t find my purse, and I bet one of those hoodlum friends of yours stole it,” she said as she marched down the steps. Miles thought, As usual, whenever something in the house is missing, my mom blames it on my friends. Like the time, a jar of peanut butter from the cabinet was missing. Now, who would steal peanut butter? After she found the empty jar in the trashcan, she remembered that she had finished it o the night before while watching late-night TV. Boy does she love peanut butter! And the time the sofa was missing. She blamed it on my friends, and then remembered that it had been sent out to be reupholstered. Who would break into your house to steal a couch? What next?
Miles enjoyed being around his friends. He had known them all his life and felt they were family—there was nothing wrong with his homies. Lee and Morgan were his favorites, and he thought they were also the “coolest.” But he had to admit that every once in a while they did get a little crazy, like the time when Lee had “borrowed” a neighbor’s motorbike and ended up crashing it into a police car, and the time that Morgan had got caught with a grocery bag full of frozen steaks. He’d said he’d just been “borrowing” them to nurse his bruised knee. Hey, anything’s possible!
When Miles finally did get up, he went downstairs to the living room and saw his mother dressed in her work clothes, just about ready to go to the hospital. Her white nursing uniform had been slightly faded by countless washes, and her hair looked a little frazzled, probably from her tearing the house apart looking for the purse.
“Did you look in Abbey’s room?” Miles asked. “You know how you sometimes leave it in there when you check on her after you get home from work.”
Miles knew that his mother had a habit of checking on them when she got home late at night from working at the hospital. He moved slowly around the living room as his eyes adjusted to the morning light streaming through the window and heard her exclaim, “Found it!” as she hustled out of Abbey’s room with her purse under her arm.
Then, as she tried to re-arrange her hair in the mirror on the living room wall, she said, “Now remember, you’re to take your little sister over to your uncle’s after school today—I’ll pick her up later for her recital. No hanging out with those little troublemakers of yours. And see if you can find some kind of afternoon job to keep yourself o the streets. I don’t want to have to worry about you. You know how dangerous these streets can be.” She was referring to one of the neighbors’ kids, who had recently been hit by a stray bullet. “Don’t worry about me, Ma; I can take care of myself,” said Miles. “I’m not worried about you; I’m worried about your sister,” she replied as she went out the door of their apartment complex. Miles looked out the window and watched her as she rushed up the sidewalk trying to catch the bus to work. Why is she always worried? Miles thought. I can take care of both Abbey and myself. I was going to hang- out with the boys; now I’ve got to drop o Abbey at Uncle Roland’s. It’s not fair; it’s just not fair. He hurried his way up the stairs to get ready for school.
After they had arrived home from school, Miles and Abbey took the number 6 train to their uncle’s apartment. He lived in a late nineteenth-century brownstone on 133rd Street, not far from the park. Newer, more up-to-date apartments surrounded it, and gentrification was making its way through the neighborhood. Uncle Roland was about fifteen years older than his sister, Sarah. His hair was streaked with gray, and he had a slight paunch. He always bragged that he had single-handedly raised her when their parents had died. Miles knew he was right, because he was the closest thing to a father that Abbey and he had known. They had both learned so much from him. As Miles and Abbey arrived at their uncle’s apartment, Roland and his wife, Nancy, greeted them at the door. “Your mother said she would pick up Abbey,” said Aunt Nancy to Miles as they entered the spacious apartment. Large furniture, along with tables, stands and other accouterments adorned the living quarters. “Yeah,” Miles sighed unenthusiastically as he sat on the couch. Roland studied Miles for a moment as his nephew slumped on the sofa, and asked, “How are things at home?” “Okay, I guess,” Miles answered as he nonchalantly looked around the room for something to do. There was a momentary silence between the two. Roland looked at his wife and slightly tilted his head toward the kitchen. Nancy took the cue and led Abbey into the kitchen for a snack of jellyrolls, brownies, chocolate dandies and Chu Berry juice.
Roland peered down at Miles and inquired, “Now that you’re about to graduate from high school, what are your plans for college?” “Don’t need it,” said Miles as he picked up a magazine from the coffee table and leafed through it. “Hmm,” Roland muttered. Another period of silence fell between them. “Are you still hanging out with those neighborhood boys?” “ They’re my homeboys,” said Miles, defending his friends. “We stick up for each other. When times get tough, I got their back and they got mine.” “That may be true,” Roland responded, “but your mother is worried about you. She thinks you spend too much time with them and will end up like a lot of kids here in Harlem: jobless and clueless. She’s just concerned.” “She shouldn’t be; I have plans for my future,” Miles interjected. Roland stared at him and shook his head, as any loving parent would do after hearing something from a naïve child.
Then he motioned to Miles. “Follow me,” he said, leaving the living room. Miles got up and followed his uncle into his new home office. “What kinds of plans?” Roland asked as they entered the room. Miles had been in the apartment many times before. The room that was now the home office had had previous incarnations. At one time it was used as a spare bedroom. Another time it was to be used as a nursery when Nancy found out she was pregnant, but after she miscarried the room had been abandoned as a place for an infant and instead used for storage. Up until recently, the room had been just a gathering place for old materials that Roland had collected over the years. Boxes of framed pictures, photos, plaques, albums, books, cassettes, 8-track tapes and players, old reel-to-reel tapes and recorders, posters and billboards, as well as other sundry items used to fill the room.
Entering the room, before he could talk about his future plans to become famous Miles was amazed at what he now saw in the new home office. The room had been converted from a junky warehouse of disparate parts and pieces to a habitable, inviting, cozy retreat. The carpet on the floor was thick and welcoming. A soft tan leather couch sat along one wall, while a large mahogany bookcase filled to the brim with tomes and magazines was along the other. A number of small tables were also in the office. In the corner was an upright piano and stool, with sheet music resting on the ledge above the lid. A roll-top desk and matching chair was precisely placed opposite the window so that a viewer could swing around and look out at the street below and the architectural landscape surrounding the building. Light, lacy curtains surrounded the window.
Framed pictures and encased awards decorated the walls. It seemed as though hundreds of images, placards, posters and signs were there. Miles knew that as a young man Roland had attended Virginia State University, where he had won numerous awards, and that later in life he had traveled all over the world, had been the host of numerous radio and television shows, and was a teacher at one of the local New York colleges. Miles had no idea who all the people were in the pictures, or any clue as to what his uncle had done to be in the pictures. For all he knew, he could have been a secret agent working for the government; the folks in the pictures could have been some of his unknowing victims and colleagues, and the awards could have been citations from the Feds for doing such a fine job. Roland started the conversation about his concerns for Miles. en he droned on and on about his discussion with his sister about her son’s life and what life held for directionless adolescents. After Miles had taken a cursory look at the pictures and plaques on the wall, he became inattentive to his uncle’s rant and started to half listen, then daydream. Miles was bored with his uncle’s preaching, and to get relief from the boredom he opened the blinds and looked out the window.
In the background he saw some of Harlem’s most notable structures, including the townhouses of Strivers’ Row, Malcolm X Boulevard, Lenox Avenue, Harlem Presbyterian Church and Marcus Garvey Park. He also saw a small non-descript building with a marquee along its side that read, “ The Cotton Club.” But not far from the apartment was the Delano Village housing complex. The behemoth building looked like a massive impersonal fortress, and was similar to other public housing projects that commonly dotted “Gotham City.” The exterior was a cold, ugly gray color, and the tall gothic structure had small windows barely big enough to allow in a draft of air or shaft of light. There was a small, vacant, run-down playground in front of the hulking structure.
Evidence of urban renewal was apparent as Miles continued to peruse the landscape of Harlem. The area was being spruced up to accommodate out-of-town visitors who wanted to witness its glorious history. In both the foreground and background some buildings looked relatively new, while others were old and in extreme need of repair.
After a few minutes of talking to himself, Roland paused and asked in a frustrated manner, “Miles, are you listening to me? Do you agree?” “Yes,” said Miles blandly as though he was waking up from a trance, not knowing what had been discussed in the last five minutes. “ Then it’s settled,” said his uncle. “You are to report to me twice a week after school so that we can get your life in order. And try to please your mother by not hanging out in the streets with your friends all hours of the night.” What have I done? Miles thought. What have I committed myself to? A momentary lapse in concentration had cost him some of his free time. Miles didn’t remember saying he agreed to the plan; the only saving grace of the visits was that it would get his mother o of his back. And due to his commitment of time visiting and meeting with his uncle, he would have an excuse for not getting an afternoon job. He would much rather hang out with his friends, but ... if this is the cost of keeping the peace in the family, then I’ll take it, he thought. After all, how bad could it be visiting a couple of times of week and having a “man to man” talk? But he still felt like he had been tricked into something that he wanted no part of.
As Miles stormed out of the room and waved goodbye to his sister, he thought more and more about his rapping career and how his visits with his uncle might interfere with it. How do I keep my music fresh? he thought as he left the apartment. Miles felt strongly that his musical career was going to be successful, but as he remembered all his uncle’s plaques and awards, he realized that any help he could get from him might be useful. He must have been a pretty smart guy, and not accepting his guidance might be a pretty dumb thing to do. Seeing him a couple of times a week might not be such a bad idea. Maybe some of his smarts might brush o on me, Miles thought as he walked back toward his own neighborhood to catch up with his friends. He concluded that at least it might keep his mother and uncle happy.
Weeks later, as Miles headed to his twice-weekly sessions with his uncle, he began to wonder if it was just a waste of time. He felt no closer to perfecting his music than he had done before starting the meetings. In fact, he felt he was actually getting worse: his homeboys would often feed him lines to make a good rap, but he was no longer around them enough. Miles even thought his taste in music was suffering when he caught himself humming a tune by a pop group. What’s goin’ on with me? he thought.