DEREK STRANGE GOT down in a three-point stance. He breathed evenly, as his father had instructed him to do, and took in the pleasant smell of April. Magnolias, dogwoods, and cherry trees were in bloom around the city. The scent of their flowers, and the heavy fragrance of a nearby lilac bush growing against a residential fence, filled the air.
"You keep your back straight," said Derek, "like you're gonna set a dinner up on it. You ain't want your butt up in the air, either. That way you're ready. You just blow right out, like, and hit the holes. Bust on through."
Derek and his Saturday companion, Billy Georgelakos, were in an alley that ran behind the Three-Star Diner on a single-number block of Kennedy Street, at the eastern edge of Northwest D.C. Both were twelve years old.
"Like your man," said Billy, sitting on a milk crate, an Our Army at War comic book rolled tightly in his meaty hand.
"Yeah," said Derek. "Here go Jim Brown right here."
Derek came up out of his stance and exploded forward, one palm hovering above the other, both close to his chest. He took an imaginary handoff as he ran a few steps, then cut, slowed down, turned, and walked back toward Billy.
Derek had a way of moving. It was confident but not cocky, shoulders squared, with a slight looseness to the hips. He had copied the walk from his older brother, Dennis. Derek was the right height for his age, but like all boys and most men, he wished to be taller. Lately, at night when he was in bed, he thought he could feel himself growing. The mirror over his mother's dresser told him he was filling out in the upper body, too.
Billy, despite his wide shoulders and unusually broad chest, was not an athlete. He kept up on the local sports teams, but he had other passions. Billy liked pinball machines, cap pistols, and comic books.
"That how Brown got his twelve yards in eleven carries against the 'Skins?" said Billy.
"Uh-uh, Billy, don't be talkin' about that."
"Don Bosseler gained more in that game than Brown did."
"In that game. Most of the time, Bosseler ain't fit to carry my man's cleats. Two weeks before that, at Griffith? Jim Brown ran for one hundred and fifty-two. The man set the all-time rushing record in that one, Billy. Don Bosseler? Shoot."
"Awright," said Billy, a smile forming on his wide face. "Your man can play."
Derek knew Billy was messing with him, but he couldn't help getting agitated just the same. Not that Derek wasn't a Redskins fan. He listened to every game on the radio. He read the Shirley Povich and Bob Addie columns in the Post whenever they saw print. He followed the stats of quarterback Eddie LeBaron, middle linebacker Chuck Drazenovich, halfback Eddie Sutton, and others. He even tracked Bosseler's yards-per-carry. In fact, he only rooted against the 'Skins twice a year, and then with a pang of guilt, when they played Cleveland.
Derek had a newspaper photo of Brown taped to the wall of the bedroom he shared with his brother. With the exception of his father, there was no one who was more of a hero to him than Brown. This was a strong individual who commanded respect, not just from his own but from people of all colors. The man could play.
"Don Bosseler," said Derek, chuckling. He put one big, long-fingered hand to the top of his head, shaved nearly to the scalp, and rubbed it. It was something his brother, Dennis, did in conversation when he was cracking on his friends. Derek had picked up the gesture, like his walk, from Dennis.
"I'm kiddin' you, Derek." Billy got up off the milk crate and put his comic book down on the diner's back stoop. "C'mon, let's go."
"My neighborhood. Maybe there's a game up at Fort Stevens."
"Okay," said Derek. Billy's streets were a couple of miles from the diner and several miles from Derek's home. Most of the kids up there were white. But Derek didn't object. Truth was, it excited him some to be off his turf.
On most Saturdays, Derek and Billy spent their time out in the city while their fathers worked at the diner. They were boys and were expected to go out and find adventure and even mild forms of trouble. There was violence in certain sections of the District, but it was committed by adults and usually among criminals and mostly at night. Generally, the young went untouched.
Out on the main drag, Derek noticed that the local movie house, the Kennedy, was still running Buchanan Rides Alone, with Randolph Scott. Derek had already seen it with his dad. His father had promised to take him down to U Street for the new John Wayne, Rio Bravo, which had people talking around town. The picture was playing down at the Republic. Like the other District theaters on U, the Lincoln and the Booker T, the Republic was mostly for colored, and Derek felt comfortable there. His father, Darius Strange, loved westerns, and Derek Strange had come to love them, too.
Derek and Billy walked east on the commercial strip. They passed two boys Derek knew from church, and one of them said, "What you hangin' with that white boy for?" and Derek said, "What business is that of yours?" He made just enough eye contact for the boy to know he was serious, and all of them went on their way.
Billy was Derek's first and only white playmate. The working relationship between their fathers had caused their hookup. Otherwise they never would have been put together, since most of the time, outside of sporting events and first jobs, colored boys and white boys didn't mix. Wasn't anything wrong with mixing, exactly, but it just seemed more natural to be with your own kind. Hanging with Billy sometimes put Derek in a bad position; you'd get challenged out here when your own saw you walking with a white. But Derek figured you had to stand by someone unless he gave you cause not to, and he felt he had to say something when conflict arrived. It wouldn't have been right to let it pass. Sure, Billy often said the wrong things, and sometimes those things hurt, but it was because he didn't know any better. He was ignorant, but his ignorance was never deliberate.
They walked northwest through Manor Park, across the green of Fort Slocum, and soon were up on Georgia Avenue, which many thought of as Main Street, D.C. It was the longest road in the District and had always been the primary northern thoroughfare into Washington, going back to when it was called the 7th Street Pike. All types of businesses lined the strip, and folks moved about the sidewalks day and night. The Avenue was always alive.
The road was white concrete and etched with streetcar tracks. Wood platforms, where riders had once waited to board streetcars, were still up in spots, but the D.C. Transit buses were now the main form of public transportation. A few steel troughs, used to water the horses that had pulled the carts of the junkmen and fruit and vegetable vendors, remained on the Avenue, but in short order all of it would be going the way of those mobile merchants. It was said that the street would soon be paved in asphalt and the tracks, platforms, and troughs would disappear.
Billy's neighborhood, Brightwood, was mostly white, working- and middle-class, and heavily ethnic: Greeks, Italians, Irish Catholics, and all varieties of Jew. The families had moved from Petworth, 7th Street, Columbia Heights, the H Street corridor in Northeast, and Chinatown, working their way north as they began to make more money in the prosperous years following World War II. They were seeking nicer housing, yards for their children, and driveways for their cars. Also, they were moving away from the colored, whose numbers and visibility had rapidly increased citywide in the wake of reurbanization and forced desegregation.
But even this would be a temporary move. Blockbuster real estate agents in Brightwood had begun moving colored families into white streets with the intention of scaring residents into selling their houses on the cheap. The next stop for upper-Northwest, east-of-the-park whites would be the suburbs of Maryland. No one knew that the events of the next nine years would hasten that final move, though there was a feeling that some sort of change was coming and that it would have to come, an unspoken sense of the inevitable. Still, some denied it as strongly as they denied death.
Derek lived in Park View, south of Petworth, now mostly colored and some working-class whites. He attended Backus Junior High and would go on to Roosevelt High School. Billy went to Paul Junior High and was destined for Coolidge High, which had some coloreds, most of whom were athletes. Many Coolidge kids would go on to college; far fewer from Roosevelt would. Roosevelt had gangs; Coolidge had fraternities. Derek and Billy lived a few short miles apart, but the differences in their lives and prospects were striking.
They walked the east side of Georgia's 6200 block, passing the open door of the Arrow cleaners, a business that had been in place since 1929, owned and operated by Bill Caludis. They stopped in to say hey to Caludis's son, Billy, whom Billy Georgelakos knew from church. On the corner sat Clark's Men's Shop, near Marinoff-Pritt and Katz, the Jewish market, where several of the butchers had camp numbers tattooed on their forearms. Nearby was the Sheridan Theater, which was running Decision at Sundown, another Randolph Scott. Derek had seen it with his dad.
They crossed to the other side of Georgia. They walked by Vince's Agnes Flower Shop, where Billy paused to say a few words with a cute young clerk named Margie, and the Sheridan Waffle Shop, also known as John's Lunch, a diner owned by John Deoudes. Then it was a watering hole called Sue's 6210, a Chinese laundry, a barbershop, and on the corner another beer garden, the 6200. "Stagger Lee" was playing on the house juke, its rhythms coming through the 6200's open door.
On the sidewalk outside the bar, three young white teenagers were alternately talking, smoking cigarettes, and running combs through their hair. One of them was ribbing another, asking if his girlfriend had given him his shiner and swollen face. "Nah," said the kid with the black eye, "I got jumped by a buncha niggers down at Griffith Stadium," adding that he was going to be looking for them and "some get-back." The group quieted as Derek and Billy passed. There were no words spoken, no hard stares, and no trouble. Derek looking at the weak, all-mouth boy and thinking, Prob'ly wasn't no "buncha niggers" about it, only had to be one.
At the corner of Georgia and Rittenhouse, Billy pointed excitedly at a man wearing a brimmed hat, crossing the street and heading east. With him was a young woman whose face they couldn't see but whose backside moved in a pleasing way.
"That's Bo Diddley," said Billy.
"Thought he lived over on Rhode Island Avenue."
"That's what everyone says. But we all been seein' him around here lately. They say he's got a spot down there on Rittenhouse."
"Bo Diddley's a gunslinger," said Derek, a warmth rising in his thighs as he checked out the fill of the woman's skirt.
They walked south to Quackenbos and cut across the lot of the Nativity School, a Catholic convent that housed a nice gymnasium. The nuns there were forever chasing Billy and his friends from the gym. Beyond the lot was Fort Stevens, where Confederate forces had been repelled by the guns and musketry of Union soldiers in July of 1864. The fort had been re-created and preserved, but few tourists now visited the site. The grounds mainly served as a playing field for the neighborhood boys.
"Ain't nobody up here," said Derek, looking across the weedy field, the American flag flying on a white mast throwing a wavy shadow on the lawn.
"I'm gonna pick some porichia for my mom," said Billy.
Derek and Billy went up a steep grade to its crest, where several cannons sat spaced in a row. The grade dropped to a deep gully that ran along the northern line of the fort. Beside one of the cannons grew patches of spindly plants with hard stems. Billy pulled a few of the plants and shook the dirt off the roots.
"Thought your mama liked them dandelion weeds."
"That's rodichia. These here are good, too. You gotta get 'em before they flower, though, 'cause then they're too bitter. Let's go give 'em to her and get something to drink."
Billy lived in a slate-roofed, copper-guttered brick colonial on the 1300 block of Somerset, a few blocks west of the park. In contrast with the row houses of Park View and Petworth, the houses here were detached, with flat, well-tended front lawns. The streets were heavy with Italians and Greeks. The Deoudes family lived on Somerset, as did the Vondas family, and up on Underwood lived a wiry kid named Bobby Boukas, whose parents owned a flower shop. All were members of Billy's church, St. Sophia. On Tuckerman stood the house where midget actor Johnny Puleo, who had played in the Lancaster-Curtis circus picture, Trapeze, stayed for much of the year. Puleo drove a customized Dodge with wood blocks fitted to the gas and brake pedals.
On the way to the Georgelakos house, Derek stopped to pet a muscular tan boxer who was usually chained outside the front of the Deoudes residence. The dog's name was Greco. Greco sometimes walked with the police at night on their foot patrols and was known to be quick, loyal, and tough.
Derek got down on his haunches and let Greco smell his hand. The dog pushed his muzzle into Derek's fingers, and Derek patted his belly and rubbed behind his ears.
"Crazy," said Billy.
"What you mean?"
"Usually he rises up and shows his teeth."
"To colored boys, right?"
"He likes me." Derek's eyes softened as he admired the dog. "One day, I'ma get me one just like him, too."
Copyright © 2004 by George Pelecanos