E'er since Miss Susan Johnson lost her Jockey, Lee
There has been much excitement, more to be
You can hear her moaning night and morn
She's wonderin where her Easy Rider's gone?
I always knew that one day Madam Queen (Queenie to her friends) would vanish, that Stéphanie St. Clair would recede from the world’s view. It would not be a sudden disappearance, nor a frenzied flight. Nor, even, would it be a sinking into dementia’s dark abyss (the sort attributed to manioc ants back in my native Martinique). No.
Rather, Stéphanie St. Clair would succumb to a steady erasure. Like the smear a window washer, paid no mind by those strolling past, might wipe clean in one mechanical gesture.
I was Queen, but am no more, alas! From the very first days of that century called the most brilliant in all of humanity’s history, I had all of Harlem at my feet. Oh, yes, and Sugar Hill, too—the neighborhood of refuge for the Black elite, far from the endless gunfights, and the destitute, miserous négraille. Sugar Hill, but also, yes, Edgecombe Avenue, where I kept a suite in one of New York’s tallest buildings—fourteen stories high. For a long time, I harbored a fear of that diabolic invention that is the elevator—a fact that never failed to get a rise out of Duke, my body guard and occasional man-of-the-moment. He used to tease me:
“Queenie, if you keep dragging yourself up those stairs like that, one of these days you’ll slip right through the floorboard cracks!”
The brute was right. Though no weed, I’d never been a very voluptuous woman, and I’ve always had a chip on my shoulder about it. As a young girl, my mother (though mother might be too strong a word) made me eat heapings of breadfruit, Chinese cabbage, and yam; all of it copiously drenched in oil. As she believed, it was my only hope of catching a man’s eye. Not to mention the spoonsful of cod-liver oil that she made me gulp down well beyond my days as a little marmy-scamp. But it never amounted to anything because, gorger though I was, my body never seemed to hold on to any of these foods, so I stayed stubbornly zoklet-lanky and unplumped.
“A mongoose!” My mother cackled.
“A weasel!” Roberto would laugh, much later. Roberto would sometimes introduce himself as a Corsican, sometimes as a Neapolitan, and his sonorous tones enchanted me all along the Marseille harbor; he compelled me, guileless as he was, to open the door of my intimacy to him with no further ado.
And so, I’d climb step after step, floor after floor, alone in the half-dark of that endless staircase, all the way up to the ninth. At each landing I’d look out over the quadrangle of streets teeming with harried crowds scuffling against the current of ever-more abundant automobiles, spitting thick clouds of smoke in their wake.
This little mountaineering feat of mine often recurred two or three times in a single day, and yet Madame Queen never lost heart. On one such occasion, my closest neighbor—a jazz musician and, since 1923, celebrated star of the Savoy Ballroom—stepped out of the elevator, calling for his maid. Breathless, I made my way to the apartment, where a certain resigned Duke awaited. As my neighbor and I crossed paths, he gently ventured:
“I quite understand, Ma’am! Back on those islands of yours, they all live close to nature, isn’t that so? Ah, how you must long for the open air…”
For a long while I simmered rage. Stupidly.
“I am French, understand?” I shot back, as the veins of my neck throbbed. “Je suis française, monsieur!”
“Oui, Madame,” he responded in French, making use of what were undoubtedly the only two words he knew in my language, before hurrying toward the safety of his apartment.
But memory fails me, the way it all surfaces in spits and spurts. See, I’m an old lady now and the century—the twentieth, to call it by its name—is more than half over. Two world wars have come and gone, and in this Queens nursing home where I will finish my days, the way these White nurses care for me—with deference and without the least regard to my epidermal color—astounds me, still. My dear nephew, I see your hand lurching across your notebook. I hope you’ve scrupulously taken note of everything you asked me to recall…even if my words are a bit disjointed.
Of course, I didn’t always live in this handsome building. Like all those dreaming of America, pulses quickening at first glimpse of Lady Liberty, I was dealt my share of vexations. Not to mention, my glimpse of that great statue didn’t come till much later, because on the day I arrived, the fog was so thick that she was invisible to the Virginie—the vessel I boarded in Marseille on a whim, or more precisely, with a broken heart. When we finally made land, the customs officials scrutinized and re-scrutinized my passport, some of them dubious, others incredulous. (“A Black Frenchlady, how about that! Since when did Paris start taking in niggerbastards?”) So they confined me in a storage room while the port authorities verified my claims, and I watched the dregs of humanity file by: filthy, rag-swathed Sicilians, their faces drawn blade-thin by hunger; the people of Eastern Europe, Polish for the most part, bawling at the slightest provocation and baritoning their joy at finally setting foot upon the New World; sickly Jews from all over, searching for the Promised Land with eyes always lowered and hordes of young children trailing at their heels; blond, slim-waisted Irish oozing dignity from deadened eyes as they clutched their battered suitcases. Ah, those rotten Irish…I regret ever feeling compassion for them then! You see, we’d been quarantined in a vast building that occupied three quarters of what we learned was Ellis Island, we the third-class passengers. Meanwhile, the first and second classes entered American territory with absolutely no difficulty. We were waiting for our turn to undergo a medical examination. Passengers from the ship that had arrived two days before ours wandered aimlessly, gripped by despair and clothed in rough canvas tunics that had been tagged with a hastily scrawled letter: ‘H’ or ‘E’. We came to discover that these unfortunates suffered from a diseased ‘H’eart or infected ‘E’yes. And they were left to drift in this state as they awaited deportation back to their countries, southern Italy for most of them. Their American Dream was shattered before it could even take shape! To tell the truth, I never fed myself on such illusions. I only left Marseille on a whim. I could have just as easily boarded a ship bound for Valparaiso or Saigon. As far as I can remember, for the first twenty-six years of my life, all spent in Martinique, I never heard a single soul—neither Black nor Mulatto nor even White Creole—glorify those United States of America, and certainly none of them hoped to live there. No. France was our sole compass.
When my passport was returned at last, (and on this point, the customs officials were reluctant, as I could see their suspicions had not totally dissipated), I took it upon myself to come to the aid of a suffering Irish mother and her family. She was a good deal younger than I and already had three children, including a baby she practically wrestled to keep in her arms. Instinctively, I offered her my help and her husband kept silent. He continued down the quay like an automaton, mumbling something I couldn’t make any sense of (at the time I could only stammer out one or two English words). Had he lost his mind? I had no idea and, in any case, didn’t care. She handed me the baby, and for the first time a little being squirmed against my chest. Me! In my country, I had rejected the horror of becoming a “da” for some grand, rich White Creole or Mulatto family. It was my mother who clung to the idea, and for a long time that nag wouldn’t let it go. She adorned the profession with pretty names: “nounou,” “governess,” and on and on. So, I screamed in her face, “Not never! Pas jamais! You understand me? Not never! Pas jamais!” She was always ready with her defense. Clearly, I couldn’t speak du bon français and if only I’d accept a position with the Beauchamps of Malmaison or the Dupin family of Fromillac, I could learn to speak as well as the Larousse dictionary, in no time at all. Not to mention the excellent wages. Hah! Idiotics!
Out in the street, there was no one to greet the immigrants. Except for a row of taxis, whose drivers hailed their clients in their native languages. One of them, hitching up his nose, agreed to take us but never bothered to ask our destination. Throwing his weight against the horn while crossing what I considered impressively broad avenues, he began crooning a melancholy song. It was rhythmic, though its meaning was lost on me. The Irish family didn’t make a peep. As if they’d decided to abandon themselves to destiny, as if resigned and ready to endure every peril; I, on the other hand, had to contain my enthusiasm. I was in America! I wanted to whoop with joy, to jump out of that rickety taxi and embrace each passerby whose path I crossed. Every fiber of my being, every pore of my skin felt electrified. But suddenly we were in the midst of a half-dilapidated neighborhood whose streets were teeming with grubby-faced throngs of people. Mostly men, some of whom brandished bottles of what I figured were full of alcohol. What a shock! Those creatures who seemed to revel in their degradation were of every race: Blacks, Whites, and, above all, undefinables.
“You're at Five Points. That’ll be forty dollars!”
Angus, as I heard his wife call him, stiffened. Setting the boys on his knees aside, he ventured in a timid voice that contradicted his imposing figure:
“That’s too much, sir…”
The taxi driver didn’t spare a second on useless bickering. Yelling, he got out of the car and called on bystanders to bear witness, shouting that we were a bunch of Irishit who should’ve stayed put on our shitty island instead of infesting America with our lice and our mange. I couldn’t quite make out the details the details of his ragery, but for some reason each of his strange words had etched into my mind, even before I knew the language. And later, much later, they’d resurface, especially at night in the moments before drifting off to sleep when I’d retrace my life after Martinique—because I must admit, dear boy, my Frederic, that its memory was fading, overtaken by Harlem and my handsome Edgecombe Avenue apartment. My old habit—or obsession, to be totally honest—sent me plummeting into revelry and irritated Bumpy Johnson to no end. Bumpy was my employee, my body guard, my middleman in mafia dealings, and above all, my man… that is, once Duke was fired. But I’ll tell you about that later.
But see, Bumpy had an old habit of his own. As soon as we got into bed, no matter the hour, maybe nine or ten in the winter, midnight or later during the other seasons, he would pounce on my person and wordlessly remove my nightgown before impaling me, after which he would straddle me savagely, all while heaving and moaning grotesquely. I’d watch the massive bump that bedighted the back of his skull—that’s what had earned him his nickname—as it wobbled ridiculously from right to left. During our first meeting—back when I’d just reinvented myself as a banker in the clandestine lottery (oh, the audacity!), putting up the ten thousand dollars I’d managed to save during my stint with the gang of Forty Thieves, then thanks my Jamaican Ginger trade—which I’ll tell you about later—that anomaly (or infirmity, I don’t know how to describe it) disgusted me. But provided you could look past it, Ellsworth Johnson was a strapping man and, above all, he had completely mastered the art of convincing, which was only more exceptional for his ever-so-slight southern accent; it was a point of pride for him, being born as he was in Charleston, South Carolina.
But I digress: That taximan was a fool. A real loon! A nut gone fou an mitan tet, as they say in Martinique. There he was unbaggaging his vehicle, opening our suitcases and, when the clasps wouldn’t unclasp, gutting them with a knife, all while calling upon the world as witness:
“Citizens of the United States, don’t let these bands of savages strip us of all we’re worth! These shitsoaked Irish hicks! Here, I’m confiscating this! And this, too! Get the helloutta here before I call the police!”
He didn’t even notice that I was Black, I told myself at first. I was wrong: he didn’t notice me at all. I was an invisible creature, an insignificant being, or better yet, some domesticated animal that merited no more than a distracted glance. Or maybe he’d taken me for the Mulryans’ servant. We regrouped on the sidewalk in that fleabag skid row, Five Points. We were in a state of shock, incapable of gathering our few possessions that a brutal wind threatened to scatter. Angus held his boys—each of whom was wearing a funny little hat—limply in his arms. Daireen, the wife, wrapped her shawl around the crying baby. I stood there—Stéphanie the Martinican blackwoman—suddenly naturalized Irish by some thick lout. Before leaving Marseilles, I’d managed to learn a few American expressions; I didn’t need to beg a stranger for help to take my first steps (and being needy gets you nowhere!). The man who’d taught them to me, an old man who’d been an English teacher at some religious institution, had intrigued me because every morning when the weather was fine, he’d stroll down the Vieux Port dressed as a sailor, a cap stuck to his head, melancholic. I finally approached him, shyly because I was worried that he’d be afraid of blackfolk, as were many of the inhabitants of that nonetheless joyous city whose cloudless blue sky left me stupefied. Back home in Martinique, miraculous good weather like that only graces us a couple days a year, normally in the very beginning of September, a lull before the season of storms, and in any case, our pale blue has none of the brilliance of Mediterranean indigo.
“Sor….sorry to…bother you, sir” I stammered, making an attempt at an inviting smile.
The man stopped short, inspected me from head to toe, warily removed his pince-nez, then took my hands. His were soft and old with prominent veins. I wasn’t surprised: when I was a child, the Sainte Thérèse priests would come greet us like that during catechism. Back then, it was unthinkable that a man of the church could be Black. Later, much later (after I’d come to America) I let my very first body guard, Duke, bring me down to the Baptist church on 135th Street, and I was shocked to discover a pastor of my race before a modest altar. He wore a violet gown and was jerking about, his arms flailing toward the heavens, as he sermonized with a vengeance before ending up rolling onto the floor. I narrowly avoided bursting into laughter, and Duke stared daggers at me.
“Are you an African blackwoman or an island girl?” the old sailor from Marseilles asked me in a kindly tone.
“I’m from... Martinique.”
“Ah, what a shame! Martinique? But I visited that island, and several times. A magical land if ever there were one!”
And he cited an et cetera of place names: Morne Rouge, Pelée, the Cul de Sac Bay, Rivière Salée, Coulée d’Or, Caravelle. Then he gestured for me to sit down alongside him on the dock. As our feet dangled a couple meters above the dirty water crowded with ships flying a multitude of flags, he revealed the truth. He had never in all his life, never traveled anywhere at all. His knowledge of the world, of the universe, as he so pompously called it, had been gleaned from geography books, atlases, novels, and above all, from contact with the sailors returning to Marseilles from South America, Vietnam, or the African coast. The ones he ended up befriending would, upon his request, bring back exotic souvenirs—parchment from India, bows and arrows from Guinea, caftans from Muslim territories—that offered him a better sense of those lands he himself would never see. He laughed, but not unkindly, at my desire to settle down in any old place in the vast expanse of the world. He suggested America and spent a whole month gleefully recounting the battles between the cowboys and Indians, the Civil War, the mass extermination of bison, and the general impossibility of losing one’s way amid the grid-like structure of those immense American cities whose streets had the benefit of being numbered and not named like those of the Old World.
“Everything here is old, mademoiselle! There’s the Old Port, Old Europe, Old World. Ha ha ha! Try your luck over there! I can’t understand why you didn’t go there straightaway—Martinique is so close to the United States…”
I didn’t dare admit that I’d wanted first and foremost to explore the France we’d learned to revere like a second mother. The fact remains that he taught me the rudiments of English, which, my dear nephew, were of almost no use at all when I landed in New York, a city where thirty-six different accents rubbed shoulders. But it did help me to decipher a sign in that filthy Fifty Points neighborhood where the taximan had abandoned us: For Rent. You see, I hadn’t realized that my Irish companions didn’t know how to read! I was dumbfounded because, in my little native Martinican mind, it was inconceivable that whitefolk wouldn’t go to school. I was ringing the doorbell of what seemed to be a vacant building when a middle-aged lady leaned out a first-floor window and hollered:
“Get lost! Dirty niggerwoman!”
Then, noticing I was accompanied by a White family and that I held their white-colored baby in my arms, she softened her tone.
“Thirty dollars a week, due up front! The blackgirl’s free—if she helps with the housework, I’ll let her sleep in the kitchen. Well?”
The Mulryans had come to America without one red cent! Unless they’d been robbed clean on the ship... In third class, that kind of villainy was standard order seeing as most of the passengers were ex-convicts or other criminal types fleeing their country in hopes of building a brand-new, stain-free life for themselves. Few women voyaged alone, and those who did all turned out to be whores, plying their trade on the high seas in exchange for a couple dollar bills or a bottle of Italian wine (for the least attractive). A maniac Sardinia native, who boasted before god about being a bootlegger of great renown and was sauced from morning to night, gagging and heaving every second step, tried to proposition me in his own rather unusual way. In a show of high hoggery, he accosted me:
“Hey, you! Come let me fuck you, whore! I want to see if your blackness rubs off on my skin. Ha ha ha!”
Seeing that I hadn’t reacted in the slightest (I tended to withdraw myself in such situations, catatonic-like), he was emboldened, groping my breast, which was, admittedly, not well endowed. My Black blood boiled, boiled like the blood of yesteryear’s slaves who’d been lashed by some diabolic master’s rigoise whip. My temples throbbed hot. My pupils contracted. I clenched my teeth, then…BAM! I rammed the toe of my shoe right into his testicular soft spot. The Sardinian collapsed without a word as the other passengers looked on in stupefaction, thrilled at the prospect of a little distraction. He lay curled in fetal position on the bone-cold third-class floor, whining like a colicky babe. Silence set in and it was a good hour before everyone returned to their own activities, quite a feat for the anchovy tin we’d found ourselves packed into with no other diversion than a couple foul-smelling toilets and a dining hall that seated thirty and served two meager meals a day. I was the only blackwoman aboard, but also the only Frenchwoman—a real oddity, in short. But since the day I walloped that Sardinian bootlegger, they began to watch me, some amusedly, others with anxious deference.
Angus and his wife kept silent, at a complete loss for what to do. I had no choice but to come to the aide of those penniless Irish once again. I had felt moved by them when we debarked at Ellis Island, but here all I could muster was pity. It was such a strange sentiment for someone who’d grown up on an island where the whiteman was always on top and the blackman below that I flushed with embarrassment, a profound embarrassment, to tell the truth, as I pulled sixty dollars out of my wallet to pay the weeks’ worth of rent that the landlord demanded in advance. But enough about me. Tell me something about you, my darling nephew! You know, when I first got your letter I didn’t open it right away. To be honest, if you hadn’t written your name and address on the back of the envelope, I most certainly would have left it on my desk to languish. Frédéric Sainte-Claire, 26 Boulevard de la Levée, Fort-de-France, Martinique (French West Indies). Ha! See there? I still have a few crumbs of memory, despite my seventy-six years. So, you say you’d like to know all about my life, but you say you’re not a writer. That’s all right, then, just jot down what I say and try to fix it up later as best you can.
Thank you, in any case, for coming to see me…