The Mayor Of Bluff City

The Mayor Of Bluff City

 

Mr. Rodgers passed away earlier in 2014, and will always be remembered as a cherished educator and vital component of my 4 years at Northwestern High. Ernie Rodgers was the kind of guy you could tell anything because you knew he truly cared. He kept us “off the streets” and steered us into the warm, loving arms of music.

Mr. Rodgers gave me instructions to rehearse the band, but first I had to maintain order. We had a show coming up and it simply wouldn’t do to be sloppy. The Northwestern High School Marching Band had an excellent reputation to be upheld. Isaac Hayes’ “Shaft” was one of our main jams along with Cliff
Nobles “The Horse.”

During a break in rehearsal, one of the saxophone players continued playing his horn. I remembered how much this perturbed the heads of all the music departments. In their shoes, I could see how annoying this was to them. Rehearsals go so much smoother and quicker without the extra playing. I asked him to stop playing when I stopped the band, as it was impeding the progress we needed to make. This sax player was also a JV football player and I never liked him on GP. He complied and I restarted the band. The trumpets missed their entrance on Shaft and I had to stop them again. Sax player plays on.

OK, now is the time to do the Barney Fife and nip it in the bud. If I don’t handle this here and now, the rest of the band will be impossible to lead. I supposed I realized that then, because I came up with words I had heard, but never used before. “If you keep playing after I stop the band one more time…IT’S ME AND YOU AFTER SCHOOL AT 3!”

The crowd that gathered outside the B building that afternoon was bigger than I’d liked, but at least the whole school didn’t know about it. On either side of the B building’s main entrance was stretches of grass, about 2 feet higher than the sidewalk. I figured the sax player and I could work this out up on the grass and suggested we head up there to talk. With my left arm draped friendly like… over his shoulders, we were just two guys walkin and talkin, workin it out. With my right hand, I attempt to punch him in the face mid-sentence.

Keep in mind, I’m left handed so this “punch,” had it connected, would be truly weak. Sax player saw it coming the week before, blocked it, and now I was down there on the ground. I recall thinking to myself how the hell I got down there just before the first foot to the face came. Oh, My Gawd!! Now I’m getting stomped in the face, how did…this…happen..??

The shrieks of some girls got Mr. Rodgers out there and he dragged me to his office. I don’t remember what he said to me then…I had refused to entertain any thought that wasn’t leading me to the cause of me getting stomped in the face. I couldn’t even begin to register the total embarrassment of what happened. When I got home, my dad laughed at me the way dads do when their only son has taken another step into manhood.

I supposed my willingness to put myself in a situation where I could get my ass kicked meant something. Without the hint of an impending lecture, I was allowed to put a rib eye steak on my swollen eye.

William Stephenson

Coming Out of the Closet

Coming Out of the Closet

 

It was a typical teenage party in the early 1970s. We all made it through our James Brown phase and were all up in other Funk. I laugh when I think about it now, but I remember how we used to dog James “Same Beat” Brown, after a time.

House parties back in the day had one major difference from current throwdowns. There used to be a pause in between songs. You had time to change partners, or talk with your current one. It was during one of these breaks when I noticed Marlene wasn’t around. I always sought either Penny, Marlene or Gwen, to dance with because they could take the way I used to do the Bump. They rarely complained about being bumped across the floor. I asked a couple of peeps if they’d seen her and no one had. Fact was, Donzell wasn’t around and 2 plus 2 will always equal 4. Marlene and Donzell were a long time couple, so it didn’t surprise us to find them in a closet. Teenagers don’t need the luxury of a bed, a little dark will do. It was funny because this was the type of closet that you jam stuff into when you’re having a party.

They must’ve made out with vacuum cleaners and old magazines, and just all kind of household stuff, poking them in the butt. Marlene’s afro was all squished to one side…Marlene and Donzell were one of my favorite couples and every time I clean out my closet, I think of them.

William Stephenson

Faces

Faces

 

If you clap on the one and three, you can’t really get into the game, Faces.

It takes more than the minimum amount of rhythmic ability to play. You want to have at least 10 people for a good session. Each player chooses a sign, or face..to present to the rest of the players in time with the music. On the following beat, the sign of another player is given. Whenever you see your sign done by someone else, you pick it up and keep it going by doing another sign, and so on. The key is always the rhythm. We played this game in the band room and at parties. We had parties just to play this game.

We grew to know each others signs by heart….Marlene was touching the nose, Gwen tugged her ear, Penny stuck out her tongue, Ronald used the universal sign for masturbation. I forgot what Tellis’ was, and many of the others. (Who touched the elbow?…the black power fist?) One of my favorites was the sign Donzell came up with because to do his sign you had to bring your hands up from your side, about 10 inches to the front at about eye level. Let your wrists go limp, then vigorously shake and shimmy your fingers. (Who had the Black Power fist?) Donzell’s sign was probably the most often used in the game because it was like an expression of frustration.

The first game, I think, broke in the band room at Northwestern High. We had so many players, we had to start eliminating people who kept messing up. Faces evolved into a core group of about 10 who were really good. It was a group effort whose sole mission was to go through the entire song without anyone once missing a sign. The two tunes most associated with Faces are Doctor John’s “Right Place Wrong Time” and our theme song, “Fencewalk” by Mandrill.

In the chunk funk of Fencewalk were many places to stretch out rhythmically. We got so good we changed the rules so you could do a little extra signing…as long as you finished up on the beat. Folks were waiting until the last possible millisecond to sign. Another thing we liked to do was fake out somebody by simply appearing to do a particular sign.

Billy Cobham’s “Red Baron” took about 7 minutes, and if we made it through that tune without losing it, we cheered like we just won tickets on the Freedom Train.

William Stephenson

My Brother

My Brother, My Brother

 

I was accused yesterday of being a traitor to my race. On the way down the stairs to the subway, I reached into my wallet and yanked out two of the three dollars in there to buy a ride to work. Hovering near the token booth was a youngish brother, I’d say in his mid twenties. He saw me with the money out of my wallet and asked if I was going to buy a token. I said I was going to buy a token from the guy in the token booth. “Oh, you’d rather help the white man out.” I turned to him as I placed my token in the slot, giving him one of my “I don’t believe you said that” looks.

“That’s right,” this brother tells me. I suppose if I had gone to the video store to rent a video rather than buy one of the bootlegs on the street, that would be the same thing. Go with the brother, right or wrong seems to be the philosophy. I didn’t argue with him, I knew if it was a white guy I would’ve had the same response. I wondered how long it would be before somebody bought his token.

I thought about what this brother must’ve been through for that $1.50 to mean so much to him. Was I keeping him down? Was I now partners with the white man? I didn’t think so, and got on the train minutes later.

William Stephenson

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