God’s tears are brown. At least, that’s what it looks like in Houston when it floods. Not blue nor translucent but dark brown and murky like gumbo with dark roux amassing in His eyes, waiting to drop and cleanse, waiting to kill, waiting to replenish the depleted or fatten the sated. Glorious roux made of grain and grease then poured into the sweat of the body, the stock water, that holy abandoned fluid, then boiled to make one. Hours later, when it smells familiar and tastes appropriate, it falls onto the land of the living with no apologies nor remorse.
And on this particular day we got proof. God was crying—actually, having a fuckin’ fit. The sky was painted gunpowder gray by men in white coveralls with journeymen cards. Intrepid seagulls brave enough for flight resembled chalk glyphs on a blackboard against the pregnant sky, soaring high enough to witness yet confused, not knowing exactly where the docks of Kemah or League City laid anchor. Where was the sun?
Flash floods had laid siege to the city of Houston, holding its residents hostage. Every street, ditch, parking lot, bayou, all of it had been inundated with brown toxic rainwater, taking extreme advantage of the numerous low-lying areas throughout Harris County. Potholes and gullies became urban booby traps camouflaged by brown murky murk that darkened once it hit the ground. Surely those poor seagulls must have been convinced that the bountiful Gulf of Mexico had made land, lending its drunk temper to the Bayou City. Mother Nature’s wager gone awry, the age-old fight between land and sea with the odds stacked against resilient land and its foolish, man-made spectacles built on doughty dirt. Yet the land stands resolute, hosting temples to honor the sun, so the sea fights back to remind outflanked land that the house always wins. Neptune can get pushy when he’s shooting dice with Olokun on the dirty sea floor. Just ask the Vietnamese shrimpers on Galveston Island.
Schools were closed. Those with four-wheel-drive trucks were conscripted into pulling out low-riding Oldsmobiles, curb-hugging Caddies, and the occasional Toyota from the clutches of the brown murky murk.
Then there were the bayous, four in all, emissaries of the mighty Gulf, running through the city like shit through a goose. Each with its own ailments and reputation, giving the Bayou City a constant runny nose.
Decades before the Civil War, Americans had settled along Buffalo Bayou to create an outpost for trade, a new place to be white and free. Fuck Santa Anna, they said. They named the bayou settlement after Sam Houston, a drunk who could shoot. Thus, the bayous were important to the identity of the city. But matched up against the massive and mercurial Gulf of Mexico, the bayous weren’t much but a few creeks moving about like wayward children left unattended.
Father and I had been wading in it for half an hour by now. I sat on his forearm, my tiny arms wrapped around his neck. The water came just below his chest. Too high for me. I was just four years old.
By now I had stopped crying. An hour earlier, Father had arrived at my preschool. I was in the back room huddled with other kids eating PB&J sandwiches in the dark. Kids don’t cry with a mouth full of peanut butter.
The rising waters had made pickups a perilous task reserved for the worthy and the fearless, and most of the kids’ parents hadn’t arrived yet, but Father was there. I knew he’d show. He was a cowboy. A real one.
I recognized his voice at the front door of the converted house on South Park Boulevard. That voice that I first heard when he spoke to Mother’s womb—high and hopeful, announcing plans and wishes with repetition and delight. Now at the rainy hour, it was deep and hurried with politeness making way for urgency. It sounded mirific just the same.
Ms. Fisher led me by the hand to the front door, where Father waited in full yellow rubbers with the hat to match like the Gorton’s fisherman. He took a knee and helped me button up my raincoat.
“Come on, Sonny. We gotta go get your momma,” he said.
I was moving too slow. He avoided my eyes, focused on the process of buttoning with quick, accurate hand movements like a bank teller or cashier. Automaton excelsior with wet face and long hair sprawled across his back. Creole Jesus in motion. No time for the customary ponytail that we both wore on occasion. No time for vanity.
Finally, he looked at me, worried and protective, gently placing his palms against my doughy cheeks.
“Come on, Ti’ John. I’ma carry you, okay?” he offered.
I didn’t argue. I liked it when he’d scoop me up. He wasn’t big. Lean stature, average height. But big fuckin’ hands. Big and swollen and scarred. Darker than mine. Father didn’t take any mess from anybody and his hands were a testament to that fact. He hoisted me into his arms and suddenly I was six feet tall, just like when I’d stand on the kitchen counter while Mother wasn’t looking, even though I was afraid of heights.
The door opened and you could smell it. Noxious air blended with gasoline, liquor, blood, shit, shame, and fear with a quiet hint of desperate courage. My neighborhood—South Park—was underwater.
Heads and shoulders eased through the brown murky murk like brown ducks in a public pond. Trying to find higher ground. Looking for loved ones. Searching for relief. Vigorous brown water crested at the welcome mat before the front door—the little mat with embroidered balloons, smiling rabbits, and cuddly bears that assured parents that their children would be safe. The sloping driveway of the preschool was all brown water that stretched across South Park Boulevard with no way of determining where the street began from the driveway.
Neptune laughed and rolled the dice again, his rapacious eyes set on those unfortunates bedridden in the soaked soil. Homes and structures fronting the boulevard sat lonely and bewildered, lifelike, waiting for their masters’ return as small waves washed upon them, leaving wet dirt to mock their sheathing. Vehicles sat stalled on roadways, allowing only their roofs and cabs reprieve from the brown murky murk—mechanical schoolchildren confined to watery desks raising their hands for attendance, insisting that they were present. But nobody was taking roll this day. Nobody cared if you were tardy or absent. The only thing that mattered was staying alive.
“I don’t wanna go out there, Daddy,” I pleaded, but he was resolute.
“C’mon, boy. Ain’t got time for none of that,” he said as he took the first step into the gumbo.
A seagull shat on an old black man’s head as he waded by us. He smiled at me and started whistling “Nearer, My God, to Thee”—the only melody heard on the streets, competing with splashing water and the mumbles and groans of those wading.
Strange to see things in distress, natural distress like floods. But South Park was no stranger to distress, all but too familiar. South Park. My hood.
South Park occupied the largest swath of land in Southeast Houston, Texas. Developed in the late 1940s and 1950s, the area was filled with starter homes for young white couples reeling from Houston’s oil boom and servicemen reeling from the G.I. Bill. The city fathers saw to it that each of those veterans could quantify his victory with a three-bedroom house complete with a front and backyard. Half of the streets in the new development called South Park were named after World War II battles, locations, and personalities: Bataan Road, Chennault Road, Doolittle Boulevard, Southseas Street, Dunmore Drive, St. Lo Road, et cetera. A promise kept and a street sign to remind you, Uncle Sam figured.
By the time these young white urbanites were cutting their yards for the first time, the Negroes were mainly collected in First, Fourth, and Fifth Wards on the outskirts of Downtown Houston waiting on ole Uncle Jim Crow to retire, but he wasn’t going anywhere. Yet the law of supply and demand opened the doors for employment and black men from the Gulf Coast found gainful employ in various industries supported by the oil industry, NASA, the Houston Ship Channel, and the burgeoning medical industry. Consequently, the blacks moved into South Park, the whites moved out. My parents were one of the first black families to move in.
Then the oil bubble burst, leaving many in South Park to fend for themselves. But the city fathers hadn’t planned on South Park becoming a black neighborhood. There were no street signs related to the American black experience, only nomenclature proudly hoisted on corners typifying Americana at its best—World War II—the good war, the good white American, the good war fought by good white Americans for the salvation of the entire free world. As a result of the black arrival, improvements and funding in the area ceased with the exception of increased law enforcment. South Park became economically depressed, devoid of the optimism it once held in its well-planned hands. But it was well-planned under then-modern notions of urban design so misery was dispersed evenly.
As the 1970s approached and the political landscape began to shift emphasis to housing and education, Uncle Sam decided to throw South Park a bone: one new post office and newly minted government-subsidized apartments that resembled cardboard boxes. Liquor stores and small churches competed neck and neck for claims of cheap dirt sold by woeful white veterans who signed quick claim deeds on the backs of bingo cards at the Elks Lodge with laments that “nigras stole my piece of the American dream.” Public schools were neglected, and I mean both buildings and students. Roadways became patchworks of asphalt fill-ins and forgotten cement. Gas stations offering cheap beer and barbeque sandwiches chaperoned each corner. And the only new developments that kept popping up were neon-lit liquor stores and gleaming new gas stations to replace ratty old liquor stores and the forlorn old gas stations.
By the late seventies, South Park had slammed its brakes and skidded violently into a telephone pole called “progress.” The hood was totaled and what remained was only suitable for a scrap yard, its potential spent and discarded to the side like aluminum cans and balding tires, with vicious guard dogs barking at its borders, guarding junk like jewels, foaming at the mouth because its master feeds it scraps and beats it with an ax handle. But the dogs guard the fence with misplaced courage, goading outsiders to try to enter. Thus, South Park became a “ghetto.”
Its inhabitants were, as they say, good people with better memories of an unforgotten past. Mostly first- and second-generation city folk wired into an urban matrix, sustained by unhealthy food and hearty rustic resilience. Hand-painted signs with poor grammar announced black-owned businesses that serviced the wants and needs of the community. We were survivors and accepted ownership of our happiness and sorrow because we knew that nobody gave a damn, which is exactly why we were floating around South Park Boulevard trying to find our way home.
But nobody complained about the government too much since HPD had sniped People’s Party II revolutionary Carl Hampton from the roof of St. John Missionary Baptist Church on Dowling Street in Third Ward years earlier. So we weren’t expecting the National Guard to rush in on outboards with life preservers and Caridade’s blessing. Not for us. Not for South Park.
What I remember most about that stormy afternoon wading down South Park Boulevard was the deathly silence of the once bustling boulevard. Weeks earlier cars had cruised down South Park Boulevard blasting Funkadelic or Bobby Blue Bland, pausing in front of beauty salons as the foxy ladies stepped out into the world like brand-new money. Tight double knits, polyester stretched across their curves, and afros shaped and sheened, headed to JB’s Entertainment Center, the Groovey Grill, the Thunderbird Lounge, or the Continental for a Scotch and soda and a question about their zodiac sign. This was the tail end of the seventies. Black was still beautiful, baby.
But now, you only heard the splash of water, the reluctant seagulls, and desperate murmurs and prayers said under bated breath. Until a scream rent the thick, fetid air.
A young black woman had lost her grip and dropped her infant into a fast-moving current that she soon learned was a five-foot-deep gully. She dipped frantically into the brown murky murk, feeling around broken glass, aluminum cans, and balding tires for her child. Opening her eyes was impossible, and she wouldn’t have been able to see anything anyway. Others came to her assistance immediately, mimicking her routine of drop and feel, but it was no use.
The gully took her child.
Law enforcement would find the dead infant three days later at a backed-up drainage ditch resting peacefully, with South Park’s debris as a blanket, never to know the sting of the ax handle or the bitterness of scraps. The police report would list his name as Russell Davis.
Father took long but careful steps toward his green Ford parked against the grassy rise of the overpass at the 610 Loop. I was quiet and held on. By now we were both drenched.
• • •
“We almost there, Sonny,” he offered, comforting his child, the piercing wails of the young childless mother waning, felt by all who heard or witnessed, causing most to grip their own children tighter. Holding on to life. We’ll get through this, man. The floods’ll go down, watch. Ain’t nuthin’ but a thang. These things we grew up saying. And grew up believing.
Yet the real dangers were the things that bite. Water moccasins hove into view, their eely undulations guided by the buzz of hungry mosquitoes and horseflies. Raccoons and possums could be seen performing the breaststroke with nests of foraging red ants camped out on their backs saving room for dessert and sherry. I had ten bites already and that’s only because that was as high as I could count at the time. I scratched.
“Don’t scratch. You gonna make it worse,” my protector barked. Worse than this? I thought.
One time I fell into an ant bed and Father picked me up and turned the water hose on me after stripping off all of my clothes. I was too busy crying to notice that I was in the front yard, and damn near everybody on Clearway Drive was watching. I spent the next two hours soaking in the tub and sobbing while Mother sat on the bathroom floor next to the tub. She cried with me. Cher bon Dieu! Then she spotted me with calamine lotion like cheetah spots. Naturally, I ran around the house for the next hour playing jungle boy, butt-naked. Somehow the bites didn’t hurt anymore.
As we neared his truck, I noticed that the afternoon had suddenly grown dark purple—the effect of lights reflecting a bloated, toxic sky. The brown murky murk had transformed into a black oil slick that reflected light from faulty, blinking streetlights and neon bulbs of storefronts. People were now more restless. Murmurs and prayers gently recited in the daylight became loud, exacerbated curses and fevered threats in the evening’s shadow. Gunshots rang out sporadically. Sirens howled, echoing off the black water into the purple sky. Night had arrived. And niggas act up at night.
I peeked at Father’s chest where the raincoat opened—a leather holster with a gun. He wasn’t taking any chances and didn’t have time for threats, real or imagined. I felt safer.
The rain halted but the thick air remained. Fuckin’ humidity.
Houston was a sauna on a cold day. Low pressure and warm Gulf waters equaled humidity most days of the year. AC was a must as humidity lay in wait on every corner.
We sweat in Houston. And when we’re not sweating, it’s raining. Water. Water. All the time, fuckin’ water. Needless to say, growing up in Houston meant growing up wet. Sweat stains. Wet shirts. Hand towels tucked in your shorts like a football player to keep your face dry. AC. Window units. Bank loans taken out for a central air unit with as much collateral as the mortgage. Fans in the windows. Box fans. Rotating fans. Ceiling fans. All of this in a futile attempt to stay dry, stay smelling like cologne, soap, or baby powder. And it never worked unless you stayed locked in the house with the AC at full blast.
So we accept it. The wetness.
We accept the humidity. We accept the rain. We accept the floods and the hurricanes. We accept the infant called by the gully, figuring that’s what the Lord wanted. It didn’t matter if we liked it. We had to accept it in order to get through it. Father knew that. I was learning.
We reached his truck and I learned that the adventure was about to begin. Mother was stuck in Fifth Ward, on the other side of town, and we had to go get her. Water had crested at the top of the bench seat that I was standing on. I started crying again as more black water seeped in around the crevices of the doorframe. The water was coming to get me. Gunshots. Two gunshots nearby. Gunshots louder than the small siren timidly whistling in the distance, scared away by the big bad gunshots, scared away from black water and black people. Where are the cops? Where is Superman? Where is the bathroom? I peed on myself, warm urine salving my little legs, and I was comforted by this for some reason. It felt familiar.
“Daddy. I pee-peed,” I reported.
“Quiet down, I’m tryin’ to hear this engine,” he said.
Father struggled to get the wet engine to turn over. Water in the truck? Somehow I felt safer outside. Father said he had to get under the hood and take off the fan belt. I didn’t want him to leave so I protested. He ignored me and quickly opened the door. More water rushed in.
The hood rose, blocking my view of Father, leaving me alone with the black water. I quieted and listened. He was talking to someone but I didn’t remember anybody wading over to help us before the hood went up. I listened. He was arguing.
“Who you talkin’ to, Daddy?”
“Quiet down, Sonny.”
Then I heard him for the first time, but it would be years before we met. A strange voice slightly deeper than Father’s—
“Ça c’est ton garçon?”1 the voice asked.
“Yeah,” Father gruffed, then returned quickly behind the steering wheel. He took a deep breath, then looked at me.
“Who was that?” I insisted.
His eyes glazed with purpose. He looked in the rearview mirror. My eyes followed him. Here was a man who set out to get his family.
He turned the ignition.
The green Ford yelled defiantly and Father winked at me without changing his expression, then—
“It ain’t nuthin’ but water, Ti’ John.”
He must’ve forgotten that I couldn’t swim. And with the excitement and relief of a roaring engine and the possibility of making it home to watch The Electric Company, I forgot about my question. I forgot to ask him who he was talking to. I forgot to ask him what language was spoken. He probably wouldn’t have told me anyway, and besides, I wasn’t ready for the answer.
Weeks later, after the water subsided and the dead were counted in various high school gymnasiums, the city fathers made amends for poor drainage and renamed South Park Boulevard to Martin Luther King Jr. Boulevard, acknowledging that South Park was indeed a black community. That would arguably be the last time the city of Houston would ever give a fuck about South Park, Houston, Texas. We were officially on our own.
1. “Is that your son?” In Creole, we use garçon or fil for “son.”
Red Now and Laters
South Park, Houston, Texas, 1977, is where we first meet Ti’ John, a young boy under the care of his larger-thanlife father—a working-class rodeo star and a practitioner of vodou—and his mother—a good Catholic and cautious disciplinarian— who forbids him to play with the neighborhood “hoodlums.” Ti’ John, throughout the era of Reaganomics and the dawn of hip-hop and cassette tapes, must negotiate the world around him and a peculiar gift he’s inherited from his father and Jules Saint-Pierre “Nonc” Sonnier, a deceased ancestor who visits the boy, announcing himself with the smell of smoke on a regular basis. In many ways, Ti’ John is an ordinary kid who loses his innocence as he witnesses violence and death, as he gets his heart broken by girls and his own embittered father, as he struggles to live up to his mother’s middle-class aspirations and his father’s notion of what it is to be a man. In other ways, he is different—from his childhood buddies and from the father who is his hero.
The question throughout this layered and complex coming-of-age story is will Ti’ John survive the bad side of life—and his upbringing—and learn how to recognize and keep what is good.