Such Sweet Thunder
Short Story by Michael Gonzales
Pops from the barbershop knew
the end of an era had arrived the moment he heard
those dreadful diesels slithering down 7th Avenue.
Lighting his first Marlboro that chilly April
morning, his usually steady fingers trembled.
Exhaling a whiff of smoke through thin lips, he
sullenly glared out of the Shalimar’s dusty
plate-glass window on its final day of business.
Two dirty fans swiftly whirled overhead, and the
sweet scent of sizzling bacon drifted from Sara’s
Luncheonette next door. Dressed in his usual uniform
of a starched white shirt and black tie partially
covered by a freshly laundered blue barber smock,
Pops cracked his stiff neck.
In all of Pops’ years of looking out of that window,
he had witnessed many neighborhood transformations:
from ranting revolutionaries roaring about Malcolm X
to soapbox preachers screaming about the souls of
sinners; from nodding heroin junkies, their bugged
eyes transfixed on the ground, to the panicky
behavior of crack heads; from pretty little girls
with Shirley Temple curls who would soon be mamas
themselves to hard rock bad boys who grew up to be
either pimps, punks, or proper men.
A year ago, the neighborhood folks noticed a crew of
white interlopers wearing yellow hard hats and
carrying clipboards. The surveyors performed their
jobs smugly, silently. Pointing at the storefronts,
the men studied blueprints and jotted jumbled notes
with sharpened pencils. With colored chalk, they
scribbled peculiar symbols on the soiled sidewalks.
A few months later, much to their disdainful
surprise, every merchant on the block received a
formal letter from a newly formed city agency.
Printed on raised lettered stationery, the memo
informed the six store owners of plans to convert
their aged shops into a sprawling shopping complex
and luxury high-rises. In other words, as of April
29, 1999, Freddy’s Newsstand, Sara’s Luncheonette,
Chino’s Sneakers, Fleishman’s Liquors, Vanessa’s
number spot and the Shalimar Barbershop were to be
Although Pops had lived in Harlem since he was
twelve, one could still hear his Jamaican accent
when he was angry. “God forbid we should try to take
over one of their neighborhoods,” Pops protested the
morning the official-looking letter arrived. “How
many black boys done been beat down just walking
through parts of Brooklyn or Staten Island? Harlem
is my home. How they just gonna chase me out my
As far as Pops could remember, he hadn’t been this
vexed since M.L.K. had taken a bullet a year before
the Shalimar opened. “At least then black folks were
angry enough to riot,” he ranted. “These days we
just take whatever slop we’re served.”
Black exhaust swirled from the hulking fleet of
seven demolition vehicles skulking down the
boulevard. Under an overcast sky the creeping convoy
resembled a gloomy funeral procession. After months
about anxious speculation of what would become of
his friends and neighbors, the beast now roared
outside their door.
The clamorous commotion of the Mack trucks caused
the entire block to rumble. A few doors down, a
demolition crew stridently demolished the two
abandoned buildings on the corner. As ancient bricks
crashed to the asphalt, Pops spotted a scraggly rat
scurry beneath an emerald-hued El Dorado.
“Thirty years building a business and for what?” he
huffed, extinguishing his cigarette. “Just to be
kicked aside like trash in the name of progress.”
Pops slammed down his coffee mug on the stained
Formica cabinet cluttered with sharpened scissors,
sterile clippers, and plastic combs; on a shelf
inside the cabinet was a white box overflowing with
the multicolored candies he kept for kids. In the
corner next to a chrome coat rack, Pops leaned his
pure mahogany walking stick with its solid-gold
handle. Handcrafted by an African dude down the
block, Pops used the stick whenever his right leg
cramped from standing too much.
Thirty years before, after Pops had served his
adopted country in the Army, he had secured a
veteran’s loan to open the Shalimar. The shop’s two
other barber chairs were leased to his long time
friends, a short spic named Carmelo and a former
local soul singer everybody called Smokey.
The Shalimar had a splintered window seat that was
stacked with countless magazines while a multihued
poster of Muhammad Ali painted by LeRoy Neiman hung
on the urine yellow wall next to the green and gold
Underfoot, the cracked paisley patterned linoleum,
with years of loose hairs trapped in its crevices,
needed replacing, as did the dark blue hard plastic
chairs that the customers used. While Carmelo and
Smokey decorated their space between the mirrors
with Jet magazine centerfolds, Pops had taped a
radiant picture of his late wife Beverly to his
section of the wall.
* * * *
Opening the front door, a plump horsefly buzzed
inside the barbershop and landed on the sugary rim
of Pops’ coffee mug. He stepped onto the soiled
sidewalk shaking his gray haired head in disbelief
as a crazy lady with dirty fingernails fed the foul
pigeons stale bread; she cooed along with the birds
as though they shared a secret language.
“Here comes our new renaissance,” Freddy barked from
his newsstand shed.
“This tearing down shit isn’t a renaissance,” Pops
replied. He winced when a sharp pain shot up his
leg. “More like a plague if you ask me. You seen how
many rats been on this street since they started
ripping down that building on the corner the other
Surrounded by pulpy tabloids and slick magazines,
Freddy stuck his bald dome out of the weather beaten
stall. An unlit cigar dangled from his juicy lips.
“Had to chase one out of my box this morning. Scared
the hell out of me.” Looking closely at Pops, a
concerned Freddy asked,
“How you holding up?”
“What can I say,” Pops’ said. “No matter how I feel
it’s not gonna change nothing. Nothing at all.”
Violently coughing, Freddy spat into the dirty
street. “Harlem is just another Plymouth Rock for
these folks. Now I know how the damn Indians felt.”
Heartily, Pops laughed. “You ain’t said nothing
slick to a can of oil, Freddy. Nothing at all. He
strolled over to the newsstand and picked up a Daily
News. Dropping two shiny quarters into Freddy’s
tarnished tin tray, Pops strolled back inside.
Switching on the radio, Pops stopped turning the
dial when he heard Duke Ellington’s melancholy
music. “And that was ‘Star Crossed Lovers’, playing
on the maestro’s 100th birthday,” the smoky voiced
disc jockey said. “Next up comes Duke’s celestial
‘Come Sunday,’ featuring Mahalia Jackson.”
Still feeling an ache in his leg, Pop glanced at the
walking stick. Carefully, he lowered the barber
chair and plopped in the black leather seat. Opening
his newspaper, he silently waited for the end to
At dusk thunderclouds still hovered in the sky, but
rain had yet to fall. Glancing at his tired face in
the mirror, Pops touched his wrinkled forehead; a
feverish heat rose beneath his fingers.
Like brown sugar, the babel of the barbershop
bubbled: in the corner a rowdy quartet of regular
hangout cats played a never ending game of spades.
Turning up the radio a little bit, burly Smokey
quietly hummed along to “Take the A Train” while
sweeping hair from the floor.
“This gentrification jazz ain’t got a damn thing to
do with race,” Carmelo proclaimed, his spic accent
thick as stew. He was a short Rican, standing about
five foot six in his colorful gators and black dress
slacks. Sipping from a chilled bottle of Heineken as
he cut a customer’s frizzy ‘fro. “This jazz is all
“Class?” Smokey replied. With his jungle of jeri
curls, black velour sweatsuit, and thick gold chain,
he looked like a broke down Barry White. “What a
mida mida like you know about class.” Although they
had been homeboys for years, Carmelo and Smokey
loved to verbally spar.
“All I know is you’re like an old school house,”
Carmelo said. “No class and no principles.” With the
exception of Pops, the entire shop roared with
Pops opened the door and waited for a cool breeze to
caress his warm face. Like floating quicksand, a
murky mixture of dust and fumes hung in the air.
Choking on the stale air, Pops felt a sudden
tightness in his chest.
Taking a deep breath, the roar of the city sounded
like a raucous big band grating on his nerves.
Closing his eyes, Pops listened to the wail of the
jittery jackhammers, the clank of cement mixers, the
boom of bellowing voices. and the roar of restless
“You all right over there, Pops,” Smokey asked. “You
want some water or something?”
“I’ll be all right, just give me a minute. I need to
get some air.” Reaching down, Pops shoved a plastic
jam beneath the chrome-and-glass door.
“No disrespect, Pops,” Lester, one of the dudes
playing cards in the back, said. At twenty-three, he
was the youngest member of the barbershop crew. “But
maybe you should look at this as a kind of blessing.
Take some of that loot you done squirreled away and
hop a flight to Miami Beach. Find yourself a big
booty Cuban girl who keep you company.”
After Lester slapped five with his card playing
cronies, Smokey barked, “Don’t go there, youngblood.
Pops might not play the dozens, but I can get down.”
“I’m not trying to battle you, Smoke, I’m just sayin’. . . the
ways of white folks is as old as the slave ships,”
Lester snapped. “But, when the white man gets enough
dough he spreads his wings and flies south. Chill in
some condo, listen to Billie Holiday, sip some
lemonade. Hell, who cares if they tear down every
block in Harlem.”
Pops glared at Lester as though youngblood had just
spat in his face.
“I care,” Pops hissed, his accent thick as fog.
“No disrespect Pops, but . . . ”
“What do you know about Harlem anyway, boy?” Pops
“What do you know about being a stranger in this
city and making it home? What you know about Billy
Eckstine crooning on stage at The Apollo on Saturday
evening, drinking at Sugar Ray's that night or
hearing Adam Clayton Powell Jr. preaching at
Abyssinian on Sunday morning? What you know about
Bumpy Johnson or James Baldwin or Sammy Davis Jr.
getting his hair clipped in my chair? Just because
I’m old doesn’t mean I’m ready to lounge on the
beach waiting for death.”
“Chill Pops,” Lester said, smiling uncomfortably.
“Ain’t nobody say nothing ‘bout dying. I’m just
saying...you don’t have to work forever.”
“There’s nothing wrong with working,” Pops hissed.
“It’s what men do.” A frigid wind blew through the
open door; for a frozen minute, Pops’ words hung in
the air. On the radio, the jazz jock cued-up
Ellington’s “Such Sweet Thunder.”
Pops caught a glimpse of his face in the mirror.
Glaring at his gray hair and wrinkled forehead, Pops
wondered when he’d gotten so old. His flustered gaze
fell to the floor the very moment a swollen sewer
rat scampered through the open door.
“Jesus Christ!” Smokey screamed, dropping the broom.
Startled, the wide-eyed men stood up from their
chairs as the long-tailed rat crashed into an
overflowing wastebasket. Cigarette butts, used
tissue, and various textures of hair tumbled to the
floor. Pops stared at the repulsive rat scurrying
across the soiled linoleum and slammed the front
door. For a moment, the Shalimar was frozen in time.
Stiffly, Pops walked over to the corner and picked
up the walking stick. In his fragile hands, the
shellacked smoothness of the heavy mahogany
contained the strength of a thousand tribes that
once roamed the fertile motherlands of Ghana and
Kenya and the Ivory Coast. In Pops’ perspiring
hands, he felt the sweat of the mud colored men who
had cultivated their kingdoms with callused fingers,
sweaty brows and bloody feet, only to be eradicated
by pale faces with loud machines.
Pops listened to the lush jazz streaming from the
speakers, his tired eyes fixed on the vile vermin.
He imagined himself as a swaggering young man coming
of age in Harlem. Pops struggled to remember the
first time he saw a buxom Beverly sitting on the
stoop of her building. He pictured them, stylish
young lovers in the summer of ‘65, sauntering
through Sugar Hill.
A black prince on those once-vibrant streets, Pops
walked the boulevards with an arrogance that
everything he cherished in this world would last
“Damn you,” Pops mumbled. “Damn you.” Outside,
thunder crashed in the gloomy sky.
Afraid and confused, the rat stood on its hind legs
and prepared to strike. Yet before it could leap,
Pop savagely swung the walking stick and smashed the
rodent’s skull. Blood and brains stained the yellow
As he stared at the slaughtered rodent, Pops leg
buckled and he collapsed to the cold floor. For the
first time since the death of his beloved wife,
tears fell from his eyes like rain.
Barber Shop by
© 2010, Michael A. Gonzales
* * * *
Ellington—Such Sweet Thunder
Such Sweet Thunder
Ellington Duke 1959 The Duke in 1959 in Zurich Switzerland. Duke
announces Sweet Thunder featuring trumpet players Ray Nance and Clark
Ellington featuring Mahalia Jackson "Come Sunday" (Live)
A live recording of
Mahalia singing "Come Sunday." This was recorded on July 3, 1958, during
Duke Ellington's portion of the Newport Jazz Fest concert. This happens
to be the night before Mahalia's big concert, which can be found on CD.
Duke Ellington, "Take the A Train"
This is a segment from the film
Reveille with Beverly from 1943; the song was composed in 1939.
Ellington—The Star Crossed Lovers
The Star Crossed
Lovers, Original Duke Ellington version. This song appears in Haruki
Murakami's Hard-Boiled Wonderland and the End of the World .
* * * *
michael a. gonzales--Harlem native
-- has written cover stories for
Essence, Giant, Latina, XXL and
Stop Smiling. A former writer-at-large for Vibe
magazine, Gonzales has also been a staff writer for
The Source, columnist for New York Press and
a frequent contributor to the New York Daily News,
the New York Post and NY Metro. He has
also contributed articles to Spin, the Village
Voice, Ego Trip, Trace and
Bring the Noise: A Guide to Rap Music and
Hip-Hop Culture (Random House, 1991). Praised by
writer/director Nelson George as “evidencing
the mastery of detail required of a subject
that is all about mastery of detail,” the
book was a groundbreaking text in hip-hop
literature. Currently Michael
A. Gonzales writes a regular music column called “On the
Popmatters.com and has written liner-notes for
reissue collections including The Hip-Hop Box Set,
the O’Jays, the Gap Band, the Crusaders and Al Green.
Having written for MTV and BET, he also served as a
consultant to the Experience Music Project’s (Seattle)
inaugural Hip-Hop/Rap exhibit. He also contributed the
essay “From Rockin’ the House to Planet Rock” to their
catalogue Crossroads (2000).
Gonzales’ essays have appeared in
Best Sex Writing 2005 edited by Violet Blue (Cleis
Beats, Rhymes & Life edited by Kenji Jasper
(Harlem Moon, 2007) and
Best Sex Writing 2006 edited Felice Neaman and
Frederique Delacoste (Cleis Press). A 1999 Code magazine
feature on Prince was reprinted the following year in
the landmark music criticism collection
Rock and Roll is Here to Stay edited by William
McKeen (W.W. Norton & Company, 2000). “My Father Named
Me Prince” appeared alongside pop culture pieces by Tom
Wolfe, Joan Didion and Lester Bangs.
published fiction in
Brown Sugar 2: A Collection of Erotic Black Fiction
edited by Carol Taylor (Simon & Shuster, 2001),
Bronx Biannual 2 edited by Miles Marshall
Lewis (Akashic Books, 2007), Uptown magazine,
Brown Sugar 3: When Opposites Attract edited by
Carol Taylor (Simon & Shuster, 2003) and the upcoming
superheroes collection Darker Mask edited by Gary
Phillips and Christopher Chambers (Tor, 2008).
stories have also been published in France and England.
Like Gypsy Rose Lee, Norman Mailer and Spike Lee before
him, he lives in Brooklyn.
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Generation Soul: Can Dru Hill Revive The Vocal
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(Kalamu reading "My Story, My Song"
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In Greenback Planet, acclaimed historian H. W. Brands charts the dollar's astonishing rise to become the world's principal currency. Telling the story with the verve of a novelist, he recounts key episodes in U.S. monetary history, from the Civil War debate over fiat money (greenbacks) to the recent worldwide financial crisis. Brands explores the dollar's changing relations to gold and silver and to other currencies and cogently explains how America's economic might made the dollar the fundamental standard of value in world finance. He vividly describes the 1869 Black Friday attempt to corner the gold market, banker J. P. Morgan's bailout of the U.S. treasury, the creation of the Federal Reserve, and President Franklin Roosevelt's handling of the bank panic of 1933. Brands shows how lessons learned (and not learned) in the Great Depression have influenced subsequent U.S. monetary policy, and how the dollar's dominance helped transform economies in countries ranging from Germany and Japan after World War II to Russia and China today. He concludes with a sobering dissection of the 2008 world financial debacle, which exposed the power--and the enormous risks--of the dollar's worldwide reign. The Economy
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By Laura María Agustín
This book explodes several myths: that selling sex is completely different from any other kind of work, that migrants who sell sex are passive victims and that the multitude of people out to save them are without self-interest. Laura Agustín makes a passionate case against these stereotypes, arguing that the label 'trafficked' does not accurately describe migrants' lives and that the 'rescue industry' serves to disempower them. Based on extensive research amongst both migrants who sell sex and social helpers, Sex at the Margins provides a radically different analysis. Frequently, says Agustin, migrants make rational choices to travel and work in the sex industry, and although they are treated like a marginalised group they form part of the dynamic global economy. Both powerful and controversial, this book is essential reading for all those who want to understand the increasingly important relationship between sex markets, migration and the desire for social justice. "Sex at the Margins rips apart distinctions between migrants, service work and sexual labour and reveals the utter complexity of the contemporary sex industry. This book is set to be a trailblazer in the study of sexuality."—Lisa Adkins, University of London
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The White Masters of the
The World and Africa, 1965
By W. E. B. Du Bois
W. E. B. Du Bois’
Arraignment and Indictment of White Civilization
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Ancient African Nations
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posted 20 June 2010