By Mr. Fish
When I was 7 I wanted to be Angela Davis.
Not a fireman, not an astronaut, not even what so many of my friends in 1973 dreamed of being—none other than the voice, and some would argue the moral conscience, of our generation, Cornelius from “Planet of the Apes”—but a black feminist revolutionary communist ex-convict philosopher genius sistah what are you looking at, honkie?! hellraiser. Afro as big as a Hoppity Hop, no makeup, fist in the air, whitey afraid to walk down the same side of the street as me, the biggest shoes anyone could imagine seeing on a woman. A woman, that is, with legs of equal length, a clarification that I feel I must make because my grandmother had a friend who had one normal-sized leg and another leg maybe 10 inches too short, the difference being made up by a gigantic black shoe that looked like a small suitcase containing what I’d always imagined were silver dollars packed so closely together that there was no sound from her walking to indicate any value in her handicap. I used to imagine that she was one-sixteenth a Frankenstein, as uninteresting as somebody one-sixteenth a Kennedy, barely worth the ingredient because it did more to point out the much larger portion of herself that was unpedigreed mutt.
Her name was Aida Hobson, and during summer afternoons at my grandparents’ house in Springfield, Pa., I’d hear, sometimes as many as three times a week, the screen door off the back porch open and then slam shut and her walk across the linoleum like half a pony and unload an armload of tomatoes and spiders from her garden onto the kitchen table, the flabby drum roll of picture-perfect fruit reverberating through the house as faintly as aristocrats applauding through white gloves. Then the pony would turn and the screen door would slam shut again, but not all the time. If my grandmother wasn’t busy with a crossword puzzle or the painting of her hideous yellow toenails, some as thick as cough drops, or a card game with my twin sister and big brother and me, she’d meet Mrs. Hobson in the kitchen and the two would settle into chairs on the back porch for cigarettes and coffee and inaudible talk about what always sounded like plans for either a prison break or a murder or how much more salacious the next sorority party was going to be, Aida’s Spanish accent lisping through third-grade English with the allure of exotic cooking. The laughter inside their conversation was always too secretive or lustful or serious to seem entirely appropriate for two women with such dainty mustaches and underwear one could easily imagine, if mounted properly, capable of pulling a mid-sized skiff full of useless books across a vast ocean.
“Angela who?” said my grandfather, straining to hear me over the applause of the 40 pieces of bacon that he was cooking on his brand new birthday present, a slab of superheated Teflon as big as a headstone that, when plugged in and shingled with bacon, dimmed all the lights in the house and made every dog in the neighborhood spin in circles and roll around on the ground and ululate.
“Davis,” I said. “Angela Davis. Roger has a poster of her in the basement.” Roger was my 24-year-old uncle who was still living at home and was slowly turning the 1950s décor into something more conducive to the growing of mutton chop sideburns and the cashing of unemployment checks. “You know, the big picture of the black lady, near the air hockey table?” No response, the bacon grease beginning to fog my and my grandfather’s glasses. “The black lady!” I insisted, balling up my tiny white fists. “Free Angela Davis!” I said, quoting the poster and feeling the injustice of the words. “Down in the basement!”
“Air hockey table?” he finally said.
“Forget it,” I said, going out the back door and down the steps and into the garage to climb into the backseat of my grandparents’ station wagon, where I planned on using the momentum of my foul mood to properly mourn the end of summer. It broke my heart to smell the newness of the upholstery, only 3 months old, the intoxicating aroma of fresh plastic mixed with suntan lotion and cheeseburgers, and to remember the long summer days spent being driven back and forth to the mall and the tennis courts and the movie theaters and the public swimming pool and how, in less than 48 hours, I would be crammed in between my sister and brother in the backseat of my parents’ green Nova, the upholstery smelling like old snow and my mother’s menthol cigarettes, with my stepfather’s empty beer cans rolling around under the driver’s side seat like tiny skulls from an indifferent slaughter of retarded children. It wasn’t that there was any less love at my parents’ house than there was at my grandparents’, it was just that there were cats and dogs and a television that burned 24 hours a day and a fondness for alcohol to compromise the rationing size of the available portions.
“You’ve got to understand,” my brother would explain to me with some measure of impatience, “some of those dogs have been around a lot longer than you or me. For Petesake, Buffy’s almost 11.” He was right. Buffy was almost 11. And although Bullet, Buffy’s second husband, and me shared the same exact age almost to the day, the fact that he was able to toilet train himself years before I was made him, by comparison, something of a fecal prodigy and me an exhibitionist of utter helplessness. There was no contest. In fact, while I’d never even kissed a girl before, although I was swung around hard by my hood once and thrown into a stack of trashcans by Betty Boyle for trying, Bullet was already a grandfather.
Lying down on the cool leather and looking up at the dark cab light on the ceiling, I sighed and closed my eyes and tried to imagine what I’d be doing if I was Angela Davis. Admittedly, I knew nothing about the woman beyond the picture of her in my grandparents’ basement, but, of course, I didn’t know anybody who really knew much about who their hero really was beyond the most trivial sort of personal information such as height and weight and, occasionally, batting average. My best friend JJ, for example, was a huge “Lassie” fan, and I could only imagine the army of PR guys hired to make sure that there were no pictures of the superstar collie published in Time, Life or Look where she was licking her own rear or shoving her nose into the crotch of a studio executive or eating the vomit of one of her stand-ins.
Still, despite the fact that I didn’t know who Angela Davis was, I felt as if I knew who her detractors were. I knew, for example, that there existed a portion of society that thought black people—Negroes they were called back then—were inferior to white people and that women were inferior to men and that black women were, therefore, inferiority squared, and what drew me to Davis was the complete self-assuredness that she seemed to exude from the center of that very specific hurricane of racial and sexual prejudice that was blowing loud and clear through American culture in 1973. Having both a best friend who was black and who incurred daily salutations of nigger and coon and Washington and a twin sister who could easily match every mental and physical feat that I was capable of, I knew that any notion that attempted to cast Negroes or girls into a subcategory of human being, besides being a baldfaced lie, was some kind of extreme cowardice; it had to be, for there was no accidental ignorance capable of being so completely blind to reality. It was the kind of dumbness that existed crouched inside the mind, behind closed eyes, cowering in between capped ears and behind a clothes-pinned nose sealed off from the unmistakable stench of happy smoke from a joyous and inevitable and all-consuming revolution. So much stupidity is deliberate; an attempt to avoid comparison with any fact that might denigrate the notion that any of us are objective participants in the world and that our observations are made cleanly through glass un-graffitied by any bogus or prejudiced ideology.
Looking at the Angela Davis poster in my grandparents’ basement, her face locked in something like a battle cry, I wished to be on the winning side of the argument using just the constant and unwavering statement of my own sex and skin color. I wanted to be a hero who existed contrary to stupidity; somebody who by simply living was the actual proof that the worst misconceptions held by the dimmest wits in society, many of them policymakers and architects of public opinion, were wrong. I wanted to believe that the truth was invincible. And it was.
And this is what it said: your opinion here.
An hour later I woke up to the sound of my grandparents talking on the back porch and having their lunch—as they did every day during the summer months when my grandfather wasn’t driving a school bus—of bacon, lettuce and tomato, their voices remarkably clear for having to travel through the wall of the garage and the body of the car and the fog of my grogginess.
“It wasn’t about her leg, exactly,” continued my grandmother, clarifying a point that had apparently entered my grandfather’s head hurriedly and half-dressed. “It was more about the universe in general.”
“Uh-huh,” he said, still confused.
“She said that she wished that she could wake up every day ... ,” she stopped herself, thinking. “No,” she went on, “every other day and the world would see her as somebody with one normal-sized leg and one extra long leg.”
“What do you mean?” He exhaled affectionate boredom like an ungrantable birthday wish and took a bite of his sandwich.
“You know, instead of thinking that her short leg was too short, people would think that her normal-sized leg was extra long.”
“No, just extra long.”
“Well, longer than the other one I mean.”
“What would be the difference?”
“Between too long and extra long? I don’t know, I guess just your point of view.”
“No, between one leg that’s too short and one leg that’s extra long?”
“Well, instead of just having pity for her, she figured that on the days when she had an extra-long leg people would be fascinated by her. You know, the idea being that people respect the concept of more a lot more than less.”
“Sure they do. What do you mean, they do?”
“Why not just wish for two normal-sized legs?”
“Oh, Eugene what?”
“She didn’t say that she wanted to be invisible.”
Somewhere in Chicago in the backseat of a black Ford Mercury sat Angela Davis looking out through the rain. Passing a crowded diner on her way from O’Hare International Airport, she sighed and leaned back against the upholstery and, looking up at the dark cab light on the ceiling, she closed her eyes and wished that she were invisible.
Living her dream, I was.