A Sure Thing
We’re the whitest people in here and I say so, out loud, enough to get punched in the arm from my date, Grace, a woman with very pale skin and long, fine blond hair, the color of which reminds me of fall wheat fields.
Bobbie’s Black is in Harlem, tucked down a mostly residential block off Adam Clayton Powell Boulevard. The club is sandwiched between two brownstones, one painted the color of caramels, the other sandstone.
The front of Black is painted black of course, oily-fresh, petroleum-based paint with a brazenly-red door.
Markus, the owner (he tells us so), shows us to a four-top, two small, high bar tables pushed together and surrounded by four high-back wooden lounge chairs the color of espresso. Grace slides in first, I follow. We both want a view of the room, so even though it’s a first date, we’re doomed to siting on the same side. Grace immediately wants to change seats.
“The AC is blowing right on top of me,” she says. “If you don’t want me shivering and blue, we’ve got to change. Besides, you’ll love the cool air.”
The banter has gone about that well all night.
While walking from the train station, she was engrossed in a story about her two cats, something about how they have health problems and must eat two different foods, but that they end up eating each-other’s food and I’ve gone blank, staring straight ahead at a tall black woman wearing one of the shortest skirts I’ve seen this hot, muggy summer. I am first mesmerized, then hypnotized, by the rise and fall of her butt as she walks.
“Do you have any pets,” Grace says, tugging on the sleeve of my jacket to snap me back to attention.
“I’ve got a fish, his name’s Finn,” I say. “We’re not very close.”
At that, she swats my arm, laughs.
“We’re the whitest people in here.”
She punches me in the arm. This is how it begins.
I motion for Markus. I want a drink. Hell, I need a drink.
“Whiskey, neat,” I say.
“Something in a Beam, Black if you’ve got it.”
“We’re not eating? I thought we were eating?” Grace’s high-pitch whine makes Markus wince. “I’m told the shrimp and grits is to-die-for.”
“I figured we’d get the drinks out of the way, then study the menu,” I say.
“Oh, in that case, I’ll have a white wine, with seltzer.”
Markus looks at me.
“Like a spritzer, just pump a little soda water into the wine.”
“We don’t have a gun,” he says, motioning his hand like he’s holding a beverage weapon. “It’ll be out of a bottle.”
Markus drops the order at the bar. Grace turns to me and repeats what she’s told me three times before.
“My friend from work, LaToya, suggested this place. She lives around the corner. She’s black. She may join us, I told her that was OK. It’s OK, right?”
It bothers me that Grace has to tell me - four times now - her friend is black. We’re in Harlem. Her name is LaToya. I assume. I also dream LaToya is a much better conversationalist. And tall. And somewhat heavy-chested.
“Totally cool by me.”
Markus drops by with drinks and Grace immediately whines. The “spritzer” contains no bubbles whatsoever.
“I can’t drink this. Really, it’s just water and wine.”
“This is why I drink whiskey,” I say. “Hard to mess that up. Maybe you should just stick to wine.”
I motion for Markus, tell him to bring Grace a Pinot Grigio, sans soda.
“I just couldn’t drink that,” Grace says, wounded.
“No, you couldn’t at that,” I say, glancing across the room as the words leave my mouth.
Bobbie’s Black is tiny, by chain or any other restaurant standard. One long thin room, four-stool bar as you enter, green-painted door to the kitchen to the left of the bar. Banks of tables, 10 in all, with regular-height tables toward a small stage, with taller, bar-style tables toward the back. Unisex bathroom all the way back, the door tucked behind a black-lacquered wood partition. The stage looks as if it is the remnants of a brick fire place that’s been dismantled. the distressed brick goes well with the distressed wooden floors.
The bar is full and there’s 13 other people - all black people - besides us, the whitest people in the place. We’ve arrived at a lull in the action. A Rihanna video is playing without sound on a TV screen over what I assume is the DJ on the miniature stage.
Come to find out that it’s karaoke night at Bobbie’s Black. And whatever you know, or seen, of white-people karaoke doesn’t exactly transfer to Harlem.
A great black woman wearing an orange dress and matching orange hat waddles up to the stage, takes the microphone from the stand and waits for the opening beats of a Pointer Sister standard from the early 80s. She doesn’t look at the screen; she’s in perfect pitch and rhythm with the blue-screen lyrics that have replaced the Rihanna video. The crowd swings with the sound of her voice.
I lean in toward Grace.
“This is why white people have no business singing karaoke.”
She’s fumbling with her purse, but takes a hand away and swats me across the arm. Again.
“Don’t say that,” she says, laughing. “That’s so bad.”
I don’t really hear her. I’m watching as an older gentleman, seersucker suit, white linen shirt, straw fedora, walks in. With one of the most extraordinary-looking black women I’ve ever seen. Lithe, lean, tall. She’s wearing a blue skirt dress that bells at the hips. the bodice is tight across her chest and her breasts are perfect mounds of mocha-colored flesh above the satan-ribbon-blue of the dress. She’s wearing sheer white hose. Her hair is a cascade of dark curls, a lion’s mane of hair. Her almond-shaped eyes are dusted with what I’d describe as ocher eye shadow and brings out the warm side of her hazel-colored eyes.
The entire room stops to watch as the couple take their places in the first and second chairs in the first row of tables. The gentleman takes off his hat, smooths his white, close-cropped hair, drops the hat crown-down on the table as he pulls out the chair for his remarkable date. They settle in and Markus is quick to bring them their drinks - a gin & juice for the gentleman and a mango martini for his, what? Niece? Date?
Two women sitting behind us cluck their tongues, whisper wildly in each-other’s ear.
“She’s young enough to be his grand-baby...”
“Reverend Wallace is going to get a piece of my tongue, I tell you that. He’s go no right being here with that, him being an elder and all...”
“Making such a spectacle...”
All I know is that this beautiful woman has both hands in the gentleman’s crotch - and he’s practically beaming.
I find that I’m jealous.
Grace follows my gaze and huffs.
“What do you suppose is up with that? He seems quite a bit older than she is.”
“I’m betting she’s an escort.”
“Escort. Paid companion. Prostitute.”
The gentleman offers his hand to help the woman rise, and she folds a slip of paper as she strides to the stage. The DJ smiles, starts tapping on the keyboard of the laptop computer at the heart of his system.
I smile as the first strains of trumpet and piano begin to play and the blue TV screen announces the first line of Billie Holiday’s “God Bless The Child.”
It’s as if Lady Day has been released from death. The woman swings her hips with the cadence of the rhythm, a finger pressed to her ear as her haunting voice recreates Holiday’s every cadence.
Not one person in the room speaks until everyone bursts into applause as the woman holds a long and lasting note on the last line of the song, “Cause he’s got his own.”
“Well, that was very good,” Grace says, standing to go to the restroom. “Get me another spritzer?”
I don’t hear Grace. The woman bypasses the man, her table, and is walking toward me with a swish that speaks of sinister delights. My lips curl into a sly smile. She checks her lips with a finger, drops her eyes for an instant, curls her perfectly-tweezed eyebrow and winks. Her right hand comes up and taps the top of my right hand. I lift it to shake her hand and she slides a card under my palm and doesn’t break stride to the restroom.
“You should see the bathroom,” Grace says as she sits down. “Oh. My. God. All the pictures are of naked black people. In black frames. I think people are having sex in some of them.”
I’ve pocketed the card.
“Hey, excuse me for a minute? I should check out the restroom. I mean, while we’re here and all.”
I get to the door just as the woman walks out. She doesn’t make eye contact.
I shut the door, admire the artwork. Sepia-toned nudes. Men and women. Finely defined muscles, dark nipples, supple hips. The nudes above the toilet are all women, three 8-by-10 frames in a row. Each photo is signed to Bobbie’s Black in looping, women’s script.
I wash my hands, dry them with paper towels. I pat down the beads of sweat that have appeared on my brow. My heart thumps in my chest.
I pull out the card. Again. Thick, creamy card stock. Three lines of type.
A Sure Thing