215 East 39th Street

Qevin Oji is a contributing writer for West.

Bright and his sister, Kimber, got up early, before their parents, to go say goodbye to the house. Bright rode his bike down Figueroa from 74th and Hoover to Broadway and 39th, with Kimber squirming to remain ladylike on the handlebars. Chased by dogs, almost hit by cars, they rode on through the sunny, if smoggy, day.

When they arrived, the house was half gone. Kimber pointed to the house's interior, now visible from the sidewalk. "There's my room!" They argued about whose room it was and watched the giant yellow Tonka trucks tear apart the place they had called home just the day before yesterday.

A sour "Yankee Doodle" cut though the ripping and chewing of the heavy machines. It announced the ice cream truck and brought out their friends, brothers Devante and Marco. They stopped the truck in front of what was left of the house and bought bomb-shaped popsicles. The trucked rolled off, now blaring a limping "Jingle Bells." All four stood in front of the house slurping, transfixed, now blue-tongued and red-lipped, as if watching fireworks, the Rose Parade or a car accident. They danced off brain freezes, peed in the alley and screamed in awe when a large chunk of the house crashed down, sending a dust cloud their way. They turned their backs.

"Y'all let them do that to your house?" Devante said.

"It's not our house anymore," Bright said.

"Still, you should not let them do that to your house," Marco said.

Kimber huffed. "Do you understand English?"

Marco took a few steps back. "Does your mama understand English?"

"She taught your mama." Bright said.

Marco faked a lunge at Bright, laughing as they all turned back to the tearing down.

Bright and Kimber looked on with fascination and not a speck of sadness as the merciless robotic arm grabbed again, exposing the gray staircase and red banister. They had been painted those colors by the Black Panthers or the Symbionese Liberation Army, depending on whom you believed about who had lived in the house just prior to their moving in. His mother had mentioned it casually. "They say the Black Panthers just moved outta here."

For weeks, Bright searched for clues that the panthers had lived there. He looked in the backyard, in the crawl space under the house, on the roof. Nothing. Frustrated, he went to his mother.

"Mom, I've looked all around the house and I can't find any paw prints."

"Paw prints?" she said.

"You said that black panthers lived here."

She laughed a stomach-hurt laugh, tears welling in her eyes. "Boy, you tickle me. The Panthers are people."

"They're not animals?"

"Some have called them that, but no. They are working to free black people."

"Like those people marching and singing where Grandma Fanny lives in Mississippi?"

"Yeah. Like them."

Bright began to look in a different way. Maybe the staircase was the evidence. Its gray steps pulled at his guts, made him feel inside out. It was rimmed by the bright red banister, which he avoided because it seemed painted with blood. Then there were the boxes and boxes of funny-looking brown money in the basement. "Confederate money," his mother called it. Whatever that was. Why would anyone leave money behind? Bright wondered. The Chinese store wouldn't take it. "No good," the owner would say. So he, Kimber and their playmates gave it away, destroyed it playing Store, Doctor and House, tossed it in the air so that the bills would flutter down on them when they played Rich.

The high wall above the staircase, where huge pencil drawings of Angela Davis and Huey Newton once oversaw comings and goings, was visible now. Their throne room was being demolished. This was where pictures of Jesus, JFK and sometimes Martin Luther King hung in friends' homes. Devante once asked Bright where Jesus hung in their house. He asked his mother. "Jesus doesn't hang here," she said.

Watching the house crumble, Bright decided that earthquakes were kinder than people. This was the house that felt as if it had turned to Jell-O one early morning in 1971. But when all was still again, there were no cracked walls, only a few broken dishes and a couple of the brightly colored sake bottles with geisha-head screw caps crushed. He wished he had drunk them when he had the chance. In the aquarium six black Mollies swam low, hanging onto the sloshing water. This house had survived big ones, but was no match for a bulldozer's push.

Whoever owned the house sold it while they were in it. They didn't even ask if it was OK. It was like they too were being sold. How do you sell a house with people living in it? Bright wondered. And what about the room that he and Kimber had painted blue? He wanted to take it to the new place, but couldn't figure out how. It couldn't be packed in a box and loaded onto a truck. It had to stay. He looked down. Flecks of blue paint on his white canvas All-Stars comforted him.

Only the staircase, a single room and the chimney now stood.

Bright leaned in and blinked, looked close at an interior wall. He saw what his mother had pointed out when they rode through the city. The seven-headed cobra, the capital letters SLA beneath its knotted tail. It was stenciled onto walls, sidewalks and delivery trucks. It had something to do with the white lady in the big dark glasses who cried on TV every night, promising to wear yellow if her daughter, Patty, would only come home.

How had he missed this wall all year? he wondered.

Bright jumped the yellow tape, ran onto the sagging porch and up the staircase, pointing.

"Bright!" Kimber and Devante screamed, while Marco covered his eyes. The clank and grind of the machines stuffed Bright's ears. The foreman waved his arms, making an X as they crossed, and yelled to the machine operator, who hadn't seen Bright's trespass. "Whoa! Whoa! Stop!"

Bright's pointed finger lowered when he reached the first landing. The avocado tree falling next to the house took the image of the cobra down with it.

Everything was still, silent. Bright heard music, old scratchy music, and followed the sound up the stairs. He had seen snow only in schoolbooks, but he felt like a mountain climber trying to reach a snow-capped peak, like his hero Matthew Henson. At the top of the cliff that was once a balcony, he relived the memory of a boring summer day made alive with he and Kimber zinging, one by one, their father's entire collection of 78 records.

The songs had ticklish names. "A-Tisket, A-Tasket," "Caldonia," "Minnie the Moocher," "Tweedlee Dee." And the names . . . Ella Fitzgerald, Cab Calloway, Count Basie, Pearl Bailey. Bright and Kimber put them on the portable turntable and played them at 16, 33, 45 and backward. A playing at 78 was the record's last chance. If it didn't sound good, and few did, they used them to cut the smog, turned them into Frisbees to sail over telephone lines, flat rooftops and chain-link fences. They listened close to hear the hard crack of the thick black plastic landing somewhere they could not see. Sometimes they didn't sail very far and shattered on the blacktop or sidewalk in front of the house.

On their way to the store, school or the park, they searched for the grooved pieces, for the fancy gold and silver cursive lettering hot-pressed on somber-colored matte labels. Navy. Burgundy. Black. They walked over them, kicked them, broke them into smaller pieces, sailed them farther, skipped them across Broadway as if it were a lake.

Bright spotted a shard, a black crescent moon. "I threw that one!"

"Uh uh . . . I did!" Kimber said.

"I was standing on the balcony. Remember?"


The names on the labels were barely discernible. Savoy. Blue Note. Columbia. Decca.

Ella missing Fitzgerald.

The foreman broke the silence and Bright's trance. "Get down from there, boy! If I hadn't seen you, you woulda been . . ." Bright wanted to slide down the banister for the first and last time, but it lay crippled on the floor below. He bounded down the stairs, hopping with each step, out of the house. The yellow caution tape greeted him like he had just won a race. Once on the sidewalk, Kimber, Devante and Marco laid hands on him.

"Are you crazy?" Devante said.

"Boy, you coulda been killed," Kimber said.

"But I wasn't."

"Why did you do that?" Marco asked.

"I thought I saw something."

"What?" Kimber said.

"A snake."

"You crazy, man." Devante said.

They watched until the house was beat into splinters, ground into sawdust, mixed in with the dirt. Soon the trucks were gone, and they could see clean through to Santa Barbara Boulevard. "I never knew that street was so big," Kimber said.

"Me neither!" the boys said in unison, then pinched one another to ward off bad luck.

They marveled at the new view, played red-light green-light where the house once stood, until the streetlights flickered on.

Devante and Marco's grandmother called them home with rolling Rs. "Mire! Mire!"

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