Business BY LUCIUS LOMAX My grandfather had a half-sister who owned a brothel in Washington State. He went north by train once or twice a year to visit her. He and his sister, my father recalled, liked to go bird-hunting together doves and pheasant mostly, the woman carrying a small-caliber rifle instead of the traditional shotgun, and her brother wearing a small pistol on his belt, because hunting with an easy-to-aim rifle or shotgun was “no challenge” for him. Together, they never missed. A flushed bird might be given a but it made no difference. If one sibling missed, the other didn’t. My father was especially proud of his gangster father, detailing incidents and idiosyncrasies as if, well into middle-age, he were still trying to decipher the nature of the man who begot him. My father was in awe of his father, showing the healthy idealized respect for one’s parents that the Bible teaches but Daddy wasn’t religious, which made his attitude all the more exceptional. Born a cynic among a race of cynics, my father was amazed that there was someone in the world for whom he had complete respect, and he was astonished that it was his own father. Daddy tried for fifty years to find the exact cause for his admiration, and one day thinking he had found it, as if one fact alone were the major clue to his old man’s character he told me about his father’s ability with a pistol. Grandfather’s prowess with a handgun was interesting to hear about, but nothing more, not significant to me in any special way until much later, after both my grandfather and father’s deaths, when our family’s heritage was distributed among the heirs. My share was a small silver medal shaped like a Boy Scout Honor badge, an inscription on a gold bar hanging beneath the shiny medallion. “Texas Freedmen’s Association,” the words engraved in gold read, “1911 Pistol Champion.” That moment, as I held the medal in my hand fifteen years after its owner’s death, was when my grandfather first came alive to me, and when my father’s sense of wonder and appreciation \(the silver still the next generation. What my mother knew about my grandfather \(although no more imrevealed him in a different, oddly compassionate perspective. In Los Angeles at the height of his success in the rackets, the Old Man was persuaded to finance a small weekly newspaper, with his son as publisher and his daughter-in-law as editor-inchief. There is an unwritten rule in the black press: everything the reader sees in print has been paid for, and everything the reader doesn’t see has also been paid for only more. The newspaper was intended from the start as a money-making venture. Even so, journalism was a noteworthy change from the kind of business Grandfather had known in the past. To my mother, the purchase of the newspaper was the first step in my grandfather’s rehabilitation from mobster to legitimate citizen. But to me, it was Grandfather’s affair with a Hollywood starlet that made him human made him something more than a pistol with a man attached to it. Until she met the Old Man, the actress’ best critical notice had come from a modest film about a light-skinned black woman passing for Caucasian. Apparently the actress, who was in fact white, did her best work in the role of lover of a black gangster, including her big scene: resisting the collective pressure of the “liberal” Southern California film industry telling her to finish with him and the twist of the cli max, when he dropped her. My mouth fell open when my mother told me; the movie has been colorized and plays on Sundays once or twice a year, when the cable stations want to show how far we’ve come in this country on the subject of race. Formerly, my reaction had always been to shake my head and change the channel. But as my mother revealed her secrets, what struck me suddenly was that my father had known the same details, had known the actress, had seen the real-life movie being made knew, in short, the whole plot, and more. He just never considered sex important enough to mention. My mother’s psychological insights were, it seemed to me, especially impressive. She was the first to sug gest to me, for example, that Grandfather’s height was a motivating factor in his life. Built like a bantamweight, little and wiry, he was not short short, not tiny by any means, but he was an inch or two smaller than is the norm for men descended from Slave Coast stock. “Short men are sons of bitches,” Mother often said, by which she meant they are hard, demanding, ambitious, and calculating each of which she considered a positive personality trait. “Not all short men are sons of bitches,” she might have clarified, “maybe not 16 THE TEXAS OBSERVER DECEMBER 24, 1999
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