Where were you when the lights went out?

William Bowles • 23 December 2004
  

It’s estimated that within the first couple of decades after the Europeans ‘discovered’ the Americas, they exterminated around fifteen million people in a frenzy of bloodletting that has no precedent in history. Of course it’s not called a Holocaust, in fact it’s not even mentioned in the white man’s history books, but it’s a fact nevertheless. We (I use the term loosely) managed to almost entirely depopulate the Caribbean islands of their indigenous people and replace them with slaves and then moved on to do the same to the Americas.

When I first moved to New York City, for a couple of years I lived uptown on Madison between 98th and 99th in a small apartment over a bar called Murphy’s (long since yuppified), a hang out mostly for the workers from Mt. Sinai hospital. In fact it may well have been the only (and last) truly integrated bar in New York. I spent a lot of time in that bar and met a lot of people in there and indeed it’s where I started out writing, first it was songs with a woman called Cheryl Byron who was from Trinidad. In fact it was Cheryl who got me into writing in the first place. It would have been in August 1977 after the blackout and we wrote a song called appropriately ‘Where were you when the lights went out?’

I was in Murphy’s when the lights went out around 8:30pm and the barman, an Irish guy from Killarney I think, lit some candles and got his baseball bat out (maybe not in that order). As long as the beer stayed cold he wasn’t going to let a power outage get in the way of doing business.

I remember walking out onto Madison Avenue and looked downtown and it was pitch black and as I turned and looked uptown into Harlem the lights went out there too. A couple of minutes later I could hear a dull roar like the crowd cheering at a football match heard from a distance, except it was coming from the streets of Harlem. It was partee time in Harlem and a considerable amount of redistribution of wealth was going on.

A little while later a posse of cops came by in full armor and tried to close us down, citing the ‘natives’ as the reason but the barman wielded his baseball bat and after a short time they move on like a phalanx of Centurians. I remember that one of the guys who was there at the time was a real tall fellow from the Bahamas called Sherlock who lived in the building next door to mine and who worked in Mt. Sinai and we persuaded them that we could take care of any ‘problems’ that came our way.

In any case, nothing went down aside from a Puerto Rican guy I knew who lived on 99th who came running down the centre of Madison wearing nothing but his shorts and carrying all manner of liberated goods including a bottle of Chivas which he tossed to me as he ran by which was when I noticed that he’d been beaten black and blue as he ran the ‘gauntlet’ on his way home. As an aside, he belonged to a motor cycle club called the Puerto Rican Cossacks and when I asked where the Cossack bit came from he introduced me to a Soviet ˇmigrˇ married to a Puerto Rican who also lived on 99th. In any case this guy was carrying lampshades and god knows what other household goods, how he’d managed to hang on to them I’ll never know but damn, he’d earned them that night!

Oh and a gang of youths came by but seeing as there were maybe ten or twelve of us hanging out on the stoep of the bar (it was hot that July night) they moved on into that dark night, downtown toward the ‘Mason-Dixon’ line of 96th St, below which the rich folks lived.

By now you’re probably wondering what the hell this has to do with mass extermination? Well one day I walked into Murphy’s and was met by a native American (or Amˇrican as Al Giordano spells it) who stopped me as I entered, a guy I’d never met before or ever did again, in fact nobody in the bar had ever seen him before either. In any case, he just upped and started talking to me as if he’d known me all his life. He had long, black hair and was maybe in his fifties, and he wore a buckskin shirt and had various kinds of decorations on the shirt, in fact he looked exactly the way you’d expect a native Amˇrican to look and he insisted that we were related even after I told him I was from South London, saying it didn't matter. I wish I could remember the exact conversation because the encounter has haunted me ever since and, as you’ll see, it was somehow part of a chain of events that came to some kind of conclusion in June of 2003 here in London, though how or even if they’re connected is perhaps, a question of coincidence? But you be the judge.

The conversation wasn’t very long but he insisted that we had a relationship, that I was related to him, perhaps not by blood, but somehow we belonged to the same ‘nation’. And he was most insistent about this relationship though he refused to explain what he meant by it but he intimated that it would somehow be revealed to me. I have to say it was a weird encounter.

Afterward, the guys I knew in the bar (which was pretty well all of them) wanted to know how I knew the guy as it was as if he’d been waiting for me and what had we talked about? What did the guy want? Was he hitting me up for money and so forth? Then he was gone. I didn’t even find out his name, or perhaps I’ve just forgotten it.

A few years later I moved to Brooklyn, right on the East River, almost under Manhattan Bridge in fact and I discovered that a few yards from my loft, on the river bank, facing mid-town Manhattan in what had been Brooklyn Navy Yard, in the 1930s there had been a native Amˇrican ‘settlement’ there, where the men who built the skyscrapers of Manhattan had lived. Another small piece of América’s buried past, and pretty much abandoned except for the ‘illegal alien' concentration camp that had been erected there.

One of the first things I discovered about Amˇrica was its denial of its past and that somehow, this denial of its terrible and bloody history was intimately connected to its present. That until it faced up to its past it would never be able to face up to its present (never mind the future) and that more even than slavery was the extermination of the indigenous population, millions of people who had by most accounts been living there for maybe forty, fifty thousand years, maybe even longer and that their Holocaust too has been erased from our collective conscience. Their extermination is not recorded in our history books either.

Just up the road from my loft, on the way to downtown Brooklyn and Court Street, there was a small park built to celebrate (commemorate?) some war or other. It faced the Brooklyn Federal Court House and I discovered that it too had been the site of a native Amˇrican settlement, a pre-European one. I designed a piece of sculpture for that park that consisted of a large, rectangular pit filled with garbage above which a section of railroad track stood on four wooden pillars, and on which rested a traditional (traditional with at least one of the Nations, perhaps it was the Sioux Nation?) funeral bier, a design that I’d submitted to a public art project funded by the city. It didn’t get accepted even though the criteria for submissions was that the sculpture had to be related to its location. Maybe it wasn’t good enough? Whatever … but it seemed that wherever I turned, or went, the past would pop up and confront me, like that guy in the bar.

There is something terrible, awful, about Amˇrica, not merely its awesome power but to be in the midst of something and feel its presence but have to scrabble around in its garbage, its discarded and buried past in order to discover it.

Then in early June of 2003, I was helping out this guy I knew launch his business and I was in his office on Brick Lane in London when out of the blue, Cheryl Byron’s name just popped, unbidden into my mind. I hadn’t spoken to Cheryl since about 1992, but something impelled me to phone her up, so I phoned the same number she’d had back then and got the same answering machine message on which I left a short message for her to phone me. I also did a search on the Net and found out that she had a Website, ‘Something Positive’, her Afro-Caribbean dance company, so I sent her an email as well.

A week later I got an email from her friend in New York that she had died that week, either the day before or after I’d phoned her up and that she’d spoken of me on her death bed and her love for me.

 

  
 
  
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