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Wednesday, June 02, 2004

The Fourth of July in October ...

There were surely some frightening days to cope with. Like the day during the early years, before life had settled down into a day-to-day routine of ordinariness that still demanded a high degree of caution. I'd developed a highly sensitive hearing level. My ears amplified the street noises but often failed to filter out the cries of distressed children from the sounds of domestic violence somewhere out of sight but not out of hearing. This was before I'd become reasonably comfortable with the street corner cabals, and before I'd learned to read the danger signs with any accuracy -- the quickness of the lookouts -- the "runners" -- when something was "comin' down."

My problem tenant was still upstairs on the second floor and this was worrisome to me. Some of his staff had begun to report disturbing stories. I knew that he had downtown influence and that it would be difficult to deal with him without some element of threat.

On that morning in October I arrived to work to a scene that stopped my breathing for just an instant. On the Prince Street side of my building there was shattered glass everywhere! All of the display windows on the north side of the building had been blown out! At first sight I had the impression of there having been a fire.

My troubling tenant was standing at curbside -- his well-dressed long and lean body leaning against his car with a sinister grin on his face. He had been waiting for me, waiting to see my reaction to the mayhem. The corner was strangely empty of street dealers. There was an eerie silence with neighbors gathered in small groups -- staring.

As the story unraveled later, I learned that on the day before he'd hosted a meeting in his office at which the chief of police and several uniformed officers were present. That apparently signaled to the street that my second floor was being used for surveilance purposes. As a warning, barrel bombs had been taped to my windows during the night and detonated as a warning. My tenant appeared to have written the script, though proof was illusive.

Shortly thereafter I served notice of eviction for cause, but not before I'd experienced several weeks that seemed like a lifetime of living in fear. Bill was beginning to bring pressure to bear on me to give it up. Shut it down. He was increasingly concerned about my safety. He was probably justified, though in all honesty -- I always believed that eventually I would make it.

The fact that I immediately called in the glaziers to have the windows boarded up and went about the business of cleaning up the debris in plain view of everyone; that I didn't hide away in fear and trembling; may have saved the situation. Bravado thy name is Betty! When the plywood was temporarily in place I took to my "talking windows" and wrote a message in big bold black letters;


"How sad!
There is no insurance to cover this damage
...no money to pay for glass replacement.
However, while waiting to recover from this temporary setback
Reid's will do business as usual.
It would be helpful if you would not use this corner
for loitering so that our customers
will not be afraid to enter the store.
Then recovery can come more quickly.
Since I would prefer not to know your business,
conversations in my stairwell or front entry may
be unwise."

Thanks,

Betty Reid Soskin

It was clear that I was declaring turf and wouldn't be going anywhere. Come hell or high water, I planned to stand my ground and the street knew it. It was also clear that I really didn't want to know what they were doing and that I probably was not cooperating with the police, after all. They gave me the benefit of the doubt and I had no more problems. They honored my plea and left enough space around me and my building so that we became an island of sanity over time.

My customers continued to arrive in a steady stream, and the business grew with each day, though the nature of it was changing dramatically. Black gospel music was becoming more and more the centerpiece and Reid's was the location where the best could be found. And -- I was truly becoming far more comfortable as a business woman than I ever was at whatever it was that I'd become in the university community. This felt more like home for reasons I can't quite describe. Something deep inside me resonated to black life in ways that nothing else had. It still does.

Taking a stand on LL COOL J's album posed no threat to me. By the time that happened I was comfortable in my shoes. The Rappers either discounted me as being of no consequence, or, they respected my right to act on my own principles. I suspect it was the latter. If I wasn't comfortable with this genre, I (and possibly they) figured it had to be more generational than racial. I found little fascination with European music, either. Always figured that I just wasn't wired for Haydn and that Bach would sound a whole lot better with a good rhythm section with Mingus on bass, or a little Christian McBride, maybe (smile). Black gospel stood alone. Despite no history in the Black Church, Vanessa Bell Armstrong could bring a visceral reaction -- the late Thomas Whitfield might have been a fit musical companion to the great Duke Ellington. I recall writing an ad for a local paper in which I claimed ...

"Contemporary Black Gospel is Jazz Come Home!"

And it was and is.

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