Dear readers, tonight with us is a P.I. from 1976 Harlem — the cat you call when your hair stands up, a supernatural brother like no other.
Tell us a little about where you grew up. What was it like there?
I was born in New Orleans but came to New York with my parents when I was seven. We stayed with my Uncle Silas till he passed. I was raised on West 115th in the Foster Projects in Harlem. They call ‘em the MLK Projects now. It was cool growing up. We had the big playground, monkey bars, ball courts…good old PS 170. When my daddy died and my mama got run down by a taxi, I stayed with Consolation Underwood in East Harlem. She was a bookie for King Solomon Keyes, and an Ifa priestess – an Ìyánífá. She taught me divination with the opon Ifa, had me memorize the 256 odu, while other kids were doin’ times tables. Said ‘cause I was born with a caul I ought to learn, maybe become a babalawo some day. She was Mama to just about every orphan in Harlem at one time or another. Always some kid coming or going in her kitchen. Me and her niece, little Phaedra Williams were the ones who stayed the longest. I used to walk Phaedra over to the pool at Marcus Garvey Park in the summer, stand under the monkey bars to catch her if she slipped. That was before ‘Nam.
Did you have any favourite toys as a child? Any cherished memories?
We couldn’t afford much in the way of toys. Played outside most of the time. One of my favorite memories is of sittin’ up late with my Daddy and my Uncle Silas beatin’ on these handmade mahogany Rada drums he had. My uncle taught me to beat the rhythm on the Boula when I was six. My mama would dance till the sweat made her arms shine in the dark.
What do you do now?
I’m a private investigator now, got an office on 33 St. Marks Place. I run down stray husbands and wives mostly, but sometimes folks call me when the hair on the back of their neck stands up, you dig? I got a reputation around town after I took down a rakshasi one night at the Empire Roller Disco in Brooklyn. Brought it in a lot of weird business. Weirder by the day, sometimes I think. Lucky I inherited a library from my godfather, Fish Marmelstein. He used to own a supply company, Brother Hoodoo. My daddy was his top salesman. Anyway, it’s got most everything I need. I got books on Vodoun, Hoodoo, Kabbalah, Hermeticism…you name it. And if I don’t have it, I know where to find it.
What can you tell us about your latest adventure?
Well, I wouldn’t call it an adventure. Adventures are supposed to be enjoyable, right? Where do I start? It’s been an eventful year. I took down a clique of vampires in the Harlem Hospital morgue, helped out my Uncle Silas’…..I don’t know what you call Verbena Mechant, a partner? Husband? Wife? Hell, you call her whatever she wants to be called. I learned that the hard way. Anyway, Auntie Verbena had a boo-hag causin’ problems with her girls in Crown Heights. Let’s see….there was that time Lou Lazzeroni found Genie Jones shrunk and floating in a lava lamp and called me in….there was that thing eatin’ graffiti taggers in the subway. Then there was that other thing running rampant at the Vatican…sorry, that’s what Pope used to call the apartment building where he housed his girls….ugh…sorry, Pope’s the pimp whose ghost haunts my car….eh, that’s a long story. I don’t wanna get into that mess. Let’s see….my last ‘adventure’….finding the dude who shot Preacher dead with an arrow in front of Hekima Books. Preacher, that was Benny Galarza, one of my oldest friends. We started the 167th Street Black Enchanters back in ’69 when we got outta Vietnam see….him and me and Black Adam. It had to do with a butchered gorilla carcass the cops found laying in an intersection in the Bronx. I just got out of the hospital from all that. It was a bad scene. Nearly got my black ass pitched off a roof.
What was the scariest thing in your adventures?
For all the ghoulies and haints, werewolves and such I’ve run into in Harlem and the outer boroughs, none of them came close to the bush. The LZ at Phuoc Dinh. Operation Texas. Yeah. All the devils in hell ain’t got nothin’ on the sound of an AK choppin’ through elephant grass. The whistle of a mortar bringin’ trouble out the sky.
What is the worst thing about New York City in 1976?
The Man and the pigs. I count ‘em as one. Ghettos are burning and they just throw us into the fire and warm their hands.
What is the best thing about it?
Strawberry egg creams at the Gem Spa on St. Marks and 2nd Avenue. Used to get ‘em with my Uncle Silas and my mama every Sunday after church. Now I can walk down the street from my crib and get one whenever I want.
Tell us a little about your friends.
Hm. Friends. That won’t take long. I ain’t got too many still above ground. There’s Baba Fred Hamilton. He runs the Harlem dojo on 125th. Taught me kenkojuku, got me off the streets. Got me to get my PI license. He’s a righteous cat. Alagba Mustafa….he runs Hekima Books. I dunno if we’re friends….we never gone for coffee or anything, but if there’s something I never heard of, I go to him. The man’s got wisdom. And I think there’s more to him than just a old man runnin’ a bookstore. Folks say the Zulu shield he’s got hangin’ on the wall came from Shaka. I won’t say I believe it, but I won’t say I don’t. Osh, this homeless Menominee dude in an Army jacket that watches my door when I ain’t in. I give him drinkin’ money, he gives me regular reports. Calls me Sarge. Salutes, the whole deal. I don’t know if he was in ‘Nam or Korea. Maybe both. I would be remiss to call a cop a friend, but Lt. Lou Lazzeroni NYPD Homicide is about the closest thing. I saved his Italian ass from vampires down in the Harlem morgue and ever since then he’s kept my card, called me in when the pigs run across something I can help with. Doesn’t pay, of course, but havin’ a cop owe you favors…there’s worse things.
Any romantic involvement?
Well, a gentlemen doesn’t kiss and tell does he? I pull down my fair share. Maybe a little more than that on a good week, if I got time. I got me a new secretary, Namiri Miggins….I’d like to get to know her better, dig?
Whom (or what) do you really hate?
Pimps. They’re the lowest form of life. I’ve seen them my whole life, prowling up and down 125th and all over Times Square, creeping through Hunts Point in their ridiculous cars, peering over the rims of their dark glasses, twisting women into dollar signs in their eyes. They congregate around the train station and the Greyhound stops like fishermen, watching for the kind of shiny, wide-eyed girls that came swimming up to the city, dreamin’ of bein’ a model or a dancer or an actress. They wind up gutted of them dreams in some cheap motel, their hearts tossed to the dirty ass gulls that cruise the underpasses and corners shelling out sweaty wads of cash money for what they were too pitiful to get for themselves. A pimp is a modern day overseer, lording it over the hearts and minds and the bodies of his own people. Ain’t nothing more disposable on God’s green earth than a gutter ass pimp.
What’s your favourite drink, colour, and relaxing pastime?
Black Label’s my poison. Black’s my color, baby. It’s beautiful, ain’t you heard? When I want to relax….I like to listen to my daddy’s Elmore Leonard records on a Costway player sorta like the one he used to have. Maybe smoke a couple Kools. I read a lot. Right now I’m goin’ back and forth between The African Origins of Civilization by Diop and Mathers’ translation of Abramelin The Mage.
What does the future hold for you?
Same thing it holds for everybody, baby. A long sleep six feet down. In between? Who knows? I’d like to retire, you understand. I’d like to. But my cases have been drying up since the train tunnel job and the rent just goes up and up. Plus now I got hospital bills, so I don’t see it happening. I’m hopin’ 1977 is quiet. Not too quiet, but quiet, dig?
Can you share a secret with us, which you’ve never told anyone else?
I was married once, to a Mnong girl named Jum. When the Montagnards rescued me from the NVA, I didn’t report back in. Just spent a year in her village. Her daddy was the local caak…like a sorcerer. He taught me a lot, but not as much as her. She smelled like peach blossoms. ‘Mai’ she called ‘em. I lost her when the VC marched into Đắk Sơn. I was across the ravine on patrol with the Ruff-Puffs from the village. All we could do was watch it burn.
Edward M. Erdelac is the author of Monstrumfuhrer, The Knight With Two Swords, Andersonville, and The Merkabah Rider series. His short stories have appeared in dozens of anthologies and periodicals including Midnight In The Pentagram and Star Wars Insider Magazine. Born in Indiana, educated in Chicago, he lives in the Los Angeles area with his family.
You can meet John on the pages of his eponymous novel, Conquer.
Join us next week to meet an ancient goddess getting used to a world of speakeasy and prohibition. Please follow the site by email (bottom-right) to be notified when the next interview is posted.