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The Ballad of Broad Street

Every time I hear The Ohio Players’ “Heaven Must Be Like This” it must be liiiiike this - it takes me back to the early eighties and relay races on Broad Street. Just after the beginning of school, but right before the chill sets in the air...Indian summers. Ashy thin legs in short-shorts thrashing down the street...

Every time I hear The Ohio Players’ “Heaven Must Be Like This” it must be liiiiike this – it takes me back to the early eighties and relay races on Broad Street. Just after the beginning of school, but right before the chill sets in the air…

Indian summers.

Ashy thin legs in short-shorts thrashing down the street, inhaling the brisk, crisp air and discarding the jackets our mothers made us put on. Running towards the setting sun, trying to chase down the last bits of summer, then slapping the hand of the next runner, hoping he would be able to catch it.

I should have put those fleeting moments of freedom in a jelly jar with my fireflies. Poked holes in the lid so that they, and I, could breathe better. And so that I could hold on to those days, forever.

Now Grover’s horn? On “Mister Magic”? Pst! Maaann, Grover’s horn was funky. Grover’s horn was smoking oregano rolled up in brown, wide-lined school paper behind Denise Montgomery’s house on Winebiddle Street, next door to the jitney station. Me, Stephanie and Lynn from around the corner, maybe Shanika from down the way, and whoever else was in on the get-in for that day, would cram into the little shack behind Denise’s house, which served as our playhouse, or schoolhouse, or storefront, or whatever else we needed it to be. On that day, it just happened to be our get-high house.

We would all huddle up in a little circle, in that little shack, get us some matches or a lighter. Humph. Light that bad boy up! And honey hush, you couldn’t tell us we wasn’t smoking on some reefer that day. We were doing it, you hear me.

So much so that years later, when I finally got my hands on some real weed and some real Tops, somehow my real high never quite compared to the pretend ones we got from those boot-legged joints we smoked back then in secret. The ones laced with Indian summers, Grover’s magic horn, and Heaven.

You see, Broad Street to me was double-dutch in the afternoon and hide-n-go-get-it at dusk. Back flips on discarded mattresses and trips to Johnston’s General Store on Saturday mornings for a box of Boston Baked Beans, a bag of Snyder’s chips, a hot pickle, ‘n a Chick-O-Stick. Y’all remember… before being badass became the shit. Before Crips and Bloods got to the Burg. (Who even knew that they could?) Before beef couldn’t be squashed by a good battle or a good fight– but precisely at the time when Beat Street, Breakin’ and Breakin’ 2: Electric Boogaloo had made their debuts — so the world was becoming acutely aware that those were two entirely different concepts all together.

Come on…y’all remember. When the house couldn’t hold us. And you couldn’t wait for the sun to rise on weekend mornings so you could hit the streets runnin’. The icy-ball-lady (every block, court, or set had one) sold red, orange, and purple icy-balls for a quarter. And even though you could have made your own cause your mom had the same damn Kool-Aid in your cupboard, you couldn’t wait to get one from her cause somehow hers were sweeter, better, wetter, whatever! The days were brighter then, and you never thought of dark clouds or dark days because they were somewhere else, far, far off away.

We–my parents, my little brother Dawan and me–actually lived up top on Hillcrest Street. We had some good times up there too (I’ll tell you about those some other time). But our days after-school were spent at our grandmother’s house on Broad. There, Grandma Pearl and Aunt Sandy cooked for and fed us, reared and raised us, made sure we did our homework, bathed before bed, and were in one piece by the time my mother got home from work. Every day. So Broad Street was different.

We lived on Hillcrest, but we grew up on Broad.

Broad Street was budding baby loves and first French kisses, and at twelve-years-old I shared both of mines with Ahkema Lateef Evans –we called him Kema– and Kema had the hugest, fullest, plushiest lips. He looked like Billy Ocean. And honey, that was MTV, early BET days and I was in loooovvve with me some Billy Ocean! (And I can’t stand it baby, umm. Umph, umph, umph, umph, umph.)

Well, one day me and Dawan, followed Kema and his little sister Chotty up to their little house on Kincaid Street, and the little ones were left to watch TV upstairs.

Now if I ever kissed him close-mouthed before that day, I can’t seem to remember. And somehow, I can’t recall any kisses we shared after that day either (although I’m sure there had to be quite a few.) But me and Kema? In that basement? Those kisses I remember.

‘Cause we were kissing and kissing and it was sloppy and wet, and planted in wrong places. But we were happy and didn’t care and saliva was slinging ev-e-ry-where. And his lips tasted sweetly familiar, and I drift deeper and deeper. Uuumm… Lemonheads and Now-and-Laters. And our tongues played tag, and mine ran from his until I let him catch me somewhere…under the basement stairs. And is somebody playing, “Suddenlleeyyy, life has new mean-ning to meee,” or is that Billy O singing in my head?

I imagined we’re Charlene and Willis fumbling on the Drummond couch, or Sparkle and Stix on a Harlem rooftop. But it’s simply me and Kema, running wild and chaperone-free, holed up beneath basement stairs lit dimly with blue lights and a first kiss haze.

And his lips, those lips, are on my nose, neck, and hips, but he doesn’t quite know what to do with his hands until…

He puts the right one on my thigh and, his hand is shaking but I am not and — that’s when I hear it.

“Evoooonnneee.”

But it was muted, faded, far off at first, so I pretended it was not my name but someone else’s who was being called, and I kept on kissing Kema. Then I heard it again.

“EEE-VOOONNNNEEE!” Louder this time and Dawan came running downstairs.

“It’s Aunt Sandy!” he said, with his eyes half bulging half out of his head, and I laughed because they remind me of Popeye’s eyes when he sees Olive Oil and goes, “AahOOOga! AahOOOga!” I laughed too because I was nervous, and the butterflies that had carried me to preteen bliss only moments before had turned instantly to nauseating panic as we scurried out of the basement and onto the street where our manic aunt was screaming our names.

“Do you know what time it is?” she said, snatching me by my head. “Didn’t you hear me calling you?”

And I did hear her calling, but I didn’t know what time it was. ‘Cept it was daytime when we came, and now it is dark, dark and ain’t nobody out and the streets are quiet, so I knew we were in trouble.

“The hell have you two been!” Worrying us half to death.”

Dawan tried to sprint ahead but she caught him mid-stride. “You know you don’t go nowhere without telling somebody where you are!”

“But I was with my sister,” he said. “I stayed with her… I stayed in her sight.” It was his only defense. Four years my junior, my little brother had been given only one major rule for playing outside–“stay with your sister and never leave her sight”–and look where following me had got him. I twisted with guilt while he pleaded, “I didn’t leave her sight,” in hopes of a pardon. But it was much too late for that.

“Got. Me. Walking. Up. And. Down. These. Damn. Hills. Looking. For. YOU!” (This last line she dispensed while switching the belt from Dawan’s ass to mine.)

Aunt Sandy whooped us the entire way home. All the way down Kincaid Street, left on North Evaline, right on Broad and all the way back to the front porch steps. Then, once we got into the house, Grandma Pearl (who never beat us) took over. Though getting a whooping from her was like getting beat with fresh plucked feathers. I cried out mostly because I didn’t want to hurt her feelings, and me and my brother made funny faces at each other behind her back and between lashes as she chased us around the room.

Bright and early the next day, thinking the worse was over, we skipped up the city steps to Hillcrest Street, ready to face our punishments from our parents. No TV for a week, no ATARI, no going outside, extra chores maybe. Poor, poor little dumb kids. We stepped into the living room and got our butts beat again. Two more times! My mother grabbed me and my dad grabbed Dawan, and then they switched.

Mind you now, this was before whippings became abuse. Before Black people jumped aboard the timeout bandwagon. This was when mommas still gave teachers permission to “wear his ass out!” when you acted up in school. When you got your butt beat in the middle of the street, and instead of calling the cops or CYS, Ms. So-n-So from next door and Mrs. What’s-Her-Name from across the street would pull up plastic porch chairs to comment and watch the floorshow.

“Was just a matter of time,” one of them would say.

“I almost had to snatch ’em myself the other day.”

“These kids just outta hand these days.”

“Uumm hum. Wasn’t like when we were comin’ up, you know. You remember Miss Josephine? Now Miss Josephine didn’t play!”

“You know that’s right. And that one there,” Ms. So-n-so would say, nodding towards the scene. “Yeah, he deserved that one.”

And just like us, you probably did. But if you’re anything like me you wouldn’t take any of it back. You see, those days on Broad Street are the ripest, juiciest parts of me.

If you were to ask me now, “Was the kiss worth all of that?” I would have to say, every hittin’, stickin’, lickin,’ baby. ‘Cause it’s thirty years later, and I couldn’t tell you what one of those four whippings felt like.

But every time I hear Billy Ocean playing on the radio, I think of Ahkema Lateef Evans, with his plumpest, fullest and plushiest lips, and I lick mine and remember how they tasted. Uuumm, like Lemonheads and Now-and-Laters and umph, umph, umph, umph umph.

Yeeaahh… I gots to get me some of those.

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About the Author

Author, oral historian, and Pittsburgh native Yvonne McBride is inspired by her love for storytelling, folklore, and the rich, musical history of her hometown. She is currently working on a novel based in The Hill District during its golden era of jazz.

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  • Muslimah Tasheen

    Great piece!!! This made my day……oh the memories. Thanks for the smile you put on my face today 😊

  • Adrienne Reddick

    I absolutely loved it! I was transported back to that time and could hear your aunt talking with every one of those licks she was handing out! And the neighbors sitting around while y’all got a whipping! LOL!

  • JanuaryBabe

    Awesome! I guess ever city had a Broad Street and a neighborhood that was a “village!”

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