I’m on my fourth date with Sparta. Sparta is a policeman – a white cop in a black city, and on that basis alone, an unlikely choice for me. I invite him to the Harlem Boys’ Choir so I can watch him for signs of ill breeding. He is wearing a herringbone sport jacket, yellow and blue striped tie, brown pants and loafers. Perhaps he is colorblind, a lot of men are. Nate, my ex-boyfriend, dressed really well. Too well, a male friend had thought after meeting him. He is either gay or too into himself.
The singing is like soft rippling raindrops – of innocence and sacrifice and unlikelihood – and I answer its waves with tears. Sparta doesn’t cry but sits alert in his chair, leaning toward the music. As we leave Davies Symphony Hall, the boys of the choir are waiting in a receiving line. Sparta has a favorite, the littlest boy with giant ears, and he wants to wait and shake his hand.
I pick up our coats from the coat check, and lean against the wall in the entryway as the crowd flows by. I try to picture Sparta with the Boys’ Choir. How would they feel if they knew he was a cop? If they knew he has chased young black men through backyards, hoping to tackle them before they can swallow their merchandise?
On the drive home Sparta is whistling, and telling me how his ears were really big when he was a little boy too, how the little choir boy was shy, and didn’t want to look at him at first. How the kindergarten kids still wave and smile when he drives by in his police car. But by they time they hit eight or nine, they already hate you, already call you Peckerwood. By thirteen they’re dangerous. Something is tintinnabulating in my brain. It is an old Jimmy Cliff tune.
Peace officer, are you a warrior, warrior?
Mark Burkhardt from college. I could never get him to notice me. I thought he was so cool, with his “Free Nelson Mandela” pin and the ribbon below it “Stop Police Brutality.” I’d sidled up to him at a party, said, “Hello, remember me from the Stanford Out of South Africa meeting?”
“– oh yeah, right… so.. done anything political lately?”
How do you answer that? Surely I’d stuttered, crumpled.
Peace officer, are you a war monger?
Sparta is quiet now, concentrating on the road. Why did Nate dump me? I glance at the Playbill in my lap: The Boys Choir of Harlem is a testament to discipline, high standards, and commitment. Nate said I was too tall, my garden was too messy. But surely he’d used “I” messages. He’d been to LifeSpring, seen a shaman, attended men’s groups. Surely he’d said I feel you are too tall, and I feel your garden is too messy. The night before we split up in the Bangkok International Airport, he’d controlled, measured his words. “It’s late. I have a big day tomorrow. I’d really like to get some sleep.”
Why you’re carrying so much ammunition —
I think I see shotgun shells rolling around in the foot well of Sparta’s Blazer. There is a round packet of skoal on the console.
–You okay? asks Sparta as he takes my hand.
–Sure fine fine. So you chew?
–Only when I’m falling asleep on the job.
It is interesting to learn the personal habits of policemen. Like that they chew. Also that their mom died when they were twelve. That their dad married five times, once to their seventeen-year-old Irish housecleaner. That they went to West Point. (Why? –Because they needed to belong, needed a family.)
–more than an aircraft carrier.
I concentrate on conjuring up The Gumshoe Dance, one of my favorites from the night’s program, to exorcise the melody that is commandeering my brain. But it won’t come. I sigh.
–You ever heard of Jimmy Cliff?
So I tell him about riding in the back of a police car on my way to the Elmwood County Jail in Milpitas, CA. How the police car smelled of stale bodies and cigarettes. About the black grime engraved into the crevices of the tan vinyl seat I sat in.
— No kiddin. I’d never set foot in the backseat of my car.
I tell him how I was cold in the police car, wearing only shorts and a t-shirt. How I moved my legs up and down, listening to the slurping sound as the plasticky vinyl peeled away from them. How my participation in the Divest Now sit-in had been somewhat spur-of-the-moment. I learned later that you should have a support team in place, ensure that you are not alone in jail (I was the only woman) and probably cancel your plans for an evening at the theatre with your mom (I thought we’d be cited and released.)
–Wow, says Sparta after awhile, But I’m confused.
–What’s this got to do with Jimmy Smith?
–Jimmy Cliff, oh yeah.
I tell Sparta how I sang a Jimmy Cliff song to the policeman driving me to Elmwood County Jail. How I wanted to reach out to him, perhaps help him re-think his role in an oppressive society. Through the mesh barrier, I could only see the ruff of his blue utility jacket, the pink of his balding pate and an occasional flash of his glasses in the rearview mirror. How I realized, and it really annoyed me, that he was amused.
–So let’s hear it.
What the heck. Was it Adrienne Rich who said “my heart expands to accommodate my contradictions?” I sing to this policeman too, a white cop in a black city — who has chased young black men through backyards – who has big ears and a true heart — whom I don’t know yet that I will someday marry — and who is driving me home from the Harlem Boys Choir.