1977-06-01 The New Yorker Magazine

By Jamaica Kincaid


We have just had two enjoyable encounters with Garland Jeffreys, a thirty-four year old New York songwriter and performer. The first was at a concert in Alice Tully Hall, at Lincoln Center. We had heard his recordings — particularly a song called “Wild in the Streets” — but had never heard him perform. He came onstage wearing black pants and a tailored gray pin-striped jacket (he removed it during the performance), a black T-shirt, and a tan Stetson hat. He danced around the stage for about five minutes before singing anything. The audience stood up and cheered him. He danced on as if unconscious of the cheers. Then he started to sing. He sang songs — all of them his own compositions — about New York; about his mother and father, about interracial love, about growing up in New York, about his own efforts to succeed as a songwriter, about teenage rebellion, and about politics. He sang some of the songs to a rock-and-roll beat and some to a reggae beat. Whatever beat he used, he used it very well, and we came away from the concert feeling pleased and excited.


A few days after this, Garland Jeffreys invited us to drive out with him to Sheepshead Bay, in Brooklyn. He grew up there, and he wanted to show us part of his old neighborhood. He picked us up in a big black car, and he told the driver to go by the Belt Parkway. We got our first closeup look at Garland Jeffreys. He is a light-skinned black man with gray-green eyes and curly brown hair. On this occasion, he was wearing black pants, a regular black shirt, a blue plaid tie, and the same jacket that he had worn onstage. He said to us, “I’m going to take you by my high school. I went to Abraham Lincoln High School. Then I’m going to take you by my house. We can’t go in, though. My folks aren’t in town. They’re taking a trip across the country in a car. My folks are named Carmen and Ray. They are the nicest people.”


On the Belt Parkway, just before we reached the exit to the Abraham Lincoln High School, we saw some children playing baseball. He said, “I used to play ball right here when I was little. I was a member of the Saint Mark’s Little League. I played ball here from the time I was eight. My father was a great baseball player.”


Then we came to the school. We saw some people dressed in various sports uniforms standing around the grounds. “I ran track here,” he said.


“Were you any good?” we asked.


“No,” he said, and he laughed. “There were always cats there who were faster than me.”


We drove up to the front of the school. It looked like many pictures of American high schools. He looked around and said, “Things have really changed around here. See all those apartment buildings?” He pointed to some apartment buildings just across the street from the school. “Well, they were not here. There wasn’t anything around here except a little candy store across the corner. Oh, hell, let’s go on.”


Garland Jeffreys directed the driver to go on to Brighton Beach. He wanted to pass by a billiard parlor where he used to play billiards, and he wanted to stop off at Irving’s Delicatessen, where he and his friends used to buy sandwiches after they were through playing billiards. At the delicatessen, he bought some meatsÑcorned beef and brisketÑand some potato salad and some celery tonic, and we ate them in the car.


As we drove on, he said, “Do you see that sign?” We looked at a sign that said “Brighton Beach — Private.” He said, “When I was little, I used to wonder why my friends could go into that place and I couldn’t. I didn’t know what was going on. I used to do everything I could to get into that place. But just look at it. It’s a nothing place. I didn’t know that then.”


We drove to a section of Brighton Beach where there were some prosperous-looking houses. He said, “I used to come to this part of town three times a year. Trick-or-treating, Happy Thanksgiving, and shovelling snow.”


Then we drove to Sheepshead Bay and passed a restaurant called Lundy’s. He said that his grandfather had been the headwaiter there in the twenties and thirties and that his two uncles and his father had worked there as waiters. We drove by another restaurant, called Pips, where he said he himself used to be a waiter when he was a teen-ager. We drove by a Roman Catholic church, and he said he and his family were its only black members. We drove by a store where he said he bought his first tropical fish. We drove by a drugstore called Kips, where he said he had been a delivery boy. We drove by Ethel’s Shop, where he said his mother bought her clothes. We drove by Bay Florist, where he said he had bought his mother flowers for Mother’s Day when he was a boy. And we drove by a restaurant called Subway Hero Sandwiches, where he said he and his dad used to stop by for a hamburger and French fries when it was called the Yankee Diner.


Then we drove up to the house he grew up in. It is a nice, comfortable-looking three story red brick house. It was late afternoon, and all the other houses looked busy with dinnertime. He reminded us that his parents were driving across the country. He said, “I can’t go in. When I left home they took my keys away.” He laughed. Then he said, “I love this house now, but when I was growing up I used to wonder how come we couldn’t live in an apartment. I used to want to live in an apartment so bad. When I was real little, I used to leave from here early in the morning and go to the schoolyard. I was forever in the schoolyard. I used to be playing ball, getting a sandwich at the corner, and then hanging out with my friends. We used to sing a lot. My favorite song to sing was called ‘The Huckle Buck.’ That was my song.”

After this, we ran into some friends of his parents. They embraced Jeffreys. They told him that his mother is very proud of him and that she speaks of him all the time. They also told him that ever since his parents went away all their friends have been regularly receiving postcards with amusing anecdotes about their trip. He said, “Yeah, I get postcards too,” and he removed from his jacket pocket a postcard from his parents. It said, “Hi!!! We spent 2 1/2 weeks in Houston with Ray and Cora. Had a very nice time there. We are leaving Dallas on way to El Paso. Will get in touch soon. give love to Carole. Love, Mom and Dad.”

Comments are closed.