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Stories from the Tenants Downstairs
by Sidik Fofana
John Murray Publishers, 2022 (UK)
Scribner, 2022 (US)

In this collection of eight inter-related stories, the author introduces us to the fictional tenement of Banneker Terrace on 129th and Fred Doug in Harlem where everyone struggles to pay rent yet knows how to kick back with some beer and wings and a good boom box. Yes, they are poor, but yes, there is community. I don’t know New York City very well but I can’t imagine a good-time neighborhood cookout in Tribeca.

The first story introduces us to Mimi of 14D, mother of Fortune, whose Daddy is Swan, currently living with his mother and sister in 6B.  Mimi has her finger on the pulse of it all:

Little bit of everybody here. Young people with GEDs. Old people with arthritis. Folks with child-support payments, uncles in jail, aunties on crack, cousins in the Bloods, sisters hoein. That’s what everybody wanna concentrate on. The shit that be happenin only 1 percent of the time…. Don’t nobody wanna talk about the cookouts with beer and wings and aluminum flyin off the grill and you be smellin it and thinkin, Can I get a plate? The summertime when the souped-up Honda Civics bumpin Lil Wayne be vrommin thru the back parkin lot leavin tire marks…

The story “Rent Manuel” opens with her telling us: “Days left: 10 . . .money you got: $0 . . .money you need: $350.”  Which about sums up the struggle of a lot of the tenants. But there is no feeling sorry for herself; she faces her problems head on, with head up, braiding hair to make a buck.

In “The Okiedoke” we meet Swan, a layabout who here welcomes back his buddy Boon to the free world after time served. “A lot of shit done changed since he was locked up. We got ourselves a muhfuckin Black president for one.” Swan is proud of Obama, sees him as a model, but his buddy and another old friend soon pull him back into their old tricks.

The longest story, “Ms. Dallas,” gives us the voice of Verona Dallas, Swan’s mother, who is a “paraprofessional,” meaning she watches over a boy with problems as he attends junior high while she works a second job at JFK. A new teacher, Mr. Broderick – “White boy with no hair on his chin” –  constantly lets it be known he’s a Harvard grad. He goes over about as well as you might expect and Ms. Dallas doesn’t exactly help. We witness the chaos as the school prepares for a visit from the superintendent who will decide whether or not to close it down due to low scores and lack of control. It’s full of good humor and put me in mind of my student teaching at an all-Black school that tested my young White ass to the limit.

In other stories we meet the gay tenant, Dary, who is good at “Doing hair, listenin, and good in bed,” as well as the young girls of Banneker Terrace and some little boys whose stories are heartbreaking, but there is always that resilience that shines through.

By the end of the book I felt I had gotten to know these characters, who, with all their faults, I came to care about a great deal.  The dialogue is pitch-perfect, the stories all compelling.  There is a deep poignancy to them, but the humor and strong will of the characters buoys us along. Do not miss this dazzling new talent.  JA

High-Risk Homosexual
by Edgar Gomez
Soft Skull Press, 2022

Even today it is not always easy to come out as gay, but if you are part of a machismo culture – and lean toward the femme side of the spectrum – it is going to be all the more difficult; it is, in fact, going to be hell.  In his memoir, twenty-nine-year-old Edgar Gomez, born in Orlando, with roots in Nicaragua and Puerto Rico, takes us through the years of his coming of age – and coming out – in a series of (mostly) stand-alone chapters which vividly chart the years.

At age thirteen, Edgar lives with his mother, stepdad and older brother. He loves hanging out with his mother and watching rom-coms. But she thinks it would be a good idea if he spent time with his tios in Nicaragua. So off he goes and right off is taken to a cock fight where his uncle picks up a girl and then locks up the two in a tiny bedroom. The only good thing to come of this visit was his encounter, alone, with a group of “girly-boys,” as he had no word for trans women back then, to whom he felt immediately drawn and who were friendly to him. He loved it that they could dress the way they did and he was especially heartened as they seemed happy.  Was that really possible?  So many questions he wanted to ask them but didn’t dare linger too long.

Back in Orlando come the high school years. He was mostly a loner until he joined a drama club where he met a boy who didn’t ignore him.  Sitting together at a bus stop, they are joined by a basketball player, who asks, “Isn’t drama all, like, fags and shit?”  “Not really,” says Edgar. “But I wouldn’t care if it was.  I don’t have a problem with gay people.”  His drama buddy says, “You don’t?”  while the player looks perplexed.  And he doesn’t know why, but that proved to be the moment:  “Well, you know,’ I heard myself say. ‘I’m gay.’” And thus a bond was formed between the two drama boys although it was a long time coming before he came out to his mother, a bizarre experience that had him trying to go straight.

Much discussion is given over to “how gay” one should appear. His drama buddy disapproves of a boy in school who “powders his face in class.”  “You can be gay without being gay,” he says. But if Edgar had his way, he’d dress in flamboyant clothes and wear nail polish and jewelry. He knows he’s femme but spends much time trying to hide it. He even has one relationship with a guy whose Grindr profile read NofatsNofemmes, pretending to be who he wasn’t, talking in a deep voice, dressing in a straight way, hiking instead of watching J. Lo movies.

When he can enter gay clubs (underage), another world opens up. Here he can be himself. But quick hook-ups are not what he wants and it takes a while to loosen up.  He spends more time looking at Grindr than following through. Then comes a connection with an amateur group of strippers, who put on shows. He gets involved and they have a paid gig in Fort Myers where he can be too “too” and no one cares.

In Orlando, he hangs out at Parliament with its sleazy back rooms and pool, and later at a bar called Pulse, which feels like home. This, of course, stops the reader in her tracks as we all know the name. It was sheer luck that Gomez was not there the night of the massacre, an event so horrifying that it numbed him for a long time.   

Love, sex, the yearning for more of a connection, this is his life. He manages some time at college and briefly has a place of his own, but can’t afford it for long, so must move back home, which is grim in its poverty.

Later there will be the offer to teach writing at Riverside, California, which comes as a bit of a surprise to the reader, but evidently credentials were sufficient. Trump has just been elected and there he is greeted with “Go back to your country!” So if he is not being called maricón, he’s singled out for being Latino.

In a touching last chapter, we find him in San Francisco. Here, along with his personal denouement, he pays tribute to the trans clientele of Compton’s Café where three years before Stonewall a riot broke out when they fought back at brutal treatment and repressive laws that forbade “female impersonators.”

Gomez had very little growing up. He's one of those pimply-faced kids we see working at the mall, at Auntie Anne's Pretzels in his case, desperately trying to save up enough for a get-away (and medicinal face cream). It was a hard road, but his journey illuminates what it must be like for other Latinos on the lower end of the economic scale. Fortunately, for him and us, he was gifted with a talent for words, which pulled him up and out and allows him to share the experience so movingly.  JA 

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