[Part of a series of posts previewing the novel Sin Against the Race.]
Sammy Turner can be a nag. Some might call Sammy Turner a busybody, because he knows everybody’s business. All that know him, however, will eventually admit that Sammy Turner is their rock. His corner grocery story is the kitchen of Carver Street, the place where folks come to hang out, catch up, shoot the shit. Sammy knows everybody’s business because everybody confides in him, not because he asks, but because he listens.
I wish I had had a Sammy in my life, someone to come out to, to confide in, someone to tell me, Yes, you’re OK. Someone who had already traveled the path I was just beginning to set foot upon. Who wouldn’t want such a mentor in their life?
An older gay man who has seen many things, who discarded the closet long ago, a warrior who hitchhiked to the 1963 March on Washington as a teen, Sammy has many battle scars. Or, to use his own parlance, he would describe himself as a cup of blues coffee. Sammy makes his morning cup in an old tin drip pot, the kind with the water chamber that drips into a metal filter filled with coffee grounds and then drains into a bottom chamber. It sits directly on the burner and chars the coffee. My grandmother used one way back to make her Hill’s Brothers.
“It ain’t blues coffee unless it’s been bruised a bit, to get some attitude. The trick, though, is not to bruise it too much or it will get bitter.”
– from p. 8, SIN AGAINST THE RACE
Sammy has seen the best and worst of what humanity has to offer and still he maintains his place in the world. He maintains hope. Bitterness lingers just to the side of his personality.
Anyone who compares coffee to the blues has to be a musician. Sammy played drums in his youth. I always had a feeling that Sammy was a musician, but it took a while for me to explore that side of him. Music always plays in his store, usually jazz. And he has a habit of exclaiming “Great Dizzy!” when something surprises or annoys him. Sammy has a history, though, a reason he’s not playing when the story begins. Alfonso brings it out of him, his reasons for leaving music aside, in a way no one else ever had.
As the neighborhood den mother, Sammy has lots of friends and regulars at his store. Alfonso’s late cousin, Carlton, hung out at the store, sought out Sammy when he got thrown out of the house by his parents, Alfonso’s aunt and uncle. Carlton, already dead when the story begins, continues to guide Alfonso from beyond. Many of the people Alfonso encounters all knew and loved his cousin. They formed Carlton’s real family, since his blood relatives, other than Alfonso, shunned him.
“More than anything, his cousin wanted his immediate family to enter an empty apartment after he died, so that they would receive exactly what they had given. Nothing.”
– from p. 11, SIN AGAINST THE RACE
On Alfonso, though, Carlton lavished much affection. For the longest time, Alfonso was only out to his flamboyant cousin. Only after Carlton’s death does Alfonso begin exploring the world Carlton left behind.
Carlton represents the generation of gay men lost to AIDS, that first wild bunch to burst out of the closet after Stonewall. When I came out, I met many from that generation, particularly in ACT-UP/LA. We’re losing many of those pioneers to other ailments now, ALS, cancer. Theirs is a great generation for which I have much respect.
Sammy’s blues coffee companion is community activist and organizer Charlotte Hunter. She once worked for Councilman James Larkin, the predecessor on the City Council to Ford Berry, Alfonso’s father. And she ran for the job herself, only to lose to Berry. It was a nasty race that left scars for many, including Alfonso. And yet, when he meets her at Sammy Store…,
“He switched his embrace to Charlotte somewhat self-consciously—mindful of a history not his, yet a part of him—but felt only sympathy from her. Carlton always told him that Charlotte was the real deal, always straight, always fair.”
– from p. 8, SIN AGAINST THE RACE
During his first visit to the store, Alfonso also sees Mrs. Parker, Carlton’s favorite nurse. She, too, likes to drop in on Sammy from time to time to sample some of his coffee, “the best in the Huck.” Mrs. Parker is a firebrand, a feisty 80-something who refuses to slow down or go down. The neighborhood historian, she has earned a few scars of her own. Thus, she is the one that den mother Sammy turns to whenever he needs someone to talk to. She’s part Alberta Hunter and part my own grandmother, Julia McVey, the one who used the old tin drip pot to make her Hills Brothers coffee.