The Green Machine, Circa 1981 © Jerome DeVonni Wilson
His ski mask was pulled down, his fake Isotoners tightly gripping backpack straps, his boots — a size too big — struggling onward through the tundra called Michigan City.
The snow was getting thicker. The mucus in his nose thinner. The water in his eyes colder, freezing upon departure.
He thought it funny how they put salt on the walks and streets to melt the snow, yet the salt in his tears wasn’t as effective.
The wind coming across from Canada was fierce. He was toppled. Twice. Not from Jack Frost, but by Jom and Terry. They were the sons of a dysfunctional family who were obviously dyslexic or had a cruel sense of humor.
They were twins and their family lived at the top of Eighth Street hill. On the stocky side, big for their age. No, big for their grade. They’d been held back twice, so though Park Elementary only went to sixth grade, they were still there at thirteen.
Jom was the envious and insecure type. Terry was a few minutes older, yet he was the shadow. They constituted the blind leading the blind.
The guy you thought was a criminal…yeah, the one with the ski mask and gloves?
Fifth-grader. He’d overlooked their browbeating for the most part, trying to just make it up the hill and around the corner. He was skinny, had less heart.
His ignoring them only stimulated the flow of their ignorance. Jom became physical. See: the water in his eyes colder. Terry followed suit with a little more umph. See: the salt in his tears.
The brothers badgered him for so long that their feet began to feel numb. While the skinny kid had new galoshes on to protect him from the elements, the troublesome duo both wore canvass Chuck Taylors that were hardly fit to battle snow, slush, or the cold weather that spawned it. See: dysfunctional family.
Jom (not) the bright one, decided he wanted the kid’s boots.
It was a Friday. The sun had called off for work so dusk was always threatening. Terry grabbed the scarf around the kid’s neck and was pulling it from behind so that he was immobile.
Still not enough salt.
This was horrible! A lose-lose situation and unforgiving dilemma. Fortunately, he had a mentor who worked in Quality Control Management who was always giving him scenarios to work out.
Here, his imminent task was damage control. I mean, let’s face it, this is a Black kid we’re speaking of. He couldn’t just go home and tell his parents that he let someone take his boots off his feet. What’s wrong with you people?
He had a single mom. Struggling financially. It just so happened she’d been working extra hours trying to replace the tattered shoes that had gifted painful calluses and bunions on her own little feet. If he gave up his boots she’d have to replace them, which meant she’d have to endure her worn ones longer.
What to do?
- A) Give up the boots = wrath of Mom
- B) Don’t give up the boots = See: more tears; still not enough salt. Or…
- C) Fight for the boots = Ha! Who writes this stuff? C = A + B because the dummy
duo still ends up with the boots (SMH).
Jom had the straps of his backpack and Terry had his scarf in front of him by then. They were twirling him around clumsily and without coordination.
That’s when he saw it.
It was for sale:
Works Like Knew
Woefully, he finally acquiesced. He lowered his head and unfastened the buckles on each boot. Beneath the mask his teeth were clenched as he ascended the hill without looking back, an air of despair in his gait.
He circled the block.
Friday meant two things: No school for a couple of days, and his mom worked her second job on the weekend. If he operated correctly, he could right this wrong and restore his dignity.
He climbed four icy steps, lifted the mask from his face and awkwardly prodded a doorbell with a gloved finger.
An older woman answered.
He explained that he was poor and needed to buy both him and his mom some boots.
He was a prided child and wanted to purchase her machine, but…
She told him that she’d drop the price to $40 and allow him to give her half and then owe the other half on consignment.
He pondered the offer. How could he come up with $20? And if he did, could he have the rest by con…what?
“Kun-SYN-mint,” she articulated.
Yeah, that. But what day was it on?
After explaining to him that it merely meant that she was entrusting him with a debt, she told him as an aside, she had two shovels that she no longer needed.
She was moving to an assisted living community on Monday. He’d seen the shovels on the side of the house. He expressed his gratitude and told her he’d be back in the morning.
Then, he quickly went from door-to-door of prospective customers. Older people. Single women. He was able to obtain several clients but only had a couple hours of daylight left, plus he needed to beat his mother home so she wouldn’t notice his boots were missing.
He bee-lined up the hill and knocked on another door. It opened and his boots were parked right inside. Yeah, he really went to their house. While being mean-mugged he…
Told ’em that he had a way to be able to buy Terry a new pair of boots just like the other ones. This bought their attention.
Early next morning.
His mother already gone to work.
He placed each foot in a plastic grocery bag, then slid his shoes on. He stepped outside, down the street, rounded a corner, then went up a hill and…
Knocked on the same door where his old boots lived. It opened and three kids with two shovels departed. The only way for the twins to not see him not working was to give the impression that they all had their own houses to do. He pulled a memo pad from his backpack, tore off a page, and held it out. Jom grabbed it. He did it again and Terry grabbed it. He then tore the last list off for himself.
Each list had five homes on it from the same street. Well, kind of. His list was fake. A dummy list.
He told them he had to go get the other shovel. They called him a dummy for only bringing two shovels for three people.
He shrugged it off.
While the brothers went to work, he scoured the neighborhood and obtained twelve more clients who also paid deposits. Seven on a long street and five on a shorter one.
He went to the elderly woman’s house and paid her $20. He told her he’d return the next day with the remainder. Grateful, he thanked her and cleared the snow away from her home before leaving.
Back on the long street, he easily cleared the snow from two houses and collected what they owed.
He hurried to take the green machine back where he’d bought it, parked it in the same spot and placed the “for sale” sign back on it. Then he went to check on the dummies — I mean, brothers. Jom was finished on his street and had gone to help his sibling as the skinny kid had instructed whoever finished first to do.
That gave him the opportunity to collect the remainder of the fees. Jom had even earned him $2 in tips.
He found them on the next street, tired, cold, and backs aching. They finished up and hit the corner store, where he spent $3.50 on stacks. For break time they went back to the twins’ house to warm up in their garage.
The kid explained to them that they were halfway to the boots already after a half day of work. He then passed each one another list of five houses. He folded and put his list in his pocket. Jom let Terry wear the boots.
They dispersed to man their duties. Collecting the remainder of the fees from Terry’s work, he was pleased to receive an extra $2.50 in tips. He then cleared six houses on a street in one quick sweep with his machine and parked it back in the same spot with the sign on it.
Fifty-two bucks. Fifty-two smackaroos and he hadn’t worked a back muscle! The boots were only $20 apiece. He gauged that it had taken about two and a half hours for his workers to do five jobs apiece. City buses came by every 30 minutes or so. The trip to the shoe store would take about 45 minutes one—way. He could be in and out of the store in no time.
There, the crowd was thick but he’d beaten them. Galoshes were going fast. He grabbed two of the same size and was back in his neighborhood before he was missed. After bus fare, he still had a few bucks left.
He returned at three o’clock. This time Terry had finished first and was helping Jom with the last job.
He collected them and started off for their house. En route, Jom made a “what if” remark about having a snow blower they walked past that was for sale.
Yeah, what if?
What if they had never strong-armed the skinny kid out of his boots? Anyway, once back at their garage, he parked the(ir) boots on the concrete, gathered the two shovels and turned to leave.
“Where you going?” asked a brother.
He explained that he still had work to do.
“What about us?” asked the other.
He told them they were already done.
Jom’s lips tightened and twisted, his head lowered in quiet disappointment. The poles of leadership shifted and Terry rose above the silence of blighted hope to ask, “When can we do it again? Maybe we can buy a warm parka like yours.”
Kids. That’s all they were, just kids. Rough around the edges no less, but at the end of the day— well, that day anyway— they were just like him inside.
It was at that point he realized it. He took their phone number and left, but made no promises. Quickly, he dropped the two shovels off at his house.
After collecting the rest of the money from the two streets his workers had done last, he scoured the neighborhood for more clients.
He received deposits from eleven people.
He took $20 of the $34 he had to the elderly woman. She wished him good luck and he pushed the green machine home.
Sunday. A short day. He showed up with two shovels and gave them each a list with three houses. He figured he’d give them a 50/50 split of the income they generated, which was minus his finder’s fee and shovel rental fees.
Once they split up so that he (the dummy) could go and get his shovel, he retrieved his machine to clear the other five houses. By the end of the day, he’d have enough to buy his mother’s boots because brains vanquish brawn.
This, a lesson that I hold dear when I’m trying to just make it up the hill and around the corner. The hill could be freedom. The corner could be police brutality or predatory lending.
And the green machine? The green machine will always be the apparatus conceived from the sagacity and indomitable spirit that the underdog utilizes to challenge defeat and surmount hindrances.
Hence, the strong rule the weak, but the smart rule the strong.
…and that’s on everythang.