From all the dark faces on the street I could tell we had come to the Hill District. It was less than three miles from our house on the North Side, but I’d never been there before in my life. I’m not sure what I was expecting. My friends and I talked about the Hill like it was Bombay or Istanbul – exotic, teeming, dangerous. The neighborhood we were driving through was pretty much like our own – old folks sitting on their stoops, young guys hanging out on the corners, kids playing stickball in an empty lot. As we drove along, people on the street waved at my father, and he smiled and waved back, called some by name.
“You ever heard of Billy Eckstine?” my father said.
“The great Mister B. Sinatra couldn’t shine the man’s shoes. He grew up around here. Used to sing at that club right there on the corner when he was a teenager. Oh, man this was a great place for jazz musicians. You probably never heard of Billy Strayhorn? He was from the Hill District. Wrote most of Duke Ellington‘s tunes. What about Erroll Garner? You heard of him, right?
I shook my head.
“Terrific piano player. He wrote ‘Misty’?”
“Oh, sure, that’s a great song.”
My dad and I exchanged smiles, as if the glory of every Pittsburgh-boy-made-good increased the chances of our own hopes for success.
We parked in front of a U-shaped apartment complex. There were three five-story buildings, rainbows of laundry hanging from the balconies.
“I got a lot of deliveries here,” my father said. “You want a pop or something before I get started?”
“No, I’m fine.” I slouched down in my seat.
My father got out and went to the back of the truck. He opened the doors and took some garments from the rack and slung them over his shoulder, hangers hooked over his fingers. I leaned over and rolled up the window on the driver’s side and pushed down the button to lock the door.
As I was starting to roll up the window on my side, my father stopped on the sidewalk and said, “Jesus, son, you’ll suffocate in there with all the windows shut.”
“But Mom said–”
“Aw, don’t worry about that. You can get out of the truck and stretch your legs if you want. Nobody’ll bother you.”
I gave him a dubious look.
He started to say something when a woman called out from one of the balconies. “Hey, Mister Spotless, you got my red dress?”
He looked up, one hand shielding his eyes from the sun. “Got it right here, Cora.”
“Oh, I knew you wouldn’t forget me.” She let out a glorious laugh. “Lookout, chil’ren, Cora’s goin’ dancing to-night.”
As my father turned toward the building, I said, “She calls you Mister Spotless?”
He looked back and smiled, but I couldn’t tell if it was out of pride or embarrassment.
* * *
Ten-thirty in the morning and the day was already a scorcher. I stayed in the truck for awhile. A group of girls about Tina’s age were jumping rope in the courtyard between the apartment buildings. They had two ropes going at once, turning them so fast the ropes were just a blur, the girl in the middle skipping so lightly it seemed like a magic trick, as if the ropes couldn’t possibly be passing under her feet. The girls were chanting a singsong, My mother, your mother, live across the street . . . A small, pig-tailed girl in an orange sundress, barefoot on the hot concrete, stood off to one side, rocking to the rhythm of the chant; suddenly she sprang forward and joined the other girl in the middle, ghost-ropes spinning around them.
I got out of the truck and closed the door. My sweaty T-shirt clung to my back. I leaned against the fender and the hot metal made me flinch. I put my foot up on the bumper, elbow on one knee, chin in my palm, trying my best to look bored, as if I did this sort of thing every day. Three teenage girls came down the sidewalk and said hello. After they’d gone past me a few steps one of them whispered something and all three of them burst out laughing. A woman pushing a baby carriage walked by and smiled, then an old man, a hunched, shuffling figure in plaid Bermuda shorts, dirty T-shirt in his back pocket, black hightop sneakers with no socks. He was talking to himself, his hands gesturing for emphasis. He didn’t seem to notice me; then, after he’d gone by a few steps, he turned around and eyed me suspiciously and said something I couldn’t understand.
I said, “Excuse me, sir.”
He moved closer, motioning with his hand. “Best take yo’ shoe off that bumper befo’ Mistah Spotless catch you.”
I put my foot on the ground. “He’s my father,” I said.
His drew his head back, his face screwed up, as if I’d spoken in a foreign language.
“Mister Spotless.” I pointed to the truck then touched my finger to my chest. “I’m his son.”
He smiled. He had three or four brown teeth on the bottom, bare plum-colored gums on top. “Ah, man, I knew that. I was just jivin’ you. Me ’n yo’ daddy go way back. Shoot, you look jis like him.”
I laughed, not sure if he meant it as a joke. My father was a short, doughy man – bald, blue-eyed, moon-faced; I was a beanpole with my mother’s angular features, brown eyes and dark curly hair.
The man said, “Yo’ daddy, he used to do all my cleanin’. Back in them days I had me some threads. All my shirts was pure silk. Purple, chartreuse, diff’rent color every day of the week. Had me this pearl gray suit, Stetson hat to match.” He cocked his head and adjusted an imaginary hat. “Man, I be walkin’ down Wylie Avenue,” – he did a little cakewalk – “and them ladies come sniffin’ around me like a pack ‘a dogs, lookin’ for a bone.” He cackled and bent double, hugging himself.