The Lotto Line
Emerging Writer Series
Every two weeks or so I am publishing an essay from an emerging writer. This week’s essay is The Lotto Line by Christola Phoenix and it was edited by Meg Pillow. Christola is born, bred, roasted and toasted in Harlem and she is a lifetime resident of the Harlem community. She is a baby boomer and a retired Registered Nurse. Christola began her writing journey upon her retirement in 2011 with the Gotham Writers Workshop Memoir I class. Her memoir, (in progress) "Paper Curls and Peanut Earrings” is a coming of age memoir set against the backdrop of Harlem in the 1950s, 60s, and 70s. Christola is a 2020 NYSCA/NYFA Artist Fellow of Nonfiction Literature. She received the 2017 Bread Loaf Writers' Conference Katherine Bakeless Nason Nonfiction Scholar award. Her writing has been supported with residences at Hedgebrook, Whidbey Island, and VONA. This year Christola has been awarded a residency at Millay Arts for April 2022. Excerpts from her memoir, "William," and "The Emergency Room." have appeared in Alternating Current - The Coil. On Saturdays Christola is tuned in to WBGO radio station Old School Rhythm and Blues, and she dances like nobody's watching :).
The line is long. It’s ll:40 a.m. by the Newport Cigarette clock hanging from the ceiling, anchored by two twisted linked chains on either side of the huge rectangle sign. In the lower right-hand corner, printed in black letters: $12.00 a pack. Thank god I stopped smoking in 1996 when a pack was $2.50.
It’s the summer of 2012, a warm, sticky, no-breeze-blowing-hot day. The corner deli at 116th Street and Lenox Avenue in Harlem is a hub of activity: the lotto machine hums “Come on you suckers. Give me your money.” Noisy school kids clamor at the counter to buy candies sure to rot out their teeth. The man with a can of Red Bull jumps in front of the kids and drops his nickels, dimes, and pennies on the counter. It will be his first of many trips throughout the day to buy a can of beer and a few loosies with his hustled change. Two pretty cats, one black and white, the other grey, play with a piece of paper on the mismatched, uneven, and broken floor tiles. I wonder if the cats were fat from the rats, which scurry about the sidewalks in the early dawn of morning, feasting on the garbage from the uncovered trashcans in front of the store.
The shelves hold a potpourri of canned foods, detergents, paper goods, and household wares. Behind the counter on a wall rack hangs everything else one might need to cure a headache, make a phone call to another country, have safe sex, dye one’s hair, or calm an upset stomach. The outer wrappings on the paper goods on the top shelf are yellow and dusty.
A collective anxiousness rustles among us looking at the clock as its short hand inches to twelve⎯ the cut-off time to play your numbers. The short lady at the front of the line, on tippy toes with a small piece of white paper in hand, looks up at the man on the other side of the Plexiglass. She casts her eyes back and forth between the paper and the man. She rattles off her numbers. She and the man punching the number keys on the lotto machine are in synch, like making music with a one-and-three-beat rhythm.
“For midday, give me 713, fifty cents straight and fifty cents box, 124 and 826 the same way. Now give me 7546, and 8862 make that fifty-fifty, straight and box for midday and evening. How much I got there?”
“Seven dollars,” the man says, holding the pink and white tickets in his hand.
“Okay. Here, take out for those numbers.” She gives him a $20 through the square hole.
Tickets and change in hand, she turns to leave but pivots back like a spin top.
“Oh, give me 273, 576, 144 for a dollar straight and a dollar box for midday.”
From the line, mumbles of annoyance and side-eyed looks. It’s noon, cut-off time for us to play numbers for the midday drawing.
“Come on, lady, you gonna make me miss my number,” says the man next in line.
The short lady turns to him, with a pursed lip “psst.” The man is now in front of the square hole. “It’s too late for midday?” he asks. The man behind the Plexiglass nods his head up and down.
The man in line dabs at his forehead with a dingy white handkerchief.
“Man, why don’t you have any air conditioner in here? It’s hot as hell.”
“It’s on,” the man behind the Plexiglass answers.
“It’s not working. Give me these numbers for evening, fitty-fitty,” he says, passing the paper through the square hole.
At the counter for sandwiches and coffee stands a young woman, about twenty years old, younger perhaps.
“Mister, how much is a buttered roll?” she asks.
“Fifty cents,” says the man behind the counter.
She looks at some coins in the palm of her stretched out hand. She moves them about with two fingers of her other hand, somehow holding on an unlit cigarette butt between the fingers. She wears denim jeans, a blue tee shirt, and some flip-flops. She isn’t clean clean, but she isn’t dirty. Keeping it together by a thread.
“I just have 15 cents,” she says, with pleading eyes. Those of us waiting in line to play Lotto with money in hand look at the clock, at the cats, stretch our necks to the side to count how many people are ahead of us to the square hole, and pretend not to hear what’s going on.
“You don’t have enough,” the man behind the counter barks.
Her chin drops to the notch of her collarbone, and her shoulders droop. She leaves the store like a wounded puppy.
After playing my numbers, I head over to the counter where the small, brown-skinned clerk, with ink black curly hair and a thick mustache, stands straight and defiant.
“You could have given her the roll. She was hungry. You could have sold her the roll for 15 cents,” I say, my voice just a decibel below hollering.
He turns his back.
Steaming hot of body and mind, I leave the store. My eyes dart left and right on 116th Street for a sighting of her. Why didn’t I intervene earlier? Why didn’t I get off the line and offer to buy her the roll? My heart is heavy. Perhaps venting my anger at him served as a camouflage for my own feelings of guilt.
You remember hungry days growing up in Harlem. You waited all day for Mama to come home with something to cook for dinner. You opened the icebox. A bright light flashed you. Perhaps by magic, the grey dented tin can of old grease would have turned into a loaf of Silver Cup bread, margarine, and a pitcher of sugar sweet grape Kool-Aid.
Harlem, once the undeniable black capital of America, is different now. I was born, bred, roasted and toasted in Harlem. Seventy-plus years ago, Harlem and I were both in bad shape. Poor, dirty, hungry, ill-kempt, unlooked after.
In the early 1950s, I lived on West 134th Street between Lenox and Fifth Avenues. On some cold, blustery winter days, Idamae, Blue, Knobby and I stole yams from Mr. Brighton’s vegetable stand at 134th Street and Lenox Avenue. The yams, white potatoes, onions, collard and turnip greens were set up in crates in front of the store. Most times, Mr. Brighton was inside at the cash register. We’d grab one or two from the crate and dash around the corner. We were nine and ten-year-olds, a ragtag-snot-nose bunch.
Our playgrounds were the vacant lots of garbage and metal junk on West 134th Street, where we’d make a fire and roast the yams until they turned tar black. The skin cracked like a thin, crisp potato chip. Why we called them mickeys, I don’t know. But the hot sweetness of the soft blush orange innards of the potato burnt the tips of our tongues with the first bite, cooled by a wisp of winter’s breath. It was a delicious belly full. I believed Mr. Brighton knew we were snitching his yams; he knew we were hungry and turned a blind eye.
In June 1958, a month before my twelfth birthday, the first of five new buildings of a new development at 133rd Street and Lenox Avenue was completed with a model apartment available for viewing. The deep rose-brick buildings of The Lenox Terrance Apartments stood tall and regal in the midst of the surrounding dark, small, brown and gray tenement buildings. The development boasted 24-hour doormen service, terraces, and private parking. The Lenox Terrace luxury apartments were a big deal in the Harlem community.
Affordable housing for colored folks in Harlem like Mama and me was scarce. We paid more for less. Mama and I lived in rooming houses and kitchenettes, with communal bathrooms in the hallways and hotplates in our rooms to cook on.
The folks across the avenue, Mama and I included, scurried across Lenox to the model apartment in the new building. A doorman dressed in a bright red jacket with gold braided trim around the cuffs and on the shoulders opened the glass door by its brass handles. His white-gloved hand reminded me of a bunny rabbit’s paw. His top lip fixed in a downward arc, almost touching the tip of his nose. I imagine back then Mama and I did not complement, in clothes or manner, the plush, sparkling décor of the lobby⎯marbled floors, a mirrored wall, and upholstered chairs.
Mama stopped in front of the mirrored wall. She patted and smoothed down the front of her plain cotton dress, like trying to smooth out a crumple-crunched-up brown paper bag, which she’d twist into strips to make curlers for my hair bangs at Easter. I felt like she had just seen herself for the first time in full view.
I’ve often wondered about that moment. Who did she see herself to be? Who was the woman looking back at her? It was the first time I ever saw her pay attention to what she was wearing. I wished at the moment a pretty dress for her and me.
Mama shook her head, hunched her shoulders, as if coming out of a trance. She grabbed my hand, side-eyed the doorman, and with a little switch in her stride, we stepped into the elevator. Like floating through air, the elevator door eased open into its groove, and we tiptoed off. It seemed to me the hallway was as long as the block we lived on. Mama and I peeked head first into a space I could never have imagined. Big, bright, beautiful: a kitchen which was a room to itself, a bed with space on all three sides to walk around, closets with doors and a bathroom not outside in the hallway. Mama had a look on her face I had never seen before. Her eyes were wide open, as she pivoted around in slow motion.
“Mama, let’s move here.”
“No baby, we can’t move here. This place is for rich colored people. Doctors, lawyers and teachers,” she said.
“Mama, when I grow up, I’m going to be a teacher, I’m going to be rich, and we’ll move here,” I said with certainty.
Mama smiled. “Get your education, get all that you can. You can find your way out of hell, and you don’t have to take shit off of nobody,” she said. She looked around the living room with “I wish” in her eyes.
We headed back across Lenox Avenue, got caught in the middle on the red light. The rough gray stone island dividing the up and down traffic on Lenox also divided my envy and desire of the Lenox Terrace apartment and the reality of the square box kitchenette where we lived.
Waiting for the green light and looking back at the brand-new building, a voice within me, audible to my soul, said, “You will be a teacher and move into Lenox Terrace with Mama.”
The girl and the buttered roll at the corner deli wouldn’t let me go. Mr. Brighton, his vegetable stand, and my childhood played in my head like a needle stuck in a scratch on a spinning record. Back in the ’50s, Mr. Brighton might have given her the roll. Maybe she would have had to sweep the sidewalk in front of the store like Leo, the local wino. Leo swept the sidewalk in front of Mr. Brighton’s store every morning to hustle change to buy his Thunderbird Wine at Dave’s Liquor store at 133rd and Lenox. By early afternoon, he’d be on a stoop, drinking from the bottle, talking about how good the French people treated the colored soldiers when he was in the Army.
That was Harlem back then. This new Harlem and its new faces and places seem oblivious to some less fortunate residents of the community. The newcomers have carved out safe white spaces in cafes and restaurants where cocktails start at $15 and entrees start at $30.
The fish and chips joints and greasy spoon restaurants of fried chicken and barbecue ribs that used to sit along Lenox Avenue are all gone. Back then, you could walk along Lenox Avenue any time of day or night and find something to eat and liquor to drink. A bar, liquor store, and storefront church like the Holy Trinity had their places on every other corner.
Walking about the new Harlem, I’m always caught up in memories of Lenox Avenue way back when: the wide sidewalks lined with emerald green leafy trees, an urban oasis where old men played checkers under their canopies. The Motown Sound of Martha and The Vandellas’ “Dancing In The Street” blasted from a curbside parked Cadillac or Bonneville of ‘players/hustlers’ of the street life. On quiet Sunday mornings, ladies strutted the walkway of Lenox Avenue in their fancy hats, and men sported their Stetson brims, with children in tow, all shined up from head to toe, going to church.
The lotto line is black. Seldom do I see a white face. Maybe when there is a super big money pot, I might see one or two. The newcomers living in million-dollar condos and co-ops—perhaps playing the stock market is their lotto game. For Black folks, the numbers and lotto are still a daily ritual of hope. The numbers is in my DNA. It’s a part of my culture. In the early ’50s, the numbers gave Mama and others in the Harlem ghetto hope. Hope that if they hit, it would add to their meager earnings from the menial jobs they had in factories, hotels, and white folks’ homes. A five-cent bet on an exact three-way number paid thirty dollars. Horse races at different racetracks in New York City determined the daily numbers. Whenever we had chuck steak and DelMonte canned green peas, I knew Mama had hit the number.
The numbers business became legal via the New York Lottery in the late ’60s. I started playing more lotto and less street numbers. It was the convenience of the corner bodegas, as opposed to the ‘number hole/spots,’ in some of the side street buildings and fake storefronts. The street numbers and number spots still exist where old Harlemites go to place their bets.
Harlem has changed. We have changed. I have changed.
In the early 1970s, I moved into Lenox Terrace with a plant I named Rosalee, in memory of Mama, who had joined our ancestors eight years prior. The summer of 2008 I moved with Rosalee the plant to a beautiful green deluxe condo on West 116th Street. It felt like I had moved to another town, when it was only sixteen blocks south. After 11 years, the neighborhood still feels new to me. Except for a short stay in Savannah, I’ve lived my entire life within five blocks of 132nd Street and 138th Street, between Lenox and Fifth Avenue. In my old neighborhood, I knew all the nooks and crannies of the restaurants that served the best fried chicken and fish sandwiches, the local bars, and the best block parties during the summer, and the number spots.
Harlem and I, we’ve been through something. She is all shiny and new. In her midst are tall high-rise building and condos, canopy sidewalk cafes, and many shades of white, and brown, and black faces.
Me? I’m bronze brown with silver gray hair, standing tall in spirit, mind, and soul.
Waiting for the elevator in the lobby of my building, thoughts of the young girl in the deli store play in my head my like a silent black-and-white movie. I see her leaving the store, head bowed. I open the door to my apartment with a sad heart. I drop my keys into my pocketbook. The lottery tickets glare at me. I asked God’s forgiveness. I make a promise to always step off the line.