African-American men play chess on a community chess table at Woodruff Park in downtown Atlanta on October 8, 2016 in Atlanta, GA

Crybabies and Sugardaddies (From The Impossible People)

by | August 5, 2021

Raffy’s was the bodega directly across the street from our Brooklyn apartment, and up through high school, I was certain that it had everything I could ever need in life, from candy and laundry starch to the latest neighborhood gossip. Raffy’s was where, on a Saturday afternoon, I heard that the Guyanese girl in 4C got pregnant. I had gone in to get two packs of Kool Aid when I heard the news. Up until college, I thought Kool Aid could only be purchased by the individual packet.

Starting in the spring, and all the way through late fall, when their ashy, arthritic hands struggled to clutch knights, queens, and pawns, a gaggle of salt-and-pepper men set up a table to the right of the bodega entrance. They perched on real and makeshift chairs, shit-talking, smoking, spitting, and playing chess. They were there on Sundays before Sunday school, and they were there at night when we took our dog BeeBee for his evening walk. By then, the rowdy crowd had scattered, and only one or two on-lookers remained—this was when the only real poised and studied chess games were played. The last spectators were usually teenage boys whose mothers had long called them home, or men whose wives or girlfriends were angry, disappointed, pregnant, or some combination of all three. The boys paced the lit sidewalk squares in front of Raffy’s, offering unsolicited advice on each player’s next move and complaining about how disrespected they felt at home. Armed with late-night courage, they delivered impassioned soliloquies about the overall disposition of their honeys, mothers, and sisters. 

During the daylight hours, when post-pubescent girls and women walked past the bodega or ventured in for detergent or a fresh deck of cards, the backs of the boys and men around the table straightened. The volume of their usual ruckus fell to church-pew level, their language following suit and buttoning up like a crisp clean Sunday shirt. The men wearing brimmed or Kangol hats tipped them, and they uttered single-word pleasantries like “ma’am” or “miss,” only graduating to pronouncing the names of the most conventionally beautiful and socially respectable women in the neighborhood. They afforded my great aunt, who lived in the building next to ours, an “alright, Ms. Arlene.” This gesture signalled the highest of honors, and sometimes came with a half bow to flourish the hat tip. On occasion, Aunt Arlene held court with the gracefully aging well-dressed ones, who politely blew the smoke of their cigars and pipes away from her fair-skinned face.

If any of the younger or more feral men made the mistake of leering or whistling at a woman, an elder delivered a swift kick to the shin or a forceful jab to the side with a walking stick. Such violence indicated that chess-table etiquette had been violated. 

We, here, are gentlemen!” was the sentiment, though I heard many a dirty joke and tasteless tale shared when they thought no one was listening.

Around the bodega, children, little girls especially, received neither respect nor consideration. Save the occasional “I’ll give you a quarter if you go in and get me another beer,” we were largely ignored. This, of course, did not keep all of us neighborhood kids from being in awe of and fascinated by the chess table.  When I was about seven, I asked my father to teach me to play.  And even as he yelled and berated the basics of chess into me, I looked forward to the day when I’d get my chance to pull up a milk-crate-bucket-chair and face off against a gray-haired chess master.

In the spring after my ninth birthday, my father sat down to play a game with Raffy himself. After some light begging and daddy’s girl-ing, I earned a seat on his lap and was allowed to play a few moves. By then I was pretty good, having excelled quickly in order to avoid my father’s shame-layered-upon-shame-until-you-made-the-“right”-move training method. I chose an aggressive opening, figuring that I might as well declare myself if I was only going to get three moves.

Pawn to E4.

The audience of testosterone erupted with jeers.

“Come on, Myron, you gon’ let the little girl mess up your opening!”

“Hmph, and then cry when he lose and say it wasn’t a real game cuz his daughter messed him up!”

Laughter broke out behind us. 

“Just send her inside and let’s play some real chess!”

“This is a man’s game, man! Get her some dolls!”

Raffy looked at me, and then at my father—a slight smile forming on his face—and knew immediately that my move was deliberate and well thought out. 

“I told you, I been teachin’ my daughter to play!” said my father. “Her brother ain’t got no sense no way! Now leave my daughter alone. Raffy, play, man! We here to play chess or talk? This Oprah?!”

The younger contingent broke out in an “OOOooooh!” that the elders quelled with a quick stare and eye roll. Raffy looked me in the eye, nodded, and then answered with his pawn to E5.

“They playin’ Simon Says!” 

Roars of laughter.

“I’ll give you a dollar to shut your mouth and get me a beer,” an elder declared, holding a crisp bill up over his head. Two preteens scrambled toward the sweater-vested man, and the thinner one nearly knocked the table over grabbing for the dollar. The elder snatched the dollar back, and handed it to the apparent loser, rewarding him for his slower approach, and the boy fanned his face with the bill and grinned, walking a wide arch around the table and sticking out his tongue at his scrawny second-place friend before hitting the bell hanging above the door and disappearing into the snack cake aisle of the small store.

I moved my F2 pawn to F4, and Raffy laughed out loud and nodded approvingly. My father leaned back, extended his arms, and interlaced his fingers, cradling his head in a pleased proud posture. As Raffy slid his E5 pawn over to take my F4 pawn, a just-grown-enough man in a button-down shirt remarked in a low tone: “Myron done bit off more than he can chew, teaching a girl to play chess! Just cuz she know how the pieces move don’t mean she can really play!” 

“Leave the man alone. He over there playin’ ‘daddy!’” a tipsy elder chimed in. It was clearly meant as an insult, and was met with a strong round of soft but persistent giggles.

“I know–his wife must got him home with the kids, and he goin’ so crazy he done forgot how to play fo’ himself. Had to bring his daughter to play his game!”

This goading, from a man near his age and an elder, cracked the fragile shell of satisfaction built by my last move, and daddy suddenly sat up. He took me from his lap, and plopped me onto the pavement beside him, scooting the chair into the table quickly so that there was no room for me to get back up.

“Alright, alright, that’s enough games and yapping, then! I ain’t playin’ house; I’m playin’ chess! Take this fifty cents and get yourself some candy and go on back across the street and jump rope or something!”

He was talking to the men, but it was me that he gave the fifty cents to, throwing the coins in my direction so forcefully that I only caught one. The other rolled toward the street before pancaking in the sunlight, just shy of the curb. As I walked over to retrieve it, my father looked straight ahead at the chess board, oscillating his hovering right hand between his G1 knight and his F1 bishop. I rolled the quarters in my hand like dice and hesitated, neck craned toward the game in anticipation of his choice as I stood at the open bodega door, Raffy’s Spanish radio station blaring inside.

“Go ahead with the knight, Myron,” Raffy teased. He ran his tongue across his front teeth, glanced at me, and winked. I smiled big, and he pulled his chin up momentarily in an almost imperceptible nod. I turned and stepped into the store, my prideful grin remaining intact even as I paid for my strawberry and sour apple Now ‘n’ Laters and skipped across the street. 

“You wanna jump rope?” asked Ann, her dark skin glistening with vaseline and sweat in the afternoon light. She had been sitting on the steps of our building doodling with a nub of chalk and waiting for me to come back. Ann was about my age, and lived on the first floor of our building. She was the only child in 570 Lefferts that my mother would allow me to fraternize with.

“Not right now,” I said, still smiling and looking across the street at the table. I offered her some of my red and green chess trophies. 

Ann’s mother rarely had money to give her for candy, so I opened both packs and divided the wax-paper wrapped squares evenly among us, handing Ann four reds and two greens. I knew she liked red flavors best. I also knew that later that night, embarrassed at how he’d let the men get to him and how violently he’d thrown the money at me, daddy would give me at least fifty cents more, a dollar if he ended up winning the chess game.

Verbal apologies, I was learning, were confined to children apologizing to peers or adults—never the other way around. Men never gave them. Pay-offs and over-the-top or back-handed compliments were a man’s “I’m sorry.”

Flowers, chocolate, and jewelry for mothers and honeys, and quarters, dollars and facetious “you ain’t prettys” for daughters. Nothing at all for sons. Men apologize to one another in glances, soft punches, and beers or pours of the good whiskey. If the transgression is really egregious, you might see a larger man step aside and make way for a smaller one to pass, or a man might get up from a chair and offer it to another man before he’s ready to leave, choosing to stand. Words, however, are never currency. 

By the time Ann and I were done with our candy, and I sat picking at the pieces stuck in my molars, I understood that those two moves I had played, and that smile-wink-nod from Raffy, was the only coming out or recognition I would get from the men around that table. They were never going to let me sit and play—I had never seen any women play—unless I was sitting on a man’s lap.

The day that the men around the bodega table finally saw me, I was twelve and wearing a yellow church dress. I had come in to get an icee after having spent the morning in the scalding un-air conditioned pews of Greater Mount Pleasant Baptist Church. I had grown three inches in the last year, but I hadn’t really noticed until I put the dress on. My new height turned it into an above-the-knee ensemble. My period and breasts had arrived. Those things I certainly had noticed.

It was the sound of plastic, metal, and wood scraping the sidewalk, and the silence that opened up around the cacophony that startled me. I had spent the last three years ignoring the men just as much as they ignored me. Their burping, spitting, philosophizing and guffawing had faded into the background of my life as easily as the fog of their smoke. It all carried aimlessly through the air and dissipated. 

Standing there, realizing that they were suddenly looking at me, reminded me of the first summer nights spent at my Nana’s house in North Carolina; the way Fayetteville is eerily quiet; the way that, without the whir and din of a city to rock the mind into the feigned safety of invisibility, what was once background noise becomes profound absence, fear manifested.

I missed being irrelevant. I needed to feel safe. 

I needed the noise, a ruckus, two more inches of fabric. Something extra in the bust too. A sweater, or a sticky face. I had no desire to be seen, not this way, and not by them. I had been smelling danger in their sweat, been knowing about their bloodshot eyes and calloused hands, been walking long arcs around their grasp. The dress was not for them. None of it was for them. It was just that it still fit. It was just that it was summer, and this was a summer dress. It was just that I liked the color yellow. It was just that I had already learned to convict myself with excuses. 

“Hi Jasmin. Y-y-you comin’ from church?” asked one of the straight-backed boys.

Sean had never once spoken to me before that day. He knew where I had been. Every boy in Crown Heights knew Myron’s daughters and that we went to church every Sunday. We were church girls. I looked right at him, said nothing, and walked into the store, rolling my eyes. Teasing and jeers percussed behind me as they all reenacted how profoundly I had supposedly dissed the boy who dared to speak to me. And when I came back out holding an icee and a paper bag full of blow pops, cry babies and sugar daddies, they carried on as they had, but different.

They all sat a little taller. They didn’t think I noticed. I did. I had to.

Jasmin Roberts is a queer trans writer and activist born and raised in Brooklyn, NY, now living in southern California. They are an alumnus of Oberlin College, and hold a graduate degree in Developmental Psychology from UMass Amherst. Jasmin is active in the queer youth community, leads youth and adult workshops on intersectionality & art as activism. Jasmin has competed in poetry slams at the national level, and placed 4th overall at the 2017 Women of the World Poetry Slam competition. Jasmin’s work has been published in I Can Count To 10 and Rattle, and in video form on YouTube with SlamFind, PSI, and Button Poetry.