"Well, if it ain't little bitty Maceo Albert Bouchaund Redfield!
That name so tall the boy got to walk up under it and say excuse me
every day of his natural-born life."
The crowded barbershop
broke into laughter as Cutty greeted me with a variation of the same
put-down he'd been using for over sixteen years. The fact is that at
five feet five inches I barely reach the first letter of my
"How short are you exactly, Maceo?" This came from a balding contemporary of my Grandfather Albert.
"I'm tall as I need to be," I answered.
I eased into the shop, taking note of the old and young faces waiting in the unusually relentless heat of October.
"And how tall is 'need to be'?" Cutty grinned my way.
had been my barber since my seventh birthday, and habit kept me a
customer despite the insulting words. The barbershop was one place in
Oakland that provided shelter if needed and contributed order to an
often chaotic life.
More simply, it was home.
as invested in me as a blood relative. Alongside his prized Oakland A's
paraphernalia, snapshots of local celebrities, and barber's license was
a photographic history of my baseball career from Pee Wee League
through high school. Up until the ninth grade, all my uniforms bore the
red-and-white logo of Cutty's salon, Crowning Glory. The pictures were
his way of staking a claim before I hit the majors.
"You didn't answer my question. How tall is 'need to be'?"
waiting customer piped up with his opinion. "I say he's four ten and a
half on a good day." The ensuing laughter reminded me that people often
see my height as a flaw. It has been a source of ridicule since I was a
young boy, but to me my size is a day-to-day reminder—a reminder to
keep life compact and close to the vest. The few times I've reached for
the height of others I've been knocked back into place. So I've learned
to live as a little man with a big name. And I've learned to smile at
"Five foot." Another barber.
And Cutty: "Shit,
Maceo ain't seen hide nor hair of five feet." He raised his natural
comb to his mouth to think for a moment. "No, I take that back. Maceo
was about seven feet tall when he was winning all those championships."
And just like that the jokes about my height switched to praise for my
I was used to that too.
Cutty picked up
a portable fan and held it in front of his face. "Damn, feels like
Africa outside." Oliver, Cutty’s partner, rolled his eyes. "What you
know about Africa? You barely left Oakland in thirty years!"
I know plenty 'bout Africa. I find out all I need to know 'bout Africa
every time I go to East Oakland." It was an old joke that never failed
to hit its mark.
The bonus October heat had sent everyone out
into the streets in pursuit of any company to be had, and the sense of
camaraderie and fun among the patrons kept the mood light. Along the
curb a few waiting customers sat perched on the hoods of their cars,
smoking cigarettes or reading newspapers. A few of the youngstas,
unschooled in Cutty's bullet-ridden history, masked shady business
deals behind the steady bump-bump of rap music.
Cutty's shop of thirty years, sat on the Oakland side of San Pablo
Avenue, a dirty artery that ran from Oakland's city center all the way
through six cities. It was his fifth location since incorporation.
Initially his shop had been on Alcatraz Avenue, the Oakland street so
named for its clear-day view of the famed Alcatraz Island. It was
there, when I was seven, that my granddaddy took me for my first
When business picked up enough for Cutty to leave
Alcatraz, his bad luck began in earnest. His new location on MacArthur
and Broadway attracted all the hustlers and Superfly wannabes of the
1970s. Though Cutty hated to compromise his profession, he built his
reputation on the mean, slick perms so favored by that generation. And
as his reputation grew so did his clientele until finally, inevitably,
a crosstown gangster rivalry was played out in his barber chairs.
first casualty of Crowning Glory was Scott Hathaway, a heroin dealer
with control of North, East, and West Oakland. He was slaughtered by an
up-and-coming drug dealer named Jordy Prescott.
Legend has it
that Hathaway's look of surprise was driven off his face by a bullet
through his right eye. A quick nosedive in business confirmed that most
people believed Cutty helped set up the flamboyant Hathaway. Only a new
location on Shattuck Avenue and a year's worth of time brought people
slowly but surely back into his shop.
The next move was caused
by a retaliation shooting that occurred three blocks away, but Cutty
took no chances. Before moving into the dusty San Pablo storefront, he
had the property baptized by a local preacher, he installed church pews
instead of seats for the waiting customers, and there hadn't been a
murder since. But sometimes, through the ever-ready smile, I suspected
that a cutthroat heart beat in the old man's chest. That much bad luck
in one place made anybody suspect.
Memories were short, however;
the boys dealing on the curb proved it. The eighties had brought a fast
and furious new industry into Oakland, the crack trade, and there was
evidence of it everywhere you looked.
The circus atmosphere of
the drug game seeped into every aspect of urban Black life. Nothing
went untouched as newfound wealth allowed men, women, and children to
dream of something different. To the older cats, Michael Corleone and
the crew of The Godfather supplied the props to let them dream in an
elegant manner and jump the class barriers of their birth. But the
rules and regulations of The Godfather became old to the youngstas even
before the credits rolled. They had no time for rituals and order, just
time enough to shove a big-ass foot through a door and demand the
respect only a loaded gun and lots of money could bring.
Scarface was their manifesto.
It was a mess, but more seductive than anything we'd ever seen.
1989, the entire Bay Area, San Francisco included, fell under the 415
area code, and under that name a prison gang became a strong
independent faction within the penitentiary system, eventually edging
out the stronghold of the Black Guerrilla Family and keeping the Los
Angeles Crips and Bloods from infiltrating the northern California
crime force. The Bay Area was proud of its No Crips, No Bloods policy,
but once in a while small pockets of transplanted criminals made their
way into the fray, usually by way of family members, more often than
not by way of good-looking women.
All that added to the
big-man-on-campus swagger of the young men gathered here and there in
front of Cutty's. Fellas who, a mere two years before, never rated
second glances now had all the props of true hustlers, and they used
every opportunity possible to flaunt them. I rode the wave as a person
on the edge of the inner circle, aware all the time that the Wizard was
just inside the curtain. Anyone who looked closely knew the center
would not hold; the smoke and mirrors would disappear and reveal a body
count to equal a homegrown war.
The unseasonable warmth pumped
the festivities to a fever pitch, and all I could do was watch. The
heat had an entirely different effect on my spirits. While the others
laughed and joked and made plans to hit Geoffrey's, Politics, and the
End Zone, I waited for what was to come.
temperature just weeks before Halloween threw off my alignment. It felt
unnatural to my blood and, coupled with the bad dreams, left me coiled
like a snake for the first sign of bad news. It was coming, I just
didn't know how or when.
Excerpted from The Dying Ground
by Nichelle D. Tramble. Excerpted by permission of Villard, a division
of Random House, Inc. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may
be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the