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215 East 39th Street

December 10, 2006|Qevin Oji | Qevin Oji is a contributing writer for West.

Bright and his sister, Kimber, got up early, before their parents, to go say goodbye to the house. Bright rode his bike down Figueroa from 74th and Hoover to Broadway and 39th, with Kimber squirming to remain ladylike on the handlebars. Chased by dogs, almost hit by cars, they rode on through the sunny, if smoggy, day.

When they arrived, the house was half gone. Kimber pointed to the house's interior, now visible from the sidewalk. "There's my room!" They argued about whose room it was and watched the giant yellow Tonka trucks tear apart the place they had called home just the day before yesterday.

A sour "Yankee Doodle" cut though the ripping and chewing of the heavy machines. It announced the ice cream truck and brought out their friends, brothers Devante and Marco. They stopped the truck in front of what was left of the house and bought bomb-shaped popsicles. The trucked rolled off, now blaring a limping "Jingle Bells." All four stood in front of the house slurping, transfixed, now blue-tongued and red-lipped, as if watching fireworks, the Rose Parade or a car accident. They danced off brain freezes, peed in the alley and screamed in awe when a large chunk of the house crashed down, sending a dust cloud their way. They turned their backs.

"Y'all let them do that to your house?" Devante said.

"It's not our house anymore," Bright said.

"Still, you should not let them do that to your house," Marco said.

Kimber huffed. "Do you understand English?"

Marco took a few steps back. "Does your mama understand English?"

"She taught your mama." Bright said.

Marco faked a lunge at Bright, laughing as they all turned back to the tearing down.

Bright and Kimber looked on with fascination and not a speck of sadness as the merciless robotic arm grabbed again, exposing the gray staircase and red banister. They had been painted those colors by the Black Panthers or the Symbionese Liberation Army, depending on whom you believed about who had lived in the house just prior to their moving in. His mother had mentioned it casually. "They say the Black Panthers just moved outta here."

For weeks, Bright searched for clues that the panthers had lived there. He looked in the backyard, in the crawl space under the house, on the roof. Nothing. Frustrated, he went to his mother.

"Mom, I've looked all around the house and I can't find any paw prints."

"Paw prints?" she said.

"You said that black panthers lived here."

She laughed a stomach-hurt laugh, tears welling in her eyes. "Boy, you tickle me. The Panthers are people."

"They're not animals?"

"Some have called them that, but no. They are working to free black people."

"Like those people marching and singing where Grandma Fanny lives in Mississippi?"

"Yeah. Like them."

Bright began to look in a different way. Maybe the staircase was the evidence. Its gray steps pulled at his guts, made him feel inside out. It was rimmed by the bright red banister, which he avoided because it seemed painted with blood. Then there were the boxes and boxes of funny-looking brown money in the basement. "Confederate money," his mother called it. Whatever that was. Why would anyone leave money behind? Bright wondered. The Chinese store wouldn't take it. "No good," the owner would say. So he, Kimber and their playmates gave it away, destroyed it playing Store, Doctor and House, tossed it in the air so that the bills would flutter down on them when they played Rich.

The high wall above the staircase, where huge pencil drawings of Angela Davis and Huey Newton once oversaw comings and goings, was visible now. Their throne room was being demolished. This was where pictures of Jesus, JFK and sometimes Martin Luther King hung in friends' homes. Devante once asked Bright where Jesus hung in their house. He asked his mother. "Jesus doesn't hang here," she said.

Watching the house crumble, Bright decided that earthquakes were kinder than people. This was the house that felt as if it had turned to Jell-O one early morning in 1971. But when all was still again, there were no cracked walls, only a few broken dishes and a couple of the brightly colored sake bottles with geisha-head screw caps crushed. He wished he had drunk them when he had the chance. In the aquarium six black Mollies swam low, hanging onto the sloshing water. This house had survived big ones, but was no match for a bulldozer's push.

Whoever owned the house sold it while they were in it. They didn't even ask if it was OK. It was like they too were being sold. How do you sell a house with people living in it? Bright wondered. And what about the room that he and Kimber had painted blue? He wanted to take it to the new place, but couldn't figure out how. It couldn't be packed in a box and loaded onto a truck. It had to stay. He looked down. Flecks of blue paint on his white canvas All-Stars comforted him.

Only the staircase, a single room and the chimney now stood.

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