Embers still smoldered in hearts of Harlemites two years after the Holy Uprising when torched shops blazed because a lone bullet in Memphis pierced MLK’s right cheek. Only three years before, assassins riddled Malcolm X with 21 gunshot wounds in Harlem’s Audubon Ballroom. Death threats hadn’t deterred MLK’s or X’s demands for equality, though one spoke of peace while the other spit fire. They who gave hope had been laid in early graves, age 39.
We Census takers had been given fair warning: Harlemites don’t trust government. We might confront anger, fear, distrust. We should hide behind our government ID and refuse offers of comfort. I hoped for and fared better. One steamy summer morning, in the third year of Richard Nixon’s first term, I arrived at a five-story walk-up and vaulted three flights to take the Census for Apartment 301. I knocked three times, as the cock crows, hoping for civility. In one motion, the door swung open and a machete found a groove against my throat.
Fear I smelled, tasted—acrid yet sulfurous. Mine or his? I’d never learned to defend myself using kicks or fists. Could it matter against a strategically-placed blade? I reached within to discern how he and I might extricate ourselves from this untoward predicament, dignity intact. Not knowing why, I screamed, “Banzai,” once, ear-splitting loud, like Japanese suicide pilots in the Ungreat War. Standing tall, I wondered, would I still be conscious when I hit ground? A peal of laughter burst from my assailant’s throat. Still holding blade firmly against mine, he became possessed by waves of laugher, crashing. He relieved pressure of blade, placed the machete to his side, stood at attention, laughed, half bowed, laughed once more, and with fanfare waved me in.
I surveyed my surroundings: A faded family photo hung over the sink with a black-and-white of my host in fatigues on the opposed wall. MLK held a place of honor above the kitchen table. My host pointed “sit there” at the corner spot. I complied. Without asking, he boiled water for tea, slit open a box of Social Teas with a paring knife and placed two stacks of three on a lunch plate. Back erect, he offered me the first Social Tea, keeping both hands above the table. We drank oolong—strong, clarifying—and ate three each. He answered every question with the clarity of gunshot.
All fields marked, I stood, said “Thanks,” wanting to say, “I’m sorry I caught you off guard,” knowing I meant, “WTF, why’d you do that?” I glided toward my exit. He caught me with a phrase as sharp as his paring knife: “It’s like that.” Clueless, I asked, “What’s like what?” He said, “You can make yourself fear anyone. I don’t know how to stop.” I said, “We just did.” I reached out to shake his hand. He held our clasped right hands with his left. And in the doorway he remained, like a perched hawk, until I escaped shooting range.