As I walked up the steps to Mulenga Harangua's porch, I noticed that he seemed to be fixing the place up. At least he's slapped a coat of paint on the porch and steps. It made the place he was squatting in look a lot friendlier. I knocked lightly on the front door and it swung open. So I walked in. Nobody was near the front door but I heard something that sounded like muttering coming from the back of the house.
As I got closer I could make out the words. "Niggerniggerniggerniggerniggerniggerniggerniggerniggerniggerniggerniggerniggerniggerniggerniggerniggerniggerniggerniggernigger," chanted Mulenga with his back to me. He had earphones on as he moved around in front of what looked like some kind of voodoo altar.
There were several candles with their flickering flames creating a dance of shadows around the room. Flowers and what looked like cheap Mardi Gras beads festooned the altar, and there were little pictures that looked like they were cut out from magazines peeking out here and there. Bowls containing different colored liquids sat about and smoke that smelled suspiciously like marijuana drifted lazily through the holes of an incense holder. Atop the pyramid of trinkets was fastened a T-shirt with a picture of Richard Pryor holding his fists up like a boxer.
I cleared my throat a couple of times but Mulenga didn't hear me, so I tapped him on the shoulder. He jumped and knocked over a couple of bowls. The smell of liquor wafted into the air.
"Damn, man; don't sneak up on me like that."
"I knocked on the door but you didn't answer, so I came on in. I figured you wouldn't mind if I came in. Why are you so jumpy?"
"Well, when I'm burning my special incense," he pointed at the burning weed, "I don't like to get surprises."
"Then you should lock your door. So what is all this niggering? I thought you didn't go for the N-word."
"I generally don't but I make an exception for Richard. The way he used it was poetry. I swear he almost killed it as a pejorative. But in the end the N-word wouldn't die. It's like funk, it just gets stronger."
"I agree, and you do know that in the end he rejected the N-word. I remember what he said, memorized it. He said, 'I been wrong. I ain't going to ever call another black man "nigger." That's a word we use to describe our own wretchedness.'"
"That may be, but before he rejected it he made much money throwing out 'nigger' left and right."
"Well, you're right on that. But what is this altar thing anyway? I never figured you for any of this hoodoo stuff."
"It's an ofrenda, one of those Mexican Day of the Dead altars."
"Wasn't the Day of the Dead about a month ago?"
"Yeah, but we're coming up on the fifth anniversary of Pryor's death, Dec. 10, so I thought it was appropriate. And if he were still kicking, it'd be his 70th birthday next Wednesday."
I looked closer at the ofrenda. There were pictures of Pryor's album covers. That Nigger's Crazy, with the tight photo of his face with his own fingers pointing at it; Is it Something I Said?, with hooded, medieval-looking characters with torches about to burn him at the stake; the one with him nearly naked squatting in the dirt looking like an aboriginal tribesman clutching a rustic-looking bow and arrow.
The memories began flooding back to me. "Man, we really got some laughs out of that. I remember when you first brought That Nigger's Crazy over to my house. Daddy kicked you and the record out. But we listened to it over in Joe's basement. We laughed till we peed our pants."
"Maybe you did. My pants were dry. But that shit was funny. Remember that bit about getting pussy back in the 1950s? 'In the '50s it was very seldom you got any parts of pussy. You be tongue-kissing and shit. Dick get harder than times in '29. ... Getting some pussy beats going to war.' And remember the advice from his uncle? 'Boy don't you ever kiss no pussy.' Then Richard said, 'I couldn't wait to kiss a pussy; he'd been wrong about everything else. The women had to beat me off.'"
I had to laugh again. "Yeah, he turned it out. He took everything about black life that nobody talked about and put it out front and center. It may not seem all that deep today, with the way comedians talk about ghetto stuff, but then, man, it was like a revolution. All the characters, winos and all. What's he say? Oh, yeah, 'Winos never get scared of nothing but running out of wine.' I know that's true. And there's the one about having a heart attack and trying to talk to God: 'Your heart get mad if it finds out you was going behind its back to talk to God.'"
But Mudbone was my favorite, crazy as hell, talking like them old brothers from down South. He was one of them cats that always seemed to be a little drunk, but they didn't bother anybody. Just run their mouths all day. They'd be off the wall, but there was something deep going on back there. Remember what Mudbone said about first meeting his drinking buddy? There was some honesty there. 'He could lie his ass off. Ah, that nigger could tell lies. That's how we became friends. He tell a lie; I tell a lie, see. And we'd complement each other's lies.'"
"That was good, but I liked the one about him and his partner crossing the Golden Gate Bridge and they had to pee. So they're going off the side of the bridge and one of them says, 'Goddamn, this water cold.' Other nigger say, 'Yeah, and it deep too.'"
"Yeah, that was deep."
I looked at the ofrenda again. "What's in those bowls?"
"That's liquor. You're supposed to put something the person liked in the bowls. Richard liked to drink and smoke weed, so that's what I got. I got cognac in that blue bowl; that's what he doused himself with before he set himself on fire. I was going to a pork chop but I didn't in deference to his heart attack."
"Well, to be true to the experience shouldn't you have some freebase rocks in there?"
Mulenga paused for a few seconds and looked around. "Do you really think I should? There's a guy 'round the corner I could get some from."
'No, no, no. I think this is just fine. Burning up was a learning experience for him. What's that Mudbone used to say? 'Don't get old being no fool, lot of young wise men deader than a motherfucker.'"
"Yeah, I was never quite sure what that means."
"I always took it to mean there is a difference between being book smart and street smart. Sometimes book smart doesn't help you in situations when common sense is needed. So what are those other pictures up there? That looks like Louis Armstrong, Pablo Picasso, Redd Foxx, Moms Mabley. Is that Lenny Bruce? And who's that white lady dancer?"
"That's Martha Graham. Those are the santos, saints, in his stratosphere, the great artists that he was among, the difference-makers who stand out as the best. That's the thing. I listen to this stuff and it's still funny 30 years later."
"OK, well, I've got to go." I headed for the door and turned back for a moment. "And be careful with those candles. You don't want to get lit up like Richard."'