Courtyard Gospel

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By Terry Baynes

Terry Baynes/Brooklyn Ink
Terry Baynes/Brooklyn Ink

She was hard to miss, sitting on the bench in front of the New York State Supreme Court on Court Street.  She crooned along to the gospel music coming from the round portable stereo player in the seat next to her.  A reusable plastic grocery back stood by her feet.  On her lap, she clutched a black leather purse, secured by a strap around her neck.

She wore black orthopedic shoes.  “These cost me more than $200.  But I can walk again.  God is good,” she hollered over the music to the woman beside her.  Tight support hose held in her swollen ankles and calves.  Mid-sentence, she’d break into song, her hands swinging in wide arcs, clapping to the beat.  She swayed and shook her head, punctuating the verse with a “Hey!” or “Amen!”  Between her pink painted lips emerged a gleaming white smile.

“I done fell three times.  I’m 71, and I don’t hurt nowhere,” she shouted to her neighbor on the bench.  She raised her arms and did a slow shimmy, grinning.

Men and women in suits and sunglasses marched along the courthouse path, indifferent to the commotion.  Others looked around for the source of the music.  When some spotted the impromptu sermon on the bench, they broke into a smile.  Others shouted hello, and the woman fluttered her fingertips at them as she sang.

“Hello my beauty.  Where’s your crochet blanket today?” asked a young black woman walking past.

“I left it at home,” the older lady replied.  “It’s just me and my black skin today.”

“You have beautiful skin, mama,” said the passerby.  “You look like a million and five bucks.”  The older woman’s skin was smooth and dark.  Sweat trickled down from the hairline near her temples.  Periodically, she pulled her thick square eyeglasses from her face to dab beneath her eyes.

A white man with plastic bags and missing teeth came up to the bench.  He put the bags down and extended his hand.  “Let’s dance,” he said.  She took his hand, swinging it back and forth to the beat.  Both of them laughed before the man picked up his bags and walked on.

As the lunchtime hubbub passed, the music followed suit, changing from Ray Charles-type soul to a softer spiritual.  The woman sang to herself for a few minutes before turning to the story of her life.

“Life is good,” she said.  “I don’t hurt nowhere.”

She talked about growing up in Little Rock, Arkansas in the 1950’s.  “In the South, we were always running from the police back then,” she said.  “Until one day they caught me and beat me real bad.  They beat my head with a bat and twisted my body up.”  She rotated her arms backwards in their sockets.  They said it was for public intoxication and resisting arrest.  She had never touched a drop of alcohol in her life, she said.  After recovering from that incident, she moved to New York in 1958, a teenage girl with no family.  She found work with a woman who taught her how to knit, sew, and crochet.  She has made a living from that work ever since.

She still crochets but no longer the full bedspreads.  She sticks to smaller throws and baby blankets.  “I’m 71; I’m old!” she laughed.  People have come to know her for her work, and they often place orders.  She brings out her music and her crochet work on a sunny day, and people gather round.

She reached into her purse and pulled out a paper ad for a mail-order health supplement.  “My niece and I ordered three boxes of this stuff.  We saw a man talking about it on the TV.  You just put it on your tongue, and it dissolves.  It’s good stuff,” she said, dancing from side to side with arms raised.  “It helps with depression too.”

She insisted that she holds “no hate, only love.”  She credited God, B vitamins, and coconut oil for her mobility and energy.  “I’m like a shiny black Cadillac,” she said, swaying to the music.

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