By Curtis Price
Posted October 15th, 2021
They thought she could never die, so often had she escaped death, even after she got on dialysis and chain-smoked away with oxygen tank on. But finally she was dead, lying in the red velvet coffin with that same hardened look of pure meanness she wore all her life. They knew she had truly died because someone stole the diamond rings off her still-warm fingers after she had gasped her last breath, an act that would have warranted a stabbing or pistol-whipping when she was alive.
“Boss Lady” had come down South from the mean streets of East Detroit – the Mack Avenues and Jefferson Streets – after her mother was stabbed to death. The murderer was never found, and, in all truth, probably not sought too much; after all, what was one more, early, poor black death in Motor City? Relatives in Alabama took the family in. Years later, rumors circulated that “Boss Lady” had killed her mother to get money to buy heroin. Whether it was true or not was beside the point. It was believable.
“Boss Lady” hit the streets running. At first, she was doing stick-ups. But then she graduated to running a boosting ring, made up of crack addicts who would go out to the Huntsville suburbs and shoplift. All they got for their efforts was a place to lay their head and a few rocks to smoke. “Boss Lady” kept the rest, which she fenced at substantial profit. Crime, after all, is just another form of capitalism so her profiting off others should come as no surprise.
Soon, “Boss Lady” expanded her business enterprise. She became a major crack dealer in Northern Alabama, picking up shipments from Houston and New Orleans. Many of her expanding network of minions, as well as rivals in the game, took falls, but she survived unscathed, leading some people to whisper she was ratting people out. Her ruthlessness was the stuff of legend; once, in a bar argument, she stubbed her cigarette in a woman’s eye. She was the enforcer, keeping order in her own crew and as a woman in a man’s world, had to be tougher, more vicious.
I met her after her prime, after she finally ended up doing a long bit in the Federal pen. She was still doing her thing, but others had stepped in and taken chunks of her market. Again, street-level capitalism is no different from its “respectable” counter-part of Brooks Brother suits and board rooms. You crush competitors, you win over rivals’ customer base.
We had a mutual friend in common, someone who had known her for decades. We ate a few time collectively in those all-you-can-eat down-market Chinese buffets, the kind where a vague, musty smell wafted through the dining area; the kind where women, bent over scooping ice cream, let long hair dangle in the food. It was a cuisine that made TV dinners look like Michelin and who knew if the mystery meat, which never tasted like the labels, was some stray neighborhood dog or cat, as rumors had it. These buffets were – and continue – to be popular with working-class people because eating there is one area of their lives where there are no limits, no constraints. The ultimate cost of the ticket, though, only tallies up later down the road: in obesity, heart disease, and diabetes, those three Pale Horsemen stalking the blue-collar South.
Our common friend had told me her history, but warned never to let her know. She, of course, knew that I knew, while pretending she didn’t know that I knew and I did the same in return, a kind of mashup “Victor/Victoria” verbal role play. I liked her, even though I found her draining to be around for too long. She had the sleek demeanor of an apex predator always on the prowl.
But it was also like admiring a beautiful, coiled, poisonous snake, with multi-hued scales: you admired it from afar; you didn’t want to get too close. She asked for my number and we texted innocuous texts a couple times, but that was it. Until several years later out of the blue, she accidentally sent me pix of a couple bricks of white-whatever, a photo destined for someone else with the same first name. She told me to delete it, which I did. But I never saw her again.
“Boss Lady” died surrounded by her courtesans, but they secretly hated her and she returned the favor, never trusting anyone around her. She knew her strength was ebbing and that dark day was dawning. She wanted to immerse herself in the presence of people, even if these people were just grinning in her face. No one liked her; she was feared more than respected – but never liked. When the news got out of her death, many in black Huntsville secretly cheered.
Our mutual friend said she won’t be “peddling her poison anymore.” But I kind of admired her in a cool, clinical sense. She had grown up with nothing and never learned how to read or write. But despite the deck stacked against her, she ended up with a nice house, a couple cars, and money in the bank. She was never one to flash her wealth. Her sisters, on the other hand, were living in the projects, with multiple children, waiting for the monthly check. “Boss Lady” never fell into that trap, she wanted more out of life, even if she hurt people right and left going up – and hurt people right and left going down.