(This is a flashback episode, inspired by a kind reviewer, which I am seaming into an upcoming chapter, 6D. This will permit some inconsistencies from the past on the show to be addressed, as well as enhance what is to come. Comments, as always, are most welcome. Thanks!)
With his children and father on board for his plan, there wasn't much time until Wilona, Penny and JJ would be coming out. He took a moment to himself, taking a cup of tea out to the front porch, and sat there, watching the street.
It was so quiet here at night..not like back in the projects, nor when he and Florida lived briefly in New York. New York..there's a place he hadn't thought about in a very long time. It was full of memories he'd rather forget.
There was once a time, shortly after marrying Florida and before JJ was born, that life seemed like it was going to be almost..well...easy. James had answered an ad through a recruiter to join the New York Fire Department. The FDNY offered everything: A good salary, benefits, and a pension that would ensure no future worry after 20 years of service.
A distant relative, Cousin Jerry, had offered them the basement apartment in a building he owned in Harlem. The rent was cheap, and James helped out doing some maintenance work in exchange for making it even cheaper. Florida had secured some work as a maid a few boroughs over.
They were young, in love, and the future seemed bright. Florida got on well with her employer, a middle-aged, outspoken white lady named Maude; James was a bit leery of Maude, though. Her ideas had a way of making Florida's views of things change, and sparked more than a few arguments along the way. But overall, they were happy.
James somehow passed the written test for the FDNY, no small accomplishment when one only has a 6th grade education. The recruiter told him not to worry: One of James' build with his natural smarts should have no trouble. James was highly desired by the recruiter to be on the job; the man had heart, smarts and a strong back. He also had a strong moral character.
Maude asked Florida over coffee one day, "Don't you worry that he'll get hurt? Being a fireman is a dangerous job."
Florida looked at Maude thoughtfully before answering, "No more dangerous than getting his arm stuck in a machine in a factory, really. Jobs are...not always the easiest to come by."
Maude nodded, realizing that she was out of her league. For all of Maude's liberal thinking, she could never truly put herself in the shoes of a young black couple with limited education just starting out, far from home.
Maude did her best to be supportive, though, and had the couple over for dinner on a Sunday. James put on his Sunday best, as did Florida..it was dinner with her employers but Florida was told, "You're not coming here to work today. You're coming, with your husband, because we're friends having a meal together."
James was a bit leery..he really didn't want the dinner conversation to spin politically or to other subjects that Maude was passionate and outspoken about. He also had to get up early because he was starting his training at the Fire Academy the next day.
"Not too late, baby," he said as a reminder of when they'd have to leave Maude's and catch the bus back to Harlem. Florida nodded and off they went.
To James' surprise, Maude was the perfect hostess, serving the meal herself (although Florida suspected it was catered and not home-cooked) and staying away from hot topics. Maude's husband Walter took James into the parlor for a cigar after the meal and the two men talked.
"I thought your name was Henry," Walter said, having heard reference to Florida's husband as Henry, around the house.
"That's my middle name. And my father's name," James explained. Walter nodded, although still confused.
"Maybe Florida thought 'Henry' had a nicer sound than 'James', more..I don't know, man..more like it fit in around here," James said, glancing around at the well-furnished residence. Walter squirmed slightly in his seat.
"Maybe," Walter said, taking a slug of his brandy. James declined a drink, as he didn't want a cloudy head the next morning. Their conversation turned to idle yet pleasant chatter.
Florida and Maude were in the kitchen. Florida's insistence that she help clean up while the men talked finally persuaded Maude to let her help..it also gave them a chance to talk.
"He's a handsome one," Maude said, and Florida blushed in agreement. "And a fireman. With those shoulders...Florida Evans, I can see why you're always smiling."
Florida burst into laughter before adding coyly, "You could say that man keeps me happy."
The women's laughter died down as they readied dessert. The cake and coffee were brought out, the men collected and Walter gave a toast to James: "To the best of luck at the fire academy."
"Hear, hear," Maude and Florida chimed in. James smiled shyly and raised his cup of coffee. Soon, though, the clock chimed and it was time to get back to their apartment.
When they got to their building, after the bus ride, a note was taped to their door. "James--Come upstairs, you got a phonecall. Urgent." The Evans' couldn't afford a phone and this was how messages got through. They didn't get enough calls to really justify such a bill anyway, so James left Florida downstairs and took the stairs two by two to find out what the call was.
"It was the recruiter, he said call him back immediately." Cousin Jerry said, offering the phone and leaving the kitchen to give James his privacy. James dialed as quickly as he could, watching the rotary dial take its sweet time going back into place before he could dial the next number.
"Hello, yes, this is James Evans.." James' ear was to the phone, and his jaw got tighter as he was given the news.
"You said..No, man..you said it wasn't goin' to be a problem"
Ear still glued to the phone, the excitement in his voice was turning to anger.
"But..You couldn't have checked that first? NOW you say it's too late? Aw, man...No, YOU listen..that ain't right...Forget it, man. Just..just forget it." James slammed the phone down before he could say anything he'd regret. He stormed out of Jerry's apartment and headed to the basement.
Florida was actually frightened when James returned, where he began to systematically throw things from the tabletops and let out his anger.
"JAMES! What is it!"
James looked at her with burning eyes full of disgust. "He LIED to me, baby. It was all a LIE. A man with a 6th grade education CAN'T get that job, did you know that? I sure as hell didn't. The Department has these recruiters..they get paid per head..I was just a head. The man wrote on my form I had a high school diploma. I ain't said I did..I was honest. He said don't worry about it. He LIED, baby. Now that lie's in my name. Well..the department done a background check, and guess what. I ain't startin' tomorrow. I ain't startin' anywhere near them until I got a GED..and that takes time. They already called the next man on the list to take my spot, and they think I'm a liar."
Florida tried to hold back the tears in her eyes, and went to him, embracing him. "We'll manage, honey. It's not your fault. Anybody who knows, really knows, you, knows you ain't no liar. That man used you for his fee..and if you really want to, I'll help you study. We'll get your GED. It'll only take a year or so."
"A year or so!" James shook his head, stepping away. "Baby, that's the point! In a year or so, there's gonna be other men who took the test waiting to get on the job. And there's only so many who even get called for hire. I'm done, Florida. Done. There ain't no life for us in New York. I don't want to live in no basement for the rest of our lives. We need to get the hell out of here."
"But what about Maude"
"I don't want to hear about no Maude. I don't even want you workin' no-way. We can't afford New York, even with Maude, since this fell through. Give your notice, Florida. We is movin' out of here, soon."
And they did. Florida hated to leave Maude, but after confiding in Maude what had happened, and after Maude called a few people with contacts in the FDNY to confirm that, yes, James' application had now branded him as unable to be hired, that it was extremely unlikely that they'd give him a second look, even if he'd obtained the necessary education.
The only satisfaction that James and Florida ever got from that was that the recruiter ended up doing a 3-year prison stint for falsifying people's information. As it turned out, James was one of several dozen men who were taken advantage of, for the head fee of an overzealous, underhanded recruiter. The FDNY, due to incidents such as this, ended up using their own as recruiters, doing away with outside, private agencies to assist, and in doing away with the per-head fee, removed any temptation for the recruiters to take advantage of unqualified men.
He would've loved to have been a firefighter..he'd have been retired by now.
Looking into the street, watching a passing car, he was brought back to the present. Those memories were all in the past..and they could remain in the past. He had the present..and future..to deal with. His thoughts went to Wilona and Penny, to Lisa and the rest of his children, and then rested on Florida once more.
He finished his tea, and headed into the house.