Pleasures of the city: banh mi and street lit

by Jordan Green

Pleasures of the city: banh mi and street lit

I like to think I know Greensboro on a micro level: its nodes of commerce, crime clusters, pockets of culture. And its food, definitely that.

Saturday, I made the rounds, so to speak, dropping in at an arts and crafts store in Glenwood where my fiancée has her earrings on display and perusing the wares at a street fair on State Street.

A highlight was a visit to a Vietnamese-Laotian restaurant

in the dingy strip mall planted at the intersection of Florida Street and Freeman Mill Road next to Smith Homes. Their banh mi, a sandwich on French bread sliced lengthwise and stuffed with marinated pork, pickled carrots and fresh sprigs of cilantro, has become a fetish of sorts, an enthusiasm shared among a select group of friends.

That the stench of cigarette smoke cloaks the room and various decorations inexplicably depicting the map of Australia line the walls only makes the food seem more fabulous and the knowledge of it more proprietary.

I only bring up banh mi to set the stage for a second pleasurable discovery — stumbling across a street novella by Greensboro’s Progress Loyd published in a newsprint magazine at Borders’ High Point Road store.

Loyd’s Don’t Look Back is displayed face out next to a stack of one of those slick, national magazines hustling its Obama commemorative edition. The plastic slipcover gives it a slightly forbidden allure.

The tag “a ‘Limited Edition’ Undaground Bestsellin’ Street Novella” blares across the top of the cover that also shows the dreadlocked author in aviator glasses and a Yankees cap with a seductive beauty draped around his shoulders and the Greensboro skyline in the background.

The back-cover synopsis gives a provocative rundown of what to expect: “Based in Greensboro, NC, Don’t Look Back is an explicit street tale of a recently released convict name Shaime Bilal Rankin aka Looks and his desire for wealth by any means necessary, except for a 9 to 5!” It’s lurid and pulpy stuff written in street slang that begs the question of whether some typos slipped through the proofing process or it’s written with maximum authenticity. Its graphic depictions of violence, drug use and sexual situations is the book’s obvious hook, but it also describes with scary-convincing precision the economics of the crack game and the power relationships that underpin it. It’s like the backside of an investigative crime story in a newspaper, except with all the off-the-record and uncorroborated innuendo set down in vivid prose.

I sailed through this book in two sittings, and Monday I met Progress Loyd and his publisher, Joseph Wilkerson in the conference room at the Green Bean.

Wilkerson was running a little late, but the 35-year-old Loyd entered the room looking much as I expected him, bountiful dreads rolled up in a knit hat and white shirt tucked into his pants.

Similar to the character Looks,’ 

Loyd served an 8-yearsentence in the North Carolina prison system before returning toGreensboro in 2000 and sliding back into the criminal life. He callshis writing “autobiographical fiction.”

Here’sLooks, approaching an old acquaintance, Bay, after taking 15 kilos ofcocaine as his cut from a robbery of some Colombians at the ResidenceInn:

“I gotsome work, about two birds to be exact, but I’m not trying to sellweight, I’m trying to grind. However, I don’t know the street no more,I need help,” Looks explained to Bay.

“Is the coke good and how much grind you talking?” Bay asked, rubbing his chin.

“Yeah,the coke is diesel and I want to put out slugs, old school 20’s, doubleups,” Looks said, putting his thumb on the first line on his pinkyindicating the size.

“So,basically a g-pack is really like 1400, 1700 late night, huh?” Bayasked, seeing an easy come off. Looks already knew Bay had the Grove inthe choke hold. His family always did and always would, so it wasnothing for him to move 10G’s or better every other week.

Iask Loyd to delineate between his own experience, his imagination andresearch in this novella, and he laughs, only saying, “I’ve lived thelife.”

His publisher, Joseph Wilkerson, a thin gent with glasses who is four years Loyd’s senior, vouches for him.

“Whenit gets down to the street-dude, he’s either gonna validate it or saythis is bullshit,” Wilkerson says. “The numbers have got to add up.”

Wilkersonstarted Urban Literature as a T-shirt business in 1996. It’s somethingof an irony that his enterprise now shares a name with the literarygenre that he’s promoting. Back then, it was all T-shirts with graphicsreferencing marijuana. Later, he expanded into film festivals, magazinepublishing and beat battles. He backed away from those endeavors whenthey got too unwieldy, and decided to strip his enterprise back down tothe spare, written word. When Loyd was the first to respond to a shortfiction contest set up by Wilkerson to suss out the local talent, thepublisher suspended his search because he knew he’d found his writer.

Loydlearned to write in prison, creating a genre of partly fictitiousletters written from the inside to the outside, with correspondingmissives from the outside. He developed an avid readership among theinmates and guards who passed around the single copies of his pieces.Eventually, some of his writing reached the warden at DavidsonCorrectional Center, who assigned him to dorm-cleaning duty so he couldhave time to practice his craft.

Wilkersonsays he’s trying to create a genre with writing that is brief andenergetic enough to get the attention of a generation raised onFacebook and Twitter, with a price point low enough to be affordable incash-strapped times. In this sense, his street novellas remind me ofPaco Ignacio Taibo II’s populist fiction in Mexico. His books arewritten in short chapters designed to allow ordinary working people tocruise through a handful of pages on lunch break. And like Taibo,Progress Loyd can write his ass off.

Wilkerson and Loyd started out pricing Don’t Look Back at$5, but a convenient store owner pointed out that the only thing hisclientele was willing to spend that amount on was a pack of cigarettes,gas and beer. In contrast, The Slammer magazine is priced at about $2. Urban Literature reduced its price accordingly.

“I hate to use the ‘crack’ term,” Willkerson says, “but we want to get them addicted to these novellas.”