Monday, May 04, 2009


On a Bronx tale recently in the news – a poem

Joi Little used to live with her grandmother 
in a building near her mother's apartment.
Nine year old Joi got the large bed in the
only bedroom. Her grandmother slept on 
the pull out couch in the living room.
In the evenings, Joi would dance around 
(just like her mother), talk fast and write
up numbers on the new chalkboard and 
put them together excitedly shouting 'Granny, 
"Granny, I can add them! I love doing math"
When morning came, Phyllis would escort 
Joi to the bus stop, (on E 174 and Bryant Ave) 
shielding her from the South Bronx of 1988.
Every night, Joi would have a familiar ritual,
she would ask her grandmother if she could 
stay for just a little while at her mother's home.

Phyllis always said no.

Joi's mother grew up in Englewood NJ. 
Englewood was safe and proper (with family 
dinners every night and service three times a 
week at the Refuge Temple Church of God in 
Christ). That was before she met a city boy, a 
former Marine and small-time drug dealer at a 
Bronx disco. For some reason, the lights of the 
city always seemed to beckon her from across 
the Hudson... She moved in with him and secured 
low income housing on West Farms, Bronx. 
At 17, she gave birth to the city boy’s daughter
She named her Joi. The city boy disappeared 
soon afterward. Joi's mother would sometimes 
talk fast in short staccato bursts. She would discuss 
grandiose plans and embark on what seemed 
unachievable projects. Yes, she could do that 
when she was high on crack. Afterwards she 
would become irritable, easily angered and sleep 
through a night and a day. She did try though... 
Every once in a while, she enrolled for courses at 
Hunter College. The courses never seemed to 
result in a degree. She did not have a steady job, 
either. She lived on government assistance. 
She, however was an expert at heating rock 
crystal in just the right way and smoking its 
vapors. The soothing vapors that escaped her 
nostrils used to find their way into the nostrils 
of her new found lover.

Robert Fleming and Joi's mother would smoke 
together. Fleming would carry a boom-box and 
wear black clothes and silver jewelry of the Five 
Percenters, an offshoot of the Nation of Islam. 
He preached that God is black and that only 
his tribe know His true nature. They met at a 
local disco. "A mutual friend introduced us," he 
says. "We were both into crack, so I'd go over 
to her place. There'd be a bunch of other people, 
and we'd smoke together." To facilitate, Joi was 
dropped off at her grandmothers while they 
would smoke crack and have unprotected sex
though hazy smoke filled Bronx afternoons. 
As luck would have it, lover boy was HIV positive.
Finally Phyllis decided to take custody of Joi. 
That was about the time that Joi’s mother
decided to clean up her act. Like all drug addled 
promises this one also seemed to go by the wayside.

One day, Phyllis’ friends (she used to work as a 
case manager for the Rockland Psychiatric Center) 
were going skiing for the weekend. "They begged 
me to come, and to the last minute, I didn't want 
to go," she says. Finally she did relent, dropping 
Joi off at her mothers. Just this one time, she 
remembered thinking. She also remembered the 
apartment strangely smoke free and clean. 
"Maybe she was getting better. Maybe she had 
decided to clean up her act." Even better, Robert 
Fleming seemed to have disappeared. All told, it 
seemed like the perfect weekend to leave the 
little child in the care of her mother.

The weekend was a lot of fun, her first in many 
years and it felt good to get away. In between 
the ski trips, she had an anxious urge to call on  
little Joi and let her know that she will be back 
soon. In between the ski trip, she also remembered 
her husband – now long gone holding her hands as 
she steadied herself on skis for the first time. 
Of course, she could not call Joi's mother.
Joi's mother did not own a home phone - like many 
others living in the South Bronx in the 80’s.

Phyllis returned home on Sunday afternoon, 
February 28, 1998. She crossed over to Joi's 
mothers building, hiked up the four flights of 
stairs, and knocked on the door. Nobody was 
home. She walked back to her apartment. 
For an older woman without strong legs, hiking 
up the four flights of stairs was a trying task.  
The next morning, at 7 a.m., she climbed the 
stairs once again determined to see her little baby. 
The door was slightly ajar. Joi's 26-year-old 
mother was lying on the bed, strangled to death. 
Her hands and legs were tied behind her back. 
Joi's hands and legs were similarly hogtied. Joi's 
back was twisted at an impossible angle. It was 
actually broken. Both their panties were pulled 
down to their knees. There was a lot of blood 
on the sheets and between the little ones legs. 
Phyllis did not really hear herself slump to the 
floor. When she came to, she ran screaming 
down the stairway all the way out to the streets. 

21 years later, February 28, 2009, (to the day) 
the NYPD Cold Case squad announced that they 
were charging Robert Fleming with the murders. 

Joi lived nine years of her life on this earth and 
did not blame anyone. She did not blame
- Robert Fleming for doing the deed...
(she did know him well enough to call him by his 
Five Percenter nickname, Hakim)
- Joi's mother for pursuing the life she chose...
(every day she would ask if she were allowed 
to visit her mother even if it were for an hour)
- Phyllis for deciding to go to ski that weekend...
(she gave all she had, she worked weekends 
and double shifts to send the child to school).

Note: These lines were written after I had recently read a report of the conviction of Robert Fleming in this week’s edition of the newspaper Village Voice.

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