Some sensitive material about racism.
“Back in my day,” Bob said, “kids could play outside until dark and nobody ever worried about ‘em. In fact mothers would shoo ‘em out ‘a the house and make ‘em stay out playing, telling them to not get under foot. Neighbors knew each other and if a kid did something wrong, you better believe their mother would hear about it quicker ’n you could spit. Mama would say, ‘You wait until your father comes home.’ And then the kid would know what was comin’. The belt. Put the fear ‘a God in ‘em for sure. Nobody misbehaved.”
I said, “Yeah, I can see why.” If he caught the irony in my tone, he didn’t react.
“Everybody sat down for dinner together in those days. Daddy said the blessing, giving thanks to the Lord, and kids ate what Mama put on their plates. Nobody got choices, not like today. Respect. That was the difference. We did our chores, we minded our parents, we were all grateful for what we had.” He cleared his throat. “We didn’t think anybody owed us squat. Nose to the grindstone, took our licks, didn’t complain ‘cause nobody had it any better.”
“But some folks had it worse, right?”
“If you say so. War was over, there were jobs to be had. Nobody I knew was hurtin’ too bad.”
In doing research about segregation in the fifties in Florida, I’m interviewing Bob, an older white man whose home town, West Palm Beach, is separated from the island of Palm Beach on the Atlantic Ocean by several bridges over the Intracoastal Waterway.
“Bob, you grew up here when, exactly?”
“Born in forty-two. Graduated in 1960. Best time to be alive there ever was.”
“But not for everyone, I gather. Not a lot of people are around who can give a personal accounting of what life was like then. We appreciate your cooperation.”
“I just want to tell it like it was. Not everybody agrees, and they’ve said shit—uh, is that okay?”
“They bad-mouthed us, called us racists. I want to clear the record.”
“Noted. Tell me, what did you do for fun as a kid?”
“On Saturdays all us kids went to the movies. Called ‘em picture shows. Cartoons—maybe five of them—double feature, Roy Rogers, The Lone Ranger, Flash Gordon, wholesome stuff like that. Mama would drop us off in front of the theater with a quarter and we could spend most of the day at the movies and get candy, popcorn, and soda, too. Our friends were there, too.”
“Were there any black kids there?”
“No.” There’s a sudden shift in his mood and tone. He seems wary. “Coloreds weren’t allowed. There was one theater where they could sit in the balcony.” He shifts in his seat.
“But not in the main auditorium, which was bigger, right?”
“Yeah, of course. There were more of us than them.” He looks off in the distance. I can see the muscle in his jaw working.
I don’t want to lose him. “What else did you do?”
He looks down, takes a minute, then makes a decision. “When we could drive, we spent a lot of time at the beach.”
“That’s Palm Beach?”
“Yeah. Sun, sand, and surf. Riding the waves. None of that board stuff—just put your hands in front of you, catch a wave, ride it in. We met up with our friends there and we’d be there all day. Threw the football around, flirted with the girls. Our skin would burn, then peel, burn again. You can tell.” He looks down at his arms. His skin is spotted and the knuckles on his fingers are arthritic. He folds his hands in front of him, resting them on the table. I can hear his breathing. I’ve been told he has lung problems.
“No black people at the beach, either, I assume.”
“Stuck on that, aren’t you?” He sits back in his chair, crosses his arms over his chest. “They had their own beach. Airforce beach we called it. When the base was here, the soldiers—airmen, I guess—claimed it, and the name stuck. There were coloreds and whites in the air force, so maybe they swam together. I don’t rightly know.”
“Is the subject distressing for you?”
“No. Why would it be?”
“Sorry. My mistake.”
“So, speaking of the beach, did you learn in school why the town you grew up in was built?”
“To connect us by a bridge, I think, to the island. Only one bridge then.”
“The island. Meaning Palm Beach, right?”
“Yeah. My daddy said West Palm was supposed to be a place for the servants to live who worked in the hotels, country clubs, and mansions, especially when they all closed up in the summers.”
“Yeah, you know. The maids, butlers, chauffeurs, and cooks. Other workers, too, I suppose. It was too darn hot and humid for the rich folks to stay in the summer, so they went back up north. The servants with families lived here. In West Palm.”
“Mostly black, you think?”
“The servants? Prob’ly. If so, they lived in a section of town west of the tracks we called . . . can I say it for the recorder?”
“I guess so. If the transcriber doesn’t like it, they’ll bleep it out.”
“Everybody called it that?”
“That’s what I heard my parents call it. As I got older, of course nobody did any more.”
“Those houses must have been some of the first that were built. I do know one of the streets, Tamarind, was named after an African fruit tree.”
“African, huh? Tamarind Avenue. It was a street we didn’t drive on much.”
“I think we got off the subject. You were describing your summers with the Palm Beach residents gone.”
“Yeah, we would have the island to ourselves. All those fancy shops all boarded up for hurricanes. It was like a ghost town. We’d drive around and holler out the windows and it would echo. From the beach, we could look at those huge mansions with their shutters over the windows. We’d wonder who lived like that. None of us, for sure.”
“What else do you remember?”
“On Sunday we went to church. Preacher let us know what was what. What God expected from us. What we needed to do to make it to Heaven. Everybody knew each other, so you could look around and tell who was maybe doin’ poorly because if they weren’t there, one of the moms would look in on ‘em to see if they were okay. Couple ‘a the women would take casseroles over till the folks got back on their feet. People took care of each other then. Not now.”
“So, this is what you mean by ‘love your neighbor’?”
“Of course it is. And we did. I told you that.”
“What about people on the other side of town?”
“You mean the ‘Negroes’?”
“I do. Unless you mean only the people who live next door to you.”
“Of course not. I know better than that. He meant all our neighbors.”
“But not ‘colored’ people.”
“They had their own ways. Their own churches and schools. We didn’t interfere.”
“We could spend hours on that, since in the fifties and sixties, Florida was in the news for their failure to comply with the National integration law. What do you remember about going to school?”
“I walked to my elementary school. Kids could do that safely in those days. Rode my bike to junior high—never put a lock on it—and caught rides with friends to high school. There was only one high school in my town then.”
“Lord, no. Sweat would be pouring down your arms and legs. Had to dress proper, too. No tee shirts, shorts, or blue jeans. No sundresses for the girls, or sandals. Had to cover up. Be decent.”
“Were all of your teachers white?”
“And there were no people of color in your school, right?”
“Nary a one.”
“Did the black kids go to school?”
“They had schools. Of course they went to school.”
“Where did they get their books?”
“Well, now that you ask, I remember us taking our old books when new ones came in and erasing all the marks in the old ones. Took all class period, getting’ ‘em all cleaned up and presentable, putting ‘em in boxes to be shipped over to the colored school.”
“So the black kids got your hand-me-down text books?
“We donated ‘em free, I heard.”
“After how many years of use, do you suppose?”
“Prob’ly six. Mybe more. I remember erasing names from the front, and there were at least six names of students they had been checked out to.”
“So you think the information in the books was still relevant?
“Up to date? Current?”
“Well, history was still history, wasn’t it? And math? And science? Geography didn’t change, did it? Continents didn’t drift away.” He smiled as if he’d got me.
“I might argue that in six to seven years, some things could have changed. Certainly enough that the school felt you needed new books, right?”
“I suppose. Isn’t that what our parents paid taxes for? Besides, all those books had homemade covers made from heavy brown paper—cut up grocery bags. We did that to keep ‘em from getting’ too beat up.”
“But still, that’s a lot of years to expect a book to hold up under the rigors of a kid actually using it—reading it, underlining in it, stuffing it into and taking it back out of a locker, dropping it on the floor, kicking it around—right?”
“I see where you’re going with this.”
“Where would that be?”
“You’re saying that it wasn’t fair. That they weren’t treated equal.”
“Well, they weren’t, were they?”
“I was a kid. What did I know? It was the way it was. Nothing like today. They’re everywhere now. All over the TV. Then, the only colored I knew was ni—the man who came to help my dad clean out the septic tank when it needed it. Mama gave him cold water in a jelly glass and threw the glass away after. I remember that.”
“No other exposure to ‘colored people’? Back then, I mean.”
“For me, you mean?”
“We took our clean clothes in a laundry basket to a colored woman on the other side of town to be ironed. When Mama would go get the ironing, she took me with her. She would stay in the car and send me to the door with money. The colored woman, or sometimes her daughter—”
“How old was the daughter?”
“Maybe about my age, I guess. Why?”
“No reason. Sorry. Go ahead.”
“She brought the starched and ironed clothes out on our hangers, and I’d take them from her.”
“Did you talk? Say anything?”
“Not that I remember.”
“So, black people did your dirty work. In silence.”
“That’s not fair. They got paid. It wasn’t slavery.”
“Okay, good point. So, like employees, then. It’s just that you had some experiences with black people. Face-to-face experiences. You even encountered a black person your own age—"
“Called ‘em colored people then. I told you. Signs on the public water fountains and restrooms. ‘Colored’ and ‘White.’ And the coloreds liked to stay to themselves, just like us. They sat together at the back of the public bus, separate from whites. It was a rule posted on a sign. My friends and I took busses sometimes before we got driver licenses. We liked sitting on that big bench that ran all the way across the back. Hated it that we couldn’t if there were any of them on the bus.”
“Felt deprived, did you? Like something you deserved but couldn’t have?”
“You’re not fooling anyone with that kinda talk, you know. I get it, but you don’t know how it was. It was a different time.”
“Yes, it was. And it wasn’t. What about as you grew older and went to work yourself? Any part-time jobs? Any opportunities to encounter Blacks?”
“Yeah. You’ll be interested in this one. I helped out in my mother’s drug store the summer before my senior year in high school. I worked behind the soda counter. Made lunches, even. Simple ones, like sandwiches.”
“And colored people worked there, too?”
“No. But, across the street was a laundry. Not the self-service kind where people washed their own clothes. Strictly drop off to be done. It was also a dry cleaners. You could smell the chemicals. Big pressing machines. It was hot and steamy. Noisy, too. The pressers were all colored.”
“This was before air conditioning, right?”
“Well, no. Not everywhere. It’s true, not many people’s homes had AC, but stores mostly did.”
“They had big fans.”
“The pressers would have someone call to give us their lunch order—you know three tuna sandwiches, so many egg salads. That kind of stuff.”
“It was across the street?”
“Yeah. But they couldn’t come in. They ate in the alley behind the dry cleaners.”
“Oh, I see. How did they get their order?”
“One of them would come to the back door and knock, and the soda clerk would hand it out to him. Once it was me.”
“Do you remember feeling anything about that? Then, I mean.”
“Yeah. I remember feeling uncomfortable, if you must know.”
“Do you know why?”
“Well, not then, but now I do, sure. He paid me, and his face—that man I gave the sandwiches to.”
“What about his face?”
“It was grim. Sad, a little. Angry, maybe. Ashamed—embarrassed—I think.”
“Were you surprised?
“I think I was.”
“I didn’t know they were . . . I didn’t think . . . I never . . .”
“Saw them as people? Believed them to have emotion?”
“I guess. My daddy said—never mind.”
“Can I venture a guess? It was a moment in time—you, able to see the wrong that was being done reflected in that man’s face—him, ashamed of being treated like less than human and embarrassed for allowing it to happen, because he had no choice.”
“If you say so. Could be. Still—"
“Those are the times you’re nostalgic for, you know.”
“Only the good parts.”
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Hi Patricia, I'm from the critique circle and, while I usually don't complain about minor details, in the circle, I feel I would be letting you down if I didn't. That said, I didn't find any errors! Nice job, you've obviously reread your work, doing your own check, before publication. The content is sensitive and I think you did a very nice job by not overdoing it. I like how you captured the spot-on emotion of the presser. I moved to Florida in the early sixties and you captured it - I remember the sweat pouring off me in middle school alge...
Thanks, John. I lived with racism without really knowing it until I left home and went to FSU at 18, where American Blacks were not allowed to attend--in 1958! They could work in the dorms, library, and cafeteria, but couldn't attend as students, which 'foreign' dark-skinned people could. Crazy, right? I marched, participated in sit-ins, the whole thing, and couldn't believe how blind I had been growing up. p.s. I am an editor, so I would have been very unhappy if you found grammar, syntax, or punctuation errors. Glad you liked it.