Sunday, December 18, 2016



BSC, CA – This time of year always carries special meaning for me. Before it was my mother's birth month, and now it is my youngest son's birth month also. A few days ago, J.R. entered boot camp at about the same time as I was working on Gem Bones. Perhaps it was a combination of the three things that brought to mind one of the two most 'magic' episodes in my life, times when it seems reality was suspended. The first was a Christmas time when I was seven or eight.

This particular Christmas was very good that year, probably 1952 or '53, and everyone was happy, I remember. The country was doing well, the grown-ups were doing their grown-up things, and the world was moving along in it's segregated way, except as a kid, in my bubble, the word segregation didn't have a meaning. It was part of the grown-up drama and I was a kid. In those days, a kind stranger would bring you home and Louisville, KY was that way toward kids, any race. 

Although my family had some community renown, we were always bottom rung middle class. Being only one [kid] in the fam, I didn't have to share budget finances with a sibling. I could get a big toy at Christmas and assorted kid toys [trucks and cars] but never the rich kid toys like those giant hook-n-ladder die cast firetrucks that shot real water. {To Nikki Giovanni, I got a Schwinn Corvette}I was always happy for what I did get and was taught to be so. As I said, this particular Christmas stood out because my mother had gotten a bonus, all the school teachers had. My mother and I went off Christmas shopping in a happy, happy mood.

Though we could have had a car in the fam by then, we didn't take a car downtown and park it. Once we got done shopping, it was going to be catching the bus back home. Now that was no biggie because we lived a block off the main drag bus line. It may have snowed a bit by then but a White Christmas in Louisville is a rarity. Still the weather was winter, so cold and damp both but not like Iowa. Not by a long shot.

Growing up in a subculture really means that inside your bubble things exist that make sense. Although I didn't know the word 'segregation' that didn't mean I was unaware of the social separation concerning the two races and cultures. Walking along the icy patches on the downtown sidewalk, you just don't pay any attention [outside of courtesy] to whites. They were part of the landscape [shop owners, Santa, etc.] mostly outside my familiar neighborhood. My grandfather worked for one a rich white enjoying a charmed off-fall from that relationship that baffled those outside the inner circles of knowing. ISBN 0-8131-1674-0, page 115.

In fact, where my grandfather worked was one of the two main hotels in the state and city, and both were located on 4th Street. In those days, 4th Street was the shit. It was the commercial hub in Louisville. All the main stores, except Sears, and many restaurants were along there. My mother and I didn't hit the restaurants since the eateries weren't allowed to serve [sit down] meals to Negroes [blacks], but we hit the stores like a couple of Mad Hatters.

In the days when big cities had down-towns and no malls, going shopping was always special, to be topped off with a treat. My mother and I had always two treats. One was stopping off at this bakery that was in the block bordered by the Broadway corner. They always had a nice snowy window display and as many stores you went in that didn't serve food to eat, there was no racism because there were no barriers to be crossed, or Jim Crow laws to be broken. We got our goodies and left, arms fuller.

We had Christmas presents for everybody in the fam that year, even some relatives I didn't recognize. Being firmly in my 'little man' mindset, I was determined to hang on and not complain about all the bags I was toting, one of which was a present for me because my mom said she was giving Santa a break on. Though I still believed in Santa Clause, I didn't think that he really carried all those toys around to every kid in the world. The parents did their part but Santa brought the ones 'from him'. I only groaned a little when mother said that we still had one more stop before catching the bus for home.

There are really just 2 common denominators in Louisville. One is the infield of the Kentucky Derby, a 'free' location that has never been segregated, ever, in the long history of The Derby. The other is White Castle. The Indiana-origin chain has been a fixture in Louisville since before I was born. One of the first foods that I can distinctly remember as delicious and not coming from home were those little [12 cents, later 15 cents in my heyday] square hamburgers with the holes that are steamed on a big griddle with onions on top and the bottom bun on top of that.

The name 'castle' applied to the logo because most White Castles were small with a 'L-shaped counter running the front and side lengths of the interior dimensions, all lined with permanent swivel, no back, cushioned stools. The inside décor was stainless steel with white and black porcelain accents and always very clean. The help was always white in those days, and fast. I used to love watching the grill cook steam those little burgers, row by row.

White Castle was also a brand that was located in various parts of the city. While the spot out on Eastern Parkway may not have been 'downtown' friendly, the White Castle at 7th and Broadway was always neutral ground even though we never bought food to eat there. Buying food and taking it home to reheat it was normal. It was also normal for us to stand and order our food; then pay and get our order and leave. And it wasn't just blacks who stood. If the place was crowded, most people stood for 'to go'.

The other thing that made the White Castle at 7th and Broadway neutral ground to me was that usually most of the people there were, black or white, didn't have as nice a clothes as me or my mother, especially around Christmastime. We weren't sportin' but we had a definite middle class look, as you can see from this picture of me, ISBN 978-1-935497-36-3, page 189. Even as a kid, I noticed what people wore as an economic sign.

We walked the 3 blocks down to White Castle and the place was packed. We squeezed inside the front door and waited for the ordering to get to us. Every stool was taken and people were lined up around the inside wall and in the aisle. It was like a bus. I could hardly wait until we got our sacks of White Castles and went home. But it was warm and toasty inside the restaurant too. We sat our packages down by our feet and sighed. We were both tired but I figured it was harder on my mom. We had a lot of stuff and this was in the days way before wheeled carts were anywhere outside a supermarket lot.

As we stood there, the inner row closely changed positions with the seated patrons who got their food and left. Nobody was staying there eating. We were all shoppers or those getting off work. The back row up against the inner wall stayed the same until they got they order and left. Getting our order was of course slow due to the volume, even with the rapid cooking process that was totally efficient as anyone who has ever eaten at a White Castle can tell you. They were bagging them and tagging them.

Even as the crowd thinned a bit, I watched my mother shift in her stance and knew her feet were killing her. Mine hurt and I was a kid, so I knew hers had to be hurting. The area we were in was still packed being by the front door. We had let people in by us who wanted to go deeper into the place. We just wanted our food and out the door we would go, away from this cluster to relax at home. And then it happened.

A person at the very last seat, the one directly in front of us, opened up. For whatever reason, no one to my right made a move on the seat. I tugged at my mother covertly, nodding for her to take the seat since she was tired. I was a gentleman. She waved me off twice. I knew she was tired, we both were, and we weren't there to eat, just rest until our food got to us. What was the deal?

When she waved me off the second time I thought to myself, we'll both tired and nobody is sitting down. If you don't want the seat, then I'm plopping my tired butt down. And so, a few years before it became trendy, I Rosa Parked it. This time it was my mother who tugged on my coat. She wanted me to get up! I couldn't believe it. It wasn't like we were there to eat. Plus, I was tired, no one else in the place wanted this seat, and I looked around to every face in the place. All the whites and the few blacks all wore the same expression, 'let the tired little boy sit'.

I turned and looked at my mother and the counter waitress said, “He's tired. It's OK if he sits here.” At that, my mother relaxed and thanked the lady. I thought to myself, 'finally somebody gets it.'

A few minutes later in the normal course of things, our to-go order came and we left. I never had a second thought about it, outside of being glad to be headed home. I felt energized after the rest and carried something extra to give my mother a hand after we rearranged our bags of presents.

It was a few years later when I hit the 8th grade that I reflected back on the incident and understood what my mother had been concerned with that day. Eating at the counter wasn't really the faux pas, it was behaving in a normal manner under the guise of not being allowed to eat. I felt compassion for what my mother had to go through, not for my actions. Kids always know the truth, which is why a few years later when I met and shook hands with Martin Luther King, he remarked, “No, thank you for coming [to this meeting to organize the high school youth in Louisville, 10th Street Mens Y, four adults, 500 kids (it seemed)]. You kids are the future, your parents are already part of the system.”

I stand on corners and protest or publicize issues because I am a parent and grand-parent, like the majority of us grass-rootsters, but I also do it for the magic of being a kid, which is before you know of evil and evil people plans.

The second magic episode happened exactly at the opposite time of year, in the summer. It was the last year I was a kid, before I turned into a teenager. It was my last year before puberty, the last year of kid magic for me and I made two new friends at a church summer camp up in Michigan. They were having the same midsummer crisis. One was a redhead and her friend was a brunette. I came this close to getting away with it too, this close. But that's another story for another time, when it's warmer outside.

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