The Other Side of the Tracks
Dictionary of Texisms
Besdam: of superior quality.
I had finished my homework for the day and was sitting on my bed, reading a mystery, when Grandpa knocked on the door. “I’m going to pick up supper,” he said. “You want to come with me?”
“What are you getting?”
“It’s a surprise,” he said. “But if you come with me, you’ll be the first to know.”
“Okay, I’m in,” I said. Grandpa has this talent for taking an ordinary errand and turning it into an adventure.
I got in the front seat of the Chevy and Grandpa started it up. In a few minutes we were downtown. Then we kept driving, on streets that weren’t familiar to me. There were corner stores that looked like little more than shacks. Many of the houses had paint peeling off, and some of the front porches were in bad shape. Several vacant lots were overgrown with weeds and tiny trees.
“Where are we going, Grandpa?” I asked.
“We are going,” he said, “to the foremost barbecue emporium in Rusty Springs.”
“That sounds good,” I said. “Does it have a name?”
“The Silver Moon. And here it is.”
He pulled to a stop at the curb. I looked for a sign but didn’t see one. I didn’t see anything that looked like it might be a restaurant – just houses on both sides of the street.
Where is it?” I said.
“Well, come on and I’ll show you.”
We got out. We looked both ways and crossed the street, with Grandpa heading in the general direction of a garage-shaped building set back from the street. “Do they have a sign?” I said.
“Don’t need one,” he said. “Everybody knows where it is. And if you don’t know, then you don’t need to know.”
“Grandpa, that doesn’t make sense.”
“You know what would make good sense to me right about now?” he said. “Some barbecued ribs.” He opened the screen door to the garage, and we stepped inside.
I was instantly overwhelmed by the aroma of grilled meat lathered in sweet, spicy barbecue sauce. The heavenly smell was coming from a giant firepit to the right of the door. Above the fire, on steel racks, were chickens and huge slabs of what must have been beef and pork. Smoke wafted up from the fire and enveloped the meats.
A counter separated the fire pit from the rest of the garage. A Negro girl with hair braided in pigtails, who looked to be about my age, was behind the counter.
“Good evening, Miss,” said Grandpa. “My friend and I would like to order some barbecue.”
She didn’t say a word but turned and ran in the opposite direction, further back into the building.
In a minute a heavy-set, bald Negro man came out. “How can I help – why Professor Anderson! What a pleasure to see you!”
“Hello, Willie. How’re you doing?” They shook hands across the counter, both smiling broadly.
“Willie, let me introduce you to my grandson, Alec. Alec, Willie Washington, the besdam barbecue chef in East Texas – hell, maybe all of Texas.”
“Well, I don’t know as I’d go that far,” Willie said. He turned to me and offered me his huge brown paw to shake. “Pleased to make your acquaintance,” he said.
“Willie and I got to be friends when he worked at the college,” Grandpa said. “But now he’s found his true calling, and the world is the better for it.”
Willie smiled at me and winked. “He do go on, don’t he?” I had to grin.
Grandpa and Willie commenced to catch up on each other’s lives while I looked around the Silver Moon. Aside from the smoking flesh, there wasn’t much to see – four wooden picnic tables and wooden benches made up the dining area. Two of them were occupied by customers, all of them Negroes, picking up ribs and chicken legs with their fingers and grinning like they were getting a taste of the Great Beyond. The wooden walls were unpainted and unadorned. There were no tablecloths, and the knives and forks were plastic. If Mom had been here, it would have been hate at first sight. Maybe that’s why Grandpa invited me to come along instead.
I must have been daydreaming, because the next thing I knew, Grandpa was holding a big brown paper bag and saying his goodbyes to Willie. “You come back anytime, Alec,” Willie said, as we waved and walked out the screen door.
Grandpa placed the bag in the back seat and started up the car. The pungent aroma of barbecue sauce filled the car. “Grandpa, where are we?” I said.
“We’re still in Rusty Springs,” he said.
“I’ve never seen this part.”
“I expect not,” said Grandpa. “Have you ever heard the expression ‘the other side of the tracks?'”
“Well, this is it right here,” he said. “This is where the colored people live.”
“Oh – this is Coontown?”
“Boy,” he said sharply, “don’t ever let me hear you use that word again! It’s disrespectful and mean.”
I wasn’t used to hearing Grandpa speak harshly to me. “Yes, sir,” I said.
Grandpa’s voice returned to his normal mellow tone. “I know you didn’t mean nothing by it,” Grandpa said. “That’s what ignorant, hateful people call it, and you didn’t know. But now you know better. Don’t ever use hateful names. Colored people aren’t coons, and they aren’t niggers. They’re just people like you and me. They want the same things everybody wants, but they don’t have an easy time of it, particularly in Texas. They don’t get the best jobs, and they don’t get to live in the best houses or go to the best schools. So let’s not make it any harder on them, all right? Show them respect, because that’s what’s right. You understand?”
We drove in silence for a few minutes.
“You know, that place doesn’t look like much, but I’ll tell you what: once you dig into these barbecued ribs, I guarantee, you’re going to look at the Silver Moon with a whole different outlook.”
Grandpa was right about that, too.
In the days after the trip to the Silver Moon, I started to see my little world with different eyes. Or to put it another way, I started to notice what was missing: anybody who wasn’t white. All my classmates were white. All my teachers were white. All our neighbors were white. The only Negroes that ever ventured into the neighborhood were the maids, who walked from the homes where they worked to the bus stop. The 1962 World Almanac says Rusty Springs has a population that is 48% white, 45% Negro, and 7% foreign born (which probably means Mexican). But in my neighborhood, Negroes and Mexicans are invisible.
I didn’t expect students in my school to find this disturbing, or even mildly interesting. Most of my classmates were not rabid, fire-breathing, sheet-wearing racists. They were just your everyday, garden variety racists, who thought nothing of using such expressions as “mighty white of you” or such witty rejoinders as, “And speaking of black loafers, how’s your old man?”
But I did hold out some hope for educators – you know, the people who care about spreading knowledge and truth? In class, we happened to be discussing what people earned. Mrs. Kleiner said that as important as teachers are to the world, it’s a shame that teachers in Rusty Springs are paid less than garbagemen. I saw an opportunity to ask a question that had been on my mind for several weeks.
“Mrs. Kleiner,” I said, “why do Negroes get paid less than white people?”
She hesitated only a second. “It’s because Negroes don’t need as much money to live on,” she explained, before abruptly changing the topic.
That didn’t sound quite right to me. Not surprisingly, Grandpa had a different take on it. “Well, it’s no wonder she doesn’t earn more than a garbageman,” he said at supper, “with the kind of garbage she’s dumping on her students. What a load of cr–“
“Daddy,” Mom interjected.
“I was just going to say, what a load of garbage.”
“So why do Negroes get paid less?” I persisted.
“Are you familiar with the golden rule?” Grandpa said.
“Do unto others as -“
“No, the other golden rule,” he said. “He who has the gold, rules. White people have all the gold. They run the government, they own the businesses, and it works very well for them. If they can pay people less, they get to keep more money for themselves.”
“But why are there no Negroes at my school?”
“Because for years, state government adopted a policy of ‘separate but equal.’ Supposedly, it means two equal school systems, one for whites and one for Negroes. Separate but deplorable is closer to the truth. Anyway, the U.S. Supreme Court ruled a few years back that ‘separate but equal’ isn’t constitutional anymore. The news just doesn’t seem to have reached Rusty Springs.”
Mom, who had been listening quietly, said, “But Daddy, don’t you think they’ll have to integrate the schools eventually?”
“Sure, it’ll happen, because it’s right and because it’s the law. Just depends on how long it takes ‘eventually’ to get here.”
“I would bet sooner than later,” she said.
“Well, you may be right,” Grandpa said, “but I have my doubts. I never bet against the stubborn cussedness of Texans. You’ll lose every time.”