Barbershop, September 1962

“Norbert, you hear about that nonsense down at Ole Miss?”

“Yeah, I hear about it, same as you. Can’t avoid it. It’s all the evening news wants to talk about.”

“That crazy nigger like to get himself killed, is what I think.”

“He’s got some folks stirred up, that’s for sure.”

“Now I hear they’re bringing in U.S. marshals to get that boy registered. That’s an awful lot of trouble just so one colored boy can go to Ole Miss.”

“Yeah.”

“You know what I can’t figure out?  What in the world is a nigger supposed do with a college education? He’s still just a nigger – just a more uppity nigger.”

“Why would he want to go to Ole Miss, anyway? There’s plenty of nigra colleges that’d be happy to have him. Like those two nigra colleges up in Marshall. You remember when they made such a big to-do year before last with their sit-ins at Woolworth’s?”

“Didn’t they fire a bunch of nigra professors?”

“They fired one for being a Communist. Probably should have fired a darn sight more. Communists and outside agitators gone and got them young bucks all aggravated.”

“But they were a big success. Now Woolworth’s gone and closed their lunch counters, so they don’t serve anybody – but they don’t serve them equally.”

“Well a nigra at a nigra college is one thing. A nigra at Ole Miss is a whole ‘nother thing altogether.”

“Somebody liable to get killed if they don’t settle down.”

“You’re not kidding. Mm-mm-mm.”

A Spy in the Barbershop

Dictionary of Texisms:

            Dumb as a box of rocks – not too bright. Variation – dumb as a box of hammers.

Once a month, whether I need it or not, Mom insists that I get a haircut. So every month, whether I need it or not, I have the privilege of hearing the barbers engage each other and their adult male customers in a lively discussion of current events.  

My regular barber, Norbert, is gruff. I suppose if my name was Norbert, I might be gruff too.  I’m pretty sure he doesn’t know my name; when it’s my turn, he waves at his chair and says, “Hop on up, Sport.” He calls all boys Sport. I once saw him give a girl a haircut, and he called her “Missy.” In the early days Norbert would ask me if I wanted a crewcut (I don’t), and he never fails to ask if I want my sideburns “long like Elvis.” Other than that, Norbert assumes I have nothing valuable to say and ignores me.

Norbert, on the other hand, has a lot to say, as do Tony and Jerry. Grandpa used to wait for me during my haircuts, but now he’s taken to dropping me off because, as he puts it, “Every one of those clowns is dumb as a box of rocks, and I can’t abide their ignorant blathering. If I stay I’m tempted to argue with them, and that’s a waste of good breath.”

I’m not tempted to argue, since they don’t think kids know anything. To make it so I can abide it, I imagine that I’m not just a customer but a spy, listening carefully and taking mental notes  so I can understand the pulse of public opinion in Rusty Springs. It’s a dangerous job, but I think I’m the man for it.

The New Kid

The New Kid

Dictionary of Texisms:

Nervous as a long-tailed cat in a room full of rockers – fidgety, jumpy.

It only took Jackie McLanahan three weeks to become a standout in our class. And not in a good way.

If I had to come into a classroom full of strangers, I’d be nervous as a long-tailed cat in a room full of rockers. I think I would lay low for a while and try to get to know the situation. I expected Jackie McLanahan to blend in with the quiet girls, the ones who never raise their hands when Mrs. Kleiner asks a question, and never ask questions of their own, and try to make themselves invisible when Mrs. Kleiner is calling on people at random. Well, that’s what I would do, anyway. Jackie McLanahan took a slightly different approach.

Mrs. Kleiner was at the blackboard talking with Texas pride about our glorious state, as she often did, and how Texas was Number One in oil, gas, cotton and just about everything important, when Jackie raised her hand.

“Yes, Jackie?”

“Texas doesn’t have a Broadway musical named for it, but Oklahoma does.”

(Did I mention that Jackie came from Oklahoma?)

“Thank you, Jackie,” Mrs. Kleiner said, sarcastically. “I guess other states just have to grab their little bit of glory wherever they can.”

Jackie’s face flushed. She raised her hand again.

“Yes, Jackie?”

“It says in the Bible that pride is a sin.”

“Yes, but what does that –“

Then Mrs. Kleiner stopped, because she realized the answer to her own question, and she didn’t much care for it. This time it was her face that colored.

“Thank you, Jackie,” she snapped. She stared intensely at Jackie, who stared back just as hard. It was almost like two wrestlers circling each other, looking for a weakness.

Finally Mrs. Kleiner turned away and resumed the lesson.

Apparently, that was round one. Within another week it was no holds barred and Jackie was walking the well-worn path towards being branded a juvenile delinquent. There were testy exchanges in class, with Mrs. Kleiner telling Jackie she had a bad attitude and lacked respect. By week three, Jackie was forced to miss recess every second or third day, so she could do the homework she hadn’t turned in.

Missing recess was a regular punishment, for boys.  But a girl? It never happened.  Not only that, but the boys who got punished were usually the real dumbbells, the ones who had trouble spelling “cat” if you spotted them two letters.  Jackie was no nitwit. If anything, she was too smart for her own good. The prospect of having our first female juvenile delinquent added an undercurrent of excitement to class each day.

On the face of it, Jackie was an exact opposite of me.  I always did all my homework assignments, Jackie did some or none. I was one of Mrs. Kleiner’s favorites, Jackie her least favorite.

So much for first impressions.

The Other Side of the Tracks

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?'”

“Yes.”

“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?”

“Yes, sir.”

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.”

Surprises

Surprises

Dictionary of Texisms

Big as all hell and half of Texas: huge, immense, gargantuan.

Let me set the record straight about Texas, for those who get all their ideas from watching television. We don’t wear guns to school. At least, not in the fifth grade. Also, we don’t herd cattle at recess, we don’t chase tumbleweeds down the street, and we don’t ride horses to school. My noble steed has two wheels. I call her “Schwinn.”  We do play cowboys and Indians a lot. Nobody wants to be an Indian. The Indians always lose.

But we do talk funny. That part is true. People who are not familiar with Texans have a hard time understanding some of our common expressions.  That’s why I’ve decided to put together a working dictionary of what I call “Texisms.”  I got the idea from a stupid exercise we had to do last year, where the teacher assigned us a “word of the week” – a new word, supposedly – and we had to practice using that word in sentences. I already knew 92 percent of the words, which is why I renamed it “word of the weak.”  My teacher didn’t see the humor.

Another year, another teacher. When every year you go to the same school, with the same 25 classmates, with the same principal, and the same everything else, you don’t expect big surprises on the first day of school. Or at least, I didn’t. But I was wrong this year.

The first surprise – and not a pleasant surprise – was that Buddy McCall had grown – a lot – over the summer. He was always solidly built, but now he was big as all hell and half of Texas. He towered over me by a foot and looked to be 100 pounds heavier, so if he sat on me he could crush my internal organs. This was not a good surprise. Buddy was a rude, nasty, stupid brute who hated me for being smart and seemed to think it was all my fault that he had to repeat the first grade.  Last year he was a minor irritant, but now that he was rude, nasty, stupid and gigantic, I smelled trouble.

The other surprise was one new kid in the class, which almost never happens. Hardly anyone moves into or out of Rusty Springs. When Mrs. Kleiner called the roll, the new kid introduced herself as Jackie McLanahan and said she was from Oklahoma. The first impression was that she was nothing remarkable, just another girl.

Mrs. Kleiner also was nothing remarkable, just another teacher. She’s been teaching fifth grade since the dawn of time. People don’t say she’s a great teacher, and they don’t say she’s a terrible teacher.

Mrs. Kleiner announced that we were going to work together in “teams,” and our first task was to rearrange all our desks so there were six “pods” of four desks apiece. My assigned podmates were  Chris Carter to my left, Catherine Spencer across from me, and George Mathews across from Chris. Chris was an arrogant blowhard. George had a nervous laugh, but otherwise seemed all right. Catherine was a quiet mouse who never spoke unless a teacher called on her, and then replied in a voice so soft you couldn’t hear what she said.

“Hey Chris!” said George. “I got tickets to see the Colt 45s in Houston Friday night.”

“Yeah?” said Chris. “You think they might win a game?”

Baseball was a subject I knew well, so I stepped in.

“You can’t expect too much,” I said. “It’s just their first year in the Major Leagues.”

“You could expect them to win every now and then,” said Chris. “I hate losers.”

“Who are your favorite players?” George asked, eager to change the subject.

“Stan Musial,” said Chris. “The St. Louis Cardinals are a powerhouse.”

“Mickey Mantle,” I said.

“Mickey Mantle?” said Chris. “He’s a Yankee!”

“So what?” I said.  “It’s a baseball team, not an army.”

“I hate the Yankees,” said Chris.

“ I also like Maury Wills on the Dodgers,” I added. “What an amazing base stealer.”

“What did you expect?” Chris said. “Stealing is what niggers do best.”

            I tried to think of a snappy response to Chris’s stupid remark, but I couldn’t think fast enough. 

            The conversation stopped as Mrs. Kleiner turned our attention to the lesson. Our first team assignment was to tackle a list of 20 sentences and correct the grammar errors. Mrs. Kleiner told us to work on our own, then compare our answers. But Chris was never one for following rules. “George!” he whispered, “What did you get for number 6?”

“You and me,” George whispered.

“It’s you and I,” I whispered helpfully.

“Buzz off!” said Chris.

George gave his nervous laugh. He wasn’t sure who to believe.

Meanwhile Catherine just kept her head down and worked away on her own. For the record, three people on our team got the wrong answer to that question. Another non-surprise.

I wasn’t thrilled with my “team,” but it could have been worse. I said a small prayer of thanks that I wouldn’t have to sit across from Buddy McCall.

But by lunch time I found I had been only too right about Buddy. On our way down the hall, single file, to the cafeteria, a hard shove from behind sent me crashing into the wall and sprawling on the floor. “Careful, Smart Alec,” Buddy jeered, “don’t hurt yourself.”

“Smart Alec” was Buddy’s favorite nickname for me. He thought it was witty, which is all you need to know about Buddy’s sophisticated sense of humor. I dusted myself off while the rest of the class continued marching and took my place at the end of the line. I was not looking  forward to an entire year of playing keep-away-from-Buddy.