Monday, May 18, 2009

Jim Crow memories

Maurice lived on Gray Street. His friend Joel lived on Birch beside Chris, who knew them both. Their back yards abutted. When one wanted another he had only to hop a fence and holler or toss a pebble at a window.

They were close in space, but Maurice lived in a different world from either Joel or Chris. That didn’t slow the friendship. Their separateness wasn’t something they talked or even thought much about. It was in the air like clouds, or tree tops, or crows flying by.

They were 12 years old, and did what boys did when they weren’t doing chores or going to school: played baseball, practiced card tricks, knocked around streets and alleys, chewed gum, read comics, scouted the cemetery at the end of Birch with its big oaks and carved granite stones, or caught crawfish in the creeks that ran through that part of town.

“Whatcha wanna do?” said Joel.

“I don’t know. What you wanna do?” Maurice said.

“Nothing,” said Joel.

“Nothing,” Maurice repeated. “There’s nothing to do.”

“Yeah, we’ve already done everything.”

“We could play football.” It was Chris, who was younger.

“Too hot,” Joel said. “Ball’s got no air.”

“Ain’t enough of us, anyways,” said Maurice.

“Got any money?” Chris wondered. “We could split a soda.”

“Not since I bought that soda yesterday.”

“Hey,” Chris said, enthusiasm returning to his voice like he’d found a dollar. “Let’s see if the Moseley boys are playing. We could shoot hoops.”

“Right.” The others agreed. They set off, Chris bouncing like the bantam weight he was on his toes, provoking a mock fight with Joel just to make him smile.

The Moseley brothers were playing, and that meant that Maurice and the others, younger and smaller, had no access to the court.

They sat now on Maurice’s grandma’s front stoop, also on Gray Street, and watched the crows flying in the sky.

Maurice’s grandma brought out cookies and milk.

“You boys eat this and get on. It’s too nice a day to be sitting around. Someone ought to put you to work.”

The boys did what they were told, and when Joel and Chris stood to leave, Maurice’s grandma told him to stay.

“Son,” she said, after the others left, “you can play with those white boys, but you stay away from those white gals ‘cause they’ll get you in trouble.”

Maurice didn’t know what she was talking about. He was only beginning to notice girls and hadn’t yet thought about hanging out with them.

“Yes, ma’am,” he said.

“Now, don’t you have lawns to mow?”

“Yes, ma’am.”

“Well, get to it.”

The warning about girls came the summer before Maurice’s last year at Catholic school. The next year he started ninth grade at Stephens Lee, the school on the hill, a mile and half from where he lived.

Stephens Lee was different from Catholic school. For one thing, there were no nuns. It was a free-wheeling sort of place. At least by comparison. It was bigger by far, and the teachers stretched thin and distracted. At Catholic school you could leave a dollar bill on your desk and nobody would touch it, even if you were gone a week.

The first day at Stephens Lee he lost his gym bag and all its contents because he hadn’t thought to buy a lock for the locker.

“Get you a lock,” one of the Moseley brothers told him on the walk home. “What were you thinking?”

He sat between two girls in Civics class. They were smiling at each other and whispering, talking about nothing in particular. The topic didn’t matter. It was just that they were blowing air each other’s way. He was afloat between them.

The teacher was Miss Agnes Paulson. She was tiny as a bird. She stood only as high as Maurice’s shoulders, and Maurice wasn’t the tallest boy in the room. A couple of girls were taller.

Miss Paulson stopped her lecture. She rapped her chalk on the elevated desk like a tattoo on a military drum. Then with a voice that startled she spoke:

“Class, I don’t believe this. One of my babies, one of my babies from church, is in my class disrespecting me. Can you believe that?”

Maurice didn’t say a thing. He knew she was talking about him. He slid into his chair as if the desk would shield him from what followed.

“Can you all believe that?” she asked the room, like she wanted an answer.

“No ma’am,” came the answer, like an amen.

None but Maurice knew where this was going.

She said, “I teach him in Sunday school. In church he’s the sweetest thing, nice manners, but he’s disrespecting me.”

If Maurice could have melted into a crack he would have.

“And now I want him to stand up and apologize to me and to you for interrupting my class. You know I’m talking about you Maurice. Stand up!”

He stood. “I’m sorry,” he said, the voice hiding somewhere back in his throat.

“You didn’t say it loud enough,” she said. “Say it!”

He did so. He didn’t look – he knew better than to look around – but he knew everyone besides him and Miss Paulson was holding hard on an urge to giggle.

“Well, sit down,” she said. “I know I’m not going to have any more trouble out of you.”

“No ma’am.”

But she wasn’t talking to him. She was talking to the rest of the class. She said: “He knows I will see his mother tonight at choir practice, and if I tell her that her son disrespected me in class, you won’t see him tomorrow.”

She didn’t tell, she didn’t have to. Maurice learned to shut up and made an A in Miss Paulson’s class.

Another time at Stephens Lee, Maurice was chatting up one of the popular girls. A cleaning lady, in loco parentis for all the kids in school, witnessed this and later pulled him aside.

“You stay away from that girl,” she told him. “She’s seeing lots and lots of boys. You’re nice looking. You come from a real nice family. If she gets pregnant, who do you think she’s going to blame?”

So Maurice graduated from high school, honor intact, and went to college with the moral order of the neighborhood at his back. He worked his way through college as a waiter and then as a bartender at one of Durham’s country clubs. He made good money, and topped it off by tending bar at private parties.

The head bartender warned him once that he’d overheard a group of women, regular members at the bar, talk about how they were going to get Maurice between their sheets. “Be careful,” the elder said.

It wasn’t long after this that one of the women asked Maurice to fix drinks at a party she was having. He showed up with his white coat and black tie in a beat-up grey Ford, borrowed from a friend. He parked the car out of the way, and seeing no others, he figured he was early.

The woman answered the door herself, which he didn’t expect. She was wearing a housecoat, which he didn’t expect either. He wondered if he’d got the wrong night. But she expected him, showed him the bar, asked him to fix her a drink and to make one for himself.

“When will the guests be arriving?” he wondered, as he delivered the one drink he made.

“Oh, I called the party off. Didn’t I say? I thought this would be a chance to get to know each other better.”

Her hand lingered on his wrist.

Suddenly Maurice was as frightened as if he’d been surrounded by a gang in white robes.

“Ma’am,” he said, “I can’t do this. I can’t do what you’re asking. I’m sorry. I just can’t.”

“What are you, a sissy?” She italicized the last word with her voice.

Without intending to she offered him a way out of danger and herself a means of saving face.

“Well, ma’am, I don’t like to put it that way, but it’s true.”

“I don’t believe it.” She laughed, surprised by her own failure to have noticed. “I never would have guessed.” She was talking to herself.

She sent him home then, paid him $25 for the night anyway, and to the relief of his shaking heart closed the door behind him.

Over the coming months he understood that she had shared this unexpected news with her friends. He endured the titters as he approached with their drinks, saw the suppressed smiles, the knowing looks.

He’d traded one lowly status for another, because the second was in the moment safer. And though it embarrassed him, and still does, he stuck with the story, laughed about it with his friends, just as she laughed about it for different reasons with hers.

The country club held a party for staff when they graduated from college. The members took up a collection. Sometimes there was more than a thousand dollars for each. The year Maurice graduated there were two in his class working at the club.

He invited his fiancé to join him at the party, the woman who would became his wife, mother of his children. He knew the woman who once tried to seduce him would be there.

Forty years later, Maurice remembered the scene that night as if it were last week. “You should have seen that face when she came by with her husband to shake my hand. That look would have killed a crow midair.”

Photo above of Count Bassie and friends by R.C. Hickman, one of the photographers featured at The History of Jim Crow.

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