by Hugh Findlay

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Lexington, KY, 1964-71

As a boy in the first grade at St. Peter’s school, I thought the black water fountain in the school yard was for boys and the white one was for girls until a second grader ran me off, shouting that it belonged to him and the other Black boys, and that he’d report me right quick if I didn’t stay off his daggone property. I henceforth obliged.

A couple years later at the downtown Woolworth’s, my mother refused to wait for a table or a stool at the counter, and so we waltzed right into the Black section and parked our immigrant butts down for service. Then the Kentucky purebred waitress whispered we’d need to move just as soon as we could, while all the other diners scowled and shook their heads, and sure enough, a White man saw our faux pas and gave us his table. I had root beer and a grilled cheese sandwich, while mother had iced tea and smoked Virginia Slims. She told the waitress she didn’t care where we sat, that her feet were hurting, and it was so much hotter here than in Toronto. The waitress just grinned and asked, You ain’t from around here, ain’t you honey?

When I was about 10, my parents let my older brother and I go to the kids’ matinee on Saturday afternoons. We always wanted to sit in the Strand theater’s balcony, up high with a big view of the screen and everyone below, which must’ve been a real sight, but the Colored Only sign stopped us dead. Still, the kids up there always seemed to have a grand time, chuckling and cackling all through the Three Stooges movie previews. But they knew to quiet down when the feature presentation began, or the usher would threaten to kick them out.

Then, at intermission, because the balcony was at the back of the theater and the stairs emptied into the lobby, they always got to the concession stand first. So, we took our time and went to the Whites Only bathroom, mingling there a bit until everybody finished their business. Then, unspoken, we ventured out more-or-less as a group into the lobby. It was just how it was done, and everyone understood the separate timing of it all. That way we all got equal time at the counter before the intermission was over. But sometimes they ran out of Raisinets, my favorite, which distressed me mightily. It was those times when I thought the system was flawed and could use some work. Though I also knew there wasn’t a darn thing I could do about it. That’s just the way it was. Anyway, I’d forget all about it once the movie restarted.

While I was riding the Liberty Heights city bus home from school one day, a Black lady with little white tufts of hair sprinkled into her scalp like snowflakes told the driver, Yes suh my transfer is still good, until he shoved it in her face and demanded that she read it. But she just sat there and looked at her feet and glanced out the window while he hollered for her to get off his damn bus. Then he asked her in frustration, Lady, do you even know how to read? I was stunned. What a silly question. Then, as her silence slowly revealed the awful answer, I felt pity. So, I got up, and because I could read at an eighth-grade level (which I was proud of), I asked her if she wanted me to read it to her. Well, I guess that embarrassed her real bad because she instantly turned on me, mad as a wet hen. NO! she said through clenched teeth, which caused a kind of snort to come out of her nose. That was it, the bus driver had had it, so he fetched her up by the arm and tossed her down the exit doorsteps.

All the grownups around me said it was the right thing to do, and they nodded their heads in agreement as we drove off. The Black riders in the back of the bus just tightened their jaws and sat real stiff waiting for their stops.

When I was 14, my father took me along on a church “charity call” for the St. Vincent de Paul Society to a needy family of poor folks. Earlier that day, I had bought new sneakers with my own lawn-mowing money and, when I was at the store, I decided to lace them up with double laces —half-lengths each—so I had not one, but two, fancy-looking bow ties on each shoe. The laces were purple. Fancy.

My father brought his A&P grocery store vouchers and we drove downtown to 3rd Street. When we parked, all the Black faces stared at us, but Pop just walked around like he “owned the place,” which was how you were supposed to do it, so that way you got respect and were somehow protected. I guess also because he was doing God’s work, and I was learning a by-God lesson—only then would I truly appreciate what my parents had given me in life.

So. we climbed these dark rickety apartment stairs up to a single room where we met a young Black woman half my mother’s age, with five kids all excited to see us but still standoffish and untrusting. My father sat down at a dimly lit table and talked in low tones with her, while all those kids, younger than me, stared with big eyes, not moving, just looking, and I was most uncomfortable, but I reckoned I was OK because my father was there.

Anyhow, I’m sitting there waiting for it all to be over, because I felt I’d had enough exposure to seeing how poor folks lived when I notice the oldest boy, almost my age, is not looking at me but instead is staring down at my shoes. I’d flat forgotten about them! I glanced down at those stupid laces and then back up at him, and he had this look on his face that didn’t need much translation. It went something like this:

Dang, white boy, them are some fine shoes! Who the heck are you to walk in here like that? I wish I could get me some fine shoes too, but I can’t. No, all I can do is want them real bad. And when you gone, I’ll keep on wanting them. Because wanting is all I got. Nobody takes that away. Not from here, white boy. Not this place. This place is mine.

end of story

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