For our light
and momentary troubles
are achieving for us
an eternal glory
that far outweighs them all.
— 2 CORINTHIANS 4:17
CHICAGO, SUMMER 1996
IDA MAE GLADNEY IS EIGHTY-THREE YEARS OLD when I first meet her. She is a churchgoing pensioner with time on her hands. She spends most of her days alone while everyone else is out working. She does word puzzles and crosswords, whole paperback books of them, to keep her mind sharp. She collects the funeral programs of the people she knew and loved in Mississippi and Chicago, who are, one by one, passing away, getting extras for other mourners the way young people collect business cards and email addresses. It is the currency of the old. In the meantime, she manages to keep up with the job pursuits and love lives of her grandchildren and great-grandchildren.
She has little interest in soap operas and doesn’t need to watch police dramas on television. She has one right outside her window. Hers is a bow-front window, curved like a movie screen. She can monitor the street day or night from her box seat, which is actually a baby blue, plastic-covered easy chair by the front window, on the second floor of her three-flat. Things are happening that she never saw growing up in Mississippi, and she isn’t always certain of exactly what it is she is looking at. She is watching the street from her window the afternoon I meet her.
A man is selling drugs out of a trash can. She can see, plain as day, where he puts them and how he gets them out of the trash for the white customers in their SUVs with suburban license plates. Another hides his stash in his mouth. And when customers come up, he pulls a piece of his inventory from his tongue to sell to them. The police are on to it, too. “The police put flashlights down their mouth,” she says. “Sometimes the police make them stoop over.”
A man is climbing out of an old Pontiac he sleeps in. He and the car have been outside her house for weeks. A teenage mother has just popped her son for something Ida Mae can’t make out because a car passes by just when the mother yells something at the boy. Usually it’s “M—f—” or “G—d—,” Ida Mae says, and it hurts her to see people do that to their children.
The other night, she says, she was setting out the trash and saw a woman on her knees in the alley doing something to a man who was up against the garage. “I was looking for her head, and I never did see it,” Ida Mae says. She didn’t know exactly what the woman was doing but she knew they shouldn’t have been doing it and knew better than to say anything and thought it best to go back inside. “I just can’t get it out of my mind,” she says.
When the police aren’t around, the people are out in the street like characters in a cable television drama and the drug dealers are up and down the block but mostly at the corner where there was once an ice cream parlor, back when she first moved here.
These are the lost grandchildren of the Migration who have grown hard in the big city and did not absorb the lessons of the past or the good to be found in the steadying rituals and folk wisdom of the South. Ida Mae and James and Eleanor can’t understand how they do the things they do, how they would rather trawl the streets than go to work every day and be able to hold their heads high.
Something about too many people packed together and nothing to guide them makes the children worse than they used to be, to her mind. At the moment, the city is in a crisis because two grade-schoolers, one of them only seven, have been accused of killing another child. Nobody knows for sure what happened and she certainly couldn’t say, but she knows one thing for sure: “They curse like sailors, they throw rocks, they do everything they big enough to do. They ain’t got no home training, and they mama can’t do nothing ’cause she on drugs. That seven-year-old, they say he was the ringleader. He know more than he telling. But they shouldn’t put them in the penitentiary. They too young. They not gone ever forget it.”
She keeps going. “I know kids ’cause I been one,” she says. “I used to tease this girl that her mama was dead. I think about that a lot sometimes. She held that against me the rest of her life. She used to cry when I said it. I didn’t know what it was to lose a mother. I had lost my father. I thought everyone should die. I was nine or ten years old. I was bad. Now they double worse. What go in the wash come out in the rain. Watch what I say, now. You got to start working on those little ones early. I ain’t got much education, but I sho’ know folks. I ain’t scared of these kids but I stay out of their way.”
The craziness has Ida Mae hemmed in on all sides. When she leaves to go to church, if she goes to buy groceries, if she takes a walk to get some exercise, the drug dealers and lookout boys greet her as she leaves and welcome her when she gets back. When she hears sirens or gunshots, she runs to the window to see what has happened now. She is an eyewitness to a war playing out on the streets below her. Staying on top of everything is how she makes peace with the craziness she cannot escape.
She would never dream of going outside at night by herself. But it is not because she is afraid of the gangbangers and the drug dealers. She speaks to them and prays for them, and in turn they look out for her. They call her “Grandma” and tell her not to come out on certain days.
“You better stay in the house,” they tell her. “Because we don’t know what time we gon’ start shootin’.”
On a July afternoon, she is telling her story about the ride up north and making her way in Chicago in those early days. We are in the middle of a conversation when something crashes outside the window. It rattles me, and I look toward the window to see what it might be. Ida Mae does not flinch. She has learned the difference between danger and mischief, between a gunshot and a rock through a window. Whatever it was, it’s as if it didn’t happen.
“Did you hear that?” I ask her. “Sounds like some glass broke.”
“Honey, they does that. They throw bottles at each other.”
“You didn’t even look up.”
“I hear too much of it,” she says. “I’d be lookin’ all day.” She lets out a big laugh.
Every day, there is something or other. On an otherwise quiet afternoon, we look out the window and see two police officers leading a black man in a white windbreaker and baseball cap, hands cuffed, down the sidewalk in front of the apartment building next door.
“That’s the janitor,” she tells me. “He works there. Wonder what did he do?”
He lopes along, head up, scanning the street like a politician on a tour of his district. He looks both ways before stepping off the curb to cross the street to the patrol car. He nods his respects to the teenage girls walking past.
Ida Mae doesn’t know what he has done, but figures she’ll find out in due course.
“People talk,” she says. “You don’t have to ask.”
She has an idea of what it was. There was a raid in the building a few weeks before. The police took seventeen or eighteen people out in handcuffs.
“Did it at night,” she says. “They carried them all out tied together. I got tired of counting. You know that still ain’t stop them? They still up in there. I don’t know what’ll stop ’em. I guess the Lord knows.”
She watches and makes note of what’s going on around her. Every month, there’s a neighborhood crime watch meeting, and she is sure to attend. Trouble is, she believes some of the police are not much better than the criminals. “The detectives are the ones doing the dirt,” she says. Somehow, some of the dealers are onto the police or get forewarning of their arrival. “They have a phone,” she says. “They know when the police coming.”
Still, she manages to stay out of everybody’s way. She may be stuck in her own home, but she has too much faith or stubbornness to let fear take over.
“I ain’t gone live nowhere scared,” she says. “I ain’t calling the police. Long as they don’t bother me. If I know what’s going on, they do, too.”
And she refuses to put bars on the windows. “My husband say, he never be behind no bars,” she says. “And neither am I.”
IT REQUIRES descending down a narrow set of stairs into an airless vestibule in the basement of a three-story brownstone to get to where the owner lives. He has taken the dankest, darkest space for himself and given over the rest of the building, the rooms with light and space, to whatever tenants he has.
George Starling never cared about creature comforts and finery but about getting a square deal, which he on occasion achieved, and the right to exercise the free will he was not permitted in the South. His life is scattered in boxes all over his room, file folders stuffed with pictures of him and Inez as teenagers in Florida, mimeographed copies of his lawyerly letters to the railroad or union leaders about this or that provision or instance of inequity, and the funeral programs of loved ones who have passed away.
He is seventy-eight now, a grandfather and great-grandfather, a deacon in the church. He sits upright and stoic. He enunciates each syllable in this early conversation and speaks in the deliberate and formal manner of the professor he once wanted to be. But the longer he talks, the more comfortable he gets and the more he sounds like the southerner he is inside.
He feels it his responsibility to share what he knows and takes it upon himself to explain whatever he says in the greatest detail. He talks for forty-five patient and exacting minutes about what it takes to pick string beans and describes the difference between the walking buds, the junior buds, the uncle buds, and seedling trees he used to pick back in Florida.
A car pulls up. It’s his pastor, Reverend Henry Harrison, dropping by to see Deacon Starling. The pastor, hearing the topic of the South and the Migration, begins telling the story of how his father escaped from a labor camp in South Carolina by swimming through a swamp, and, eventually, in 1930, finding his way to New York.
Both men start to lament the changes all around them, the sadder effects of the big city of the North on the people of the South. George waxes on about the days when “people would come down to 135th Street with their house chairs, and they would baptize people in the Harlem River.
“We used to have a boat ride off 125th Street in the Dyckman section,” he says.
“Spread the blankets out. Midsummer, people didn’t have air-conditioning. People would stay up there all night and play card games.
“Things were so much different,” he says. “Drugs wasn’t heard of where I came from. When I came to New York, I didn’t know what a reefer was.”
“We got to being Americanized,” Reverend Harrison is saying. “It got to where we don’t help each other.”
George has children and grandchildren and even a great-grandchild now, but there is an aloneness to the character of his life. He seems content in the solitude of his room with its dust-covered floor, barely made bed, and no sign of a woman’s touch. He seems on a mission to sort through the paperwork of his life, find some meaning in all the railroad pamphlets and official letters he wrote on behalf of workers’ rights that were politely dismissed or not acted upon.
His face turns ashen and he looks away when the subject turns to his children and grandchildren. His son by Inez had squandered the very opportunities George had left the South for, and he had limited contact with the now-grown son he had outside his marriage.
Then there was the daughter, Sonya. She was sweet but unsettled, too, back and forth between Florida and New York. George had been having heart trouble and had just come out of triple bypass surgery when he got word that Sonya had died in a car accident down in Eustis.
He flew down to Florida for the funeral. The people who had stayed in the South gathered around to console him.
“We would be in a room with a crowd of people,” his niece Pat said, “and he would get up and leave the room. He’d come back and just carry on the conversation. You knew he had been crying.”
He buried his daughter next to his wife.
LOS ANGELES, SPRING 1996
THIS IS THE 1970s set piece known as Dr. Robert Foster’s living room. It is a room that is little changed, you learn, from the time when his wife, Alice, was alive. You are encased in cream and raspberry upholstery, sea foam carpet, and harvest gold draperies cascading down from ten-foot ceilings, more space than one person could possibly need and, by that measure alone, the very picture of success in California.
The host has momentarily disappeared down a hall and into the avocado green and harvest gold kitchen. He emerges, taking care with his steps, with a tray of lemon pound cake with vanilla ice cream, which you would really prefer not to take, since you have only just eaten; but it is clear from the formality with which he presents it and then watches as you pick up the fork that there is no choice but to accept this gesture of hospitality.
In a bookcase, there are volumes of Tolstoy, Freud, Goethe, and Herodotus. On his face is a smile of satisfaction at the interest being taken in a life he loves to talk about.
You learn the basics of what he wishes you to know about his growing up in Monroe, marrying the daughter of a university president, leaving the South for California, about the three daughters and now the grandchildren, the gambling and the current state of his health and how he views the world as a southern émigré in California. Those things will be fleshed out in due time over the course of several months.
You learn that right now he has heart problems, has already had bypass surgery. “The chest pain is growing more frequent,” he says. “But I’m not going to have another operation. If anything happened to me tomorrow, I wouldn’t have any regrets. I have lived. I’ve done it all. The world don’t owe me nothin’.”
He is retired from the practice of medicine and spends most of his time at the blackjack tables or on the phone dispensing free medical advice to former patients and old friends or ordering around a gardener who indulges his every whim as to precisely where the begonias should be. Years before, Robert woke up the morning of his oldest daughter’s wedding, and, instead of taking his time dressing in his tuxedo, he got out and had the front yard dug up to plant flowers to match Bunny’s wedding bouquet.
Now, on this late spring afternoon, he was fretting over the backyard. “Now turn it a little more,” he was telling the gardener one day about a particular pot of geraniums. “Not to the left! To the right! To the right!”
He has come all this way and is living in a 3,600-square-foot monument to his success in California. But the most enduring accomplishments you cannot see: the cooks and teachers and postal workers all over southern California who would do just about anything for him because he had saved their lives or brought them into the world or repaired some broken piece of themselves. And the three daughters whom he spared from having to go to segregated schools in the South and who grew up free with their cotillions in California.
The daughters lead upper-middle-class lives, had married well if not long, and have children who can only be said to be brilliant. Bunny is now working as an artists’ agent in Chicago. Robin is a city manager who is living outside Washington with her second husband and her son, who is being courted by the Ivies. The youngest daughter, Joy, is a physician—a radiologist—married to a day trader, and has two precocious young children in Long Beach, about thirty miles south of Robert.
Alice never got to see the fruits of her labor, and, at weddings and holidays, it falls to Robert to be mother and father, neither of which he is naturally suited for. But he rises to the occasion when called upon to do so. When Joy brought home a young man she appeared to be serious about, Robert stepped forward as a father protecting his youngest.
He asked the young man, Lee Ballard, to go out for a drive to the dry cleaners with him. He made it sound like a request, which, of course, it was not. Lee climbed into Robert’s white Cadillac, and Robert began driving, erratic as usual. Then Robert began his inquiries.
“How do you like California?” he asked Lee once they were on their way. “And how do you plan to take care of my daughter?”
The drive lasted two hours. The beau survived the drive and ended up marrying Robert’s youngest daughter. The marriage would last longer than those of the other girls.
The telephone rings. It’s the third or fourth time in the space of a couple of hours. The phone usually starts ringing around three or four o’clock, after people get home from seeing their new doctors. Robert excuses himself to take the call in the kitchen. It’s another friend and former patient calling about an ailment and how best to treat it and to check to see if his new doctor is prescribing the right medication. Robert indulges the man, addresses his worries, gives him advice.
“Demerol is the name of it,” Robert is telling the person on the other end of the line. “Now, put something in your stomach.”
The person has more questions for Robert about what he’s been prescribed.
“Percodan? Any of those things nauseate the heck out of you,” Robert tells him. “Take as little medicine as you can—”
The person interrupts, and Robert listens.
“Take your aspirin,” Robert tells him.
The person cuts in again, still expressing concern. Robert reassures him.
“Sounds like you going to be alright, Phil. God bless you.”
EUSTIS, FLORIDA, JULY 1996
GEORGE SWANSON STARLING
SOME FIFTY-ONE YEARS have passed since the standoff in the central Florida citrus groves that almost got George Starling killed. He has lived out his life in New York. The grove owners he stood up to are long dead, as is the high sheriff, old Willis McCall, who lorded over Lake County with a Smith and Wesson and a ten-gallon hat.
George has felt it safe to come back to visit and is now sitting at a diner out by Ocala with his old friend Reuben Blye, who was one of George’s picking foremen back in the forties. They both had lived up north. Reuben, at age eighty-nine, is now living back in Florida with his sixth wife, having survived the treachery of the South and the temptations of the North and is at this moment reliving those days with George, who is back in town for a high school reunion.
“Do you know a Florida man got more sense than a born New Yorker, George?” Reuben asks, not really looking for George to answer. “You know that?”
“I had never given it a thought that way.”
“One that’s been around like us, George. We know our way around better than some of them up there.”
“Well, you had to have a lot of sense to learn how to survive down here during those times to stay out of trouble, you know.”
“George, you done run that railroad so long up and down from coast to coast on the train,” Reuben says. “And look how we travel. Look at Rube, done travel, done made thirty-seven states. I already had it in my head. You don’t get me every day.”
As torn as George was about his time in Florida, he had never truly left it in his mind. Ever since his father had died, he had kept a little piece of property in Eustis, vacant land with live oaks and scrub brush near the house where his father had run the little convenience store. He never knew exactly what he would do with it and had no plans to live there ever again. He just liked the idea of having control over something in a place that had controlled his every step for so long.
“When I left, I swore that I would never come back under no circumstances anymore,” he said. “When I left, I was just that bitter. I didn’t intend to come back at all.”
Ten years passed before he felt it safe to return. The deaths and illnesses lured him back and he began to see how the South seemed to be changing, in small ways and big ways, right before his eyes. “I never thought I would live to see the day,” he said of some of the strides being made. “If anybody told me that there would be a black mayor in Birmingham, I would have told them they were crazy. Now they have black mayors all over the place down south. How many black mayors we got up north?”
He had once seen a black man and a white woman walking down the street in downtown Tavares, the county seat and the domain of old Willis McCall. George was having a hard time getting used to seeing what could have gotten him killed in his day.
“I never thought I’d see the day when a black man would walk down the street holding hands with a white woman,” he said. “It amazes me when I see the intermingling. When I was a boy down here, when you went through the white neighborhood you had to be practically running. Now black people are living in there. They all mixed up with the whites right there in Eustis.”
We are riding through Eustis and out to the orange groves near Sanford and the train station in Wildwood where the relatives would come to greet George when his train passed through. He and Reuben are returning to the places where they picked oranges and okra, the places they could and couldn’t go and where the black people lived. Reuben does most of the directing because he has been living back in Florida for several years now. George sits up and starts pointing when he sees something he recognizes.
“They used to baptize us down here,” George says as we wind past Lake Eustis. “To the left are the water oak trees.”
We drive farther out. The land is wild scrub brush broken by stands of domed trees, the citrus that ruled their lives growing up.
“Over to the right, over here was woods,” George says, “just like you see to the right, but they cleared that up.”
“Here go the seedling groves,” Reuben says.
“Is that Lake Ale there?”
“That Lake Ale. Those seedling groves right in here had all them pecan trees.”
“Was this the Natural?” George asks of the legendary grove that has withstood the worst winters and hardest of freezes.
“The Natural’s out there by Emaraldi Island.”
“I told you Reuben would know where everything is,” George says, turning in my direction.
“If you dropped an orange in the Natural Grove, five minutes and it would just be hittin’ the ground. You could get up in one of those trees and look all over this south Florida.”
“This is Ole Jones’ place.”
“I picked in that grove where I had a thirty-six-foot ladder spliced with a twenty-six-foot ladder, and it just reached the bottom limb.”
“That’s right. All us here, Charlie, Mud, me, we used to hunt coons and possum ’long here.”
We drive further and further out.
“This here is Ole Cannon Grove.”
“This is not the way it looked before the last big freeze,” George says. “This is new. They reset, they put new trees there.”
“All this here was froze out.”
“Nineteen eighty-nine, it snowed in Florida. Had two and three inches of snow.”
“Have you ever seen a forest that would burn out with a fire?” George asks me. “Well, that’s just the way those trees look. Them trees looked just like somebody went through there with a flamethrower.”
George comes back to Eustis every two years for the biennial reunion of Curtwright Colored High School. He always comes down on the train he once worked. It’s owned by Amtrak now and, as a pensioner with thirty-five years of service, he gets to ride for free. He can finally sit like the passengers he served and look out the window to see what they saw, reliving with each trip the migration he made all those years ago.
When George returns to Eustis, he is looked upon with a distant kind of respect. He was one of them once, but he chose a different path, knows things they couldn’t know, survived in a place where they’re not sure they could make it. He’s been gone so long that whatever he knows about Eustis is either frozen in the 1940s or distorted through the secondhand recounting in long-distance phone calls and letters and rumor. He’s fuzzy on some of the names of the people who live there now.
Whole generations have been born since he left, and he searches out his connections to them, the ways he might know them—through a grandparent, great-aunt, or second cousin of theirs whom he grew up with but who may not be around anymore. He stays with Viola, the widow of his deceased stepbrother, and spends much of his time visiting with the few people who were around when he was here, reliving those days, and catching up on the things he has missed. When people hear that he’s in town, they head over to Viola’s bungalow and remove their hats before they walk in to see a prodigal son of Eustis.
It is Sunday on the July weekend of the high school reunion, and George puts on his burgundy polyester suit, burgundy tie, burgundy socks, and white straw hat to worship at the church he grew up in as a boy and where the doomed Harry T. Moore recruited him in the early drive for equal rights. Seventy parishioners take their places in the dark wood pews affixed to orange carpet.
Pastor William Hawkins beseeches the congregation to take up a special plate for the black churches that have recently been burned throughout the South. It is as if it is 1963 again.
“We ought to do something to assist them,” he says. “And this is one of the reasons we better secure our own church.”
People pull out money to give to the other churches and pray that they won’t be next. The choir motions for George to come forward and sing the solo for the collection.
“What you give, what more He gives to you,” he sings.
Then the pastor turns to George. “We are always glad to see our member from New York,” Reverend Hawkins says, motioning to George to come to the pulpit to speak.
George stands before the congregation of mostly new faces, the descendants of those he knew, and looks around at a church that was as much a part of him as the South itself.
“Needless to say, I am grateful to be in your midst,” he says. “I look over and see my father and my mother and my daughter. And it always makes me a little full. So if I become emotional, I hope you will understand.”
He then sings a hymn, “Without God I could do nothing … without him, I would fail.…”
The congregation claps after he finishes, and he takes his glasses off and wipes the tears with his handkerchief before walking back to his seat at the side of the church. He takes his place and sits upright in a pew next to the pulpit with a silver cane beside him and tears escaping from his eyes.
LOS ANGELES, NOVEMBER 23, 1996
ROBERT JOSEPH PERSHING FOSTER
THE REGULARLY SCHEDULED BIMONTHLY MEETING of the Monroe, Louisiana, Club of Los Angeles, California, is not so much called to order as roused to life when ten of the sixteen surviving and currently active members trickle into the bungalow of Leo and Era Davis on Ninety-third Street east of Crenshaw. They gather in the Davises’ den with the circular metal staircase and prepare to catch up with one another and with news from back home in Monroe.
It is surely one of the smallest Louisiana clubs in the city, not to mention its being overshadowed by all the Texas Clubs around town. “We’re a dying breed,” says Limuary Jordan, a club member who left Louisiana in his DeSoto more than half a century before. “It’s a fact. Everybody in the club is over sixty. And without any new Monroe people … there are Monroe people here, but they don’t affiliate with us. They don’t belong to no club. So we are of a particular time.”
“A lot of them don’t have anything to do with the South,” his wife, Adeline, says. “A lot of them, when they left, they were gone.”
The few members who are still active approach the club with a sense of formality and ritual. Robert Foster had to secure approval beforehand to invite a guest, who brings the attendance at today’s meeting to eleven. As the graying expatriates from Monroe begin to take their seats, I explain my presence as his guest and tell them about my work on the Great Migration. They listen without emotion or much in the way of comment, not seeing exactly what the Migration has to do with them, even though they had all been right in the middle of it. At the appointed hour, John Collins, whom they just call Collins, stands up like a proper reverend and prays stiffly in his black suit and gray vest and fedora.
“Lord, we thank you for this food we are about to receive, and we thank you for another day,” he begins. “We pray for the lady visitor and the book she’s trying to put together. Give her knowledge and wisdom and watch over her. In Jesus’ name. Amen.”
Spread out before the assembled are oxtails, collard greens, corn bread, sweet potatoes, potato salad, red beans and rice, and pound cake on an orange tablecloth in the wood-paneled dining room.
It is a time of unaccustomed quiet in the city after so much upheaval. The Rodney King beating, police acquittals, and ensuing riots were only a few years back, the business districts of South Central still in recovery. The people have been divided and whipsawed by the O. J. Simpson trial, the saga of a once-loved black football player acquitted of killing his white wife and her friend, the people by now just wishing the whole thing would go away but unable to escape it, billboards and headlines in every direction.
That very day, Robert passed a newspaper box with a poster about the O.J. trial. “I’m so sick of O.J.,” he said, “I don’t know what to do. They have choked us with this.”
No one in the Monroe Club wants to talk about it. Instead, as if on cue, the never-ending loop of how people are faring back home and in Los Angeles and what they have been through in both places picks up where it left off from the last meeting as if it were fresh and new and has never come up before.
“If you look at it,” Howard Beckwith begins, “we in the same instance as in the South. They throwing them in jail just like the South. The jails filled with colored people. The South has made a desperate change. Things you couldn’t do in the South, you can do now. You can walk down the street with a white woman. The mayor is black.”
“Who’s that?” someone asks.
“You know Dr. Pierce what run the drugstore,” Beckwith says. “One of his sons.”
“No, it’s not,” someone breaks in, one-upping Beckwith and trying to prove who has the better connections to a place they still feel tied to even if nobody else cares about the distinctions. “It’s one of Dr. Pierce’s cousin’s sons. The cousin of Dr. Pierce, one of his sons.”
“That’s Eliza Davis’s son,” a woman whispers to me by way of explanation. “She was my classmate,” she wants me to know.
Somehow the line of conversation reminds Collins about being black in the South and the talk turns to a kind of testifying rather than an interaction, each member reciting an experience independent from the others and at times seemingly unrelated. Here it is, fifty years after most of them left, and they can’t stop talking about the South. They are exiles with ties to two worlds, still obsessed with the Old Country, and have never let it go.
Collins tells them about the time a white man slapped a ladle of water out of his hand as he was taking a drink. A woman describes being home from college and a policeman coming up and asking why she wasn’t picking cotton or in the kitchen. Someone else mentions the movable sign on the trolley car and how “you had to sit and look at that sign that said ‘Colored.’ ” Everyone nods in recognition.
Marshall brings up the segregated lines and the swiveling ticket agent at the Paramount Theater again. “The woman in the ticket counter swiveled to the white side to sell tickets and then swiveled to the colored,” he says. “We walked up all those flights of stairs.”
“That’s all over the South,” Beckwith says. “You didn’t know nothing different.”
Robert breaks in, momentarily distracted by the meal. “Era, what did you do with the oxtail? It’s out of sight.”
“Cake and ice cream? Cake and ice cream?” Mrs. Davis asks with a sugar voice, cake held up high.
Marshall then remembers an incident at Woolworth’s, a seemingly small thing that let him know he was not meant to stay in the South.
“A white girl waited on me and gave me a token for my change,” Marshall begins. “I went to tell on the woman, that she had taken my money and given me a token back that was worthless. All I got was the satisfaction of telling the man and of telling my mother when I got home.”
He recounted what his mother told him: “You’re going to have to leave this place, you keep that up.”
Which is why Marshall ended up in California.
Then Robert joins in. “I had taken my bath in the tin tub,” he begins. “I was clean.”
“Was that the Saturday-night bath?” Beckwith’s wife, Isabel, asks.
Everyone laughs in recognition. Like most black people in the South, none of them had had indoor plumbing back then, and Saturday was the one night in the week when they could manage the time-consuming ritual of boiling water from the well and filling a tin tub so everyone in a given family could take a bath.
They knew just what Robert meant. They let him finish his story.
“A white man called me over,” Robert goes on. “ ‘Hey, boy, I’ll pay you if you can tell me where I can find a clean colored girl.’ ”
He pauses for effect.
“I told him, ‘I’ll get you one if you get me your mother.’ ”
“Foster, did you really say that?”
“So help me God.”
“You lucky to be alive.”