That summer, whatever summer in the fifties it was, I had just learned how to read enough to see that those black plastic signs with reverse etched white lettering over the water fountains at the supermarket said "White Only" and "Colored Only." Of course, the headlines in the afternoon Houston newspapers were all about items I'd seen on television the day before.###
I didn't understand why they had taken the rotating seats off the uprights at the lunch counters and when I asked my mother about it, people laughed and smirked, so she reacted enough to make her freckles turn colors and nearly jerked my arm out of its shoulder socket, tripping across those highly polished floor tiles as fast as her short little legs would go.
When asked again, she jerked even harder, glaring at some drugstore cowboy that was winking at her, and said "Ask that old boy there. I'm sure the lazy-headed outfit has time to explain it all to you."
It was one of my first glimpses at the face of hatred. The old boy's face just froze under his ducktail haircut and I checked out the Woody Woodpecker tattoo on his forearm when he whipped out a comb and gave the heavily greased locks a going over.
To a pot-bellied carbon copy of a Leprechaun, a tanned elementary school-aged shaver with a burr haircut and tough little bare feet, they weren't so much hateful times as they were just curious ones.
Then came my big trip to an aunt's house--who lived in Dallas. My mother sent me there with my father, the traveling salesman. He dropped me off on one of his endless "business trips" because she was having an operation.
"Female trouble," I heard her tell one of her friends over a tall glass of rattling iced tea one afternoon while I stood at her side busily prodding her hip with a forefinger and waiting to ask some prattling little question.
"Oh, don't worry about it, boy!" She nearly screamed it, slammed the glass down on a napkin and shook me by the shoulders. Her friend suddenly gripped her in a hug, leaning over the kitchen table and nearly pulling Mama into her lap. They both began to weep. I became very interested in pretending I was Tarzan climbing a scrawny mimosa tree in the back yard, plucking its frowzy peacock feather blossoms and blowing them into the space under the tree limbs from which I was swinging, listening to the locusts drone on and chatter, dreaming of saving the animals from doom at the hands of poachers, forest fires and diamond miners.
At any rate, this aunt, Kathleen, her name was, an elementary school teacher that had drilled me long and hard in the arts of seeing Spot run and chase the ball and wag his tail and fetch the stick and Horton hatch the egg and The Cat In The Hat and the Green Eggs and Ham, and I don't know what all, was a rather - oh, precious - individual with no kids of her own that delighted in taking the city bus downtown to window shop and pick up little things. She was not a shopping center habitue because driving unnerved her timid soul. She loved lemonade and chocolate covered peanuts from the dime store, spent time looking at movie posters as if she was attending a gallery of famous paintings in a prestigious museum, and greeted sales girls with cooing smiles, saying "Ooh, honey, it's cool in here!" when we wandered in off the blazing sidewalks.
That particular afternoon, a thunderstorm suddenly boiled up, forming over the prairie and bearing down on downtown Dallas at the speed of a an approaching locomotive under black clouds pushing sudden cold gusts of air out of green underlinings darting bolts of lightning and cracks of thunder.
We sought refuge in the lobby of Neiman-Marcus where they had an actual fountain of perfume circulating under hot lights. Yes, a perfume fountain about the size of a bird bath with a little electric pump that kept streams of the stuff cascading from one little pool to another. Of course, I have no idea what scent it was, but let me tell you, it really stunk in that quantity and under those conditions.
Kathleen, of course, dipped her fingers in the damned stuff and dabbed it on my neck and temples against all my great protests and absolute outrage. I learned about the realities of conspicuous consumption, gaudy new money consumerism, and the excesses of the symbols of status in real time during that rainy interlude before the storm to come. It was as clear as the bolts raining down from the angry sky outside.
People waiting for the side slanting rain and terrifying thunder and lightning strikes to subside laughed amid the flickering light and miserable conditions. It must have been funny seeing a four-foot tall leprechaun in Buster Brown shoes and little khaki shorts topped by a white starched shirt and a clip-on bow tie dance around trying to scrub off the exotic scents of Paris with tiny fists and tears of rage. It probably did a lot to keep her mind off her terror of the lightning and thunder. She was that kind of dame. She must have loved kids.
When we got on the bus, the sudden sunlight and return of one hundred degree conditions in extreme humidity made vapor actually rise out of the ground and off the pavements. We caught an un-air conditioned, flatulent, hissing bus suddenly engorged with people that had been waiting out the storm and away we went, bound for her neighborhood along an old shopping street in what was then North Dallas and is now a gentrified part of the inner city where most of the streets start with "M" - hence called the M streets.
Somewhere along the line, a black man got on the bus, first paying his fare up front, then boarding by the back door that spewed compressed air from its pneumatic fittings before flopping open like some disembodied prosthesis from hell. But there was a problem. There was, of course, standing room only and very uncomfortable standing room, at that. People were pressed together way more closely than is usual in polite company, close enough that you could discern individual odors, the aroma of damp woolen blends and wilted cotton shirts and blouses, wet shoe leather and purses, soaked shopping bags.
The black man, an individual dressed in some kind of industrial work uniform, something like the one the man with the ducktail haircut and the Woody Woodpecker tattoo had worn, smelled like hot automotive grease and dust, the sweaty residue of a working day. His complexion was so black it was almost a gleaming blue in certain reflections and there was a large, slick, shiny scar, the kind knife and razor fighting leave, across the side of his face. It showed under the bill of a working man's cap with an advertisement on its crown.
A white man dressed in a suit and one of those plastic raincoats that smelled like whiskey began to berate him from under the brim of his wet, gray felt fedora. His face was whiskey reddened and angry sobs of breath escaped from his mouth as he lunged past the rest of us standing the aisle between the seats. He pushed the black man back with his belly and chest, exposing his vitals and genitals to any attack, daring the man to try something.
"Get in the back of that God damn bus, nigger. You ain't gonna pull that En Double Aye See Pee stuff around here. I said get on back there, boy!" He had the bull goose parade ground voice of a truly hateful fool.
A woman seated next to them protested, saying "He caint move, mister. Bus is all packed up tight. Wait till some of these people get off the bus and he'll move, all right."
"I said you ain't gonna pull any of that NAACP stuff on this here bus, and I mean it, boy!"
"Mister, look at him, that boy don't like this no more than the rest of us," the woman persisted.
The driver threw on the air brakes with a loud hiss and the dust was just catching up with the back of the bus when he boarded from the rear door, pointing his finger at first the white man, then black man.
"Look here, you two, I don't care what's going on back here, but you two old boys are gonna have to catch the next bus. This'un's way too full for all this hell raisin' to be goin' on. Now git!"
The white man bowed up and blocked the black man's way. Now, he'd decided not to let him off the bus, after all. The drunken expression of resolve on his stupid face was a study in the stuff of sublime ridicule of any minor authority. It was the fat drunk in the wet gray fedora against the President, the Supreme Court, in short, the world.
People started to laugh. I guess you would have had to have been there, but it was a funny moment in this horribly disturbing sequence of incidents, a sequence of events in which anything, indeed, could have happened.
Half a century later, I look back with true gratitude for the sudden reaction of the person, whoever it was, that chose to laugh at just exactly that moment. I sometimes wish I could know if that person was as drunk as the man in the wet fedora. The bus driver grabbed the flabby white man's collar and the sleeve of his plastic raincoat and jerked him down the aisle and the rear steps. The man looked very surprised.
"How's that for some of that En Double Aye See Pee stuff, huh, fella?" The bus driver was a little bit winded as he humped back up the back steps. After all, he was a bus driver, though a very courageous one, and it was kind of a long speech to make while he jerked this fool off his bus.
"You," he pointed to the now terrified black man. "Come on out of there. Catch the next bus." He handed him a transfer slip. "They will let you ride with this." He punched it with his hole puncher.
He followed the black man out of the door and pointed at them both with his shiny instrument. It gleamed in his right hand as if it were some tribal totem. "Y'all work it out between the two of you. I ain't got time for it. I'm way behind as it is."
Just at that moment, the bus behind him pulled up at the curb and he pointed to the two, throwing up his hands and gesturing at the other driver in that universal signal, man to man, that means "I give up." He jogged back to the front door of the bus, ducked under the rail that separated the passengers from his domain at the controls, and shouted "Sorry 'bout that, folks."
The bus jerked back into motion and people started to applaud. I saw his face turn red in the rear-view mirror he used to see what people were doing in the passenger compartment behind him.
As a native Texan, something tells me that the drunken white man probably received much gentler treatment from the bus driver than he would have from the Dallas Police Department.
My last glimpse out the window showed me that he was still standing, befuddled, as the other bus pulled away behind us without him and the black man was trotting down a side street, putting distance between himself and the little nightmare that had taken place in those few minutes of hot summer afternoon after the storm while the rain drops were still dripping off the leaves of the old oak trees that grow on the streets in that neighborhood.