When I was 2, maybe 3 years old, I refused to talk - perhaps since birth. Then, one day, my mom was at the kitchen sink with the water running. I was thirsty so I stood at her side, pointed at the water faucet and grunted. I remember some reference to my need to learn to speak, and my mom declaring, ‘you won’t get water until you ask for it’. I grunted some more, pointed more but, eventually asked for water.
I have always lived in my head - and still do - but I don’t remember ‘not speaking’ since.
Around that same time, my dad came home from somewhere. I’m guessing Pearl Harbor, but I was born in 1946. The war had ended in 1945 and I'm not sure of dates, places or reasons. I didn’t know him, though – he was a stranger to me. Me to him, too, I suppose. I say this because I have a vague memory of him sitting in an arm chair on the other side of the room from me, not saying a word and of me feeling uncomfortable about him being there. He brought me a present of a metal P-I-E truck, however, which was the coolest thing!
We had a dog, a dachshund, named ‘Heinz’ – his name was related to WWII. He was a puppy but my only memory of him is nibbling my toes, which tickled and hurt at the same time.
I think we lived in an apartment - for sure in St. Louis, I think on Page Ave, just west of Goodfellow, on the south side of the street.
Another trait - I've always had directions in my head, NSEW. I can't explain it yet even when they are wrong, they persist, in my head.
I think we moved from one apartment to the Page address. I know there was a cherry tree in the backyard, growing next to an ash pit. My mom picked the cherries and made cherry pie – it was SO sour! Awful! But I loved the ash pit. I wanted to play in it but it was forbidden territory. Even years later, ash pits, or discarded things in alleys, fascinated me.
My mom used to walk me down with her to Jasper’s Market, on the north side of Page. One day she told me Jasper was dead, murdered in a robbery in his store. I don’t remember Jasper. I vaguely remember his store, a faint memory of the store front. I didn’t attach a lot of meaning to him being murdered. I knew it was bad, though, and sad because my mom was shaken.
By ’49 or ’50 we moved to Virginia Beach, VA. The Korean War was on and my dad was recalled into the Navy, an aviation supply officer. I had my first lessons in a lot of things there. Race – the black man who stepped out into the street to let my mom and me pass, us walking home from my pre-school. I remember wanting to know why that man was doing that and my mom jerking me by my arm and telling me to hush and get on down the street. That confused the hell out of me.
And trash trucks – OMG – the kind with the back which crushed all the trash. I loved them! That was my first ambition – to be a trash collector and work on one of those trash trucks.
I learned that Catholics were some kind of evil. We had neighbor friends, they had kids our own age (my older sister, Stephanie was almost two years older than me) until they found out we were Catholic. That was that. Their kids weren’t allowed to play with us anymore. I don’t remember being bothered by that, but my parents were.
Funny, years later, I met my soon to be wife, born and raised on the family farm in deep rural Alabama. Deep? Yea, near Bon Secour … a river, a post office, Swift school, a small wooden church in the woods, near a couple of bayous, the intercoastal canal, Mobile Bay, the Gulf. Not far, as the crow flies, from Gulf Shores.
Her oldest brother told me he’d only ever met a few Catholics – had always heard they were no good, but the ones on the softball team were OK. They drank, strike one. And were Catholic, strike two. But otherwise were OK folks. Funny, he was comfortable telling me that. They all knew I was a Catholic. And that I drank. Her next older brother warned her to not get involved with Northern men. Of which I was, obviously, one. Northerners were no good. Strike three. But from day one, they treated me like family. I never once did NOT feel at home among them.
The first time I met her dad, I was sitting at the kitchen table. He was out working – doing whatever farmers do when they’re ‘’out working’’ - and he came in for lunch. Just him sitting across the table from me. He was a man of few words, but the warmest smile. I said nothing – speak when spoken to. Finally, thank god, he broke the silence with a question I will never forget. ‘’What do ya’ll up there call us folk down here?’’ I damn near choked. Several derogatory expressions flashed through my mind. I stammered, stuttered, and finally said, ‘’Oh, you mean like Southerners? That sort of thing?’’ And he laughed, then said, ‘’well, we all down here call you folks yankees …. Some folks here even put another word or two in front of that.’’ I felt so good that he felt comfortable enough to tell me that, I said, ‘’Oh, yes, well, some folks up north call you crackers, or red-necks … ‘’ and we both had a good laugh - that broke the ice without breaking the trust.
But I’ve gotten way ahead of myself. Back to St. Louis, back to childhood.
As a kid, I knew two grocers who were murdered. Jasper, whom I mentioned earlier and Ira Bickel. After Virginia Beach, maybe when I was six or so, we moved back to St. Louis, into an apartment on Delmar. About a block west of us on Delmar was Bickel’s Market. I vaguely remember him, remember his store better. Ira was an older man, white haired. At some point, he moved his market a mile or two east of us, on Grand Avenue. He was shot and killed there. Another robbery and murder. I was old enough for that to register with me. A senseless, ignorant act. It’s not that I knew Mr. Bickel, but he was alright. Just a grocer. Why kill him? After that we always shopped at Maul’s. I liked Maul’s. It was about one more block west. Next door to it was a Woolworth’s 5 and dime. It had a soda fountain – you could get a cherry or chocolate coke for a nickel. We didn’t often have a nickel but when we did … WOW! And, between Bickel's and Maul's was shoe repair shop. It was a fascinating place. It smelled SO good and the shoe repairman was so friendly. He let me sit in his shop as long as I wanted, watch, ask questions. Among other shops that direction was a hat maker (I never went in there), a florist (bought my first corsage or a date there), a record shop, ice skating rink, The Toddle House (a diner in which your order was put on a model RR and the train brought it to your seat - a fabulous treat for a kid)!
The things you learn growing up!
We lived in the middle of the block on Delmar, 5530 to be exact, on the south side of the street. Directly across the street was the original St. Luke's Hospital and nursing school. Being on the south side of the street was then and still is significant. But that’s a story for another day. A story of racism - a kind-of legal apartheid right there in St. Louis.
On either corner was a drug store. Sonny Liston’s manager owned the one west of us, on Delmar and Clara. I didn’t go there often. There was a huge gun battle there one time. I don’t remember the details. By that time, the neighborhood had gotten to be a pretty scary place. But that isn’t why I didn’t go there. On the other corner, Delmar and Belt, was another drug store. Smaller, dingier, but they had a small freezer box right inside the door full of fudge cycles, dip cones in paper tubes, ice cream sandwiches and the like. And two doors north, up Belt, was the neighborhood barber shop where I got my hair cut. I loved that place. The stripped pole, the whirr of the electric clippers, warm towel and shaving cream. I never got a shave but the barber knew I liked the towel and shaving cream treatment. Between the drug store and barber shop was the cleaners. My mom used to send me there to drop off and pick up stuff.
We lived there a long time, on Delmar – until I was 19 or 20, in college. It’s essentially where I grew up. It’s what I think of as home. And I could tell you stories. Oh, my … could I tell you stories.
About a block east of us, on the south side of the street – it was all apartment buildings on the south side – that’s where Cedric and Maxine Johnson lived. What made that special was that by my later teens I worked full-time permanent 3rd shift in the St. Louis City Police Department’s Computer Center. Cedric worked there, too … permanent 3rd shift. We were the only two on 3rd shift. I ran the console – had no idea what I was doing. Cedric did all the data processing. He really knew his stuff. Beyond that, he was the funniest, friendliest man alive. I loved working with him – and he liked me, too. He said he wanted to invite me up to his apartment, meet his wife, maybe eat … but Maxine, his wife, hated white people. He said there was no way she’d be civil and he didn’t want to put me through that.
We did meet once, Maxine and me. She and Cedric had just parked their car and were headed into their building when I came walking along. She was courteous toward me, although we didn’t linger and chat – just a quick intro, hi, nice to meet you thing.
Maxine wanted to be a doctor. Cedric worked, putting her through college. He loved her deeply. I often have wondered if she made it.
And there was this ‘’walking lady’’’. She and I met often at the bus stop at Clara and Delmar. I imagined her to be 80 or 90 years old. We never spoke so I never knew how old she actually was. We met dozens of times, waiting on the same bus, same time, same stop but never a word. She was always, ALWAYS, dressed the same – head to toe black, long sleeves, skirt down to the ground, high collar, black stockings, I suppose, black high-top tennis shoes with a black lace-like doily on her head, with long gray hair. And she always carried a black purse or bag and, when raining, a black umbrella. I so often saw her walking up and down Delmar that I nicknamed her the ‘’Walking Lady’’.
The neighborhood had gotten to be very rough by then. That decade between me being 10 to 20 years old. Cedric had once given me a tip – he swore by it. He said if a dude or group of dudes stopped me on the street, demanding this, that or the other, I should act crazy. The crazier the better. He said black folks are so frightened of crazy people, they’d likely leave me alone, maybe from then on out.
I tried it once, only once, and it worked! Three guys stopped me one day on my way home from the street car stop. Yea, Delmar had street cars AND buses in those days. The street car ran as far west as what is still, to this day, called the Loop. That’s where the cars turned around, in front of the U. City Post Office, hence the loop, and headed back east to downtown again.
Anyway, these guys saw the obvious pack of cigarettes in my shirt’s breast pocket and demanded I give them some, maybe all – the exact terms were never spelled out. I swore I didn’t smoke, didn’t have any cigarettes, which led to a back and forth but the end result was they declared me to be out of my fu----- mind and left.
We lived on the 3rd floor of the building – it was a six-family building, two apartments on each floor. My mom had put a planter with a fake plant in it on the landing between the 2st and 3rd floors – to make the place look nicer, she said. Periodically, overnight, someone would come in to take a dump on that landing and use one or more of the fake leaves as toilet paper. Life as I knew it, yeah.
Years later, me, my wife and our two daughters are living on Holly Hills, on what had been my parent’s house. I was in my 40s then. I worked downtown and I was lucky enough to have the 10-X pass to and fro in front of our house. The 10-X was called the South Grand Express, a public service bus, and it, literally, picked me up maybe 100 feet from my front door and dropped me off in the evening about 1 block east of our house. Crazy convenient! The best part was Al Bedford. He lived maybe 10 houses west of us on Holly Hills and took the same bus at the same time to almost the same downtown location. We got to know each other – one of those many chance meetings in life which blossoms into a rich, warm, friendship.
Al was 1 year older than me. A black fellow, although, he insisted, he was NOT black. As he would say, ‘’look at me … look … is my skin color black?’’ – and, no, he wasn’t, literally, black, which was his point. He said he was a Negro and quite proud of it. And it turned out, Al was born, and partly raised one block north of Delmar. I mean, we were, effectively, from the same neighborhood. Except for this: we lived in two completely separate and different universes. We used to trade stories of growing up in St. Louis, at the same time – and, mostly me, marveling at the utterly different – and often hostile world in which he lived.
Al’s most notable quality – there were several – but the most obvious one is that he loved to sing and had absolutely no reservations about breaking out into song in the middle of – anywhere. So, the 10-X – that was the bus we took downtown and home in the evening, the South Grand Express – the ride often became a song-fest. Al had a beautiful singing voice. I wasn’t bad myself and our singing apparently never bothered anyone. There were never any complaints – no joiners, either, which was fine by us.
Al introduced me to a bus-friend of his, ‘Fritzy’. At holiday time, Fritzy, who was born and raised in Austria, would decorate the bus – she got on maybe a mile or so before us. She’d tape streamers or Christmas décor, or Halloween colors to the overhead hand rails, and the handles on some of the seat backs, on the automated side exit door. What a hoot, Al and me, singing away … Fritzy sometimes giving out decorations to semi-amused passengers.
Al’s other notable talent was story telling. I remember several of his stories. Mostly of insane discrimination. Growing up in St. Louis WITHOUT hot running water – what was called a cold-water flat. I never knew what that expression meant until Al explained how his mom had a galvanized wash tub in their apartment. How she’d heat water on the stove, pour it into the tub, then the three kids bathed. Him, being the youngest, was last to bathe in what, by then, had become chilly, murky, soapy thrice-used bath water. Or of how the Fox Theatre – a 4,200 seat ornate old theatrical palace, home to travelling Broadway shows these days - how they, Negroes, weren’t allowed in unless they came, pre-arranged, in groups of 12 or more.
When I got out of the Army – I had been drafted in 1969 – I became a social worker. I was assigned to the federal high-rise housing projects, among other ‘’beats’’ – one, Pruitt Igoe, was the scariest place on planet earth, to me, a young, white guy. To Al it was like dying and going to heaven. It’s where he, his siblings and mom moved after the cold water flat. The sounds of satisfaction, joy even, in his voice as he described what it was like to have heat, indoor hot water, a separate room for him and his brother to sleep in.
Even that, Pruitt Igoe, was a separate universe. The place in which Al found paradise was for me a living hell - having to walk the gauntlet, the dozen, maybe 20, young dudes, sitting on or hanging out by the side rails of the entrance path. I had to walk that gauntlet to do home visits with my clients. They made a point to call me every sort of name, hurl threats, taunt me.
Al and I - same age, same city, same time, same place, but utterly opposite worlds. It was only then, learned via our many conservations, how utterly NOT the same St. Louis was … all because of race, skin color, the wild-card happenstance of birth. This was life, in St. Louis, Missouri, the American Midwest, in the 1990s.
And to top it off, Al was gay, in a long-term relationship with a white man. Even on his own side of Delmar, he was never fully accepted.