I was usually a very obedient child, and grew into an obedient teenager. It was not necessarily due to virtue, it was mainly due to fear. My mother in particular was insistent that “people like us” did not get into trouble, particularly not any kind of trouble that would invite public censure. Some of my earliest memories involve her pointing out bad behavior, whether it was a messy yard, uncombed hair or poor grammar and explaining how “we” did not do that.
There were, however, some things that were simply too tempting to pass up, even for a generally obedient child of 12. For example, walking to church–Zion Baptist on East Main–from my house on East Market you could take one of two mother approved routes. One took you down Fair Street. My mother was not particularly fond of this route, because it took you past the Cozy Corner, on the corner or Fair and East Main. Some of the town winos hung out behind the Cozy Corner and drank sometimes. The fact that the men were never there before about 3 in the afternoon and never there on Sundays period, did not seem to sink in with my mother. To her it was an area to be avoided.
She preferred that I walk east on Market and turn down Evans Avenue to reach Main Street. The problem with this was that Johnson’s Funeral Home (and Beauty Parlor) was on the corner of Evans and Market and the garage where it was known that they brought the bodies in was on Evans. In order to take that route I had to walk in the street, there being no sidewalk on the east side of the street, or walk in front of the garage on the west side of the street.
Evans is a narrow street and walking in the street was dangerous, but walking past the garage, which had several doors, even in broad daylight was spooky. You never knew when the garage door might roll up and the hearse would roll out, or even worse, they might roll out a corpse on a gurney. I did not want to see a dead body, and being a voracious reader I also knew about zombies and vampires, and I surely did not want to see one of those!
My mother would sometimes come out to the porch to watch me leave for Sunday school to make sure I took the Evans route, although she could be talked into the Fair Street route from time to time. After my sister’s husband deserted her and she had to move back home with her two children, however, my mother was usually busy getting one of her grandchildren ready for church and she rarely had time to come watch me take off anymore.
My sister Barbara took her situation badly, she had been a kind of princess, or so she thought and being deserted by her no-count husband, who my parents had tried to keep her from marrying, hit her hard. She had not believed that he was worthless and thought my parents disapproved of him because he was poor. She thought my parents were simply stuck-up and had no valid reason to disapprove of him. Boy, would he prove her wrong eventually. Her husband Skeet M. was handsome, but he had all kinds of problems, some traceable to his family’s situation and some seemingly just character flaws. His father was a wallpaper hanger when he was sober, his mother was a homemaker, although the house they lived in was not much of a home, and a drinker as well.
Their poverty might not have disqualified him as suitor in my parents’ eyes, but the fact that the police had to visit his home fairly frequently for domestic violence incidents certainly did. And horror of horrors, none of M’s attended church, not even Middle Run Baptist–the less snooty black Baptist Church that my parents considered beneath Zion, as did most members of Zion.
When Skeet took off with all of their money after getting fired from his job at Wright Patterson Air Force Base, my sister who was 7 months pregnant at the time, had no choice but to move back home. After my niece Lisa was born Barbara went to work and managed to contribute to the household a bit, but she never really got the hang of motherhood. She was too self-centered. This meant my mother had to start over again raising kids. On Sunday morning it would take Barbara hours to get herself ready, which meant she had no spare time to dress my nieces, that fell to my mother and sometimes kept her away from the doorway , and ergo from watching me start the walk to church.
That suited me fine, since my preferred route to Zion was a direct line. If I walked across the street and through the vacant lot between the Davis and Harris houses I could cut through an alley next to Ed’s Lounge and be virtually right across the street from Zion. Actually I was more likely right across the street from my friend Sharon C’s house, but she only lived three doors down from Zion.
The problem with this route was that if my mother was condemnatory of the Cozy Corner she was downright rabid about Ed’s Lounge. Ed’s Lounge actually was a type of night club, also called The Elks because the black Elks (you all know that the civic groups of the time, Elks, Masons, Shriner’s, etc. were all segregated I presume) met there as well. Ed’s Lounge was quite a hopping club, or so I heard and sometimes had some pretty big time acts there like Nancy Wilson. Like most juice joints, however, there was often some extra-curricular activity, frequently of the romantic kind, going on outside of the Ed’s in the nice dark alley.At the very least on a typical Sunday morning before the clean up you might see some cigarette butts and empty beer bottles in the alley.
So, I was warned to never, ever, go anywhere near this den of iniquity. Which, of course, made me want to go down that alley more than anything. There were perfectly decent dwellings beside Ed’s and the alley actually was rather hilly and had a concrete retaining wall that held up the yard of the house next door. The wall was surmounted with well trimmed hedges– I think the Borden’s lived there. They were light-skinned black people who eventually all decided to pass for white people, but at the time they were still living in the East End–which helped keep the alley relatively dark, even in the daytime.
But, it was a good shortcut and exciting to boot since it was forbidden. I could cross the street since I would have to do that to take the approved route, and if my mother was not still watching I would head straight across the vacant lot for the alley. If she continued to watch I would amble past the Davis’ house, by which time she would probably have gone back into the house, and then I would go behind the Davis’ house to my path and go down the alley.
The problem was that my mother seemed to have some preternatural sense about when I took the alley/Ed’s Lounge route. When she arrived at church, after Sunday school she would scold me about having taken that route and I would get a long lecture on the dangers of being disobedient. I think I was a teenager and we no longer lived on Market or walked to church before I realized how she knew I had disobeyed her.
Dress shoes for little girls, at least for me, in that era were almost always patent leather. In order to shine your patent leather shoes you used vaseline and a rag on Saturday evening. The Davis’s always cut their vacant lot on Saturdays. When I walked across the vacant lot the grass clippings stuck to the residue of vaseline on my shoes. All my mother had to do was glance at my feet when she arrived for church, see the grass on my shoes and I was busted.
Who knew Mother Nature would rat you out like that?