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M’God, I never seen so many of ’em in ma life
1958 or ’59
One of my favorite racist stories brings me back simultaneously to a personal watershed in cultural sensuality. When I was an upperclassman a playmate from my childhood invited me to the Junior Ring Dance at Mary Washington College, Fredericksburg VA. I had known Ann for ever. Girls you talk of future marriage to at age eight have no chance of romance with you at age eighteen. Ann was a wonderful girl: from the last generation afflicted by polio. There she is down in Virginia at an all girls school. Where’s a nice crippled girl going to find a real boyfriend, living in a convent of sorts? I felt obligated to go. And I’m glad I did: because if I hadn’t, who knows when this New Yorker jazz den denizen would have discovered the earthly joys of a southern spring?
The Mary Washington College has a lovely campus landscaped with blossoming trees and the Junior Ring Dance is scheduled to coincide with the full blossoming. That year the calendar had it on the button. Even though I was still smoking in those days, the southern spring air made me giddy. It’s unbelievable to me now these decades later to see people here in Florida in March, orange blossom time, crank up the car windows and turn on the AC rather than be rendered drunk and giddy by the sex life of trees. I’ve since realized that New York’s Central Park can be quite an experience in blossom time but in 1958 I was still pretty much an indoor person. (I’ve also since realized that Mary Washington College, though typically “Southern,” is not the typical South; it’s typical rich, elegant, landed South: daughters of gentlemen.
I mailed my tux size to a rental place in Fredericksburg and got on the bus. I’ll never forget the delirium I experienced staring out the window at the pavement immediately adjacent to my seat and wondering for hundreds of miles at interstate velocities how many concrete molecules passed underneath me. Maintaining a close-up focus in a scanning context kept me in a kind of trance.
There was some kind of party Friday night which I barely remember. Ann had coordinated my visit with the visits of the beaux of two of her friends. We three couples had a picnic at some Civil War Memorial on Saturday afternoon. I had the impression strongly that Anne’s two friends had also invited childhood playmates: or boys where there was a family obligation. One of the dates was the son of the minister at the girl’s hometown church. There were four southerners and us two New Yorkers: that is, Ann was a Long Islander; I’d opted for Manhattan ASAP.
We often don’t know what kind of chauvinists we are until we find ourselves amid other kinds of chauvinists. I had no idea I was a Northern chauvinist until I found myself among Southerners for the first time. Arriving at Columbia College was no doubt a cultural shock for many: but least of all for those many of us there arriving from close by to no more than thirty miles away. I remember vividly the shock of anti-Semites suddenly finding themselves isolated as a glaring minority. (What did they expect? This was Columbia!) Southerners at Columbia seemed quaint. I didn’t anticipate that in just another couple of years, for one weekend at least, I’d be the quaint one.
The culture shock started for me when I decided that in addition to a corsage, I’d buy my childhood friend the life-long gift of a copy of Yeats’ collected poems. I went to the Mary Washington College Bookstore. The other two dates were with me: we’d been booked for Friday and Saturday nights in the same rooming house. The bookstore personnel were thrown for a loop when they discovered that I wanted to buy a book. It wasn’t the beginning of the semester! It wasn’t a text book! It wasn’t listed for any course! The Columbia Bookstore also sold pennants and rings and beer or coffee mugs with the Columbia logo, but the Columbia bookstore also sold books: and if they didn’t have it, there were a dozen books stores in the neighborhood, either out on Broadway or behind on Amsterdam Avenue, that did. And if they didn’t, we were in Manhattan. Downtown on Fourth Avenue, there were whole blocks where every store was a bookstore. My two companions were fascinated: a book for a present! One of them, a senior at a university in North Carolina, had actually heard of Yeats (only he pronounced it to rhyme with Keats). It turned out that the Mary Washington College Bookstore wasn’t quite as benighted as I was beginning to think: they found a copy: though not the edition I had wanted.
I gave Ann the book. All three couples were present in her dorm living room as I read them a sample or two: at least one of the early ones, at least one of the late ones: at least one Crazy Jane for sure. And on we went for the picnic the girls had planned. One of the boys had driven to Fredericksburg for the event and so we had a car. Ann and I are of the three in the back seat. I look out the window. All new to me. Passenger all the way: first on the bus, now in the car. We drive here and there. And I see segregation southern style for the first time in my life.
Now the north was segregated too: but innocent young northerners didn’t know it: the blacks were kept well hidden. Every once in a while some black child would show up for a day or two in the school, only to disappear again: forever. I have no idea what they did with them. In high school, I remember one black guy, fifteen when we were thirteen. He was kept around for some reason until he was old enough to drop out. I remember being assigned to block him during a football scrimmage once. The ball was hiked. I pushed and pushed. He just stood there, watching the play, having no trouble looking over the rest of our heads. Once he saw who had the ball, he picked me up with one hand, laid me gently aside, and grabbed the guy with the ball, laying him on the ground a bit less gently. It wasn’t until I was graduated from high school, working a summer for the municipal sanitation department, that the black garbage truck driver took me home with him for his lunch. I’d lived in Rockville Centre since age three and had never seen this neighborhood. How did the city fathers hide it? I’m not even sure it was on the map. No main streets led to or from it. But the guy who lived there found it just fine.
Of course I can’t tell how the southerners saw their segregation: as “normal,” I suppose. But to me, a passenger in the back seat, the segregation was visible: right out in the open. We passed a school yard: crowded with kids: though it was a Saturday morning. Maybe they were just there to play. Every kid had corn rows. Every little girl had pigtails tied with little pink ribbons or fastened with little bits of pink plastic. “Look at all the pickaninnies,” said our driver. “M’God,” said the other southern boy up front:
“I’ve never seen sa many of them in ma life!”
Chuckle, chuckle from the girls. I look at Ann. Her chuckle didn’t seem as forced as I would have liked. She stuck me as only slightly embarrassed. What do I do? Make a scene? Ruin Ann’s major collegiate social event? The Junior Ring Dance I understand to be Mary Washington College’s biggest deal of the year, bigger than the senior prom.
Pause. You gotta understand. I saw things at home that I didn’t like. I saw things in New York that I didn’t like, that didn’t seem to go with what we’d been told in Sunday School. And I never said anything except among my friends: where my objections didn’t receive a warm reception. I lived in the culture I lived in, being a sore thumb only a little bit. But to me, blacks weren’t Jews, they didn’t kill Christ. They weren’t Japs, they didn’t bomb Pearl Harbor. But they did seem to be the same “race” as my heroes: Kid Ory, Louis Armstrong, Lionel Hampton, Lester Young, Dizzy Gillespie … Charlie Parker or Miles Davis seemed to me to be a million times more intelligent than President Eisenhower … or any of my professors at Columbia: a zillion times better accomplished. My school teachers had told us that we were all “equal.” I certainly didn’t believe that. I don’t think anyone believes that. The blacks who stood out to me seemed not equal but superior. Who could do a slow triplet like Billie? Not anybody. Not Frank Sinatra. Not Marlon Brando. Not Mickey Mantle. Not Einstein.
I shut up. We went to the Civil War Grounds we had our picnic. One of the other guys smiled around our circle as he turned the orange juice container over, then over again. “I guess you all can tell what I did for the summer after high school?” Everyone smiles at him: me for one a little uncertainly. “A soda jerk,” he exclaims complacently. What? That was his idea of a “shake.” The Swiss are more agitated than that!
After the picnic we get ready for the big evening. We guys don our tuxes, preen the corsages we’re carrying to our dates, and pick the girls up. We slowly walk across the Mary Washington College campus. The perfume from the blossoms is unbelievable. The air is thick, syrupy with sex. The saxophones from the Billy May Orchestra ooze and roll over the manicured walks. We approach the hall for the dance. Jesus. It’s like I’m in a movie. The hall is so Southern I’ve got to be on a Hollywood set. It’s two stories. Tall windows are open on the second floor. Billy May’s sound wafts with the blossoms. Each window way contains a begowned blond nestled against a blue-eyed beau. Other blond and blue eyed couples saunter toward the dance on every walk way. Earrings, necklaces. Tuxes, dinner jackets. Décolleté bosoms. Erect bearings. Satin, lace, bows, corsages, carnations …
My God, I announced in not quite my shatter-their-eardrums-thirty-rows-away hot-dog vendor’s voice,
2012 05 20 I have an avatar, my image on each post. The current one is from this year’s Mardi Gras, not that many weeks ago. For this post I show you what I looked like then: b&w, so just understand: Paul Newman’s eyes were no bluer than mine!
I’ve recalled that Junior Ring Dance on so many occasions since. The Billy May Orchestra was deliciously sensuous, the most sensuous of all the dance bands, so long as you mean vanilla sensuous: those reeds!
Ann was such a dear friend, had been since early childhood. Ann was the one girl friend I never got naked with. Because she was crippled? (from polio) Because I had a relationship with her parents? making her unique among my friends? Her mother was my alternate mother, I did gardening for them, Dr. S, her father, the osteopath, helped heal me of this and that …
So funny: half a century+ later I once again live in a white bread community. There, I was born into it; here, I can’t afford to move! Except there it was doctors and lawyers; here it’s trailer whites, nearly illiterate fundamentalist trash (I find it so funny that the book thumpers have no idea how to read!) with here and there a propertied Republican. Here I know not one black, not one PR (a couple of Mexicans), and only one, exactly one, Jew: an enemy! and I now in person know only one decent musician! I, a pillar of diversity, choked among hydrilla-choking hydrilla! We’re on a fast slide out, but are too stupid to know it. The Sanhedrin murders Jesus but still preaches that it’s in touch with God!
You may enjoy the racism, or rather the racism reversed, of a fraternity party from that same year.
Come to think of it, Ann may have spelled her name with an “e”: Anne: Anne Carol in her mother’s mouth, my only friend with a double name.