On a steamy midcentury midsummer day, my little brother and I went downtown with our Creole housekeeper Zena. She had rushed to get the house clean by the time my parents came home for lunch. She needed to get a gift for her sister's birthday and had convinced our parents to let her take us along. My mother gave Zena money for bus fare, a movie and food.
As we waited for the bus, Zena tapped the tip of her toe on the sidewalk in time with an unheard beat. Soon the bus pulled up, the door slid open, and I eagerly mounted the steps. Zena helped my brother up and gave the driver a quarter, which he deposited in the changer on his belt and clicked out a nickel that he placed in her palm.
Several seats were vacant near the front, but as I started to slide into one, Zena caught me by my sleeve saying, "We're going to sit in back."
"Why?" I asked.
"So we'll be close to the exit," she replied, "and I can talk to my friend."
"But it's crowded in back!" I protested. "I want to look out the window!"
Zena didn't say anything but just glared at me. I knew that look. It meant that if I kept it up, I'd be in big trouble when my parents got home.
So we sat in the back of the bus among several women in starched white uniforms that identified them as housekeepers like Zena. She lifted my little brother onto her lap and began to speak to her friend, "So what are you doing on the bus this time of day?"
Her friend sighed and said, "They cut back my hours. They say that they don't need me all day now that their children are all grown and out of the house."
"Oh, that's too bad," Zena sympathized.
"Don't you know it," her friend replied. "I don't know how we're going to make it on just five dollars a week with all those mouths to feed. It was hard enough on ten now that my man can't work. His boss has his son working with him for the summer and says he doesn't need Joe now that the bricks are all laid, and they're just finishing the inside of the house."
"Ain't that a shame!" said Zena. "I'll pray for you."
"You and me, too," the woman moaned.
Zena looked at the bright side, "Maybe they'll let you take home leftovers now that they don't have all those children to feed."
"I wish they would," the woman replied. "But I already asked them, and they say they can't afford that either now that they got two in college."
Then she looked up. "Joe's garden's doing good now that he's got time to work on it. We're up to our ears in beans and greens. Maybe I should say up to our noses. Lord, he gets so gassed up, I can hardly sleep at night. Once he gets going, it sounds like the drum and bugle corps coming through on parade. And to make it worse, he wants the side next to the fan."
I joined in their hearty laughter, but Zena frowned and continued the conversation in Creole French until we arrived downtown.
We got out in front of the Post Office and walked a block over to the Public Library, where Zena was going to leave us while she did her shopping. Stopping in front of the entrance, she asked us if there was a clock inside.
"Of course," I replied, "everyone knows that." How could anyone not notice the big dial over the checkout desk. Hadn't she ever been to the library?
"Well, you just keep your eyes on it," she said pulling down her left eyelid with her index finger as she looked down Main Street to the clock on the courthouse. "It's 12:40 now. You'd better be out here at a quarter to two. We're going to the theater after this, and I don't want to miss the beginning of the picture."
We dutifully agreed and went inside while she left to run her errand. As we entered we looked up to the big mural filling the archway vaulting over the picture window on the opposite wall. The painting depicted the history of Louisiana with Indians on the left followed by Spanish conquistadors and French couriers du bois. Andrew Jackson and his piratical compatriots won The Battle of New Orleans. "And when they set the cannon off, the gator blew his mind."
The central area was filled with fields of cotton followed by burning plantation houses. Harriet Beecher Stowe set her history-making novel in Louisiana, and it is our legacy of shame to have sold poor Uncle Tom to that wicked carpetbagger Simon Legree. My grandmother had told how our family had hidden their valuables in the smoke house like everyone else and lost them to plundering Yankees like everyone else.
The right panel of the mural showed the progress of twentieth century industrialization. Oil derricks and smokestacks were silhouetted behind a worker devolved into a faceless dehumanized gas-masked rubber suit. Was this the man of the future?
The library was my refuge and sanctuary as well as my gateway to wonderful worlds so unlike the dull existence we endured in our small Southern town. After taking my little brother to the Dr. Seuss shelf, I headed straight to the science section to look for books on dinosaurs.
How was it that these mighty majestic reptiles were overcome and succeeded by smaller and weaker birds and mammals? Had the meek truly inherited the earth? Had the thunder lizards cold-blooded nature been itself their doom? Or had the warm-blooded animals simply stolen their eggs?
I finally found a book by Roy Chapman Andrews about the discovery of dinosaur eggs in the Gobi Desert. Protoceratops andrewsi was the species whose very name immortalized its discoverer. And there was a picture of Andrews standing on top of a mound of dirt dug up by dozens of Chinese coolies. Why did he get the glory when they did all the work? That was like my father being complimented on our beautiful lawn when I had been the one who had actually mowed it and pulled all the weeds.
Was it that Andrews had known where to find the eggs? No, because standing there next to him were the Mongolian guides who had shown him where to dig. Why didn't they get any credit either?
Pondering these questions, I moved on to the science fiction section. There I found a couple of interesting books. One was Galactic Derelict by Andre Norton about Earthlings who find an abandoned spacecraft from another planet with traces of an entirely different civilization. Ours was not the only way to live or necessarily the best. There was always an infinity of other alternatives and possibilities.
The universe has no limits, yet why are so many people bound by their small and relatively insignificant existences? Maybe they're afraid to be free. Maybe they just want to be told what to do, so that they are not held responsible for any decisions.
The other sci-fi novel that sparked my interest was Eleanor Cameron's Stowaway to the Mushroom Planet, the moral of which was "Pride goes before a fall." This was the second of the Mushroom Planet series about a world unlike our own that orbited unseen beyond the dark side of the moon.
Horatio Q. Peabody was a selfish scientist who wanted to claim the new found world for himself and was willing to do anything no matter how crooked and unscrupulous to insure his own fame, but his own overreaching brought about his eventually inevitable downfall. Such was justice, and the mushroom people were able to continue their peaceful lives without exploitation by the Earth.
After checking out the books, I went to what fascinated me the most--the Stereopticon. This was a viewer into which were inserted pictures taken from two slightly different angles that when combined created a 3-D illusion of perspective.
My favorite series was "Around the World in 80 Frames." All of the pictures were from the turn of the century, but their antique sepia tones and hand-tinted pastel highlights made them that much more exotic.
First, there were the pyramids of Egypt. "Built by Cheops the Pharoah." Yeah, sure! Cheops had about as much to do with the pyramids as my dad did with our yard. They only ordered these theings to be done but had nothing to do with the actual execution. The design was by Pharoah's servants and the labor by Pharoah's slaves.
I had seen this in the movies: some unlucky Abyssinian or Israelite falling under the rollers and being crushed by a monolithic block weighing tons upon tons. Progress can't be stopped for the lives of the lowly, and the haughty Egyptians continued to beat their drums and crack their whips.
The Pharoah may have paid for this extravagant monument to his vanity, but it was with tax money leeched from poor farmers and workers whose poverty made the monarch's luxury more splendid in comparison. No wonder Napoleon's free French soldiers shot the nose off the Sphinx.
Much more beautiful was the Acropolis of the Greek democracy where male atlantids and female caryatids bore the burden of the roof and peristyle equally. Here the wisdom of Athena carried the shield and Victory's flowing robes rustled with the flutter of her uplifting wings.
Such was so unlike the fierce Assyrian rulers with beards in silly ringlets hanging over lionlike bodies trampling the oppressed underfoot. Their stereotypical stiffness showed the rigidity of their regimes. They may have been the first to write down the laws, but were they fair in enforcing them or did justice depend on the money that they were coincidentally the first to coin?
Around the world we go, when it stops no one knows. Lion hunting in Africa and tiger hunting in India, both with the same sort of pith-helmeted imperialists in puffy riding pants lording it over a legion of darkfaced pack and litter bearers who took the real risks beating the bushes without the safety of a fifty caliber big game gun. The white man's burden was light compared to theirs.
There were also the opulent cathedrals of Europe that took generations to complete drawing time and resources out of the community so that the younger sons of the aristocracy who went into the church could have elegant surroundings to compensate for their lack of marriage and inheritance. Poverty, chastity and obedience. Yeah, right!
On and on went the story of the world until there was a tap on my shoulder. It was a librarian saying, "There's someone waiting for you outside." I got my little brother, and when we went out the double doors, there was Zena barely able to contain her wrath, "Don't you know what time it is? I told you to be outside at a certain time, and I expected you to be here."
I was sorry I had forgotten, but made the mistake of asking why she didn't come inside to get us.
With that, she exploded, "I shouldn't have to come inside to get you. You were supposed to be out here but didn't mind the time. Just wait until we get home and I have a talk with your father! I hope he beats your backside black and blue. I have never been so embarrassed having to find someone to go in and tell the librarian to get you."
I still couldn't understand why she wasn't able to do it herself, but wasn't going to risk asking her again when she said, "Come on. Let's go to the show. Maybe that movie will settle my nerves."
As we rounded the corner, I decided it best to change the subject.
"What did you get at the store for your sister?"
"She needs a new nightgown, so I got her this flannel. I would have liked a different color, but I've got to take what they give me at the back window."
"Because they don't like to make two trips, and there are other people waiting in line. And if someone old or crippled comes, we all have to wait while they take care of them first."
"Why don't you get it yourself? Then you could pick the color you like."
"That's just not how it's done."
"That's how our mom does it."
"Our mom's not black," my little brother interjected.
Then we both got that withering look, and I decided to change the subject again.
"Look at the line for the movie! We may not see the beginning. Then we'll have to sit through it twice to see the whole thing through all at once."
"That line's not for us. We're going in the side door."
Sure enough, we just walked right up to the window to the left of the box office as I noticed some kids from school making remarks to each other. Let them laugh, we were going in first and would get to see the whole movie through from the beginning.
As we climbed up the steep stairwell, the yellow sconce lamps briefly highlighted Zena's half-turned profile as she ascended holding my little brother's hand. The contrasting shadows accented the mystery of the theater as we approached the first balcony.
"I want a drink of water," my brother whined.
I looked over at the line at the water cooler. Next to it was a dirty fountain marked "Colored" that no one seemed to want. I walked right up and began to drink. It was no worse than the playground water and not quite as warm.
"He's going to get sick and die!" hissed a little girl to her mother at the end of the line.
I stood up and squirted a small stream of water through the gap between my front teeth. Zena gave me that look. I backed off as she took two Dixie cups from her purse and filled one for my brother and the other for herself. Then she turned to me, "While we're here, take your brother to the Mens Room. Then we won't miss any of the movie."
She stood by the stairwell when we came out. I started to turn into the balcony aisle, but she motioned to go up another level. As we climbed, the stark cones of lurid light added to the anticipation that awaited in the darkness.
As we entered the door to the second balcony, a wave of nicotine greeted us. This stunk worse than the Mens Room. A couple of smokers in the front row of the balcony turned as my brother coughed. Zena led us up the steep aisle to the upper rows past the ventilation intakes that siphoned the pollution away. The pools of light at the edge of the aisle swirling with vaporous dervishes began to clear as we reached the top. The screen was skewed into a foreshortened keystone from this acute point of view. Or was it obtuse?
Schools out! Coming attractions!
"Tarzan's Greatest Adventure starring Jock Mahoney filmed entirely on location in India!"
"That sure put a bunch of brothers out of work." quipped a dark figure across the aisle and several in the section joined in a hearty laugh. Some even continued to carp about the stupid ape man. No usher here to hush us; now we can relax. I stretched out my legs and put them up on the empty seat in front--something I could never do downstairs. This briar patch wasn't so bad.
The trailers continued their portrayal of sensational exploitation.
Lon Chaney, Jr. in Cannibal Orgy... The crowd downstairs laughed uproariously at Mantan Moreland caught in a window as a fiendish teen with a butcher knife played her spider game. The crowd upstairs didn't think it so funny.
"Old Mantan's having hard times to be doing this kind of nonsense. He's not too far from that Cabin in the Sky."
"Yes, indeed." "I hear you." "I know what you're saying." "Amen." chimed in the chorus. Again the melodramatic litany of horror unfolded.
Godzilla vs. Mothra, whose caterpillar children spin a cocoon around the big lizard and drop him into the ocean... Joan Crawford as an ax murderer our mother would never let us watch in William Castle's Strait-Jacket... Vincent Price running the chromatic gauntlet in Masque of the Red Death... Elvis Presley rocking in Viva Las Vegas... Frank Sinatra swinging as Robin and the 7 Hoods... Then the transethnic man of a thousand races Anthony Quinn dancing joyfully carefree as Zorba the Greek.
A Patch of Blue... The crowd around us hushed as Sidney Poitier helped blind Elizabeth Hartman raise herself from the brutal exploitation of her small-minded mother Shelley Winters. Sidney stood tall and elegant in his sharkskin suit speaking eloquent melodies in counterpoint to Shelley's raucous shrieks joined in by jeers from the orchestra below. Such response indicated a short run. The heckling climaxed in a Tarzan yell which brought down the house.
"Timba, Cheetah!" called the voice across the aisle. I chuckled in response recognizing the Swahili command for the chimp to herald a herd of raging elephants to charge.
Finally, our feature presentation: Jerry Lewis as The Disorderly Orderly. Jerry wanted to be a doctor but had not finished medical school because of his propensity for sympathy pains. This unlucky klutz brought unexpected solice or slapstick mayhem to the patients he encountered. One particularly intense episode featured Jerry doubled up in the throes of labor while rushing an expectant mother to the delivery room.
"If he only knew," murmured Zena.
The sky was overcast as we left the theater. We made our way to the bus station arriving as the first drops of rain began to fall. Finally we settled into the diner in the back waiting room where we could watch the buses pull in. This was the central depot for both city buses and transcontinental coaches in our small town. We had sat in the other waiting room with our parents when they had sent us by bus to our grandparents. That was where I frequented the revolving rack of comics. I wanted to check those out lated, but I was hungry, and they gave us more fries at the back counter when we had been here with Zena before.
We had some money left from the food and the movie, so I asked Zena if we could play the juke box. She slipped me a nickel for her favorite. We watched American Bandstand with her every afternoon and knew what she liked, so I picked hers first.
"I want the Chipmunks," whined my little brother.
"Let's see if they have it," I said, "How about Howlin' Wolf? He's got a cartoon." I deposited my brother's money, and chose "Ain't Superstitious."
"Here's the Road Runner song," I told him as I played Bo Diddley. Then I put my own and played "Can't Judge a Book by Looking at the Cover."
I loved those loud guitars that made parents cringe. So-called "Rock and Roll" was full of crooners like Paul Anka and Frankie Avalon. Even Duane Eddy had a sappy side. My buddy had shown me how the best guitarists were in the blues section followed by rhythm'n'blues, where the solos were shared by sax wailing to a pounding piano beat.
The rain kept a syncopated counterpoint to the rhythms of Fats Domino "Walking to New Orleans." This was Zena's favorite. Whatever differences we may have had, we got together on the common ground of music.
"Why do you like Fats Domino?" asked the old man at the other end of the counter.
"Because he's one of us!" I spontaneously replied.
He leaned toward me and squinted, "What do you mean by 'one of us'?"
"Because he's from Louisiana, and we have the best music and the best food. Fats is the best singer, and Zena is the best cook."
"You're laying it on a bit thick there, son," the old man jibed.
"I don't mind," smiled Zena.
"We'll see who's the best cook," chimed the hearty woman behind the counter as she brought us our hot dogs smothered in spicy chili laced with grilled chopped onions, celery and bell pepper and streaked with melted cheese and a huge pile of steamy fresh fries. Food is the music of life.
"I thought you'd like that Elvis Presley," said the old man.
"Elvis was all right before he went into the Army. When he got out, he lost more than his sideburns. Like Samson, he lost his strength."
The lightning flashed and the thunder crashed as Howlin' Wolf chased the black cat that had crossed his path. The guitar chops were as crunchy as the crisp fries that I chomped in time with the insistent riff. Scat cat and be gone blues was the shapeshifter's incantation.
I wiped catsup off the edge of my mouth, swung around and slipped off the stool just in time to reach in back of the juke box to turn up the volume for Bo Diddley to shout "I'm a Road Runner, honeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeey!"
"Beep beep!" we sang along, and Bo was gone--rumbling, grinding and blazing down the highway like a supercharged Big Daddy Roth boogieman. "Gonna put some dirt in your eye!"
"What the dickens is going on!" came a voice through the ticket window. We looked to see a new agent who had replaced the soft-spoken old Cajun man who had quietly minded the counter for years seeing much but saying little. This new man was a cracker from the north of the state with a backwoods twang. His bloodshot eyes bulged, his nostrils flared and the tendons in his flaming woodpecker neck throbbed with tension tighter than catgut wound to the snapping point.
"What are those children doing in here? Get them up front right now!, " he commanded.
"I don't want to leave Zena," my brother cried.
"We have to go," I said. "The man said so."
We went out the back door and down the hall into the main waiting room.
I sat my brother down on a bench and headed toward the comic rack.
"I want Zena," he whined.
"Shut up, you big baby!" I snarled and went over to the news stand.
Here were my favorites. The Justice League of America had a rotating leadership. One letter asked why they changed the Golden Age name Justice Society? This was a truly democratic organization open to all who can meet the competition. Society suggests some sort of class. This group wasn't even restricted to the human race. Here was Aquaman from Atlantis. And what about Superman, a being from another planet?
"In brightest day, in darkest night,
No evil shall escape my sight."
Green Lantern met with his fellow guardians of the universe at a central location outside of normal time and space. Here were creatures from all backgrounds who had sworn to fight those who worship evil's might. One had spawned from a fish, another had hatched from a bird, and even more had evolved from the lower depths of the artist's strangest dreams.
And here was The Flash with the ultracunning super gorillas who moved so fast you couldn't see them, intent on turning Earth into a planet of the apes.
The Fantastic Four were all freaks and so were the mutated X-Men. Humans just had to learn to adjust to them. Daredevil was blind, but had learned to overcome his handicap. Sergeant Fury's Howling Commandos were misfits from every walk of life united around the common purpose in the fight against faschism. That guy at the ticket counter probably had a moustache in his pocket.
His voice boomed over the public address system, "Bus 475 now departing for Crowley, Jennings, Lake Charles, Beaumont, Houston and points west."
"Zena, don't go!" cried my baby brother as he ran to the back of the station. I dropped the comics and turned as he got to the end of the hall. I chased him and finally intercepted him at the door of the diner in back where Zena stood up as she saw us through the window.
"I thought I told you to stay out of there," the voice boomed behind us joined by a chorus of thunderclaps as we stood in the doorway halfway between one world and another.
Zena came out and joined us. She didn't say anything, but she gave the man that look. "Just you wait..."
So we all waited outside, since that was the only place we could all be together. Zena stood there tall under the dripping eaves holding my hand on her right and my brother on her left. We formed a great big double you that stood for the words of the hymn that she hummed. We knew it from the gospel radio show that she sang along with as she washed the dishes in the morning. We hummed along, and eventually the rain subsided and a rainbow appeared in the distance just before our bus arrived. Then we knew the words of the song would come true. "We will overcome!"