A short story from the annals of my memory...
|In 1963 we lived in an apartment complex advertised as “Adults Only”. I have no idea how the landlady was persuaded to rent to us…I was only 8 and my brother was 2. It was in the Clifton section of Cincinnati which was very diverse at the time. Up one side of the street was a large hospital and the street was lined with Mulberry trees. Down the other side of the street was the Taystee bread factory somewhere nearby and if the wind was blowing in the right direction…bliss.
It was on Oak Street…where Rain Man bought his underwear.
Not having other kids to play with, and a lack of supervision, I thought up a lot of things to do on my own…
I earned money by knocking on all the doors of the apartment and offering to go to the corner store for the residents. I charged a penny an item. All of the young “singles” who lived in the building came to know me and, at the very least, were amused by me. Some of them became truly interested in my well being. When I found an old golf club sticking out of a trash can on the street, one of the guys, an advertising executive named Barry, taught me how to hold and swing it properly. Gillian, an English nurse who lived alone in one of the apartments found out I liked to read. When she found out I’d never read any of the “classics” she left a package of 3 books in front of our door before she left for an extended trip home to England. There were two stewardesses who shared an apartment; and, yes, that is what they were called then.There were many characters and someday I will probably write about all of them…
Left on my own a lot, I also explored. Each time I set out to find the bread factory though, it seemed I found new friends.
About a half block from where I lived I met a girl about my age named Sarah. She lived in a big white house on the corner. Her father was a local, professional magician and her parents were trying to get Sarah on local television. She danced. She seemed rich to me, not because she had a lot of toys, but because she had a housekeeper/nanny. Loretta was her name and she turned out to be awesome. (I sometimes over use the word “awesome” these days, but Loretta truly was.) To this day, the smell of freshly baked bread makes me think of Loretta…
Even if Sarah was out on an audition, Loretta would invite me into the kitchen and fix me a sandwich and a glass of milk. She didn’t talk much, which was okay with me. Mainly, she asked questions when she did talk, and gave me lots of time to answer. If I didn’t know how to answer one of her questions there would be a long period of silence until the next one, but we both seemed to understand the rhythm.
One afternoon Sarah told me Loretta was going to take her to the movies when she finished working…did I want to go? Ummm, yeah!!
I hadn’t seen a real movie in a real movie theater in a long time. We didn’t even have a television. Sarah told me to go home and ask my mom and come back after dinner. I ran home as fast as I could. No one was there. I ate some baloney, tried to comb my hair, put on clean shorts and ran back out. I was worried that things might fall through if I didn't hurry.
When I got back to Sarah’s house she was sitting on the step to the kitchen door, all dressed up and waiting for Loretta. When Loretta finally opened the door and looked out, I almost didn’t recognize her. I had never noticed she wore the same dress every day until now, but she sure looked different in her dressy "movie" clothes. She had a hat on and heels. I felt sorely underdressed. This wasn’t missed by Loretta, either.
She told Sarah to go to her room and bring some of her clothes downstairs. "Bring down something that might fit 'this little one'”, she'd said. In the meantime, Loretta took me to the sink in the kitchen and wiped my face and arms with warm water and soap. When Sarah came back she had a pair of capris which fit me like baggy slacks and a pretty white blouse with a Peter Pan collar. After I changed, Loretta turned and looked at us standing together in front of her. She eyed us with the “look” I had gotten to know over a short time and then smiled. Loretta didn’t smile very often. In fact, most of my memories of Loretta are of her frowning, or expressionless, and not ever looking at us directly. I always sensed she was listening, though. I always sensed that she heard everything that was uttered in that house. Loretta seemed omnipotent to me. This memory of her smiling stays with me because it was only a slight smile that fit in with the overall difference in her appearance, and, she was even wearing bright red lipstick.
We got to the theater and the lights were already off. There was enough light from the screen for us to find three seats on the end and Loretta had us each sit on either side of her. Looking back, her choice of movie was a bit odd… a Joan Crawford drama that takes place in a mental hospital.
Long before the end of the movie, Sarah had fallen asleep. I stayed awake sharing a box of Milk Duds with Loretta, but I don’t think I really got the gist of the movie. I was disappointed when it ended, though, because it meant this special night was ending. As the lights came up, Loretta picked Sarah up and was carrying her as we walked up the aisle. What happened next I remember pretty vividly…
As we walked up the aisle, a man, rather large, holding his hat in his hand was standing in front of his seat waiting to step into the aisle to leave. He watched the crowd as they passed, waiting for a break in the steady stream of people, then he looked down and saw us slowly walking up the inclined floor. He looked right at Loretta, held his hand up to signal her to stop, stepped in front of us with his back turned and made us wait while he motioned for his entire row to exit in front of us.
How rude! I couldn’t’ understand why this guy was being such a jerk and had singled us out for no reason. And, worse…I couldn’t believe she let him get away with it! When I looked up at Loretta to see if she was going to say something I didn’t recognize the look…at all…very much like stone.
Well, if she wasn’t going to do anything…
I walked in front of her and started skipping up the aisle like any innocent kid might do. I am sure I had a determined and focused look on my face. I got 3 good “accidental” kicks to the back of his ankle before I felt the back of my collar being pulled and the front of Sarah’s borrowed blouse choking me, slightly. Uh, oh… Loretta had recognized my passive-aggressive moves and simply said, “Stop it!” The man looked back at her and made eye contact again while he put on his hat, very deliberately, but continued to move on.
I couldn’t believe Sarah was still sleeping. It was too early for me. We crossed the street and got into Loretta’ car. With Sarah safely in the back seat asleep Loretta turned to me and said quietly, “You don’t never do somethin’ like that again if you out with me, hear? I know what you was up to and we don’t need none of it, understand?”
“But he was being a punk!”, I protested, just as Loretta’s finger came up to shush me.
I was very ashamed, but wasn’t sure why. I know now, but didn’t then. As a "colored" domestic, Loretta knew to choose her battles.
“I’m sorry, Loretta.” I stuttered this to the floorboard of her car.
The ride home was quiet. I didn’t know if it was just our rhythm again, or if she hadn’t accepted my apology. When she stopped her car in front of my apartment and walked me to my door she leaned down and gave me a hug and kissed my cheek and whispered in my ear to stop by tomorrow morning with Sarah’s clothes and she might have some cinnamon toast for me. She wasn’t mad at me!! I ran up the stairs with a big smile on my face. That night in bed, though, I still couldn't stop thinking about what had happened.
Later that summer I was disappointed to learn Sarah had been sent to a special school and would be away for awhile. Loretta still let me stop by occasionally to visit with her in the kitchen, but I no longer had an excuse and it just wasn’t the same.
I continued my little enterprise of shopping for the neighbors and also decided to look for the bread factory again, this time walking past Sarah’s house and going farther south. One early morning I was walking and exploring and had, apparently, crossed some imaginary neighborhood line because the houses on this street were not as well kept as the houses on Sarah’s street. In fact, they were far from it.
As I looked ahead, I saw several children in one of the yards playing and as soon as they saw me two of them came running towards me with big smiles and sparkling eyes. They were "colored" children and seemed to range in age and size. I was a little suspicious of their enthusiasm, at first, but they were so excited and seemingly happy to see me. The two girls ran up to me and started asking me questions, one right after the other, in rapid succession and were pulling on my arm to come play with them. What was my name? Where did I live? Did I want to play “jump” with them? I really hadn't planned on spending time with anyone that day and felt like I might be getting close to the bread factory, but there was something about how friendly and giggly these girls were. They had smiles on their faces that just wouldn’t go away, and so, away I went with them up into their yard.
There were no toys in the yard as there always were at Sarah’s. The girls had at least three brothers who were “sword fighting” with sticks from the yard, and I quckly learned what the girls had meant by “Jump”…
They were playing what I knew to be “Jump Rope” with a long, rusty dog chain instead of a rope. They needed me to hold one end and turn it…ouch! Playing with them proved to be kind of rough, but I really ended up having a good time in spite of all my little cuts and bruises. We played "Jump" and I taught them "Hopscotch", although we didn't have chalk.
After I left, I had to walk past Sarah’s house on the way home and stopped to excitedly tell Loretta about my new friend’s. She saw my bruises and scrapes and took me into her kitchen and washed them. While she was putting a band aid on one of my fingers, I told her about playing “Jump” and how it was just like “Jump Rope” only with a dog chain. I thought I saw a hint of her smile, but couldn't figure out what she might have thought was funny. She asked me if I was hungry and gave me a glass of milk and a banana to take with me when I left.
The next afternoon, I was on my way to play with my new friends, Brenda and Blake, and, it was trash day so I always kept my eyes open to see if anybody was throwing anything good away. This was, after all, the way I had gotten my golf club and learned how to swing it properly with lessons from Barry.
As I passed Sarah’s house I noticed Sarah’s old jump rope with its wooden handles coiled next to the trashcan on the curb in front of her house. As I bent to pick it up I looked at the kitchen window of the house and thought I saw Loretta looking out…
A few minutes later, I was teaching Brenda and Blake how to play a gentler version of “Jump”. I never did find the bread factory.