September 1, 2015

Some thoughts on an old crow named Jim

Published 12:00 am Monday, February 25, 2013

Lately, while thinking about the social change during my lifetime, I thought of some of those injustices which needed changing in my youth. Many of those wrongs have been righted, but constant vigilance needs to be applied to prevent recurrence.
One time, at my mother’s W.T.Grant workplace on South Main, at the age of 6 or 7 (making it either 1957 or 1958), I had been browsing through the store’s toy section, and after working up a thirst, spotted a water fountain in the back of the store and made my way in its direction. Just before taking a drink, I was suddenly halted by a store employee (not my mother, someone else, much less sweet) saying, in a voice laden with severity and urgent fear for my well-being: “Don’t drink out of that fountain; drink out of the opposite one, across the way!”
In my very young, heavily TV western-influenced mind, I was well aware of what would happen to the thirsty man or beast who chanced to drink from one of those extremely alkali (POISON) pools of the Old West. In theater serials, as well as television, the penalty for unwisely drinking from a “tainted” water hole was certain death, as evidenced by the nearby bones of men, horses and cattle who had made that unwise decision.
In such westerns, a sign displaying a skull and crossbones was often staked nearby. Cattle who drank there (not being as initiated in symbolism as they should have been) left their skulls and bones behind (crossed and uncrossed). To me, the absence of bones around that forbidden, “deadly” fountain just meant that my friend, Grant’s custodian Mr. Louis Jones, had already removed them as a part of his daily tidying up.
On other occasions, I would attend the “picture show” (certain “index fossils” are used to date rock strata, and the use of the term “picture show” dates me) and see black children paying for their popcorn, soda, Milk Duds, etc. from a separate window on the other side of the concession counter. The concessionaire was eagerly accepting money from both sides, and followed this with the only type of discrimination that seemed to make any sense that day: segregation that prevented the mixing of the faces on the bills, and also assuring that “dimes couldn’t mix with nickels” and “quarters couldn’t mix with fifty-cent pieces.”
When my son Jeremy was in the fifth grade, I helped chaperone his class to the North Carolina State History Museum. In one room, devoted to more recent history, a section of the Salisbury Woolworth lunch counter was displayed, with accompanying signage stating that a week or so after the history-making Greensboro lunch counter sit-in, a similar one occurred at the Woolworth store in Salisbury. When eating downtown, while growing up, I usually ate at Grant’s because of Catherine Swicegood’s hot dogs (I have mentioned Catherine’s hot dogs before, and they can never be mentioned too much), but I sometimes ate at the Salisbury Woolworth.
Upon reading the signage of that section of preserved Salisbury lunch counter in Raleigh, I excitedly exclaimed: “I used to sit here also,” to my son, his fellow classmates, the teacher and the other chaperones. As the last of those words exited my mouth, I immediately and sheepishly realized that my having once sat on those same stools held no historical significance whatsoever.
Those Salisbury lunch counter seats, like the preceding ones in Greensboro and in many other cities, played a part in the making of a more “singular” national vision. The charting of our souls and the navigation of our paths down the highways are both made more simple and focused when “seeing double” narrows to only “seeing one,” and that sort of “narrowness” is something to be commended.