Smitty, six-years old
First red & green traffic lights installed in Manhattan
Average cost to rent a house: $15 per month
(We are part way into Chapter Two where the Smith family has gathered around the table for dinner.
Earlier in the day Mama took Smitty to see the doctor to examine Smitty’s lame arm.)
We took each other’s hands and bowed our heads as the fried chicken teased us with its glorious scent.
“Lord, these are some perilous days we’re living in, so I’m asking you to bless the Army, the Navy…”
Here we go again. Daddy fancied himself a man of prayer. He would pray for us, for all the neighbors on our street, for folks on the next block, across the country, and around the world. I didn’t know if I could make it through another one of Daddy’s prayers without dying of starvation, right there with a platter of fried chicken within arm’s reach. I sighed like a six-year old bearing a heavy burden. Would sighing during the blessing get me in trouble?
I opened my eyes and looked around the table. Mama stared at me with the one-eyed version of the look. Mary kicked my leg under the table. She was the daughter of one of Mama’s relatives, but we’d been together my entire life, raised as brother and sister.
Across the table, Richard looked up, smiled, and winked at me. In his early twenties, he wasn’t scared of Mary or anyone else in the whole wide world. He’d taught me my ABC’s and how to write my name by the time I was five-years old. Richard thought I was smart, and the way he said it made me want to be smart. He motioned for me to bow my head again. I squeezed my eyes shut and bowed my head so low, it almost touched the table.
Daddy prayed on, despite Mary and me squirming in our chairs until they squeaked. Even though he had recited a long list of people who needed God’s blessing, he kept on going.
“We ask you to bless those who keep us safe here at home, the police department and the fire department. Be with our beloved preacher, church family, and all people everywhere going through these hard times…”
My mind wandered until I finally heard, “In your Son’s powerful and holy name we pray, Amen.”
“Amen,” the family echoed.
I held my breath as I slowly opened my eyes, afraid of what I’d find. Sure enough, the fried chicken was no longer steaming. It looked as cold as the mashed potatoes and greens. We all knew better than to complain. But I decided when I was grown up and had a wife and children sitting at my table, I’d pray fast. Thank you, Jesus, Amen! Get right to the point, that’s what I would do.
Daddy handed the platter to Mama. She always dished up first, followed by Daddy. Next, the plates were passed from oldest to youngest, which meant I was always last.
“Pop?” Clifton was older than Richard, but he was shy on account of not being smart.
“Usually, we get a letter, and you read it to us. Are you going to read us that letter?” Clifton pointed to the letter, which dangled dangerously over the edge of the table, like it was ready to jump to the floor.
Daddy’s shoulders sunk. He was quiet for a moment, studying his plate of untouched food. No one said a word.
Richard stopped dishing out his greens. “Dad?”
Daddy looked up, cleared his throat, and sat up straighter. He looked at Mama. “The children need to know, Ola. They’re in this, too.”
Mama bit her bottom lip and looked away.
“This letter,” Daddy began “is about our home. The landlord has decided to raise our rent, again.”
Richard groaned and put down the bowl of greens. Clifton shook his head, pushed back his chair, and crossed his arms over his chest.
“I’m sorry to have to share this with you, especially you two, Clifton and Richard. I know you’re working hard, same as me, and we barely make rent as it is.”
“I’ll get a job cleaning house,” Mama announced.
“Now Ola, you already spend much of your day ironing all the pieces brought in for you to press.”
“I’ll be a maid during the day and iron during the night while everyone’s asleep. Simple as that.”
Daddy smiled. “You will not, darling. I need you in bed to keep me warm.”
Clifton and Richard laughed.
Mama giggled and looked away. “Oh, Charlie.”
I didn’t know what was funny but laughed, anyway.
Daddy smiled at Mama. “I’ll see about hustling up more work on Saturdays. Ruby and Mary, you need to pick up some work after school. It’s been a while since you all added to the pot.”
Ruby perked up. “I know, Daddy. Mary and I can get work erasing books after school.”
Clifton turned toward Ruby. “What’s erasing?”
As Ruby took a breath to answer, Mary jumped in. “We erase the pencil marks in the schoolbooks from the white schools. When a book is erased clean, it’s used in the colored schools. Last time, we got paid three cents a page. It might even be more by now.”
“I can do that, too, Daddy.” I was eager to do my part. “I can erase.”
“No, you can’t.” Mary declared. “You’re too little. Anyway, the teacher likes girls to erase, because they’re more careful. The boys tear the pages.”
I slumped in my chair.
Clifton spoke up. “What happens if we don’t make the rent?”
Daddy looked at Mama, so I did too. Her eyes looked moist.
“If we are more than three months behind in our rent, we have to move out. Simple as that. We’re already behind one month.” Through the open window in the living room, I heard familiar voices. An evening game of “Kick the Can” had started without me.
I remembered my friend Enoch. He was really good at playing “Kick the Can,” until his family moved away from our neighborhood. “Did Enoch’s family leave Sandtown because they couldn’t pay rent?”
Mama nodded. “Yes. Saddest thing I ever did see when the Tucker family left Sandtown pulling their belongings in the children’s wagons and a wheelbarrow.”
We didn’t have a wagon or a wheelbarrow.
“Where’d they go, Mama?” Ruby asked. “Lucy said she’d write to me, but I’ve never gotten a letter from her.”
“They were headed to family living north of Baltimore. Don’t know if they settled there or not.” Mama looked up at Daddy, her eyebrows raised.
“Listen you all, we will be fine. We simply need to pull together as a family and work hard. A little hard work never hurt nobody, and you all have been working since you could walk.” Daddy gave a big smile. “You hear me, Clifton?”
“Yes, sir.” Clifton unfolded his arms and pulled his chair closer to the table.
“We can’t do anything about the rent right now. And we need to eat up, since your Mama did all this beautiful cooking.” He clapped his hands together and rubbed them back and forth with enthusiasm. “Let’s get to it.”
We all agreed and I waited for the food to get to me.
Our dining room was the same size and shape as all the other dining rooms in the row houses that lined Mount Street. I knew that because I’d been in many of the other houses when I did church visitation with Daddy. The kitchens were at the back of the houses, closest to the alley. The dining rooms led into the living rooms, where there were windows that faced the street. The bedrooms were all upstairs, and wood stoves in the kitchens and dining rooms provided heat.
Our furniture was sparse, well-worn, and mismatched, but like Daddy and Mama said, it did the job. The centerpiece of pride in the living room was the old upright player piano. Daddy did some work for a man who couldn’t pay with cash, but gave him a piano instead. My parents were proud of our home and took good care of it. Every day, Mama swept the wooden floors. And every day except Sundays, Daddy made sure we kids scrubbed the front marble steps with pumice, sand, and water. The rest of Baltimore scrubbed their marble steps once a week on Saturdays, but that wasn’t good enough for Daddy ‘cause Mama called the steps elegant, which I figured meant really pretty.
One time when Daddy was reminding me the right way to scrub the steps, I asked, “Why do we even scrub our steps? We’re just going to walk on them again soon as they’re dry.”
“Son, you ever hear of a town called Cockeysville?”
“No sir.” I sprinkled sand on the bottom step.
“Cockeysville is a fair distance from Sandtown, about twenty miles, I’d say. Out there’s a big quarry where workers dug out this marble to build the steps of Baltimore’s homes.” Daddy worked the pumice in circles on the top step. “And do you know what else they built with this very same marble?”
“No, what?” Daddy prompted.
“The marble used to build our front steps was the same marble used to build the Washington Monument in Washington, D.C.”
“Oh.” I wasn’t exactly sure what a monument was, but I knew Washington D.C. was a mighty important place.
“It was also used to construct sections of the United States Capitol Building. That’s where the leaders of our country work.”
I wondered if those leaders had to scrub the steps of the Capitol Building like I had to clean the steps to our house.
“So Smitty, if this same stone was used for our nation’s capitol, seems to me we should make extra effort to scrub off the soot and keep our steps clean.”
“Yes sir.” I saw his point, but I’d agree even more when it was my sisters’ turn to scrub.
The sound of Mama using the big spoon to scrape out the last of the mashed potatoes from the bowl and onto my plate brought my concentration back to dinner. I’d never again complain about having to scrub the steps so long as we didn’t have to leave our home.
“We also have some new family goals,” Daddy explained. It looked like everyone but me had been listening. “Going to have a new coffee can labeled ‘Operation.’”
“What for?” Ruby asked.
“Smitty and I went to the doctor today. Real nice man, wasn’t he?” Mama glanced my way. “He’s going to operate on Smitty’s arms when he gets older. Between the rent and an operation in our future, we need to save every nickel we can.”
“We will, Mama.” My brothers and sisters murmured their approval. Clifton smiled, reached over, and messed with my hair. Maybe an operation wouldn’t be so bad.
Mama glanced over at Richard. “How’s your job at Stewart’s coming along, son?”
“Still going good.” Richard was the first colored elevator operator at Stewart’s Department Store. Part of the reason he got the job was because of his light skin color and good hair. “Yesterday Missus Feldman—she’s married to the store manager—she left with so many shopping bags of clothing, she could barely carry them. Lord have mercy, some of those white women spend money like they have more than they know what to do with.”
Mama finally passed me the chicken. “Here you go, Smitty.”
“Don’t mind if I do.”
Mama chuckled at my pet phrase as she helped me dish up a juicy drumstick onto my plate.
“Don’t you bellyache about those white folks.” Mama put the empty platter on the table. “All their shopping is what gives you a job.”
“That’s right, son,” Daddy agreed. “Are you keeping your uniform hat on? You can’t afford any more reprimands. Lord knows, we need your job now more than ever.”
“Yes sir.” Richard’s eyes danced around like Mary’s did when she was lying, but nobody else seemed to notice. Richard saw me watching him and winked. I liked it when he trusted me with his secrets.
Richard was my brother in all the ways that mattered. He was tall and handsome. His father was a white doctor over on the other side of Baltimore. And Richard’s mother was the colored housekeeper who worked in the doctor’s house. Even though she wanted to, she couldn’t keep Richard once he was born. That’s how Daddy and Mama got him. They promised they would love him as their own, and they did. Richard had buttermilk-colored skin. His hair was soft, silky, and curled around his face. If I had good hair like my big brother, I wouldn’t wear my hat, either.
“Richard’s vain about his hair.” Mary piped up, her voice going up and down the scale. “Isn’t vanity a sin, Mama?”
Mama shook her head. “Hush up and mind your own business, Mary.”
I smiled. Mary stuck her tongue out at me when no one was looking.
“It’s true, Richard, you could pass,” Ruby added in her soft, tender voice.
“Nobody here needs to be pretending they’re someone they’re not,” Daddy said. “No one needs to pass for white.”
Richard gulped down his mouthful of food. “But it sure is a tough world for a colored man, Daddy.”
Clifton nodded in silent agreement. Clifton was somehow related to Mama, but I forgot the details. When Richard taught me my ABC’s, he showed Clifton at the same time, but he had trouble learning. Clifton never could write much more than his name and his numbers. When he was studying a newspaper, I knew he was only looking at the pictures, but I never let on. I loved Clifton, and he loved me back.
Daddy cleared his throat and set down his fork. “Now you all listen to me.” He seemed to stare each of us in the eye, all at the same time. “True enough, sometimes this world isn’t so friendly for us coloreds. At times, it can be downright ugly. But the Lord has never made a mistake, and it was no slip-up that you were born colored.” He was silent for a moment then continued as he pointed at each of his children. “Every one of you has dignity and a purpose, simply because you are a child of God. Your job is to work hard and reach for opportunities to improve yourselves, so you can do your best for God’s glory. It’s not always going to be so difficult for colored folks.”
Clifton squinted and shook his head. “How do you know, Daddy?”
“We’ve come a long way even in my lifetime, Clifton.” Daddy leaned forward. “You all hear me on this, and don’t you forget it. Things will improve for us coloreds, and I want you ready. You need to be ready.”
A few beats passed until I finally spoke. “How can I do better, Daddy, when I can’t even erase books to help you pay the rent?”
Daddy leaned down further and looked me straight in the eyes. “We’ll think of something, little man. We’ll think of something.”