Whatever Happened to Jimmy?

Settle-in, breathe deeply, close your eyes if you want. We’re going on a trip. We’re traveling back to the Dixie of 1959. I’m your guide, and you’ll be safe, but you’ll see things and hear things that may offend you and dismay you. For comfort I offer only a moment of magnolia flavored grace, at the end of the trip.
Smell the air? It’s warm and gentle, full of plant life, humus, rebirth and decay.
Picture a tree-lined street with single family houses, built not all at once but over decades. There’s my house, the one with dogwoods at the curb and oaks at the property line.
Come around back. That little shack you can barely see through the hedge? That’s a slave quarters belonging to the columned Civil War mansion, whose backside you can see peeking through the redbud trees.
We’re not out in the country, we’re smack in the middle of Athens, Georgia–a small college town in a rural landscape .Our house sits in the woodlot of that former plantation big-house, on land my parents bought from the maiden-sister survivors of the Carlton clan.
That other sweet, fruity smell? That’s an untended scuppernong arbor. Came with the woodlot.
I’m a twelve-year-old child, and slavery’s ghost is everywhere.
I absorb it and its Jim Crow stand-in through my every sense. I see the shacks and I see the mansions.
And I feel it. A few years back when I was littler, I held slavery’s legacy in my hand. Literally. My hand was in the maid’s hand. And even after my family slid into genteel white poverty, we still kept her on. Not to look after her, but for her to keep looking after us. We could afford it. Her wages were small.
She is black. An of course statement. Twelve-year old me still thinks all maids are black. It will take me years to start picking that apart.
I hear the ghost in the music around me. Ray Charles creating What’d I Say, Alvin and the Chipmunks rendering Ragtime Cowboy Joe.
I taste the pepper in Lula Mae’s meats.
I smell the fatback in her greens.
She serves me in our dining room with mahogany table, lace tablecloth, and china. Grace is said. Lula Mae comes from the kitchen when Mom rings a little silver bell. When the family is done, she eats her meal outside on a splintery unfinished picnic table.
All the requisite attitudes seep into me by osmosis. By twelve I know black people are different from white people. I’m supposed to call them colored people because we’re polite. In a few more years some whites will call them nigras. Well-meaning  people who haven’t got a clue, don’t want to sound low-class, and, perhaps most importantly, don’t want to be shut-out by their friends for being egalitarian.
I’m one of the clueless.
Elderly black sharecroppers I pass on downtown sidewalks step into the street gutter when I approach. Kids my age show off a new knife and proudly call it an alliterative-digger. They don’t say alliterative.
Boys my age laugh and point at a black man in a past-its-prime Cadillac, especially one flying a fox or raccoon tail from the radio antenna. Meanwhile they admire the fuzzy dice hanging in a white teenager’s wannabe hot rod, and say When I get my license…
I’m one of those boys too.
What happened to me?
A black kid jumped a fence the summer of 1963. A fence both real and metaphorical. He watched two white kids play tennis on the whites-only high school’s whites-only tennis courts. He can’t attend that high school although he lives just across the street. The more mannerly of the two boys playing asks the newcomer if he’d like to play. I’m left on the court with the black kid.
At game’s end we lead the new-comer to the hose spigot for water. Georgia. July. Hot. Humid. A dance ensues around our drinking fountain problem. One for white, an inferior version for blacks. At these courts there’s only the hose. White children do not drink from the same fountain as black children.
Who drinks first? My friend Stan offers first drink to Willie. He declines, I decline, Stan declines. I say I’ll do it, just to save us another pas de trois.
Conversation erupts. Surprising me. I’ve never talked with a black kid my age. Willie asks Y’all ever been bowling?
Stan and I look at each other in amazement. Everybody bowls some. (Everybody has only white kids in it.) We’re taught in PE, school-bussed out to the new alley.
Willie says, I’ve never been.
Stan and I look at each other, still not comprehending. Athens is a small town. There’s not that much to do.
Willie says, There’s no place I can go.
And I start to bend.

6 thoughts on “Whatever Happened to Jimmy?

  1. Thanks Jim! What an excellent idea to post this today, keep ’em coming! Are you still in touch with Stan?


    1. Spoke with him yesterday. He’s an attorney, but his passion is doing God’s work. He was worried about my soul for a while, but I either convinced him God and I were OK, or he decided to stop worrying. He uses his attorney skills to help people who need it. Thanks for reading and the comment. Love


  2. I almost cried!! You are a beautiful writer and your memories of growing up in Athens are amazing.
    Marilyn Class of 65


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