Over the past couple of days I've been thinking a lot about hate. I think many of us have. It just feels surreal. Everyone has been urging me to write. Keep up on my blog because I’m out of work and it’s what I’m meant to do. I’m not sure about that. I just have stories that swirl around my brain. Swirl around A LOT.
Once again I state for the record: I SUCK AT GRAMMAR!! There’s a lot of weird asides, conversations and internal thoughts in this one, so bear the fuck with me. I need an editor. And 25 million dollars.
So, the story I’m about to tell, is a direct response to the hate that’s been infiltrating my thoughts and dreams the past couple of days.
This story is true. I mean mostly true. I don’t want to get into the whole James Frey/Oprah debacle.
You see, I wasn’t there. This is my Dad’s story. It’s his story to tell, but he hates writing, can’t type, and would rather eat a big plate of good, hot food while watching sports on his rather large screen T.V.
I get the honor of relaying it. That makes me very happy indeed.
The story been told to me by my Dad, (like a thousand times I've asked him to tell me!!!) Dad is the most honest man I’ve ever known. Yeah, okay some artistic liberties are taken here and there, mostly because I think it still bothers Dad to really get into the meat of his feelings. You know men and those "meaty feelings.”
But, I’m telling you seriously, this is how it went down........
“Black Shmack I’m Hungry” or "Ah Fuck"
By: Gia Cerone
The year was 1961. My Dad graduated Hicksville high school. Hicksville is the real name of the town and the High School. Couldn’t make that shit up. Billy Joel went there. He is now the most famous alum. Before him, it was my Dad.
I don’t say that because he’s my dad and all cuddly and awesome. I say that because he really was a small town hero.
Let me explain.
At the time, my Dad was one of the greatest athletes to come out of the Long Island area. Maybe all of New York. A local baseball legend. The New York Yankees had my Dad on their radar probably starting around his sophomore year. He started as a Varsity pitcher as a freshmen. One time he pitched a perfect game. Set the record in strikeouts. Hit for average and power to save and win his own starts. Yeah, he was that good.
When Dad pitched, the stands were packed. They needed to set up extra bleachers to accommodate the locals that came streaming in. Kids and parents from other towns. Plainview, Bethpage, Jericho, even farther in some cases. There was no doubt Dad was the real thing.
But, there’s another thing. Dad was an amazing football player. Just like baseball, he started Varsity as a freshman. He was a running back but stayed on the field the whole time playing nose tackle. He loved the aggressiveness and the energy. See, Dad didn’t have the best home life. (That will be another story), but needless to say, he needed a way to release bad feelings and aggression. Football was perfect for that. In addition, he knew the game. Could read the field. Knew the plays. Great anticipation and insight. Insane strength. He literally would be dragging multiple guys down the field hanging on trying to stop him. So, he was that good.
One way or the other Dad was either going to go to college on a full scholarship or be signed by the Yankees. The future looked bright.
In 1960 & 1961, Notre Dame and a plethora of other colleges came calling.
My grandfather, who I have no problem stating for the record, was a piece of shit. He didn’t give a damn about my Dad or his future, especially if it meant he would have to open his wallet, that by the way was padded pretty nicely on account of him being the best known plumber in Hicksville. Franktheplumber. He was rich as Rockafeller.
The principal of Hicksville High School was an amazingly good and kind hearted man who took a liking to my Dad. He met my grandfather a couple of times when Franktheplumber HAD to be there to speak to certain colleges that came to inquire about Dad. He immediately saw that Franktheplumber had zero interest in his own son. Not just monetarily. Just generally. It bothered Principal Mazey. Because, even, though Dad was a star jock, he was also a damn nice kid. Not perfect by any means, but kind, in a way. Not full of himself. Dad sort of lived by an inner code of “always do the right thing”. Mr. Mazey saw that. He had kids of his own, but looked at Dad as sort of an adopted Son. Dad needed him. It was a good thing.
So, because Dad didn’t have the greatest grades - (For the record, he didn't need to, many a time he was told to write his name on the top of the test and nothing else, but hand it straight back to mostly male teachers) - he really didn’t expect or pay much attention to the bigger schools that came asking for him. Looking back, he would have loved Notre Dame, but again, he had a feeling he would end up with The Yankees (he did), so the whole thing was kind of perfunctory. Just going through the motions.
But Mr. Mazey insisted he do it. Take it seriously, and have his head in the proceedings.
“Education Robert, is extremely important. No matter what happens, you need to at the very least make an effort to continue your education. You are a blessed young man. I will not let you throw this opportunity away. You must respect this process. I will help you.”
Dad agreed. He always agreed with Mr. Mazey. His respect for the man was unwavering.
It was a Friday afternoon and Mr. Mazey called Dad down to office. Another college was there to talk. Troy State Alabama. Dad sat at the desk with the two men from the college plus Mr. Mazey. They offered him a full ride, everything paid for. The indication of special treatment. And, hey, they didn’t care whether Franktheplumber was there or not, just get a signature! Sounded alright. Dad agreed. Troy State Alabama. They would pay for the bus ticket and everything! One of the guys even slipped Dad a fifty as they left. Alabama, well alright!
Mr. Mazey was pleased. He smiled at dad and gave him a warm hug.
“Robert, I’m very proud of you. Now please sit back down, I want to speak to you about something.”
Dad didn’t like the sound of that. When Mr. Mazey said he wanted to speak to him about something, it usually meant Dad had committed some type of high school infringement of the rules. He racked his brain. He had been relatively good lately. He had called Kathy Graw "shorty with the forty", but Kathy was so cool, she laughed that stuff off. Couldn't be her.
“Robert. This conversation is extremely delicate. I want you keep this talk between you and I only, do you understand?”
“Yes sir, what ever you say.” Dad responded.
Mr. Mazey rubbed his hands together and smiled a little bit sadly. “Robert, you are going to Alabama. Let me ask you, what or where is the farthest you have been away from New York?"
Dad paused to think, “Washington DC on the senior trip Sir. Thank you again for paying for me to go, I promise I will pay you back one day.”
Mr. Mazey Cut him off with a shake of his hand in the air.
“Robert. Listen to me carefully. How to put this delicately, Alabama is not like here. It is a very different type of place. It’s a lovely state, but it’s a bit, how shall I word this, "culturally behind". Robert, you are going to see things and experience things that are going to be very eye opening. I need to you be aware of these things. Nothing frightening, or dangerous I guess, just very different and slightly ominous. Now that sounds awful. I, I, I, don't mean it to. You see, the fact that you are going there will be a form of education in and of itself. Please, Robert, take notice of everything. Absorb what is around you. Experience things, and most importantly, always do what you know in your heart is right. I know you know right from wrong. You are a very good young man. Follow your heart and you will do wonderfully. I have faith in you.”
Dad was kind of getting the point. He wasn’t stupid. He watched the TV. He saw the way Negroes were starting to demand equal rights, hell why not? Yet, the south was making it particularly hard for Negroes to find equality. Dad didn’t understand the fuss. He had played sports with colored kids since he lived in Brooklyn. Dad didn’t spend time thinking about skin color. If someone could keep up on the field, Dad didn’t care if they were purple.
Quite frankly, Dad knew a ton of loudmouth assholes that gave him a hard time because he was so good an athlete, and not for nothing, he had been kind of a chubby kid. He had lost the baby fat and gained muscle. But, looking back, every douchebag that had started shit with him was white. Dad figured it didn’t matter what color you were, an asshole was an asshole. A good guy was a good guy. Granted, he didn't personally know a lot of Negroes. But Lord knows he worshipped Jackie Robinson, his favorite ball player ever, hands down, no one even close. He loved Nat King Cole, no one sang like him. Chuck Berry was the best rock & roller out there. Screw Elvis. Dad's Mom, (before she left he and his brother, when Dad just seven), would listen to Billie Holiday, swaying her hips, eyes shut tight as she sang along to Billie's pain. (I guess that crazy, Bitch Grandma of mine knew pain as well - personally, however I say fuck her! You don't ever just leave your little kids - Sorry I'll continue)...Dad really didn’t give skin color much thought. He was going to college. In Alabama. Alabama! And pretty soon too.
The bus ride down was fine - at first. Then, it got progressively hotter and more cramped. Dad undid the top button of the only dress shirt he owned and loosened his stupid tie. His Nanny and Aunt Alice had bought them for him at Gimbals and made him wear them.
Jesus was it not getting really freakin hot?!! He had slept for a long time, fairly comfortable in the bus seat. He was a little motion sick. Not bad, just kind of a rumbly stomach. When the bus stopped outside of Virginia, Dad grabbed a hamburger and a cold Coke but only ate half the burger. Weird for him, no one ate like Dad. Besides sports, eating was his favorite. Way above girls even!!!!
A good ten hours later, Dad’s stomach had acclimated and he was officially hotter than he had ever been and starving. It was a relief when the driver said they’d be stopping really soon right inside the Alabama state line. Dad determined this was an excellent sign. He would step foot on Alabama soil, take a leak, try to get cool, and stuff his face to boot.
However, when Dad did step off the bus in Alabama, the first thing he noticed was the oppressive, intense, heat. Holy shit was it hot. Hot wasn’t the word. This was sweltering. And muggy. And bright. He couldn’t believe he could see heat coming off the beat up road. Like in the movies, the heat looked like liquid rising off the blacktop. It was mesmerizing. It had to be 110 degrees easy. He had a hard time breathing for Chrissake! On top of that, he was starving. Starving and thirsty. (Did I mention the man was hungry?). He squinted towards the little diner ahead of him. All the passengers were streaming in. It was around lunchtime anyway, so it seemed like anyone near the area was already in the diner. Dad made his way over to the entrance. Dad recognized some of his fellow travelers from the bus.
"How long until we can grab something to eat Sir?" my Dad asked glancing over a man's shoulder. Smelled pretty good in there.
“Twenty minute wait kid.” One of them said.
Dad was dumbfounded. Twenty minutes would be too long. He had hitchhiked to the bus stop in Hicksville. Franktheplumber wasn’t around and all the rest of his relatives were working. So, needless to say, no one had packed him anything to snack on. This was bad. For Dad this was really bad.
There was a coke machine outside the little diner. So he figured he could at least grab a cold soda, but a problem persisted. He had to piss like you read about.
While on the bus a rather large man with a bowler tie had boarded just outside Delaware and proceeded to head straight to the can and destroy it! Everyone on the bus was looking around mortified. Women were smacking their kid's hands away from their noses, shushing them as they whined, "Ewww it stinks."
While it was humorous at the time, Dad was not the least bit happy about no food and now nowhere to relieve himself, as the line for the diner bathroom was equally as jammed as the booths and chairs.
"Shit,” Dad thought, "gotta be something close, at least I can take a leak in the woods." So that's where he headed. As he made his way into a slightly cooler, yet more humid thick of lush green woods, he completely removed his tie and stuck it in his back pocket and undid the buttons on his scratchy shirt. His undershirt, completely wet from sweat cooled him a bit, so he decided to walk just a bit farther. After just a couple of minutes, Dad looked over his shoulder and could see only a small part of the bus stop diner's roof. He found a big old tree and did his business. It was glorious!
As he was tucking and zipping, an amazing breeze blew across the woods. Branches swayed ever so slightly, and Dad was pleasantly transfixed by the movement of the types of trees he didn't get to see up north. What was the name of those trees? He had heard their name in a song once...,
And then, well, it happened. With the miraculous breeze tickling his face came an aroma that could only be described as HEAVENLY. My Dad, so eloquent in nature thought aloud, "What the hell is that smell? Holy crap that smells good! Get me to where that smell is coming from...NOW!"
Just like that, something like out of a horror novel Dad was drawn deeper in the woods, transfixed, the smell beckoning. His "gitchy ya yas" (salivary glands as we call them at home) churning out saliva like some kind of rabid dog.
Then, like a mirage to a man stranded in the Gobi, Dad saw it.
Like a glistening, white beacon of culinary mastery. (Actually a clapboard old white shack) Above it a hand painted sign "True Bar-B-Q" and some other signs, “do dads” and “do hickies”, Dad paid no attention to at all as he literally sprinted towards what he considered to be one of the greatest bits of luck that had ever come his way.
-Even luckier than the day Franktheplumber brought him, once again, up to the attic to find, "somethin' that should fit ya" from the old steam trunk, only to discover he had out grown all the men's clothes circa 1922, and Dad could finally be rewarded - albeit grudgingly - with one, brand new, pair of khakis!- Yes, luckier than that!-
Dad, reaching the old screen door flung it open with zeal and immediately began to read the neatly, hand written, chalkboard menu, straight up, over the counter.
#1 - Pulled pork Sammy with collards and back fat ¢75
#2- Full Rack with sticky sauce, cornbread, and mashed taters ¢95
#3- Half Rack - same as #2 - ¢75
#4- Fresh Fried Chicken with giblet gravy & black eyed peas ¢85
Dear Sweet Jesus, Dad thought, I still have plenty of money left over from the $50- the recruiter from Troy slipped me (plus a $20- Mr. Mazey had given him in a good luck card, don't forget to write him back a thank you ). He could order this whole menu! The food looked to be coming out quick, and shit, he could eat it on the bus if time was getting tight!!
A man slowly made his way over and leaned in towards Dad on a worn wooden counter.
Dad started before the man could have time to ask, what'll it be?
"Hi Sir, I'll have a #1 but can I have mashed potatoes instead of collards I've never had them so I'll just go potatoes, and..."
"Son." The man said sternly, yet quietly. Shaking his head ever so slightly.
Dad shook his head. Getting out the cobwebs. Need food, must focus. "Sorry, no, no, you're right Sir, I need to try new stuff, new experiences. So yes indeed I'll have the collards, but I'll have a # 2 as well, this way I can try everything and...."
"SON!" the man said forcefully.
Dad, startled looked up into the man’s eyes. He was a handsome Negro, maybe in his 40's. He wore a BBQ splattered apron and an incredulous look on his weary face.
"I'm sorry sir, I apologize, I'm just hungry and have to make a bus....."
The Negro man leaned closer and gripped the counter so hard Dad noticed his nails digging into the wood. Now his expression wasn't incredulous, it was more like angry frustration.
"Now listen Son, I don't know you, and I assume from your accent your ain't from 'round hear, but I'm not putting my wife and my two girls or my life on the line, for who seems like a nice northern boy with a big hunger. You ain't seen ANY of the signs here?!! Look around Son. We can only serve colored folk here! Colored. See I wrote them signs myself "Coloreds Only." I did not however, paint all them others around lying and perched outside saying "Food for Niggers Only" and "Whites Keep Out" and "Mixing Equals Lynching". Those were acquired, not willingly, from another group altogether, that would not take very kindly to a naive white boy, no matter how hungry he be, sittin' down and eatin' some sticky ribs for a spell with all these other folks in here!"
Dad slowly turned around and realized every face in "True Bar-B-Q" was staring at him. Not a word was being spoken. He was the only white face in the place.
Dad gingerly turned back to the man. He cleared his throat and quietly said, "But, um Sir, um excuse me, but I don't mind eating with the people here, or being served by you or your employees. I'll eat it outside in the woods if ya' want. It, I mean, you, they, doesn't bother me at all......."
The man behind the counter's face softened. A thin, line of a grin. "Thats mighty nice of you to say Son, but listen to me. This here is Alabama. What that girl from that Wizard of Oz movie say? You ain't in The North no more. 'Cept she say Kansas. I see you're a nice kid, good young man. Probably going to the college right?"
Dad nodded slightly.
"Well, the man continued, it gives me peace to know there are young men like you, don't see the color of skin, and not just ‘cause they hungry or thirsty, or need to take a piss - Excuse me Ms. Flora', - (the man said over Dad's shoulder to a tiny old lady sitting in the booth behind him) but ‘cause skin color don’t mean nothin’ to ‘em. But Son, down here ev'things different. And I'm in no position to start taking a stand today, or making a point, and I'm pretty sure you not up for them things neither, the way you're sweatin' like a whore in church, - Excuse my once again Ms. Flora - Here Son, take this cup of cold lemonade & get. There may come a day, I hope someday soon, you will get lucky enough to try my pulled pork, and prolly drop dead where you stand it's so good, but not today. So that’s my speech for the day on racial equality’, the man said laughing with just a hint of bitterness, and shaking his head, ‘but for right now? Son, you got a bus to catch."
The man slid my Dad a paper cup of cold lemonade across the wood counter.
Dad, feeling numb, stupid and a little dizzy, reached into his pocket.
The man shook his head.
"On me son. Keep a good attitude. You play ball?"
"Troy State Sir ." Dad answered quietly.
"Well good luck to you. You're gonna need it." the man said with a hearty laugh. As he did, the rest of the diners began to chuckle along with him. It kind of broke the tension.
Dad wiped his hand on his khakis and reached to shake the man's hand. The man reached out. They shook. Strongly. Smiling at each other.
"Troy can't be that bad, can they Sir?"
The handshake grew warmer, more familiar, maybe.
"Well Son, let's hope you make the difference. That's about as good and shiny as I can make it for ya'."
My Dad smiled and looked the man in the eyes one last time.
"Have a good day Sir."
"You too Son, you too."
My Father stepped outside back into the Alabama heat. He glanced back over his shoulder as he began to make his way back into the woods. Now, he noticed the obvious signs he had missed before. Glaring. Menacing. How had he missed them? How for Godsakes?
Almost sleepwalking he made his way back to the bus. He drank what was the best lemonade that had ever touched his lips crumpled the cup and shoved it in his pocket.
The diner at the bus stop had cleared out a lot.
The heat, the shit eating heat. Did it get even hotter?
Dad bought a cold coke and stared at the heat rising off the street again. He felt funny. Eighteen year old man, with barely anything to call a “home” feeling.......homesick? No. That wasn't it. Not homesick. Just sick.
"All aboard" the driver yelled.
Dad squinted through the sun and climbed the bus stairs taking his seat. Sipping his Coke, he tried to put his finger on what really bothered him about all this. He laughed to himself when he thought, "one finger isn't nearly big enough."
In a few minutes the bus was moving down the road away from a world of confusion, disappointment and enlightenment.
His thoughts travelled back to Mr. Mazey's talk. The things he had said. Things he tried to say but couldn't.
I'm going to see things I don't like, or understand. Ominous things. Ominous.
Dad began to drift off as he leaned his head against the window watching those nice trees go by. What the hell were they called? His Mom used to sing a song about them.........right?
Poppy? Nahhhhhh. That's what he had called his beloved, now deceased, Grandpa once upon a time. Not poppy. Wait. Somethin' like popular or poopy. He was dozing now, had to be because he never saw his Mom anymore, but she was there. Mom, pretty clearly swaying her hips, eyes closed and singing Billie Holiday in front of the chipped white sink..........
POPLAR TREES! YEAH! POPLAR TREES!
And then the song played in his head as he drifted deeper. Finally, hungry again but sooooooo tired. Like he had just went nine innings.
He heard it then, Billie's pain, his Mom humming along......
Southern trees bear a strange fruit,
Blood on the leaves and blood at the root,
Black bodies swinging in the southern breeze,
Strange fruit hanging from the Poplar trees.
Pastoral scene of the gallant south,
The bulging eyes and the twisted mouth,
Scent of magnolias, sweet and fresh,
Then the sudden smell of burning flesh.
Here is fruit for the crows to pluck,
For the rain to gather, for the wind to suck,
For the sun to rot, for the trees to drop,
Here is a strange and bitter crop.
Dad awoke with a start.
"Town of Troy all passengers disembark. Last stop!! Town of Troy Alabama!!!"
My Dad glanced out the window. Heat still rising off the pavement. Staring at the nice Poplar Trees.
Just two simple words came to mind.