How Could They Let You Go?
I stepped off a bus yesterday with a
friend, and I stepped off a bus forty years ago with a friend. And there
hasn’t been much of a change in those forty years ago. No, hardly enough
change at all! Because I am white and both of my friends were black…
“What did you do before you
collected cans?” I asked this black fellow who looked like he was a bit
older than me. He smiled at me with several front teeth missing. Just
about as many missing as I had. But I had caps and gold bridges to hide my
spaces. His teeth were all missing from the front, and showed his honesty.
But his smile was every bit as beautiful as any other might have been.
I like to think of myself as a
poet, and was looking for the “poetry” in the cans of an old black man with
no front teeth. In the blue wire cart lined with cardboard was a clear
plastic bag. Cans & bottles filled the bag to the top. As I looked through
the plastic, there were Pepsi and Seven-Up cans. A couple of beer cans were
visible, as were some spring water bottles.
I explained to him what I was
thinking and we started to talk. “I don’t needs to get the cans.” He said,
as if to apologize to me. “I get’s a pension from the VA. But I just like
to collect the cans. I like the water bottles the best.” he said.
“Do you ride the bus often?” I asked him.
And he answered that he did. “I rides it every day…every day,” he said.
Now, I live in West Haven, CT.,
in a nice little place by the water. And I love to go outside in the
morning and watch the sunrise and the birds. I hope the tranquility will
help me to be a better writer. West Haven, sits right between New Haven and
Milford along the Connecticut coast of Long Island Sound. Savin Rock, site
of a famous 1870’s amusement park, sits just up the road towards New Haven.
I have driven myself in my own
car since I turned 16 in 1960. I have a poet friend, and we are proud to
say that we are just two kids from the 60’s who are now in their 60’s.
While many of our peers were out protesting and picking the Ivy league
college they would attend, we were both busy doing something else in the
60’s. But that’s another story, and it wasn’t drugs either. In fact today
is her Sixty-second birthday.
But, occasionally, I just like to take the
bus which runs both ways in front of my place. I work a few miles away and
it is so calming and relaxing to step off the bus refreshed and ready to
work, rather than leave late, race to catch the green of every light and
hope there will be no traffic. Just to sit and think on the bus is nice.
But, the bus I always take runs east towards Milford.
Yesterday, I took the bus the other way. I
had to go to Yale Medical Center in New Haven for some blood work. It was
my day off, and though I would usually take the car and fight the traffic
and the parking, yesterday, I just said “I think I’ll just take the bus.”
I had a nice conversation at the bus stop
with a young woman from Jamaica who has aspirations to be an actress. We
got on the bus and talked for a while. Then I wished her well as she got
off, just as ‘Junior’ was struggling to get on with his cans in the blue
wire cart in downtown West Haven.
So, to get back on track, Junior and I are
sitting on the bus talking about his cans. And I’m thinking I see a poem in
“What did you do before you collected
cans?” I had asked him…
“I used to lay rug.” He had sheepishly
replied, and I had to ask him to repeat it because I couldn’t quite
understand him. He said it again using the word carpet to get me to
understand. He also had worked in a ship yard with his cousin in Florida.
“And I went in the Army when I got my draft card in 1969,” he said. “But I
didn’t stay in too long.”
“I got a draft card in 1964,” I said
proudly to Junior. And I am proud to have been in the military, and always
take time to talk to fellow Viet Nam era vets, even though I never went
Now there’s about six or seven all together
who are starting to get involved in this conversation. There’s me and
Junior. Behind me are two black men. One was a young man in his twenties,
trying, as a white man sees it, to look ‘Black.’ The other was another
nicely dressed black man about my age. I will refer to them from now on as
the ‘That’s right’ Choir. Across from me and to the right of Junior is the
crazy lady who was white. She is telling her life story, to herself as well
as all of us.
“Every day.” Junior says. “Every day.”
When I ask him about the crazy lady after she leaves at her stop. “She
tells that same story every day. She needs to get a man.” He, realizing
that he has amused himself, repeats the words of wisdom two or three times.
“All she needs is a man.” “That’s what she needs, that lady just needs a
For a second, I thought to myself “But
you’re a man.” And from behind me I heard “That’s right, that’s right,” from
the two black men in the Choir as the door closes and the bus pulls off.
To my left is a business dressed
thirty-something black man. He’s still black, but not quite white, if you
get my meaning. He looks like he is just trying to make it in America like
anyone. Raise a family, buy a house, keep out of trouble, etc. He wasn’t
singing with the choir. He just listening quietly and hasn’t said a word,
but he is taking it all in.
To his left is an older white lady, perhaps
a bit over seventy. Nicely dressed and sitting rather proper in the first
Senior Citizen seat. Nice coat, grey hair. Her hands are covering her
small black purse which sits neatly centered on her lap. She seems to be
worried that one of the blacks could just take it away, and run down the
street at the next stop. She never speaks, but I can hear clearly every
word she is thinking. “Don’t rile them up.” She is thinking. “Don’t rile
them up.” And she tightens the grip on her purse.
Junior starts to tell me all about his
struggles with the VA to get his disability check. With the help of
someone, eight years ago, he was able to get a VA pension. Now he gets a
check, but it’s still not enough, and the cans help. And the nicely dressed
older choir member says “They should pay you more.” And the younger black
man says “I hear you could get them to buy you a house.”
But Junior’s story is not about the amount
of the check, or if the government owes him a house. It’s about what
happened to him and thousands of other young black men in the ‘60’s.
Something that was just not right. And it still makes me mad as I write
I love “A Christmas story,” the famous
cult movie about Richie and the BB gun. I love the flag pole, the Chinese
waiters singing Christmas Carols, and the leg lamp and the soap. But what I
love most is the line that we all cherish in the movie. The line spoken by
everyone to little Richie as if it were a divine message following a fanfare
from Gabriel’s trumpet…”You’ll shoot your eye out.”
Junior explained that when he was 15, he
was playing with his cousin in South Carolina where he was raised. “Down by
Myrtle Beach,” he said. His cousin had shot a BB at a tree, and it had
bounced off the tree and hit Junior in the right eye. He rubbed his eye,
and thought it was ok, and they continued to play.
Now, I grew up in quaint little New Canaan,
CT. A pretty high class neighborhood and we even had a black kid in our
class at school, just in case you think there was any prejudice to influence
my thinking. In fact her name was Judy; she is to this day, a dear friend.
But, she was the only black kid in my school!
One of my friends in New Canaan named
Frederick had all sorts of BB guns and parents with a lot of money and a big
fancy white house. Frederick and I used to play rough. Once we were
throwing rocks high in the air in the woods and I threw one that hit him in
the head. We used to shoot target arrows at each other in his back yard and
one hit me in the leg once, but it bounced off. And I remember one time
when he shot himself in the hand with one of his BB guns and his mother took
him to the doctor.
But Junior didn’t go to the doctor after
his accident. He went home and told his mom and went to bed, and rubbed his
eye because it still hurt. “I was never able to see right out of that eye.”
Junior told me on the bus yesterday. A week or so later, he said “I was
rubbing the eye.” And out popped the BB and landed on the floor!” “But I
never could see out of it right.” He went on. “To this day, I can only see
partly through it. I think that BB rusted in there or something.” Junior
“I had to learn to shoot left handed.” He
said “I didn’t want to get shot.” So I learned to shoot left handed.” He
wasn’t talking about protecting himself from racists or Klan members in
South Carolina. Junior was talking about Basic Training in the Army of the
United States of America into which he had been drafted.
And I said hardly believing what I had just
heard. “How could they let you go?” How could we have cared so little as
to put a gun in the hand of a partially blind young man of any color to go
do battle for us.
My friend Fredrick and guys like President
Clinton went to college, or took daddy’s money and bought a VW camper to
protest of went off to Canada to hide. Some of us regular white guys like
me got our draft card and joined, passed the physical and served our time.
Others from that era like Senator’s Kerry and McCain went over there where
the bullets were. And some like President Bush served in the reserves.
But, any of our parents would have taken us
to the doctor who would have removed the BB from our eye. We would have had
a medical record that would have certainly made us 4F.
“How could they let you go.” I said as the
choir was getting worked up. “They shouldn’t have let you go.”
“I got out” the older member of the choir
“I didn’t go. They owe you something.” the
young member said referring to the Gulf War I assume. “They was risking
their lives over there, and they should pay.” “They should buy you a
house.” And the lady gripped her purse.
Now the nicely dressed young black man
finally open’s up and speaks with a nice “You don’t know what it’s like to
be black in America speech.” And I am loving it. And I am thinking I never
saw Martin Luther King speak, but I would have loved to have seen his
passion. But I’m still thinking over and over, “How could they let you
And the choir is singing “They owe’s you.
They should buy you a house.”
Junior and I agree that the government
doesn’t owe him a thing. ‘cause that was 40 years ago. Who we owe
something to are the children of the nicely dressed black man. He doesn’t
want his kids to be white, and doesn’t want us to give him a house; he wants
to buy his own house. And we owe something to the children and
grandchildren of Junior and the two guys in the choir, the same opportunity
that every American should have.
And all the time I kept thinking “How could
they let you go.”
And the lady seems to be saying to herself,
“now you riled them up.”
And the choir sings “They should buy you a
house. They should pay.”
“But, how could they have let you go?”
Junior and I stepped off the bus
together in New Haven, said our goodbyes and shook hands as fellow veterans
and I walked off towards Yale Hospital and Junior whose real name was
William pushed his cart of cans in the opposite direction. A blue wire
basket with little black wheels, lined with cardboard and a clear plastic
In 1963, when I was 18, and I got off the
bus at a rest stop in South Carolina with another friend that I had happened
to meet at the Greyhound Terminal in New York City. Like Junior, he just
happened to be black.
We stepped off the bus together and stood
on the dusty ground looking at a sign that said “Whites Only.” My friend and
I went around back and ate in the kitchen with three of the nicest black
ladies I ever met.
For all I know, that could have been the
same day Junior almost got his eye shot out not far from where we were at
that moment. And for all I know, that nice black lady in a white cook’s
uniform who gave me, for free by the way, my first ever piece of southern
cooked “Sweet Potato Pie.”
For all I know, that lovely lady could have
been Junior’s mother!