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 the cans.

“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 overseas myself.

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 man.” 

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 this story!

~

 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 said.

“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 said. 

“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 go.” 

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 bag.

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!

 

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