BLACK LIKE ME – RICH PASCHALL

From the battleground, by Rich Paschall


My father’s parents, my grandparents, were from rural Tennessee. They lived in Weakley County and their town was Martin. They were farmers but after World War II life there was hard and they moved to Chicago. When my grandfather retired from the Appleton Electric factory, they moved back to Tennessee and bought a house at the very edge of town. By that I mean there was a cornfield across the street.

I had been down there when I was little but don’t remember a lot about it. When I was a little older I would go to visit my retired grandparents, perhaps early to mid-1960s. I would walk with my grandfather into town. It was a mile to maybe a mile and a half to get to the start of Main Street. It could not have been more stereotypical small southern town America.

Martin, Tennessee 1965

These walks were more to exercise my aging grandparent than anything else. We rarely stopped anywhere. On one trip as we walked down the street, we saw a couple of black guys coming from the other direction. As they got near us they stepped off the sidewalk to let us pass. I thought this was rather strange. On the next block, it happened again. “Grandpa, why do those guys get off the sidewalk when we come by?”

“Oh,” my grandfather said rather sadly, “it’s just what black folks do.” I was rather naive and I just didn’t get it. I thought something was wrong with us that these people did not want to share the sidewalk with us. It would take a few more years before I got it. I am not sure why, but that is a strong memory that stays with me.

When my grandparents lived in Chicago, I guess I spent as much time with them as anyone. My grandfather read the Bible every day and took the lessons to heart. He saw everyone as the same and never said a bad word about others, so I didn’t consider the idea of different races. He was the most decent man I have known in my life. He was a real Christian and believed in the Golden Rule.  I am sure he would not know what to make of all the fake Christians today.

When I was older, a book was recommended to me entitled, “Black Like Me.” It is the true story of John Howard Griffin. In 1959 he got the help of a dermatologist to temporarily turn his skin brown using drugs and ultraviolet light. When he could pass as a black man in the south, he set out on his journey.

Original publication 1960

He solicited the help of a black shoeshine man he knew in New Orleans, who did not recognize him at first. He needed an introduction in the community and had to confide in someone. The journey is at times sad, at other times harrowing. When you have finished the book you have a better understanding of just how hard life could be for black people in the south prior to the Civil Rights Movement. Of course, you could never really know.  Yes, this 1960 book is dated now, but it had a big impact at the time of release. The author had to move to Mexico for fear of his life.

There is a 1964 movie starring James Whitmore that dramatizes the book. It has been decades since I have seen it so I can not explain how much it sanitizes the story for the viewing public. I am sure they did not capture a lot of what he was saying. The movie can still be found online. I ran across a free version on YouTube.

You may have seen the social experiment where a teacher asks an assembly of white people if they would prefer to be treated like a black person. Without getting even one response, she repeats the question, but there are no takers. Then she explains the facts to them:

I have lived in the same house for 41 years. It is a diverse neighborhood of mostly white, but black and brown and yellow too. I have never been afraid to walk down the street before, but it has been a rough few days. People are on edge. Businesses are closed. The post office and the bank are closed. Stores are boarded up as merchants large and small fear for their businesses.  I worry about going too far from the house that I might get beat up or killed in a neighborhood that has always been home.

It is no secret how I feel this has happened. I have seen The Making of America” and it has not been great. If Donald J Trump, the master of divisiveness, is not the anti-Christ, he is doing a good impersonation. But I digress.

With the boarding up of stores from Lincoln Square to Albany Park to Lake View to downtown Chicago, and with the threats to the gay business to Boystown, it has terrified many folks I know. Since the city has successfully cut off downtown with the police and the National Guard, protests have moved to the neighborhoods. A friend of mine commented on Facebook how frightening it was to live like this. He mentioned how there were sirens through the night and people were killed over the weekend.  Another friend replied:

“Scary isn’t it. That fear is what many black people feel all the time”

See Also: The Making Of America, SERENDIPITY, teepee12.com, June 2, 2020.

THE JOY OF HANGING OUT — MARILYN ARMSTRONG

Hanging out is a concept lost to modern youth, but the most fun times of my young years were spent hanging out. Too bad modern kids have lost it.

I was a teenager in college. Madly in love with my first boyfriend who was seriously into the “Village scene.” He brought me there for my first taste of cold chocolate at a MacDougal Street coffee shop. I took to the Village like the proverbial duck to water.

From the old Italian coffee houses that sold coffee along with a few other non-alcoholic drinks, to the tiny, dingy coffee houses where folk music was born, this was the Heart of Hip. Everything was a 15 cent subway ride from home.

The world was mine.

It wasn’t only the Village, either. A lot of New York was free back then.

Museums were free. The Metropolitan Museum of Art was a magical experience. For that matter, the huge New York Public Library behind the stone lions had basements full of original, ancient documents into which you could freely delve. You couldn’t take them out of the library, but they were free for you to absorb. (I have no idea if that’s true anymore.)

You could spend an afternoon at the Hayden Planetarium watching the stars. If you had just a little bit of money, afternoon plays on Broadway could be very cheap, especially if you could live with “standing room only.” In the afternoon, there were always seats available. A lot of things you pay big money, for now, weren’t expensive back when. This wasn’t just a matter of the change of the value of money through the years. It was a huge change in culture.

If you were a teenager, New York on your doorstep was heaven, but Greenwich Village in the 1960s on your doorstep? That was the stuff from which dreams came true.

From Bob Dylan and Tom Paxton to Pete Seeger and Judy Collins … they were all there. The famous, soon to be famous and a few infamous people. All young, making music and passing the basket.

Caffe Reggio — the place where cappuccino (in America) was born.

I’d take the subway and get off at Bleecker Street, alone or in the company of friends. It didn’t matter whether you brought company or went by yourself. There were always people to meet. You didn’t need much money — good because none of us had any. We were kids, mostly without jobs and in school. Those of us not still living with parents lived in apartments shared with other people so we could make the rent and maybe afford food too.

All I needed was subway fare — 30 cents round trip — and a few more cents for a hot (or cold) chocolate at the Reggio. For this pittance, I could spend an entire day and evening in the Village. Hanging out.

“What do you mean “hanging out?” asks my granddaughter.

“You bought a coffee or a hot chocolate and just sat around waiting to see what might happen. You could read or watch people coming and going. Hoping you’d see someone you knew — or maybe wanted to know.”

“That’s it? You just sat around?”

“Yup. Just sat around. And we didn’t sit around with our cell phones because there were no such things. We just sat around. Talking or thinking or reading. It was a quiet place until the music started. That was hanging out. No one told you to hurry — or told you to buy something or leave. It was cool to simply be there.”

Bleecker and MacDougalI often sat with a cup of coffee or chocolate for a whole day. No one pushed us out the door to make way for ‘the lunch crowd.’ No one bothered you unless you looked like you’d like some bothering.

When it got dark, you went to one of the places where people sang. There were usually no entry fees. Hopefully you had enough money to drop something in the basket for whoever was performing. It wasn’t particularly odd to have no money at all. A lot of us walked around with empty wallets. Without wallets, too. Rich was having exactly enough money to buy a coffee and subway tokens. It was okay in the 1960s. Poverty was cool.

Not only were there no cell phones. A lot of people had no phone. People rode bicycles with naked guitars strapped to their backs. Cars? I think most of us didn’t have driver’s licences. I know I didn’t. That was a decade in the future.

People were friendly, funny, and we were sure we were going to change the world. I think we did, though sometimes when I’m in a dour mood, I wonder if all we really did was make denim a fashion fabric.

Out near Hofstra in Hempstead, where I was occasionally attending school and getting far better grades than I deserved, I was a music major and one of the perks were free concert tickets to Carnegie Hall. There’s the “main room” — but there are also a number of “recital halls” where up and coming musicians perform. I’m hoping that’s still true.

Meanwhile, one of my soon-to-be husbands and his best friend decided to bring culture to Long Island. They opened the AbMaPHd (pronounced ab-ma-fid) coffee-house. It was a light-hearted reference to education — AB, MA, and Ph.D. Nobody got the joke.

They brought in the same people who were playing in the Village. Dave Van Ronk gave me my first good guitar strings. He even put them on the guitar for me.

Dave Van Ronk (back then)

What did I do there, in Hempstead? I hung out, of course. Sat around, meeting friends, drinking something, listening to music, meeting musicians. Hanging. I also played bridge upstairs in Memorial Hall instead of attending classes, but no one is perfect.

No one was texting, computing, or phoning. There was no electronic background noise (unless you count the squeal of feedback from the microphones). Nobody’s phone was beeping, dinging, or wailing. No one was going off into a corner to talk on the phone.

If you were going off into a corner, you were either making a date — remember dating? — or buying (or possibly selling) drugs.  All the noise was human. Talking, laughing, fighting, singing, discussing. Eating. Drinking.

It was an incredibly happy time for me, even though I thought I was deeply troubled, probably because I hadn’t really made the full breakaway from home to real life … and also because I’d read too many books about troubled youth and figured I must be one.

I know that whatever kids are doing today, they aren’t having nearly as much fun as we had. I feel sorry for them. We were adventurous, playful, willing to try anything at least once and most of us, more often. If I hadn’t been me during those years, I’d envy whoever had been the girl hanging out. If I miss anything of the “old days”? It’s hanging out. Just being there and doing nothing important.

Being there was enough.

THE LIGHT IN THE CORNER – Rich Paschall

The Way We Were, Rich Paschall

Memories light the corners of my mind
Misty water-colored memories of the way we were.

It has occurred to me that the formative moments of my lifetime have no point of reference for anyone born after 1990. I have sometimes referred to events that I remember well, only to have younger people, sometimes not even “young” people, look at me as if they can not relate to that time in history.

Perhaps it was the same when I was younger and hearing about things that were not that much earlier than my lifetime.  For example, I could not relate to the stories of the depression era, even though that point in time dramatically affected the lives of my parents and grandparents.

World War II was something we read about in history books.  I could not consider that my father was a member of our “greatest generation” and fought in the war. In fact he served in the 509 Composite on Tinian Island.  It never occurred to me to question him about the historic events of his time.

Scattered pictures of the smiles we left behind
Smiles we gave to one another for the way we were

The “Leave It To Beaver” and “Father Knows Best” days of the 1950’s are rather a blur to me.  I hold isolated memories of certain moments, some of them were good, others not so much.  I do remember getting to watch particular programs on our large 19 inch black and white television. It would be a long time before color television came along and we could afford one of those.

Can it be that it was all so simple then
Or has time rewritten every line

Alan Shepherd was the first man in space and we watched it on television in 1961. Ten years later he walked on the moon. Sometimes we got to watch reports of the space program on television in school.

I remember the Cuban Missile Crisis of 1962. It was a time when it seemed like nuclear war was right around the corner. We had air raid drills at school. We got under our desks and covered our heads as if that was going to protect us from a nuclear explosion. We knew where the air raid shelters were located in case we needed to go there in non-school hours. I am pretty sure we stocked up on can goods just in case supermarkets and food supplies were blown into the next dimension.

Like many Americans, I know where I was when John Kennedy was shot. We followed the non-stop television coverage during a time when there was no cable or satellite television and no all-news stations. What could be more important than the assassination of our president?

Memories may be beautiful and yet
What’s too painful to remember
We simply choose to forget

I recall the assassination of Martin Luther King and the worries that followed. Then there was the assassination of Robert Kennedy. It was too painful to remember, but these things shaped our youth.

Martin Luther King

The Viet Nam War was not a moment in history to us. It was a long and complicated process that split America apart and brought protests to the street. Living in a major urban area, we always wondered if the unrest would reach us. The Democratic National Convention was here in 1968. Riots erupted in the park that now holds Lollapalooza each year.

timetoast.com

The break-in of the Democratic National Committee Headquarters at the Watergate complex in 1972 ultimately brought down a president. It all played out in dramatic fashion on live television. Today many scandals have the word “gate” added to the end. Young people likely have no idea why.

So it’s the laughter we will remember
Whenever we remember
The way we were

The late ’70s brought us disco and urban cowboys. We were old enough then to go to clubs and dance like we knew what we were doing. Our music moved from social commentary to “dance fever.” It was a quick shift in the social dynamic. We also had gas shortages in ’73 and ’79. Yes, gas stations would run out of gas and there were times when you could only buy gas on certain days, depending on your license number.  I didn’t own a car the first time, and I guess I didn’t get around much the second time.

The ’80s were a time of community theater and new friendships for me.  I also remember the fallacy of trickle-down economics. It was the same failed theory as today’s failed policy. The Cold War ended, well sort of. The AIDS crisis began.

From there the rest of life intervened.  You know, going to work, paying the bills, trying to get by in a complicated world. There were issues of aging parents and family obligations. Then one day you are just older, like your grandparents were when you were young.

If we had the chance to do it all again
Tell me, would we?
Could we?

1987

Which of these events was the most significant in my life? I am not sure I can say. They all affected us in ways it is hard to tell many years later. But these are the ones that stand out.  It is the stream of my consciousness. They are the events that light the corners of my mind.  I did not write them down in advance. I sat down and just wrote them out as they came to me. Do these events mean anything to anyone born after 1990?

I wonder what are the significant historic or social events for those born in 1991. Someday these millennials will find that there are people who can not relate to what they are saying.

By the way, I got to see Streisand do this twice in concert. It was worth every penny.

HANGING OUT — MARILYN ARMSTRONG

Hanging out is a concept lost to modern youth. I think it’s a tragedy, personally. The best parts of my life were spent hanging out.

I was a teenager in college. Madly in love with my first boyfriend who was seriously into the “Village scene.” He brought me there for my first taste of cold chocolate at a MacDougal Street coffee shop. I took to the Village like the proverbial duck to water.

From the old Italian coffee houses that sold coffee along with a few other non-alcoholic drinks, to the tiny, dingy coffee houses where folk music was born, this was the Heart of Hip. Everything was a 15 cent subway ride from home.

The world was mine.

It wasn’t only the Village, either. A lot of New York was free back then.

Museums were free. The Metropolitan Museum of Art was a magical experience. For that matter, the huge New York Public Library behind the stone lions had basements full of original, ancient documents into which you could freely delve. You couldn’t take them out of the library, but they were free for you to absorb. (I have no idea if that’s true anymore.)

You could spent an afternoon at the Hayden Planetarium watching the stars. If you had just a little bit of money, afternoon plays on Broadway could be very cheap, especially if you could live with “standing room only.” In the afternoon, there were always seats available. A lot of things you pay big money for now weren’t expensive then … and this wasn’t just a matter of the change of the value of money through the years. It was a huge change in culture.

If you were a teenager, New York on your doorstep was heaven, but Greenwich Village in the 1960s on your doorstep? That was the stuff from which dreams came true.

From Bob Dylan and Tom Paxton, to Pete Seeger and Judy Collins … they were all there. The famous, soon to be famous and a few infamous people. All young, making music and passing the basket.

Caffe Reggio — the place where cappuccino (in America) was born.

I’d take the subway and get off at Bleecker Street, alone or in the company of friends. It didn’t matter whether you brought company or went by yourself. There were always people to meet. You didn’t need much money — good because none of us had any. We were kids, mostly without jobs and in school. Those of us not still living with parents lived in apartments shared with other people so we could make the rent and maybe afford food too.

All I needed was subway fare — 30 cents round trip — and a few more cents for a hot (or cold) chocolate at the Reggio. For this pittance, I could spend an entire day and evening in the Village. Hanging out.

“What do you mean “hanging out?” asks my granddaughter.

“You bought a coffee or a chocolate and just sat around waiting to see what might happen. You could read or watch people coming and going. Hoping you’d see someone you knew — or maybe wanted to know.”

“That’s it? You just sat around?”

“Yup. Just sat around. And we didn’t sit around with our cell phones because there were no such things. We just sat around. Talking or thinking or reading. It was a quiet place until the music started. That was hanging out. No one told you to hurry — or told you to buy something or leave. It was cool to simply be there.”

Bleecker and MacDougalI often sat with a cup of coffee or chocolate for a whole day. No one pushed us out the door to make way for ‘the lunch crowd.’ No one bothered you unless you looked like you’d like some bothering.

When it got dark, you went to one of the places where people sang. There were usually no entry fees. Hopefully you had enough money to drop something in the basket for whoever was performing. It wasn’t particularly odd to have no money at all. A lot of us walked around with empty wallets. Without wallets, too. Rich was having exactly enough money to buy a coffee and subway tokens. It was okay in the 1960s. Poverty was cool.

Not only were there no cell phones. A lot of people had no phone. People rode bicycles with naked guitars strapped to their backs. Cars? I think most of us didn’t have driver’s licences. I know I didn’t. That was a decade in the future.

People were friendly, funny, and we were sure we were going to change the world. I think we did, though sometimes when I’m in a dour mood, I wonder if all we really did was make denim a fashion fabric.

Out near Hofstra in Hempstead, where I was occasionally attending school and getting far better grades than I deserved, I was a music major and one of the perks were free concert tickets to Carnegie Hall. There’s the “main room” — but there are also a number of “recital halls” where up and coming musicians perform. I’m hope that’s still true.

Meanwhile, one of my soon-to-be husbands and his best friend decided to bring culture to Long Island. They opened the AbMaPHd (pronounced ab-ma-fid) coffee-house. It was a light-hearted reference to education — AB, MA, and Ph.D. Nobody got the joke.

They brought in the same people who were playing in the Village. Dave Van Ronk gave me my first good guitar strings. He even put them on the guitar for me.

Dave Van Ronk (back then)

What did I do there, in Hempstead? I hung out, of course. Sat around, meeting friends, drinking something, listening to music, meeting musicians. Hanging. I also played bridge upstairs in Memorial Hall instead of attending classes, but no one is perfect.

No one was texting, computing, or phoning. There was no electronic background noise (unless you count the squeal of feedback from the microphones). Nobody’s phone was beeping, dinging, or wailing. No one was going off into a corner to talk on the phone.

If you were going off into a corner, you were either making a date — remember dating? — or buying (or possibly selling) drugs.  All the noise was human. Talking, laughing, fighting, singing, discussing. Eating. Drinking.

It was an incredibly happy time for me, even though I thought I was deeply troubled, probably because I hadn’t really made the full breakaway from home to real life … and also because I’d read too many books about troubled youth and figured I must be one.

I know that whatever kids are doing today, they aren’t having nearly as much fun as we had. I feel sorry for them. We were adventurous, playful, willing to try anything at least once and most of us, more often. If I hadn’t been me during those years, I’d envy whoever had been the girl hanging out. If I miss anything of the “old days”? It’s hanging out. Just being there and doing nothing important.

Being there was enough.