that confuses the past, threatens the future, and renders the present inaccessible.
- Maya Angelou
Lessons in Black and White
Summer meant escaping graduate school and heading for Florida sunshine. I followed my new relationship to his job in Jacksonville, avoided additional classwork, and left employment as a pharmacy salesclerk, including a no-increase-in-salary promotion to make-up specialist.
Still, I needed work. Fall semester approached, and I was broke. After a brief stint as a Kelly Girl, I was tired of typing, the usual option for college women in the ‘70s. Perhaps something more daring, like a cocktail waitress? I donned a summer dress that ended half-way up my thighs and nailed the interview. With my uniform of a black top and just-under-the-knee boots, set-off by bright red hot-pants and long, straight blondish hair, I looked the part. Never mind that I lied about previous serving experience at the Cliff House in San Francisco. I figured it would all work out.
My employment venue? A large, noisy bar, complete with wooden dance floor, a small stage, disheveled musicians, and boutique shops selling T-shirts and pizza. With a drinking age of eighteen, customers from a nearby military base and a school for deaf students, it was a frenzied environment. Loud rock bands pounded instruments and shouted out songs. On weekends drinks were served by pushing through dancing masses, amid frequent fights ending in flying chairs and tables. At closing time, men approached women who looked alone, hoping to “get lucky” and find someone to take home.
This occupation was not my best fit. I didn’t care for alcohol, and I knew no one who’d ever served drinks except from behind the safety of a bar. At 2:00 a.m. most staff hung around for a few hours to drink. I went home, washed the smells of vomit and cigarettes out of my clothes and hair, then propped my aching feet onto bedroom cushions.
I’d envisioned Florida as comparable to California—sunshine, greenery, oceans, and fun. Among smoky rooms, flirtation and inappropriate touching, I found a culture different than I expected. At just south of the Georgia border, racism was overt and rampant.
I wasn’t naïve. As a Teacher Corps Intern in Las Vegas during voluntary integration, which meant segregation continued, I taught and lived in the black community. Two dirt roads separated my life from the glitz of downtown casinos. Streetlights went out when the wind blew, and as young white women we were stopped by police “for our safety” when driving
schoolchildren home after a Girl Scouts meeting. Years later, I returned to visit my old school. Lost, I stopped at a gas station for help. Placing the street map on the hood of my old Rambler, a white attendant came to assist. “I want to go here,” I said, pointing to where I previously lived. “No, there must be a mistake. You don’t want to go there.”
“I do,” I said.
He looked at me suspiciously, shook his head, and walked away.
In Jacksonville, racism was even more deep-seated and disheartening than in California, if only because it was verbalized directly. Once, our head cocktail waitress announced:
“I don’t like Blacks any more than you do, but it’s the law. We have to serve them.”
African Americans typically arrived in night-time waves, usually after 10 p.m., when dancers were sweaty and music was deafening. If more than two blacks sat in the same area, their assigned waitress could be found hanging out in the service bar instead of attending to customers.
“It stinks in my section,” was a typical pronouncement.
One night a server ran into our service bar yelling “Oh my god, oh my god!”
Everyone rushed to her. I stood aside. I wasn’t part of the in-crowd, and I knew something was happening I wouldn’t like.
“Oh my God! A Black guy asked me out!”
Everyone gasped and squealed. The server followed up with:
“I danced with one once, but I certainly wouldn’t go out with one.”
In exasperation, I yelled “Well, I’ve slept with one.”
I couldn’t think quickly of any other means to voice my displeasure. There were stares in my direction, and dead silence. Often perceived as the strange girl from California, it was easy for them to ignore my disapproval.
Sundays presented special challenges. Customers were few, so new rock bands auditioned. Many were terrible. Waitresses worked quickly or customers left before drinks arrived. It was the only evening servers were unassigned to specific areas. Whoever ran to assist occupied tables first, earned tips. With a total nightly salary of $5 for six hours, spotting new clientele was the only way to make money. Even so, if you were black, no one served you except me, the crazy Californian.
It’s not that I was a goody-goody evangelist; I simply didn’t understand lack of humanity. Raised in a poor white community, then moved to a middle-class white community, I’d only even seen four Black people in my town until I went to college. But I was brought up in a religious household with strong values. My parents may not have taught about racism, but they did teach that everyone should be treated politely and equally.
Near the end of my tenure at the club, a young African American man asked me to send drinks to a table of two white women. He said he was in the military, lonely, and wanted nothing except conversation. I asked the women if it was OK, pointing to where he sat.
“Sure,” said one. “Just let him know I’m married.”
I brought their drinks, and he walked over to join them. A moment later, the married one rushed into the service bar.
“You should have said something,” she yelled.
Without thinking about the implications, I’d made a serious mistake. I hadn’t divulged his skin color.
“I thought you saw him” I said.
“It’s OK,” she declared. “But you should have told us.”
Sometimes one learns the most from not-so-subtle comments, which I was reminded when, as a pointed after-thought, she added: