Supreme Whites and Me
Some of my earliest childhood memories include going with mom and dad to wash our clothes at the ‘washeteria’. Mama’s old wringer/washer had given out sometime before my memory began. It was fun and sometimes they’d give me an extra penny to buy a gumball from the machine if it was close enough to 'payday'.
We only washed there, our clothes dried in the backyard on what in those days was called a clothesline. By the time I was in Jr High we owned a dryer too, but we all knew that clothes dried on the line felt better and unless it was raining on wash days that’s how mama dried clothes the rest of her life. Just thinking about it brings the memory of the feel and smell of clean air-dried sheets to mind.
At the washeteria there were Two Doors side by side, next to each other that were always open summer or winter to enter and leave.
The Old Washeteria Building c. March 2013 (Google Maps) As You Can See One Door Has Been Removed Leaving The Remaining Door a Little Off Center
When I was old enough to be able to read the signs above the doors, I realized one said “Whites” and the other said “Colored”. On the other side of the Doors, inside everything was Exactly the same. They both led into the same washeteria the same room full of dime operated washing machines and dryers and gumball machine.
At six years old this was especially puzzling, my dad went through the ‘colored’ door, and when my mom did the wash she went through the ‘whites’ door.
You know as a child we rationalize things in odd ways and since mama often reminded my sisters to keep their “whites” separate from their “coloreds” I figured the Doors had something or other to do with the actual act of washing the clothes. Hey, I was six...
At home our next door neighbors were ‘colored people’, that is to say in today’s terms they were black folk. A family a few doors down were Mexican and across the street from them another family of blacks, a block away a large family of Cubans had settled in having fled Castro’s socialist takeover in their country in 1959. This was the 16-1900 blocks of 17th, 18th and 19th streets of Port Arthur, Texas. My youthful world. Port Arthur, the same town that produced Jimmy Johnson and Janis Joplin.
We all played together us kids- army, cowboys and indians, and when the neighborhood girls insisted we all played house and pretended we cared about their dolly's and the pretend food in the little plastic play dishes. I ate at the neighbors’ homes, they ate at mine and every home was insanely clean…way cleaner than my own house today. Any mother or dad could whip any kid that got out of line, then march you to your house where a second whipping would be offered. When I say 'whipping' I mean a belt struck across the padding on your backside.
Many of the adults sat on their porches in the evenings (it was even hotter in those days since hardly anyone had AC in their homes) with sugary iced tea, and neighbors would come and go and have a glass and 'shoot the bull'. It was an early form of Facebook I guess, except the other faces were on the porch with you so all conversation was of a good nature, even the political discussions. Laughter could often be heard up and down the block.
Most of our dads were hourly wage earners at the Texaco or Gulf refineries which was only a few blocks away. So close that when they started up or shut down a large hydro-cracking unit, we could feel the ground shaking. If he wasn’t shift-working and was at home, Daddy might say something like ‘they just shook number 2 cat” or ‘that was pump house 13 kicking’ so well the old-timers understood and knew the refining processes.
My dad was fully Syrian-Lebanese, and my mom fully Irish. In Port Arthur, Texas when I was growing up in the social order of things my dad was an “N word” with “sand” in front of it. Mama was just plain ‘white’ woman.
So, in Port Arthur, Texas in the early 1960’s I was bi-racial, though the conjugated hyphenated word hadn’t been invented yet. We were somehow above the Blacks, Mexicans and Cubans in the social pecking order but not purely white.
My Dad (Far Right) On His Syrian-Lebanese Baseball Team L'Monar c. 1940's They Won State Championships And Took On All Comers All Through The 1930's-1950's Including the Pro's That Barnstormed the Country in the Off-season.
Having been a famous local baseball player in his youth, my daddy was typically well-treated and respected by a wide swath of locals of all colors and backgrounds. Everywhere we went everyone seemed to know him but those are stories for another day. But I recall him lamenting about not being accepted in certain social circles in town in those days, and his very short-lived despondency over being rejected for membership in a certain lodge that met in a large hall on Lakeshore Drive. After all, a lot of his co-workers were members. He covered it well to us, but I realized once I was grown those episodes hurt him deep in his bones.
My mom and dad taught me to treat all people with Respect, “yes sir, no ma’am, please and thank you” and it’s a habit to this day. And daddy taught me that everyone deserves your best until they prove themselves to not deserve it.
I distilled all that wisdom down into my own motto years later to: With me, everybody starts at 100% and it’s up to them to whittle it down from there.
I don’t divide people into various shades, colors or religion, well except maybe the pleasant ones from the rude, the character filled from the character empty. And perhaps those ignorant to real facts and history vs. those who refuse to learn them and whether they’re assholes or not.
And these days a lot of ignorant, unpleasant characterless, assholes seem to be making the news every day. Equally ignorant assholes confront them and the country keeps its focus on an astounding amount of daily assholery.
For me, it just doesn’t matter what your race is, your background, male or female, where you went to school or who you know. Are you an asshole? We won’t get along. You're breaking our laws, we won't get along. You treat people badly, we ain't gonna be friends.
Are you God? God made us in his image, all of us. That makes us all equal, it makes us all brothers at the core. Are you greater than God that you can decide to segregate one race or religion from another?
Yes, God gave us each some different unique and individual Talents – I can’t sing better than Elvis Presley but I can probably grow orchids and tomatoes better than he. Other than the Talents God gave us, Elvis and I are the same thing: Human Beings.
And then there was Martin Luther King, Jr. A Baptist preacher who was going around the south demanding that all men deserve Respect. All men should start at 100% with each other, or in other words that all men should be judged by the content of their character and not the color of their skin or how they worship, and work with one another and get along and be kind to one another.
What MLK said was kind of the same things my Daddy used to say but He was shot through the throat for saying it.
By the time I reached third grade in school, Lyndon Johnson a Texas Democrat was president and was able to pass the bi-partisan ‘Civil Rights’ act by asking a bunch of Republicans to cross the aisle and vote for it too and they did.
But Nothing really changed in my neighborhood, except we didn’t go to the washeteria anymore because we’d been able to purchase our own washing machine from Sears and Roebuck ‘on time’. We still bought gasoline at the Texaco station across from the washeteria, and then one day I noticed the signs over the two doors had been taken down.
Me and my Daddy - Easter 1958, Lake Charles.
I didn't pick that hat or puffy shirt, don't Judge me.
Anybody could walk in and out of either Door. At nine years old for reasons I didn’t fully understand then, the sight of the Two Doors without the signs made me smile. It still does.
Happy Martin Luther King, Jr Day.*
(*Edited - Originally published on MLK Day January 16th, 2017 By George Ferris, Jr under the title: There Were Two Doors)