Two Doors Were Side by Side
Some of my earliest childhood memories include going with mom or 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 a penny to buy a gumball from a machine.
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.
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.
When I was old enough to be able to read the signs above them, I realized one said “Whites” and the other said “Colored”. On the other side of the Doors, inside everything was 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.
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.
We all played together- army, cowboys and indians, and when the neighborhood girls insisted we all played house and pretended we cared about their dollies. I ate at their 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 eventually another whipping would likely be offered.
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 lit up number 3” or ‘that was pump house 13 kicking’.
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’.
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 Blacks and Mexicans but not purely white.
Having been a famous local baseball player in his youth, my daddy was typically well-treated and respected by a wide swath of locals. Everywhere we went everyone seemed to know him but those are stories for another day.
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 my daddy taught me that everyone deserves your best until they prove themselves to not deserve it.
I distilled that 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.
And 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. Kind of the same things Daddy used to say.
But the preacher, He was shot in the throat for saying it.
By the time I reached third grade in school, Lyndon Johnson was president and was able to pass the bi-partisan ‘Civil Rights’ act. Nothing 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.
Anybody could walk in and out of either Door. At eight 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.