Sex and Civil Rights in a Small Town, 1966
“Well,” Bruce announced, “on Monday, we’ll have to go out to looking for jobs, but first, I’m going to show you how to have a good time. We’ll go over to Gentleman Joe’s to celebrate your first week of freedom.”
(Sex and Civil Rights in a Small Town is from Fusible Links (click here)
“I don’t have any money. I won’t have any until I start working.”
“Don’t worry. I’ll loan you a few bucks,” Bruce offered, even though he’d just been fired from his part-time job.
Gentleman Joe was a local prize fighter who started the bar when it came time to give up the ring. It wasn’t far from our place, located on a corner in Binghamton’s tiny black section, a neighborhood consisting of a single street, Susquehanna, and a short stretch on the sides with which it intersected.
The walls were decorated with framed photos from Joe’s career you could barely see in the dim light. There was always music, much of it blues and soul we never heard anywhere else.
It was considered a little bit wild for white boys to walk into Joe’s. But Bruce had been there several times and enjoyed showing off by dragging in others. With me in tow, he quickly overwhelmed Mim and Janice, sisters who were our next door neighbors, led us all a few blocks and held the door as we walked into Gentleman Joe’s.
On a weekday evening, the barstools were populated by a handful of regulars. A few groups ate casual meals in booths strung along one wall.
“You’re gonna love this,” Bruce promised.
The idea that James Brown might be an acquired taste outside our experience had not idled for long in his noggin. Mim and Janice moved as if being ushered into a cell.
“Come on! Come on!” Bruce instructed, stepping in front to lead the way. “Carl!” he shouted to a bartender in a vest and bow tie.
The bartender nodded in response.
We returned to Joe’s several times while we still lived in the neighborhood, and since Bruce seemed to talk there only in exclamations, I finally came to the conclusion that he really didn’t know any of the regulars personally. He related best to the image of himself as an extreme liberal and a rebel, exclaiming his presence as he moved along.
Blacks were still “negroes” then. At school, a few were friends. One, Diana, I got to deep kiss one night, but she destroyed my illusions that black girls were easier. I’d never been in a black person’s home or entertained in one of their establishments.
Influenced by JFK, I favored civil rights without having any more of an idea about them than fairness.
Lou instructed me on it: “No more ‘nigger’ jokes. Don’t even laugh at them. That’s the only way things will ever change. Negroes are like everybody else. No difference, just skin color.”
Every experience I had since verified it. Neither Mim nor Janice were so liberal they got into a groove at Joe’s. Even after a beer, both refused to dance a single time, convinced that the black men sitting over their own beers would stop everything just to stare at them.
“White meat,” Bruce teased, but neither of them laughed.
We fired volley after volley of liberal clichés at them, but it wasn’t long before our evening out sailed into tensed out monotony. We hadn’t dented their armor.
We walked back through streets where the trees remained bare and the winter stillness felt like dusty ice. We climbed up past the SUGAR IS THE ENEMY sign and separated into our own apartments.
Energized, Bruce paced around, raving about how, from now on, we’d have even more great times. There was a whole world out there. All we had to do was grab it.
It never dampened his enthusiasm that I was silent and preoccupied. I was thinking creatively about Janice. Janice had soft, smile-inclined features and long brown hair that fell in longish waves across her shoulders. She sat close enough for us to casually touch, showing none of the caution I was used to with other girls. On our way home, she’d held my elbow and, shivering in the chill, pressed her breast firmly against my arm.
Bruce rambled on until Bob came out in pajamas to ask him to keep it down, but I kept my attention on her, pressed next to me, and then on imagining her clothes coming off, one piece at a time and not in a hurry. I got a picture I could hold of what she looked like naked and was still turned on when I fell asleep. I woke up with a sense of her saturating me.