Last week I talked about Zora Neale Hurston in Ashley Kistler’s linguistics class where she had invited me to do a guest lecture. As I explained to the class, I’m an unlikely person to talk about the great Zora since I grew up in a small southern town where all the public schools were segregated. And like a lot of people, I had not even heard of Zora until around 1980-something.
In class I talked a bit about her work as an anthropologist/folklorist in Polk County (!) and Ashley mentioned the Signifyin’ Monkey tradition in African-American folklore.
This opened the floodgates of memory for me.
I distinctly remember Brother Sammy introducing me to this character back in the summer of 1965 when we both worked loading up trucks with tile in a Florida Tile warehouse on the north side of Lakeland. Sammy was a Florida A&M student and I was preparing to go off to college in August, so, being the youngsters on the crew, we felt we had a lot in common. Not too much in common, though, since, unlike Sammy and all the other truck loaders, I was white.
Sammy was incredulous when he mentioned the Signifyin’ Monkey and I allowed I had never heard of the chap. I got a brief lesson right there, but I pretty much forgot about this wily trickster from African-American culture until a few years later when I picked up Roger Abrahams’ Deep Down in the Jungle, a fascinating study of street lore from south Philly. Outrageously obscene that book, but that wasn’t the only interesting thing about it. Lots of cool folklore in it, some quite subversive in tone.
It was while working at Florida Tile that I should have realized I was destined to become an anthropologist. I was learning about a world I hadn't known existed from Sammy and a couple of the other brothers who had a thing or two to teach me. There was a very sharp forklift driver named Bobby who was hoping to organize a union but who was suddenly fired when a palette of dropped and ruined tile was blamed on him.
The guys all told me in serious and earnest voices that if Bobby had busted the tile, he would have owned up to it. They said he was framed by management who probably wrecked the tile themselves to create an excuse to fire him. I have no reason to doubt that the brothers were right, and, in fact, I feel sure they were.
A heavily used phrase on the crew that summer was “Are you ready?” which was taken from the popular Barbara Mason “sweet on you” song of that title which repeats the phrase “I don’t even know how to love you (kiss you, etc.), but I’m ready to learn.”
The phrase was used by the guys to reference the recently passed Civil Rights Bill with the idea of “Are you ready for Civil Rights?” A variation of it was often used when someone screwed a job up and his buddies would start in with, “Looks like Clarence ain’t ready…no, he definitely ain’t ready…” and so on.
Since I had never met any African Americans in my “separate but equal” school, I was really getting off on learning about this utterly unfamiliar culture. One day, Ben, one of the guys who was probably 25 years old or so, invited me to go with him to Tampa on Saturday night. I would never have been allowed to do such a thing had my parents been home, but they were gone for the weekend, so…yeah. Risky Business/road trip style.
I had no idea what the hell I would be getting into when I headed to the north side of Lakeland to pick Ben up that Saturday, but I had stashed a fifth of Dad’s scotch under the seat since it just seemed like it might come in handy. It did.
When Ben and I got to Tampa he directed me to the apartment where his girlfriend and her roommate lived. Ben had brought a fifth of – can’t remember if it was vodka or gin – but at any rate, the roommate told us, “Well, I only drink red whiskey.” So I said, “You mean scotch? Because I have some of that under the seat.” Score one for us.
We sampled our booty at the apartment for a while and then went over to a local club where, as I recall, we were allowed to sit at our table drinking from our byob stash. I say, as I recall, because as the night progressed my recollections grew fuzzy. I definitely remember dancing with the roommate and then, late into the night, Ben suggesting I could use some chitlins to clear my head.
At that point we said good-bye to the lasses, who got a ride home, and Ben took me to a joint near the club where, in fact, the deep fried chitlins did succeed in clearing my head some little bit. Afterwards we hit the sidewalk and started back for the car. As we were walking, Ben, who was a good-sized bear of a guy, threw his arm around my shoulder and said, “You know, some of these guys are looking like they don’t like you, Bob, but don’t you worry. As long as you’re with me, you’re all right.”
This was good news and bad news to me. I was actually too zonked to realize that anyone was throwing hostile stares at me, but since they were, I was glad to be with my protective friend.
I couldn’t possibly drive back to Lakeland, so Ben took the wheel and we made it without incident. It didn’t occur to me at the time, but what kind of shitstorm would there have been had we been stopped by the cops? Particularly dangerous for Ben. Headline: “Negro Debauches LHS Youth” or some such.
As it happened, Ben got us home without incident and invited me to join the gang at their picnic next weekend, which, as it turned out, I wasn’t able to do. The only glitch (again, shades of Risky Business) was that the warehouse boss, who was our next door neighbor (that’s how I got the job in the first place) found out about my adventure and from him my parents found out.
Dad was pretty upset. “Good God, Bob! You took our car to Tampa’s colored neighborhood? What would you have done if it was stolen?”
I could have said, “No worries, Dad. If anyone had messed with our car, Ben would have kicked his ass!” I don’t think that would have helped, though, so I just took the scolding. I had been careful to get Ben to buy a bottle of my Dad’s brand of scotch so I could replenish his supply, consequently I faced no tongue lashing on that count.
Really, I have to be grateful to Ashley and her class for helping me dredge up these sweet memories. And to Zora. And, most of all, to Ben.
An Unfinished Gown with Secrets to Share, c1785
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