BoomerCafé recently ran an excerpt that our co-founder and executive editor Greg Dobbs wrote for a new book that resonates with baby boomers, a book called “1969: Are You Still Listening?: Stories & Essays.” It looks back 50 years to the end of the stormy decade that helped shape us all. Now, BoomerCafé periodically is publishing excerpts by other writers who also contributed to the book. It’s part of our series of reflections for boomers from 50 years ago.
This excerpt is by Denver’s Bob Moses, who as a young man went to a world totally alien to his roots — New Orleans — even though it was in the nation of his birth. The title of his chapter is, Hell No.
Being the only white faces in an all-black neighborhood, we quickly became objects of curiosity. For me, it was like parachuting into a small African village with only a cursory familiarity with the dialect.
What surprised me most was how easily we were accepted into this seemingly alien community. By volunteering in the afternoons at the local elementary school, I met many moms, most living on welfare with multiple kids in tow. I became popular with the under-ten set by giving them rides on the back of my motorcycle over the abandoned Gert Town railroad tracks, taking them airborne for a couple of exhilarating seconds.
I became a regular at the Broadway Eatery, run by Miss Margaret, a large, robust, joyful black woman with unapologetic Negroid features who would burst into song whenever the spirit moved her, belting out old-time spirituals as she served up red beans, rice, sausages, fried chicken, or spaghetti with two huge meatballs for one of the premier dining experiences in “The City That Care Forgot.” Picture gospel legend Mahalia Jackson (born in the same neighborhood in 1911) singing to you as she served you lunch. It was like that. I still recall the prices. Fifty-three cents bought you the spaghetti and meatballs, and 89 cents covered two large sausages on top of a heaping pile of red beans and rice. Twelve cents more bought a refreshingly cold can of Barq’s soda.
The Joy Tavern just down the street became a regular hangout. When you walked in on a Saturday afternoon, it seemed that everyone in town was there, from mamas with babes in arms to elders dancing with their canes to the beat of the music. That I could walk into this scene and feel part of this welcoming community amazed me. I was blending in. “Yas’m,” I would respond when Miss Margaret offered to refill my coffee. When two of my teen friends Shine and Moonie started calling me “Nigger,” I understood this was the highest compliment they could bestow. “I ain’t lyin’,” I would respond when one of them would doubt me.
I began to get a clue about what was happening to me on the weekly excursions of a busload of nine-year-old black boys I led every Wednesday morning from Gert Town to the magnificent indoor swimming pool of the Archdiocese of New Orleans on St. Charles Avenue. A group of white boys, same age, followed our half hour in the pool each week. These boys would march in silently, military style, line up along the long side of the pool, and, on command and in unison, turn right to face the pool, then, at the sound of a whistle, dive in and swim to the other side. Then, after everyone had exited the pool, they would “free swim” (do laps) for the remainder of their time. When their time elapsed, they would exit the pool, reassemble in formation, and march away.
Meanwhile, my gang of twenty or more black kids waited impatiently with pent-up excitement. I could scarcely contain them behind the swimming pool entry door. Releasing them was like unleashing a herd of feral cats into a pool of frantic mice paddling madly to save their lives.
I was beginning to love these people — these black folks. At times I found myself wishing I were black. Despite poverty, crime, high unemployment, and broken-down neighborhoods, so often they appeared to be living richer and more fulsome lives than my own. I was there to save them? I was beginning to hope they might be able to save me.