2017 Barrett Winner
4th Place Gloria Niles
“Well, I’m here. That was some train ride”, I said.
“How long was it?” She asked,
“About a day and a half. Way more than 24 hours”, I said.
I came in through Michigan’s Grand Central Station in the Cork Town district of Detroit. The station was swarming with people buying tickets, picking up friends or family, and sitting on benches waiting for trains coming in or going out. Passengers carried over-stuffed bags and suitcases. Some had nothing but the clothes on their backs. Mildred, my niece, met me in the train station. My bright red tie and matching red socks made me easily recognizable; staples for the country bumpkin that I was, fresh in from Baton Rouge, Louisiana.
I had not seen her since she was a little girl. Now here she was all grown-up with a daughter I had heard. She was a pretty, brown-skinned young woman with fluffy black curls that encircled her smooth oval-shaped face. “I was surprised when my Daddy called me to say you were coming.“
My brother, Rufus, had called to arrange for her to meet me. Mildred hadn’t been too keen about having an unexpected guest at this time, but then, family is supposed to help family, like it or not. Hopefully I won’t be there too long before moving out on my own. Just need time to get back on my feet. After all, I’m used to living alone. I left home when I was only 14; couldn’t get along with my mother’s husband. I took on odd jobs wherever I could. Sometimes people took me in. Life in Louisiana wasn’t easy, but I had managed to fend for myself until I got grown.
“What brought you here?”
“Just heard things was better up North. Thought I’d give it a shot.”
“Seems like everybody’s coming up North these days. Folks come looking for better jobs and better pay. I hear that Ford Motor Company is hiring ‘colored’ men now to work in the plants. I can give you directions and you can walk or catch a bus there on Monday morning. It’s not too far,” Mildred offered.
“After sitting for so long, I’ll just be happy to stretch my legs going anywhere,” I answered.
“When we get to my place, you can put your bags down, rest awhile and have a good home-cooked meal. How does that sound?” She asked.
“Sounds good to me,” I said.
I always knew life had to better anywhere but in the South. Worked weary sweat years laying tracks for the railroads in Louisiana. I tried to get me a job with the Pullman Company working as a Pullman porter on the railways.
“Sorry, but you’re too dark boy.” The white man said, “Besides you ain’t had the servant training and don’t talk well enough to serve our dignified travelers.”
His words made me angry but I didn’t dare say what I wanted to say. I couldn’t. Jim Crow laws didn’t allow it. Had to bite my tongue and settle for back-breaking work on the tracks. I saved me enough money though, to get me a ticket on the first train leaving Jim Crow land. Headed North, I did, to Detroit where Cadillacs are made.
Stayed with Mildred, her husband Elijah, and daughter, Lilly for almost a year before moving out. Heard through the grapevine that another factory worker was looking for boarders to help pay rent where he lived. Me and another man, named David, made an agreement and moved in.
David and me ride the city bus daily traveling back and forth to work. David is a young factory worker, age 26, tall, slim, ruggedly handsome, caramel-colored from Nashville, Tennessee. When we board the bus in the mornings, I can tell the ladies like him. They smile and bat their eyelashes as we pass by them to find a seat. Me, they barely even notice; “too dark”.
As we ride the bus together, we talk.
“Man, when I was a boy, I used to run so fast that I could outrun a rabbit,” I said.
“What outrun a rabbit? Well, I bet being an old man, you probably can hardly beat a turtle now,” David laughed.
“Remember the story about the turtle and the hare? Well, you’re the turtle and I’m the hare.”
“Maybe I can’t still outrun a rabbit, but I can sure out run you,” I responded.
“Old man, you’re dreaming. I can beat you any day.
“Trust me, you don’t want to mess with this old man. I’m still pretty fast.”
“When was the last time you ran, Pops? Ha, you probably can’t even remember. The last time may have been when you was running from those ‘crackers’ down south to catch the train to Detroit.”
“It wasn’t that, but like I said, I can ‘sho beat you.”
“Okay, I tell you what, let’s race this Saturday. I’ll race you down the alleyway. We can run at 12:00 sharp. Can you make it or is that too early for you?”
“I’ll be there. Get ready son, and don’t bet no money, ‘cuz if you do, you’re sure to lose it.”
At age 45, younger men see me as an old man, especially at the Chrysler plant where I work. Always have to prove myself. Sometimes they speed up the line just to test me, to see if I can keep up. They don’t know that I used to carry steel across my back.
In the plant we work in the heat treatment areas doing the harder jobs that white men won’t do. Never seen a black foreman. Some dream about it, some apply, but it ain’t gone never change as long as white men stand in the way. It don’t matter; North or South, some things don’t change.
“Man, I went to the Bluebird the other night and saw the Jones Brothers. They make up the Jazz house band over there. Man those cats were jamming up a storm,” says Joe, the barber with his usual enthusiasm.
Today I’m sitting in the barbers’ chair, listening to the neighborhood chatter. Men come here daily to share the latest news, talk about women, and tell jokes.
“What’s the Bluebird?” I ask.
“It’s the neighborhood bar up on Twelfth Street. It’s what’s happening. Everybody goes there. You should check it out sometime.” Joe says, “So tell me, ‘Midnight’, what’s with you and this race I’ve been hearing about?”
“There he goes again calling me ‘Midnight’, a reference to my dark brown skin.”
“They tell me you’ve been challenged by a young man, mid-twenties. Are you crazy? I don’t see why you want to embarrass yourself like that.”
Joe’s a loudmouth, always spouting things inappropriate like making up names for people. I don’t need any reminders of my battles. I’ve known for a long time that being dark and ‘colored’ don’t go together too well. It seems like us darker men always have to work harder than everybody else to get respect. It just ain’t right.
My mother named me, Enos, from the bible she said. Enos Battieste. During slavery, my folks lived on a plantation owned by a Frenchman. So, Enos Battieste is my name. I am short-statured, stoutly built, so dark some people want to call me blue-black. I smoke Camel cigarettes. The word ‘black’ is offensive to me. I am a Negro; a ‘colored’ man. I am not a boy.
Lately, I’ve been thinking a lot about the race. When no one is looking, I lift skillets in the kitchen and do squats in my room. When I come back from the store, I climb the stairs, two steps at a time. I’m preparing myself little by little. “You can win this. No way he’s faster than you”, I tell myself when doubt creeps in.
Well, word sure travels fast. David must have told somebody who told somebody else who then told somebody, you know. Looks like the whole neighborhood showed up. Men are placing bets. Women, some with aprons and headscarves, are anxiously positioning themselves for a better view while the children run around chasing each other. I take a drag of my Camel cigarette and look over at David. He’s bending and twisting, stretching arms and legs in preparation for the showdown.
Everyone is waiting for the race to start. A neighbor, Ben Patrick, is marking the start line. His son, Junior is standing a fair distance away, at the finish line. The two runners, David and me, will run the full length of the alley. I snuff out the last of my cigarette butt on the ground and begin to focus on the path that lies before me. I jump up and down a few times to loosen up my legs and I’m ready to get started.
Ben Patrick yells at the crowd, “Okay, everyone settle down. Quiet! We’re about to start. Are you men ready? Okay, get ready-set-go!”
We take off. David is slightly ahead of me at the start, but I quickly catch him. We’re now running neck-to-neck. I’m sweating like back in the days when I worked on the railroad tracks. I can hardly hear the screaming, cheering crowd in the background. I no longer see David beside me. I pass him swiftly with a final burst of speed. There is no sound of him breathing over my shoulder. My heart is pounding like sledgehammers blasting against steel. I only feel the warm rush of the wind and see the finish line. I breathe heavily, cross the line in victory, and remember again the rabbits.