Sunday, November 30, 2008


Against my usual wont, I dropped by Koehler's Drugstore on Twenty-fifth Street.

The store was a small stucco building, old, overstocked, and underserviced. The few times I had been in the store, Mr. Koehler had looked at me as though I was a spy who had slipped through the Confederate lines. He would probably have barred the door if he had known I was the Yankee girl who supported integrated schools and equal opportunity employment, the one who had been involved in a battle-to-the-death debate with his son in our high school American history class. In the early sixties, those were radical concepts in Waco, where old ways died hard.

But changes were in the air. I had grown up with the the idea that one's agemates, no matter if they were in the nursery or teetering on the edge of the grave, were all referred to as either "boy" or "girl." But Black Pride and the Women's Movement were insisting that we all, black and white, were grown-ups, "men" and "women."

The change was necessary because "boy" was a term used not just for agemates, but also for any black man, no matter his age. In fact, "uncle" was the most respectful term of address a black man would ever hear in Waco, and that was when he was old, crippled, and harmless.

I was moving methodically up and down the rows of the drug store looking for nail polish remover while Mr.Koehler, his pasty-faced sales clerk, and the delivery "boy," a broad-shouldered black man, lounged at the pharmacist's counter, authoritatively discussing the Baylor Bears' chances of making it to the Cotton Bowl that year. Becoming more and more irritated, I kept shooting narrow-eyed glances at the three idling sportsmen.

Suddenly the heavy glass door swung open and a wave of eyeball-baking Texas summer heat burst in along with a sweaty stranger rattling a city map. He spotted the three men huddled together at the back of the store and lumbered toward them like a substitute with a message from the coach.

I had a straight-shot, fifty-yard-line view of the whole scene down the center aisle.

Focusing on the black man, the stranger barked "Hey, boy, where's Fulkes Ave at?

The three sportsmen stared at the intruder. His greeting hung in the air like a forward pass with no down-field receiver.

The delivery man looked startled for only a moment. Then black came into his eyes and his broad shoulders sagged. It was common knowledge that colored people knew where every street in town was, just as naturally as they ate watermelon and kept good rhythm.

He took a deep breath and opened his mouth to answer, but Randy Koehler was quicker. "Three streets to the north and turn left, sir," he cut in, flashing a quick professional smile.

"Thanks, buddy," the stranger said, a little confused by the unexpected interception, but gamely shifting his attention to the white man. With another whoosh of the automatic door, the traveler departed.

The sportsmen turned to each other and resumed their conversation.

I waited respectfully until they finished to be rung up.

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