After 12/7/2011, this blog will no longer be updated, although content will remain. Please visit my new blog at Hidden Latitudes.

Friday, March 25, 2011

The shorter water fountain

    When I was a young boy growing up in Rome, Georgia, "downtown" was the shopping district. The first mall in Georgia, Atlanta's Lenox Square had just been opened, in 1959. It would be another twenty years before Rome would open a mall. So although Rome's downtown was only five blocks long, it was our Fifth Avenue, with a plethora of delightful and busy stores and eateries.
    I would often go shopping with my grandmother. There was one department store on Broad Street, the main thoroughfare in town. It was called Miller Brothers, and it was always a special treat because it had an elevator to the second floor. The only other elevator I knew of in town was in a hospital.
    So it was always a treat to go to Miller Brothers with my grandmother, and I was respectful when we lingered in the Women's section, because I knew an elevator ride awaited my good behavior.
    Parking was sometimes scarce on Broad Street proper, so we would often park on East First Street, the street behind Miller Brothers. Then we would enter via the back door, not as impressive as the Broad Street entrance, which had two large brass and glass doors. The back door, singular, was a less pretentious door, which opened into a narrow hallway with offices on one side, and bathrooms on the other.
    I remember one visit vividly, around 1960, when I was about six. We entered the rear door, and I stopped briefly to get a quick swig of water from the water fountain. There was a tall refrigerated water fountain, but it came to the top of my head, so I opted for the smaller ceramic fountain beside it, even though it was uncooled, like the drinking fountains at schools and sports arenas. It was just the right height. I was a few sips into the delightful refreshment when I was grabbed by the collar and rudely jerked back. I turned to find my grandmother looking at me with a stricken face.
    "That fountain is for the colored people," she loudly whispered, and pointed to a sign, which simply said, "Colored."
     I knew what she meant by "colored people," although they were pretty much one color in Rome. And I knew, at six, that these same people were called "nigras" by both my grandparents and my parents. I grew up in the segregated South and, yes, it was a racist society. I would see it change, and change dramitically, over the next fifty years. But then, I only knew the what of race relations, not the flimsy reasons why.
     I am pretty sure that my grandmother was concerned that I might get some ailment from using that fountain. But I didn't know that day what my transgression was. It was never explained, and I remember spending the rest of the visit wondering if I was rebuked for taking something that wasn't mine. Looking back from fifty years, I think that may be true. I think perhaps I stole a little of the quiet dignity of the black men and women who stooped to drink from the short, uncooled fountain, while lesser people stood and drank beside them.
     All this came to mind when I saw this video by Herman Cain, a black, conservative from Georgia who is considering a presidential run. Herman's story mirrors mine. Herman is nine years older than me, so his story probably took place earlier than mine. But although they weren't in the same year, it was certainly the same time. 
—Wayne S.

1 comment:

mickeyD said...

Wayne, all I get is a message on the screen saying "This video is private." How do I access it?