Saturday Night in Griffin, Georgia
In Griffin, Georgia, where I was born, there were four things that were strong: sweet tea, our accents, hot sauce on barbeque, and people’s opinion of your place in the pecking order.
On the top rung were the upper-class families. They lived in houses that had music rooms where marble statues seemed to listen from the corners; their libraries were full of leather-bound books. Their closets were filled with shoes, soft as butter and kept in shape with wooden stretchers, resting under custom-made clothes. Maids in black uniforms with white chiffon aprons answered the front doors.
Next was the middle-class—business people, clergy, teachers, artists, and scientists like my father. You could see them in church on Sunday; you knew they had chicken and biscuits for Sunday dinner at exactly 1:00 p.m. Their children kept the piano teacher busy and gave us all recitals to go to, where we could be proud of ourselves and each other.
At the bottom of the ladder were poor folks. They kept broken-down cars on cinder blocks in their side yards, flowers in tire planters up front, and the upholstered seats from pickup trucks nestled on their porches. But the best thing about their yards were the dazzling displays of colored bottles hung upside down on branches of leafless trees, so the sun shone through projecting colors that danced on the ground. Moms would never let us make a bottle tree at our house because she thought they were lowbrow.
Living on the other side of the railroad tracks with their own neighborhoods, schools, and churches were the colored people. Those with very dark skin were at the bottom, just above were people with lighter skin, and the coloreds who could pass for white held a spot at the top, which all seemed so unfair.
One of our family’s favorite outings in the mid-1940s was going downtown on Saturday night. It was the only day of the week when colored people, poor white folks, and the middle class went into town at the same time. Everyone was there except the richest folks, who hung out at the country club or retreated to mountain cabins.
Before we could go, Daddy always said, “Do your jobs first.” So my sister Janet and I would sit on the screened porch shucking corn and stringing green beans as fast as we could. I still remember the feel of field peas. Their long, slimy pods felt wet like a frog’s skin as we slid our fingers down the hulls to get the speckled peas to fall into the enameled pan.
Saturday was also the day we helped with the wash. I thought it was dreamy to hear the swish of the agitator twisting back and forth in the round open-topped washing machine. Soapy steam wafted into our faces. When the machine stopped, I’d untangle the clothes and feed them through wringers. The two rubber rollers would separate a bit to let the bulky clothes pass, at the same time squeezing out the water. If I were daydreaming, as I often was, my arm would get stuck between the rollers. That pinched it red. “Come quick,” I’d yell up the basement stairs.
When five o’clock on Saturday came around, the whole family would pile into our green Buick. We each had a given spot to sit in, no matter how short the trip. Alan would crawl into the middle back because he was the youngest and had to sit on the hump. Janet would take the right back window and I would take the left. Moms was the co-captain from the passenger seat. Daddy followed her instructions because he loved her, but there may have been a pinch of avoiding her displeasure.
One Saturday, Alan wanted to go to the train station. Since he was Moms’ favorite, that was chosen as our first stop. As we neared, we saw black puffs of smoke. A steam engine came into view. Alan pumped his arm up and down until the engineer tooted the whistle, and the train squealed to a stop.
An employee with clothes as dusty as the train shoveled coal into the hopper.
Singing and swinging his shovel in rhythm to “Swing Low, Sweet Chariot,” he put water into a funnel on top singing, Comin’ fo’ to carry me home. When he finished the job, we heard, A band of angels coming after me, and then he slowly walked back into the depot singing, Comin’ fo’ to carry me home.
I wanted to say Amen, brother, but Moms wouldn’t have liked that.
Janet, Moms’ second favorite, asked to look in the department store windows. “If I had one of those puffy crinolines, Helen and I could swap off wearing it and boys would go wild over those sling-back shoes,” she said. She could only dream, since our parents were frugal enough to wait until the stores closed before going into town.
We went into the drugstore, my choice, last. Everywhere you looked there were glass jars holding thermometers, powders, candy, and medicines. Nothing ever changed, but I liked the sameness. We sat at a marble counter with chrome stools and ordered ice cream in tall glasses. I always ordered vanilla, unless I was with friends who loved chocolate. Then I’d order chocolate to fit in, even though it tasted like dirt to me.
When we came out at dusk, four very dark men were bent under a spreading oak, bouncing dice off the shiny wall under the plate glass window of a pawn shop, passing a bottle in a paper bag among them.
“What’re they saying?” I asked Daddy.
“That’s called Geechee, Toots.”
I wondered how we could all be from Griffin and speak different languages. Most of the people I knew sounded exactly as I did. Maybe this was like when outsiders had a hard time understanding me.
Our family’s Saturday night routine being complete, we kids walked as slowly as possible back to the car parked near the Piggly Wiggly on the edge of town. We wanted to make the time last longer.
As we turned a corner I heard sharp voices pinging off the brick buildings like the dice we’d heard earlier, only louder.
“String him up!” They repeated it over and over. A few men had torches made out of sticks with rags lighted on top, the only thing that lit the moonless night. Daddy herded us three kids into the car.
“Lock the doors and don’t open them for anyone, except me,” he said sternly.
“Get down on the floor and pretend you’re hiding,” Moms said, getting in and pushing down the lock buttons. Red clay and pine needles stuck to the car rug where Janet, Alan, and I were smushed together. After what seemed to be a long time but probably wasn’t, I wriggled up and looked out. I could see Daddy talking to someone at the edge of the crowd. Men swung their arms, tight fists pounded the air.
Daddy, who was Texan tall, jumped back into our car, locked his door, and without making the usual settling-in motions, started the motor and drove away. I held back sobs and wiped my eyes on my sleeve since I didn’t have a hankie.
I looked all through the Griffin Daily News the next day. The front page featured a horse show that was being held the next weekend, a barbeque cook-off, and a notice about a meeting of the Masons, but not a word about what happened behind the Piggly Wiggly.
Daddy refused to talk about it, except to say, “It’s okay, Toots. The sheriff came and sent the bad men home.” Then Daddy said something I couldn’t hear, under his breath.
Moms gave Daddy a look.
Other kids knew about the incident too. We whispered about it, mostly at the edge of the playground where we felt like we wouldn’t be heard. If we said or did the wrong thing, would the bad men come for us and our families?
Now, my dreams turned bad. I saw shadowy figures lurking around corners. I heard mysterious footsteps following me as I ran into the woods next to our house.
Before this happened, I had thought there were three layers of people in our town. I learned better.
Like the six-layer cake I ate at Morrison’s Cafeteria in Atlanta, there were probably at least that many layers of people in Griffin—not all of them feeling kindly toward each other.
In addition to the Ku Klux Klan, there were the lodges with secret handshakes and meetings, the Geechee who seemed loyal to their ancient culture, the merchants who owned movie theaters and enforced the strictest of rules, USDA Experiment Station scientists who focused on breeding only the fittest of plants, and bridge players who stayed in their close-knit social circles. There was even a plain ole mean boy at the edge of town who spun kittens around in an open umbrella.
Were there eddies of different ideas in every small town, swirling like waters in a pond, sometimes washing over each other and other times drowning out the rest?
For the next several Saturdays we didn’t go into town, but stayed home and played Go Fish or Monopoly. Every card I laid down made sense, but the stirrings inside me didn’t.