Volume 29, Number 3

Summer 1963

Thomas DeConna

I was scared. I was just a kid standing on the hot city sidewalk as a group of young black teens taunted and sneered and threatened. Horace, an older man, stood next to me as straight and tall as a monolith. I didn’t know what would happen.

Earlier that morning my father drove our Chevrolet station wagon, and I sat on the bench seat next to him. It was a summer morning in 1963, and we were going to the store that he and his brother owned in Newark, New Jersey. On my lap was a stack of comic books, and once we connected with Route 22 eastbound, I picked up a book and flipped through its pages. I had read each one before, but I liked having them with me. A flimsy security for an eight-year-old boy, but the comic-book heroes filled my fantasies. The Flash, Batman and Superman were my top three. I liked the Flash’s speed and thought how it could be handy when I had to clean my room or do chores around the house. Batman intrigued me with gadgets that popped out of his belt. I have to admit, though, that his dark side was unsettling. Then there was Superman. The best of the bunch. He had it all: x-ray vision, speed, strength, bullet-bouncing flesh—and he could actually fly.

I was not athletic. I was undersized and more than plump. I wore glasses. I was not a popular kid. So, I spent a lot of time reading comic books and then reenacting the adventures in my backyard, recreating all the amazing feats. I ran from one tree to another, the ones that my father had not cut down when our house was built. I imagined what a superhero would be. One who could defeat danger with his cunning and strength. I would know the perfect words to say, and I would have the power to right wrongs.

But this day we were driving to the store. My father and uncle rented floor space and sold casual clothes for men. They started the business after World War II and had named the shop Duke’s. My father worked five days a week, taking off Sundays and Tuesdays, while my uncle took off Sundays and Wednesdays. They hired two men, Horace and Al. Horace attended to the customers; Al attended to the cash register. In that time period two brothers with little education and even less money could start a small business and make a go of it. Nothing fancy. Not enough to make anybody rich. But it allowed us to live fifteen miles west of Newark where the store stood like a stubborn toadstool. The pond was evaporating, and the population was shifting.

Why my father took me there, I never knew. Maybe it was to give my mother a break from watching all of her children for a day. Maybe he thought I would be interested in that closed-in world of sales and someday take over the business. Or maybe he thought that by witnessing his world I would want a different one.

I went to the store twice a year, and the half-hour ride always seemed long. This day was no exception. It had been hot for days, and even with the car windows down everything felt sticky. Sometimes I would turn from the comic books and glance out the window. I’m not sure if a fixed street marked the change or if things gradually altered, but at some point, the change was clear between where we had started and where we would finish.

When we reached the city limits, my father would say, “Do you see how some people live?” Narrow houses stood like dominoes. Sparse lawns looked like cancer had eaten them. Paint flaked like snow. Stray dogs limped aimlessly. A coppery, fecal smell seeped into the car and made me wince.

Our house was a ranch-style home with a big basement that sat on a half-acre. Oak trees edged the property with winter strength and summer shade, autumn acorns and hand-sized leaves in spring. I knew every step of our land and thought it a special place, but it was really no different from all the other neighborhood properties. Folks had one telephone, watched a black and white TV and drove a Chevrolet, Dodge or Ford.

Newark was nothing like my neighborhood. It was a city with some life to it, but mostly it had boarded-up buildings, chipped sidewalks and vacant lots strewn with garbage. During the summer when business was slack, and I was free from school, my father would take me to the store for the day. I didn’t like going, and the only good thing was when my father would walk me to Sam’s, a magazine shop, and let me buy three comic books. But this summer day in 1963 proved different. After that day, comic books lost their magic.

My father always said that if I ever ran a business, I should sell a product that people needed. But summer was the store’s slowest season because people didn’t need much clothing, and in a city where money was tight, food came first. So, customer traffic was a trickle. I also spent a day there before Christmas when shoppers swarmed the store. I bagged purchases and kept an eye out for shoplifters. Because the city’s crime rate increased every year, shoppers were wary and found slick places to hold their cash. Few relied on a pocketbook or wallet. Most people slipped money between their socks and shoes. One woman kept bills stuck to her fingers inside knitted gloves. To steal her money, someone would have to cut off her hands.

When my father and I arrived at the store by eight o’clock on a Wednesday one week after the Fourth of July, the temperature was already in the eighties. It was one of those East Coast summer days with heavy humidity that weighed down everything and everyone, and no rain clouds were in sight. A burning haze spread against the sky. My father set the air conditioner to 82 degrees. It wouldn’t feel cold, but cool enough to sense the difference between the world inside and the world outside.

I was assigned the usual chores of cleaning the showcases and sweeping the floor. With these jobs finished, I didn’t have much to do, so I sat on a wooden chair where my uncle would usually sit, but this being his day off and probably the quietest day of the week, I could sit in that chair and see the handful of customers shuffle in and out, or I could watch Al, a white man, as he positioned himself behind the cash register in the store’s center. A half wall of shelves circled the area, and the register sat atop a raised floor like a throne. Al was a solid man who would stay on his feet for a long time, occasionally resting on the three-legged stool behind the register. He didn’t talk much, but when he did, his words were like quick jabs. I don’t think he meant to be accusatory. Maybe a lack of education made him sound that way.

My father, also a white man, sat behind a two-sided counter in a corner by the front door. It was a place where he could eat lunch or steam hats or hem pants, but it also allowed him to see people enter and leave the store. It was my uncle who had told me that behind the counter was a .38 caliber handgun. My father, who had served in the war, knew how to use it.

Almost directly across from my chair was another wooden chair and on it, when no customers were around, sat Horace. He was an older man, probably in his late fifties—old for the time, I guess. Touches of gray crowned his head. His dark eyes had a tired look as if he had seen too much of the world. His face reminded me of some mythical, legendary horse, a once-proud stallion that had romped nobly across vast lands but now chomped humbly in an enclosed pasture. He wore a beige short-sleeve shirt and brown trousers. His arms rested against the walnut chair, and his skin was as dark as the wood.

Years ago, my uncle had purchased a box-like radio, and from the first day until forever it was tuned to WNEW, a station that played big band music of the forties and popular crooners of the fifties. So, from an early age I knew not just the names but also the voices of singers like Tony Bennett, Frank Sinatra and Nat King Cole.

“Mona Lisa” had just finished playing, and my father said, “He has a sweet voice.”

Al, who liked crossword puzzles and worked the register with the same, precise efficiency, probably thought that all the world’s questions had simple, tangible answers. He asked my father: “Who’s your favorite singer, Jimmy?”

“Well,” my father gave his usual pause before answering any open-ended question. I wondered if he paused to give an insightful answer or if he was guarding against giving a wrong answer. “I know most people would say Frank Sinatra, but I like Perry Como.”

“For me, it’s Sinatra,” Al said and tapped his pencil determinedly on the crossword puzzle he was working. “He sounds real.” Then he looked almost menacingly at Horace. “How about you, Horace?”

The old black man’s world-weary expression remains unchanged, and it made me want to know what he had seen and where he had been. But I was too young to ask. He looked older than usual on that day, and he sucked in a deep drag from his cigarette—cancer sticks Al called them—and sure enough three years later Horace would die from their poisons. “I’d have to say Nat King Cole.”

“Why?” Al asked. “Because he’s colored?” That’s the word people used at the time, and it occurred to me that Horace was the only black person I knew. “Got to stick with your race, huh?”

Horace smiled softly, a sad smile. “Maybe that’s part of it.”

Al looked down at his puzzle and jotted in an answer. “He’s got a sweet voice, I’ll give you that, but he sounds white. He don’t sound colored.”

I looked at Horace, his broad forehead and jaw, arms that remained firmly on the chair’s arms as if he were the Sphinx in the desert. He breathed in a cloud of smoke, exhaled it and said, “What people don’t realize is that all white people are colored, and all colored people are white.”

Al looked up from his crossword. “What the hell does that mean?”

Horace shrugged his shoulders. “Look at the music. Where did it all come from?”

“It comes from white people. Beethoven and Mozart. People like that.”

“Not in America. We have more in common than we think.” Another cloud of smoke. “But both sides are starting to forget that.”

Quizzically, Al stared at Horace, and then as if he had suddenly discovered penicillin, he grasped his pencil and filled in six squares of the crossword. “Well, I like Sinatra.”

Horace snubbed out his cigarette and smiled that soft, sad smile of his.

At noon a delivery boy arrived. He worked at Rosen’s, a Jewish delicatessen that featured thinly sliced meat like corned beef piled high on rye bread, but I always stayed with white bread, roast beef and mayonnaise. The sandwich’s center was so thick I couldn’t fit my mouth around it, so I pushed some of the meat to the edges where one slice of bread almost touched the other. Because going to the store was a special outing, my father allowed me chips and a Coke. The dark, sweet, carbonated water made every swallow that much better. To top it off, my father allowed me a slice of apple pie. A huge slice. I couldn’t even finish the sandwich, so I set aside the pie for later that afternoon.

After lunch I would wait until two or three o’clock for what would make the whole day worthwhile. During that part of the day, the hottest part of the day, the inner city seemed to melt into an old black and white photograph. Cars and buses rolled reluctantly, few people walked the steamy pavements, and no one entered the store.

Usually my father or uncle would walk me the three blocks to Sam’s where a section of comic books waited for me. But this day was different because my uncle wasn’t there, Al had to work the register, and my father would never leave the store vulnerable. Perhaps years ago, he would have done that, but his weekly lament of the city’s changing from good to bad to worse bound him to the store. So, while I waited for the afternoon’s quest, I realized that Horace would be the one to take me.

“Horace,” my father said promptly at three o’clock, “would you take J.J. to Sam’s?”

The old black man folded his newspaper with particular care, and his dark eyes shifted to me. “Do you want to get some comic books, J.J.?” Of course, Horace knew I had been waiting for this moment, and he spoke in a gentle tone as if he understood not just my desire but also my need; understood without judgment.

I saw my father give Horace one dollar for the comic books and a few pennies to cover the tax. In those days one dollar would buy four comic books, so I was looking at a bonanza.

Horace set a tan straw hat with a narrow brim on his head and was ready for our mission. Standing next to him, I felt a renewed awareness of his height. He was taller than my father, a bit over six feet. With his legs slightly apart, he looked like a sea captain on an old galley ship who balanced himself through squalls and tempests.

Outside, the oppressive heat, although expected, found a way to startle and to steal a person’s breath. The old man’s strides were lengthy, but he slowed them to match my meager steps and when we reached the first block he offered his hand to me as we crossed the street. His hand felt like no other because callouses pebbled his flesh like rough tree bark. Overall, it was a strange feeling because I sensed within that singular hand toughness, tiredness, and tenderness all at once.

After crossing the street, I pulled my hand away from his. My mind had been working on a plan. Four comic books. I had never had that many at one time. What would be the combination? What superheroes and stories would enter my world? After we crossed the third and final block we were steps away from the magazine shop. Next to it was a vacant lot where a building had been torn down recently. Nothing now but busted plaster, glass and bricks. Up the street I saw a group of young black boys coming our way.

Horace and I stepped inside the shop where it was cool and dark, and the distinctive scent of newspapers, periodicals, and magazines enveloped us. The place was dingy and worn and unkempt with piles of newspapers stacked in random places. No store like that exists today.

Sam, Horace and I were the only ones there. Because I knew exactly where the comics were, I headed right to them after saying hello to Sam and after he gave me his usual greeting, calling me the “comic book aficionado.” I didn’t know what he meant but figured it must be a joke because he always laughed at his own words. From where I stood I could see Horace, and it was years later when I realized that Horace had stood there in order to see me. I could not see Sam but could hear his voice.

“I don’t like these dog days, Horace. Too hot.”

“No, sir, Sam. I don’t like them either.”

“Bad for business.”

“Yes, sir, bad for business.”

It was strange how Horace became a different person. Almost as if he were not a person at all. In the presence of a white store owner, a man who was not my uncle or father, Horace, as I knew him, disappeared within his skin. Meanwhile, I scanned the comic book covers with their scenes of heroic rescues, but I also glanced back to Horace. Although the shop had a few chairs for customers to sit and thumb through newspapers and magazines, Horace did not sit nor was he asked to sit.

Sam said, “Dog days are when crazy things happen. Foolish things. Terrible things. The weather heats up the blood.”

“No, sir, I don’t like this kind of heat.”

“Of course, it’s not as bad as down South.”

“No, not like the South.”

“Have you seen what’s been happening down there?”

Within easy reach I could pick from all my fantasy heroes. I could buy four adventures where villains were foiled, crime was crushed and justice was served within two dozen pages—an afternoon’s interlude.

“Not sure what you mean, Sam.”

“Don’t you keep up with it? Things are exploding down there. Boycotts and marches. One race of people turning against another. It’s a shame.”

“Yes, it’s a shame.”

“I’m not saying that those people haven’t been mistreated for a long time. They deserve better. But it’s the violence that scares me. It’s not the only way.”

“No, sir, Sam, it’s not the only way.”

“Just a matter of time before all that hate and violence comes north. Know what I mean?”

“Yes, sir.”

All at once I knew something was wrong. It was one of those moments when a person suddenly looks beyond himself, to see his surroundings through a wider lens. It’s strange, but awareness can come without conscious thought like when the lack of chlorophyll turns maple leaves crimson or the reverse flow of it forces oak leaves to open in spring. It’s as if a power beyond yourself pulls you in a direction you never knew existed. You don’t understand it. You feel it. I was swept by a pulse of panic, a cold quiver, as if I had stayed too long in a place where I shouldn’t be. Quickly, I snatched four comic books from the racks, somehow knowing that it didn’t matter which ones I took.

Sam had been sitting on a wooden chair that reminded me of Horace’s chair in the store. With a similar weariness that I had noticed earlier with Horace, Sam rose and stood behind his cash register. He looked down at me. “Have you found what you were looking for, young fella?”

I nodded.

Horace handed him the dollar bill and immediately added the pennies to pay the tax. Sam’s large open palm, as large as Horace’s, closed upon the coins. The two men stood at the same height, and judging from their graying hair, they could have been the same age. And I had never noticed until that day how similar their features were, each with a broad forehead and a strong jaw. They looked related.

“Yes, my old friend,” Sam said as he shut the register’s draw, “you and I are relics. We belong to a different age because times are changing.”

“Yes, times are changing.”

“Who knows? In a couple of years, I should sell this place, take my money and move away? Maybe California? Who knows?”

I looked at Horace and knew that he didn’t have a store to sell.

“Yes, sir, Sam. Who knows?”

We stepped outside, and I squinted into the hazy sunlight. The thick, sultry heat was suffocating. When my eyes focused I saw the band of young black boys that I had seen before we entered the magazine shop was now rummaging through the vacant lot. Some were throwing bricks at glass remnants; others were jumping on plaster boards, forcing the gypsum to crack. When Horace and I stepped onto the sidewalk they all stopped what they were doing and looked at us with defiance and hatred. None of them could have been more than fifteen years old.

“Hey, hey,” one of them said. “Look what we got here. Look like Uncle Tom be walkin’ his young mastah home.” They all laughed.

Another said, “Hey, Grandpap, where the real mastah at?”

“He up in the big house,” another answered. “Rockin’ his chair on the plantation porch.”

The boys were thin. Most wore t-shirts. Some were naked to the waist to show their muscles. But they all had a hungry look, a look that surpassed a need for food. Strangely, I thought of the roast beef sandwich I couldn't finish and the Coke and the wedge of apple pie that waited for me. I pushed those images away because although I didn’t understand what the boys meant, I was scared.

Another boy said, “Why you be wearin’ a hat? Why not wear a field rag to cover yo head?”

The first one spoke again. “Look like ole Marse Whiteass sent his nigger on a errand. Fetch some comic books for little Whitey.”

“Yes suh, yes suh,” the second one said with an exaggerated Southern accent and scuttled along as if one of his legs were broken or shackled, perhaps imitating some servant from an old movie.

“Don’t you know them days is over, Grandpap?”

“Don’t you feel no shame, old man?”

The boys started to grab pieces of two-by-fours that at one time held walls together. Their taunting voices, their youth and their numbers gave them strength and a single mind. Then, like a pack of predators, they moved towards us.

My small hand reached for Horace’s. His rough, warm hand enclosed mine with unquestioning firmness. Then he stood taller. Somehow his long back lengthened. His jaw set. His eyes were like stones that showed nothing but purpose, and he looked from one boy’s eyes into the next set of eyes, deeply. I could not see what they saw. I could not feel what they felt. Horace stood like an oak tree. He didn’t move a muscle; never said a word. No x-ray vision or gadgets in a belt. Just dignity.

Something deserted each boy. Their fingers eased from the wood. They dropped the two-by-fours, but their eyes would not release their hatred.

“Just one time, old man,” the first boy said in a cursed whisper.

We crossed the street.

Years passed before I realized the meaning of that moment. Four summers later Newark would be another city that exploded. My father’s store would be robbed. Sam’s store would be looted and burned to the ground. Horace would be dead from lung cancer.

When I look back, I wonder what Horace had been thinking? Did he feel more than a wisp of satisfaction to see those young people so full of anger that they would sacrifice their flesh—perhaps down the road even their lives—to make a point? All to force an overdue change? Did Horace feel regret in knowing that such a change would come at a terrible price? Did he feel shame in how he had lived his life? Or did he feel pride in how he had conducted himself in the life allotted to him?

I was too young to ask those questions. When I was old enough to ask, the opportunity had passed. What I did realize on some level was that all heroes do not possess super powers.

Horace and I walked back to the store. All the while I held the fantasy books in one hand and a roughened reality in the other.