By Ernie McCray
My old stomping grounds,
the turf upon which I grew,
from 1938 to 1962
on the north side of Tucson,
is now a historic neighborhood.
Such a designation makes me feel good,
for just being.
The neighborhood is now called Dunbar/Spring
and I remember well
many of the things
that, over the years,
have given it its historical authenticity
as it was home
to so much black history.
It’s where the all-black school
happened to be.
It’s where the likes of Larry Doby,
the first black player in American League history,
and Leroy “Satchel” Paige,
a legend in baseball history,
and Luke Easter who could hit a ball a mile
and Harry “Suitcase” Simpson
who ran down baseballs in the outfield with grit, grace, and style
had to stay at Mr. Willis’s house
down the street from me
when the Cleveland Indians
trained in the spring
because the hotels in town weren’t accessible
to folks of their/our ethnicity.
And the musicians of the time,
the T-Bone Walkers, Muddy Waters, and Big Mama Thorntons,
when they jammed in town,
rested their heads
on the beds
at Vi Rollin’s house
across the lot from me.
It was my neighborhood’s destiny
to warrant mention in Tucson’s history.
And, in a life filled with honors,
there could be no greater one for me
than being invited to participate in a ceremony
that recognizes the role that the Chinese
played back in the days
when we were making history,
the time when I attended
Paul Laurence Dunbar
under Jim Crow
and then John Spring
when the city, at least in its schools,
let such nonsense go.
Doesn’t it have a nice ring?
It is looked back at as a colored or Negro neighborhood
although that’s not how I necessarily
see it in my memory
because in the 40’s and 50’s
and at the beginning of the 60’s,
this locale in the Old Pueblo
had a nice mixture ethnically:
at its core,
there were black folks galore,
but there was a sprinkling of brown
here and there and around.
There were Filipinos, who led lives
with black GI’s,
a few white families
who dwelled mostly on the borders
of the community,
on the borders
and periphery of our lives.
And there were a handful of Chinese
with whom we all had ties.
And regarding how we got along,
well, we existed in harmony, basically.
Gentlemen tipped their hats
to the ladies.
We greeted each other
But I guess, not to paint it too rosy,
we left each other alone,
more so, maybe, than we got along.
But I think we, on the whole,
let our prejudices go
as much as society
would allow us to do so.
We just let these stumbling blocks
to human decency,
like was said of old soldiers,
in an earlier day,
as happens when races
look past what the stereotypes say
and find ways
to exist together
in hopes of better days.
I know when it came to my people’s
relationship with the Chinese
that such thoughts are true
as society depicted them in a way
that was entirely in no way
accurate in any way –
just as the way my people
contrary to who we were,
how we felt,
how we lived day to day.
The movies sure didn’t help
in their descriptions of who we happened to be,
or how we viewed a world
that looked at us with incomprehensible hostility.
Among us there was not
a single person,
woman or man,
like Birmingham Brown,
in the flicks featuring Charlie Chan,
who cackled about the silliest of things,
and who, with his bulging eyes
and his chattering teeth
and his body shaking like an earthquake,
was ready to jump out of his skin
in situations wherein
nobody else is the least bit afraid,
like Stepin Fetchit going “Feets don’t fail me now!”
But there were, in our mix, hardworking descendants
accepting whatever jobs
could be found,
trying to make it day to day,
in what often, economically
and socially, seemed like a game
we weren’t meant to play.
And neither was there a Chinese woman or man,
noble and heroic beyond reason,
like Charlie Chan,
ever so benevolent and intelligent,
ready with Confucious Say aphorisms
to fit any set of circumstances,
uttering something like:
“Guilty conscience always
first to speak up”
as some out-clevered crook
is hauled off to the lock-up.
No, we were real people,
both of us,
threats to the status quo,
to the wages
and standards of living
that white America
didn’t want to share
they saw as less than them
as far as socio-economic classes go.
But we Chinese and black folks
enjoyed a form of symbiosis
in our community
that’s always been special to me.
I remember two Chinese owned markets, particularly,
Jim’s and Lim Nuey’s,
that played a vital role in our lives
as these proprieters, like us, struggled in a
post World War II economy
when commodities like sugar or butter
or meat or gasoline
or nylon stockings
were not available readily
– families were allotted ration books
or tokens that limited how much they were allowed to buy,
no matter what they wanted
or what they might need.
But who had any money?
Nobody I knew
other than a few.
At a young age I saw
up closely and personally,
people struggling to
maintain their dignity,
and I don’t know how we could
without Jim and Lim
helping us to hang on and stay healthy
instead of just being alive.
Their goods cost more
than in supermarkets like Safeway.
That’s no lie
because they couldn’t compete
with such largeness
and they, too, were scratching and clawing to survive.
So they could have chosen
to be cold and indifferent
and just focused on the business
but they chose, rather, to try to understand
us and they accepted us as is –
Human beings with human needs
and often the deal was we needed
Sometimes our pockets
were rather coin-less,
our billfolds, paperless,
our spirit, close to hopeless
but, when you had won their respect,
their acknowledgement that you were
one who paid your debts
or had a solid reason not to,
credit was yours if you asked.
Just put your name on a little slip
that was tucked under other little slips
at the bottom of the register
and there were way more slips than cash.
At Jim’s and Lim Nuey’s
we McCrays were good to run a tab.
The Chinese merchants
were good people to know,
good friends to have.
They lived amongst us,
in their stores,
after they had closed,
to unlock their doors
if you needed something real quick,
maybe some cough syrup or aspirin
when Cut-Rates Drug Store
was not open.
There were special cuts of meat
for special days.
They seemed to know everybody’s
anniversary and birthday.
I remember them being amazed
at how many bottles I could hustle up everyday
to which they would hand me a nickel or so
and I’d give it right back to them
and off to living
happily forever, I would go,
learning about life,
who’s really who…
And I can’t help but call to mind the day
that Gene who was near my age
and related to Lim in some way
exhibited as much glee,
as I had coursing through me,
after I had knocked down 46 points
against L.A. State,
so literally in the zone
I didn’t want to go home
and face reality.
I was like a character in a fantasy
and Gene was there to celebrate with me –
and I don’t know if he remembers that day, particularly,
cuz he was just a homey
giving props to a fellow homey,
holding his hand up for
that slight slide across the palm
that makes you go:
We were tight.
Is there a bonding ritual more
than two people
playing with each other’s hands
in moments when everything
in the world
seems to be on your side?
And there was Bin Dai.
Sweet Bin Dai.
A neighborhood queen.
A member of Jim’s family.
Need a cure?
Call Bin Dai.
Want to know what Confucious didn’t say?
Call Bin Dai.
Need your little girl’s ears pierced?
Call Bin Dai.
Tried to steal some cheese
and got cursed out by an old woman in Chinese?
“You messed with Bin Dai, fool.
What’s the matter with you?”
Bin Dai, whenever she’d see me, would say
“How you doing in school?”
I can see my mother talking to Bin Dai,
in the mist of my recollections of days gone by,
conversations that seemed like hours
to a little squirmy boy praying
for a phrase like “Well, see you Bin Dai.”
But I loved Bin Dai.
Everybody loved Bin Dai.
Because she loved us.
Oh, now, of course, there were some blues
to this love song.
Some discord, as it is with people,
would come along,
someone not knowing that
or someone spouting “Ah – So”
or pulling their eyes apart from the corners
making sounds of a Chinese gong,
a little misunderstanding
that didn’t take long
“I paid you.”
“No you didn’t”
“See, here’s the receipt.”
But, after all is said and done,
I can see so clearly now
how we were making history in
that we were doing such a thing.
I can see that Chinese History on my old stomping grounds
runs side-by-side with mine.
And if the people of the world
learned to live with each other
like we did in those historic times –
this world would be mighty fine.
Photo courtesy of http://www.flickr.com/photos/
Picture of Tucson snow taken by Mary Almittie McCray, my mother