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Signs in Greenville, Thorndale, and Austin Some Tracks, a Fire, a Concert, a Hunter The Baron. Are you a tramp? Luka. We’re all of us trampswhyI’ve heard said that the very earth we walk on is nothing but a tramp in the universe. Gorky, “The Lower Depths” GREENVILLE IT WAS NEARLY MIDNIGHT. I I had heard about the sign, but it was surprising to see it suddenly real, green and white over the darkened street. The The WELCOME TO Blackest Whitest GREENVILLE Land People The man behind the counter in the half drugstore, half cafe, but not entirely either, did not seem content with his life, serving hard boiled eggs, coffee, sandwiches, doughnuts, and candy bars. The visit he had sustained this night from a town drunk was too much for himutterly insupportable. “What I done to him? Whassa matter with the old b—?” the young drunk said to me. “Must be off his rocker.” Behind the counter the old man would not be put off: profanely, furiously, with the pent-up bravado of a frightened schoolboy finally testing up to the school bully, he bid him get out, and never come back; he did not want his business! The drunk ambled out, warning him of a vague trouble ahead for him. In the silence then the old man fidgeted, his hands quivering; he moved around the soda-style water fountain like an angry wife in a kitchen. “Damn it! What’s he want to come round here for? He’s all right when he’s sober but get a drink he ain’t got good sense! Comin’ round here upsettin’ my nervous system!’ He knew he seemed a grouch and businessmen should not ..,. “Whassa matter with him?” The drunk was standing on a street corner with an older, sober man. * “You .know? I wan’t doin’ nothin’ to him. I ‘uz born here, I lived here all my life, know that? He must be crazy.” He went on like that a while. He said he’ couldn’t drive home; would I drive him, only two blocks that way, along the tracks a block in? His wife lived in Greenville, but he’d have nothing to Give The Observer For Christmas SEND THE OBSERVER TO: ENCLOSE CARD FROM: do with her; she’d taken up with this other man, and if she liked him better, she could have him. As we pulled up to his house he said, “Well… damn … wanna go cross the tracks? It’s jus’ two dollars, if you work at it you can get ’em to a dollar an’ a half. But you know it’s just … you know what I mean?” I told him I’d go with him. As we drove he vented his hate of his wife, or of her preferring some other. Every half dozenth word was the same fourletter explosion. We rattled over the tracks, turned corners, drove past shadowy houses along gravel streets, dipped back down to , the tracks, crossed again, and entered high brush, following a rut road parallel to the tracks. Not slowing enough, we almost broke an axle in a deep chughole. The shack leaned against itself, a car length and the road from the tracks. He led me around the back and rapped on the window, which was close to the ground, so that he had to duck his head down to look in. For a long time there was no response; then there was grumbling and stirring inside. “What you want?” a woman’s voice said. “It’s me,” he said. “Open un.” It was very cold there in the dark, waiting coatless, sleeves rolled down; the stars were like ice-light in the night air. An aged Negro lady came to the door, pulled it open a little, peeped out, and complained to him bitterly or waking her up. He said we’d come in a minute. He pulled the door open, but again with great difficulty; it seemed about to tear off before it finally scraped out wide enough to let us in. We had to step down onto the dirt floor, pass through a hallway that seemed to have rags for walls, and push back a ragged cloth door to get to her bedroom. She was already back in bed, covered. There was no fire or stove. The windows were covered with cardboard to keep out the cold, but it was very cold, nevertheless. “Whad yall doin’ streamlinin’ aroun heah two three o’clock in the mawnin’?” she asked, muffled behind the cover. “Where the girls?” the native Greenvillian asked; for he was sober now. “They up at the housego on up theah, I ‘magine they’ll be some of ’em jumpin’ fo’ the buck,” she said. He sat down on a former couch; I stood. “You need a broom in here,” he said; he looked at me and laughed and said, “Wouldn’t help much would it?” They talked back and forth, bantering. “My it cold!” she said, half to herself, as though he was a member of the family. “I goan buy me one of dem little oil stoves whad you stand in a room.” He seemed at a disadvantage, almost: he had lost the protection of his color by becoming a supplicant to her. She rough-talked him, but she did not insult him. “Where the girls?” he asked again. “Go way ‘fore you make me say somethin’ bad,” she said. “Where the girls?” he asked again , and again; again she would say, “Up the house.” I tried to leave a few times but he would not come, so I told him I was going and if he wanted to come he could. “No, I think I’ll stay here,” he said. “I just live across the way over there,” gesturing back toward town. “Been comin’ over here since ‘uz a boy.” The next morning, the sun was shining through four or five last leaves hanging from the bottom branch of a stripped sycamore tree. They looked like orange porchlights against the morning shadows of a house nearby. An old man, white, feebly dressed, feebly moving, like many old men one sees, crossed the street ahead of my car as I waited for a light to change; he of Greenville, of blackest land and whitest people. 2 THORNDALE ABOUT SIX, JUST AFTER dark, II a fire appeared off to the right of the highway through Thorndale to Austin, yellow flames silhouetting a frame shack in their smokey light. Cars had stopped, and more were stopping, at a filling station and along the sholders up and down from it, and people stood watching the flames rising from the house. A shack adjacent, unpainted like the burning one, was smoking, but not yet burning. The service station attendant was watching the highway for the firetruck, which had to come ten miles from a nearby town. It seemed some little time. Then the truck came screaming down the road, light flashing “clear the way!”, and skidded and turned in to the front of the station. “On down about a block first road to the left!” someone shouted, and the truck took out againWe could hear the tires screech at the corner. “Old Joe’s a wild driver,” somebody said. The dirt road leading to the house was clogged with cars and people come to watch. Two Negro boys, concern in their faces, were unraveling the hoses and pulling them through the high weeds; white boys, none of them more than 21 or so, tried directing the thin streams of water into the flames of the burning house, but they were driven back by the heat. They saw the neighboring house smoking, and circling it to get upwind, played the water on it, hoping to save it anyway. The burning house became a skeleton, bones of wood holding out against the yellow heat. A white lady watching from a distance on the road said the house had been lived in by a colored woman, about 80 years old. In the high weeds the boys shouted to each other and some ran from the road to get a better view. A young Negro man in a snap-brim hat and sports shirt said angrily to another Negro, “There’s no waterplug here this area, nearest one’s downtown, 20 blocks away.” “They got to use the water in the truck,” said the other. The streams of water were not much stronger than a yard hose’s. About a dozen of us stood behind the firefighters, shading our eyes from the heat or looking sideways at the fire and the water playing on the smoking house. A flaming cinder took off like a leaf and settled downwind on the roof of yet another house. The second hose was diverted to the new danger. “Who was living there?” I wondered aloud. “My mother,” said a Negro man perhaps 45 or 50. “She was jus’ layin’ down.” How had the fire started? “Somethin’ around the sto v epipe, I think, yes suh,” he said. I would have liked to talk to the old woman about the fire, what she lost in it and what she would do; but I had to get back to Austin in time for a dinner party. 3 AUSTIN EXCEPT FOR PLAYS or for musicals, it is best to sit in the balcony at Gregory Gymnasium unless you can find seats toward the front. The main floor is flat, since it is the gym floor, so sitting far back in one of the wooden folding chairs, one often finds the view obscured. For Van Cliburn one wanted to see, and hearing would be no problem, so we took seats at the far back on the front row of the balcony. Even though he was to give a second concert within two hours of the end of this one, and even though 1,500 students had been admitted to his rehearsal with the University Symphony Orchestra that morning, the gym was completely filled. The University orchestra had a few difficulties, but he deferred to them with diligent graciousness. In fact he never looked at the audience until the program was over, he was so busy watching the conductor. Tschaikowsky’s No. 1 he and they played grandly. The people applauded him with that hardclapping applause with which people say passionately but with dignity that they are pleased. In the light finding its way through the windows the people were dressed in a thousand colors, mostly dark, but here and there were bright reds, sequined purples, ocean blues. Covering the main floor and the balconies to the windows at the roof they were like wildflowers growing up hillsides. The orchestra, Van Cliburn, two Negro girls who sat together at the end of one row, and the several white girls and boys who moved down to make room for another Negro girl at the end of another row, were Texas people. 4 AUSTIN-SMITHVILLE THE MILD FALL PAST, the temperature had dropped toward freezing the night before and was 44 as I left Austin for Houston at breakfasttime. Five miles from town a Negro man stood by the road coatless, his sholders high and tensed from the cold, trying to catch a ride. He sat far to the right, his shoulder against the window, once he had rolled it firmly shut. “You goin’ as far as Bastrop? Yes suh, yes suh,” he said. He had been working in Austin on a construction job, and the cold snap had caught him without a coat. “Maht go huntin’ tomorrow,” he said. What for? “Oh, coon, ‘n’ possum. You ever eat possum?” “No.” “They’re good! Fat little things, my mother bakes ’em ‘ith tatuhs around ’em, you know. Fat little animals. Take a coon, now, if you haven’t trapped ‘im good, he’ll take ‘n’ gnaw off his leg an’ go’n off! Yes suh! He will.” He was full of talk, as a man warming up from bonechilling cold often is. He uses a shotgun and dogs and hunts along the river bottoms. “They’ll stand raht up there’t the base of the tree. If the coon falls to the ground wounded, why they got ‘im! Them dogs’z got ‘im! Yes suh!” He had two dogs, but he had a friend who had a whole pack of them. “Real hunter, he don’t care, but man they eat! Yes suh. Real hunter he’ll faed ’em lahk he does his fam’ly, though. Yes suh.” Sometimes they hunt at night. “How do you see what to shoot?” I asked. “The dogs! …. Yes suh.” \(He had almost expressed surprise at my ignorance but relantern, or a flashlight, some’in lahk that, in the tree. Yes suh.” He was a normal sized man in his early middle age, dressed in work clothes. Had he been born in Bastrop? “Yes, yes suh. But there’s not much work there, colored folks, jus’ garage work, yard work, an’ pickin’ cotton. Don’t pay much. Most the colored people go into Austin for work.” Pay at a garage in. Bastrop, he said, would be about 70 or 80 cents an hour, if you’re a real good mechanic perhaps a dollar an hour. “Way food’s so high you knowI go to the store with ten dollars an’ get home an’ say to my wife, ‘Did I spend $10?’ I search my pockets to see if it’s all gone. Meat’s so high, that’s what runs into money; chicken’s the cheapest thing now beef stew, po’k chops, that’s what runs into money. Chickens an’ eggs we can raise on our place, yes suh, we live in suburban, you know, have chickens an’ hogs, an’ vege’bles and greens, yes suh. That’s the nice thing about little places out from town, you got land, you know; in town”\(he hunched his shoulders up and put his palms face together, squeezing We drove along without talk. A small branch or a large leaf blew across the road, tumbling, as we rounded a curve. “That look like a squirrel across the road!” he said. He gets squirrel some times when he hunts. “They’re good. You got to pahr-boil ’em, though, the older ones, they’re tough, unless they’re young. But they’re good.” At Bastrop he decided to ride on to Smithville to visit his cousin there. I asked him if he had ever been is Bastrop state park as we passed by it. “Yes suh,” he said. “That’s wheah they play golf I been out theah. Bags carrin’ aroun’, you know. They had a tou’nament last mont’, I believe it was. Big professional players from Houston, San Antonio, Fort Worth were theah, yes suh.” After a while he said, “Wonder wheah them red berries? Over a way, I guess,” gesturing over the hills to the left. “We used get them red berries, an’ the white ones, the mistletoe, an’ sell ’em for Christmas dec’rations, yes suh. It was school money, yes suh.” What was the red-berry bush? “Well, it’s .a bush, yes suh” \(he “Yes suh, kind a stickle, leaves’ll stick you, a big tall bush.” Fishing in the Colorado, he said, is not as good around Bastrop or Smithville as it is in Austin. “I doan know if it’s been trapped out or what. All you catch is cats an’ perch. An’ the garagoo, kind of a buffalo. Yes suh, it’s a -funny