SCOOT ACROSS THE USA – 32 – PARIS AND SEGREGATION
Waking up in Gainesville, TX in the middle of May is not so bad, I thought. With a little effort, and a little time, there would be life-saving coffee available. My companion was still sleeping. With a full bladder, however, choices are limited. Get up and slowly get dressed, enough at least, to get to the bathhouse restrooms without getting arrested. Lit the coffeepot fire, half watched and half dozed while it prepared itself. Ah, it sounds done. Count to 100 to give it time to age, then pour. Small blessings are so important, even if self-generated. And, as delightful as my companion could be, I would drink this first cup quietly, without sharing. I mean, love is one thing, but coffee …
Setting the coffee pot to the edge of the fire where it could still gain a bit of heat, I went back to the little tent, crawled in and took my beautiful friend into my arms and held her quietly until she stirred. When finally she sat up, I gave her a little smooch and asked “Coffee?” She smiled, eyes closed, and nodded “yes”. Then coffee was served by a charming Italian waiter who greeted the Princess softly with “Buon Giorno, Principessa.”
There were times when we could talk energetically for long periods of time about so many different subjects. Other times, hardly a word was exchanged. Those times seemed to coincide, fortunately. This was one of the quiet times as Stella finished her coffee, rose, dressed, used the restroom at the bathhouse and returned. In the meantime, I had started a second pot of coffee, because my coffee was so damn good, good for your body, and good for your soul. Stella came over to the fire, where I sat on one of the sawn tree trunk sections that served as chairs, and put her arms over my shoulders and just held me from behind for a few minutes without speaking. The coffeepot broke the spell as it said ‘almost ready’ with its gurgling sound. How much better could life get? The sound stopped when the pot was moved off the fire and the count to 100 began. Stella asked “Aging process?” I said,” Yes, it has to ‘breathe’ for a moment or two.” I poured, she sat beside me and we shared and everything was hunky dory. She asked “Are we going to see Paris, Texas today?” I said if there were no major glitches, we would. It was about 100 miles from where we were … about three hours of scooter time. In that 100 miles, we would drop 150 feet in elevation or 18 inches per mile. That’s a gradual slope.
Early mornings on the road, if you’re driving to the east, can be tough because of the sun looking directly at you. So we packed up camp at a careful and leisurely pace (which always included freshening the water bag), got onto Tony Lambretta’s back, gave it one kickstart, which was returned, in friendly fashion, by the usual puff of bluish smoke and we were off to a local breakfast shop. After breakfast, a stop at a corner market, which was trying to become a supermarket. Bought some fresh fruit, some snack items, canned peaches, canned figs, and a small bottle of dish detergent for mosquito wars. In front of the market, after we packed our food, got our sunglasses and helmets on, Stella semi-mauled me with a good natured smooch, saying, “Rosano, I really love being with you. So now, White Knight, I would like to go to Paris.” A minute later we were back onto our Route 82. This was the Piney Woods area of Texas, quite green, the morning was mild, humid, almost no wind. Weather had been very favorable during most of trip from Denver. We were traveling in so-called ‘Tornado Alley’ which was an area of Kansas, Oklahoma, and Texas where tornados happened most frequently. For sure, people in other states felt they had equal claim to Tornado Alley status, especially given the wild unpredictability of these devastating storms. We had been spared any dangerous weather in our journey so far. We kept watch skyward to get as much advanced warning as possible, in case bad stuff was brewing. No radio or TV meant we were insulated from news of quick-moving events. We would never know about bridge collapses, train wrecks, floods, or tornados until we happened on them.
Arizona living, even for that short time, had made me a confirmed lizard. That dry air, with humidity levels usually in the teens, but often with a humidity reading in the single digits … 5% not unusual, was in strong contrast to this stuff with 70 -80% which I was now breathing. The precious water bag was not producing the cool water I was accustomed to. It was elementary physics … now there was a much slower rate of evaporation, resulting in warmer water. Even with a much-reduced cooling effect, the unbreakable water bag was still a convenient method of thirst quenching. It still needed to be refreshed on a daily basis.
After driving through four or five small towns in 60 miles, and nearly two hours later, it was time for a restroom and coffee break. What was this little burg called? Bonham, Texas. We ordered coffee and two different fruit pies, did our usual switching at the halfway point of the pie pieces, paid the bill, used the restrooms, and returned to the scooter. There were four people having their breakfast at a picnic table just a few feet from where the scooter was parked. I gave a cheery “Good Morning, folks. How’s it going?” There was a decided hesitation, and the older man said “A Good Morning to you.” We got our sunglasses and helmets back onto our heads, started Tony Lambretta, waved, and we were back on the highway and I’m thinking it was a perfect morning to have breakfast outside, but since Stella and I were exposed to so much weather each day, being inside was always a break from the feel of wind and the noise constantly generated as it swirled around us as we rode, even at our relatively slow highway speed. We would be in Paris in less than two hours, to gas up, seek out a camping area, get a bite to eat, perhaps do something in town. Library? Movie? Bookstore?
Much of the land we traveled through was farmland, pasture with animals grazing, there was also some cotton. Pima Long Staple Cotton was huge in Arizona, where it grew superbly, so these fields near Paris, Texas seemed familiar. I had no idea which variety was grown here. Pima cotton was valued because of the length of fiber, its strength and uniformity, but used enormous amounts of water during its growth. Here in Texas, with forty or fifty inches of rainfall per year, growing cotton made more sense, I thought. But I was unknowledgeable in so many subjects in so many ways.
An hour of putt-putting through farmland was cause for a break. I pulled over near the sign pointing to the right which said Petty, population 200. Time for a drink of water and a smoke. My guess was Petty was named after someone with that family name. Having to say you were from Petty, Texas would be a challenge. One could say instead ‘I live north of Dallas’. Stella and I did our walking and stretching before getting onto the Lambretta again. Less than an hour later, we were entering Paris, Texas. Pulling into the first gas station, I stopped at the pump and waited for the attendant to finish serving a customer. When he came over to us, the first thing he said was “Arizona? Arizona? You didn’t drive from there in that, did you? “ “Sure did,” I said. Then he did the ‘I always wanted to do something like that, only I got married’ routine. Then he said, “Oh, excuse my big mouth talking. Are you two married?” Silence, then Stella said “Soon, perhaps.” That was a better response than “Mind your own business” or “I’d rather not say.” We fueled the scooter, and Stella asked about a campground and places to eat. As we were putting on helmets and glasses, Stella asked if there was something specific to see in Paris. I replied there was nothing I knew to be really outstanding or in the ‘do not miss’ category. Was she ready for food or would she prefer to make camp? I could go either way. She was a little hungry so we headed to a small restaurant, which would have some decent food. We parked at the rounded corner since there were already two or three cars parked in front. As I was stringing the cable thru our helmets I noticed four people standing around the front end of their car parked at the side of the building. A neatly dressed middle-aged couple and a very well-dressed elderly couple. They were eating food from paper plates, which were resting on the fenders of the car. This illogical picture made me pause. How peculiar! Without realizing, I stopped what I was doing long enough for Stella to touch my arm and say “C’mon Rosano.” I asked her quietly, “What are they doing?” She said softly, “They can’t eat inside because they’re Colored.” That floored me. I was stunned. I finally said “but those two old people … they shouldn’t have to stand up to eat.” What sense did that make? Trying to understand, something in my head said ‘segregation’ and my mind refused to function and I was aware that it wasn’t working well, wasn’t processing. And that is truly frightening. So goddamned shameful. I didn’t know how to handle this. With a noisy roar in my ears, I was unstringing the helmets from the cable, and remembered saying “I want to get out of here … now!” Stella said not a word, got onto the scooter quickly and we were back on Route 82. We drove eastward for almost an hour, Stella gently rubbing or hugging me the entire time. It was one of those ‘forevers’, but eventually the cloud of turmoil was leaving my head and I began to forcefeed logic into my thinking. It was a slow regain of consciousness and there was no memory of those miles except for the feel of the woman who held me. Eventually, seeing a group of trees at the roadside far ahead, I pulled over slowly and glided slowly to a stop. And dismounted, removed my helmet and glasses, and apologized. “I’m so sorry. I must have scared the hell out of you. That will not happen again.” She just gave me a hug, reached upward with a kiss and said “Let’s have a drink of water and a smoke and we can wind down, OK?” And we did so. Stella started talking first. “All those hours of us talking together and we never talked about segregation. I assumed you knew far more than I did, especially when you mentioned the newspaper headline that Nashville was desegregating its lunch counters.” I said, “I’ve read about this, heard about it, but never in ‘real life’, just on paper, in newspapers or books. The word ‘segregation’ was just a political word to me, I guess. But this, this is ‘real life’ and this is so goddamn appalling. I just wasn’t prepared for it, at all … so completely stupid of me and ignorant, too. Unbelievable.” Walking around removed more of the tangled web of thoughts in my mind. We were near a place called Clarksville. “Sorry we missed Paris, but I’ll take you to Clarksville instead. Let’s get some coffee and food.” The Princess said, “Let’s sit down for a slow meal and we should talk about this, this one area where I might help you for a change.” And thus we drove the few miles into Clarkesville and found a diner that was almost empty at that time of the early afternoon.
We sat at a booth which blocked our view of almost everything except each other. Our food was delivered, we began eating slowly, and Stella asked “Which of us is going to talk first, except I think I should.” Had to smile at that one and I gave a manual ‘go ahead’ signal. “Rosano, you are at a big disadvantage right now in dealing with this. You are the kindest, fairest person I’ve ever known. But you are one ‘soft touch’, for being a rough and tough knight and all that. Your mind couldn’t handle what you saw back there because it was so unfair and there was nothing you could do about it. One small reserve part of your brain said ‘I can’t fix this and I can’t stand it either, so we must leave this place.’ Is that accurate?” Yeah, that’s right. She had the whole thing summed up perfectly. Smart cookie, this lady. I had to agree … she was right on the money. She went on, “Earlier this morning we had coffee and pie in Bonham. Did you think those people were sitting outside at the picnic table by choice?” I nodded yes and said “It was a perfect morning for a little picnic and I thought they were clever to do that.” She said “I wondered what you thought was going on there.” I said, “You know I was raised in New England, in Connecticut. I went to school, ate lunch, played sports, and music, with a wide mixture of people including Colored, a few Orientals, some Puerto Ricans, Jamaicans, and yeah, we would hear adults make all kinds of racial comments, and for the most part, just laughed at them both – the comments and the older people, ignored them or just quietly chalked it up to old ideas. And some of the Mayflower bunch were snotty small-minded jackasses. And I heard my share of Italian slurs, too, and if I felt someone was being a bit too nasty, I would sometimes get in a fight about it. Then I moved to Arizona, where again, there was a mixture of people of all kinds, two kinds were completely new to me … Mexicans and Mormons, and except for the Mormon coffee thing, there were no major problems. So this segregation thing occupied very little space in my thinking until today. This is the first time I witnessed how dreadful this was. You know what image is stuck in my mind? Do you know what I see? That old woman’s nice blue and white dress and the thin frail legs below that. And one of her ankles was bandaged and her leg was shaking a little as she tried to take some of the weight off it, and she, so dignified, yet I imagine she really needed to sit down. Terrible! I guess we truly are in the south, a south I know very little about.” Then it was time for a question for Stella. How did she handle this shit when she was growing up in Louisiana?
Stella said, “First, Rosano, I have to tell you … all these hours on the scooter have been just wonderful for me, wonderful meaning full of wonder. So many new things, new ideas, and you … you just dive into life, and you talk to strangers, and are so unafraid and I’m jealous of that and I want some of that for myself and you get that from a very rich childhood, rich in culture, rich in heroes, and experiences. So … you can understand only partly, the emptiness of my upbringing. I’m not sure I understand it myself, but for my entire childhood, I felt like a foreigner. I didn’t belong anywhere. I walked around, almost in a daze, in a sea of people, some of them Colored, some of them White and I was far removed from any of them. I had no feelings at all for anyone, until finally when my Kansas City aunt came down to Louisiana and a little later, when I began to know my cousin Broderick. So, Rosano, you ask how did I handle this segregation thing when I was growing up. The fact is that I didn’t handle it at all, just went along with whatever was happening that day. And looked at everything as an outsider. Insulated from everything, I just wasn’t involved. So we can talk more about me some other time. I want to talk ‘at’ you and not ‘with’ you for a few minutes. You OK with that?” I remember taking a big breath and saying “Ma, Certo,”… to let the Princess know I was back in possession of my mind.
So this woman started talking. “Rosano, you started this little journey for several reasons, and you offered to take me to New Orleans for several reasons also. One of your important purposes was to ‘see this place called America.’ Part of that was to see a good part of the Mississippi River. And you will. But … here’s a problem. For a variety of reasons, you just seem to enter the lives of people so easily, my life included. I saw it in Pueblo, where that guy named Zip, in the gas station, just quit his job, quit his job, mind you, to follow a dream you presented to him. Or Enrico, at the restaurant, who just loved you immediately and then loved us together. So, for two thousand miles, you have been an observer of the land and people, but you were also a participant. Now, you’re entering the south, and I am telling you, as strongly as I can, to reduce your participation and increase your observation. I know you well enough now to say, from this point in your travels, and until you get north of Kentucky somewhere, you are a foreigner in your own country. Rosano, in your mind and in your heart, you are not a suitable person for the south. And you were right when you bought the machete, back in Pueblo … on this scooter you are so vulnerable. So now, Rosano, you have to be still more protective of the two of us and when we say our goodbyes, more protective of yourself, alone”. She paused and looking straight into my eyes she said, “I’m telling you this and I am begging you, Rosano.” And her eyes were watery as she went silent and lowered her head into her hands and she was crying and not just a little. I got up from my seat and sat beside her and put my arm around her waist. Some minutes later she said softly, “I just don’t want you to get hurt. I really am begging you.” And tears continued down her face.
Dragging my place setting to my new place at the booth, I slowly sipped coffee. After a long while, I asked “Are you going to be OK?” Slowly, she nodded yes. “Are you up for camping tonight? Because I don’t want to drive any further today.” She said yes, she would prefer that there were no other people around. “Can you ask the waitress for info on campgrounds?” She said she would. We finished our food, used the restrooms, drank more coffee, had a smoke, paid the bill and exited. Stella directed us to a campground with running water, clean restrooms, but no showers because they were just being built. That’s OK with me for tonight. Within an hour, our tent was set up, and we were “settled in.” It had been a tough, emotional afternoon for both. Still midafternoon and I needed a little shutdown time. From my jacket pocket, I fished out the little aspirin bottle and took four in my hand, offered my hand to my dear friend. She took one and I took three, we retreated to our tiny tent world and lay down, holding each other gently, staying in touch.
It was the squawk of a large bird, maybe a hawk or an eagle, which caused us to wake perhaps an hour later. With a little kiss, I asked if she would like some coffee if I made a pot. She said not yet, later, and pulled my arms around her more snuggly. From her sounds, I knew she was sleeping again. I was wide awake and my thinking gears were churning as I replayed the scene that prompted all this turmoil. If I felt sorry for myself, I’d have to compare my situation with the circumstances of those people standing around the front end of their car. They didn’t have to think, they had to endure. I felt embarrassed that I had allowed emotions to take control and cause me to frighten my dear companion. She had appraised the situation as it occurred. She knew what had happened in my mind before I did. She would talk to me or ‘at’ me again, and I would indeed listen. I had already decided.
Some time passed before Stella turned toward me saying it was OK to make coffee now. Gave her a smooch and got out of the tent and arranged a fire in the small brick fireplace and got the coffee started. It was late afternoon and it seemed even the sun was weary. Stella joined me at the fireplace. Soon we could pour a cup and share it back and forth. How I loved doing that! She then said, “I want to ask you a question … How much do you know about Communist China?” After thinking for a few seconds, I had to admit I knew damn little. She said, “Rosano, you are in China now. You are in a place where you know very little, and understand even less. So from now on, I want you to be just a tourist, just an observer, just an onlooker. No active role for you now. These people can be so incredibly mean-spirited and they can and they will hurt you. You can do something unintentionally and piss off one these brainless nitwits. Rosano, for the next few weeks, you are an alien, an outsider. You have to pretend that you’re in China, a land where you know nothing. Can you do that, please, can you do that”? I said, “First, I have a question for you … when we separate and take our own paths in New Orleans, are you going to go to New York and Chicago and the rest of it? For sure?” She looked at me and said “Absolutely, absolutely. I can’t wait. I told both of my schoolteacher friends your plan and that you had pushed it strongly. Do you what they both said, separate from each other? They said ‘Oh, your Italian friend must really love you. Of course you should go’. So that’s what I will do, for sure.” She looked at me and said again, “For sure”. That’s when I said, “Listen, Princess, I know you’re right about this. So, if you’re going to New York … then I’ll be in ‘China’, starting tomorrow.” She just grabbed me, saying, “Listen, White Knight, no crusades for a while. Promise?” I did promise.
We finished the coffee, washed the pot and reloaded it for the morning fire, which I also arranged. Refreshed the water bag. Got the oval pan full of water so we could wash hands and face, since there would be no shower. Asked Stella to get a few food items from our scooter stash, if we wanted snacks later. The sun was setting. Day was ending, and I had run out of steam.
She and I talked quietly for an hour or more, covering many topics … this segregation thing that still existed, the cold war with the Soviet Union, my draft status and other topics. I thanked her for that afternoon’s help. She was right … I had sought adventure. However, the form it took today was completely unexpected and miserably handled. We agreed, for the remainder of our journey to New Orleans, I would drive, but she would guide us in all things social. Of course, after New Orleans, I would be on my own.