Charles Coe, poet, professor, chef, long-time co-chair of the Boston Chapter of the National Writers Union, visiting poet in his local schools, peripatetic presence on the streets, libraries, and shops of Cambridge, Massachusetts, has found effective, graceful ways in his poetry and speech to address social, racial, and political issues during his long career as a poet, citizen, and teacher of poetry. Both his prose and poetry address incidents of racist turpitude with a largeness of spirit and eloquence that betrays the verbal efficacy of truth-telling, immense particulars, and courageous witness, as evidenced in his essay for Plume this month.
ROOM AT THE TABLE
A Sunday afternoon in fall, after a big lunch, sitting with my father watching football, our favorite way of spending time together. He was settled in his easy chair, gazing at the black-and-white screen where his beloved Chicago Bears and the Green Bay Packers were locked in mortal combat. He loved the Bears as passionately as he hated the World Champion Packers. To him the plucky, lightly regarded Bears were the underdogs, the working man’s proxy, and the World Champion Packers the establishment.
It was late in the fourth quarter and his Bears were giving the Packers all they could handle, looking like they might even pull off an upset. Normally during a game like this he would have been just about jitterbugging in his chair. Popping up repeatedly to pace the living room, shake his fist at the screen, and yak at the refs after every unfavorable call. But now he was silent and still. He might as well have been watching the Department of Agriculture’s Weekly Farm Report.
He’s been silent ever since breakfast. He did most of the family’s cooking on weekends to give Mother a break, and the kitchen was usually his happy place; he was never more relaxed than when whipping up a meal for his family. But this morning he’d stirred the eggs and fried the bacon like someone going through the motions, without any of the usual small talk or corny jokes. Even as a kid I could tell there was something wrong. And I knew exactly what that something was.
Turn the clock back twenty-four hours. He, Mom and I had piled into the station wagon to run errands around town, one of which was returning a chair he’d bought a couple of weeks before from a little storefront furniture company. That chair had proved that “you get what you pay for.” Father had thought he’d gotten a great deal but in just a couple of weeks, under moderate use, it started to squeak and creak. To sit on it was to flirt with disaster. We pulled up in front of the furniture store and Father hauled the chair out of the station wagon and carried it inside, Mother holding the door. No one else was there and the white man who owned the joint and had sold him the chair walked over. Father wiggled the loose legs and said he wanted a refund, pulled the receipt from his shirt pocket and held it out.
The man looked at the receipt like it was a snake, and claimed the chair wasn’t defective, that it had obviously been abused and he wasn’t responsible for its condition. He wasn’t giving us a refund. Father tried to politely disagree, but the man was uninterested. He interrupted Father mid-sentence, and pointed to the door. “I’m not giving you no money back,” he said and turned to walk away.
Dad was startled; he had a strong sense of right and wrong, and to him the man was clearly in the wrong. “This chair is a piece of junk,” he said to the man’s back. “You got to make good on this.” The man wheeled around, his face an angry mask. “Nigger, who are you, coming in my store and telling me what I gotta do.” He jabbed a finger toward the door. “Get the Hell out!”
Father was a patient, even-tempered man with a great sense of humor. But somewhere inside him a switch flipped. There was a cardboard box on the floor full of furniture parts, and he picked up a table leg and started toward the owner, who backed up and threw his hands up, face frozen in terror. Mother rushed over and grabbed Father’s arm. “Connie, it’s not worth it. He’s not worth it. Let’s just go.” He stared at her a moment, blankly, as if in a dream, then shook his head and tossed the table leg back into the box. Ignoring the cheapjack chair he headed for the door, Mother and I trailing behind. It was a side of him I’d never seen before and never saw again.
No one spoke on the ride home. And so it was the next day he sat slouched on the sofa, staring at but not really seeing a football game he’d been looking forward to for weeks. It took a little while for him to return to his body. A few days later the sun seemed to break through the clouds when he told Mother a corny joke while she was washing dishes. Of course, we didn’t talk about what had happened at the store. No one in our family ever talked about anything uncomfortable.
As a child I was only dimly aware of how we black people were treated in this country; all the limitations, all the places we weren’t allowed to go, that was just the way things were. I didn’t understand it all any more than a fish knows it’s swimming in the ocean. Looking back I realize now that in some ways my father was something of a child himself. He never knew his father, and when his mother died while he was a teenager he moved in with his grandmother, into a house full of women. The only lesson he really learned there was that a man has to be a bread winner; all through high school he worked restaurant graveyard shifts, washing dishes at first and moving up to line cook. One time when he fall asleep in school, the teacher kept him after class then shook his head and told him to go when Father told him he’d been working until late at night.
During the Korean War, he was drafted and sent to Texas for army basic training. A few days after he arrived he was waiting with the rest of the draftees for a lecture to start when a corporal ran into the auditorium shouting, “Can any of you assholes cook?” In his naivete, Father was oblivious to the Universal Law known to every common soldier since the time of Hannibal: “Never Volunteer.” So he raised a hand and the corporal hustled him over to a mess hall full of ravenous draftees that had just gotten off the buses. Problem was, two mess crew members were out with dysentery, apparently having eaten leftovers from a metal tray that hadn’t been cleaned properly. The place was in chaos. When Father got there, the mess sergeant didn’t say boo or howdy, just pointed at a work station, sink or swim. Father, pro that he was, knocked it out like it was nothing, probably goofing around with guys going through the line as he dished out the grub.
When the after-lunch cleanup was done, the Mess Sergeant sat him down for a conversation that must have gone something like this:
“Son, what’s your name”?
“Coe, Sergeant. Connie Coe.”
“Well, Private Connie Coe, I gotta question for you.”
“Would you rather go to Korea or stay stateside and work on my mess crew?”
And so it came to pass that after his unit finished basic training and paraded proudly past the base commander, everyone else headed back to the barracks to pack their gear and load onto buses bound for ships that would carry them across the Big Water to Korea. But he stayed at Fort Bliss, peeling potatoes and dishing out scrambled eggs and meat loaf. Korea was one of the most horrible and pointless wars in American history (although the competition for “worst war” is pretty fierce.) This all went down before I was the proverbial “twinkle in my father’s eye,” and his cluelessness in raising his hand to volunteer might be the reason I’m here to write these words.
My parents had gotten married just a little while before he was drafted. Mother had a young child already, my sister Carol, having gotten pregnant courtesy of a man who had zero interest in being a father or a husband. Once he contributed his ten cubic centimeters of protein he was off over the horizon, so grandmother was putting the squeeze on for her to snare a husband. Father, a man who worked in restaurants and did day labor wasn’t exactly a world beater, but my grandparents both liked him very much. And they figured a woman with a young kid didn’t exactly have unlimited options. So the deal went down.
When he got out of the army our young family struggled in the early days. I remember sleeping in my coat occasionally because there wasn’t coal for the furnace. Father did whatever work he could find: Washing dishes and cooking. Waiting on the street corner in the early morning cold and dark, hoping to be chosen when the day labor van stopped by. Working on house painting crews. But the family fortunes took a dramatic upturn in the Fall of 1960. He’d applied for work at the new Chevy plant and on the day John F. Kennedy was elected, he got a telegram telling him he’d gotten the job.
When he got his first paycheck he did something I’d never seen him do before and never saw him do again: He bought something for himself first. The shoes he’d been wearing to work were in sad shape, stuffed with newspaper to cover holes in the soles. He bought a new pair of work shoes, shiny black ones with thick rubber soles, and that night brought the old shoes in the new shoes’ box to the dinner table. “I’m keeping these,” he said. “I’ll show you where I’m putting them in the basement. If you ever see me acting like I’m some kind of big shot I want you to go get them and toss them down in front of me…”
That day never came. Our family’s really hard times were behind us for good. The men of that generation who got those union gigs were (except for the occasional and usually short-lived layoff) set for life. During the Summer of the American Empire, just about any able-bodied man willing to work could find a decent job. Father could feed, house, and clothe a family of four while his wife stayed home to run the house and the two kids went to Catholic school. I doubt if we’ll ever see those days again.
So now he was making pretty good money, but there was just one catch: No one had ever taught him anything about finances. When I was growing up he never even had a bank account. On payday he’d go to the supermarket, cash his check, and buy money orders to pay rent and utilities. And he was a soft touch for hard luck stories, always “loaning” someone money that I doubt he ever got back, partly because he enjoyed playing the big shot, and partly because he was generous to a fault. He like his job at the Chevy plant, although it was hard for him to watch white man after white man with less skill and seniority promoted to foreman over him. Then he’d have to tolerate being “managed” by men he’d trained. This was just one of the endless examples of racism a black man trying to make his way in the world, trying to raise a family, had to endure.
That’s just the way things were. Indiana has a shameful past when it comes to racial discrimination. The Ku Klux Klan gained momentum there after World War I and by 1925 the Indiana Klan had 250,000 members, including the Governor and more than half the General Assembly. And until national Civil Rights legislation, the state was full of little “sundown towns,” places where black people weren’t allowed on the streets after dark. In comparison to signs you’d see in the Deep South, these were relatively polite. An uncle of mine who’d been in the army during WWII once told me about being on a bus on the way to basic training at an army base south of the Mason/Dixon line and seeing a sign that said, “Nigger, Read This Sign And Run. If You Can’t Read, Run Anyhow.” Those Sundown Town signs disappeared from Indiana many years ago, although there are still some little burgs that if I couldn’t avoid driving through at night I’d keep my fingers crossed I didn’t blow a tire or get pulled over by a local cop.
Discrimination in Indianapolis, the “big city” where my family lived, didn’t have the same raw edge as in the Hoosier hinterlands or the Jim Crow South but there was discrimination nonetheless. There were no “whites only” signs; it was simply understood that many businesses and parts of the city were off limits to black people. A man like my father had to be careful to live inside the dotted lines and take it when some sleezeball junk furniture dealer called him a “Nigger” to his face.
Any day could bring some completely new indignity. One day our family’s station wagon was t-boned by a white man in a shiny new Cadillac who blew through a red light and totaled both cars. Amazingly no one was hurt, but when the cops showed to sort things out the other driver was so drunk he could hardly stand. The cops barely talked to Father but huddled up and hustled the guy off in the back seat of a cruiser. No charges were ever filed against him and the police report to the insurance companies said he was at fault but mentioned nothing about him having been falling-down drunk. This was all just business as usual.
In the years since my father’s passing I wish I’d appreciated him more, understood more about some of what he had to deal with to care for his family in such a place and time. When he couldn’t sleep because some worry kept whispering in his ear, what thoughts and fears were chasing each other around inside his head? The son he’d bounced on his knee and worked so hard to feed and clothe was now fifteen hundred miles from home, returning only for the obligatory holiday visits. In his later years, when his body started to fail him, I was wrapped up in “making my own way.” He was out of sight, out of mind. Now we’ll never have those conversations I now wish we’d have. Sometimes we see can see our lives only in the rear-view mirror.
When I went off to college (where I spent a year majoring in marijuana and female anatomy before dropping out), I’d listen amazed when other students talked about winter vacations skiing in Colorado, or summer trips to Europe. Our family never took a vacation. The most adventurous thing I remember our family doing was the one Sunday afternoon when Father loaded us all into the station wagon and we actually got on the highway! We drove from Indianapolis to Kokomo (almost sixty miles!) got ice cream cones by a road side stand, then turned around and drove home. I had nothing to add when classmates talked about family ski vacations in Colorado or summer trips to Europe
Years later when I was working as a housepainter in Boston I was painting a room in the home of a wealthy African-American family that had all the material things my family never did: the beautiful three-story house, the two fancy cars, the vacation home. The husband and wife were pleasant enough, but there was an odd vibe I couldn’t put my finger on. But I finally understood when I heard the husband on the top floor bathing the two young boys. As little kids will, they started to giggle and splash, but I could hear him telling them to settle down. I suddenly felt sad, felt the air of somberness in that beautiful castle. Those two little boys were being trained to bear the weight and responsibility of representing their race and family with the proper dignity, already under pressure to be “little men.”
That night I called home and talked to Father, confessed that when I was younger I resented the fact that we didn’t much in the way of material things. But one thing we did have, even when times were rough, was real laughter. I told him I wouldn’t trade that for all the fancy cars and vacation houses in the world. It was the kind of moment I wish we’d had more often.
After a long silence he said, so softly I could barely hear, “Thank you…”