Alley Rat: Excerpts
Destination, Eddy Alley(I’m lighter than you — I’m better than you!)
My first look at the big city was overwhelming. There were paved streets, cars, streetcars and buses everywhere. I never knew there could be so many well-dressed colored people in the same place at the same time, and most of them smelling nice and wearing bright-colored ‘Sunday clothes’ in the middle of the week.
My first glimpse inside the housing projects was awe-inspiring as well, truly a wonderful, eye-opening experience. The entire place was clean. Having lived in dismal circumstances all of my young life, I thought my cousin was rich. She had running water, and a bathtub, in the house. Even the lights came on at the flip of a switch. And, her bathroom smelled a whole lot better than our old, falling down outhouse; the toilet was inside the house, too! In comparison to where we lived in Tallapoosa, our new residence was like something out of a dream. I would later learn that beauty is in the eye of the beholder. I sooner learned that city life was altogether different from life Down South, and just as difficult, but in a different way.
The white people in Louisville didn’t terrorize us like they did in Georgia. Imminent hurt took on a different face and color. My father and I were the darker-skinned members of our immediate family and, from the very beginning, my cousin, Eileen, made it clear she didn’t care for me for that very reason.
I remember one time when Baby Sis and I were sharing a glass of water and Eileen admonished Sissy, saying, “Don’t you dare drink after him! He reminds me of a black bull. He and his daddy both are black enough to be poisonous.”
Her words cut deep and left a lasting scar. Sissy told me Eileen was just joking. I tried to take it in stride, but I have never forgotten it. Being from Down South, I was taught to endure abuse from white people — not colored people! But, I dared not complain about Eileen because, even as young as I was, I knew my parents were doing the best they could. Complaining would only hurt them and add to our struggle. It was enough to endure trying to keep themselves and us alive.
Moving up in the world
In Louisville, finding a landlord who would rent to people with children was next to impossible. But when Mama found out how Eileen felt about very dark-skinned people, she found us a nice apartment in record time. Our first family home in Louisville, after we were finally able to move from the housing projects, was on 12th Street near Broadway. It wasn’t nearly as nice as the projects, but it was still a lot better than Georgia.
The landlord, Mr. Hollis, welcomed us with open arms. He said to Mama, “Emma, if there’s ever anything I can do to help out, you just let me know. I know how it is to have young’uns and be trying to raise ’em right. Mine’s all grown up and gone, but not a day go by that I don’t think about ’em. I shore do miss ’em. It feels so good to have a pretty, light-skinned woman like you ’round here to brighten up the place. And I just loves yo’ cute little chil’uns. When ya’ think about it, Emma, I’m truly a blessed man.”
Mama, desperate to find us a home, “overlooked” telling Mr. Hollis that more of us were coming. When Daddy arrived with the rest of the family, Mr. Hollis bellowed, “Oh, no! Oh, hell no! Y’all ain’t gonna move all of them crumb snatchers up in here and tear up my house. I ain’t never had no chil’uns, or liked ’em nohow! And, anyway, woman — you already got a husband!” He wouldn’t even let the rest of the family un-pack their bags.
Mama and Daddy finally assured him that Mama didn’t intentionally lie about having a husband; that she “just forgot” to tell him. Only then would he, at least, allow the rest of the family to wait on the front porch while Daddy searched for another place. The only lodging Daddy could find on such short notice was a room in the back of a juke joint on Eighth Street, between Walnut Street and Eddy Alley. He heard about it from a drunk. It wasn’t exactly for rent; it wasn’t fit to be rented. But, under the circumstances, Daddy had no choice. After what happened to Mama, Daddy figured he’d better be up front with the potential landlord. He pleaded, “Mister, I’m sho-nuf in trouble and I sure could use your help. I just got in town from Down South. It’s getting late, and my family ain’t got nowhere to bed down for the night, and there are nine in our family. Could you please find it in your heart to help us out? We ain’t got but a few dollars left, and we can’t go back to Georgia ’cause I know them white folks are waiting for us.”
The owner growled, “Man, what the hell you asking me to do? You didn’t slap a white woman, or kill none of them white men down there, did you?”
Daddy exclaimed, “Lord have mercy, nah! I ain’t no killer! And I sho-nuf got better sense than to even look at a white woman! I left there to keep them crackers from killing us!”
After hearing of our plight, the owner thought it over and said, “With that many kids, you damn sho’ need somebody’s help. I can’t refuse you, because I’m from the South myself. And I know for a fact that when a bunch of white folks git afer your ass, yep, you sho-nuf got a problem.
“I’ll tell you what I’ll do; out of the goodness of my heart, I’ll go ahead and rent you the room, ’cause I couldn’t live with myself if I didn’t help you out. But, I wanna get this straight right up front. I don’t know you, Sam — ain’t never seen you before. Your problems ain’t none a mine, and I don’t want ’em to become mine. You git my drift?”
Daddy eagerly replied, “Yes, sir, I shorely do.” Being an understanding person, our new landlord said, “Now, I ain’t gonna charge ya’ much rent because, from what you just told me, I know ya’ ain’t gonna be able to pay it nohow. Tell ya’ what I’ll do though, until you get on your feet, I’ll find something ’round here for ya’ to do so you can earn ya’ rent.”
He was silent as if in deep thought, then said, “And, Sam, most of all, I don’t want no white folks on my ass for hiding y’all out!”