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"Never Too Old To Forget Or To Learn": short story by Roosevelt Fitzgerald

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Date
1970 (year approximate) to 1996 (year approximate)
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From the Roosevelt Fitzgerald Professional Papers (MS-01082) -- Short stories and poems by Roosevelt Fitzgerald file.

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man001064
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man001064. Roosevelt Fitzgerald Professional Papers, 1890-1996. MS-01082. Special Collections and Archives, University Libraries, University of Nevada, Las Vegas. Las Vegas, Nevada. http://n2t.net/ark:/62930/d1s75b04c

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English

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NEVER TOO OLD TO FORGET OR TO LEARN
BY ROOSEVELT FITZGERALD
"Do y'all let peoples like me eat in here?"
The speaker was an elderly black man and, by his appearances, obviously was not a member of the middle class or anything higher. He wasn't what we so euphemistically refer to as a "street person" either but his economic status ranged, it would seem, somewhere about the mid-way point between beneath the poverty level and half-way on the way to subsistence.
The brief moment which lapsed between the time the question was asked and the hostess responded seemed like a lifetime. She was shocked and did not immediatedly know how to respond. She stood there, behind the small counter of the restaurant which was part of a fairly good- sized motel located in one of the medium sized towns of the central California valley, and thought of all the things about prejudice and discrimination and, yes, racism that she had heard about but had never before experienced or witnessed. A good part of her thoughts had to do with how she had disavowed the validity of those charges that such conditions did indeed exist in America.
As she stood there reflecting on the question, she suddenly felt guilty and she wasn't sure why. It dawned upon her that her feelings were a result of her being white. Her mind raised a question; "Does he think I'm that way? The way that they portray such ugly people in the movies? Does he think I'm like those people in To Kill A Mockingbird? Gone With The Wind? Mississippi Burning?" She shuddered but she did not wait for any answers. Without having rehearsed, she sat about to define herself, and hopefully, differently to the way she thought she was perceived by him.
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"Of course you can eat here. Would you like a booth, a table by the window or would you prefer to sit at the counter?"
"It ain't just me Miss. I got my wife and her sister out in the car. I came on ahead to see if it was alright. I'll go get them and we can sit down anywhere y'all'll let us. We'll be right back."
He turned and walked out the door. Hurredily, the hostess told the waitresses what had happened.
"I can't believe that," said one.
"Really?" said another.
"Poor people," said yet another.
They could seem him through the restaurant window. He had a slight build and was sort of bent over just a bit. He carried his hat in his hand and he walked toward a car at the farthest end of the parking lot. It appeared to be a 1952 or '53 Chevrolet—thirty-seven years old or so and in pretty good shape. As he drew near, he waved his hat and two elderly women got out of the car. They all seemed to be in their late sixties or early seventies. The women wore print dresses and they each wore 1950 vintage hats. One had a walking stick. One of the waitresses, about in her mid-twenties, was visibly affected. Her chin quivvered and there were tears in her eyes.
As though on a signal, the four women sprang into action. They decided that a table would be best because it would be easier for sitting rather than having to contend with a booth. A tablecloth was found and spread over the selected table. The other tables were naked. Everything was in perfect order by the time the three entered and they were escorted, slowly, to their table.
Even though there was a notice on each table that due to a water shortage, it would only be served if requested, three large glasses
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of ice water awaited them. The waitresses made such a fuss over them that other patrons took notice.
"Who are they?" one man asked no one in particular.
"They must be movie people."
"I think I saw them on the Golden Girls or Roots or somewhere."
"They do look familiar."
"I think they're making a movie in town somewhere about the civil rights movement or them damned skinheads or something.
"Must be. How you like that car?"
"It's got to be a movie."
"Haven't seen a car like that in years."
"They're really getting the royal treatment."
"I'll tell you one thing, whoever did their makeup did a great
job."
"Yeah. They look just like the real thing."
"I'll bet that's Lou Gossett underneath."
"He's a pretty good actor alright but I think he's a little heavier and a Tittle taller than that fellow."
"They can do anything with makeup."
"Well.. .1 don't know."
"Believe me."
"You know more about it than I do."
"Remember, they once made Jeff Chandler look like Cochise and they had Peter Ustinov look like Charlie Chan and John Wayne was Genghis Khan."
"When they let Lou Gossett play John Wayne, then that'll be good makeup work."
"Ha, ha, ha, ha, ha."
"Don't stare at them. That's one of the things movie stars always
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complain about--bei‘ng stared at and not being treated like normal people when they go places."
"Well, they're not like normal people. They make all that money, travel all over the world--you ever watch that show; ‘Lifestyles of The Rich and Famous?' You can't tell me that that's normal. We're normal. Nobody ever stare at us or ask for our autographs or put tablecloths on our tables but, you're right, I won't stare."
The subjects of everyones' attention had driven well over three hundred miles that day in a car without air conditioning and in early August. They had started the day in Kingman, Arizona and across the desert to Barstow, Bakersfield, through Wasco and beyond. They had made a wrong turn at, of all places, Barstow and, rather than veering off to the south toward Los Angeles and Compton, their destination, they had swung north and, as a result, had add almost as many miles as they had traveled to their already long trip.
It was early evening and on a Sunday.
"Country fried steak and southern fried chicken are our Sunday special but you can have anything else on the menu that you'd like."
The friendliness of the waitresses had not been lost on them. If we could have probed into either of the three minds sitting around that table, we would have heard something very closely akin to dialogue from the movie; The Grapes of Wrath. There is a scene where the Joads arrive to a federal camp with showers, toilets, Saturday night dances and where the travelers make and enforce their own regulations. Tom, the older son, is taken aback by the good treatment and comments to the camp director; "It's been a long time since Ma been treated decent." For those three time-wearied travelers, it had been a long time since
they had been treated decently and they did not know whether they should
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be appreciative or apprehensive. There had been many times in their lives that they had been fearful and had to conceal it. To them life was like a crooked poker game--they knew they couldn't win but they had to play the hand out. Losing was not their greatest fear. They had to be certain that even after the dealer had cheated and won that they did not let on that they knew that he had cheated. They had to pretend that the reason that they lost was because they were lousy players and the cheater was exemplary. In many ways, one might think that they thought that their lifetime of pretense finally added up to something--afteral1, here they were, in California, where all of the really good actors were. If they could act it out, perhaps they would be able to get through this latest ordeal unscathed.
After ordering their meal, they each went to the restrooms. As they waited, they asked directions to their destination.
"Miss, what's the easiest way to get back on the highway?"
"Which highway are you looking for?"
"The road to Los Angeles."
"When you pull out of the parking lot, turn to your left and right down at the bottom of the hill you turn right and that'll put you on the highway to Los Angeles. Its Highway 101 South. That's a long drive."
"We figured it to be right at a hundred miles."
"Oh it much further than that. Its almost three hundred miles from here to Los Angeles."
"No ma'am. I don't mean to 'spute your word but we done already drove over three hundred miles."
"Three hundred miles from where?"
From back there at a place called Barstow.
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"Barstow?"
"Yes ma'am."
"But that's in the other direction."
"That's right ma'am. That's where we coming from last and where we going to is Los Angeles. Los Angeles in one direction and Barstow in the other direction."
"That's not what I mean. If you left from Barstow to go to Los Angeles, you've driven in the wrong direction. You've driven north and you should've been driving south."
"The wrong direction?"
"That's right. Los Angeles is closer to Barstow than it is to here. I mean, its closer to Los Angeles from Barstow than it is from Barstow to here."
What happened?"
"You must have made a wrong turn back at Barstow."
"We went the direction the man at the gas station give us. We wanted to get there before dark."
"It'll be dark long before you get there from here."
"I don't see too good in the dark."
"Walter, we better stay here and leave early in the morning."
"They 'specting us today."
"We just call them long distance and tell them what happened."
"I don't know."
"Well we goin' haf' to do it anyway."
"You know what they goin' think?"
"What they goin' think?"
"They goin' think that they was right when they told me I couldn't make this drive and that one of them oughter come and drive us out here.
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Junior just kept saying over and over that I was goin* get us all lost." "Well that exactly what done happened." "It weren't my fault." "Who fault was it?"
"Miss. I drove all the way from down on the Tombigbee River in the South. I knowed some of the highways but then they come to be real confusing so I stop and ask direction at gas station when I didn't know for sure which way to go and everything went long just fine but back down the road there a piece, a fella sent me off in the wrong direction. I thought I was 'sposed to go the other way but he kept telling me that this other was was a shortcut and that the way I was gonna go was through some real bad country and that there weren't no gas stations that way. He seemed like a nice fellow and I believed him and that's how come we end up here. Now I don't know what to believe or who to believe or what to do."
"You remember what I just told you about the way you have to go?"
"Yes ma'am."
"Well, you look around this room and just pick out anybody else that we can ask."
"No ma'am I don't want to..."
"N1, you go ahead and do it."
"Well..."
"Anybody."
"What about that man over there in the checked shirt?"
"Ok. I'll go get him. Now you watch me and make sure that I don't talk to him and tell him what to say."
She walked over to the table where the man with the "checked shirt" sat. He was a local and a regular at the restaurant. She merely touchec
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his shoulder, got his attention and beckoned for him to follow her.
He did and no words were spoken between them until they returned to the table whereupon she asked him a question.
"What way would you drive to Los Angeles from here?"
"You know how to get to L.A."
"I know but I want you to tell my friends."
"Ok. You go down the hill right there and veer off to the right to Highway 101. Stay on that road and it'll take you right into L.A."
"Isn't that what I said?"
"Yes ma'am, it sure is alright. How far away is it mister?
"Right in the neighborhood of three hundred miles."
"We can't get there before dark."
"Not unless you fly."
"We goin' have to find somewhere to stay tonight and leave out of here early in the morning."
"You can stay right here. They got a hotel here."
"We can?"
"Sure you can."
"I don't know."
"They're real nice rooms."
"That's what we'll do then if they got one empty."
The man in the "checked shirt" returned to his table and the three were served their meal. The sister had country fried steak, the wife had grilled pork chops and he had bacon and eggs and lots of coffee. They each had dessert—pie—lemon, coconut and apple. They talked among themselves but they spoke so softly they could not be overheard.
Then they were gone.
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The waitress who had served them was also the waitress who had the tears in her eyes when she first heard of the question the elderly black man had asked. Throughout the remainder of the shift, with the arrival of each new customer, she was aware that none of them--all white—displayed any such concerns as he had had. They each entered the restaurant as though they owned it. If they were not seated within a predetermined, by them, length of time, they would begin to tap their foot. Next came the pursed lips and then the pinched brows. When they were taken to a table, they would prefer another for any number of reasons; "It's too close to the register," "too close to the door," "too much sun," "too little sun," "too near the kitchen," "too near the restrooms," and on and on and on. They acted like they had a lifetime subscription to "The Customer Is Always Right." Then there were the others with similar gripes but without the apparent hostility. They wanted to have their way, their pick of tables, but they used the "let's win them over" approach; "My what a lovely uniform. Might we have that table by the window?" "I love what you've done with your hair. How about that table overlooking the pool?" "My, you're so slim and trim and working around all this food. Can we have that little table in the corner?" They were those kind of people who come with flatteries included. All, nonetheless, presented themselves as though something was owed them—the the waitresses were their servants—that they deserved to be there—that it was part of their Bill of Rights or something.
The black family had no such illusions. They did not think anyone owed them anything or that they deserved anything. They accepted and would accept any table given them and eat whatever they could. Both groups, however, were bizarre in their own way and somewhere between
the one group's totalitarian approach and the other's laissez faire
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notions could be found meaningful reality.
The waitress wondered where her reality rested for the remainder of the shift.
"Good night girls. See you tomorrow."
It was seven o'clock and it was the hostess speaking. She lived five blocks from the restaurant and she walked. She always walked. She enjoyed walking. She needed the walk even though she had been on her feet for the previous eight hous or so. She needed it because all that time she had been called upon to interact with the endless flow of customers. They were all different and she had to greet each and immediatedly determine what to say to each person or each group as they entered; "Good morning," "Howdy folks," "Hey dude," "Long time, no come see," and all the many other salutations that spill over like a carelessly filled cup of coffee.
At home her husband and little girl and boy were not much better. The children talked from the time she entered the door until they went to sleep. Her husband talked a lot but not nearly as much as the children. It is difficult for those whose jobs do not require much talking to understand the need for quiet by those who must talk in order to do their job. Many times they complain, especially if they are family, that; "you don't have any trouble talking to those people where you you. You do it all day long. Why can't you talk to me for a little while?" The hostess took the opportunity of walking home to have at least a bit of quiet in her day. The walk always provided her with needed solitude and time for reflection which every conscious and sensitive person needs.
Ordinarily, she would spend the time counting the cracks in the sidewalk, smelling freshly cut grass, being aware of the aroma of soil
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dampened by watering devices, looking at the sunset, listening to the soft rustle of leaves or the gurgling of overflow water running the gutters and entering the street drains. That Sunday, however, she could not tear her thoughts away from the black family at the restaurant. Several times, unconsciously, she stopped and looked around at all of the things she and so many others took for granted. Worse, she had never really contemplated anyone not always having those things—freedom to come and go, to speak, to sit, to eat, to sleep, to rest, to wander, to travel, to be human.
She had always thought of herself as an American and, even from her childhood, she had been taught why that was important and was doing the same with her children. It was in that way that her feelings of nationalism and patriotism were nurtured. In civics class in junior high school she had been taught and required to memorize the Bill of Rights and the importance of that was strengthened when told that in the U.S.S.R. there was no such things and that is why her country was greater. There had been many times that she had heard the Bill of Rights mentioned in regards to freedom of speech, to worship, to congregate, to bear arms, to make decisions concerning one's own body and had paid but casual attention. Her earlier experience at the restaurant caused her to transcend to another level the fact that there was something which was prerequisite to being treated like an American; being treated like a human being.
It's amazing how a person can go for a lifetime without having the sediments of reality stirred up in their being. Equally amazing are the effects of such experiences in the manner in which one conducts one's life. Her sense of herself along with her perception of the racial crisis in America was altered. Her mind seemed to hum—sporadically—
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the tune of Harlem Nocturn even as her heart beat In tune with the 1812 Overture. A space seemed to have developed between the membranes of her skin and cool air poured through. It took her much longer getting home than usual because her mind made so many detours and she came to so many complete halts. Her family decided to come meet her.
"Mommy, mommy, where've you been?"
She did not respond. She did not hear or see them.
"Honeybunch, what's wrong?"
He called her honeybunch because they both were fans of the Drabble comic strip in which Mr. Drabble always referred to Mrs. Drabble as "Honeybunch."
Her mind was still nestled back at the restaurant.
"Honeybunch!1"
She came out of it.
"Hi honeybunch. Hello my little sunshine and my big rainbow."
"We were worried about you mommie."
"I'm alright sweetheart."
Even the children noticed the difference in her demeanor. Usually as active as a swarm of bees, they each took one of her hands and the four of them walked the remaining block and a half to their home.
Dinner was ready--he always cooked on Saturdays and Sundays. They ate quietly and he did all the serving--including the ice cream. It was during the ice cream that he finally attempted to discern what was wrong.
"Have a bad day today?"
"Not particularly—at least it wasn't anything that usually might occur...I mean, well, something did happen and it made me feel, I don't know, sad I guess but more than just sad. It put a knot inside me that
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I can't untie and I want to cry because I'm so mad."
"What happened?"
"What happened mommie?"
"Don't be sad mommie."
"Did somebody get outta line or what?"
"No, nothing like that."
She related the entire episode and told it with the quiet drama of a professional storyteller. By the time she finished, her little boy was on her lap and the little girl on her father's and she was crying.
"Geez."
"What is 'crimination mommie?"
She explained it as best as she could. She didn't really know a definition and even if she had the children wouldn't have understood. She explained it by using the story of Cinderella and The Ugly Duckling and other stories that they knew about.
"Why are some people so mean mommie?"
She wondered shy they wouldn't ask her something easy like why prices keep going up or why America won't rescue the hostages or how to get more rain for the farmers.
"I don't know sweetheart but we must never be mean to anyone."
"What if they're mean to us?"
"You don't like mean people do you?"
"No mommie."
"If you were mean to a mean person, you would be mean too wouldn't you?"
"I guess so."
"Now if you don't like mean people and if you were mean, could you
1 i ke yourself?
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"I don't guess so."
"You wouldn't because mean people are not nice and you don't ever want to do anything that will make you not like yourself."
"You know what I was just thinking—about a scene in the Movie Little Lord Fauntleroy. Remember when he goes to England to live with his grandfather and he's given the pony and he is taken for a ride by his grandfather? Remember when they're sitting on the little knoll overlooking where the workers live in the shacks and filth and the little boy has that sad look on his face and his grandfather sees it? Everytime I've seen that movie and that scene, I can't help but think that the old man wonders; 'What must he think of me now.'"
"I remember it. Funny. I always have similar thoughts. All the while Little Lord Fauntleroy has thought that his grandfather is kind and good and generous and the old man never tells him differently because, somehow, he enjoys being seen that way even though he knows it is not so."
"Yeah. By not telling the truth, he allowed a lie to be thought of as the truth."
"He had to know that sooner or later the boy would find out."
"The boy did and sooner than he thought."
They looked at their children and they looked at each other. He was twenty nine and she twenty six. They had married right out of high school. He wasn't a football player and she wasn't a cheerleader. They got fair grades. Their families had lived in the valley for three generations. They lived in a house—pretty good size—that was free and clear of debt and had belonged to a spinster aunt in her family, He drove a Jeep Cherokee and she drove a Cougar. Everything they bought
was made in America. He worked for the gas company and between them
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they earned—in take home--a little under $60,000.00 a year. They lived on her earnings and one third of his and the balance was saved for the children's education. They were ordinary people. Their idea of a vacation was to go camping in Yosemite and, every so often, they would go to Carmel or Santa Barbara. They knew each other very well. There was more in that look between them than what meets the eye. They knew that they would never allow their children to discover something about them that they would be ashamed of. Right at that moment, they entered into a solemn contract.
"You know, when he walked into the restaurant and asked me that question, I felt sorry for him and for myself. Like Little Lord Fauntleroy's grandfather, I wondered what did that old black man think of me."
"We've never discriminated against black people."
"I know that but he had no way of knowing that. In a way I felt that because he felt obligated to ask, then there was a good chance that he had been discriminated against by white people more often than he had not."
"Yeah, I guess you've got a point there."
"Furthermore, even though we've never discriminated against black people, we have to wonder if it is because we are as decent as we think we are or is it because we've hardly ever been around them or in a position to discriminate against them."
"I see what you mean."
"Its easy being nice to people when they're not around. You suppose there's any black people among the Eskimoes? I've never heard of any.
If there isn't, we wouldn't be able to find a single Eskimo who has ever discriminated against black people. Would that, by itself, make them
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good people?"
"By the same token, we've never even seen an Eskimo in real life so we haven't discriminated against any of them. Should we brag about that?"
They ate more of the ice cream which by then was partially melted. He lifted his bowl and drank some of the melted part.
"Give me some daddy, give me some. I want to drink some too."
He let her and for the first time she didn't spill it all over the
place. Everyone was growing up a lot faster than they had all day.
The little boy just sat there and looked and listened. He could always tell, by the tone of their voices, when things were really serious.
"You know," she said "sometimes it is not enough to merely not do something awful."
"What do you mean."
"Well, sometimes you just have to do more than that."
"Like what for instance?"
"I don't know but I do know that just not being bad is not enough. Its almost like you're just neutral when you don't do something bad and no substitute doing something good instead."
"I know honeybunch. I don't know what its all about. We've never been to too many places or around many different kinds of people and we're not hardly ever around any in this town, so what can we do?"
"Do you love me?"
"You know I do."
"Do you love the children?"
"They're my pride and joy."
"Children, do you love your father?"
Yeaaaa.
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11 Do you love me?"
"Aw mommie. You know we love you."
"I love you—all of you but we've got to do a whole lot more."
"What more can we do honeybunch?"
"Let's be more kind to each other. Let's just practice being kind and keep doing it until we become professionals and let's not have any friends who are mean to anybody because if they are mean and we are their friends, it almost like saying their being mean is one of the things we like about them."
"We might not have too many friends."
"I know but at least this way we can go to sleep every night knowing that if there is somebody out there in the world who has been made to feel like two cents by some mean act by some mean person, that the person who does it is no friend of ours."
"Let's don't even vote for anybody who is mean. That'll be what we look at first even before we look at their stand on the issues."
"That's right. If they're mean they're just flat out of luck even if they see eye to eye on the issues with us."
She started to cry. The tears just gushed out. She had been filling up all evening. He went over and knelt beside her chair at the dining table. He had his little girl on his left knee and he put
his arm around her shoulder. Her daughter put her head on her lap and
her son hugged her and he started to cry. The little girl sobbed and,
finally, he joined right in. All four held each other and they all
cried together.
They had always been a close family--nice people—good people. They became more that evening. They had made a conscious decision to take an active role in being better people. They were not going on any crusade
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or even join any organizations but they were going to be better at being human beings. Talking about such things became common in their household. They bought books and read and found out about people—not just black people but also Hispanics, Asian Americans, Native Americans and about themselves—white people. Their children learned things that other children in their community did not.
Though not to the same degree, that scenario repeated itself in the homes of the waitresses and the cook and the manager of the restaurant.
Bright and early the next morning—about five-thirty or so, the catalysts for all the contemplation pulled out onto Highway 101 south for Los Angeles.
"Them folks was sure nice."
"They sure was."
"I'm glad we got lost."
"I was thinking the same thing."
"I didn't know white people could be that nice."
"Me neither."
"Junior them won't believe it when we tell them. They goin' think
we making the whole thing up."
Yes.