by Chip Dahlke
In my senior year of college a couple of friends and I lived in the black section of town. We called it “The Ghetto.” I don’t think anyone else who lived there called it by that name. If you asked folks from that part of town where they lived, they’d say something like, “17 Noble Street.” My friends and I would simply answer, “The Ghetto.” Being a bunch of white boys, I guess we thought we were pretty cool.
The house wasn’t much, but it was better than the dorms, fraternity houses, or the sterile apartments where all the flirty sorority girls lived. To get out the back door, you had to go through the bathroom. To get out the front door you had to go through a bedroom. The structure itself was pretty flimsy. If we were little piggies and a big bad wolf had come along, he could have blown the house down.
Most of our furniture came from the Salvation Army. We did have a black and white television and a telephone. Someone knew had to hook up the phone without paying for the service. I hope the statutes of limitation have run out.
Two blocks from us was a neighborhood bar called the Liberty Club. It was owned by a big black man named Duck. Duck drove a Cadillac and carried a gun. My friends and I treated the Liberty Club as a second home. At first, we were scared to go in, but once we did, and the regulars decided not to beat us up, we became regulars, too. For fifty five cents you could get a shot of bourbon with a beer chaser and a hardboiled egg. The whole combination was called a “chicken dinner.” If you had four dollars with you, you could treat yourself to a pretty good time.
The 2nd Baptist Church was just down the street from the Liberty Club. At some point in its history it had been painted white. At 10am on Sunday mornings, a parade of black women got dropped off by their men in front of the church. For the next two hours the women would hoot and holler and praise Jesus and carry on something fierce. In between all the hooting and praising, they’d sing hymns. The old church organ seemed to really work them into a frenzy. Sometimes you could look in the church windows and see them singing and swaying until you thought they’d lose their balance and fall all over each other.
The minister was a skinny little light-skinned man whose voice sounded just like tin. When you heard him speak it was like listening to an old radio broadcast. When he got on his game he’d start jumping all around and the organ would be pumping and like I said, the ladies would just all go crazy.
Sometimes during the week you’d see the preacher at Banks’ Market buying groceries. In among the eggs and his country sausage was always a bottle of Listerine. Even today when I see a bottle of Listerine, I think of that skinny little man and how he got all those ladies all riled up every Sunday. I wish I had that power over women. I guess it’s just one more thing not meant to be.
Duck wasn’t supposed to open up the bar before noon on Sunday’s, so he started the “Liberty Social Club” that allowed him to have a “private club” on Sabbath morning. You paid a dollar to get in, but the first drink was free. After depositing their women at church, all the black men drove to the club, found their favorite seat and killed time before going back to pick up their cargo at noon. They were all dressed up like they were going to church, but I knew the only place they’d end up on Sunday morning was on a bar stool drinking beer and eating the chicken wings in gravy that Duck’s mother always fried up in the little kitchen out back.
Now once everyone was all settled in, sort of a group conversation started up. We’d usually talk about nothing special. Like everywhere else there were the joys and concerns of everyday living. A concern was if you knew someone who had come down with the cancer and a joy was if your nephew was being discharged from the army without having been killed in Southeast Asia.
“Praise the Lord,” a proud uncle would say, “Home without being killed by a gook. “
“Amen,” we’d all respond before dropping off into silence. Sometimes it took a minute or two before anyone spoke. Things being the way they were, I know that a lot of the members of the younger generation were praying we’d never have the opportunity to visit Southeast Asia much less being killed by a gook.
If one of us had a dime, the jukebox would kick out a popular song. A favorite was, “River Deep Mountain High” sung by Tina Turner. Everyone got revved up over Tina, but after the song was over we’d all just go back and forth for awhile in a quiet way. At some point Duck would come over and lecture everyone about whatever was on his mind. Like I said, he was big and carried a gun, so we all let him go on and on. After a time Duck’s head would run out of thoughts and someone would put another dime in the jukebox. That’s pretty much how it went week after week.
Not going to church was a badge of honor. According to my fellow social club members, the only men who went to church were those who had been caught in a “predicament”. A “predicament” meant you had been found out by your missus or girlfriend fooling around with a little something down in Columbus. Your penance for this indiscretion was doing some time with the Baptists. Your sentence could be as little as six months, but there was talk of a couple of poor souls locked up for years. After being properly cleansed of your sin you were released back into the general populace. Everyone agreed that listening to the tin man week after week cured you of ever wanting to go into Columbus again.
I should stop here and tell you that I don’t mean to imply that my Sunday morning companions weren’t God fearing men. They feared God almost as much as they feared being caught with their pants down in Columbus. I’m pretty sure that some of them prayed that if they were caught, God would throw down a bolt of lightning and send them to the hereafter rather than have them face the trouble waiting at home. Knowing the size of some of the women, you couldn’t blame them at all.
At quarter to twelve Duck rang this big bell to warn everyone they had fifteen minutes to get their coats on and be back up the street to wait for the Baptist church to get out. A waitress went around and collected everyone’s money. Duck stood by the door and wished each of his patrons a good week, shaking hands and watching the little groups of the congregation leaving the darkness of the bar for the brightness of the day.
After the place cleared out, Duck sometimes came over to us white boys with a big plate of chicken and some bread. He’d sit down next to us and pour us all a glass of cheap red wine and we’d eat, drink and sop up the gravy until there was nothing left but a pile of greasy bones.
Chip Dahlke still eats a lot of chicken and is a member of the church.