It was in March 1971 that the event occurred. I’d have to guess on the specific time and day. I’ll look into it and get back to you. That month in that year, something happened that has from my point of view been decisive in coloring our way of life here in the United States of America.
Before that time, virtually all Americans were happy and those who were not, pretended. We’d all learned how in school, which is not to say that this was the main purpose of our educations, but it was certainly one of them. People were happy. The Shoney’s Big Boy waitress, black or white, would approach us with a big smile. Nobody frowned in those days and she’d have said something like, “How y’all folks doing tonight? Getcha something to drink?” And my father might have replied, “And how are you? Yes, I guess we’re ready. Honey?” Then, he’d have looked over at my mother.
We then ordered a meal that the waitress would bring to our table, smiling all the way, and we smiled right back. By April, 1971, however, this scene and scenes like it stopped taking place both in my hometown and in all sorts of places across the U.S. of A. I’ve heard that there are pockets here and there where one might still expect to be greeted with a smile, but they are very few and far between. From then on, the conversation went something like this: “Good evening, what’d y’all decide?” “Well, now, let me see…how are you tonight, young lady?” “Lousy. The manager made me come in, even though it’s my day off, and my boyfriend made me suck him off in the parking lot. I got cum all over my uniform, so now I gots to pay to have it cleaned. What’d you say you wanted? I haven’t got all night.”
You might not have heard this very conversation, but you get my drift. Waitresses, believe it or not, didn’t talk like this before March, 1971. I’m not saying anything about their boyfriends, who, for all I know, make them do the very same thing to this day. All I’m saying is that waitresses back then didn’t talk that way and certainly not to customers, even at a low-grade spot like Shoney’s.
I’m determined to explore this. I’d like to better understand what it was that took our happiness away. What was it about that particular day that triggered so much dismay? Most of 20th century European history is said to revolve around the day Archduke Franz Ferdinand of Austria, heir presumptive to the Austro-Hungarian throne, and his wife Sophie, Duchess of Hohenberg, were assassinated in Sarajevo back in 1914, so perhaps this terrible development in manners was triggered by a single event. I invite readers to ask themselves this very question.
For myself, March 1971 was not all that eventful. I was still in school, a high school student as a matter of fact, in Memphis, Tennessee. I would have been 16. I didn’t have a girlfriend, but I did have a pal named Carrie Allen, a seventeen-year-old black guy who served as my sole benefactor and protector. Years later, I betrayed him and never forgave myself.
It’s so great having a memory. I remember all of it. Male and female electric sockets. Krystal’s hamburgers, four for a dollar, and their spectacular chocolate shakes just for a quarter. Even Trish: yes, she was the varsity slut at my high school. I remember the boy accused of brushing his pubic hairs, and many others, but the one I remember most fondly was Carrie Allen, an older boy who was in our 9th grade class. Carrie walked with me every day after school and bought me lunch at the burger counter in the back of the neighborhood supermarket known as Fred Montesi’s. Carrie was a street fighter. Carrie was for real.
What I recall was that blacks can be a whole lot more than just cool; some are warm. Some understand friendship. Carrie Allen was cool, all right, just like Johnny Carson. Remember him? He was my only friend that year. He was the only one I could talk to. He was physically dangerous, like the character known as Mouse in the novels of Walter Mosley.
He lived in a crummy shack on an unpaved road with a broken fridge on the front porch. I had no idea what he saw in me; maybe I let him copy my homework. I can’t rightly recollect. Maybe I was his only white friend, as he was the only black I knew well.
My brother and my father would have a good laugh over Carrie Allen. He was not allowed to come inside our house. Some years later, after I’d been away, my brother told me at the dinner table that Carrie Allen had been killed in a car accident. He died, my brother said, with his best acting smirk on his stupid face. He wanted me to react. I didn’t bat an eye. My father and he thought that grief would prove my weakness, evidence they could use for future humiliations. “See! You care about a nigger. You’re a fag.” This is how sick it got.
Forty years later, I’ll say this. I remember Carrie with affection. I scarcely think of my brother, and when I do, I shrug. I couldn’t care less. He’s nothing to me, along with my father, the liar. There were no niggers permitted in our house. He had his way, fine.
But today, fifteen years after his death, I feel nothing for him but contempt. The family jewels were safe, but his son, me, grew to hate his fair-minded lies. The dead bolts and the self-righteous smirks of co-called compassion. By 1975, the rule was no Afro-Americans allowed in the yard. Things were changing.
1971. Yes, it was a big year in some respects. Richard Nixon was still president and was thought to be doing a fine job. The anti-war movement was in high gear, of course, especially out in California, but I never saw one of those demonstrations in Memphis. Elvis was still alive, although he didn’t have long. Martin Luther King had been killed a few years earlier and I remember all that rather vividly. My next-door neighbors’ kid, Curtis, shouted out, “They got the nigger,” but I hadn’t known who that was. I would have been 13 in 1968, but I could just as well have been nine.
I remember nine. Nine is key. At nine, one is too young to masturbate. At nine, there are no girls. Nine was great because at nine, one has very little to think about. I had no ambitions. At most, I regretted missing an episode of Batman. At most, I was sorry not to have been picked for the kickball team. At most, I didn’t like one of my Christmas presents.
Nine was a time of mutual admiration. My parents thought the world of me, and I thought the same of them. In fact, I thought Dad was great. Mom, too, had my admiration…to a point. (I was a bit more critical of her.) Soon, she would lose my respect, but at nine, she was still A-OK by me. One’s parents can do little wrong in the eyes of a boy before he’s ten.
We openly praised our parents. I can remember lying, bragging about their accomplishments. Father, I said, could fly. He could eat kryptonite. He could turn clay into gold. He was a god. My friend Nathan’s father was pretty great, too. We were proud. Today, by nine, boys are trained at school to call 911 when their fathers hit them. One blow and the kids are instructed to pick up the phone, as were the children of the U.S.S.R. Not in my time. Adults stuck together. The principal at my school paddled my rear and then told my father who hit me again and laughed. The cops always sided with our parents. We kept things to ourselves. We whispered about sex. No one distributed condoms. They confiscated them. At nine, all was well. It was assumed we were innocent. Most of us wanted to marry our mommies. Daddy stood in the way, but we didn’t know why. The high point of the day was an after-school popsicle. We caught guppies at the edge of the neighborhood pond. We shoplifted Beatles cards at Woolworth’s.
In that fateful year, 1971, it is true that the President himself never seemed very happy. Nor did it turn out that Elvis was, which came as a surprise. I figured then that if you had a lot of money and could buy just about anything, you must be among the happiest in the world. As far as I was concerned, happiness had everything to do with money. I figured the more you had of it, the better off you’d be.
I’d become a consumer by 1967. Like those women appearing with alarming frequency on the cover of the National Enquirer who tell of having been penetrated by aliens with laser probes and sucked dry whilst hurtling through outer space at the speed of light, I remember the exact time of my induction into the consumer hall of fame.
I lost my innocence when I bought my first Beatles’ wig. That and a stick of bubble gum accompanied by playing cards backed by pictures of the Monkees. I remember the day I told my mother I’d rather die than miss an episode of Batman. From then on, all I thought of was things I had to have.
I remember the frenzy of desire. I want, I want, I demand. I’d shake and foam at the mouth. I’d pout. I’d sulk. I’d turn red in the face and refuse to breathe until I got my way. I did, in short, exactly what I’d been told to do by my instructors on my favorite shows: the M.C. of the children’s hour, Happy Hal, who taught us all to want a Slinky as badly as I might now dream of receiving a masterful blowjob.
Birthday presents of boys’ underwear didn’t quite cut it. That’s what I got for being born one week before classes started in the early fall. Birthday shopping got all mixed up with fall specials. Notebooks, Flintstones lunch pails, and Crayola crayon sets dominated Mother’s shopping list, never mind the recoiling bazooka and the cheesy hockey set that shimmied and blinked when plugged in. There was no Toys R’ Us on the agenda. It was Woolworth’s all the way, down aisle six, where back-to-school specials were displayed in 12-inch, yellow block-lettering, hanging by a string from the ceiling. I looked up and saw myself strung up, left dangling by a set of jump ropes as jacks and lint fell from my pockets. I even wet my pants.
There was so much to buy. Silly Putty loomed large, I can tell you. I even wanted things I’d never use. I craved a leather baseball mitt and a first-class Spalding ball. I wanted clothes, a sombrero, and a souvenir like my friend’s set of bullhorns he’d picked up in Laredo on his trip across the Texas border into Mexico. I wanted a Timex watch. I wanted a new pair of sneakers, high-top Keds in black. I wanted to shop for my girlfriend. I wanted to pick something up for my teacher, Mrs. Moore. I wanted to stop by KFC and then get a cherry snow cone at the stadium. I had my heart set on a set of fruit-flavored jellies called Chuckles. I wanted a box of Dots. This was just for a start.
I watched TV every afternoon and learned all about things to buy. These were my favorite shows, and when they were over, I’d start to think of how I could get what I had seen on TV. I had grown rather fond of model airplanes. I hated my parents because they wouldn’t get me what I wanted. I figured they were shit.
The kid on TV had a brand-new Jap Spitfire and I had to have one, too. What the fuck was the matter with my father that he couldn’t afford one? What a loser. I wanted some shoes like my friend, Mike. He’s gotten a beautiful, red guitar for his birthday, so I was convinced my parents were flops. I swore not to attend their funerals.
About that time, I discovered God. I figured that if my parents wouldn’t give me what I wanted, I’d better to pray to God. I made complete lists just in case. The list was long by now, but I’d read it from my bed at night and make all sorts of promises to God in preparation for His generosity. Hell, I even promised to stop playing with myself if He’d deliver a new set of drums. I asked for all kinds of things after hearing in church that God was great. I figured, what the hay? I knew by now my parents would never come through. Hey, God, I said, while you’re curing me of the flu, why don’t you get me one of those neat train sets shown on Happy Hal’s yesterday afternoon? You know, the one that has working lights and makes steam? Go ahead, prove to me that you exist.
I got nothing.
What I wanted now was a hobby. First, I would have to buy a uniform. If it was sports, baseball, tennis, or whatever, that would be easy enough. I wouldn’t even have to think about it. It was all laid out. But I wasn’t into sports. How about the violin? Now there was something I could sink my teeth into. After looking into the matter, I discovered that my parents couldn’t afford to rent a fiddle, let alone buy one. The best I could do was to practice in the school’s band room with the music club. They wouldn’t let me take it home. No, that wouldn’t do. I wanted to own something. What about horseback riding? Now, there’s a thing to do. I talked to our neighbor who offered riding lessons and taught jumping out at Wildwood Farms. She must know what she’s doing, I figured; she even kept her blond hair in a ponytail.
I signed up and told everyone about it. Yes, horseback riding was an excellent hobby for a young man like me. I could boast about riding horses without actually having to own one. It suited me just fine and helped me feel that I would fit right in with my parents and their friends who couldn’t sing but were always bragging about attending the opera. Tickets were so high that just listening to it on the radio bestowed prestige. Now that’s the sort of thing I wanted to be part of.
I rode on the weekends for several years. In the end, there were all sorts of things to buy. Riding boots, for one, were expensive. I bought a used pair off a family friend who owned her own horse. Boy, did I envy her until hearing that her boots had become available because of injuries she’d sustained when she entered the stall and had gotten kicked to within an inch of her life. Her father sold the horse and then let me have her boots for next to nothing. Dear Peggy took years to recover.
Was Peggy’s misfortune the cause of the nation’s unhappiness? I doubt it. Perhaps it was due to the deaths of Martin and that of Robert Kennedy. Could be. Elvis’ didn’t help, I’m sure, but it wasn’t in 1971. The waitresses stopped smiling before the King passed away, of that I am sure. I will say this: I never heard one solid explanation, although I do remember my father’s boss Mr. Binswanger explaining why Kissinger was a great man. He liked very much what Kissinger was doing in the Middle East and thought Kissinger was helping Israel.
For all installments of “Why We Can’t Have Nice Things,” click here.
David Lohrey is from Memphis. His plays have been produced in Switzerland, Croatia, and Lithuania. His poetry can be found in Otoliths (AUS), Tuck Magazine (UK), Terror House Magazine (Hungary), and The Cardiff Review (Wales). David’s fiction can be read online at Dodging the Rain, Storgy Magazine, and Literally Stories. His newest collection of poetry, Machiavelli’s Backyard, was published by Sudden Denouement Publishers (Houston, 2017). He lives in Tokyo.