The Long Hall
In the 50’s coffee came in one flavor, people came in one color and music came in one beat. And you didn’t know any better. First time I heard “Shake, Rattle and Roll” I thought they were singing “Shake, Marilyn Monroe.” What did I know? Up in Atlanta they had a mega-store, Rich’s Downtown, you could get lost in there and never be seen again unless you happened to pass across the glass bridge which connected the two buildings over Peachtree Street. It’s the connections which shine the light on your journey.
My connection started at home, and I knew the few necessary steps to survive in that mine field. Slam a door and open another one. I am at level two holding Mama’s hand and walking down the long hall and smelling something. Smells take you any place quick. Give me a smell and I’m there. Diesel fumes give me Atlanta, wood fire at sundown and I get Carolina in the hills. I smelled pencil shavings walking down the long hall. Fresh wood being cut up into little tiny pieces. I was a little tiny piece that day, already been cut up, though. That walk was scarier than a sinner’s hell fire . I don’t suppose they ever thought we could have gone around to the back of the building and just walked in and there we’d be. Way too easy. Trauma beats tranquil, in spades.
Then I’m standing in front of a door to a world I never knew. Lots of little tiny pieces in there, already cut up, too. I let go of Mama’s hand but I don’t remember how I got to where I ended up. But I sure got there. Still that smell of wood and shavings. I sat at a big low table for six in the back of the room. The only person I remember is the woman up front. She was not what you’d call friendly. Emphasize terrifying. Mean, at least that's how a 5-year-old saw it.. So mean that when you misbehaved she made you dress up like a girl and stand in front of the room for everybody to laugh at you. I never did misbehave enough to put on that dress and I wanted to. Doris Day knew me even then. But I never got to get up there and show off in the dress. That’s how she dealt with the tiny little boy pieces.
I don’t remember her punishing the little girls. I do remember a pretty little blond girl with a smile that made you need sunglasses on a cloudy day. One day, she wasn’t there. I couldn’t find her. In those days nobody talked about anything so I couldn’t find my friend. I turned to another girl friend to ask but she didn’t know anything either. I always held her suspect anyway. She wasn’t home-town and she wiped her dog’s butt with toilet paper out in the yard every time he pooped. They didn’t stay in town very long either. They picked up their toilet paper and their saxophones and moved straight to Disney World.
It was a year before the girl with the smile came back. She came back with more than she left, crutches and a brace on her leg. Polio. So close to me. Flying around in the air on the backs of flies. But none of them landed on me It didn’t seem to affect her, though, the smile was still there. Sometimes it was forced, but she smiled even if it killed her. At the Pastime Theater, they used to pass the tin cup for polio and Sinatra up on the screen would sing “You’ll Never Walk Alone” My friend always had the metal under her arm and on her leg. And she never walked alone.
Across the long hall there was another woman who had a much better deal going on than what I had in my room. Across the hall was what you would call a battle axe. She was of indeterminate age, a heaving bosom, orthopedic oxfords and little pince-nez glasses down on her nose. I was terrified of her, but I loved her. She made you bring newspaper every day so you’d have a place to take a nap on the floor. After nap time, she’d give you a little orange pail and you’d march outside and get water for her plants. She was standing in the door one afternoon giving some words of wisdom to us while keeping tabs on the Long Hall. She used an improper word to describe a black person and the maid who was sweeping the hall, herself black, said “Miss Ellen, we don’t use that word anymore, we say “Negroes”. With one huge heave of that bosom, Miss Ellen turned to the woman and said, “There is no ROSE to it. Now you get home and wash your Christmas.” Don’t ask me what it meant, I’m just telling the tale. She continued teaching about 20 years past retirement and when they finally shoved her out the door she went home, made Christmas Brandy and called you up out of the blue to tell you your batch was ready and to bring $7 for it. And you never said no to Miss Ellen.