Sunday, June 19, 2011

Transcribed Stroller Column: "Sonata in Jump for Four Juke Boxes" by Sig Byrd, Wednesday, March 12, 1952

      It was getting towards the shank of the business day, and the Reef (that section of Milam Street from Preston to Prairie) was shutting down.
      Or opening up, depending in what kind of business you mean.
      At the Goodwill store, northwest corner, Milam and Preston, Carolyn Mason, a pretty brown-eyed girl was about to empty the day’s receipts into a steel cash box, when she saw the shifty-eyed derelict take a 39-cent shirt off the rack, roll it up and stick in inside his shirt.
      Being physically handicapped, like all Goodwill employees (she suffered a spine injury in a traffic accident), Carolyn wondered what she ought to do.

* * *

      Across Preston, the Real Tailors was closing, but the Rose O’Dixie and three other bars were spilling boogie music into the Reef. The sidewalks, both sides, were crowed with people going home and people with no home to go to, black people brown people, white people.


      In the 411 Club, the glittering new heart and nerve center of the Reef, owner Bob Griffey, ex-gambler, wearing a yellow sports coat, stood near the cash register, shuffling silver half-dollars like a deck of cards. On his left hand a diamond flashed like a headlight of a locomotive.
      Bob felt good. His place was crowded. Not a vacant table, not an idle moment for the brown-skinned waitresses. His customers were dark-complexioned, but they were sports. The left two inched of beer in their bottles, and smoked two-bit cigars.
      Bob laughed aloud, but couldn’t hear himself because of the music and voices. He laughed because he knew what the sure-thing boys were saying – that Griffey was flat. Huh! Huh-huh!

* * *

      Across the Reef, in Prensky’s pawnshop, an ex-night-club bouncer was trying to sell an expensive camera. He was trying to raise train fare home. He was dying of cancer and wanted to die in the town of his birth, not in a Jeff Davis ward.


      A bright boy in a purple big-apple cap paused at Prensky’s window, looking at the knives. He wanted to see if there was a knife in the window with a blade longer than the one he had in his pocket. There wasn’t. From the corners of his eyes he watched the white man coming out of the pawnshop carrying a camera. The bright boy wondered how much the camera was worth.
      Down at the corner a contact man in a pink sports shirt was waiting for a contact. The contact was late. A yellow-skinned woman passed him and he said, “You seen old Mule Ear?”
      I’ve seen him a hour ago,” the yellow woman said. “He was with Two-by-Fo.” The woman hurried across the street. A big dark man in a $150 suit followed her, but she didn’t look back.

* * *

      In the 411 Club, Bob Griffey passed the deck of half-dollars to his cashier. The cashier, too, was a white man, and he always looked pale next to Bob. Then the ex-gambler turned around and gazed through the fog of tobacco smoke at the murals.
      The murals cover three walls of the 411 Club. They were painted by a colored boy named Lemanzel Finley, who wore a beret.

Street Scene

      Bob Griffey doesn’t completely trust men who wear berets, but he paid Lemanzel $200 for the job. He wondered if he, Bob, got stung.
      The first picture, nearest the door showed a well-dressed, middle-aged colored man hurrying along a city street. Ahead of him three other persons stood against a background of skyscrapers. One was a wavy-haired youth in a zoot-suit with a drape-shape. The second was a slick chick standing on the lid of a large garbage can. Since she wore a tight skirt, the results were arresting.
      The third figure was a well-dressed middle aged colored man, wearing a ring set with what Bob supposed to be a zircon.
      The series of pictures continued around the walls, and ended near the bar, with an enlarged portrait of an open straight razor.
      It seemed to Bob that the pictures told a kind of story, but he couldn’t figure it all out. The wavy haired boy, he decided, was a producer. The man with the zircon was to get shed of the chick. But the rest was cloaked in dark symbolism.

Under Arrest

      Back in the Goodwill store, Carolyn watched the shifty-eyed man sidle towards the door with the stolen 39-cent shirt Her heart bumped her ribs. He was at the door now. Now he was walking down the street. Suddenly Carolyn picked up the empty steel box and started running. She completely forgot that she couldn’t run. She chased the thief two blocks and told him she would hit him in the head with the box if he didn’t bring the shirt back.
      The derelict denied the theft, but he went back to the store. Carolyn followed behind him the steel box ready. She didn’t look up the Reef as she marched him back into the store, but there was a commotion in front of the Rose O’Dixie bar.

* * *

      Two men were fighting on the sidewalk. A young man and a big dark man. The young man wore a purple cap. In the crowd looking on was a yellowed-skinned woman. She begged the men watching to stop the fight. “He’s got a knife!” She kept saying. “He’s got a knife!”
     The police car coming up Milam started to stop at the Goodwill store, where the complaint had come from, but then the man at the wheel saw the crowd on the eats side of the Reef, he drove on, but with out pushing the yellow signal. You can stop trouble in Catfish Reef, but it’s only temporary. It always breaks out again.