Buster’s Diner - J.C. Nelson
MacArthur, Southeast Arkansas, my grandparents owned a Mechanic shop and Auto parts room on Main Street. Pawpaw and Memaw’s business were located just south of the John Deere dealership, with the big green combines and tractors facing the Main Street while blocking the sidewalk. Those green machines were almost close enough to touch from pawpaw’s 55’ Ford pickup truck, idling at the stop sign in front of the dealership, with the windows rolled down on a summers’ day. We were located a block south of the Five & Dime general store and three doors down from the MacArthur Bakery. The MacArthur Mercantile hardware store with the wood floors, peanut & candy vending machine, and cold Ten-cent Coca-Cola was a 20-second stroll away. Anytime I had an extra dime and nickel, I would sneak away from the parts room, run to the vending machines, and treat myself. Mr. Randy, the proprietor, would turn the knobs for me, on the vending machine, until my fingers were strong enough. Mmmm, how those salty peanuts tasted in that cold Coke and the way the soda fizzed in your mouth while crunching away.
Across the street from Pawpaw’s parts room was Buster’s Diner, where Buster and Hazel Ross provided the best greasy spoon breakfast fare in Southeast Arkansas. Buster competed with Doe’s over in Greenville, well worth the 45-minute drive to cross the border into Mississippi. Doe’s tamales were heavenly, as were their “Melt in your Mouth” skillet steaks fried in butter. Ms. Hazel was known for her rhubarb pies, Peach cobblers, black-eyed peas, and cornbread. Buster was your stereotypical middle-aged Navy-trained short-order cook. Your classical “Old Southerners,” Buster still had and enforced the “Colored” window on the side of the diner away from the sight of Main Street traffic.
I remember the summer morning; Ms. Hazel asked my grandmother as she was opening the parts room door with me in tow.
“Ms. Nettie, who is that little boy you got there? You hiring colored children now?” Memaw looked down at me and finally noticed how dark tanned I was. She was shaking mad and could not get the door open fast enough to cuss my grandfather up one side and down the other for letting me play outside without a shirt. They would not let me go out without a long-sleeve shirt on for the rest of the summer.
I recollect it was at least two weeks before she would take me in the Five & Dime for a new set of plastic Army men, Blue and Gray of course, as gossip traveled fast and died young in MacArthur. Three weeks after the “colored children” incident was my birthday, and that was the first time she let me walk back to the MacArthur Bakery, in full sight of Ms. Hazel as I was wearing a blue long sleeve cotton shirt, Cardinals baseball cap and blue jeans. I had missed the heavenly scent and sublime taste of fresh fried Donuts and cold milk. Besides the two donuts memaw allowed me to have, the ladies gave me a peach fritter, with extra icing, for my birthday. Well worth the wait after being in Memaw’s doghouse!
My emancipation came slow. No matter how much I pleaded for the rest of the summer, I was forced to sit in the back of Memaw’s Cadillac, head down on the seat, while she opened the Parts Room door and entered the establishment every morning. I waited to enter through the wooden garage door into the Mechanics Shop, with the “coloreds” every day, away from the prying eyes of Ms. Hazel. I could not get white again fast enough for Memaw’s liking. That was the Arkansas Delta in 1968 hot, humid, segregated, and judgmental.
I remember it was not long after the incident with Ms. Hazel that my babysitter and second southern Grandmother, Ms. Katie Johnson, arrived on the scene to watch me and help my grandparents in their Auto parts room. A dirt-poor woman who lived in her great grandparent’s slave shack down the sparsely graveled road from my Grandparent’s farm. Ms. Katie’s home was at the end of a bayou that scared me into my early teens because of the “boogers” that lived in there and ate little kids. Ms. Katie’s oldest son Avery, a twenty-something illiterate young man, worked on cars, trucks, and tractors with my grandfather. Avery was a budding alcoholic at 24, which was a perfect fit for my grandparents. He died a couple of years later at the age of 27, from a drunk driving accident. Avery was followed by Ms. Katie’s middle son Archie. Archie was my friend from his time working on the farm and giving me wheelbarrow rides. I was like his little white shadow. He was also functionally illiterate and in need of a career.
I remember the morning of my awakening like it was yesterday. My grandparents were hungover something fierce, as they had stayed up late playing double nine Dominoes, with Uncle Lonnie and Aunt Vera, while drinking Bourbon de Luxe & Coke and chain-smoking. I, as ever, was getting on Memaw’s last nerves, playing under her feet, and running between the shelves of the parts room, singing songs I heard on the AM radio out loud, interrupting customers, and irritating my grandfather to no end in the mechanic’s shop. This was the age; children should be seen and not heard. I knew I was in trouble when my grandmother took off her cat-eye glasses with the golden chain, stared daggers at me with those gray eyes, and said:
“Boy! You are the “Devil in Disguise”, and I am about to send you to the Cherokee Reservation.” I had been singing to those tunes all morning.
“Katie! Katie, get Johnny and run over to Buster’s for some biscuits & sausage gravy, and a Coke. Please get me a couple of packs of Tareyton 100s menthol and a pack of L&Ms for Clemens and the crew. I need the boy out from under my feet; his pawpaw is about to put him in a bottle and shake him up, take him to the Five & Dime when you are done. Here are ten dollars.”
“Yes, Ms. Nettie.” Was Katie’s reply, as usual.
“Memaw, can I go visit Uncle Jack,” I asked.
Uncle Jack owned a gas station uptown and around the corner off the main street. He would give me a piece of double bubble, bubble gum for each soda can or bottle I could retrieve from the dumpster out back of the gas station. Sometimes he would let me cross the street and raid the dumpster behind the Five & Dime. If I came back with a dozen or more bottles or cans, he would give me a box of “Mike & Ike” or “Jujubes.” One time, I messed up, got greedy, and went to the dumpster behind the MacArthur Police station, where I got stuck inside.
“No! You are already in enough trouble.” She stated.
I never went inside Buster’s before; my family would not let me. Buster’s is where the local menfolk would assemble in the morning. Smoking cigarettes, cursing, talking politics, and telling off-color jokes. Rumor had it that some of the men were in the Klan as my great Uncle Gifford would be there most mornings and he was pure Klan. According to Memaw, Buster’s was no place for a future Senator from the State of Arkansas. I learned neither was the dumpster behind the Police station.
Ms. Katie always made me hold her hand when we crossed a street, so tightly that I could feel the callouses and wrinkles in her palms from a lifetime of hard work picking cotton as a young woman, raising three boys as a single mom to cleaning my grandmother’s home in her later years. Ms. Katie looked both ways before we crossed the street and made sure I did the same before she congratulated me on being a “Good Doobie.” A commendation I had achieved from my daily dose of Romper Room on Television. Romper Room was Ms. Katie’s morning break where she could smoke one of Memaw’s cigarettes, drink a cold Coke at the dinner table, and gossip with her sisters down the road on Memaw’s party line while staring at the cotton fields through our picture window. It seems like Ms. Katie always went to another place when she stared out that window.
MacArthur was not a bustling metropolis, just an old farm town built off the railroad depot, the cotton gin, and Duck hunting in the winter months. The summer heat had not started melting the asphalt as we walked across the road. There were no hot waves of toxic fumes burning my nose or bubbles of tar in the cracks yet, but you could see the individual pebbles in the asphalt; it was so old. Most of the morning traffic was headed towards the fields or to breakfast. These were the days when seeing a Black woman with a white child was common in the south, before the great divide, as Memaw would say. Even though there was not much traffic, anyone that knew my grandparents or bought auto parts from them knew Ms. Katie and would slow down or stop to let us cross the street.
Busters was your typical greasy spoon Southern diner made from concrete blocks painted white, a red roof, and a checkered awning installed around the circumference of the building. The fluorescent lights out front were for the “Whites.” Pawpaw would take me to the “Whites” order window when he needed cigarettes or something to eat and a Coke. He would often get a burger and fries, but on Fridays, he would eat the Catfish and Hush Puppies instead. The grey asphalt parking lot was full of cracks. We would walk around the lot while waiting on our order and identify each weed species growing in the cracks. There was always a variety, starting with milkweed used for “Mae West” Life jackets. Pawpaw was a Seabee in World War II, and that was always the first weed we went to. The purslane was pretty when blooming, the lamb’s quarters were always present, and the Johnson Grass grew tall in the corners of the parking lot under the scrub cottonwoods and hackberry trees. Those cottonwoods made it look like snow when their seeds would float on the wind in the spring. I was never allowed to go inside Busters.
Ms. Katie and I walked towards Buster’s, between the freshly painted white lines, to the glass door with the three silver bells, on individual chains that hung off the doorknob announcing guests or folks leaving with a pretty clang. I noticed right away the many different colors of bubble gum folks had stuck on the sidewall of Buster’s before they went inside. I knew from experience folks would put gum under the counter, at the Whites window, because I saw them when pawpaw brought me over for lunch. I remember Ms. Katie holding the door for me, to enter the Diner when Buster started yelling from behind the grill smoke and over the sizzle for her to use the “Colored” window.
“Mr. Buster, she said, Ms. Nettie needs three packs of cigarettes and a biscuit & sausage gravy, with a bottled coke, for Mr. Johnny.”
“Katie,” Buster said, “you know I serve coloreds at the side window, and I do not sell coloreds cigarettes.
“Mr. Buster, the cigarettes are for Ms. Nettie and Mr. Clemens.” She spoke.
“Send the boy up to the counter while you wait outside. Close that door you’re letting the skeeter’s in.” Buster said.
Katie shooed me into Buster’s.
“Go to the counter, Mr. Johnny.”
She called me Mr. Johnny in front of white people; otherwise, I was her doobie, sometimes her Good Doobie. I remember the door shut with the sharpest loneliest bang I had ever felt, followed by the bells clashing so loudly I jumped in fright while every white person in the diner was staring at me like I did not belong.
To that day, in my life, I had never been so scared, and never of white people. The menfolk just watched me as I walked towards the service counter; some would stick out their feet to trip me, nudge me with their elbows or ruffle my hair. I remember this one fellow asked me:
“Is that your momma boy?”
He then stuck his boot in the aisle and grabbed my ear, stopping me from reaching the order counter. He had oily blond hair with snow on his collar, yellowed teeth, foul tobacco breath, and a sun-weathered face with the most bottomless blue eyes I had ever seen. I noticed that his boots had a dull dented metal end over the big toe where the leather had worn off, and there were a couple of cockleburs on his shoelaces and some black cotton seeds stuck inside the worn cuff of his jeans nestled beside the broken golden threads in the seams. I thought it was funny, those cotton seeds did not fall through the frayed holes in the bottom of the cuffs. He smelled of cigarette smoke, grease, and fresh-turned swamp soil.
“Answer me, boy!” he demanded as the smoke from his cigarette, in the disposable brass ashtray on the checkerboard table, wafted into my face.
“No. Sir. Ms. Katie is my friend,” I replied, gagging from the smoke and the smell of his dirty, grease-stained hand next to my face.
I heard some folks gasp; there was conversation droning in my ear like a late autumn hornet’s nest, slow and light but still dangerous, while other patrons mumbled to each other as the man twisted my ear till it hurt.
“Stop it, let me go,” I yelled at him as the heat and pain in my ear started to sting. I could feel my eyes watering, and I did not want to cry.
Now, all the eyes in the diner were staring at me, including Buster’s and Ms. Hazels, who intimately knew my grandfather and his temperament for suffering fools.
“Cecil, that’s Ms. Nettie’s Grandson; you want me to call Mr. Clemens over here for an introduction?” Ms. Hazel asked before things got out of hand as folks were stirring at the commotion.
By that time, I was scared, witless, petrified, and yet trembling. I could not look any adult in the eye, I was sweating behind my ear from the pain I reckon and I was afraid to move. There was no help coming my way, and I felt like I needed to pee, as I stared at the black and white checkered tile floor. Ms. Hazel brought the food to me and the cigarettes, as I could not move past Cecil with his leg out and him twisting my ear.
“Here you go, Johnny. Let me get your change,” Ms. Hazel said as I handed her the crumpled ten-dollar bill. “Cecil, leave that boy alone!” she said.
“I’m just having some fun with the boy. Give me them cigarettes and that there Coca-Cola boy, and I will let you go back to your mama.”
He snatched the cigarettes from my hand as I moved the Coke and Biscuits & Gravy away from him, which was right before a big hand clamped down on Cecil’s hand and twisted it away from my ear. Pawpaw’s other hand grabbed my shoulder from behind, making me yelp from fear as the Coke bottle slipped from my hand and crashed to the floor.
“Gifford, do we have a problem here?” Pawpaw asked.
Folks started to get up and quietly leave Busters. Gifford was my great Uncle and head of the Klan in Desha County.
“Cecil, let the boy go about his business. Give Clemens those cigarettes.” Gifford said.
“Cecil, you ever touch this boy again, and it will be the last time.” Pawpaw said.
“Ms. Hazel, give the boy another Coke on me,” Gifford ordered.
“Gifford, are we done here?” pawpaw asked.
“Yes, Clemens. Give my best to my niece, Nettie, and keep your “Negro” out of here.” Gifford warned.
“Katie, take Johnny down to the Five & Dime, as Ms. Nettie asked.” Pawpaw said.
That was when I noticed Katie was right behind my grandfather amongst all those white folks in a place she was forbidden to enter. That instant of realization was the moment my knees became like rubber as my hand went around her waist and I held on to her, in front of all those white folks, as silent tears ran down my cheeks; I loved her so much. She smelled like home. This was the first day I was aware of what it meant to be white; it was not the last time I would pay a heavy price for associating with Katie and her sons. This was Dixie, and Uncle Gifford had a long memory.
I know a vastly different “South” today from my childhood. My trials and tribulations were yet to come, but this is where the age of remembrance and recognition started and molded me to this day. My grandparents were severely racist people, yet they could offer a career opportunity to two black boys. They taught Archie to read and write, and my grandfather paid for a one-way bus ticket when Katie’s youngest son was in trouble with the Law. When they had a little extra, they would help Ms. Katie, and she was always welcome to come to pick fresh vegetables from their two-acre garden. Everybody was poor in those days, and it seemed that we all knew what work was from an early age. The funny thing about survival in the delta was that there was no color barrier to a hard life.
J.C. Nelson - I teach, I write, I learn, I never stop the senses. Open the proverbial vein and watch the ink flow to the page. Then let the games begin!