Fresh air mingled with cigarette smoke with the inhale. The exhale was warmed by sidewalk heat mingled with cool mist of an open fire hydrant. Tommie enjoys for the moment kids at play in the flooded street, laughing, splashing water fights. Cars stop just before the pool eyeballing the biggest kid directing the fire hydrant cannon. He stands down his large can with two open ends. Neutrals are free to pass. Drivers nudge cars forward keeping an eye on the cannon in case of a trick.
“Don’t ya’ dare try it…” some shout out. “I got my eye on y’all.”
Tommie turned west for the six blocks to Dominic’s. He had check cashing privileges here. The Railroad Retirement Board issued monthly checks by a new system of electronic deposit. Tommie was not accustomed to banks, he was accustomed to currency exchanges, paper checks and cash. Now he gets cash, groceries, and booze from Dominic’s until he worked his account down to the minimum balance. Today was such a day, the end of the month.
On such days he stretched his check out for necessities waiting for the first week of the month bringing the retirement check. Dominic’s was perfect for this task. He wandered the aisles up, then down the next. Picking out small items, cereal, milk, orange juice, placing them in the cart. With his bag in the upper hopper of the cart he placed just a few expensive items, a fifth of Johnny Walker Red, a nice cut of steak or roast. Things that would not make the bag bulge or rattle. At the checkout he asked for a carton of cigarettes reaching into the bag for his checks and wrote a check with cash back. The amount would be covered by the anticipated windfall, if this was late, he would with humility pay the fees. All this was successfully done with variation, but the key was the appearance of a harmless old man.
Reaching the pharmacy corner, he had another three blocks to walk. He was sweaty from the first three blocks, sticky perspiration added discomfort. Musk and sweat would not do for appearances. Entering the pharmacy, he searched the aisles, deodorant stick went into the bag. He approached the cashier with a most needed toothbrush in hand. Paying cash, he turned walking out the door. A startling ring filled the store and outside sidewalk. What is that noise? The manager and security guard rushed to the source of the ringing, and gently pulled Tommie’s arm back into the store. All businesses in this area saw everyone walking through the door as assumed guilty until they were proven innocent at the cash register. Tommie did not protest, he knew. By chance two Chicago police coming off El patrol exited the Austin station. Hearing the commotion, they walked across the street; the only time boundaries were respected by Chicago and Oak Park police was on the El.
“Collier… Collier!” I heard my name shouted with familiarity.
“Collier… come help me out, my man,” same shout only now more urgent.
I was walking home from the video store less than a half block away from Austin and Lake. There was Tommie with the same old brown dog look, loosely assembled bones held up sagging muscle and skin. Two white police officers stood on either side of him.
“You know this guy,” one officer asked expectantly.
“Yes, I know him.”
“He was shoplifting. The manager is not interested in following this up and we don’t want to be bothered with it either.”
“If you agree to take him home, we’ll let him loose.”
I was startled by this generosity. Police in this neighborhood scoop up black men like fish in a net. They sorted them out at the station, with those that they had no right to hold tossed back with a disorderly conduct charge. If you showed up at court the judge routinely tossed you back again, charges dropped.
“O.K,” I said. Tommie became my charge.
I intended to keep my word, walking Tommie home as long as this was fine with him and we were out of sight of the police. Crossing the street to the Austin side, I asked, “Where do you live at, Tommie?”
“Just down the street a couple blocks at Menard.”
“Really, I live on Race at Menard. I have never seen you over here.”
I could not remember the last time I saw Tommie at work. I worked the extra board as a dining car waiter. It was important for the extra board guy to have a thick skin. If you got on the wrong side of anyone in the regular crew, you was on the wrong side of all of them. A long miserable run, the butt of every joke, the object of every complaint. Working with older men they talked to you like a father scolding a son. “Don’t worry we’re goin’ straighten you before the end of this run.”
Tommie was always neutral; he didn’t comfort you or harm you. He always called me Young Blood.
“Young Blood, we’re outa soup… We need orange juice, Young Blood.”
Across the street. Tommie began his story, “You know, I’m retired now, don’t you?”
“No… I didn’t know. I’m still working the board and I never been hooked up to the grapevine… I miss stuff like this.”
“I had enough… I took my pension.”
Railroad crews were notoriously unruly and surly. Drinking and drugging on the job was a tradition. Then Ronald Reagan was elected president of the United States and the world of old timers, like Tommie, changed forever. Reagan showed his disdain for black people launching his candidacy from Philadelphia, Mississippi where three civil rights workers met death by the hands of Klansmen. He showed his hatred of trade unions busting the PATCO strike with scabs. Railroad workers witnessed thousands of jobs disappear with Reaganomics. Then his prune of a wife said, “Just say no” to drugs. The bosses set the course to clean house, the union leadership made it clear they would not stand up for unruly and surly drunks. Many of the old timers no longer finding enjoyment in work went into retirement.
“Say Collier, could ya’ let me hold something.”
“Sure. Let me see what I got.” Reaching into my pocket I pulled out what bills I had, not much, but I split them with Tommie.
“I’m good for it.”
“I know you are, my man… just pay me when you see me. No rush.”
“You know, man, I’ve been fucking up bad of late… Can’t make it through the month… don’t have any good reason for it.”
I thought back to the time I was with Tommie’s crew laying over in Oakland at the Thunderbird. I came off the elevator, turned down the hall and there was Tommie standing in his underwear. He looked confused, at a loss as to what had happened and what to do.
“Tommie, what happen?’
“I went to the toilet… now I’m out here… I still gotta piss.”
“Come use my toilet… Wait for me in my room… I’ll get a spare key for you. It looks like you zagged when you should have zigged.”
I went down to the front desk to discreetly inform the clerk of Tommie’s need. With a smile that suppressed a chuckle she handed me a spare key. The next morning back in the yard setting up for the return trip everyone had a story about their preceding night. Tommie and I had no stories to tell.
“Collier, these young gals are getting all my money,” he confessed. I don’t know if he recalled that time in Oakland. But he certainly knew I would not spread this around at work.
“You know, Tommie, I like to run these streets chasing skirts, too.”
“Yea, I know you do.”
“I learned the hard way… do your grocery shopping, house cleaning and laundry first. Because being honest with myself, I know when I hit the streets that’s it. Take only what money you want to spend, stick a $20 bill in your sock for your getting home money.”
“I hear ya’, brother.”
We said our goodbyes standing in front of his apartment, a three-story tomb. Tommie was alone, sadness barely concealed. Other men cut from same mold, drunks or not, radiated contentment. These men had wives that took care of them, children and grandchildren that adorned them. At the courtyard entrance the shadow of death waited the return of the man. But now there was two that soon parted, one walking towards it, the other away. It patiently waited for the one walking towards it, knowing with the same patience there was time to catch up with the other.
Written By: D. R. Collier
I am a 67-year-old retired railroad worker. I began my work as a dining car waiter in 1979 at age 26. I retired as a locomotive engineer at age 62. I dedicate my writing to the older black workers who schooled me to survive in the entrenched anti-black racism of this industry.
Visual Art “Delta Cats”
By: Isabella Antenucci
Isabella Antenucci is an artist, writer and blue collar worker that lives in the San Francisco Bay Area.