Right now it’s November 23, 2019. I am in Lynchburg, VA. It’s cold, wet and dark outside. This morning I drove over to Wards Road, to the Walgreens Pharmacy. I was picking up a wheelchair for my mom who is undergoing treatment for Stage 4 Cancer. Today though, she has thrown out her back and is in a lot of pain. We need to be able to wheel her around more comfortably at home. The last time I was on Wards Road was before there was a Walgreens there, before my mom had cancer and before 1984. We lived here from 1973–1984. I was 13 when we left for NY.
I drove past a church I recognized on the way to Walgreens…the Quaker Memorial Presbyterian Church. I remember my parents dropped me there for a church-ish sort of weekend camping trip. In the South, back then, church related weekend camping trips and “lock-ins” were the norm. In my rolled-up sleeping bag, at the age of perhaps 12, I had stashed a bottle of Bacardi Rum (my favorite) and some Playboy magazines. I remember standing there with the chaperones nearby and thinking how I was getting away with murder. Adrenaline shot through my veins as I pondered being caught. How did I get the booze? Back then Craig, Mike and John (some of my childhood pals) and I used to break into houses to steal alcohol. We had elaborate ruses to gain entry into houses, relying on homeowner’s southern hospitality to unlock their windows and back doors. “Excuse us, we are so hot and thirsty, could we trouble y’all for some lemonade? Oh and while you are gettin’ that could Charlie here run into the bathroom right quick?” I’d go downstairs while they were in their kitchen and unlock the basement door. We’d come back when they were not at home and raid their liquor cabinet. It all started with a Coors for me, when I was about 11 years old. I finally quit drinking in 1991 when I was 20. After wrecking my stomach and many near car crashes and running from cops…I have been sober for 28 years now and not without great effort. Things change. People change.
I can’t explain how I got to where I am today. All I can do is report the way things were and the way that they are.
After I got the wheelchair I recognized a street name on the right. Sandusky Drive. That’s where my school bus used to take me to school from the 2nd to 7th grade. I did the familiar drive past Jerry Falwell’s house and onto Sandusky Elementary and Sandusky Middle school. We used to stand on the school track in Middle School and look at the huge wall surrounding his compound joking about whatever crazy televangelistic thing he had last said. Last I recall, we had talked about how he said that non-believers had put a snake in his mailbox. Okay Jerry, sure, whatever. My parents were Unitarians, I didn’t have time for Jerry’s mess. He passed away some time ago. His house now looks run down, maybe abandoned.
I couldn’t believe how much it impacted me to be back here today though. I never thought I’d see these places ever again. This is where I grew up…and now, I am back here with my parents as an adult, having raised kids of my own. I am full circle in more ways than one. My mom may be facing the end of her life and we all live here now again. I just moved “back” two months ago.
I see the entrance to Sandusky Elementary where I was a safety patrol in the 5th grade. I picture the orange blaze swatch we wore with a sheriff-like badge near the heart. We weren’t allowed to wear them in the thunder because of that one story where a safety patroller had been struck by lightning and supposedly it had been attracted to his or her metal sheriff shield. I see where I used to fold the flag at the end of school and also raise it at the start of each school day. I noted the entrance where my 94 year old Grandma Del Valle had entered the school to answer my third grade classmate’s questions about life. I swear we all thought she had been around long enough to meet Christ. I recalled how when you entered the school you had to walk past the Principal’s office and how Mr. Fauber could and would get your parent’s permission to hit you with a wooden stick or a belt if you misbehaved. Corporal punishment wasn’t frowned upon in the South back then. Not yet.
The school grounds were run down now. Paint chipping everywhere.
Fences falling over. Trash. I spotted places I have been thinking about for my whole life. As our country has been shedding the veil of racism I have been sitting on these stories that most would dismiss. I share them now.
I remember how there was a kid named O’shay Morris in my classes-2nd Grade. He was cool. Very tough. Had a reputation. Nobody messed with O’Shay. I thought we were related.
We had to be. We had the same last name. Why couldn’t we be? I remember asking my teacher how we could find out who our common family member might be…like in a family tree. Her name was Mrs. Thomas I think…and she was very uncomfortable with my question. I only realized later as an adult how crazy my question must have seemed to her. If you see in Black and White that is.
3rd grade. I am sitting under a swing set, the very swingset in the photo.
I am hanging out with a friend of mine and we are chucking wood chips into the foot ditch created by swingers dragging their shoes on the ups and downs. Out of the blue he starts to tell me why we can’t hang out. He starts to tell me why we can’t be friends. He tells me that because he is black that I can’t be friends with him because white people don’t like black people. He says that white people are why his dad can’t get a job. He tells me that his dad was mistreated in the Army by white people. I can honestly tell you now that back then it never occurred to what “black people” meant. People were people. I wasn’t white. I wasn’t caucasian. I was Charlie. I didn’t notice a difference in a person just because their skin color was different. It would have been like me seeing someone as “different” because they were more tan than myself. I noticed things like who was the: fastest runner, good at math, good at kickball, who could jump the farthest. I noticed who was good at coloring or painting. I didn’t see skin color as a designation of anything, not until this kid brought me to tears. He basically said that I was an awful person, being white, because hating blacks was just what white people did. This moment was when I saw “Black” and “White.”
I see the water fountain where I recall standing in line with my classmates, maybe it was the 4th grade?
A white kid is in front of me. In front of him is a kid who wasn’t white. When the kid who wasn’t white was done drinking, the kid in front me turned and said “I am not drinking after him.” By then I knew what he meant. Which is to say that I had, by then, learned that something totally wrong was happening between people with different skin colors. I stepped up and drank and wondered if I too should be worried about drinking after a black person. Most of my white friends at the time would have hesitated as well. It was an oft repeated game at the water fountain. Whites and Blacks refusing to drink after one another and hopping out of line. Sometimes it was mean, sometimes we all laughed at the game, whites and blacks both making a game out of who can jump out of line the fastest. It was in the air. It was all around us. Blacks and Whites simply weren’t supposed to be cozy next to one another. The allure of this belief was like the air we breathed. There wasn’t a way to get away from it. No one was immune. No mind was spared this indoctrination.
By and by I realized that my parent’s best friends were Black. They weren’t just friends any more. They were Black friends. Their daughters were my babysitters and close family friends. They were the only black family in the neighborhood. If you want to use that way of looking at it. They were the Seiferth’s. Damn fine people.
Jesse Seiferth was a business owner and ran Access Printing.
We used to visit him at work. I was always amazed that we knew a bonafide business owner. “Woah! He runs his own business?” “My Dad is like God and even he doesn’t run his own business.” It never occurred to me to think “wow, he has his own business AND he’s black?” No. He was impressive because he was just an impressive man. When we went there I’d be like “that’s right, I am here to see your boss, special kid coming through, clear the way please.” As I got older I became more aware of how neighbors treated me differently for coming and going in and out of the Seiferth’s house for snacks and so forth. I recall the Seiferth’s next door neighbors had a son my age. They told me one day that I could no longer play with their son. They had gotten wise, you see, to my affiliation with the black folks.
Flash forward to now. It’s 2019. Society keeps telling me that I am a racist by default, that I must attend sensitivity trainings. Really? You get to say that you know me and my story because of my skin tone? You think that because my skin is white that you get to say you know me and how I secretly feel and view the people around me? Racism is making conclusions about someone based on the color of their skin. If you tell me that I am a racist because I am white…I’ve got four words for you…”you are the racist”. And that’s based on the color of your beliefs, not your skin.
Lynchburg is the place where I thought my brother would kill me that fateful day when I called him a “faggot” which was the South’s way of saying “you are gay and I don’t like it.” I was perhaps 11 years old at the time. Being angry about gay people was baked into my childhood on all fronts. In this, race didn’t matter. Everyone was hateful towards the notion of “gay”. Adults, children, white, black-everyone I knew was against it. When I called my brother that name I had no idea that he actually was gay and was struggling with it internally. He wanted to climb in a hammock in our backyard with me. I didn’t feel like sharing my hammock. I said “I don’t want to share a hammock with a gay faggot like you”…this is exactly the kind of thing my friends and I would say to one another. In 1980, in the South, this was normal. “Gay” was just something you made fun of but none of us had met an actual live gay person and known it. Did I hate gay people? How the hell would I know? I was 11. I just knew that if I wanted my friends to know that I was ‘with’ them then I had to be against a lot of things, and “gay” was one of the big things you had to be against. It was the early 80’s in the South. We smoked. We drank. We chewed tobacco. You weren’t supposed to like Asians because of WWII. There was all sorts of crazy thinking where I grew up. We were not wise. Flash forward to 1997, my young son’s first babysitter was a close friend of mine. The fact that he was gay never crossed my mind. When my brother, later in life, married his fiancee- it didn’t occur to me that it should matter that his partner was a man. He loves who he loves.
I am what people want to call “straight” and therefore surely homophobic. If I vote for a “straight” candidate who is running against a “gay” candidate I will have many wonder if I am homophobic. By many well meaning people, my sexuality is judged now as proof of my limitations as a human being…just as in the early 80’s my brother’s was used as reasons to beat him up- by others- at the school bus stop. The fact that I am monogamous is proof for polyamorous folks that I am antiquated and emblematic of a place in time where people lack understanding of the unlimited versions of how love works. I thought love was love though?
It’s 2019 and I’ve lost count of which friends are straight, or black or white or gay or trans or asexual or bisexual or poly or from another country or short or tall. I forget that I used to be a teen drunk who belonged in Juvenile Hall or the back of a police car. I forget that this small town with its Southern flavors, if applied liberally in 1984, would make the world a much worse place. Why didn’t racism stick to me? How did I quit drinking? Why don’t I hate gay people?
What I really want to do is not answer those questions.
What I want to say is just this…if I can change, then anyone can. Hatred, fear, addiction, racism, those are just starting points for becoming a better person. Those things are indicative of a blank canvas waiting for something better to be painted on it. Like our society. It’s always changing. We are adding to the canvas every single day. Every one of us. Isn’t more color always a beautiful thing? Has more color ever let us down in a garden, in a forest, in a field, in the sky? That brings me to the point about hot dogs. 3 for $1. With Chili and ketchup. Mike and John and I used to buy these at King’s Grocery store on Old Graves Mill Road. We would ride our bikes up to this place and get them, feeling like full fledged adults. After all, we’d ridden so far from home. 1/2 mile at least! After all, we were spending our own earned lawn mowing or yard raking money. After all, we were on our own. Kings. Destiny was in our hands, with ketchup packets. If you watched E.T. or Stranger Things…that 80’s vibe they are trying hard to portray-that was us. We’d sit in the corner here in this photo with our BMX bikes laying about on the sidewalk, no matter who was walking by.
It felt like being in New York City. We were at the edge of our known universe. Anything was possible. And the fact that I evolved in directions other than being a homophobic racist drunk…to me, is proof that anything is possible. Lynchburg lessons, good one’s all.
It’s also a lesson for me about how, as humans, we keep recreating new things to judge in one another, and manufacturing new perceived limitations in those around us.
I walk into a deli right next to where I used to eat those hot dogs. The place is run by people. Shall I label them? Oh okay…it is run by folks speaking Chinese, even though it’s a decidedly American Fare sort of deli. That never would have worked in the early 1980’s in Lynchburg. There are also “white” people working there, full sleeved neck tattoos and arm tattoos. Never would have happened back then either. I take this as good. I am glad it’s changed.
As I write this I am at a coffee shop, where just the other day I observed two people praying out loud, for support, to their God, for help with their project related to working with foster children. They were two people. Does it matter that one was white and one was black? Does it matter that one most likely identified as a woman and the other as a man? Does it matter in whose name they prayed? Lynchburg lessons. They’ll continue. What matters to me is that they wouldn’t have done that in 1984, not in this town. What matters is that now they can.