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Posted September 21, 2012 | comments 1 Comment

A haunting, ink-stained memory of disrespect

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Roger Barbee

By Roger Barbee - redhill@shentel.net

Each day after junior high school, I would ride my bike to the Daily Independent on North Main Street and enter the lower back door that led to a large room full of big table.

Like all paperboys who had routes in town, I would go into the small, back circulation room and get my allotted papers from Mr. Harris, our manager. I then would return to the large room full of tables and roll my papers. But, we paperboys did not just roll papers, for that large room was a social center of sorts where we bragged loudly, kidded each other, talked about girls as only eighth-grade boys can, and, if we had a nickel, bought a coke from the machine. Then, after the rolling of papers and social bantering were finished, we would stuff our papers in heavy canvas bags held to our bikes by the handle bars and front fender and head out to make our deliveries.

That large room, full of ink-stained tables with each holding its own centerpiece of a white box overflowing with green rubber bands, was more than a room to roll papers. In that room I learned some lessons about life and myself that echo still like the smell of fresh news ink. Because my parents were divorced, I lacked a male model because I lived with my mom, four sisters, and younger brother. For me, positive male role models were rare, but Mr. Harris was one who filled that role early in my life. As I worked for him those three years, I learned how to manage money, work with my customers, and make good business decisions.

Since almost all of my customers worked in the cotton mill, some would be paid one week and some the next week. Thus, I had a "big" week when most of my 80 customers received their bi-monthly mill check and would pay for the paper, and a "little" week when a few would pay for the paper.

Sadly, some weeks a customer would ask me to come back for there was no money to pay for the paper, or worse, after a few weeks of not paying, a customer would skip out on me, leaving me with their bill. But, Mr. Harris was always there to guide me through those flush times and lean times. He would tell me how to set aside some of the "big" week money as a hedge against the "little" week. After all, he and I were in business, and I had to pay him for the papers I took out of that large room each day. So, as I would go through my route on collection day, I would hope that all my customers were at home and had money to pay for their two weeks of delivery.

Mr. Harris also taught me the importance of pleasing my customers. I learned that it mattered to be timely because people wanted the afternoon paper to find out what was going on in the area and the rest of the world, and that if someone wanted the paper "porched," I should learn to throw it on the porch from my bike, not in the yard and never on the roof.

I also learned to be attentive to my customers and learned to chat with them, to listen to the older ones and learn what was on their minds. Mr. Harris taught me to know as much as I could about my customers and their families.

I also learned how easy it is to make a mistake, because one day I had about eight extra papres, but could not figure out why I had so many papers remaining, and I owed for each paper I took out. However, as soon as Mr. Harris called to tell me that Mrs. Reese had not received her paper, I knew: I had stopped to play a bit with Michael Tarleton, and had forgotten an entire side street off of Chestnut Avenue. So, on my bike I went in the dark to porch those late papers.

Sometimes, people would move, leaving me with a receipt book full of owed tickets. However, Mr. Harris would make me pay part of the bill, but not all. "I'll split this with you, Roger," he would say. But he then would go on to explain about not trusting people too much, and not to extend too much credit. I soon learned that not delivering a paper could often encourage some customers to pay what they owed. I also learned that some customers would lie over a few dollars for a paper. Yet, Mr. Harris was always there guiding me through it all.

But, there is one memory of that back room that Mr. Harris was not part of and it is something that still ink-stains my life. And, like in all memories, I can't go back and change my actions to erase that stain. It is a memory that I carry, and it is one that I am ashamed of.

Each day in that back room, as we rolled papers and carried on, another employee of the paper would come through the room going to his duties. I don't know what his job was, but I think it was some type of delivery in circulation, for he was always there each afternoon. Each day when he walked through that room on his way upstairs he would greet us boys and chat in an open, honest way. I still see his clean, starched khaki pants, collared shirts and proud carriage. He was polite, not overly friendly, but open to us boys. He would acknowledge us and our work, even ask how our routes were going.

When one of us boys would see him arrive, he would greet him with, "Hey, Useless", or "Here comes Useless" because we never bothered to learn his name, or if we did, we soon stopped using it in favor of the awful nickname someone (one of us most likely) had given him. Sometimes a boy would kick him in the butt as he stood talking with us and leave a dirty foot print on the crisp, starched pants. However, no matter what happened in that room, he always maintained his poise and went on about his way in a purposeful, but unhurried manner.

What haunts me is that I took part in this gang mentality to abuse a black man, someone as old as Mr. Harris, an adult. I used my white privilege in that ink-stained back room to degrade another person, and did not, until years later, take responsibility for my actions. Years later while reading "Native Son" and seeing Bigger's life in Wright's novel, I remembered that gentleman and how I treated him. As I read about Bigger and his struggles, I realized why I did it. Although poor and uneducated, I was white and in our environment that whiteness gave me power over him or any black man. And I used that power to a mean end. I now know, understand, and own why I did what I did, but I wonder how he did what he did? How did that man of poise and carriage enter that lower, back room each afternoon knowing what awaited him - likely abuse by a bunch of white boys who knew nothing of life and its lessons or of him and his circumstances? When he dressed each day for work, did he wonder if one of us would soil his starched pants by kicking him? Did he think of us as he entered the room and heard one of us announce his arrival.

I wish I knew his name so that his identity would be real to me. I wish I knew his name in order to know his story. I wish I knew his name so that I could try and find him, if he still lives. I wish I knew his name so that I could ask someone about him if he does not. I wish I knew his name so that I could see him as the man he was, not a scapegoat for my mean-spirited ignorance. I wish I knew his name so I could say it, to pronounce: "Mr. __," and hear his given name come out of my mouth in a respectful way.

So, this ink-stain stays with me still. I have to admit my gang mentality, of taking the easy way, of doing what was convenient. I have to admit using my white privilege to abuse another person. I have to admit to acting without considering how my actions affected another person. I have to admit meanness to another person, of giving verbal abuse to a gentleman who entered the room each day and treated me with civility; I returned his kindness with disrespect like all the others. That's a stain I hope never washes away for it reminds me to be vigilant. After all, as Pastor George said recently, "Lucifer began as an angel."

Roger Barbee is a retired educator who lives in Edinburg with his wife Mary Ann, four dogs and five cats. Email him at redhill@shentel.net


1 Comment | Leave a comment

    An excellent sharing of history, memories and heart-felt confession, Mr. Barbee.

    Somewhere, that man's spirit still exists, and I have every confidence that he hears you. For what grief he may have experienced, he also knows that your sharing has touched many hearts. Such learning can only be developed by experiencing. Such experience can only be valuable when we share it with others.

    That same ink has carried your story these many years later. However small it may be perceived as, you have contributed significantly to world peace. A black man helped you do so.

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