The day I did my job too well / by sylvia kronstadt

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Registered: 03-14-2011
The day I did my job too well / by sylvia kronstadt
Tue, 09-17-2013 - 4:40pm

"Thanks, Miss Bleeding Heart"

  I had boozed my way through much of the very Deep South -- which truly was a jungle, another country, a bygone era -- conducting interviews of extraordinary young black professionals for the Rockefeller Foundation Journal. It was priceless material, very moving and colorful. I had seen and heard things I knew would surprise and dismay our readers.

    I was exhausted, but I had one last stop, to spend time with a "rising star" of the civil-rights movement. If I had known what my visit would do to his life, much to the delight of the white establishment, I would have headed straight back to New York City.

    I was met at the smallest airport I have ever seen by my driver, Peter, a pale guy with a blond  ponytail who’d gotten his urban planning degree from Stanford University. He had known my Rockefeller Foundation editor since their undergraduate years.
    As we meandered along country roads toward the tiny town that was my destination, he  warned me about the duplicity of white people in these "frozen-in- time" bastions of racism.  Although it was 1976, he said it might as well be 1936 as far as race relations were concerned.

    “While the wife is serving you sweet tea and telling you that you look like Doris Day, the rednecks in the TV room will be plotting how to scare you out of town," he said. "Watch your step -- they play dirty."

Nothing's more fun than being a bright-eyed, glossy-haired white gal. Lucky me!

    I mentioned that a  lawyer in Hessmer, Louisiana, had told me, “This is a place where black people still disappear and are never heard from again.”


    “He wasn’t lying,” Peter replied."There's probably quite a few bodies under all that greenery."
    I took an extra large swig of vodka from the Mylanta bottle I always had in my purse and imagined lying down there forever, with no one ever knowing what had happened to me.
    Mama! 
    I told myself, as I often did, to shut up. "Miss Bleeding Heart" had a job to do.

    Peter described the charisma of Dr. Joseph Morris, whom I was set to interview tomorrow, and said he had been “a godsend” to the town, which was one of the poorest in the country. His election as the first black representative on the city council several years ago had stunned everyone, Peter said.

    “People want him out of the way,” he added. “He ‘wastes’ too much of their time raising issues they don’t want to hear, and the national media attention he‘s gotten embarrasses the powers-that-be.”

    When Peter dropped me off, he gently admonished me: “I know it’s not Mylanta you’ve got in that bottle. I used to be quite the boozer myself. Just take it slow. You’re going to need your wits down here.”


**************


    I vividly remember checking into the Catfish Corner Motel at dusk. On the counter was a jar of pickled pigs' feet, and on the wall was what the lady called her "pickaninny poster."

"No, it's not a pedicure advertisement, you backward girl. It's what's for dinner!"

   "Every time one of you up-North types sashays in, race hatred flares up," motel proprietress Afton Riley had told me. "It's still goin' strong long after you sashays out. And it's the coloreds that gets hurt the most. We got a nice, peaceful place here. Don’t go messin’ things up.”

"Affectionate" stereotypes endure.

    Night in these parts had an ominous feel, thanks to all the creepy fables I’d been told about the phantom Klan “pranks” and unexplained screams that occurred, presumably just to keep black people inside, trembling.



I had been told to expect "screams in the night" on this trip, but I hadn't believed it.

   As I walked up the outdoor stairs to my second-story motel room, jungle birds screeched -- betrayed and indignant it seemed -- as the sun went down, bleeding surrender. Palm and cypress trees shuddered with delicate foreboding and wild orchids unleashed their scent as if they were exotic skunks hoping to ward off an advancing predator. A pink luminosity that made it all look briefly benign was strangled by the dark. For the past two weeks, it had been hard to believe that I was still in America.

The creepy, insatiable beauty of kudzu vines.

    I bolted the door, closed the draperies and turned the air conditioner on full-blast.

    It was this moment, when I was finally alone and locked in, at which my every day -- like a single-minded bomb -- was aimed. My vodka-filled Mylanta bottle had kept me dutifully treading water since this morning, enabling me to do my job.

    Now -- at last -- I could dispense with the little sips and really plunge into my real world, my liquid world, and reunite with my oceanic self, where there were no agendas and no roles, no victories and no goals.

    The liquor I administered to myself in measured doses during working hours gave me a blithe boldness as I roamed around and took notes, because that's what I seemed born to do: to write about real people, to plead their cases, exalt their virtues, exult in their color: the way they struggled, loved, partied, prayed, smoldered and cut straight to the heart of things, "bad grammar" and all. I felt as if I were nothing more than a sponge -- a scribe attired like a First Lady, a brain with frosted lips. It was a role that humbled me. I was like the paparazzi. Everyone else was a star.

My role was to chronicle, with respect and compassion, the authentic lives of others.

    Alcohol, although it was sort of a ghetto, had become my home. It was the only place where I knew how to live anymore. Without it, I was powerless. I could not tolerate everyday life. Within it, I could embrace the world with a flushed and bashful love. I could function.  At this point, it was the only authenticity I could claim.

    I slid into a bubble bath with my drink and sighed. Tomorrow would be a take-notes day like any other. I would be spending the afternoon going on medical rounds with Dr. Morris.  I had been told that he was the singular point of pride for the black community, even before he began shaking things up on the city council. They loved him.

    Other media had written about this eloquent and committed man, but I was determined to elicit a story that hadn’t been told. I wanted to go deeper, much deeper, into the psyche of Dr. Joseph Morris. Simply put, I intended to slaughter the competition.

    The alcohol was doing its job. I began, at last, to drown. This was the moment that just preceded the blissful descent into my favorite address: Oblivion.


*******


    When I awoke, the sun was in full-scale assault already, overwhelming my window and beginning a sinister advance through the draperies. Another morning was here; another day was tapping its foot impatiently; and I was whispering, as I always did, "Not again!" 

    I hated life. I really did.

    The prospect of Drambuie in my coffee gave me strength. Blindly, I dumped instant Nescafe into a tumbler, half-filled it with hot tap water and added the liqueur. Before long, the desired mantra was flashing on and off like a Las Vegas marquee behind my eyes: "I'll be all right. It's OK."

   I showered, got dressed and strode out into the late-morning heat, my cranial membranes opened wide and silkily reposing in the balm of my liquid mood stabilizer. I was off to meet the man whom the state’s largest newspaper  had called "The Great Black Hope, and a truly noble man.”

Boxer Jack Johnson was the "black hope" of a bygone time.

    Just outside my door, a very large rat lay on a doily, its legs hacked off. Next to it was a big apple. 

    In my anesthetized state, it would take more than this pathetic display to ruffle my feathers. But as a precautionary measure, I took a comforting sip from the Mylanta bottle before descending the stairs to the ground level of the motel, which was filled to capacity with delegates from the Regional Baptist Women's Auxiliary. Reassuringly, the Rise Again Tavern and Package Shop was right across the street.

    I needed directions to Dr. Morris's clinic, so I went to the motel office, and found Miz Riley in the same mode as I had yesterday: smoking Salems, chewing gum, drinking coffee and watching "special overage" of the so-called “Mormon in Chains” story from Great Britain.

They really were refreshing -- like a mint julep for your lungs!

      The tale of an LDS missionary being abducted by a woman, tied to a bed and “raped” seemed to cheer her up tremendously. A silver-haired man in a white sharkskin suit sat nearby.

    "Miss Bleeding Heart has finally rejoined the world of the livin'!" Miz Riley exclaimed, scuffing to the counter in fuzzy slippers. Like many Southern women, Afton Riley had retained a freshness and prettiness well into her later years. She was heavy, but in a light way, as if she had helium-filled balloons under her crisp, flowered mumu.

    "I was up all night rereading the Communist Manifesto," I said amiably. In spite of myself, I felt warmth for this woman, who yesterday had startled me by falling to her fleshy knees at my feet, extracting a needle from her bosom and repairing the hem on my linen jacket. "Try it, you'll like it -- Marx is a good ole boy in his own way," I added.

    "An she got a wit on her, too!" the gentleman cried, spitting a toothpick halfway across the room and into an ashtray.  

    "This is Huntington Talbot, bank president and legendary catfisherman," Miz Riley said.

Dying in their arms must have been pure ecstasy for this catfish.

    "Bucky to you, honey," he said, combing his hair. "I’m here to deliver you, in air-conditioned comfort, to your chosen destination."

    "You're very kind, but I was looking forward to the walk," I lied. It was hot as the blazes out there.

    "I can't have you walking all that way through the colored part of town," Mr. Talbot said. "When I think what could happen to a pretty little thing like you over there, it gives me the willies.”

    "For god's sake, I live practically in the middle of Harlem!" I protested, mainly for shock value; I actually lived a couple of miles south of the nation's best-known “black ghetto.”

    "Don't make a fuss," he said, donning a straw hat. "I'm driving you, and that's that."

    "Amen!" Miz Riley said. "You do what he tells you, girl."


*******


    Mr. Talbot and I glided through the affluent part of town and into the woodsy "Negro sector" in a Lincoln Town Car with leather seats that were so soft I could have fallen asleep on the spot. Mantovani and his strings filled the chilled air. I took a sip out of the Mylanta bottle and powdered my face.

    "You know, honey, I told everyone they was getting’ up in arms over nothing and I was even righter than I realized," Mr. Talbot said, lighting a cigar.

   "Why, you're as sweet as can be; you got the face of an angel. Folks hear some civil-rights radical is coming to town, they picture one of those free-love type peaceniks, you know, a save-the-world freak who clangs down Main Street without no brassiere and don't shave her pits. You're no pinko, I can see that, 'cept for your cheeks. I didn't know they grew 'em so rosy in the big city."

    People were always mistaking the flush of alcohol on me for good health or exceptional modesty, an error that had served me well for several years. And I wasn't wearing a bra, either. Ever since I stopped eating anything but raw carrots and apples (the rest of my calories being in liquid form), I had been free of both breasts and menstrual periods, which was quite a relief.

    "While I got you in my clutches, I want to explain the situation here," Mr. Talbot said, switching to a country-music station. "You're looking for discrimination, you've come to the wrong place. Everyone in this blessed town is treated equal. You're looking for racial tension, you won't find it; people here gets along.

    "But anyone with their head screwed on straight can see that the colored people is different from the white man. Just look at how they live. Look at how they reproduce. Look at how they sit on their porches fannin’ their faces while the rest of us is slaving away in our offices, making the world go 'round."

    We were deep into the swampy woods, which seemed to be bowing down under the weight of their own luxuriance. A chartreuse-colored mist clung to their shawls of Spanish moss.


    "Where are the homes?" I asked, trying to change the subject.

    "The homes, if you can call 'em that, is back down these dirt roads," Mr. Talbot pointed out. "They're shacks to my way of thinking, falling-down shacks and they don't give a hoot. The stench would knock you flat out."

    "The newspaper  says y’all haven’t bothered to put a sewage system on this side of town," I retorted, trying out a down-South expression.

It's quite cute, if you don't have to live there for 50 years.

   "Even a tomcat has the sense to bury his sh ... his waste materials," Mr. Talbot responded, wrinkling his nose. "Anyways, they're contented as babes -- they don't know no better. Always carryin’ on: Why Miz Wimble over at the coffee shop had to put a sign up in the kitchen, ‘No singing,' to keep them gals quiet. The way they was harmonizin‘ back there while they was flippin’ the bacon and fryin’ the eggs, you‘d a thought they was workin’ out in the tobacco fields, where all that noise ain‘t gonna bother no one. They just ain’t got no sense."

    I scribbled away in my notebook, surprised, as always, at how freely some people express themselves to a reporter. No alcohol was required to loosen up Mr. Talbot -- he seemed happy to hang himself unassisted. I wondered if Dr. Morris would likewise spill his guts to me with abandon, or whether I’d have to get a few drinks into him in order to write a knock-your-socks-off profile. My journalistic career would have been much less sensational if my interview subjects had remained sober.

    We turned down a winding driveway, with thick foliage all around us. Soon, we arrived at a charming, two-story Victorian-style home, painted taupe and pine green with a rose-colored door and window boxes overflowing with pink flowers.

     The area surrounding it was abloom with wildflowers and dwarf fruit trees. Stepping stones led to the front door, past a large, handsome wood sign that read:


Health Clinic and Community Center

Dr. Joseph Morris, MD

Linda Webster-Morris, RN & MSW

All are welcome, pay what you can


    It was a lovely and startling scene, to find this piece of advanced human civilization that seemed to have been plopped incongruously in the middle of the jungle.

    “They shore know how to show off now, don’t they?” Mr. Talbot said. “It’s always one extreme or the other with these folks -- they's either hitchhikin’ or they's driving a Coupe De Ville.”

    He came around to open my door, cheerful as can be, after having made such a colorful and astute observation.  Outside the car, the heat was so fierce it seemed outright sadistic.

    "I want to give this to you, honey, to remember me by," Mr. Talbot said, handing me a small, cylindrical piece of wood. "My wife and I give them to our special friends."

    "How pretty ... what is it?" I asked, totally baffled.

    "It's to keep your toothpicks in!" he roared, tickled at my backwardness. "See, you just pull off the top, put in a dozen or so and keep it in your purse for whenever the need strikes."

Finally -- a place to keep my toothpicks!

    The sun burned so hot I felt as if I were made of aluminum. My voile blouse stuck to my chest and back.

    "These here are special because my grandson makes ‘em," Mr. Talbot continued, as I searched my bag for a tissue to blot my forehead. "He's one a them retards, and this is what he does all day at the Center; he sits and carves toothpick holders, happy as a hog."

    "I'm sorry to rush, but I'm hot and I'm late," I said, shaking his hand goodbye. "I'm happy to have met you."


****************  

    Inside the clinic, the "waiting room" was actually a spacious, sunny living room that opened onto a parlor. It was filled with restored period furniture, upholstered in velvety shades of green, rose and beige, and was arranged as if it were a gracious home from another place and time. No straight-backed chairs were lined against the walls of this doctor‘s waiting room; there was no sterile, institutional ambiance.

    Loveseats and overstuffed chairs were arranged cozily in groupings that invited relaxation and interaction. The few remaining morning patients -- some in their Sunday best (white gloves and hats included), others in tattered house dresses or work clothes -- sat talking and laughing quietly as Scott Joplin's ragtime tunes tinkled through the room.

    Japonicas in full flower pressed against the arched windows that reached all the way up to the 12-foot ceiling. Two doves murmured gently in an old-time gilded cage; a pot of coffee and several bouquets scented the air. Pictures of the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King and John F. Kennedy, plus some with an African theme, supplemented the pastoral landscapes and still lifes on the walls.

    The adjoining parlor was filled from floor to ceiling with books and a sign invited visitors to "Learn about the Black experience." A vivacious teenager was reading, with great animation, a story about a Masai warrior to several children.

The Masai are an enterprising tribe with a unique and complex culture.

    I hung back, still reeling from the heat, but awed by the sunlit radiance of this set-piece. Something from an article I’d read came to mind: "Dr. Morris does vastly more than to bestow medical care on the area’s largely impoverished black population; he represents to them a refuge, a model and a vision of what is possible."

    I stood there, feeling -- as always -- like a highly trained anthropologist, a recording device in pearl earrings. Dutifully, I took notes. My sweat turned cold and my hands were shaking. I took a small swig out of the bottle to calm my nerves.

    Since Dr. Morris and his wife were apparently occupied with patients, I slipped into the parlor to look over the collection of books. In the "young adult" section, I found a volume entitled something like, "The Darkest Side of Racism" by a British social scientist. I knelt down to glance through it.

After the lynching, these pillars of white society decided a fire would be nice.

    Immediately, I realized I'd picked the wrong book to peruse when I was already feeling so queasy: It was filled with photographs of black people hanging from trees, black people decapitated, black people burned alive, black people with their testicles crammed into their mouths, black people with their chests torn open and their hearts being fried over an open fire.

    Involuntarily I moaned as my stomach ascended into my throat. The room billowed operatically as I tried to stand. A stained-glass window that said "Thanks be to God" pulsed and flared toward me and soon filled my eyes with colored fragments that blinded me with vision.

    Darkness ebbed in as the shards tinkled down, and then my ears filled with water as I floated, like Ophelia, down a brisk, crystal stream. I shivered and gasped for air, trying to swim back into the light. Then, I was enveloped in warmth and embraced, or so it seemed, against the loving bosom of some celestial power.


**************


    The van hurtled Dr. Joseph Morris and me seemingly deeper and deeper into the past.

    "It's like the 1920s back here!" I exclaimed, still shocked by the poverty of these places, that were somehow a complete secret to the rest of America.

    "Don't change the subject," he said, still angry about my fainting spell. He looked like a 40-year-old version of Sidney Poitier, ablaze with humanity and what the state NAACP director had referred to as "animal magnetism. "

    "Your little collapse back there is nothing compared to what lies ahead if you don't change your ways," he said. "My God, you are nearly as malnourished as some of my patients. Why are you starving yourself?”

I know it was sick, but I felt that not eating reflected admirable self-discipline.

    It was easy to see why the old-timers used to call this volatile, expansive man "Black Moses," until he put a very emphatic stop to it.

    "It's not cute. It's not a game," he added. "You could kill yourself."

    "I guess I overdid the fasting routine, but the milkshake your wife made for me did the trick -- I feel fine," I said, anxious and embarrassed. "She sure is beautiful."

    "Yes ma'am she is, and a whole lot more."


*****************


    Linda Webster-Morris had seen right through me. She was the creamiest person I had ever seen: her skin, movements, smile and voice all made one think of rich, dark pudding - the kind that caresses your innards all the way down. Her hair was a sparkling froth, like spun sugar.

    "You've been drinking this morning haven't you, baby?" she had asked gently as she handed me the high-protein banana shake.

    "I just had a little liqueur in my coffee," I had stammered. "I was nervous, you know, needing to accomplish so much today. And having to meet all these people ... I'm just sort of shy. Mr. Talbot was pretty nice, though."

    “Honey, you had better watch who you be letting sweet-talk you,” Linda said. “He’s one of the top dogs in the Klan. He’d be the first one to have you thrown in the river."

Upstanding family men have learned how to keep their whites white.

    "The bank president is in the Klan?" I asked incredulously.
    "He sure is, right along with the county judge, the chief of police and the only surgeon for 50 miles," she said.
    I pulled the Mylanta bottle out of my purse.

    "Your drinking situation is your business -- just don't let Joe catch you," she said, putting an arm around my bony shoulder. “He's seen too many times what it can do to people's lives."   

    “It’s everything to me,” I blurted, always too quick to get personal.

    "Maybe some day you'll choose to get help," Linda said. "Having a clear head can be mighty useful -- and it feels good, too."


************


    Even the worst poverty looked picturesque, at least from a distance, as Dr. Morris and I wound through the bumpy, tortuous backroads of the town’s "black quarter." Rusting, ramshackle shanties on stilts were heaped with foliage. Ferns and flowers were everywhere.


    Birds whooped and tittered with exotic abandon; butterflies and squirrels behaved as if in a Disney cartoon. The first children I had ever seen literally wearing rags frolicked in this lush wonderland, running barefoot along worn trails, swinging from tires attached to ropes and dancing to music that only they could hear.

   But their hypertensive mothers and stroke-ravaged grandparents and blind uncles and pregnant teenage sisters and diabetic spinster aunts and morbidly obese stepbrothers and epileptic cousins sat rocking and fanning earnestly on the porches as if to avoid losing their momentum, their life-force, altogether. The stench of rotting meat, sewage and general jungle rot floated through the steamy air, along with flies and mosquitoes.

    Few of the shacks had power or running water. Sheets of plastic served as windows.

    Everywhere we stopped, the jungle resounded with the chant, "Dr. Joe is here! Mama, the doctor is here!"

    Flocks of children materialized at his side -- grabbing his hands, hanging onto his belt --  as if waiting for the affectionate hand on their heads that would confer a sort of blessing, a mystical affirmation. "You better stop that carrying on, now," one grownup or another inevitably called out. "You hush, and leave the doctor be."

    When I was doing my preliminary research on this town and its black community, a hospital administrator in Mobile had told me, "Joe Morris is a natural-born healer. He has this powerful physical sense about people, a sort of intuition of the flesh."

    At each stop, Dr. Morris filled his arms with fruit, vitamins, medical pamphlets, books and used clothing. I proudly carried his bag. After assuring himself that I was comfortable, he went about treating a multitude of acute and chronic conditions and educating - with fierce warnings and tender pleadings -- in the basics of hygiene, health and nutrition.

    I was so shaken by the suffering I saw that I took a good many doses from the Mylanta bottle. I wanted so much to express my compassion, but I didn’t know what to say. Also, I felt that my being there was a terrible invasion of the people’s privacy. I hadn’t considered this problem until I was right in the middle of it, as Dr. Morris examined his patients in their hot, dark homes, which smelled of both disease and delicious highly-larded food.

     There were bedsores and still-healing amputations and hacking, phlegmy coughs and bedpans. Toothless oldfolks, just skin and bones, were lying there in rags on bare mattresses. Even so, their eyes were bright, and several of them reached out to shake my hand.

    Sitting there, taking notes, as usual -- loaded up with pastel makeup and wearing a pastel business suit -- I felt even more pathetic, incongruous and inauthentic than usual. I was overcome with love and guilt -- a guilt that extended all the way back to the slave ships and now enveloped this very moment.


      The afternoon was ending, the sky was getting  fired up for some sort of outburst, and my vodka-balmed brain was a pulsating pinkness. On the drive back into town, one of those summer-afternoon storms that seems designed to remind humankind who is in charge came thrashing and thundering down. Trees genuflected, tossed their hair and danced with ritualistic fervor; the rain landed as if shocked by its own power.

    Feeling celebratory in the midst of such an exultant display, I took a good swig out of the Mylanta bottle and said, "Let's go get a drink."

    “I don’t think so, honey. I'm not a drinking man,” Dr. Morris said, navigating through the blinding rain.

    "I've got to sit you down and ask you some more questions to flesh out my story," I pressed. "Besides, I NEED a drink. Don't make me go into that red-neck bar alone."

    The truth was that I needed to get just a little bit of alcohol into Dr. Morris. He seemed natively incapable of talking about himself, and if I didn't get an intimate glimpse of his character, my profile would be little more than another piece of run-of-the-mill reportage, as the all the others about him had been.

   I had a reputation to maintain -- a reputation for writing uniquely revealing profiles. Surely one shot of some quality bourbon wouldn't do him any harm, and it could be a big help to me. It had certainly worked well in the past, when people had poured out their hearts to me in the most wonderful ways, all thanks to a minor (or sometimes massive) infusion of liquor.

    "Please come with me,” I pressed him. “I haven’t done my job properly. I need just a little bit more of your time.”

     "Lord, the way you women can carry on and cajole," he shook his head at me with fatherly exasperation. "I'll have one with you, and then I've got to go. I'm taking dinner over to Mama before long, and then Linda and I are teaching a class at the church."

    Suddenly, the downpour stopped and the wind screeched to a halt. Jungle birds cried out, "Ooh wow! Ooh wow! Ooh wow!" as if in genuine surprise. The steam soared up and the sun poured down.

*******

    Cool, dark and virtually empty, the Rise Again Tavern and Package Shop was my kind of place - except for the Confederate flags and Civil War memorabilia that adorned its walls with perverse festivity. Dr. Morris and I sat side by side in a semi-circular booth, and he began answering my questions about the early days of his practice, squirming with the very modesty and reserve that I felt sure a good slug of booze would soften.

    The bartender sullenly ignored us. It was only then that I realized we constituted “an interracial couple.”

    "Excuse me while I get some action out of that cracker," I said and strode to the counter.

    "Listen to me," I hissed, leaning toward the slender-but-flabby young man, who sat impassively reading “Soldier of Fortune” magazine. "I want two shots of Jack Daniel's on ice, and I want them now. Do you understand?" I put two five-dollar bills on the bar and stared him down.

    A smile slithered onto his face like a snake emerging from a hole. He extracted a toothpick from a cylindrical wooden container and held it out to me, as if offering an engagement ring. When I shook my head in disgust, he licked it thoroughly and ensconced it in the corner of his mouth.

    "My pleasure, ma'am -- it's that get-it-on time of day," he said, with a conspiratorial smirk.

    He took one of the bills and pushed the other one back at me. "Dutch treat," he added. He put the whiskey into the glasses and dumped in the crushed ice.

    "Put a twist of lemon in there too,” I ordered.

    I carried the glasses back to the booth, animated at the prospect of some high-quality sour-mash bourbon. The only reason I drank vodka all day is that no one could smell it.

    "A golden elixir for a dearly deserving Healer of Man, kind sir," I said to Dr. Morris. "Just relax and this little ordeal will be over in no time. Let's have a toast to warm up our vocal cords, and I’ll just get right to it."
    I threw my drink back, and he took a decent-size sip of his. 
    "I didn't realize I was so thirsty," Dr. Morris said, sighing and settling into the booth.

    “Tell me: What inspired you to run for City Council in the first place?" I inquired, asking an easy, boilerplate question to get him going.
    Nervously he sipped his drink, began to speak, shook his head with embarrassment and sipped again. I knew that if he weren’t such a gentleman -- and if he  didn't feel that this publicity might help his people -- he would be bolting for the door.


    "I never did seek office for myself ... I've got a medical practice that means the world to me," he began slowly. "Truthfully speaking, I didn’t even run for the 'black power’ motive that most people - even my own people -- ascribe to me. The real division in this town is not racial -- it's economic. A lot of white people here are almost as poor as most blacks; they live meager lives in meager surroundings, eating grits and barely scraping by, just like we do.
    "There's a little clique of good ole boys that runs everything, and I mean everything, in this town. They keep everyone beholden to them; they eliminate any threat. They obscure the shared misery of blacks and whites by keeping racial discord whipped up, preventing just the kind of political alliance that I'm trying to build. The fact that I got fifteen percent of the white vote in the last election tells you that I'm communicating something that has begun to ring true."

       Speaking now with ease, even eagerness, he seemed not even to notice as the bartender, giving me a lusty, lip-licking wink, took our glasses and replaced them with two more. These, however, were clearly double shots. That was fine with me: that glorious stuff had every cell inside me humming. My cheeks were aflame.
     Sipping absently (and thirstily) as he pieced together his story, Dr. Morris related the history of the white oligarchy that had always ruled the town. He described the bear-hugging, "shucks, ma'am" facade that camouflaged a bona fide reign of terror. 

     Now it was time to get personal: Dr. Morris was loose, but not drunk, and of course, I didn't want to get this upstanding, inspirational man drunk. This was my "window of opportunity" as a journalist -- the interlude of openness before one's interview subject, if he keeps on drinking, gets maudlin, aggressive or incoherent. He was on the verge of being late for his church appearance, so I needed to hurry up and get him out of here before he turned that corner. I was down to the wire and I had a story to get.

    "Who was it who created all of this drive, this dedication in you?" I asked earnestly. "Who was your inspiration?"

    "No question: my daddy," the sleepy-eyed doctor said.


    "My daddy was the inspiration for the whole black community in those days. Dignity was what came to your mind the moment you laid eyes on him. He spoke plain, he spoke true, but he spoke with good will and respect. He stood by his values, a truly Christian man. He was the first black doctor in this whole region; people sat on a bus for hours to come here and be treated by him, until the accident.

    "Yep," he sighed, blotting his glistening forehead. "Everybody sure did love old Scooter."

    "A toast to Scooter, then," I cried, raising my glass cheerily. "What a name for a doctor!"

    But Joseph Morris II wasn't listening; his eyes were glazed and his mouth had gone soft, like a baby just off a nipple.

    "I didn't plan on telling you this, but I'm moved to, somehow," he said, hesitantly.

    "Thank you, Goddess of Fermentation!" my interior self curtsied.
    "My daddy was barely older than I am when he had to stop practicing medicine. That was when he had 'the accident,’ as everybody calls it, even though it wasn't no accident -- and that's when the name 'Scooter' took hold."

    He took out his wallet and withdrew an old, plastic-covered photograph. Tenderness welled up onto his face, followed by a tide of grief.

    "Here he is," he said hoarsely. "Here's my Daddy." And then, with profound anguish, "Here’s Scooter."

    The photo was of a wiry, warmly smiling man ... smiling a fixed, plaintive kind of smile. And then, there was the scooter. Dr. Joseph Morris’s legs were gone, hacked off just below the groin. He was strapped grotesquely to the low, wheeled platform -- basically a skateboard -- and wore heavy gloves so he could propel himself along the town’s streets.

    "He made the mistake," Dr. Morris said, "of delivering a white woman's baby. She didn't have no money, so no white doctor would touch her. She was tryin’ to have the baby at home, but there was complications ... She was screaming with pain. It wouldn't let up; she thought she was dyin'.

    “Her husband ran out and got Daddy. He didn't hesitate -- his motto was the same as mine: Pay what you can, when you can, if you can. He brought Mama along to help. Seems it was a breech situation ... took all night to get that baby out."

    Dr. Morris took a long, slow gulp of his drink, his face heavy with emotion.

    I leaned lightly against him, determined not to let the spell be broken. "Then what happened?” I coaxed him.

    "By mid-morning, the news was all over town. The whitefolks was outraged. It didn't matter none that two lives was saved -- all they could see was a black man reachin' into a white woman's private parts. They ran her out of town before she could hardly sit up. Late that night, they came and got my Daddy and drove him 40 miles, to the nearest hospital. They gave him his punishment, with a chainsaw, and dumped him at the emergency-room entrance. They made sure he'd never practice medicine again."

    This was the most extraordinary story I’d ever gotten as a journalist. The people at the foundation would love me, and every reporter who had ever interviewed Dr. Morris would feel shamefully upstaged. "This is too heartbreaking -- how did your family survive after that?” I pressed him.

They were such tender, heart-warming people.

     "They made it clear that next time he got out of line they'd finish him off," he said wearily. "He laid low: We needed him. He hired out as a messenger 'boy' and sold newspapers. He'd peddle bouquets from Mama's cutting garden or carry groceries to shut-ins in a knapsack. Yep, everyone sure did love old Scooter. Years after 'the accident,' white people would bend over and pat him on the head with real affection. A couple years before he died, they made him the mascot for the town’s centennial parade."

    His eyes were closed, his lips quivering. "Mascot!" he whispered. "My daddy ... a mascot, like a little trained dog! A little dog being patted on the head."

    I stared at the photograph, at that gentle, yearning visage, and tried to hold back my tears. I had to keep control of myself; I didn't want to blow this. But the picture of that ravaged, savaged life -- scarcely three feet remained of him -- left my feeling as if I were in shock: Everything was in a blur and I was having trouble breathing.

    Suffused with both compassion and alcohol, I placed my hand gently over the doctor's wrist. When our eyes met again, both of us had tears running down our cheeks.

    We sat that way for a time, almost as if we were praying together, until the emotion subsided. I got out the Mylanta bottle and poured each of us a shot. He pushed it away.

   "Lord, I ain't never had this much," Dr. Morris sighed, rubbing his temples and struggling to sit up straight. "I hardly feel like myself. My mind's in a swirl."

    The window of opportunity had closed: He was a goner. My wonderful Dr. Morris was of no use in this condition. I'd gotten more than I ever dreamed I would, but I'd also been complicit in damaging his dignity and composure. I hoped he'd just go home and go straight to bed, with no ill effects in the morning. I will always feel guilty for not having done something to make sure that happened.

    "I guess I better get on back to the motel," I said drowsily, patting his shoulder. "I have an early ride to the airport tomorrow. I can't tell you how much it's meant to me, having you share your story like you did. You and your wife are beautiful people. "

    "I'll walk up with you, stay just for a minute, to tell you a few things more," he said, exhaling a hot cloud of alcohol vapors.

    "I don't think so," I said anxiously. I'd had some very bad experiences saying "Okay" to such suggestions. "It's more comfortable right here, honestly. But I really must be going. And so should you -- Linda and your mother are waiting."

    "Don't just get up and walk out on me like this, honey: I want to tell you about my children," he pleaded.   "Why didn't you ask me about my kids? Or my mama? Look at this picture of my little girl!"

    He began breathing harder; his stare intensified. My god, what had I done? I should never have let the bartender "treat" us to that second round.

    "It's just that the scope doesn't really encompass ... " I began.

    "Why all of a sudden this rush? I got things to say. I give all credit and praise unto the Lord. Write that down! Write it down!" He put his head in his hands; I feared he would start crying again, but when he looked up at me it was confusion and anger that I saw.

    "Why can't I walk you to your room? Why you denying me the right to do the gentlemanly thing? You ready now to dispose of me? You get what you want and slam-bam you out of here? You ashamed to have me see you to your quarters, Miss Scarlett?"

    His eyes were closed halfway and his mouth hung open. "It ain't right," he muttered darkly.

    Fear galloped into me as my feeling of victory trotted out. It was not at all a fear of him, but a fear of demeaning him or creating a scene. I had to get out of there, so he would go home.

    "Stay right here while I take care of the tab," I exclaimed. "Relax, I'll be back before you know it."

    I made my way through the teetering room, past the leering bartender. I dashed the brief distance to the motel, and ran up the outdoor stairs to the second level and into my room. I locked the door, closed the curtains, and collapsed onto the bed in the dark, my heart beating so loudly that, at first, I could hear nothing else.

Panic, heartbreak, guilt and exhaustion. And drunkenness.

    In a few moments, another beating became evident, a beating loud and persistent on my door.

    "Open up! Open this thing up, you hear?" Dr. Morris cried, dry-throated. "You don't call all the shots -- I got more to say! I ain't some wind-up nigger doll you can turn off when you through playin’.”

    I thought that if I were still, he might give up and go away without bringing catastrophe down upon himself. I was in a state of utter panic. 
    Although I was as close to being an atheist as you can be without being plain stupid, I was praying passionately. Please God: get him home unscathed, and I will never, ever use alcohol again to enhance my interviews. Even when they want to, I'll say no -- let's just have coffee. Please!

    "Open up now, Sylvia -- you got to!" he yelled, now kicking as well as hitting the door. "Don't you think I got any pride? Am I just a little mascot, too? And now you're tired of pattin’ me on the head?"


    Then came the other voices, along the upper and lower tiers of the motel, as all those Baptist convention ladies hissed, "Hush up!" and "What in Heaven’s name….?" and "Stay in your rooms!" Doors slammed, toilet after toilet flushed. Still the beating at my door continued.

    "Sweet Jesus, it's a Negro!" someone shrieked.

    Then a police siren, barely audible at first, screamed louder and louder until it filled my room, and the flashing lights burst like patriotic fireworks against the draperies.

    A brief scuffle ensued outside my door, and Dr. Morris cried out plaintively, "She used me! All night long she led me on, and then she made me stop when I just barely got started!" He sobbed.

    "My God, dear doctor," I moaned into my pillow. "Couldn't you have phrased it differently?"

    "Ain't nobody can mess with me like that!" he cried in the distance.

    Then all was quiet and -- as was my custom that time of night -- I passed out.

*******

    Back in New York, my life staggered on, although I would find myself involuntarily confined in a hospital's alcohol-rehab unit, on suicide watch, within a few months.

    I worked on my profiles of Dr. Morris and the others I'd met on my trip, trying to forget about the nightmarish ending to one of the most poignant days of my life. I volunteered to be fund-raiser for the Attica Survivors Committee and agreed to speak at a John Jay College of Justice on the evolving laws pertaining to prisoner rights. I sipped all day and guzzled all night.

    About a week after I returned, I got a piece of mail with a postmark from Dr. Morris’s town. When I opened the envelope, there was a newspaper clipping inside. The headline read:


Town’s first black councilman resigns post:

Arrest for public intoxication, trespass, disturbing

the peace ends doctor‘s ‘fruitful tenure’


And across the top, in bold red script, were the words: "Thanks, Miss Bleeding Heart."