CALVIN
It was almost night in Richmond and Richmond has some pretty dark nights. Calvin and I were walking along
talking—deeply involved, tinkering with race matters in our own tiny way—when we inadvertently found
ourselves on the wrong side of Broad Street…the wrong side of Broad Street for me that is. When we
realized where we were, Calvin said “You better turn back, man.” He looked pretty serious.
“Nonsense,” I said laughing. “You think I’m afraid to be in this district at night?”
“If you were as smart as you think you are, you would be.”
I laughed my heartiest imitation-dismissive laugh.
“I ain’ jokin’ with you, Edward. This is another part of town and there are people who will not be pleased by
your presence here.”
“But, Calvin, you’ll protect your friend, Edward, won’t you?”
“Yeah but I’m just one man, an’ I ain’t that big,” he said. “And,” he added, “when the goin’ get’s tough I have a
tendency to run.”
We continued walking.

When we were about three blocks into what Calvin called “the nigger district” he said, “OK, listen to me, this
is serious now. If I say run, you better run; and you better run in that direction,” he pointed in the direction
from which we’d just come. “You better RUN to the other side of Broad Street; the white side; the right side;
the safe side. And don’t stop until you get in-side and lock the door. Are we in agreement?” He was in
earnest.
“Calvin,” I said, “I am no more welcome over there than I am over here, maybe less.”
“Yeah, well you don’t want to find out how welcome you are over here, believe me.”

I was getting spooked by all this talk, but tried my best not to show it. After all I was young and supposed to
feel invulnerable.
“You want to break down some racial barriers?” he asked turning to me with a smile. “OK then, we can do
that, Skippy.”
“Look, Calvin…” I said, “I just want to see where you live. You’ve been to my place, I thought I’d like to see
where you live, meet your grandmother…”
Calvin laughed sarcastically. “Oh yeah, my grandmother. She would for sure love to walk in and find herself a
white boy sitting in her living room. You got to be out your mind;  my granny would cut you herself. Slice you
up. She find you in her house, first thang she do is grab a knife. She don’t want no white boy in her house;
what would the neighbors think?”
“You can’t have me in your own house?”
“Forget that, OK? The answer is ‘No’, but what I was askin’ was, do you want to shoot some pool?”
“Pool?  I’d love to shoot a little pool.”
“Good, ‘cause there’s the place for it.”
    
He motioned across at a small dark corner bar with a long neon sign hanging down from the roof saying
“JUBI” in flickering pinkish neon.
“You think I’m afraid to go in there with you?” I said bravely.
Calvin was laughing hysterically. He gathered himself up enough to slap me on the shoulder. “No, man, I’m
just kidding with you, Edward. Two of us go in Jubi, we’d be lucky if one of us comes back out alive. And,” he
said, “that one WILL be me.”

Did I say that in those days I was crazy? I wasn’t heroic. I wasn’t brave. I may have been stupid, I don’t know.
But for sure, when it came to certain things, I was crazy. I looked at Calvin. I looked at the front door of that
bar. I wanted to reach that place in a single bound. If I had known how to do cartwheels, I would have tumbled
my way across that street. (I was born in Gary, Indiana for god’s sake.)
“I don’t think you can stop me,” I challenged.
“I ain’t even gonna try.”
“How close do you figure I’ll get?”
“’Fore you come to your senses, or fore they kill you?”
“’Fore they kill us both, because if I’m goin’ in there, you’re going in with me.” I grabbed a fistful of Calvin’s
jacket and started dragging him across the street toward Jubi. He dug his heels in and put up a struggle until,
out of breath and laughing so hard neither of us could breathe, we stood on the shattered sidewalk in front of
the place, bent over in laughter, two young idiots teetering on the precipice. When we pulled ourselves
upright again, he studied me for a bit. “OK, Mr. Big Man White Boy College Death-wish Fool, follow me.”
Calvin placed his hand on the door.

The next thing I knew Calvin and I were standing inside the bar and every head in the place was turning to
look at us. Oh, and we were no longer laughing. I should make that clear. It didn’t seem like the wise thing to
do.

“Don’t look at ‘em,” whispered Calvin as he took the bar stool closest to the door. I climbed up on the one
next to him. Since he was between me and my escape I envisioned plowing right through him on my
desperate way out of there. In those days Hollywood movies had not yet started promoting the idea that a
white man can put himself in almost any situation and end up loved—when not worshipped outright—by the
locals. Wisely I lowered my head and began staring at the bar top in front of me. Calvin was trying to act like
he was a just a neighborhood kid who’d stumbled in for a beer, which was pretty much what he was. Calvin
was, in fact, in deed, in every way possible, a neighborhood kid who stumbled in to have a beer. Me? I was
just his invisible friend.

That became obvious when the barkeep came over and tossed a coaster on the bar in front of Calvin and
raised his chin. “What kind of beer do you have?” I detected a quiver in Calvin’s voice.
“We got one kind of beer,” said the bartender coldly, “you want some fancy-ass college beer I suppose? He
slammed a bottle down in front of Calvin. Calvin looked at me and snickered. “We in it now,” he whispered.
    
It was like the first line of a joke—Two college kids, one black, one white, stumble into a black bar in
Richmond Virginia; it’s 1969… I cringed at every possible punch line I could come up with. The other
customers started commenting on the matter openly and loudly. “We don’t allow no college kids in here.” and
“Can’t he get his beer over there with the white folk now?” I was thinking, “Man, they are as prejudiced as ‘we’
are.”

I was sitting there with my head hung very low, watching Calvin from under my brow. He was restraining
himself, trying not to laugh. I was trying not to cry. The bar keep snorted and started to walk away. “Man, we
are IN it,” hissed Calvin. It took a while, and a couple thrown elbows from me, before Calvin cleared his throat
and demanded, “How ‘bout one for my friend?”
I leaned over and reminded him, “I don’t drink, Calvin, you know that.” (In those days I didn’t drink.)
“You got a friend comin’?” asked the bar keep?
“It’s OK, Calvin,” I said quickly, “I don’t drink.”

The bartender, overhearing that, reached down below the counter, pulled out three cold beers and clunked
them on the counter in front of us, “Two drink minimum!” he declared. Apparently, from the uproarious
response behind us, this was one of the funniest and most righteous statements ever made. “Boy says he
don’t drink.” “D’hell’s he doin’ in a bar then?” “D’fuck’s he doin’ in DIS bar?”
“Jesus,” I said, and leaning toward Calvin I whispered, “Look, let’s just get out of here.”
“Just stay there,” said Calvin urgently.
“But, I…”
“I’ll drink the beer,” he whispered, “don’t worry; just stay where you are. It’s cool.”
“It don’t feel cool.”
“Shhhhhh.”
    
The barkeep went down to the far end of the bar and leaned against it and started talking to a pitch-black
woman in a flowery house dress. She was smoking long skinny cigarettes and staring fixedly at me. I didn’t
have the nerve to turn around and face the rest of the customers, but I imagined that there were hundreds of
them. It felt like there were hundreds of them. I imagined that they all had their eyes on me. I imagined that
they weren’t really pleased to have me in there. Well, perhaps I didn’t imagine that part.
The idea that I would consume my first alcoholic beverage—first TWO alcoholic beverages—as the
unwelcome guest in a black bar, in a black district, surrounded with people I couldn’t see, under the hostile
eye of the barkeep, was a little unnerving. On the other hand I felt like a beer might be precisely what I
needed at that moment.
“Try it,” Calvin urged quietly.
“I don’t drink,” I hissed back.
“Hey,” shouted the bar keep suddenly, “This is a drinking establishment. If you ain’t gonna drink then get out!”
Drink or get out. God bless that man. It was an excellent suggestion, and I sensed that it had come from the
barkeep’s heart. I started to get up and Calvin put his hand on my thigh, “Stay right there.”
“Why?”
“Learnin’ experience.” He laughed almost inaudibly. “You wanted it, now you got it.”
“This isn’t funny to me anymore, Calvin.”
“It’s OK. Prove a point,” he said.

We were sitting there like that, Calvin holding me down, the barkeep and his skinny girl friend with their cold
eyes locked on us, when the door swung open and in ambled one of the largest human beings I’d ever seen
in my life. I didn’t see him directly—Calvin was sitting between me and the front door--but his massive
presence completely blocked out the mirror behind the bar as he squeezed by behind us. Quickly I was back
to staring fixedly at the countertop in front of me. My nose sank closer to the bar when I heard the scraping of
barstools and the wheezing sound of the huge man taking up the stool beside me. I could actually feel the
heat of his presence. I could smell his sweat; I could hear his breathing. I watched in the mirror as this man’s
enormous head swiveled slowly in my direction and, Lord, have mercy on poor ol’ Edward, his eyes locked on
me.         
continued...