My Friend, Bernie

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The ever-present Black Culture of Savannah Georgia is something that I cannot overlook as a writer. The city itself is versed in culture and offers examples of the finest architecture that many have ever seen. Beauty lies abundant in the timely city squares with their luscious foliage and thick dark trees that could tell stories from hundreds of years back. Quaint benches sit in the squares for the tourist to sit back and marvel at the squares that have been present since the 1700’s.

Tourist come through the city in a flash and see the squares from the comforts of a touring trolley or horse and carriage, but some venture out on foot and see the more famous squares that are easily accessible from Bull Street and Street. But what they don’t see every day is the homeless who sleep on those benches at night. They don’t see the homeless who are mostly black men walking everyday through the less traveled sections of Savannah. In the movie, “Forrest Gump” when Forrest is waiting on the bus and the lady tells him that Henry Street is just five blocks away, she is referring to an actual location. Henry Street does exist, and it the first time I visited it I was taken back to a time when I was a kid and I use to watch “Sanford and Son” and the way that the outside of the salvage yard looked is the way many of the houses and business look.

Once you leave the Historic side of Savannah and enter into the middle section, headed toward the mall district you see how the low-income housing area has suffered and fallen victim to years of neglect and poverty. But in many of the sections the Black population has maintained the area by keeping their business thriving. Directly off Victory Drive on Bull Street there are hat shops, barber shops, quick marts and churches all run by the Black community for the Black community.

Throughout my life I have heard how the White community has reacted to these small Black areas, “Why can’t they use our stores?” or “They must be too good for our stores”. I really don’t feel that this is the case, these stores are here because someone wanted to succeed in business and because they saw a need for something. A Black man or woman is going to feel more comfortable going into a store that is owned by someone they have known for years, than a store where they are watched or scrutinized because of their color. This isn’t to say this happens every time someone enters a store, but it is prevalent.

When I moved to Savannah, I met all the hotel staff and found that I clicked with one person in particular. Her name was Bernadette, but everyone referred to her as Miss Bernie. She was the supervisor of the housekeeping staff. She set me thinking, more noticing than anything, how the Black culture of Savannah has a life, a universe of its own. The deeper you get into Chatham County the stranger or rather, the more eccentric things become. The people themselves have a strong culture that depends on its elderly more than most cultures. This may have to do with the fact that the average black man of 70 is still going stronger than the other cultures where most men over 60 start slowing down and settle into a mode of retirement.

One night at the hotel I was working the front desk and I had a guest ask if they could use the dining area for a small get together. I agreed and went about my business. I listened in occasionally when I went to the front to do my paperwork or answer the phone and it seemed that they were having a family reunion, I figured that maybe it was just local family. At one point the same guest asked for some eating utensils and I responded that I needed to get them out of the kitchenette. When I went in the dining area to the kitchenette, I saw that the family were gathered around an elderly Black man in a wheelchair who struck me as being near 100 yrs. old. The guest explained that the elderly man was his grandfather’s brother and that they had been searching for him for years and found him in the Savannah area. They wanted him to meet the family before he passed.

The man was handsome, he appeared to be fully alert to all that was going on, watching the kids with a big smile. His hands were huge and dark, with the fingernails were cut neatly and short. His hair was silver, and it shined in contrast to his dark shiny skin that was barely wrinkled. His faced showed more signs of sagging than actual wrinkling and he was dressed in nice slacks and a button up shirt with the white undershirt shining above the collar.

I could tell that he wanted to be out of the wheelchair and up with the children, dancing around enjoying their energy. I wondered what his mind saw, where was it while the adults chattered about economics and neighborhoods with good schools. Did he go somewhere sitting there? I pretended to clean up the area as I watched him. I imagined that he saw his brother in the relatives, maybe he saw himself as a child when he watched the kids. Did he see himself barefoot in his dirty pants playing in a creek, chasing frogs with his brother? Maybe he saw himself young and innocent and free of the scars that would come later in years when the racial tension of the south would build, and segregation issues would force people to act like animals and hurt one another with such malice. And then maybe he had blocked those things from his mind and in his eyes, he saw four children running and playing tag, four children that carried his family’s legacy into the future. These were four children that maybe he would have like to have shown his wife. Where was she, was she dead? He was an absolute mystery to me, and I was yearning, to talk with him, yearning to ask him everything until he told me to stop and go away.

I took a step back and realized I had been staring, but then I recognized that he was our link to the past just the same as those children were the link to the future. The children fascinated him because they reminded him of where he had been and what he had done, and he fascinated me because he was more than just a book in school about history, he was there. He was alive when all the great event of the last 95 years had occurred.

The original settlers in this country may have been the Vikings, or the Asians, or the Spanish but my history books always said it was the English, so I’ll stick with that. These people came to this country and back in the 1700’s they landed here in Savannah, believe it or not I could feel the power of that. The history was rich and powerful, everywhere you went the value of yesterday was around you. But a lot happened between then and now, a lot of people were killed, persecuted and treated in an inhuman fashion just to make this country what it is. The original settlers conquered the Native Americans who refused to co-operate and kill those who opposed the changes to come, wars were fought but eventually the English and Spanish made a strong hold of the East Coast of the Americas and our country was formed. The original Brits supposedly conquered the Africans and these men and women were brought here to the Americas to work in a culture where the White man built his successful empire. Here the slave trading industry was strong and profitable, they would buy a human and make them work until they died. You feed them as little as possible and give the bare minimum to live off. But not all the slave owners were this way, some were honest and fair, but they were still slave owners. But as with anything if you abuse the rules of things there is bound to be a price to be paid. That price for treating a human being like an animal is the years of hatred that still filter through society. Those people, the original slaves were integrated into a society that forced them to adapt many things as their own. When everything is taken from you, then you are forced to grab what you can and hold on to it for dear life.

The Blacks have a young culture and they strive to keep it growing but one of the downfalls to the black community is the lack of unity in its progression. I met a lady one Sunday while waiting for the bus. She wore a beautiful pink dress, pink hat, and pink shoes. She was dressed for church and I had just gotten off work. We sat talking about the tropical storm that was circling off the coast. She told me all about her years of storm watching but she said the toughest thing was the drug dealers that destroyed her neighborhood and how they did more damage than any hurricane. She told me how she worked one on one with the police to get the cars towed whenever the users would come to buy drugs, but she was alone in her efforts and eventually the neighborhood was bought out by a strip mall and the houses were sold for next to nothing and then torn down. She had lived there for fifteen years, worked hard to make it lovely on the outside and she loved to sit on her porch and watch the neighborhood children. Now she said she lives in an apartment where she must look out her window to see the children.

One part of the Black society fights to remain grounded in its roots and the other fights to break free and excel into the future. The part that refuses to better itself and seek to better its children are the very part that destroy any hopes to a positive outcome.

Bernie went out of her way to help me when I moved into the hotel. She was concerned about my housing situation, she offered suggestion and she told me about her family. I felt like I had known her for years. When it came time to move out of the hotel and into my little apartment Bernie was there to help, she used her van to get my belongings out of storage and into the soon to be home that I had found on the south side. She helped me drag my couch up to the second level of my apartment. I only wish that I could have done something to repay her, but I think she understood my financial situation at the time. Basically, I had enough to ride the bus until pay day and it was in my best interest to just hold on to that and ride my bike to work. She did what she could, more than she ever had too.

One day Bernie brought a picture to work, an old aged photo of six men. They stood in line, short to tall, from right to left. They were all very handsome and wore suits, except for one who wore his Marines Uniform. The picture looked circa 1930ish and the clothes were from that time frame. The tallest man had on a pin stripe suit with creases in the pants that could slice through the thickest steak. He had the fancy snap brim Fedora like Humphrey Bogart wore in Casablanca. Every one of the brothers in the photo grew to be excellent businessmen or teachers. They all received college educations and that was an extraordinary accomplishment for a white man in that day and age, but for an entire set of brothers who wore their color as a badge of pride it was quite a amazing thing.

But these brothers would never know that their efforts to better themselves did not just create better jobs and more money for themselves but for generations to come. Their family would feel the ripple for a long time and like a ripple that becomes a wave it is the choice and the destiny of every family member to take hold and chance a ride on the wave of success. Bernie may not have been a college professor, but the wave of success did not pass her by, she passes it on to her little grandson and assures that he has the chance to obtain that same education. Not only does she push him to do good she serves as a holder of the history that put him where he is today.

Savannah taught me many things that I would never have learned anywhere else. It gave me a chance to work with the Black society and see that they are the same as me, no different except for a slight genetic makeup that science sees. I take away a gift from Bernie that I can package and give to my children and grandchildren, knowledge erases prejudice and replaces it with understand, acceptance, and love.

Copyright 2002, 2020, James A. Heaton All Rights Reserved

An Excerpt from A Long Drive To The coast by James Heaton Published by Amazon


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