The quiet children go shopping
“Some bad things are good to know. Long ago, I had a little grocery store in a very deprived neighborhood in St. Louis. A salesman and I enjoyed many emotionally comfortable talks together when he made his rounds. I must say that race never entered any of our conversations, not even by inference.
“One day a boy, around 12 years old, came into the store, followed by two pre-school children, a brother and a sister. The boy wore faded and patched blue jeans, canvas shoes and a raveling old sweater. His blue shirt was unironed but unlike the rest of his inadequate clothing it was clean. The two younger children who accompanied the older boy were not only thin and ragged but also very dirty. They were strangely quiet. The 12-year-old bought one gallon of kerosene, one pound of baloney, a small can of molasses, and one loaf of bread — exactly what he bought the day before and every single school day for the two years I had owned the store.
“Both parents worked: the father was a six-day janitor and the mother a five-day-a-week domestic. As a domestic, she was required to be away from home and her nine children 15 hours per day. The 12-year-old got food for the family. They ate cold leftovers for breakfast, and baloney and molasses for lunch. The two preschoolers were left alone all day until the school-age children got home. They ran up and down the street, their noses invariably running, and their thin dirty, smelly clothes giving them a most pathetic look. And always they were so quiet. No laughter ever, but no sounds of any other kind either.
“The family lived in three small dark, dirty rooms with a toilet stool set in an unlit, former clothes closet. There was a tiny, beat-up sink in the kitchen. The uncovered wood floors were always dirty with giant splinters threatening every step. The gas and electric had been cut off long before I moved into the neighborhood. The only heat was from the coal space heater in the front room and coal-fed cook stove in the kitchen. With gaping cracks and rat holes everywhere, crumbling plaster and rattling doors and windows all over, no amount of heat could ever have warmed the place. (Two of the children had been bitten by rats.) The kerosene bought by the boy was used in old-fashioned oil lamps, the only illumination in the house and by which the children studied at night, as much as any half-hungry, half-warm, half-sick, half-clothed, confused, hopeless child can study. Because the mother worked at a different place every day, payday for her was every day, which explains why the purchases were made daily.
“Because the father always got home first, he made supper for the children – usually white potatoes fried with onions, thick strips of salt pork, fried first to provide the fat for frying the potatoes. Bread consisted of fried corn cakes made of corn meal, salt, and hot water. Once a week they had neck bones and black-eyed peas, according to the groceries they bought from me. The mother usually arrived home shortly after nine, when the four youngest children were in bed. They were almost always asleep when she left at 6:30 a.m. in order to make the two-hour trip each way, including the long wait for the county bus to make the turn every 40 minutes. I can’t imagine any lullabies, any story telling, any bedtime baths or goodnight kisses from this tired mother. The father, a lonely failure, would find only a bitter reminder in the faces of his strangely quiet brood. To escape their unasked questions, he would crawl into bed as soon as possible, his face to the cold crumbling wall.
“I explained to my friend, the salesman, the family situation and just what the boy would do with the things he bought, and that he was father and mother to his sisters and brothers. That the truant officer (St. Louis had them then) never bothered them about being out of school. Nor did anyone bother about them playing in the street at night until midnight. My friend was speechless. He just stood and stared, while his face turned gray. Finally, he put the half empty bottle of pop on the counter, wiped his forehead, and quietly walked out. It was two weeks before he returned to the store. He seemed older and deeply troubled. He asked if there were many other families in the neighborhood living like that of the 12-year-old boy, and seemed genuinely pained to learn that many of them were just as bad off. Then he asked me how I could stand living around them. When I told him how difficult it was to find a neighborhood anywhere in a ghetto where some unpleasant human misery does not exist, his color seemed to turn gray again and tight lines formed around his mouth. It was then that he announced with lowered eyes, that he would ask to be transferred to another area. He left without even waiting for my offer.
“I never saw him again. I wonder if he ever forgot his old route. And I wonder if I can ever forgive this white salesman.” — Gloria Pritchard
Ms. Pritchard’s letter, titled “Reflection,” appeared in the July-August 1968 edition ofFOCUS/Midwest.