May 26, 2013
Posted on Nov 11, 2009
A domino was slapped down, its companions on the table rattling from the impact. “Fit’een,” a man with a front tooth missing hollered.
“Don’t stop writing yet, sco’ keeper,” one of the other men holler. He whacked down a six-five tile and yelled, “Twenny, goddammit.” Upon noticing Yates he cackled, “I’m sorry, little lady, I didn’t see you standing there.”
“Aw, damn, Myrna, you the one that taught me how to cuss,” the old timer roared, getting a chorus of chuckles from his peers.
Yates and Crimpshaw slid opposite one another in a booth. There was a discarded copy of the Communist Party’s Daily Worker newspaper on the seat next to her. The front page article and accompanying photo was of a wildcat strike at a Ford plant outside Los Angeles at a place called Pico Rivera.
Patting his stomach, Crimpshaw said, “Guess I better get a hamburger to help me get my coffee down. What about you?”
“Coffee is fine by me.”
“Yeah,” he admired, “I can see you pay attention to what you eat all right.”
She got her pad out of her purse. “You’re not trying to get a rise out of me, are you, Virgil?”
“No ma’am,” he managed with a straight face. “But you gotta understand, most of my time is wrapped up in visitn’ my members when they sleep over at some flea bag hotel trying to catch a few winks in between their runs. A bunch of jokers in long johns stinking of cheap whiskey and watching slop boiling over on the hot plate is about all I get in the way of entertainment.”
“Yes, I can imagine how hard it is for you.”
Crimpshaw shook his head woefully. “You just don’t know.” He looked up at her and they both laughed.
The waitress who’d cracked wise with the old man came over to take their orders. “Sorry,” she said, after the Sleeping Car organizer made his request, “but we’re out of beef till next Tuesday. Our soldier boys needs they iron. Ham and cheese okay?”
“Sure, anything for the effort,” Crimpshaw flashed a ‘V’ with his two fingers. “Victory at home and victory overseas. Yes sir.”
“You better be careful, Virg,” the waitress warned. “You already skatin’ on thin ice with them Hoover boys ‘cause of y’all incitin’ darkies to stand up for theyselves.” She marched away, whistling.
“How do you find the time to work?” Yates kidded.
He settled his solid frame in the leatherette booth. “I’m just a ball of energy, Alma.”
She asked him some questions she already knew the answers to about the Brotherhood of Sleeping Car Porters and he gave her ready-made answers. On the wall framed in Bakelite was a photo of Duke Ellington and Billy Strayhorn composing at the piano.
“Now what is it I can really do for you and that outstanding paper you work for now that we’ve danced around awhile?” Crimpshaw said.
“I wanted to talk with one of your porters, a man named Stanley Bascome. I know he’s here in town, but he’s been ducking me.
Crimpshaw’s brow bunched in consternation. “That’s why you agreed to sit with me. And just why is it you want to talk with brother Bascome?”
She lowered her voice. “About a handful of black soldiers murdered and buried n the Arizona desert.”
He pushed on the inside of his mouth with his tongue. “I’ve had to deal with my share of nutty stories working for the union and knowing what the Pullman Company was capable and willing to do. And let me tell you, sister, old man Lincoln was willing to do a lot. But this tall tale, this is hogwash. And I’ve heard some crazy stuff.”
“That’s what I’m trying to find out. There’s been lynching of negro GIs near bases, shoot outs between black and white soldiers—this might not be so fantastic.”
Crimpshaw ran a rough hand over his broad face. “You know how that makes us look with that kind of talk, don’t you?”
The waitress returned with their orders and they remained silent until she departed.
“I don’t need to use his name, but I want to see if there’s anything to it.” Yates sipped her coffee. It was heavy with chicory to stretch the grounds. The boys overseas sure ate well, she reflected. At least the white boys did.
Crimpshaw leaned forward, “Look, not only do I not want my union in no way caught up in this foolishness, you of all people know this pushing and pulling we’re doing with FDR is like dancing with a drunk. We got to hold up more than our end and sure ain’t getting much in return. Still,” and he bit off some of his sandwich, “we’re making headway insofar as them inching toward the decision of letting colored boys into the fight. Not that I’m eager to have our blood splashed all over France and the Pacific.” He finished chewing and swallowed.
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