Saturday, March 24, 2018

A Funeral Home? Are You Kidding? In a Black Neighborhood? Are You Kidding?


My husband was not a perfect man by any stretch but one thing he definitely wasn't was racist. He learned that when he was a combat veteran in Vietnam. He said when you were in a jungle with people trying to kill you, the men who had your back, as you had theirs, were brothers, not colors.

When we first moved to Springfield, Illinois, the only place we could find to rent was a small, shabby, cockroach-ridden apartment. It was awful so of course, when we had a opportunity to rent an abandoned funeral home in a black neighborhood, we jumped at the chance. It was an interesting place to live to say the least.

The funeral home had been foreclosed and the previous owner had fled, leaving all the tools of his trade behind. In the basement, the embalming table sat under a single unshaded light bulb. There was a moat and a hose leading to a drain for the blood to run out, along with several large bottles of Ozmatone. There were trays of make up and nail polish and curling irons. In what used to be the coal room, were a bunch of robes and other types of clothing that I guess bodies were wearing when they came in. A wicker body basket sat in one corner. Most people shivered when they saw it, those who would go down. It was far from the spick-and-span, white tiled mortuary most of us think of.

On the main floor, all the chairs for funerals were pink and purple wicker. There was a raised floor for the casket to sit and an organ off to the side. John could ride his pedal car in huge circles. We had friends in two different bands then and we let them practice in this room so after we came, it was filled with instruments and mike stand and coils of wire. The place was loud with rock and roll several nights a week. I guess those were our hippy days though we both worked and were clean-cut types....and we didn't do any drugs.

The second floor contained 3 apartments, one of which we lived in. The third floor had two larger apartments. We roamed through them all. We would have loaned them out to friends but few people wanted to stay there....even for free rent.

We were probably the only white people for six blocks in either direction but it didn't bother us and all our neighbors were welcoming. It wasn't a ghetto but a tidy, well-taken-care of lower-middle class neighborhood.  When John (he was a toddler then) and I would walk the three blocks to the little store, the old ladies would come and talk to us and usually send him on his way with a cupcake or cookies.

Jim used to drink with the guys in the bar down on the corner. It was a rough place (there was no sense calling the police if a fight broke out because they would not go there after dark) but they treated him the same as everyone else. They applauded his skill in shooting craps.

That was in 1970. Later, America was proud to think it had become a post-racial society but of course, it wasn't true. The most virulent bigotry had simply gone underground, as evidenced by the vicious way so many treated our first black president, making up ridiculous conspiracy theories so they could justify hating him, one of the worst being our current president.

I really think the latent racism came on strong with the killing of Trayvon Martin and escalated from there. Most conservatives, including Donald Trump, did not even want to try to understand where the "take a knee" or "black lives matter" movements came from.

I truly do not know where we go from here.

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