My Worst Thanksgiving

Mahershala Ali and Viggo Mortensen in 2018’s “The Green Book”

My worst Thanksgiving was in 1972. All things considered, my “worst” wasn’t so bad*. Still, I remember that Thanksgiving like no other.

A college student, I voted for the first time in 1972. It was also when I worked at Sears—then still a retail giant—in Fresno, California. Once Sears hired me, I figured I was fixed for a paycheck until graduation. Clueless about a store’s need to boost its staffing around the holidays, I was out of a job when Santa’s view of chimneys was in his sleigh’s side mirrors.

All I knew was that I wanted a job. Give me any hours!

How about working on the day before and the day after Thanksgiving? Give ‘em to me! In 1972, the minimum hourly wage was $1.60. More on holidays. Whoa!

And so, with the cost of college textbooks and paying my apartment’s heating bill, I hunkered down in Fresno to work. My family gathered up yonder in Sacramento—a three-hour drive from Fresno—for their Thanksgiving feast. I greedily punched the time clock. On the long, lonely Thursday, I prepared a Swanson’s frozen TV dinner for my, er, feast. Poor me.

Along with a gaggle of other employees I toiled in a vast basement. There, among the stacks and racks of all that Sears offered, we would wait for calls from upstairs. When customers bought artificial Christmas trees, crockpots, dollhouses, or microwaves (oops, sorry, no microwaves back then), a clerk would call down to the basement.

Bring up the dollhouse!

Bring up the crockpot!

These pronouncements would blare from loudspeakers. We bottom dwellers would scurry along the basement pathways, seeking the requested item. Down came the demands. Up went the item. Sometimes a clerk up on the floor, using their superior I’m-at-street-level voices, would say, “Would one of you boys bring up a crockpot? It’s item R7Z27.”

Boys . . .

Indeed, no woman worked in the basement in 1972. When I worked below the streets of Fresno, only Y-chromosomes scurried between the endless aisles.

But there was Pride. Yes, Pride with a capital P. I remember him well.

Me? I was raised in the lily-white suburbs of Sacramento. Until the end of high school, I knew one African-American family. At my high school, if you were African-American, you were a Baker. If you know baseball, you probably know that Dusty Baker had a solid career with the Atlanta Braves. He went on to coach the Giants, Cubs, Reds, and Nationals. But first, he starred in every sport at my high school. And was the only African-American I (sort of) knew.

Yep, I led a sheltered life. Then came Pride.

Over the loudspeakers, the voices boomed: “Would one of you boys please bring up . . .”

Since Pride had basement seniority, he answered first. Whenever a clerk above used boy, Pride would pause. The crackling, echoing sound of a customer’s request would end, followed by silence.

Finally, Pride slowly and clearly answered, “There are no boys down here.”

It was one of my earliest personal lessons about race. Pride literally had pride. For whatever reason his parents bestowed upon him that name, it was as much first name as it was truthful description. A generation before he may have resentfully accepted being called boy. And I would likely have—in that era—heard him referred as a boy (or worse) and thought nothing of it.

One of the 2018 films just released is The Green Book. Inspired by a true story, it depicts a relationship between a black man, a gifted pianist, and the white man hired to drive the musician through the American south for a 1962 concert tour. The film’s title is from the very real Green Book that was once used to find safe spots to eat and sleep. Blacks in America, at that time of America, were often refused service. This all took place during my own lifetime. I suspect that every African-American family, right now in 2018, has a parent or grandparent that vividly recalls needing the Green Book. In other words, a cruel slice of history is also a current family memory for many Americans.

This year, as Thanksgiving approaches, decades after the first year I voted, I am thankful for the mid-term elections and an amazing group of women soon to hold various offices. Kristi Noem will be South Dakota’s first female governor. New Mexico’s Deb Haaland is the first Native American woman elected to Congress. Somali-American Ilhan Omar, a Muslim woman, is also a newly elected Representative. There are more, with people of color, of youth, of generational change taking leadership positions. I believe that every painful, powerful step in an election like 2018 draws us closer to Martin Luther King’s “beloved community.” I don’t doubt there are many more painful steps ahead for a truly beloved community.

In the 1870s, Hermann Ebbinghaus was the first scientist to study memory. His work remains valid today. Ebbinghaus determined that “the beginning your retention is 100% since this exactly the point in time when you actually learned the piece of information. As time goes on the retention drops sharply down to around 40% in the first couple of days.” And keeps dropping!

Memory fades and changes. It becomes fractured or romanticized. How difficult it is for us humans, individually or as a nation, to remember our history.

1972 was my worst Thanksgiving. And yet I remember Pride—and his fragile, truthful name.

I am thankful this year. In 2018, things have changed (for better and worse) since 1972 or 1962. I will remember enough to believe that more of better will come with each passing year.

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*California’s horrific Camp Fire took place in my home region: the California-Nevada Annual Conference. In the community of Paradise, the local United Methodist Church has been an active, essential part of the community. Those impacted by the Camp Fire are truly having their “worst” Thanksgiving. I will be contributing to my Conference’s efforts to provide financial support through our Disaster Response Fund.

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4 Comments

  1. Thanks for sharing your experiences in 1972, Larry! As an Atlanta Braves fan for years, we loved Dusty Baker!! How neat that you went to school with him. And I love that name, Pride. Wonder what he did with his life? I wonder how difficult it was for a black man to have the name Pride. Having just experienced 16 months with a bi-racial foster grandchild who shared many of his childhood experiences with us, I have a whole new understanding of how ignorant and close minded we middle class white folks are. We haven’t got a clue. Yes, the results of the mid-terms are good – and gives us hope for a better future, but I am not sure we’ll see MLK’s dream in our lifetime! My grandchildren’s generation will have a better chance of seeing the tolerance that is badly needed. As we go around the table on Thursday, sharing what we are thankful for, I know one of the big ones will be the “Blue Wave”!!

    1. Joy:

      Thanks for your comments! Yeah, we have so much to learn from each other . . . glad you were able to spend such good time with your foster grandchild!!

  2. As a faithful “displaced and in exile” UM, i’d like to help your Conference. Do you have an address?
    And a word about bad Thanksgivings: your ministry has made many, many people thankful. I am one of them. P

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