In the Colored Waiting Room
When I was about eight, I found it easiest to be unashamed of my father when he stood at the counter of his small pharmacy. I spent hours watching him type prescription labels on the ancient Royal he'd used in his dad's drugstore, during Depression days. Dad's hands were stiffened with arthritis, an affliction none of my classmates' parents had yet encountered. Those dads' hands were lithe and wily, ready for pickup games of catch in the backyard after supper. My father, in his forties, was just old.
Dad's fingers curled unforgivingly toward his palms. He especially embarrassed me when he greeted the other men at church. Unable to open his hands for a real handshake, he would grasp another's fingertips with his own, a gesture which was to me cringingly reminiscent of the “Miss America” wave my sister and I watched on TV every September.
But pounding at that old Royal in his drugstore, he was master and commander. Arthritis had stiffened his two index fingers into knotty hammers, and he was faster with those two fingers than any person known to the retail world. The customer service desk he'd designed for the new store on Lamar Avenue seemed to me a showcase for his skill at that keyboard. The counter was shiny black laminate wood over a dazzling white cabinet, its front emblazoned with a golden mortar and pestle and his motto: “The Prescription Shop 'The best is none too good for the sick.'”
Dad's knobby hands were infallible when compounding a salve, or counting out a patient's heart pills. They moved with epic speed over keys of typewriter, adding machine, cash register. Customers never waited long, except during flu season. When a client's medicines were ready, he'd call out to the waiting room in his gentlemanly drawl, “Miz Scharff, I got the baby's cough syrup for you. Mr. Backus, we got you all fixed up, pod'ner.”
Dad's business had grown steadily since he left the Navy in 1945, and returned home to take up his life with Mama where they'd left off a week after Pearl Harbor. Customers admired his kindness, his vast knowledge of what worked for an ailment and what didn't, his guaranteed home delivery of their prescriptions (“within an hour, most times.” And he meant it.) He was willing to run a tab for medications, and to deliver an order even when a customer was behind on her bill, as his own father had always done.
As prosperity allowed, he'd occasionally redecorate. Three vinyl sofas were trucked into the expanded waiting area, 1950s fashionable yellow leatherette with forest green stitching. One bumper year he'd brought in a Zenith console television with a fifteen-inch round screen, and installed it next to the sales display of Curity first aid items. He let his customers change the channel to suit their particular tastes.
The waiting room was tidy and welcoming. When Sam Leland opened a competing pharmacy several blocks down the street, our Dad wasn't worried. Leland's place boasted air conditioning; a sidewalk sign advised, in letters formed to look like individual blocks of ice, “Come on in, it's c-o-o-o-o-o-o-l inside.” The Prescription Shop could not make such a claim, but Dad knew his customer base was loyal. His instincts were good where people were concerned. “Treat folks right, say their names right and say them often, they'll come back,” he always said.
On days when it was too rainy to walk home after school, Dad would send his delivery man in the store's station wagon to collect us. We liked to sit in the back room at the store to do homework on a battered formica topped table rescued from our kitchen on Fountain Court. Many of the customers knew us by name, and all of them knew us on sight from the display of school photos he kept on the counter. We'd greet them shyly when we came into the waiting room to get a cold drink from the machine Dad provided for his patrons' comfort.
Sam Leland's store didn't have a drink machine, and we were smugly pleased that our Dad had thought of it. But Dad and Sam Leland liked each other. Dad would be quick to call down to Sam's store when he was out of a particular medicine, and Sam would send down a customer or two when his own waiting room was overflowing. Sometimes Sam would wander into our store to pass the time of day. “He only wants to check out what we're doing now, so he can copy off us,” snorted my sister Marie. But our Dad would always smile and greet him warmly, as if they were not competitors but only old friends.
Sam brought a stranger into the store one hot and drizzly afternoon just after my third grade year at school started. My sister and I were doing arithmetic together behind the counter. “We need to talk, Pete.” Sam flashed his toothy smile.
The stranger just mopped his oily forehead. “About time you installed some air condition in here, Doc,” the man said by way of a greeting. Our Dad shooed us away from the table and invited the two men to sit. “Marie, go get a couple of cold Cokes for our company.”
I looked to Marie for clues on how to react. She was eyeing the sweaty man with suspicion, so I obediently looked away when he walked past, and omitted the demure “Hello, sir” our Mama had taught us to give. “You girls go watch the TV, now,” ordered our Father, as his stiffened hands pulled out a chair for his guest.
Marie and I remained just outside the door that led to the customer waiting room. Her face told me that listening in was not merely permitted today, it was probably necessary. Sam Leland cleared his throat. “Store looks good, Pete. You know Charlie Acheson, from the Memphis Businessmen's Association?” The stranger's name, in Sam Leland's mouth, sounded like “Cholly.” I could imagine my Dad's stiffened hand giving the Miss America shake.
Charlie Acheson spoke. “We've had some complaints, Doc, from some of your customers. It's about the, ah, waiting accommodations you have here.”
“Oh, the air conditioning.” My father's voice was slow and even in tone. “We might do that next year, but not just yet. I don't want any more debt right now.”
“No sir, it's not that,” said Acheson, “and I think you know it's not that.” He was quiet for a bit, then continued. “It's the niggers. People don't like it that they have to wait alongside your nigger customers.”
I gasped at the word “nigger,” which was the chief forbidden word at our house. Marie kicked my foot hard and pressed a plump finger to her lips. If I made any more noise we'd both be banished to the vinyl sofas, and she wasn't about to let that happen.
“Oh, they don't have to wait.” Dad was for the moment ignoring use of the forbidden word, but I knew from experience how he always reacted to it. “My customers all know they can go on home, and Mack will bring their medicine in an hour. No, it's not the wait they mind. It's the company they mind.”
The two other men were silent.
We heard our Dad's voice again, the one he used when his lips got thin and tight and we knew to stop arguing with him immediately. “Sam, this isn't just a commercial business. We work with sick people. Sickness doesn't have any color. I don't have a separate entrance for the colored trade here, and I never will. Half the colored folk in South Memphis get their medicines from me because they know that. The way the Merchants Association wants me to do business is an evil thing, and I won't do it.”
Acheson spoke again, and now Marie and I were sure we didn't like him. “You can have your modern views if you like, Doc, but you're breakin' the law by forcin' some of your customers to do what they don't want to do. Lookit—this is our way, and it's the American way. Everybody in Memphis likes it this way.”
“I don't like it that way, and I don't intend to treat any sick person that way.”
Sam Leland's voice took on the manner my sister and I reserved for giving each other fake apologies. “Look, Pete, I can understand how you feel. But your little corner of this town ain't a world all by itself. If you go changin' the rules just because of your views, it makes it that much harder for all the rest of us businessmen here to do any different.”
We heard my Dad's chair scrape across the linoleum floor, hard. He was done talking to these men. “I 'preciate your visit. But our waitin' room is fine.”
“Mebbe you didn't get my drift right,” said Acheson. “This idn't about what you feel like doin' with your store. It's about the law. Now you make a sep'rit waitin' room or we'll see that your business license gets pulled. You cain't do as you please, just because of your views. You got 30 days to get this thing fixed.”
“I can do what's right, and that's what I'm goin' to do.” Dad's voice was coming closer to us now. He was walking the men up toward the counter. Marie and I scurried over to the yellow leatherette sofa. Sam Leland and Charlie Acheson walked grimly past us toward the front door. “Hey, Mr. Leland,” Marie called out behind him. “Nice to see ya,” she added loudly as the door slammed shut.
Dad turned toward us and clasped his stiffened hands together. “Closing time, gals,” he said with less cheer than we were used to. “Let's go see what Mama fixed us for supper.”
He was quiet on the way home, and didn't even try to sing along with the radio. Our mother fed us at the table in the kitchen, and then went to sit with Dad in the living room. They never talked business in front of us, but we could tell Mama was worried. Every once in a while we could hear, “But Pete…” and she'd shush herself again. They moved their talk back into the kitchen after we had washed up the dishes. They were still at the kitchen table talking when we came in to get our good-night kisses. Marie and I huddled in the hallway outside the kitchen, bare feet tucked under our nightgowns. We listened, and Marie's frowning face told me it was time to worry.
“How are we going to support the kids if you lose the store?” we heard Mama say.
“Third time she's said that tonight,” Marie whispered to me. I looked back at her dumbly. “Well, it's a good question,” I shot back fiercely. “What can he do if he dudn't have that store? He's just an old man!”
“You want me to do what they're asking me to do?” we could hear him say.
“Maybe we can get the city to change the law,” she answered. “It's a bad law, but it's the law. I can't have you go to jail for breaking the law.”
That was the first time we'd heard the word “jail.” Marie reached her arm around my shoulder and placed her palm squarely over my mouth. “You shuddup,” she hissed in my ear. “Shuddup” was also high on our list of forbidden words, right behind the “n” word. Marie herself almost never violated that rule. I knew she meant business.
Our parents were quiet for a while. Then we heard Mama say, “What?”
Dad answered, “Let's just go to bed, Katie.”
“No, what are you thinking of?” she asked again.
“Nothing,” was all he said. We could tell that he was smiling, though. His words took on the amiable sound we were used to, since he almost always smiled when he spoke. “I know what I'm going to do. Let's go to bed.”
It didn't rain again the rest of September, so we were away from The Prescription Shop for many weeks. Our children's world lost contact with the problems of adults. Supper was still every night at six, when our Dad came home from work. We said the blessing same as usual over every meal, and Mama never wore her worried look or asked that we pray with her “for a special intention,” which always meant that something bad was going on and we weren't allowed to know about it. Our parents were their usual selves, quiet and calm with each other; Dad never mentioned Sam Leland and the Memphis Businessmen's Association.
The city sweltered into early October, and even a powerful rain the day before Halloween didn't bring any relief from the merciless heat. We knew to look for Mack the delivery man in Dad's gray station wagon when the rain continued through school dismissal, and gathered up our homework to do in the back room of the store.
What we weren't prepared for was the new look at The Prescription Shop. There was an awkward wooden stairway twisting around the outside of the building, leading to the attic space. A black sign with white lettering showed a pointing hand, directing upwards. It read, “Colored Waiting Room, this way.”
Marie's adolescent disapproval was apparent. “He did it,” she sighed loudly. “I don't believe he did it.”
“Did what?” I asked her.
“Shuddup,” she muttered, digging her fingernails sharply into my shoulder. “Just shuddup.”
We filed inside and plopped our books on the formica table. “Daddy, can we get a Coke?”
He looked up from his typewriter. “Sure thing, gals,” he called. “Just a minute.” I wandered outside the curved counter to wait by the drink machine.
It was gone. I ran to get Marie.
“The Coke machine's gone,” I whispered.
“He's losing business,” she hissed at me. “He prob'ly had to sell it.”
I looked around the waiting room in panic. The television was gone too. The vinyl sofas were missing, replaced by four rickety wooden folding chairs.
It was worse than we had thought.
“C'mon gals,” said our Dad, walking out from behind the counter. “Let's get a drink.” He led us up the inside stairs toward the “Colored Waiting Room.” Husky laughter greeted us when we entered what had once been his attic storage room. We recognized an older black woman we'd often seen in the store. Marie called out to her. “Hey Miz Whitten.”
“Why, hey dahlin',” the lady called back. “I saw the new pitchers by the cash register when I come in today. Girl, you have got so big and grown!” Miz Whitten extended plump arms to enfold us both in a warm hug. “Now, come set by me and tell me all you learned in school.”
Miz Whitten was watching “The Edge of Night,” her favorite afternoon story. We were surprised to see the Zenith with its fifteen-inch screen now sitting proudly in the Colored Waiting Room.
Along with the drink machine.
Next to the fat yellow sofas.
We plopped down on either side of Miz Whitten. It was a treat to be in the old attic, a place formerly off limits to children. And now it seemed to us a pleasure palace, the musty aura replaced by the stylish furniture and new carpeting, and gladdened by Miz Whitten's jolly demeanor and her “Blue Waltz” cologne.
And slowly a bigger realization crept to our senses: it was cooler in the attic than downstairs, even in the muggy Memphis heat.
“Gotta go back to work,” our Dad announced. “You comfortable, Miz Whitten?”
“We are fine, Doc,” she answered. “You leave these little ladies with me. I c'n turn that air condition down if it gets too cold for them.” We settled back with our cokes to watch the end of Miz Whitten's story, and stayed with her through “Queen For A Day.” She kissed us each on the tops of our pony tails before heading downstairs when her prescription was ready.
Marie looked sidelong at me and rolled her eyes heavenward. “He got air conditioning,” she breathed reverently. “He said he couldn't afford it until next year. We're not gonna lose the store. This is great!”
We luxuriated in the Colored Waiting Room until the news came on at 5 o'clock then reluctantly clattered downstairs to the lesser world. Sam Leland was grumping impatiently by the wooden folding chairs, with the scowling Mr. Acheson. Dad was working his customer service skills on an angry woman with a bad cold. “I'm dyin' for a soft drink,” she whined. “And you go and take out that drink machine. You of all people know how long summer lasts in this town. How can you do that to your loyal customers?”
“No, Ma'am, Miz Burkett, it's not gone. I just moved it upstairs. Gives a little more room down here, don't you think?” She wiped her nose with great disapproval, but Dad was relentless. “It'll take me about ten more minutes to get your pills ready. Whyn't you just go upstairs and get a drink, and sit in the air conditioning? I'll call you when they're done.”
“Up there?” She was aghast, and Marie grinned wickedly at me. “You want me to go and get a Coke up there???”
“Well, you could go on home and we'll get Mack to bring it to you in about an hour. Either way.”
Miz Burkett glanced apprehensively at the downpour outside. “Well, I guess it would be better to wait a while 'til the storm lets up…” She trudged up the stairs.
“Now gentlemen,” said our father, clasping his stiff hands in front of his starched white druggist coat. “What can I do for you?”
Acheson was in no mood to be placated. “You know what this is about. We want to see your waiting room. Your 30 days is up.”
“Didn't even take 30 days,” said my Father. “We moved a few things here, made a little space there. Even cut an outside entrance, though I won't let people use it in this heat. Come on up, I'll show you around.”
They climbed the inside stairs to the Colored Waiting Room, Marie and I following in procession. Miz Burkett was reading a magazine, sipping her coke. On the next sofa sat Old Dan, who cut grass in our neighborhood. Dan rose to his feet, “Pleasure to see you, Doc,” he said with great gentility.
My Father extended his stiff right hand to return Dan's greeting. “Now you just sit back down, Mr. Daniel. I know that rheumatiz' is giving you fits today.”
“Yassuh, sho is,” Old Dan said agreeably. Dad beamed at Sam Leland and Charlie Acheson. “Either of you gentlemen want a cold drink? Charlie, you were right about that air conditioning. Smartest thing I ever did. When we get a little more money ahead, I'm gonna put a coupla window units downstairs, maybe another two summers more, maybe three. This will have to do for now.”
Miz Burkett looked up from Better Homes and Gardens. “This is really nice, Doc,” she said helpfully. “My sinuses feel better already.”
Acheson and Leland looked around the Colored Waiting Room. “Well this beats all,” said Sam Leland after a while.
“We'll have your business license for this, you're still forcing the races to mix,” muttered Acheson.
Our Dad's voice got quiet. “No, sir, I did exactly what you told me to. I made a separate entrance. I made a separate waiting room. I haven't forced anybody to sit anywhere they don't want to. I checked the city code. I did everything I have to do. If people choose to rearrange themselves while I'm fillin' their prescriptions, there's not too much I can do about that. Now, if you'll excuse me, I have to get Miz Burkett's cold medicine.”
Dad went back downstairs but Marie and I stayed behind, savoring both the air conditioning and his small victory. Charlie Acheson mopped his brow with resignation. “The man's a damn communist, if you ask me,” he snarled to Sam Leland.
“No, he's not,” said Leland. “He's just trying to feed his kids and be a good man at the same time.” He clapped Acheson on the shoulder. “Who knows? The world is changing. Maybe he's right.”
Acheson shook off the good-fellow gesture. “Some things shouldn't change,” he muttered, stomping towards the stairs.
They walked past me and my sister. “Bye, now, Mr. Leland,” Marie chirped. “Come back inny time. It's c-o-o-o-o-o-o-o-o-l up here!”
“Marie, Sally, you two come on back down, now,” came my father's voice, firm and insistent. But we could hear the smile there as well. We dawdled on the newly-carpeted stairway and he waited for us, his brown fingers hammering at the old Royal.