Monday, August 18, 2014

Ferguson Continues to Shape Lives

The following blog was written by my friend Paul Brehm. We met in cub scouts when we were both nine years old and have remained friends since then. We grew up in Ferguson, Missouri in the '50s and '60s, a more segregated time in history. In 2002 we drove from New York to Ferguson together. If you would like to read about that trip, go to Also I have a category of posts at this blog site  called "Ferguson Stories" with more about Ferguson in the past.

Florissant Street, downtown Ferguson, 1978

I grew up in Ferguson during the 1950s and ‘60s. It was a magical time for this sprawling St. Louis suburb. Nothing to worry about except maybe building a bomb shelter for protection from the looming Communist threat. In the early 1950s, Ferguson was a distant suburb of St. Louis. It required a lot of time to get to the downtown area. There were no highways to speak of and rapid transit did not reach out into the suburbs. So downtown Ferguson was pretty much the center of our universe and was teaming with life, Barbays Market, Quillman's Drugstore, Ben Franklin Five & Dime, Velvet Freeze, Martins Restaurant, Savoy theatre, Sonderagers Bakery, Ferguson Bowling Lanes and of course Ferguson Department Store.

Ferguson Department Store 1978
In hindsight we were blind to the fact that steps away from Ferguson, people experienced a different life, one that probably does not conjure up fond memories. Kinloch, the largest black community west of the Mississippi at that time, bordered Ferguson. Ferguson was not wealthy by any means, but Kinloch spelled abject poverty. Many Ferguson families employed a cleaning lady from Kinloch. We never inquired about where they lived or about their family. It embarrasses me to think that my parents were more concerned about these kind women stealing things from our house. Other than that, we never gave Kinloch a second thought. Adults told us to stay far away from it, so we did. When the roads turned from concrete to dirt, we turned around.

Lake at January-Wabash park where we ice skated every winter.

The Clubhouse at January -Wabash Park
McCluer High School back then
McCluer was our high school. It may still hold the record for the largest graduating  classes in Missouri. Not all white, but nearly so in the ‘60s. The half dozen or so blacks in the school were quiet, respectful, and kept a low profile. It never occurred to me at the time what those students went home to or even where they lived. I wonder what happened to Albert Holmes, one of the few blacks at school. He was a great athlete and a gentle, kind person. I can only wonder where he is today and what he is doing. Didn’t Kinloch have its own schools and if so, why didn’t we play them in sports? 
Ferguson Junior High(Used to be the High School)

In the ‘70s things began to change. When my parents retired to Arizona in 1976, they sold their house in Ferguson Hills. A prominent realtor refused to show it to a black family, so my father confronted him and demanded that he show the house to all interested parties, regardless of race. It was my first realization that Ferguson was all white for a reason. My father invited a black family with young kids to view the house and when he found out they could not afford to pay $25,000, he dropped it to a price they could afford. He told me how pleased it made him that they fell in love with the house, just like he did in 1953.

The Fire Station and Bakery
I no longer live in Missouri, but have, on several occasions, driven down my old street, Ford Drive and watched kids playing just like the old days. It does look different. The trees are bigger, the homes look smaller, and most of the kids are black. I’ve thought of Ferguson often over the years and just assumed that integration was working. But I guess Ferguson wasn’t ready for the change.

I used to tell people I was from a small place near St. Louis that they’ve never heard of. That has changed forever. Even Wikipedia now features these recent troubles. Maybe I’ll tell people I grew up in Florissant from now on. 

Friday, August 15, 2014

Brief Encounter With a Beautician

Sometimes it’s the small moments that open our hearts and connect us as humans. Yesterday I went to Lynnwood to get a haircut. I walked into a hair salon for the first time. I don’t have a lot of hair anymore, so cutting it is not that difficult. The shop had four chairs, all empty and no one seemed to be in the place. She must have heard the door open and close, for out of the back walked a tall Asian woman who asked if she could help me. I told her I needed a haircut and she directed me to one of the chairs. She was all business, efficiently putting the tissue around my neck and covering me with the cloth before proceeding to cut my hair.

               She had a light, gentle touch. After shaving the back of my neck, she brushed her hand across it several times, like a cabinet maker brushing the sawdust off recently sanded wood. I stole glances at her in the mirror as she worked. Probably in her fifties, I could tell she once had been beautiful, but her dress and makeup revealed a desperate battle with age.  Around her neck was a silver necklace with large green stones and on her wrist a matching bracelet. Her hair was jet black and long, pulled up on top of her head with a bit trailing down her back.  Her dress was cinched at the midriff accentuating her still slim body, and her breasts jutted out, riding a little too high for her age. We didn’t talk as she cut my hair.

At the cash register I asked her if she was Vietnamese even though she was too tall and something was strange about her face. Her nose reminded me of Michael Jackson’s, too thin for an Asian. I assume she had work done. But her accent gave her away. She answered, “Yes, I am Vietnamese.” I told her I had been in her country once a long time ago. Her eyes lit up and she asked, “When?” I said it was in the sixties during the war. Her face softened and sadness entered her eyes. I could tell she had been there too at that time.

In that moment, I remembered the beautiful young Vietnamese girls on their way to school dressed in immaculate silk Ao Dais, black pajama pants and stark white tops with slits up the sides. They passed right in front of me in single file, walking softly in sandals across the dirt road. Their clean straight black hair bounced lightly on their backs.  I was a twenty year old soldier, in Quang Ngai city for the day. They looked so young and innocent in the midst of the brutal, dirty war. I said a prayer for them to a God I wasn’t sure I believed in, asking that he protect them from the cruelty and destruction all around.

  I said to the woman who had just cut my hair, “You come from a beautiful country.” She said, “Thank you” and our eyes briefly met sharing an understanding that could not be put into words.  Two survivors from a terrible time long ago. I'm thankful she survived,  and she gave me a really good haircut.