Chapter 1- Going To School
By Paul Davis
A cheerful ding-ding announces my presence at the gas pumps just as the sun peeks out behind the SUNOCO sign on Route 9 in Wellesley. An attendant about my age saunters toward me. Up close I can see his greasy, acned face as he peers in at me with a crooked smile.
“Can I help you?” he asks.
I wonder what kind of help he’s offering. Am I parked too far from the gas pumps? I’m on an incline so I tug on the emergency brake as I’ve been taught to do.
“You want me to fill it up?” asks the attendant.
“Sure, sure,” I respond, digging in my bell-bottoms for my cash, bringing out a five and four ones, not sure that it will be enough. The attendant has started the pump and I can’t see what it’s reading. I get out of the car to observe over the lime green roof of my dad’s 1955 Belvedere Suburban. The pump has recorded four dollars and the attendant is now washing the windshield. I admire the smooth arcing of his arms.
“Hey, don’t I know you?” he asks, wiping the rubberized blade of the window washer with a rag.
I see “Mitch” stitched on the guy’s SUNOCO shirt and try to place the name.
“Isn’t your dad Coach Davis?” he asks.
“I thought so, I recognized the car. Not many of these around, green roof and black chassis. Your dad used to come in here pretty regularly… Say, you used to go to the Saturday basketball program with your dad, right?”
“Nah, I just borrowed his shirt. I’m Peter Selzlick.”
I recognize the name and see the pump register eight dollars.
“Er,” I mutter.
“What’s the matter?” Peter asks.
“I only got nine bucks.”
“Don’t sweat it, I got you.”
I’m put a little off balance by Peter’s assuredness. Although he’s close to my age, this kid seems so much more self-confident. I look around the gas station and spy a souped-up Chevy Nova with a brand new wax job. I imagine Peter to be the owner. The gas pump hits nine dollars and I wish I could somehow stop it.
“So how’s your dad?”
“Good, good.” Nine fifty.
“He hasn’t been around in a while.”
Ten oh five. The pump mercifully stops.
“Oh, well actually he slipped a disc working construction this summer. He’s recovering from that.”
“Oh, sorry to hear. Your old man’s a tough old bird. He ripped me a new one on several occasions. He’ll be back.”
“I’m sorry… I mean…”
“That he ripped me a new one? Shit! Don’t be. I deserved it.”
This wasn’t the first time I’d encountered this phenomenon of my father punishing someone and them being glad of it. My brother had been knocked out by my father in an altercation some years ago and to this day Eddie believed he deserved it. I wonder what’s wrong with me that I don’t appreciate my father’s punitive ways.
“So what’s got you headed this way at the break of day?” Peter asks as I give him all my money.
“Going in town to a school.”
“Yeah, you going to Harvard or something?”
I shake my head. “Nah, nothing like that, I’m going to volunteer in an elementary school. It’s my senior project.”
‘Oh yeah, what part of Boston?”
“Dorchester,” I say, getting back in the car.
“My old man’s from Dorchester, watch your step in there. He says the niggers are taking over.” Peter shakes his head and spits.
I don’t know how to react, I smile and stutter, “Yeah.”
He smiles at me ingenuously. “Make sure you tell your old man hello from me.
“Yeah.” I start the car and escape from the station.
A couple of miles down the road I’m still rehearsing what I should have said. I vacillate between, “I want to work with black kids” and “You’re a racist.” Then I remember I owe him money. I make a mental note to bring it to him next time. Maybe I’ll tell him then.
A sign saying “Entering Brookline” catches my eye and I know I need to start looking for the turn-off. At the next red light I look at the scribbled directions on the seat next to me. My watch shows six thirty. Good, I have time. David, my mentor, told me not to be caught on the road after seven.
I find the turn-off for the Arborway. It is a windy, narrow, two-lane road going in and out of Boston, with no median between the two directions and rotaries aplenty. I try my best to heed David’s advice of staying to the right and stopping for no one as I negotiate the road with other early risers. I’m glad it’s not heavy traffic and I wonder, with dread, what it will be like on my return this afternoon. I go by a hospital and then a bleak-looking golf course before coming to a red light at an intersection bordered by a large, closed gate with a sign over it saying “Franklin Park Zoo.” All the people I see are black. My heart quickens. My directions say left on Blue Hill Ave. But I see no street signs anywhere, so go straight. I smell a funny burning odor and hope it’s not my car.
After a couple of intersections I come to a red light where I finally see a street sign. Harvard Avenue. But this is definitely not Ivy League. I have never been in a place like this before. On one corner I see a store with heavily grated windows and a faded sign for “M and J’s Market and Liquor.” On the diagonal corner there is a trash-strewn, overgrown lot and what looks to be a bus stop with two teenaged black girls waiting. A car horn blows behind me. I try to decide what to do. I put on my blinker to make the turn to where the girls stand. My brake gives too easy as I stop in front of the girls. Putting the car in park I lean over and roll down my window.
“Excuse me,” I call out, trying to hide the mounting panic in my voice. The girls don’t seem to hear me or see me. “Do you know where I could find Blue Hill Avenue?” I try again, hopefully louder and more self-confident.
But the girls shift their bodies facing away from me. I give up on them. I’m about to ask an older woman who is approaching. But a sharp horn blast alerts me to the bus I see bearing down on me in my rearview mirror.
I hit a pothole that rattles the car reentering Harvard Avenue. At each corner I hunt for more street signs. The morning sunlight brings the dilapidated state of the triple-deckers of the neighborhood into clearer focus. I still see only black people around and I’m afraid to ask for directions again.
I’m getting worried about my brakes and wish for a gas station where I can get some help. At a fork in the road, a sign says “Washington Street.” I remember David said something about Washington Street. But from the odd placement of the sign, it’s hard to tell which street is actually Washington Street. I try to glance at my directions but hit another pothole and swerve to avoid the sidewalk. Is it seven yet? I’ll never find David’s place. Then I spot a couple of fuel pumps in the midst of a parking lot with disabled cars and a small worn-down building. I pump the brakes to a stop inches from the pumps.
A light is on in the building. Is the place open? A white-haired black man with a limp comes out holding a ring of keys in his hand. I roll down my window.
“I know ya not planning on getting gas pahked like that.” I’m surprised by his Boston accent. I never heard a black person talk like that.
“No, I got plenty of gas. I’m having trouble with my brakes.”
“So’s everyone else in Boston.”
“Oh,” I take a beat trying to understand what he means.
“But you’re not from around heah, huh?”
“No, sir.” I figure the sir will help this man have mercy on me.
“Sir? Yeah, you certainly not from around here.” He puts his long arms on his hips and shakes his head. “And this car… Where you from?”
“South,” I say pointing to what I think must be south, reluctant to say Sherborn because nobody’s ever heard of it.
‘South, huh? Well, I’m no mechanic, more like the night watchman for this place, but I’d guess from the smell you left the emergency brake on.”
“Awww,” I sigh, knowing he’s right and letting out the brake.
“Hope you didn’t wear them down too far. You’re gonna need your brakes in Boston, my fine young southern gentleman.”
“Sherborn,” I say, thinking Sherborn sounds better than “the south” and all the negative connotations that must have for black people. “I’m from Sherborn, Mass.”
‘’Oh, well, I didn’t guess you were from too far south, you having Mass plates and all.” He winks at me and I feel a little foolish.
“Well, thanks a lot.” I start the car.
“You may want to pump those brakes some,” he advises.
I do and find them giving a little more resistance. I roll up my window, put the car in drive and start to step on the gas when I remember I’m lost.
The man’s still standing there watching me with his hands on his hips.
I roll down the window again.
“Sorry,” I say sheepishly, shifting the car back into park.
The man nods.
I show him the paper with David’s directions. “Do you know how to get to Percival Street?”
“Percival Street? No, but I’d guess you’d want to keep on heading down that way on Bowdoin Street.” He points back the way I just came.
“Why’s that?” I ask.
“Because that’s toward Fields Corner.”
“But…” I look at the directions again.
“Of course you could keep going right up Washington Street, but that goes to Grove Hall, that’s Roxbury.” He points with his other arm and reminds me of the scarecrow in the “Wizard of Oz.” If this is Oz, then Roxbury carries all the scary weight of the witch’s castle. It has the reputation as a place where white people don’t belong and I know I don’t want to go there, not by myself.
I find Bowdoin Street in the directions and see that Percival Street does run off Bowdoin after a Catholic church on the corner.
“I see Percival Street does run off Bowdoin,” I tell the man, hoping he can’t hear the relief in my voice that I don’t have to go to Roxbury.
“Like I thought, toward Field’s Corner.” He seems unphased if he does read my desire to not go to Roxbury.
“Well, thanks a lot.”
“All right, have yourself a good day, but be careful down there in Fields Corner.” He smiles.
“Wha…?” I crook my head toward him and he comes toward me with his hand up to his mouth like he’s going to share a secret.
“There’s white folks down there.” He nods and makes a fearful face and then winks.
I’m not sure how to respond. I chuckle awkwardly then put the car in gear and make a right onto Bowdoin Street. I run the man’s last comment through my head trying to figure out his meaning. I slam into another pothole and imagine the “Yellow Brick Road” with potholes.
Soon, I’m seeing only white people again.
At David’s place, I gratefully climb into his car. When we cross Columbia Road, thus departing White Dorchester and entering Black Dorchester, my stomach rumbles with excitement. I’ve met David on several occasions in passing. He’s my sister Vicki’s best friend’s husband. But this is my first time up close and I watch him with quiet awe. Ever since we started driving, David has been carrying on a non-stop monologue, interspersed with laughter and threats of mayhem to all the jerks that share the road.
“Tom Coughlin, you’ll like him. He’s a real townie. Grew up down Upham’s Corner. We share the fourth-grade class. He teaches the math and science. I teach the reading and social studies. Between him and me we keep the kids on their toes. You’ll see.”
He laughs and shakes his head. I wait for an explanation, but David just takes a sip from the cup of steaming Dunkin Donut coffee that he keeps balanced between his legs. He didn’t bother to belt up for this journey and I’ve followed in kind. I have second thoughts after a few stunningly close calls but come to realize it’s all within David’s controlled chaos. The belt seems superfluous, nothing could slow down the precarious tilt of this red-headed madman next to me. But then an object appears in our view that does just that, and he swears.
“Jesus fuckin Christ, I always make this light…and now this!”
It’s an orange and white Volkswagen bus coasting to a stop at the intersection in front of us.
“God damn Demourney!”
“You know them?”
“I teach with her.”
I study the profile of the driver in front of us more carefully. Frizzy hair, head bobbing to some unheard rhythm.
The light goes from red to green but the bus does not move. David toots his horn once. Demournay looks up into her rearview and waves. He waves and then toots his horn twice.
“Yes, Marie I see you, now move your ass.”
Demournay puts it in gear and with a plume of blue smoke heads into the intersection, David close behind.
“She gets a new bus every fall and by the time spring rolls around it’s shot. Change the oil; change the oil, Marie, we tell her. I even offered to do it myself. But do you think she’d take the time? No, not Marie, she’s too busy hauling these kids around.”
We’re starting to see some gaggles of kids and parents walking together and I assume we’re getting close to the school. All the kids seem to know the sound of Marie Demournay’s bus in front of us and they turn and wave. I feel like we’ve joined a parade at 7:30 on a Monday morning. David sighs and cusses under his breath, something about “pahking” as he turns at the first street sign I’ve seen since crossing Columbia Road.
“Well, here we are. The Brooks,” David announces as he parks at the corner in front of the school. “Early bird gets the worm, remember that if you ever drive yourself, Paul. Park further away, even across the street, and you’re likely to lose your hubcaps or worse in this neighborhood.”
I make a mental note never to be late to David’s place for his ride down here.
Looking around the neighborhood, I think this doesn’t look anything like the Boston I saw on my trips on the T to Fenway or the Garden to cheer for the Red Sox, Celtics and Bruins or when my school had taken field trips to the Museum of Fine Arts.
The vacant lot directly across the street from the front door of “The Brooks” is a wasteland, where mounds of crumbling concrete and bricks rise above weeds and windswept paper. From where I stand, I count the skeletons of four burnt out cars. Many of the triple-deckers in the neighborhood appear uninhabitable with boarded up windows, broken down stoops and graffiti scrawled in the desperate attempt for attention never given.
David has entered the front gate of the school to join a group of other adults who are looking up at the upper floors and talking. I hurry to catch up as if some phantom of the streets is nipping at my heels.
From the second story window, a slim black youth with a faded red shirt peers down waving and smiling. He looks delighted to see us and I am about to wave back when I overhear one of the adults mutter under his breath: “God damn you, Wayne Clark. What a way to start the week.”
“Let’s just go in and call the police,” says a red-haired lady with a bulldog snout.
“Oh Louise,” says the man who muttered, “you know I can’t do that. Besides, by the time they show up, half the day will be over.”
Wayne Clark, still up on the second floor, raps loudly on the window and bends over with laughter when we all turn and look. He is plainly pleased with himself.
“If I catch your black ass, you won’t be laughing,” says the mutterer.
“Tom and I’ll go roust him,” David says. “Nothing like a Monday morning chase to get the blood pumping, eh Tom?” He nods at Tom, who I think has a classic Irish look about him, and Tom winks.
“Wayne again,” calls Marie Demournay as she comes struggling up the walk under a load of picture books. She is accompanied on either side by shiny-eyed black girls who also have their arms full of books.
“Yes, Marie, and we already have it handled,” the mutterer says.
“What? Tom and David are going to chase him out? That’s no solution, you’re giving him the negative kind of attention – ”
Louise groans. “Not another lecture on negative attention,” she says.
Marie plows on: “Negative attention he’s used to. Let me try. Wayne used to be my student, after all.”
“He was all of our student at one point or another,” Louise says derisively.
Marie hands her books off to an obliging David and marches toward the front door.
“Mr. Dorland, I’ll need the keys,” she says over her shoulder.
Mr. Dorland, the mutterer, reluctantly takes out a ring of keys and trails behind her. “Make it quick,” he says. “Parents are coming and I don’t want a scene, so if you…” His words turn to a mumble as he steps out of hearing range.
The ill-used door requires several keys to unlock multiple locks. Clashing coats of paint suffer from numerous dents, gouges and scratches until it’s impossible to know what the door’s primary color is.
Mr. Dorland yanks it with a heave, it yawns open and Marie steps in, yelling “Wayne Clark, come here this instant!” And the door slams shut behind her.
“Lots of good that’s going to do,” Louise says with a scowl. And then to Tom and David, “We’re going to need you in there pretty quick. It’s getting late.”
“I don’t know, I put my money on Marie,” David says.
“Yeah,” Tom says, “I bet she’s in their right now casting some hippy-dippy spell on the poor kid.” Tom goes stone faced and stiff bodied. “Yes, Ms. Demournay, whatever you say, Ms. Demournay.”
Louise, clearly disgusted with any faith in Marie’s abilities, says, “Yes, let’s see her use some of that love power to love him right out of there.”
“Well, I frankly don’t care at this point what she uses, just as long as he’s gone,” Mr. Dorland says.
“There he go, there’s Wayne,” says one of the students, and she points to the side gate where Wayne is scooting between a gap in the bars. Marie appears walking behind him, yelling something in his wake.
“Well, thank God,” Mr. Dorland says. “Now that Wayne is gone, let the day begin.” He opens the door again and as everyone streams in, he eyes me waiting. “So, David, this must be the young man you spoke about last week.”
“Yes, Bob, this is Paul Davis. Paul this is Bob Dorland, our acting principal.
“Not sure whether to address him as Mr. Dorland or Bob, I mumble, “Glad to meet you Mr. Doorbob.”
Shaking his hand feels like I’m handling freshly caught fish. I check the impulse to dry my hand on my pants.
“All the way from Dover-Sherborn. Isn’t that Saltonstall country?”
“Yes,” I admit. I don’t like saying I’m from Dover. It’s too ritzy. Sherborn is less affluent – but I can’t imagine it’ll make much difference here in the slums of Dorchester.
“It’ll be a different sort of experience in education that you will be witnessing here. Don’t judge us too harshly though. After all, there are limits to what one can accomplish in a place like this. You’ll see what I mean, I’m sure.”
“Propagandizing the youth on his first day, shame on you, Bob,” says Marie as she steps up next to us as on our way down the hall. “He looks like he has a pretty good head on his shoulders. Why not let him draw his own conclusions?”
I’m feeling a mixture of comfort and confusion under their scrutiny and give them my most innocent smile.
“Marie, you’re making him turn red. I’m sure you’ll make the most of this opportunity. David, take notice.” Mr. Dorland crooks his neck and makes a face at David. I don’t understand what’s going on and my ass stiffens with caution.
The hall is deep in shadow, even with the morning sun seeping through the screened and grated windows. I’m surprised to see there’s graffiti inside the building too. “Lucille love James” and “Tootie and Stephon 4ever” are etched into the wood framework of a door that has “Principal’s Office” written on it. But the shiny wood floors look freshly waxed and the dark paneling is still inviting after so many years.
Marie seems to tease or taunt Mr. Dorland as we go down the hall. “Don’t I don’t get any credit for saving you from the dreaded Wayne Clark?”
“Of course, Ms. Demournay, I’m forever grateful, if only you could make him disappear forever.”
“Sorry, Bob, not until your debt is paid; it’s your debt he’s come to collect.”
Marie and David turn and quickly climb the wide staircase. I rush to keep up. From below, Mr. Dorland says something not quite clear enough for me to understand.
Paul Davis grew up in the suburbs of Boston. He is the son of a mother with mental health issues and had learning disabilities as a child. He has used his pain to inform his passion. He has committed his life to the service of marginalized peoples through teaching in special education in the Oakland public schools for 25 years and doing adventure programming with at risk youth in San Francisco for 13 years. In his retirement Paul remains engaged through political advocacy and volunteer work in the community.