Lewis, A Gentle Man: A Memory of Racism and Privilege

We all remember the first time we had a real job with responsibilities and a boss watching over us. Lewis was my first boss. I was a couple weeks short of my 14th birthday when my neighborhood and school friend, Alan, approached me about the prospect of us going to work for Lewis. It was the first week after my completing eighth grade, the second week of June, and I had nothing to do. I didn’t think to seek my mother’s permission; it wasn’t necessary.

Lewis was seeking to fulfill the promise of the American dream — own and operate one’s own business. He started a car wash located in the garage of a service station attached to the motel and restaurant located on the west edge of our north central Indiana town.

Lewis was one of the middle children of an African-American family that included at least 12 siblings. They comprised the largest of four African-American families living in my hometown in the 1950s. One of the oldest sons was a contemporary of my Uncle Larry 22 years my senior and the youngest was three years ahead of me in school. Lewis was somewhere in between, at this time around 30 years old. His father was chauffer and performed other duties for my hometown’s pinnacle citizen. I was told he lived and spent most of his time in a well-furnished apartment above the garage at this prominent citizen’s home with an alleged mistress while his family lived in wretched poverty a few blocks away.

I remember being in their home once growing up when I was with Ted, the youngest son. His elderly mother’s eyes glared at me with a mixture of suspicion and disdain as I walked past. The furniture was ancient and threadbare; the well-worn coarse hardwood floors were spotless. The home was ordered nothing was out of place. A potbelly stove standing in the middle of the living room provided its heat. The family was easily the poorest in our working class poor neighborhood.

Alan and I started our journey to Lewis’s carwash on a gray overcast morning — the kind of day that makes you feel as if all the color has been drained away and the world has turned into a monochrome cinematic black and white. We lived on the far east side, so we walked west. I don’t recall how we got there; it was a long walk.

Lewis hired us because we knew him, and he knew us. Alan lived across the street from his mother. I first met him in the fourth grade when I decided to follow my older brother’s example and play football. Lewis, who had distinguished himself playing football in high school, was our coach. He was also our basketball coach.

Our football teams were so-so, but I remember him teaching the fundamentals to us kids who knew little or nothing about the game. In the 1950s the public and Catholic elementary schools all fielded teams, and we played tackle football. Our school had no athletic field, so we practiced in a small park a few blocks away and played all our games in the outfield of the baseball diamond in the city park. I can still hear him laugh and chuckle watching and instructing us. He was kind, gentle and understanding. He never raised his voice.

Basketball was another matter. This was Indiana in the 1950s when the sport was the state religion. Our basketball teams during those years were good. Alan and I were both on the team beginning in fourth grade. In the fifth grade we were tied for first place when we met the perennial champion Catholic elementary team for the city championship. It was a tight and highly contested game when Lewis made a very unusual coaching move. In the middle of the third quarter he inserted several younger players, including me. Initially it was to give our best players a little rest. With our best and most experienced players on the bench we somehow maintained our slight lead. Lewis decided to leave us in the game and called a time out to tell us. For some mysterious reason the Catholic school coach reciprocated and took out their best and brought in the younger players. Play continued and neither coach put their best players back into the contest. Some of our “starters” even got dressed to go home. We won the game and the championship. I never forgot Lewis’s unusual coaching move and the other coach’s response, but most importantly, I never forgot my respect and admiration for lessons he taught us.

Lewis was kind, a bit roly-poly, and possessed a good sense of humor. He was good at relating with kids. We liked and respected him. What I took for his reserve was really part of his response to living surrounded by a hostile white community. While the racism wasn’t usually overt, growing up in my hometown, African-Americans seemed to me to be treated respectfully. I was wrong. The racism was always present and evident had I been paying closer attention. People were generally respectful, but the silent unspoken understanding they had to “stay in their place” was always hanging in the air. It wasn’t normally verbalized where I heard, but it was well understood.

I was naive. I was largely unaware of these unspoken rules. Others around me were more cognizant because they had learned at home, but I had not. I learned in my Church of the Brethren Sunday school people came in a variety of colors and God was colorblind. At home my mother taught me all people were equal in God’s eyes, and I believed it even when the prejudice and ignorance seeped out in occasional comments I overheard from adults and peers.

The car wash crew included Alan, Lewis, maybe one or two others and me. We had few tools. We washed and dried cars using old rags made from a variety of discarded items of clothing, bedding, and whatever was available. We washed cars using buckets of soapy water never changed often enough, rinsed with a hose, and dried with rags. The dirty rags were washed in an old electric ringer washer. It eventually shorted, and I got a jolt of electricity attempting to remove rags from the water. After that the washer was unplugged before we approached it.

Lewis did his best to promote the enterprise employing techniques he learned from other businesses of the day. On one occasion we all piled into his station wagon and went downtown. He gave each of us a stack of printed advertising flyers, so we could put them under the windshield wipers of all the cars in the A&P grocery store parking lot and parked along the streets. I nearly killed myself by thinking I could jump from the back of the slowly moving vehicle before it came to a stop and learned firsthand Sir Isaac Newton’s Three Laws of Motion. When my feet hit the pavement with my intention of going in the opposite direction of the car, my whole body was thrust back in the direction the car was moving. I hit the pavement hard, but only hard enough to learn a valuable lesson and not enough to do real harm to myself. Luckily, I avoided hitting my head on the pavement.

Lewis was a kind and fair man and his management style was no different. He was always the coach. He never raised his voice to reprimand, he instructed.

My work in the car wash was interrupted by the biggest event in my early life. I spent the day before my 14th birthday working, and on that day, we worked later than intended. I was late coming home and it was after 6:00 pm when Lewis turned the corner to drop me off and I immediately saw the lights of the emergency truck in front of my house, and I knew why. I got out of the car and was met by my mother in tears. My grandfather had suffered a massive heart attack. I was heartbroken and decimated. He was the closest thing to a father I had known.

My grandfather’s passing ended my working for Lewis. I never returned. It was my mother’s decision. The carwash didn’t do well either and soon closed. Try as he might, Lewis couldn’t generate enough business to make it worthwhile and he had a wife and family with young children. He had attempted to step beyond the invisible boundary the community set for people like him.

I forgot about Lewis. High school and the teen years took over. My friendship with Alan eventually faded as we grew, developed new interests, and hung out with different friends.

The next time I saw Lewis was eight years later in what became one of the most embarrassing but also an important pivotal moment. My closest friends had convinced me to join a local fraternal lodge because it was considered a nicer more ‘acceptable’ place to have a drink in small town Indiana in the late 1960s.

I was home from college and with these friends sitting in the bar at the club when I became engaged in conversation with the bartender. While we were conversing, Lewis came in to make a delivery. He was by this time employed with a company that supplied beer and liquor for the club. The bartender and I happened to be in a discussion about the club, and the racial exclusion clause in its constitution had just been revealed to me. The bartender to add emphasis and drama to make the point suddenly addressed Lewis to my shock and horror and said, “Lewis, you want to become a member?” Lewis said nothing and went about his task but looked at the two of us in disgust and turned away. The bartender repeated the question, but Lewis ignored him, and then he turned back to me and proclaimed, “See, he knows.” I could only look in revulsion and pain. I was speechless. I was embarrassed both for Lewis and myself. I was enraged. I was ashamed. The bartender’s words “He knows” reverberated in my head.

I politely excused myself, told my friends I had to go home, and left. I never returned. I was mad both because of what had happened, and mad because I had been silent. I went home sat down and penned a letter to the club renouncing my membership and explaining my reasons for doing so. The club never addressed the issue to me although one member, one of the friends who had encouraged me to join, later told me I should stay and work for change from inside. That may have been so, but this was 1968 and I had more pressing issues on the table.

What I missed and have regretted more as time has passed is my failure to find Lewis and apologize for my part in what had taken place and the embarrassment and humiliation he was forced to endure.

Enlightenment is often a slow twisting and labored journey down a rock-strewn path. My own awareness and understanding of what my white privilege is has been painful and humbling. Although I have learned much, I am still clueless. I have considerably more to learn; I’m working on it.

What I do know is that while some things have changed, and Lewis’s children and grandchildren may have access to more of our society’s offerings, most do not. Unemployment, incarceration rates, violence in many forms, police harassment, shootings, surveillance, broken families, housing issues, homelessness, lack of access to health care and other services, and a long list of other issues continue to be ignored by those controlling the levers of power at all levels. We mostly shake our heads and acknowledge there are problems as they appear on our screens and then go on about our day, enjoying the rich bounty we are privileged to have access, tweeting and posting whatever mundane or inane thought or incident occupying our consciousness at the moment.

I don’t know what happened to Lewis. I never saw him again, but I remember him today as my first coach, as a teacher who helped me grow as a person, taught me how to act and behave as a member of a team, to be respectful and considerate of others, and as my first boss whose example had more influence on me than anything he would imagine. Thank you, Lewis, you will always be remembered for the dignity, humility, gentleness, respect, and humanity you modeled and conveyed to all the kids whose lives you touched.

Writer and artist. Published over 150 essays, stories, and articles in 20+ publications and recognized as a Top Writer in History, Science, and Space.

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