Doth a fountain send forth at the same place
sweet water and bitter?
–– James 3:11
This must be what it’s like to die of thirst, thought nine year-old Jamie Parker as he sat in the stifling Greyhound bus station in Mobile, Alabama. The thick cigarette smoke of waiting travelers stung his eyes adding to his overall discomfort. Sitting next to his father on a hard bench, Jamie tried to distract himself by calculating the miles the two had traveled from Baltimore to the deep southern city on the Gulf of Mexico coast.
“Wow, we went over a thousand miles, dad,” announced Jamie.
“That’s a long way, son,” replied Hank Parker, half-listening.
“When’s Uncle Ron going to get here?” asked Jamie, his throat feeling like a gravel pit.
“Bus was a half-hour early. He’ll be here. Don’t worry,” replied his father, lighting another Camel.
The look in his father’s eyes set off an alarm in Jamie’s mind.
“You’re not going to start boozing are you, dad?” he asked, apprehensively.
“No, I’m not going to start boozing. You worry too much, kiddo.”
Everything had changed after Jamie’s mother died a year and a half ago. His father had sought relief from his overwhelming despair in alcohol and was intoxicated for days at a time, leaving his son to fend for himself during his binges. Eventually, Hank Parker’s drinking got him fired from his longtime job as a hotel bell captain, and very quickly his modest savings were gone. Finally, Hank came to realize his life was in a complete tailspin and he was harming his only child, so with the help of a friend in Alcoholics Anonymous he quit drinking. Despite Hank’s newfound sobriety, his former employer was unwilling to rehire him and he could not find other employment. It was then that his younger sibling suggested he come work for him.
Ronald Parker had moved south two years after World War II and had prospered. Now, ten years later, he needed help in his burgeoning home improvement business and knew of his brother’s bleak situation. It took Hank a while to get over the idea of being hired by his baby brother, but his dire circumstances forced him to swallow his pride. Although the idea of moving to the South was unappealing to him, he reluctantly accepted the job offer.
“Can I have just one sip, dad? I haven’t had anything to drink since the last time the bus stopped, and that was two hundred miles ago.”
“The bubbler is broken, son. You know that.”
“But the other one works.”
“I told you it’s for colored people.”
“Because it’s different down here. They don’t mix with negroes.”
“Look, that’s just the way it is, Jamie. Now stop bothering me.”
“It’s stupid. I went to school with colored kids,” pouted Jamie, attempting to moisten his lips with his desiccated tongue.
“Yeah, I know. ”
“Can I get a drink from the sink in the restroom, dad?”
“It’s a pay toilet, and I’m not about to spend the last dime I have. We may need it for a phone call.”
“What if I die of thirst?” appealed Jamie, histrionically.
“You’ll survive. Look, stay put, and watch our stuff. I’m going outside to check on Uncle Ron. He might be waiting for us in his car,” said Hank, looking at his watch with irritation.
When his father was out of sight, Jamie could not resist the temptation to steal a gulp from the working drinking fountain. The cool liquid felt wonderful in his mouth. Tastes just like white people’s water, thought Jamie, as a voice startled him mid-swallow.
“Boy, you ain’t s’pose to be drinkin’ from there,” said an elderly man standing behind him.
“Why?” asked Jamie, wiping the splattered droplets from his chin.
“Cause it be for coloreds. See that sign?”
“’Yes, but I’m so thirsty.”
“Whites got they own fountain right there,” said the man pointing to it.
“But it’s broken.”
“So I sees, but you be gettin’ in trouble for drinkin’ from that one if you be caught.”
Jamie’s thirst was yet to be sated, and he took another quick drink from the rusty spigot.
“Tellin’ you, sonny, better git away from there right now or there gonna’ be a bad problem. People don’t like whites doin’ what you be doin,’ so best git.”
“Don’t be threatening my son!” barked Jamie’s father as he approached.
“Just be tellin’ the young’un he be doin’ somethin’ that gonna’ get him into a fix if’n the white . . .”
At that point, Hank Parker could not contain his frustration. His patience had been worn thin long before the seemingly endless bus ride from Maryland and by the fact that his brother was now late picking them up. A stranger assailing his son for getting a drink of water was the last straw, and he let loose with a word he instantly regretted. Spouting the vile epithet was totally out of character for him, and he felt miserable. As the elderly man turned and walked away, he called after him.
“Mister . . . mister, I know you meant well. I’m sorry for saying what I did. I’m not like that, really. I never say that kind of thing. I’m from up north, and we, uh . . . “ stammered Hank, his face more downcast than ever.
The old man turned around and smiled stoically. “Make no matter, sah. Down here ain’t the only place white folk call us that. Just didn’t want the lil’ guy’ gettin’ in no trouble for drinkin’ from us nigga folks water fountain,” he replied, continuing on his way to the colored waiting area in the dimly lit corner of the bus depot.
“Look, dad!” squealed Jamie, as his uncle appeared.
“What’s up with you and that spook over there?” he asked, nodding at the segregated section of the terminal.
“Shut the hell up!” spat Hank at his brother while staring remorsefully at the aged black man he had just insulted.
“Well, hello to you, too, big brother!” responded Ronald Parker, taken aback by Hank’s unexpected burst of anger.
“You’re late,” growled Hank, grabbing at his dusty suitcase and his son’s narrow hand. “And I don’t like it down here already.”
“Then why’d you come, for chrissakes?” asked his offended sibling.
After a pause, Hank shrugged his shoulders and climbed into the car. ‘Cause there was no place else for us to go, he thought, as the car slowly made its way down the steaming asphalt.