Careful Picking Friends
A Rick Beck Story
At Big Mama’s Kitchen there are times between meals when both Mama and the help feel free to take a break from the washing and fixing in anticipation of the next meal.
“Lit’l Jackie Papers, and what can Mama do for you this fine day?” Mama asked. “We aren’t working you too hard, are we?”
I overlooked the discrepancy between Mama’s description of the day and the fine cold rain that had fallen outside.
“I’ve finished with the pots. I’d tell Bix, but he snaps at me anytime I speak to him,” I explained.
“Lit’l Jackie, Bix takes life too seriously. He likes it best when he’s left alone to do what he does.”
“Don’t spread that Lit’l business around, Mama. It’s hard enough getting a date without handicapping myself,” I said.
“Hon, all that matters is the size of your heart, and as far as Mama can tell, you’re all heart.”
“I agree with that, but you aren’t dating gay men. The hint that you might come up short has a lot of them heading for the exits. I don’t want to give them a reason to hurry.”
“Lit’l Jackie, Jackie, you’re young, handsome, and bright. Anyone would be delighted to date you,” Mama said.
“Mama, if I was into middle aged black women, you’d be at the top of my list, but being gay changes all that.”
“I guess I’m just depressed. Everyone else knows who he is and what he wants out of life by the time they’re my age and I don’t, Mama,” I said, feeling blue.
“Wasn’t last night your night over at Bryan’s and Kelly’s place?”
“Yes, ma’am. I’m off from work today and some weeks they have me over on Tuesday night.”
“Don’t call me ma’am. You make me feel more ancient than I am. I sense you’ve fallen under Bryan’s and Kelley’s spell, I do believe. Those two are supermen, Jackie. They’ve been and they are younger than everyone.”
“Yes they are and they’ve been through more than most people go through in a lifetime,” I said.
“They’ve been beat down, blown up, and yet they’re on top of the world. Why is that do you suppose?”
“Got me. They’re both tough dudes. Maybe they’re happy to be alive. Happy as two peas in a pod every time I’m with them.”
“They’ve got a lot to be happy about. They are two
I’ve never been happy and every time I leave them, I wonder what’s wrong with me. I’ve had it easy and I’ve never been happy.”
“I think a real clue to their happiness is the fact they have each other. Two men sharing the same experience gives them an understanding, one for the other. Separate those two and I’m not sure you’d get the well adapted men they’ve become. Put them together and they’re a force of nature. If you’re going to measure yourself against those two, you’ve picked quite a pair. As love goes, they’re the tops.”
“You think so? It all comes back to love. Something I’ve never had.”
“It does, Jackie. You’ve got all you need and way more than the Baker or the Tin Man. Everyone likes you. You’re young, nice to look at, and you’re smarter than most. I’d lighten up on myself if I were you and get busy doing the things you like doing. You’ll find everything you need is right in front of you. It just takes time to realize what you’re looking at,” Mama said. “We all need time to steep a spell to give us the right flavor. You’re still steeping is all.”
“I have time. I like coming here. Feels like I’m doing some good, you know. Not just thinking of myself,” I said.
“And you’re an important part of what we do here. You have an aptitude for getting things done. Some do. Most don’t. Makes you valuable to Mama. It exposes you to like minded folks, Jackie. One of the most rewarding things you do is share yourself with people who have a similar view of life. Like Bryan and Kelly share themselves with each other.”
“I don’t know anyone like me,” I said.
“Not like you. Shares your disposition, viewpoint, appreciates the kind of thing you appreciate.”
“I like taking care of business, Mama. When I’m working, I really don’t pay much attention to what other people are doing,” I said. “I’ve never liked anyone all that much.”
“We can’t all be Bryans and Kellys, but most of us can do better than we often end up doing. We live in a time when people are afraid of each other. Everyone is too cautious. We fear what we don’t know, including people. Giving time and money to help other people is a place to start.”
“I don’t understand. I knew about the kitchen. When I saw the ad for pickers, I could do that. After I did that, I wanted to do something more regular. I did like the Christmas party. Everyone seemed to have fun. Even working we mostly get along in a cool way,” I explained.
“Except for Bix? Hey, Bix, whatever you’re doing, stop it. Mama wants to talk to you.”
“What did I do,” Bix asked, wiping his hand as he came out of the kitchen and came toward where Mama and Jackie sat.
“Sad Jackie says you’re grumpy,” Mama explained.
“Oh, sweet Jesus, I’m busy. I got work to do. Sorry if I ain’t no prize to be around, Sad Jackie.”
“Bad Bix, Jackie isn’t talking to you. I’m talking to you, and you are grumpy. Not that I mind. Grumpy is good, but Jackie is awfully cute and awfully single, and grumpy might not be your best move. Why not give him a hug. I think you both need one.”
Before I knew it, Bixby had his arms around me. His longer body was built solidly. You couldn’t tell that by the clothes he wore. The side of his face rubbed the side of mine as we let go of each other.
I’m sure I was blushing as we broke from our clinch. I enjoyed it more than I expected.
“See, he isn’t all that grumpy. He’s a bit like you Jackie. Bad Bix is afraid of people.”
“You are afraid to get close to people. Both of you act like someone might bite you if you warm up to them. Take it from me, usually when you warm up to someone, they’ll warm right back up to you.”
“I’ll take your word for it,” Bix said.
“Now say something nice to Sad Jackie. He’s the new guy and you’re supposed to make him feel welcome,” Mama said.
“Hell, Jackie, I’m not really grumpy. I’ll prove it, as soon as I drain the veggies, beans, and taters, I’ll have a half dozen pans for you to scrub,” Bix said before smiling.
“Thanks,” I said without meaning it.
“Best hug you had all week, isn’t it?”
“Only hug. I better go back to work,” I said.
“No, not yet. Those pans will wait. You aren’t getting off that easy. We haven’t had the Mama and Jackie talk yet. No time like the present. There is a segment of people who think poor folks are lazy no-accounts, Jackie. They go hungry because they’re just too lazy to work. All they do is sit around watching TV, drive their new Cadillac, and eat fast food. There are people out there who spread that stuff so people are less likely to help the poor.”
“That’s crazy,” I said. “The people who come in here are as polite and humble as anyone I’ve ever seen.”
“They know we don’t have to do this. We’re feeding them and they appreciate it, because if we don’t feed them, they don’t get fed. They know we know that.”
“People fall on hard times for a lot of reasons, Jackie. No one sets out wanting to beg to eat. There’s a genuine need by folks who’ve lost everything. If they ever had anything. They are humiliated by a needing to seek out a free meal. I suppose there are always freeloaders, but it isn’t my job to worry about them. I’m here to feed the hungry.”
“That sounds about right,” I said.
“People with substantially more are quick to call poor people lazy and shiftless. It keeps them from having feelings of guilt. Unfortunately, when they talk that way, the convince other people not to donate to help the less fortunate.”
“People who might ordinarily lend a helping hand think twice about giving anything. The idea they can be taken by the poor is a constant theme in some media. As long as they aren’t hungry, they don’t care who is. It’s a commentary on our times. Jesus felt differently about the poor.”
“The Jesus of the Bible was wise and he cared for people. People who consider the poor a threat to their wealth are neither,” I said.
“Amen to that, Jackie. At Big Mama’s we believe in people. We don’t pick and choose who to feed. We feed everyone who comes through our door.”
“The problem is big and folks don’t know where to start. Powerful forces make the poor sound like they’re lazy and shiftless, people who don’t want to work. People fear the poor like they fear the old. We hide the elderly so we don’t see what’s in our future. We hid the poor too, when we can.
“Most of the new poor need to humble themselves to come here for a free meal. Once they see their kids going hungry, it becomes easier for them to come for the help we offer. They’re surprised at how friendly and accepting we are. I’m often surprised at how dignified and mannerly they are.
“Mama tries to make it easier to join us, but most of my staff are college kids. People like you and Bixby. You have a little extra time and a desire to do good. That’s what Big Mama’s Kitchen is all about.”
“I don’t do much,” I said.
“College kids by nature are altruistic. They’re seeking to create a better world. They fight all the messages telling them to get rich while they can. It’s every man for himself and there isn’t enough to go around. Of course there isn’t enough because the richest most powerful people take everything they can get their hands on.”
“I just wash pots and pans. I fetch stuff from the warehouse. I hardly see the folks who come here to eat.”
“Don’t underestimate your role. They eat good food from clean pots and pans. Believe me, they aren’t always so fortunate. For the down and out, clean can be a luxury. We don’t feed them with the idea they’re lucky to get what we put in front of them. We want them to feel good about being here, Jackie. You help make that experience a good one.”
“I never thought of it that way. I suppose it is nice to get well prepared foods from clean dishes,” I said.
“Bad Bix can spot a spot on a potato or carrot from twenty paces. He chops everything to assure they are cooked well but not overcooked. He rarely puts two veggies in the same pot. That’s what makes him valuable.”
“I get Bad Bix, and Sad Jackie is a lot better than Lit’l Jackie, but the Tin Man? I understand the Baker, but how did you come up with the Tin Man?”
“He always wares tan cargo shorts. His artificial legs are gray. He looks like a tin man. He laughed the first time I called him that. He looked right at his legs. Kelly is a good guy. Both Bryan and him are exceptional human beings, but you know that,” Mama said. “It’s hard to miss if you pay attention.”
“Yes they are. I can’t figure out how they do it.”
“I think they’ve discovered the meaning of life, Jackie.”
“What’s that?” I asked.
“It is what it is. They are what they are. They don’t try to make it anything else and they both love what they do. The Baker and The Tin Man are as real as it gets.”
“I liked them right off. I didn’t know they were both double amputees. I was looking right at them and didn’t see it. I guess I’m not very observant to miss a thing like that.”
“They adapted and moved on. It is what it is. They tackle life’s challenges the same as anyone else. They don’t ask for special consideration. They made a handicap an advantage.”
“I hadn’t thought of it as an advantage,” I said.
“Bryan saves Mama a ton of time and effort. On every flier I send out asking for donations, I say our baker mails his special treats out or they can pick them up. When we’re replacing equipment I think he can use, I give him the first option on it. Half his kitchen started out here.”
“He has quite a layout,” I said.
“I’m from a different time, Jackie. A prosthetic is an artificial limb to me, and a good baker is worth his weight in gold to me. I’ve never seen some of the treats he fixes us.”
“I can look straight at them and forget they have prosthetics, Mama. I sit there and watch them interact. I don’t think I’ve ever truly been in love, but you can see their love for one another. They are a force of nature,” I said.
“It’s not important. What’s important is their spirit and their heart. They give each other strength, perspective, and purpose. We all don’t get such distinctive challenges in our lives. For people like you and me, we’ve got to search for the thing that we want and can’t live without. They found that in each other. In the end love is the answer for them.”
“What do you want and can’t live without, Mama?” I asked.
“Big Mama’s Kitchen. You do know who Mama is, don’t you, Jackie?”
“You’re Big Mama, Kara Payne,” I said positive of the answer. “I’m slow some times but I know that much.”
“Oh my! Nice Nicole, do you mind bringing your mama a cup of coffee? If it’s fresh. Better bring one for Jackie too. He doesn’t know who Mama is.”
“That’s a two cup story, Mama.”
“Yes it is, Nice Nicole.”
“Kelly just dropped off cookies and coffee cake. The coffee cake is still warm and it’s to die for, Mama,” Nicole said, wiping her hands as she came to the top of the step leading down to the tables. “Would you like one or both.”
“Nice Nicole, you’re bad. Coffee cake. Jackie?”
“Coffee cake,” I agreed. “Do you have a nickname for everyone, Mama?”
“Lit’l Jackie, I do. The first time I see a person, I know their nickname. It’s my only natural talent.”
Nicole was chewing as she came out of the kitchen with a tray for our table.
“Coffee cake?” Mama asked her.
“Heavenly. That boy should open a pastry shop,” she said, leaving with only the tray.
Mama stirred in two teaspoons of sugar and poured in some milk. She took a long pull off the steaming brew. Her face relaxed and she looked at the cup as she put it down.
“No, no, I’m not the original Mama. My mama was Mama first. I had five brothers and sisters, three boys and two more girls. She could barely keep us fed some weeks, and Mama would have worked around the clock to feed us. There just wasn’t any work for colored ladies, so she was a maid.
“As time went on things improved. Mama found steady work with the same family. The boys got jobs as they grew older. Anything to help keep food on the table. My sisters and I cleaned house and got the food on to the stove that she had prepared for dinner the night before.
“Mama began to feed other people’s kids. Times were hard in this part of town. In time she fed anyone who came to our door hungry. Word spread fast in our neighborhood. People knew to come to our house for a decent meal. Mama never turned anyone away without feeding them something. We weren’t always able to feed them at our table but she always had enough to make a sandwich or two.
“I’d learn later, Mama went hungry as a girl. She was a young child during the depression. There were no jobs. There was no places to get food. She said they’d hang onto a hambone to season beans, when there were beans.
“When there was food, it was beans, cornpone, and grits.
I never tasted cornpone until I was grown. Mama wouldn’t put it in front of her kids. As times improved, she worked steady. We began to eat better. She believed in Jesus. She’d followed in his footsteps, feeding those too poor to eat.
“Mama never forgot what it was like to go hungry. Times were harder than now during the depression. It was the major influence in her life. We didn’t need new clothes or shoes, our roof leaked, but we never went hungry.”
I couldn’t think of a time when I went hungry. I was always able to eat when I got hungry. I realized I didn’t know what it was like to be someone coming to Big Mama’s Kitchen. I suppose that was good, but I wondered about it.
“She fed us before she ate. She never wanted her kids to know hunger. She fed other people’s children some days before she ate. She told me, ‘I’ll get to eat tomorrow, Kara. These folks may not.’”
“She sounds like quite a woman,” I said.
“Extraordinary. She cared. I never knew anyone who cared as much as Mama did.”
“You followed in her footsteps,” I reasoned.
“Not so much in her footsteps. I had to go down 50 miles of my own bad road first. There are two kinds of folks, Jackie. Folks who dictate who and what you can be, and those who follow those dictates. Then there are those of us who don’t follow anyone.”
“Isn’t that three kinds of people, Mama?”
“No, it’s not. The dictators and those who follow them are one kind of people. It takes one to make the other possible.”
“I do see the logic in that,” I agreed.
“We’re the people who choose not to be dictated to. It isn’t that we’re looking for trouble. We just can’t follow folks because we’re told to follow them. No matter what we decide to do, we’re not going to be highly regarded by the dictators and their followers. We rub them the wrong way.
“People who go along with the dictates think they’re fine and free as a bird, but those of us who are choosers, we bump into things, fall down, get up, go in another direction. Then we do it all over again. We refuse to stand in line, go along with the crowd, and do what we’re told. One day we find it.”
“Find what?” I questioned. “What are we looking for?”
“When you aren’t prone to following instructions, you’re blazing your own trail. People call that making it hard on yourself. It’s totally unacceptable and frowned upon in popular circles. We’re the rebels, Jackie.
“We’re black, gay, handicapped, other people of color. We aren’t supposed to do anything but what people like us have always done, follow instructions. We can’t do that. We aren’t followers. We aren’t inferior. We’re as good as anyone else and we can figure it out without following anyone.”
“I don’t get it. You’re following your mother’s example. Sounds like you’ve done your mama one better. You’ve got dozens of tables and you feed hundreds of people a week.’
“No, sir. My mother made a larger impression on the world than I’ve made. Mama did it when she didn’t have squat. She fed people at her own table. She could stretch food further than any woman I’ve ever known.
“Once she was able to do more, she did more. It wasn’t about her. It was about the hungry people. It was about her desire to feed them. I can’t match that. I get donations and I have a ton of help.”
“It seems like you do a lot. People would go hungry without you,” I said, thinking Mama was selling herself short.
“It took me a long time to double back to meet my mama. The blueprint was already there. It was waiting for me to pick up where she left off. I’d never seen it until then.”
“But you decided you wanted to do something?”
“I guess that’s as good as anything. At forty-five I hadn’t found anything I want to do. My mama did what she did while cleaning houses in Charleston. When she was at her peak, she could earn two or three dollars a day cleaning twelve hours a day. This mama would never have made it if I had to do it while cleaning houses. No sir.”
“How could she do it?”
“It’s how black women supported their families back then. There was no other way.”
“Mama had to be there to fix breakfast. She got their kids fed and off to school. Then she cleaned the house. She got their supper on the stove, after fixing snacks for the kids when they got in from school.”
“She couldn’t hope to get out of there until six and it was an hour bus ride to get home to get our supper ready to go on the table.”
“I thought the Civil War ended slavery,” I said.
“It’s how it was when I was a little girl, Jackie.”
“Two or three dollars a day?” I blurted. “That’s criminal.”
“It the way it was. At least Mama could make enough to keep us fed. Mama was younger than I am now, Jackie. She looked older. I couldn’t do what she did. I’d be dead now if I had to do that to earn a living.”
“How’d she keep going?” I asked.
“It’s what she had to do. There was nothing else. Now we’re talking well-to-do people. Ordinary folks didn’t have housekeepers. Only a certain class can afford such a thing. Those folks don’t part with money very easily. There was no housekeepers union or minimum wage. Mama got the same wage all black women got for housework.”
“That’s horrible,” I said.
“Inhumanity isn’t a new invention. No, it’s just the way it was way back when. No one questioned it. There are those who dictate and those who get dictated to. Mama followed because if you didn’t, you might receive a nighttime visit from men in hoods and carrying torches.”
“To burn crosses no doubt,” I said.
“That too if they didn’t burn down your house. Failure to follow meant her name might appear on a list of maids no one was to hire. A black woman couldn’t risk being on a list. They worked for what they could get and never complain.
“Mama’s rebellion was in the nature of feeding hungry folks who had nowhere to go for food. There was little risk in that. No one in this neighborhood would ever mention it in front of a white person. Everyone knew the rules, and Mama was highly regarded for what she did.”
“So you’re no follower, but you ended up doing this. It sounds a lot like what your mama did,” I reasoned.
“Except I went down 50 miles of bad road first. The strangest thing was ending up right back where I started. I went in search of myself and I ended up back home.”
“What did your mama say?” I asked.
“She died five years earlier. She’d of asked what took me so long to come home,” Mama said sadly. “I’d called one day back then and my sister was still living at home. When she heard my voice, she said, ‘We buried Mama last month.’ After that there was no reason to go home.”
“But you went home just the same,” I said.
“I had no where else to go. Mama left the house to me. I was the oldest girl still living. I didn’t know that until I came home. Mama seemed to know I’d end up back here. Big Mama didn’t have children. When I got back home, I was ready to do Mama proud. I didn’t have anything else to do.”
“Why does that sound so sad to me?” I asked.
“White folks believe in happily ever after. Black folks believe, if they do everything just right, they might survive this life without being shot or locked up.”
“The president?” I asked.
“We’re talking twenty years ago, Jackie. President Obama has changed the conversation by a ways, but he’s also drawn every racist in the country out in the open. They blame him for everything that’s wrong with our country. Hell, it was wrong a long time before he got here, but he’s the president, so if he doesn’t fix everything, he’s a failure.”
“I’ve noticed a lot of disrespect aimed his way. I don’t recall any president being so disrespected as he is, but I’m only thirty. Will be in a couple of months. You’ve seen a lot more than me,” I said.
“Hateful is the word you’re looking for. They hate him because he isn’t the right color. They hate you because you’re looking for the wrong sex of partner according to the dictates followers subscribe to. Hate is hate, Jackie.”
“I suppose I do. I just figured people who didn’t like me because I’m gay, are assholes. Why do they give a damn who in the hell I love?” I said, showing my anger. “There’s way too much hate in the world and far too little love. Can’t they see that?”
“No. Followers know the dictates. You aren’t following. You’re a rebel, Jackie. Love is far too kind and gentle for that type of folks. Love to them is people just like them.”
“I’ve never thought how it might be for other people who are discriminated against. We’re denied the same rights the followers think they’re owed.”
“So I’d seen what’s out in the world. My mother told me, ‘feed the people, Kara.’”
“You’re not telling me anything, except this isn’t what you started out to do. I don’t understand how it started with your mother feeding folks in her kitchen to all of this.”
“Exactly. You have come to help us and I’m giving you our history. I know the fashion today is to hurry through everything, but I came from a time when things were carefully considered. I’m proud of what we do and I want you to be proud of it too,” Mama said.
“Mama struggled mightily as she grew older, but she never turned away someone who came to our door hungry. I went off to college with every intention of making my own life somewhere besides Charleston, South Carolina. When I did come home, it was obvious what I needed to do, but I didn’t need to struggle. I had both Mama and Mr. Charles to back me up.”
“Mr. Charles? You haven’t mentioned him before. Was that your father?”
“Heavens no. I don’t know what he was to Mama, and that’s simply my loss, because of the times. I suppose as close as I can come is to say, they admired one another.”
“Mama, you keep going in circles.”
“Okay, let me double back for you. One day Mr. Charles came a knocking. He was hitchhiking north and he’d been told where he could go to get a meal.
“Not many white men dared to be seen coming to a colored’s door, but when you’re hungry enough, rules like that don’t matter. Mr. Charles knew the rules and he came just the same. The man was hungry. Maybe he was curious to see if there was a black woman feeding the hungry.
“Mama gave Mr. Charles a long hard look. He stood at the backdoor, hat in hand. You could see Mama mulling it over. She knew the danger the same as he did, but the man was hungry. She stood to one side and invited him inside. I was shocked when I saw a white man stepping into our kitchen.”
“The Old South,” I said. “No mixing of the races?”
“It ran deeper than separating the races, but Mama knew the consequences. She had to tell me to mind my manners and close my mouth. I do remember that day and I think I know why Mama took him in. He was a dignified looking white man. He was polite. He’d been somebody once, but he’d fallen on hard times. He was dressed in nice clothes, but they were well worn. The man humbled himself by coming to ask for a meal.
“He was tall, had white hair, and he had the best posture of anyone I’d ever seen. A fine looking man he was. He didn’t belong on our side of town. What little he said told us that he was heading north.
“Mama had fixed a ham and a broccoli casserole, rice, and yams. He complimented her on her cooking and the cornbread that melted in your mouth. Mama wrapped an extra slice of cornbread slathered in butter for him to put in his pocket, just before he went back out the back door.
“He turned to face Mama and he looked into her eyes. He took off his hat before he said, ‘You’re a kind woman, Mrs. Payne, and a wonderful cook. I’m heading back to New York to get back what I’ve lost here in Charleston. I will be back, and when I come back, you’re going to cook for me. I’m hiring you just to cook my meals. Don’t you forget that.’ Mama said that she’d remember.”
“My word, Jackie, Mama’s out of coffee again. I don’t know who drinks it all.”
“I’ll get you a cup. No point in bothering Nicole. I could use another cup myself,” I said. “Don’t lose your place. Did he come back?”
Kara stirred in two sugars and added some milk, stirring at the same time. She put the cup to her lips to sip, closing her eyes to savor the fresh brewed coffee.
“Your mama said she’d remember what he had to say,” I said, getting Kara back to the story I wanted to hear. “This man, Mr. Charles, eats one meal at your mother’s table and promises to come back and hire her to cook for him?”
“That’s right. Then Mr. Charles pulled the hat far down on his head so no one could see his face. He pulled up his collar to hide his white neck, and looking both ways, he disappeared down the alley and into the night.
“Mama looked after him. She too looked both ways to make sure no one interfered with his departure. When she was satisfied, she closed the door and sat back down at the table. We were all speechless for a spell.
“Mama finally said, ‘That was one fine white man.’”
“We’d never heard those words from Mama before. The white folks lived over there. We lived over here, and in Mama’s world, it was best to leave well enough alone, but Mr. Charles left an impression on us. I don’t think he saw color the same way we did.”
“Thinking back on it, Mr. Charles didn’t eat like some of the folks who sat down with us. You could see he was mindful of someone else coming for a meal. He ate enough to take the growl out of his belly and he took the cornbread Mama wrapped for him. You couldn’t miss the man’s dignity. He stood for a spell considering the act of kindness he’d found at a time when all of his luck was running bad.
“Mama told us he was a serious white man who’d never fallen on hard times before. I was seven or eight and I would forget all about Mr. Charles by the next day. I do remembering asking mama, ‘Will he come back?’ She told me, ‘he might.’”
“Did he?” I asked, feeling there had to be a reason he was in the story.
“Child, let your Mama tell it. You go rushing me and I’ll leave something out. We’ll get there. We have a few more minutes to use up before we get ready for lunch.”
I smiled and sipped my coffee, waiting for the answer. I wasn’t much at listening to people remember their lives, but this story was more than about how the place got its name.”
“We never said much about the people who came to eat at our table. Each had his own story. We didn’t try to guess what it was. They were hungry and Mama fed them. It didn’t entitle us to pry into their lives. No one had to tell us they’d fallen on hard times. Talking about it would make the idea of sharing our food more complicated than it needed to be.”
“Did he come back?” I asked, knowing the only one she’d described in detail was Mr. Charles and I suspected he did, but I wanted to know the details.
“Mr. Charles did come back. I’d gone from a scrawny little girl to being a rather shapely teenager by the time I saw Mr. Charles again. He hadn’t changed, even if I had. This time he was wearing one of those expensive white man suits with a clean shirt and a silk tie.”
“I don’t need to ask if he made his money back,” I said.
“He had, and just like he said, he’d come back for Mama. I was always big for my age, Jackie. By that time I was closer to being a woman than a child. The oddest thing was that I knew who he was. I didn’t say his name, but he probably saw the light of recognition on my face.
“He was holding his hat in his hand, just as he’d been doing before leaving us five years before.
“’My goodness, Kara Payne, you’re a woman now,’ he said.”
“I blushed. He asked to speak to Mama. I told him she was at work. That’s when I said his name. He said, ‘I wondered if you’d remember me,’ and he smiled pleasantly.
“He was clean, neat, dressed in the kind of clothes you didn’t see on our side of town. He even smelled fresh. His hair was pure white now. It was elegantly styled, and at the curb was the longest damn car I’d ever seen.
“She won’t be off for another hour. Then she walks a ways to catch the bus. It’s another hour before she’s home. I knew her schedule because I went with her on my days off from school and on Saturdays some weeks,” Mama said as if she was seeing the event again.
“He said, ‘Can you show me? We’ll drive her home and she won’t need to take the bus. I want to talk to your mother.’”
“I still remembered what he told Mama before leaving our house the only other time I saw the man. I remembered more vividly my mother’s reaction to him. If it had been any other white man, no way I’d of gotten into that car, but it wasn’t any other white man, it was Mr. Charles. It’s a good thing I did get into his car too. It changed our lives.”
“What happened?” I blurted, unable to wait for the rest of the story.
“We met Mama. She knew Mr. Charles as soon as he got out of the car to speak to her. She smiled a smile of recognition. I watched her eyes examined the car. She put her hand up to her mouth in astonishment. Mr. Charles had gone to get his money back and it looked like he’d done it.
“Mama didn’t even scold me for showing Mr. Charles the way. She had no doubt Mr. Charles was an honorable man. She also realized he was a man of his word. He said he’d come back.
“’Looks like you’ve done well for yourself, Mr. Charles,’ Mama said. It was the kind of familiarity black people didn’t dare express in front of white folks in those days. Mama knew who she was talking to, and Mr. Charles smiled, saying, ‘Yes, ma’am, I did quite well. New York is a place you go to make your fortune. It isn’t the kind of place where you want to live for the rest of your life. Charleston is my home.’
“’Will you permit me to drive you home, Mrs. Payne. I have a business proposition to make you. I told you I’d be back one day.’
“’Yes, you did,’ was all Mama had to say. She didn’t look surprised, but she looked pleased to see him again.”
“Mr. Charles wasn’t driving his car. ‘Paul, take us back to where we picked up Miss Kara,’ he said.
The three of us sat in the back of that car. There was enough room for all my brothers and sisters too. That was a long car. Mama and I sat on the backseat. Mr. Charles sat on a seat facing the backseat, where he sat on the way to pick up Mama.
“Mama spoke first. ‘I’d say you did what you set out to do the last time we met, Mr. Charles.’
“He said, ‘Yes, ma’am. I took my tired old bones to New York City and I made enough money to allow me to come home and live a comfortable life. Once I got back, I evened the score with the folks who separated me from my money. It’s taken me until now to get my house back. I find myself in need of a cook, Mrs. Payne. I said to myself, where am I going to find a fine cook? I want you to cook for me.’
“’All I can ask you to do is cook for me. I have a maid. Now I won’t let you rob me, Mrs. Payne. Twenty-five dollars a week, that’s all I can pay. Saturday and Sundays off. My car will pick you up at eleven and deliver you back home by five. That’s why I’m here, Mrs. Payne.’”
“I watched Mama’s hand slowly come up to cover her face. It was a dream come true for her. She was nearly fifty and she was dragging by the time she got home each night. She was rarely in bed before midnight.
“If he’d offered more, she’d have said no. As is, twenty-five was a passel for cooking two meals a day and no housework. He raised her pay after a month of bragging about her cooking. I’d never seen Mama happier. Her work was what she loved doing, cooking. She loved it and I’m almost sure she loved working for him. He was one fine white man.”
“That’s a great story,” I said. “Mr. Charles was a good guy.”
“Now this was a time when it wasn’t safe to mix races down this way, but as Mr. Charles’ cook, he got to tell her what he wanted. In that way it looked quite ordinary.
“At first Mr. Charles insisted Mama make enough lunch for the two of them and they’d sit together to eat and talk. Mama’s reluctance to do such a thing left her in time. I’m sure they thought of themselves as friends. They had a common interest they discussed routinely.”
“What was their common interest?” I asked, unable to imagine one for a rich white man and a poor black woman.
“Mama fed hungry people. Mr. Charles wanted to make it easier on her. Mama had no objection. Oh, it didn’t take shape right away. They talked it over. Mr. Charles didn’t rush into things. He knew Mama was a proper black woman. He respected that above all else. They ate together and talked about how to keep people from going hungry.
“Mr. Charles sent leftovers home with Mama in case someone stopped to be fed. He hated wasting food as much as he hated the time he went hungry.
“Mr. Charles loved Mama’s cooking but he wanted something different every meal. It provided us with all the food we could eat, and enough food to feed anyone who stopped for a meal. Mama no longer had to cook after she came home. She brought meals home with her.
Mama accepted his motives were honest and it wasn’t in her interest to stop him from providing more and better food for the hungry people she fed, including her own kids.
“If there was a bigger plan then, Mama never said. It seemed as if they were working toward a better and more efficient way to feed hungry people. It had to be done with the least amount of disruption to what was tolerated. Bring attention to themselves would do no one any good.”
“Sounds like a fairy tale, Mama. I’ve never heard of people being so nice to each other. I guess we’re all too busy thinking about ourselves these days,” I said. “I didn’t get involved until it was made easy for me.”
“It was a different time, Jackie. Most people still had first hand knowledge of the Great Depression. Going hungry still scared the hell out of people. They still had the memory of going hungry.
“The most difficult thing I see is a family who once gave faithfully to help us feed the hungry, and now they need to be fed. Their jobs are gone. They’ve lost their homes, and all I can do is give them a smile and a hot meal. These are the folks ignorant people claim are lazy and shiftless.
“Do I let them keep their dignity and pretend not to notice I know them? What would you do, Jackie? I don’t know what to do, but it makes me want to keep feeding the people.”
“That would be sad to see. Doesn’t sound fair to me. We could all afford to eat a little less so people don’t go hungry.”
“I do my job and get the food to the people,” Mama said.
“Get the food to the people. I like the sound of that, Mama,” I said.
Nicole came out without her apron and carrying the coffee pot to refill both of the cups on the table.
“Did you tell him he’s sitting in Mama’s place. This is the part that used to be Mama’s, isn’t it?” Nicole said.
“You people quit trying to tell the story for me. I’m getting there, Nicole,” Mama said. “We prepped and ready for lunch?”
“Meatloaf is in, Mama. Chicken is ready for the oven. Veggies are on simmer and potatoes are almost ready. Bix is doing some sandwiches for the early birds. We’re ready.”
“Get the food to the people,” I said. “That’s the cat’s meow. The perfect slogan for Mama’s.”
“Get the food to the people. Does have a ring to it,” Nicole said, heading back to the kitchen.
“Do you need to go, Nice Nicole?” Mama asked as she walked away.
“No. I can stay to get the first plates out on the tables. The afternoon help will be here by that time. My class starts a little after noon,” she said, heading back into the kitchen.
“You still haven’t told me about you, Mama. I know Mama is your mother, and I find that inspiring. What about how you came to have all this going for you? Your mother fed the people in the kitchen in her house.”
“That’s the part of the story I haven’t told you yet. I haven’t finished telling you about Mr. Charles yet. I’ll explain how we got where we are today, but I need to finish the first part of the story for it to make sense.
“Life was good in my teenage years. I don’t know if I saw Mama happy before, but she was happy. We still lived in a house with the roof leaking and the stairs creaking, but we had plenty to eat and there were no more second hand dresses.
Mama was able to take care of all the things she’d once let go. Not only that, she was only gone in the afternoon and then she was home shortly after I got home from school.
“Mr. Charles hired the proper contractor for whatever work needed to be done. If Mama didn’t have the money on hand, Mr. Charles paid the bill and took a few dollars a week out of Mama’s pay. It made Mama feel successful to be able to get the house the way she wanted it. Times were good.
“Mr. Charles began increasing the amount of food he asked Mama to cook after a few months. He’d have Mama set aside a little of each dish for him, sending the rest home to feed us and the hungry folks who came to our door.
“I remember seeing Paul, Mr. Charles’ chauffeur, escorting Mama to the kitchen door. He was carrying pots and dishes, and going back for more as quick as he set those down.
“Two of my brothers were still home. Trevor was in the army by then, and the two of them rushed out to take the food from Paul. He didn’t object and it shortened his stay in the alley behind our house. We still worried about a white man being seen at our house.
“After the first time, all Paul had to do was tap the horn. My brothers raced out for the food. The Payne family never ate better. Times weren’t quite as hard as before, but hungry people knew which door to knock on to get fed. We still fed a fair share of folks. I guess some wondered how a black woman on that side of town had roast beef, ham, and chicken to serve them, but no one objected, not even Mama.
“When the contractor put on our roof, Mr. Charles was out back in jeans and a flannel shirt, supervising. It was the only time I saw him in anything but a suit and tie.
“One evening, with building supplies blocking their usual exit, Paul drove Mr. Charles passed Earl’s, which faces Main St. and is behind our house, which is our warehouse now.
“Earl’s would have been right about where we’re sitting, as Nice Nicole said. We never ate there but we knew Earl.”
“Ah, now I get the picture. He bought out Earl so Mama could feed people someplace besides in her own kitchen,” I said as I put the pieces together.
“Who’s telling this story? You don’t know that. He bought Earl’s because he saw a way to feed more people.”
“Sorry, I lost my head. I’ll do better,” I said.
“It was just a joint. On a good day he could seat a dozen people for dinner, but the stores on both sides of Earl’s were empty. It was still a bad time on our side of town. It was all colored then. A white man stood out like a plantation master in a cotton field.”
“How’d he talk your Mama into that?” I asked.
“He didn’t. He did what he knew needed doing. Then he left it up to Mama. She’d never have gone for it before, but with Mr. Charles there for guidance, Mama trusted she had the backing she needed. Mama and Mr. Charles understood each other. They wanted to keep the people fed.
“When Mr. Charles decided on what to do, he did it. Earl wasn’t about to sell to him. He laughed when Mr. Charles asked him the price. Earl thought it was a joke.
“Mr. Charles wrote him a check for a thousand dollars and he handed the check to Earl, who signed the place over to him. Earl put on his hat and left with people still eating their dinner.
“Mr. Charles put a ten dollar bill on each table, saying, ‘We’re temporarily closing. You finish your meal. The ten dollars is for any inconvenience.’ No one complained.
“He intended to fix Earl’s up, but he already had his eye on the shops on either side of Earl’s which is why Mama’s is what it is today. What he named Mama’s could expand if there was ever a need to do so. The property is still part of the estate of Mr. Charles. His foundation spells out that it is to be kept up as long as there are hungry people.
“He was a man who saw into the future. It’s how he made his money and in this case, it’s how Mama’s has prospered. Mama went along because Earl’s was furnished with a brand new kitchen with all the latest gadgets. Mama would cook for Mr. Charles at the same time she was cooking for the people who would eat at Mama’s.
“Paul came each day before noon to pick up Mr. Charles’ food for the day. Mama would go in to fix something special for Mr. Charles a couple of times a week, but only after the food for that day was already to go at Mama’s.
“Several years later Mr. Charles took ill. Mama went to his house and took care of him until he passed. It was the first time Mama’s was closed for any length of time. The need wasn’t as great then.
“After Mama passed, ten years later, Mama’s closed again. I was gone to college and then your Mama met the love of her life, who was a bad man. He was especially bad for a young girl with high hopes of slipping out of the black ghetto to live a wonderful life elsewhere.
“You didn’t come to pick up where your mother left off right away?” I asked.
“No, I didn’t. That’s another story. I’ve told you the story of Mama’s and who it is really named after. The lunch crowd is about to line up and Mama has to greet them,” Mama said.
“Will you tell me about how you came to take over Mama’s next time?”
“If you catch me in a talkative mood, I’ll confess all my sins,” Mama said.
“Haven’t you made up for your sins by now, Mama?”
“The best you do is keep even, Jackie. For the past dozens of years I’ve stayed even. It’s not up to me to decide I’ve atoned for my sins. Mama does the best she can do.”
“You never married?” I asked, slipping in one more question.
“I never married. I’m childless. The people are my family and it’s lunch time. There’s work to do.”
“I enjoyed that, Mama. There are good people,” I said, sometimes wondering if the world was completely mad.
“There are good people, Jackie. And it is all up to us,” she said, moving toward the kitchen with our dirty dishes.