Used To Be

Last week this photo accompanied my post. Joe Hutchison immediately declared it ought to be a story. Then Sue Holbrook, from Florida, told me whose car that had to be, in no uncertain terms. The next day, this guy started talking in my head. He had stuff he needed to say. So no story, Joe, but how about a monologue?

Sparkling Corvette

Used to be this neighborhood had a storefront church on every corner, seemed like. Shoebox meeting room big enough for forty worshippers, a tiny bathroom and office in the back. Windows covered with imitation stained glass that comes in a roll and applies sticky side down. Do they still make that stuff?

Yes, sir, one on every corner. An uncredentialed preacher with a gift of gab and a glimmer of charisma scraping together a living off those forty folks. Wednesday night and twice on Sunday, with fish fries or barbeques every so often to raise the rent money. You could stroll by on Sunday and hear the tambourine, the amens, the predictable rise and fall of the sermon’s rhythm.

Used to be, they were black storefront churches. I don’t know why. A perfectly good AME church sits ten blocks from here, with a rockin’ choir and fulltime staff, seating 600 souls every service. Too fancy for some, I guess. Ladies needed their fancy hats to praise the Lord at AME. But lots of reasons for not liking that church: there’s nothing more dividing than religion.

Used to be black but then Mexicans started moving into the hood and some of those Catholics turned evangelical, coming to these little storefronts. You saw signs saying “9 a.m. service in Spanish.” Some Mexican storefronts expanded into actual churches. I say Mexican, but I don’t know really. Guatemala, El Salvador, Honduras—Christians from all those places down there. Got themselves full time preachers and a nursery. Women all in their long dresses, no decoration in the church: fundamentalist Christians are as opposed to images of God as Muslims.

My dad played his horn in this Baptist storefront, wearing his one shiny-elbowed suit. We came every Sunday—me, my brother and Mom holding baby sister. Sometimes they let me pass the collection plate and Preacher’d sneak me a quarter out of it. Mom’s lived with my sister since Dad passed. I’m back for my 20th high school reunion, wanted to see the old neighborhood. Funny how everything seems smaller. Church all spruced up, though, and they built onto it, seats seventy now.

The house, couple blocks from here—Mom sold it when she moved with Sister. Flippers gutted the place, popped the top and white people live there now. I barely recognized it, barely recognized the hood. New houses where there were empty lots. Old houses all cleaned up. Most all the storefront churches and two-bit liquor stores gone. Used to be a great barbeque place but that’s gone too. So many white people. Never used to be white people. When I was a kid, everyone on our block was black. If Mz. Jefferson saw us breaking bottles in the street, she’d tell my folks about it soon as they got home. Dad made us sweep that shit up.

Bunch of us boys—we were nine or ten—walking past Ramal’s block. We see these white people cleaning up their yard, stopped and stared. “Them are the only white people we got,” Ramal declared. No black folks left on that block now. Sister’s in the suburbs, my brother in L.A., me in Chicago. Nothing stays the same. Neighborhood started out white in the 1880s, turned black in the 20s with the redlining, then Latino and now back to white again. Takes money to clean up old places like these. People with money decided they want to live in the city again. And poor folks—they live wherever no one else wants to live.

I ran into the guy who’s the Preacher now and he obliged me with a little tour. They got a real stained-glass window over the altar. Well, I gotta get going. Oh, the Corvette? It’s the Preacher’s car. Used to be, a storefront preacher couldn’t afford any such thing. Dude’s stylin’, am I right?

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2 Responses to Used To Be

  1. Bob Jaeger says:

    Preacher must be younger than I thought. Those cars are damn near impossible to get in and out of for older backs and knees.

  2. Marian Eskridge says:

    There is a restaurant we like quite a bit at about 38th and Williams. From what we can see from there, you nailed the gentrification that’s pouring into the neighborhood from RINO. I liked your monologue. (And I’m glad the father made the kids sweep up the glass ;-).) One of the parents of a black student of mine told me she didn’t tell people her husband was a minister . . . too many of them did more than eek out a living at it.

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