Martin Luther King B-Day

Yesterday was Martin Luther King's birthday, wasn't it? Or maybe the day before. We get next monday off here where I work. I think he must have died in the spring sometime. Was it March, April? I can't remember the date but I sure do remember the day. I was about 19 or so at the time. I had dropped out of college in Oregon and returned home to New Jersey. I was living at home but I was working as a delivery laborer at a furniture store.

I worked with a black truck driver from Trenton whose name I've long since forgotten. We were pretty good buddies. We fished together on weekends several times. He had a broken index finger on his left hand that had fuzed tight, so it looked like he was perpetually giving everybody the finger as he drove. Drivers going the other way would notice and shake their fist at us as they whizzed by. We laughed a lot.

Whenever we had a delivery in Trenton we would finish up the day with a beer at a local bar in the neighborhood where he lived. I wasn't 21. But no one seemed to care. There weren't many white faces in that neighborhood ever. People occasionally looked at me like "What the fuck are you doing down here." Not hostile really--just slightly amazed to see me there at all.

The morning after Martin Luther King was shot I got to work at 7:30 or so, they way I always did. But Mr Long--the owner of the store--came down to the coffee area where the workers gathered to get their delivery assignments. In the 3-4 months I worked there that was one of the few times I ever actually saw the man. He looked agitaged and excited. He paced back and forth while the workers filed in. Despite the fact there were two black men in our group, who worked for him, he suddenly stopped pacing, turned on his heel, faced us and announced:

"By god I wish Wallace was president, he'd a said one nigger down and two more to go."

I never did figure out who the other 'two' where he was referring to. What a prick. Amazingly, my buddy the truck driver and I had a delivery in Trenton that day. Trenton was in flames. We made our delivery and then drove our big square box furniture truck right down the middle of Lee Avenue in Trenton, during the middle of a full scale riot.

What a scene. Buildings where on fire. We heard sirens and saw cops and firemen everywhere. At one intersection a white cop had his hand up, stopping traffic down Lee Avenue so a stream of fire trucks could zoom by on a cross street. Behind him, on the sidewalk, several black men had broken the windows out of two store fronts. They'd taken a couch out of a used furniture store and placed it in on the sidewalk in front of a shoe store. There was a small crowd there of a half a dozen guys waiting their turn to sit down on the couch and try on shoes. Two or three doors down the street several buildings where engulfed in flames.

When we left, we drove back towards home via Chambersburg, which is (or at least was then) Trenton's Italian town. Chambersburg was filled with small, well-kept one-story brick buildings built close together, for block after block. And each one--it seemed--was flying an american flag off the front porch. The sidewalks were filled with angry-looking men marching back and forth from block corner to block corner, carrying shotguns.

The truck driver, whose name I have forgotton, never did say much that day, which said something, because he usually never stopped talking. What he did say--on the way home--was "Maybe things have to get worse before they get better."

That was a day I'll never forget.