The White Front Café was a greasy spoon. When I first encountered the term, The White Front came to mind. In a very literal way. I thought of my father polishing his spoon before he would stir cream into his coffee. The waitresses, crabby and humorless with a quick repost to a snide remark from a “regular”, plied a numbers racket. You couldn’t help but see in the slips of paper that floted into a special drawer. (Kids have a special radar). Kankakee was close enough to Chicago to be iraidiated by petty grift and small-town graft. The café’s jukebox was a payola hot spot. It sat at the outermost membrane of the white side of the tracks in a de-facto segregated town in Northern Illinois. Kankakee Illinois. It was truly divided by train tracks. The irony of its name invisible until the civil rights revolution. The Restaurent once had a gleaming white paint job to complement the glass brick detail and black glass wainscoting under the big front window. Filthy and running to ruin by the mid-fifties it was a holdover from the heyday of train travel. The place had opened in the twenties when railroad money flowed and steam trains rumbled into the Big Four station. The White Front Café was right across from the station. A traveler’s stop, a place to get a quick snack or a meal while the train got serviced at this first stop south of Chicago. On the other side of the tracks, there was a real brick roundhouse going derelict with Roman arches like caves. A forbidding place that maintained its taboo status by the hobos and wine-o’s, mean and unpredictable, who camped out there. There was a gas works with its giant storage tanks; erector set cages for holding down the bubble of natural gas. All this dereliction acted as a DMZ, a buffer between the black and white communities.
On the menu at the White Front were hot beef sandwiches; two slices of bread, a few slices of beef, a ball of mashed potatoes, and over it all, dark brown gravy. You could get a blond version of the same thing in hot turkey. There was a breaded veal cutlet, and burgers and corned beef, and always alphabet soup. There were a few trays of sweet rolls made by the owner each morning—the best thing I ever ate there, dotted with chunks of apple, they were doughy, with a drizzle of white sugar frosting. At coffee break time they were still warm slathered with yellow butter pooling in the warm crevasses.
The grit and soot from the big-muscled coal burner steam trains speckled everything inside and out at the White Front. The egg carton diffusers of the fluorescents held cobwebs grown thick with grease and soot and dust, producing sifted dust-flurries when a train rumbled through. There was a jukebox with 78’s, and I heard, standing in its orange glow, Elvis’ Hound Dog. It was rock’n roll’s fresh energy that that gobbled up dimes. I have a sound/ picture memory hearing that sound staring at my galoshes dripping into the black paisleys of melted slush one winter morning. The only black man I ever saw in there, was an engineer/fireman, dressed in his Hickory Stripe hat and coveralls, invited in and fed because of a bitter February storm. It was understood this was a special case.
This neighborhood was on the derelict side of Kankakee, a farm and industrial town that had two railroad stations. Both of them in real use, though clearly on the decline, especially the Big Four station, on the industrial side of things away from the land of mature elms, wide, kept lawns and Riverview homes. The White Front Café was away from the shops, department stores, and the three movie houses called the Paramount, Luna, and the shuttered Majestic. It was a neighborhood of machine shops, and the Olds agency owned by my Uncle Roy. It was home to a paint factory, Mortell’s window putty factory, Panazzo’s wholesale fruit and vegetable roadside market and a brick bunker of a windowless wino bar. Prima Beer —four quarts for $1.04 hand-painted on the solid brick wall outside. The alleys between buildings were paved with coal cinders.
Max Jaffe started his small chain of drug stores in this part of town. In its heyday, the store, now serving the pharmaceutical needs of the black side of town was growing toward ruin. It was an integrated store on the same block and the same side of the street as the White Front. The second Jaffe’s downtown only 12 blocks away was in a different world. This Jaffe’s had a white glass-topped soda fountain. A soda fountain a la Norman Rockwell. White marble and white glass, with two swan-neck black nozzles for gassy water, one poured out the bubbly water and one was sharp focused to froth up the chocolate phosphates and ice cream sodas. Below the counter top was an ordered bank of squirt cans for flavored syrup. Porcelain pump knobs, telling which was which. A celedon green Hamilton Beach unit hovered under the mirror with 4 mixers for shakes and malts. A big outboard-boat motor of a Coke dispenser, perched there red and familiar, along side the lemon-lime version, pre 7-Up, was the Green River brand. Old man Jaffe was a part of the immagrant wave my grandfather rode. Max Jaffe was always refered to as Yankel (jewish name), as in “Go to Yankle’s and get a malted”, and who doesn’t enjoy a little greasy bag of hot nuts? Cashews please.
Our Junior High was integrated by the mid-fifties and we played and related variously just as anywhere race to race. Playing sports is always the first way and that was the way of things here. We got along and could have fun with each other. This was at a time when the world was changing. East Junior High had its first “Negro” teacher, Mr. Richards who later became superintendent of schools. Big Mike Reid, who had sung bass in a traveling version of Mahalia Jackson’s choir, became a protector to me. He was a kind giant to, me, the shrimp of seventh grade. Two of my fingers could fit into his ring. Only once in three years at East Junior High did I feel black animosity toward me when a girl scratched my neck hard with bright red talons; I had accidently bumped her in the hall. I can still bring to mind my burning shame and my own rage at an act so blatant and uncalled for, yet called up from the heart of the way things were.
There was a subtle and airless space between races from the White side. Not so subtle from the Black side. That a kid would not be allowed in, say the bowling alley or the swimming pool made me shrivel cringing inside. When Narkita Williams, called Hazel by the white people she cleaned house for, told me when I asked her to take me bowling sometime, said with a voice lowered a bit, “You know, honey, they don’t allow colored people in there.” There were no colored/white drinking fountains or bathrooms, in Kankakee, no Jim Crow; all the segregation was invisible and understood. “Don’t feel bad, baby that’s just the way it is,” Narkita told me. Narkita who loved me like I was her own for she had no children. Narkita who had come up from the South, like a lot of black ladies, recruited to work the war factories. Mississippi Delta refugees from real deprivation, brutality and fear, landing in a softer kind of trouble. Right from red\-clay dirt farms to be cleaning ladies for white people. They all came “up” on the Illinois Central City of New Orleans.”
Narkita taught me what I have come to know as a larger kind of love. Narkita told me, a wide-eyed kid, a story, about the thief who had broken into her home, waking her up. She recounted how she sat him down and fed him, telling him “there wasn’t nothin’ in her house for him but Jesus’ love.” Narkita would take care of us when our folks were away and Mr. Williams, a church deacon, if the weather was nice, would catch catfish in the Kankakee River. He would come over in a three-piece suit, with a pail of fish and we’d have the fish fried in meal accompanied by biscuits 6″ round. Mr. Williams showed me the gasping creatures in the pail, the poison barb on the fin, its world of pain to be avoided. One Sunday, they took me to church where the windows were whole sheets of colored glass. These days whenever I hear the opening shout of a gospel choir, I’m speechless with a tightened throat.
In high school, momentum was building for a real change. It was Black Like Me and Manchild in the Promised Land, Martin Luther King’s “Wake up to your promises, America.” It was a thrill to see Cassius Clay say to white America, “Ain’t I pretty?” and then make Sonny Liston miss. The civil rights act, with grief at Kennedy’s martyrdom added a weight toward its passage. In college, I volunteered as a tutor at D.C. Jail, was told I looked “relevant” by the leader of Black Students Collective and asked if I would I hand out street flyers. I did my part in the neighborhood cleanup and rat abatment where I lived. We got rid of the old cars and refrigerators and mattresses. We wanted to make a difference in a world suddenly open to transformation.
It was a sweet time and real change was in the air, the hopefulness of activism nudging a nation toward justice. Malcolm X had returned from his Haj to Mecca and seen how he could treat the white man with forebearance and even love. It was a dreamtime awakening into the reality that we had been delivered across some Red Sea. A long way yet to go.
The first blow of Malcolm X’s assassination came in the winter of 1965. On Muhammad Ali’s heroic, banned- from-boxing college tour, I heard him say to us earnest white, college kids that black people didn’t need white people feelin’ sorry for them and tryin’ to make their world like another white world. White people should be cleaning up their own messes, like Viet Nam for example. Martin Luther King was shot dead in Memphis and the rage roared up. Leaving Washington for spring break just days after the assassination I made this sketch through the airplane window:
—the column of smoke from the 14th Street riots rising up over the Jefferson and Washington monuments. An image I enshrined in my journal. A kind of hope died that April—dead is dead and largely, the world continues with its racial confusions, sailing without King’s rudder of conscience or the wind of Malcolm X’s passion. These days we are blissfully free from those publicly-elected racists like George Wallace, Strom Thurman…now we have toothy smile-liars who hide their racism in clouds of simulated prosperity. What’s changed? In Kankakee or anywhere? The traintrack border is gone but there has become a membrane separating the two communities that is osmotic with its typical one-way pass through. The trains in that part of town are only ghosts now.
Back then engines of the Big Four trains were galumphing, roaring iron horses, elemental with fire and whistle and steam everywhere. All the parts of the engine were on the outside: the connecting rods and drive wheels. Pistons and valve stems were serviced by a guy who jumped off the train, even before it came to a stop. You could see in the workings, the rational processes that were driving this huge weight. The arcs of the brake pads clamped hard on the wheels for the stop. I was terrified and transfixed by these engines and spent many happy hours experimenting with steam power. I’d use parts from my dad’s store, Sterno for heat. The only real success I had was soldering a copper tube to a copper float ball from a toilet. Filled with water, heated up, it whizzed around like crazy hanging from a string. Steam had real power, you could feel it. The locomotives, those great black bears of huge weight, so close to the elemental processes that drove them, were eventually replaced by the electric diesel, shining silver and orange, the cross of Santa Fe on the side. Streamline style, all smoothed out and moaning their way up to speed, they sliced through the air their motive means invisible. Even the Streamliners are now gone from there along with the White Front.
We ate meals at The White Front often—ham and eggs and burgers, it being so close to my fathers store. “What does that sign mean, on the wall behind the cash register, ‘we reserve the right to refuse service to anyone?'” I asked my father. “It means they want to keep Negroes from eating here,” my father says. 1957. We are paying for our meal across the rubber pad for picking up change at the cashier; its little rubber teats worn smooth in the center. We’re going back to work on a spring Saturday. I’ll be stocking shelves and putting invoices in numerical order at his auto parts store a block away. A big steam engine shakes the sidewalk, arriving from the east. In the afternoon, my grandfather, the one who began in the parts business, will come into the store and press a dollar into my hand and tell me to get a malted at Jaffe’s. I do that and while sipping my creamy treat, light on the chocolate heavy on the malt, a train shakes and hisses into the station. It makes me think that at the White Front, four doors away; the sooty dust is sifting down. My mind drifts while sucking the sweet coolness. As I lull into a daydream, all that flurry of dust becomes a dark blizzard, filling the White Front floor to ceiling with coal dust and cinders. In my reverie,, it comes bursting with a deep rumble out the front window pouring a release.
A dozen years pass from that reverie at The White Front and I’m in college in DC. In my block —all two-bedroom two-story-townhouses — my room looks down into the alley. Always a-bustle with kids—at night, a-bustle of rats. I lived there because in Washington this neighborhood, once working-class, was now for students, and the burgeoning hippy culture, and besides, the white guilt of privelege was driving fashions toward a shabby look in both clothes and living spaces. It’s important to adopt a style when you’re young.
I got to know my close neighbors. Mr. George who was a retired postman on a good pension, who caught messes of catfish in the Potomac, laid up like cordwood for fish fry’s on Fridays. The corner store advertised, hand-painted on cardboard, hog maws and pig’s ears. Grandma across the way, yelling up, in her St. Croix accent at 7 year old Janine in the second story window, who had locked her grandma out, again. She was giggling, her shining face framed in the black square. In the abandoned house next door lived a male couple. Winos, one of whom wore a glamorous strawberry blond wig and dangling ruby earrings swinging around his face. The kids, going to church on Sunday, their faces shined with White Clover Salve to glow like polished mahogany…
…This part of the story is more of a nostalgic prayer than a simple reporting.