From Chicken Soup for the Jewish Soul

Upstairs at the Rialto

Prejudice is the reason of fools.


Lucille came to work for us when we moved from an apartment to the house my father built in 1950. There was more to care for in a house, and with help, my mother could still work in my father’s haberdashery. It seemed a long way from the store to home. At first, we took the bus, which cost a nickel, but when we got tired of waiting for it we just walked. Lucille always used the bus because she lived “on the other side of the tracks” and that was much too far for walking.

All the “colored” people in our town lived “on the other side of the tracks” as if that was why it was there. The railroad was our Mason-Dixon line. Once or twice, when I went with my father to drop off ironing at Lucille’s house, I remembered movies I’d seen of poor “colored” people in the South, and I felt sad that Lucille had to live in almost as bad a way. All the tiny frame houses needed painting and some had rusty gas tanks at the side. The yards were full of old cars and stoves and broken-down chairs. The first time I went there, I felt embarrassed for Lucille because I thought she must feel that way. Then, I was vaguely bewildered. I couldn’t understand why the difference between the way we lived and the way “colored” people lived was so stark, so absolute, one side of the tracks from the other. One time I asked my father about this. He said, “That’s just the way it is.”

My parents were not overtly racist, especially not my mother. She loved everyone. But she and my father were products of their time, so my mother, like all the other Jewish women in town who had maids, referred to Lucille as her schvartza (black). “She’s such a wonderful schvartza!” she would say of Lucille. “She’s like a member of the family.”

Lucille was tolerant of such insults, not that my mother called her that directly. Once, when I was eating lunch with her, I blurted, “My sister says I shouldn’t eat with you ’cause you’re colored!” Lucille smiled and kept on munching her peanut butter and jelly sandwich. Another time, I asked why her hands, which fascinated me, were brown on one side and pink on the other. She laughed and said, “’Cause that’s how God made ’em!”

I loved the touch of those hands when they wiped my mouth clean or caught me when I slipped from the jungle gym. I felt secure with my hand in Lucille’s. For all her slightness of frame, she had a power and authority that made me feel safe.

So one day when my mother said I could go to the movies with Lucille, I was wildly happy because there was something I wanted to do very badly, and I couldn’t do it without her. I wanted to sit in the balcony at the Rialto Theater.

The balcony was the forbidden fruit to me. I wanted to know what went on up there that made it off limits if you were white. Why did an usher stand at the stairs to ensure that only “colored” kids went upstairs? Why should they get special seats up high and not the rest of us?

I don’t know if it crossed my mother’s mind that Lucille and I would be sent upstairs, but looking back on it I suspect it made little difference to her. Lucille, on the other hand, hoped for once in her life, by virtue of my presence, to sit downstairs where it was quieter and cleaner.

“I’m with her,” she said to the usher, grasping me resolutely, and raising our clasped hands in solidarity as we entered the theater.

“Upstairs!” he answered, jerking his head toward the balcony.

“Yes, Lucille!” I pleaded. “Upstairs! Please! Please?”

Lucille looked at me, stunned. “Honey, you sure?” she asked, shaking her head from side to side. “My, my,” she murmured, smiling, as I pulled on her arm.

I headed straight for the center of the first row. So high up and no one’s head in front of you! I hardly noticed that my seat was broken and that there was no carpet on the popcorn-strewn floor. Once the previews started, everyone quieted down, the children only screaming and throwing popcorn when the Marx Brothers did something hilarious.

When the movie ended, Lucille and I made our way down from the balcony jostled by woolly-headed boys taking three steps at a time, jackets flying behind them. Converging with everyone else in the lobby, I suddenly heard hoots and hollers from a gaggle of white boys.

“Hey, looky there! A nigger lover!”

“Eeny, meeny, miney, moe, caught a nigger by the toe!”

“Y’all want some chitlins?”

I realized they were laughing at me. The feeling that rose in my stomach made me want to vomit. I was terrified, sickened, ashamed, guilty, enraged and sad. I clung to Lucille, who put her arm around me and guided me outside into the cold air.

“Don’t pay them no mind,” she said, going down on her knee to button my jacket. But the tears had started down my cheeks. I wasn’t sure if I was crying for Lucille or for myself. I just knew I felt miserable, sullied, as if I’d lost something I hadn’t even known was mine. Lucille took her handkerchief and gently wiped my eyes with her lovely, long fingers. “They don’t know ’bout you and me bein’ friends. They’re just a bunch of stupid boys.” She hugged me and took my hand in hers. We walked home in silence.

I never told my mother or anyone else what had happened. It felt too big, too important. It was mine and Lucille’s secret; only she would understand. But I made a point of eating lunch with Lucille every day after that when she came to our house, and when I heard my mother use the word schvartza I told her it was no different than saying “nigger.” Whenever my father went to pick up the laundry at Lucille’s, I insisted on going along, climbing the broken steps and giving Lucille a fierce hug. I liked the feel of her bony arms around me, and most of all, I liked that nobody who saw us like that in her neighborhood ever said a thing.

Elayne Clift

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