Advertisement

Alone on City Streets for Christmas Eve : ‘I Knew I Was In for a Hard Time, and I Had Only Myself to Count On for Survival’

<i> At age 15, Gordon Parks suddenly found himself cast out onto the subzero streets of St. Paul, Minn., with $2 in his pocket and nowhere to go. Here is Part II of a five-part excerpt from "Voices in the Mirror," the autobiography of the world-renowned photographer</i>

For the first 15 years of my life I was a child who said yes a lot of times when I would rather have said no. But that’s expected of obedient children. Several years before I reached adulthood my mother died, and my security died with her.

Shortly after my mother’s funeral the plans for me were made: I, the youngest, would go live with my sister Peggy, while the two younger sisters would stay on in Ft. Scott, Kans., and keep house for my father. What little I had to take was packed in a matter of minutes, and there was still a lot of room left in my cardboard suitcase. Two hours later Dan Stover’s taxi came to take Peggy and me to the station, where we would board the train for St. Paul.

I entered my sister’s house in Minnesota still snarled in the roots of racism, still wearing the web my mother had spun around me as protection from our baffling world. Within a few hours that web began ripping apart. I had never met my brother-in-law, but his very first handshake told me that I was to be tolerated rather than accepted. Nearly white, big and fierce-looking, he seemed formidable and unfriendly. His only words to me that first evening were about things I was not to do in his house.

His name was David Grissam, but before long I began to think of him as Davey Grisly. He was a Pullman porter and that helped, since he was gone much of the time. But when he returned he became more hostile, and my sister, normally a cheerful person, seldom smiled when he was there. Having enrolled me in high school, she spent a great deal of time helping me with my homework.

Advertisement

The evening before Christmas, a freezing north wind swooped down on the city like a hawk. By 7 o’clock the temperature had dropped to 10 below zero. I had been invited to a party, and I bundled up to go. Peggy, her friend Crystal Graham and my brother-in-law sat in the living room as I bade them good night and started out.

“Where do you think you’re going?” His voice was menacing.

“To a party.”

“No party tonight. You’ve been out two nights in a row.”

Advertisement

“I’m sorry,” I said, for my sister’s sake. Then, for myself I added, “I’m going to the party.”

Instantly furious, he rose and started toward me. When my sister rushed to my defense he slammed her against the wall, and that sent me swinging for his belly.

Several minutes later all my belongings, including my alarm clock and cardboard suitcase, came sailing out the window. And I charged about gathering them from the snow. Even over the howling wind I could hear my sister’s sobs.

In a matter of moments David Grissam had snatched that protective web from me and booted me toward manhood. The subzero weather he had forced me into was as cold as his hate. Up until then there was only one experience I could liken it to. When I was 11 three white boys, knowing I couldn’t swim, had hurled me into Marmaton River and left me to save myself. I had survived by ducking my head under the water and somehow making it to the river bank. The river David Grissam plunged me into was far deeper and wider, and the sound of his window slamming shut was hardly different from those words shouted at me on Marmaton River, “Swim, black boy, or die!”

Advertisement

Alone now and with tears welling, I knew I was in for a hard time, and that I had only myself to count on for survival. There was no one I could turn to for advice or shelter. Suddenly I had to think of myself as full grown, and with a few pennies over $2 in my pockets, frightened and uncertain, I began tramping the frozen snow.

The dangerous cold made my instant adulthood imperative. I had to find shelter fast or freeze to death. I began walking, and four blocks later I wandered into Jim Williams’ pool hall. My face, hands and feet, numb from the cold, welcomed the stale heat that hit me. It didn’t matter that the air was the color of smoke. I dropped my suitcase and went to stand over a heat vent, anticipating the warmth of school the following day, then realized it was closed for the holidays.

I had been banished so quickly I could hardly grasp the truth of my predicament. Just six months before, parents, family and home had seemed like something good and secure that would last forever. Now even the memory of all that seemed half-real.

With a lump in my throat, I watched the pool players drift around the game tables. Aiming, shooting, detached from my gloom, they seemed like ghosts. They were a tough-looking lot, and I kept my hand on the recently bought switchblade I had in my pocket. The only person who spoke to me was Tee Vernon, a big man with an engaging smile and a bulging belly, who waddled around racking the billiard balls. His conversation amounted to a friendly “Hi,” but even that lifted my spirits. A few hours later, I heard someone say it was half-hour before closing time and reached in my pocket and rubbed my money together.

Advertisement

I could ride out the night on trolley cars running the outer limits between St. Paul and Minneapolis, spend a couple of hours in Union Station, then head back to the pool hall. It was a dismal prospect, but there seemed no other alternative, so I set out for the trolley.

That first night’s journey was one of foreboding. I slept most of the time, using my suitcase for a headrest, waking now and then to the sound of sleet pelting the trolley windows. I was aware of people getting on and off, and I envied the fact that they had somewhere to go. Once when I awoke, the car was empty and dark.

The doors were open and the wind-driven sleet was sweeping into both ends of the trolley. I felt alone, confused, suspended within undecipherable space. I rubbed frost from the window and looked out. Except for the swirling sleet there was nothing--no trees, lights or landscape. Only blackness. Then came a sputtering of bluish-white light. The operator was swinging the contact pole to the power line. The car’s lights flickered on and a railing came into view. We were on a bridge, high above the Mississippi River. For a few moments I felt like a dead soul.

I made this lonesome journey every night for nearly a week. On the final morning, I had only 11 cents when we arrived back in St. Paul at dawn. The trolley operator had gone for coffee. The aged conductor poked me awake, saying we were at the end of the line. He stood looking at me; in his hand was a bundle of green bills wadded together with a rubber band. At the sight of them, my hand tightened around the switchblade in my pocket. I rose slowly, looking through the window to see if anyone was round. We were alone. His back was toward me as we walked to the rear of the car. Perspiration rolled from my armpits and anxiety must have shown on my face as I pressed the button and the blade popped out.

Advertisement

“Conductor!”

“Yes?” he turned and looked calmly at the blade. Trembling now, I looked at him. My father’s black face had replaced his white one.

“Conductor, would you like to buy this knife? I’m a little hungry.”

He eyed me for a couple of seconds. “I don’t want your knife, but come on, I’ll buy you some grub.” I closed the blade. “I’m sorry, mister.”

Advertisement

He peeled off two dollar bills. “Here, go get yourself something to eat.”

I refused the money, jumped out of the trolley, more frightened and ashamed than I had ever been in my life, and stood there in the falling snow. I hurried along the icy street, shivering. As a stranger to that frigid north country and its city ways, I sought out people who appeared to be knowledgeable and began plying them with questions. There were some who just glared at me and walked away without telling me anything; others smiled and told me what little they knew, but there were others who told me lies. Never before had I met such people. If I looked hungry, they offered me a drink of bad whiskey. If I seemed lonely, some big-hearted woman might--for a few bucks--offer me her body. It was a bleak time, and I ate anguish for breakfast and supper. I finally stopped asking so many questions; I watched and listened more--especially to those who dressed as if they might have something important to say. I soon became an expert at taking the true measure of people--at least I thought so at the time. But I did watch and listen with a good deal of enthusiasm.

With the seriousness of my situation sinking in, I started taking stock of myself. I was like an uprooted tree in a strange forest. If, at that time, someone had urged me to have faith, the advice would have sounded like a joke. It never struck me that I had three valuable assets--youth, health and the inner need to someday amount to something. I was still overwhelmed by the complexity of surviving in a big city. I had grown up in a small town of dirt roads and slow-moving rivers, a prairie abundant with tall Indian grass and innocent flowers. Here, caught up in the noise and rush of things, I felt clumsy, out of place.

Next: My first camera .

Advertisement


Advertisement