Friday, June 14, 2013

The pushcart

A memory. I am 9 years old. My uncle Buddy, my mother's brother, is 11. Buddy has decided to build a pushcart.

Buddy lives on 9th Street in Chattanooga, Tennessee, in a fine old house that has seen better days. I go there often. Buddy is my hero.

Why a pushcart? Buddy's house is no longer in a fashionable part of town. It backs up on an alley. On the other side of the alley, blacks have taken up residence. Up and down the alley go black men with pushcarts, collecting scrap metal, rags, whatever might make a dime.

Buddy and I are fascinated by the pushcarts. They are dilapidated things, jerry-rigged, rolling along on mismatched wheels. We can do better, we decide.

And so we do. Some boards from the garage. Two wheels off an old bike. We bang it together. We paint it bright colors. It looks swell.

But we are not finished. We collect hundreds of bottle caps. In dozens of hues. We tack them onto the front and sides of our pushcart in glorious, gaudy designs. Our pushcart is a thing of beauty. The pushcart of pushcarts.

We roll it up and down the alley, to downtown and back.

As I recall the episode now, it might seem racist. It was, of course, a racist place and a racist time. But I don't think race had much to do with it, or even class. The intent was not to show up the pushcart men, but to show off. We admired their pushcarts. It was the idea of a pushcart that was our motive. We wanted to perfect the idea. I suppose in some unconscious way we wanted to separate the idea of the pushcart from race, from poverty, from utility. If the blacks we passed took offense at our youthful insensitivity, they had the dignity and grace not to show it.