We would wait until well after midnight to go on raids. Our targets were the rubber rafts, belly boards, inner tubes, and other water toys left outside motel rooms to dry. The DuBois brothers and I would scout out our booty from the dark crest of the shoreline and make silent, barefooted forays up the sand to the walkways and balconies of the two-story motels stacked like freight cars along the Panama City Beach coast.
Taking scant precaution against being observed — for what vacationing family, deep in sleep after a full day’s fun in the sun, could ever dream themselves the victims of such petty thievery — we’d grab our prizes, and suppressing the hoots of triumph in our throats, dash back down to the ocean. With our spoils leashed together and trailing behind us like river barges, we would then wade the warm gulf waters home to our base — the PanaCabana Beach Resort.
And there you have in a nutshell what were among the few truly enjoyable moments of my involuntary 1959 Florida summer.
The out-of-the-blue news that I would be spending my ‘vacation’ 2000 miles from home was sprung on me the same day school got out.
“Lucky boy, six wonderful weeks on the Gulf!” said my father, beaming.
“But, I don’t think they have waves there,” I protested. For an aspiring young surfer, an ocean without waves would be a nightmare.
“Just wait and see,” said my father. “You’ll have the time of your life.”
Forty-eight hours later, I am crammed into a 1953 Cadillac Eldorado heading for the Florida Panhandle with a family of near-strangers. The DuBoises had rented a house close to ours on Vista del Mar over the winter and the youngest of three brothers, Mike, was in my freshman class at South High. I didn’t know him very well, but his mother had gotten to talking with my father at some PTA thing and in subsequent meetings, from which I was obviously excluded, plans were made for my immediate future: a transcontinental effort to ‘make a man’ out of me and teach me some discipline.
Looking for the upside in this blatant transgression of my childhood rights, I reasoned that my deportation could mean some welcome freedom from oppressive parents and possibly simplified access to alcohol. There was also the potential for encounters with Southern-drawling, coconut-scented Lolitas, and probably some fun stuff like water skiing, scuba diving, and all that sort of thing. As it turned out, what it really meant was backtracking 150 years in human progress to a semi-feudal, blood-thicker-than-water, eye-for-an-eye, white-supremacist backwater to do forced labor for the quasi-criminal DuBoises, the owners of the PanaCabana.
There were six of us taking the trip: Mrs DuBois and her oldest son, Mark, who shared the driving; Barry, known as Farter-Bart by his siblings; my classmate Mike; Patty-Ann, the jewel of the family, who showed all the traits that give us just cause for abhorring self-centered, precocious eight-year-olds; and me, ominously the only one in the car not invited to take a turn in the front seat.
Foreboding changes — both inside and outside the car — occurred in tandem with our descent into Dixie. I saw my first pair of ‘whites-colored’ drinking fountains in San Antonio and on the outskirts of Houston I was curtly told to shut up when I hummed along with a favorite song on the car radio. It also turned out I had a nickname:
“Jewboy needs some singing lessons.”
It was only upon arrival in Panama City that I learned the full truth about my so-called vacation — that it wasn’t going to be a vacation at all. While the other boys all rushed off to the ocean for a swim, Mrs DuBois gave me the lowdown on what was expected of me — all of which had been discussed and agreed to by my quisling parents. This lengthy list included a ton of household chores at the DuBois residence and three or four hours a day at the motel. On top of that, since Mrs DuBois and the boys would have their hands full running the PanaCabana, specially with Mr DuBois being away on business, I was to be an around-the-clock babysitter for Patty-Ann.
I discovered later that whatever business it was that Mr DuBois was away on, it was being transacted in orange overalls at the Federal Adult Correctional Institution in Tallahassee. And as for the boys having their hands full, it certainly wasn’t with the tools of motel maintenance, as anything in the way of real work there was done exclusively by African-Americans.
After Patty-Ann showed me where I was to sleep – a windowless storeroom featuring a folding cot bedded in Confederate flag sheets, a table lamp (placed on the floor), and something like 45 oil-stained cartons of FoMoCo carburetors – the presence of which were never explained — we walked the three blocks separating the PanaCabana from the house.
The DuBois motel was right smack in the middle of Panama City Beach and one glance at the ocean confirmed my fears that surfing was indeed out of the question, even if southern vacationers who had obviously never experienced the real thing were enjoying themselves in the feeble swells riding on air mattress and inner-tubes.I noticed that many of these water toys were marked with the PanaCabana logo, an orange marlin with a particularly menacing smile.
The toys came from our motel’s ‘Surf Shop’ which with its extensive inventory supplied tourists up and down Panama City Beach. The Surf Shop was run by Patty-Ann’s Uncle Leo. Renting and selling used water toys under the direction of Uncle Leo was going to be one of my jobs, as was stenciling the grinning marlin on stolen goods. As much as I have badmouthed the DuBoises all of my life, in fairness I should concede here that it was Uncle Leo who taught me the art of spray painting with stencils, a skill that served me well in my career as a street artist in the eighties.
Patty-Ann took me on a guided tour of the motel grounds, highlighting with imaginative narratives where exceptional events had taken place. We stood in awe outside the door to room 17b, where she claimed that three years ago a man had murdered his wife with a bottle opener in an argument over her choice of clothing.And I was introduced to Uncle Leo who, looking me over skeptically, asked me if I was really ready to roll up my sleeves and get to work starting tomorrow. What could I say?
We spent what was left of that day at the Amusement Pier burning up half of the pocket money my parents had given me to last for the whole summer. I took it for granted that Mrs DuBois would reimburse me for all that her daughter ate, rode and played. It didn’t turn out that way.
That evening the DuBoises came to dinner in their underwear. I considered my own family to be informal, casual, beach style people – Dad took off his ties on the weekends, Mom wore jeans in public – but nothing could have prepared me for the shock of seeing the DuBois boys and Uncle Leo sitting at the dinner table in jockey shorts and tank tops and Mrs DuBois wearing only a chemise. Sure it was hot, but not that hot. And then there was the food. I thought all of America ate the exact same things, but here on my plate was stuff I had never even heard of, much less tasted.
“What’s wrong? Jewboy never had collards before?”
Later in my bed, with the Stars and Bars bed covers drawn over my head in a loosing battle against the metallic stench of carburetor grease, the full extent of my horrible predicament hit home. I made a pact with God then and there to give up smoking for the rest of the summer if he could just — Please, God — get me out of here.
Breakfast only reinforced my determination to escape. The dress code was even laxer then the preceding evening. The DuBois boys looked like they had slept standing on their heads. There was no talking. The passing of plates was engineered by grunts. And Jewboy had obviously never tasted hominy grits before either.
After doing the dishes, Patty-Ann and I swept the front porch and raked the lawn. Well actually I swept the front porch and raked the lawn while Patty-Ann threw rocks at birds and squirrels. Then we headed over to the motel to begin work as Sanitization Officers. Though I was Patty-Ann’s senior by five years and officially her babysitter, in practice she was my boss, not just because she knew the ropes, but since she was family and I was not.
“It is our job to make sure that all the PanaCabana’s rooms are properly sanitized between guests,” she told me, putting on her most adult airs.
I had assumed that sanitization would mean scrubbing something with soap and water.
“No, we don’t do that,” she said. “That’s nigger work. Our job is much more important.”
In case you’re wondering, hearing a deceptively angelic-looking eight-year-old explain that cleaning rooms was nigger work was as startling to me then in 1959 as it might be to you today. I can’t remember any of the DuBoises ever using the N-word in California. Now that they were home here in cracker-land it was the mandated term for the N-people. Even if I did not think to question why maids, who were judged competent enough to do the cleaning, were seen unfit to do the sanitization, entrusting that job to a couple of white kids instead, I did have a problem with the N-word.
I liked the N-people. I knew quite a few of them back home. They all worked as domestic servants in the Palos Verdes Estates. I knew them because I had to collect money from their households once a month for my paper route. It was always the maids who handed over the subscription envelopes. The maids were nice. They would offer me milk and cookies. Having a black maid in Palos Verdes was as de rigueur as having a three car garage or an ocean view.
“We hear you told Patty-Ann she needed to call our niggers negros”, said Mike DuBois, during dinner that evening. “It sounds like we have a nigger-lover living with us here.”
“I just… “
“Hey Jewboy, when did you last get a haircut?”
“The day before we left California.”
“Well it sure has grown out fast. How would you like a little trim?”
“No, I am OK, thanks anyway.”
After dinner they all crowded into my room and Mark and Mike held me down while Farter-Bart ran the clippers. I resisted at first, but considering the odds I figured it was better to be in on the joke than put up a fight.
“Hey, Barry, you missed a few spots around the ears,” I said, laughing.
If someone had given me a gun I would have gladly shot the lot of them. Instead I became an accomplice to my own humiliation as do hazed and bullied kids all over the world: the fatsos, peewees, four-eyes, faggots, dorks, chinks, pussies, wimps, mongos, and zit-faces pretending to be ‘good sports’ to save some sliver of pride or just avoid getting beat up even worse.
“Jewboy’s a bald nigger-lover now.”
A motel Sanitization Officer’s tool kit consisted of banners and wrappers with the “SANITIZED FOR YOUR PROTECTION” imprint and cans of air-freshener.
First, we sanitized the water glasses. There were two on every bathroom shelf. The maids had already washed them in the sinks. Our job was to wrap them in the“SANITIZED FOR YOUR PROTECTION” bags. Next we would sanitize the toilets by fastening a banner across the seat top. The washbasin also received a banner. The standard routines could get boring, so depending on what sort of humor we were in,we would extend sanitization to shower heads, door handles, window sills, drawers, pillows, lamps, even Gideon bibles could be “SANITIZED FOR YOUR PROTECTION”.
Stage two, which according to Patty-Ann was crucial — yes she used such words — was to look for curlicues, which I assumed was some sort of bug native to the panhandle. It wasn’t until we actually found one that I understood she meant pubic hairs. And she was right about their importance: a little dirt or sand, a trace of bug juice on the walls, a beer-stained rug, such could be forgiven, but one curlicue in a bed or on a bathroom floor and guests would come storming down to the reception demanding a room change or their money back.
Since the maids were instructed to change sheets and towels only when visibly soiled or wrinkled (The PanaCabana was 40 years ahead of its time with its “Help Save the Environment” efforts.), we needed to make certain that the rooms were absolutely curlicue-free.
The final stage of sanitization was done with Johnson & Johnson Glade Air Freshener. We each had our own can. Patty-Ann worked with Lilac Spring — I used French Vanilla. Turning our cans on each other was not uncommon, and occasionally we would chase each other around the rooms in full-scale air-freshening wars. After a few weeks as Sanitization Officers we were both so completely impregnated with the odor of lilac-French-vanilla-spring neither cold showers nor hot baths could neutralize us. As I remember it, dogs passed by on the boardwalk would whimper and cringe in our wake.
On Sundays I was charged with escorting Patty-Ann on the bus to Baptist Summer Vacation Bible School in Panama City and I was expected to sit in on classes as well. Mrs DuBois thought I might learn something. Patty-Ann announced that I was Jewish our first day in class and this aroused quite some curiosity from the other children who had never met a Jew before.
Relieved to know I was not personally going to be held responsible for murdering Jesus I complied with the teacher’s request to tell the class about my religion, about which I knew absolute zilch. My family was simply not in to it.
I ad-libbed. I said the color yellow was holy to us and that we couldn’t eat asparagus. I told them that we considered being left-handed a sin. I claimed to speak fluent Hebrew and made up a few words which the teacher wrote down best she could on the blackboard for the kids. The following Sunday I was politely asked to wait for Patty-Ann outside in the parking lot. At dinner that evening, Patty-Ann’s disclosure that Jewboy had been kicked out of bible class, was the source of much amusement.
As the summer progressed my tribulations became routine. I learned to bear my cross. I was getting harassed less by the boys and when Patty-Ann was asleep they would sometimes share their beer and cigs with me and, as I have previously mentioned, let me join them on raids – not all as trivial as pilfering air mattresses from tourists. I was also invited to participate in queer-bashings, which were tricky to get out of since the way the DuBoises looked at it you either hated faggots or you were one. I took a gamble and told them I couldn’t put my heart into it because my own brother, er, step-brother that is, was a homo. This disgusted them to no end but it got me off the hook.
The Duboises thrived on demarcation: race, color, religion, lineage, class, profession, sexuality, birthplace … there was seemingly no path of life where irreconcilable battle-lines between we and them could not be drawn. Opposition to the other side was the bedrock of their self-esteem and the justification of their aggression-based existence.
Improbably, I had gained entry into the camp of we on one account: Even if I wasn’t really a local, I wasn’t a fucking tourist either. As inconsequential as it must seem, the PanaCabana detested its own patrons. As soon as motel guests had paid their bills and gotten into their cars, the DuBoises bid them farewell with an assortment of biting remarks aimed at the hands that fed them.
Since motel guests were more or less our enemies there was no moral compulsion to treat them honestly – they got what they deserved.
Patty-Ann’s and my work as Sanitization Officers was part of that treatment, even though I’m pretty sure that kind of bullshit was standard operating procedure for hotels throughout the US. We contributed in other ways, as well.
The two of us manned the motel reception during the slow hours of the day. Though most of our rooms were on the beach side of the coastal highway, we did have some units across the road a few blocks inland, which the DuBoises referred to as the Swamp Shacks. Patty-Ann and I knew how to fill up those Swamp Shacks. Our routine went something like this:
College boys looking for accommodations: Don’t you have a desk clerk working here?
Patty Ann: We are the desk clerks. What can we do for you?
College Boys: We want a room overlooking the water.
Me: All our beach side rooms have a view of the ocean and our party suites overlook the marsh.
College Boys: What are the party suites?
Me: The party suites are on the other side of the road where loud music and partying won’t disturb family guests.
College Boys: Partying?
Patty-Ann: You wouldn’t want to stay there. We have a bunch of girls there right now and they carry on shouting and screaming and dancing all night. They smoke and drink beer too. They’re bad girls.
College Boys: Hmmm… What do those party suites cost?
This routine would, of course, be gender-switched when appropriate. And if anyone was later to complain that there were no partying girls or boys over there at all — just stinking commodes and a hell of a lot mosquitoes – Mrs DuBois would laugh it off: “Children have such wild imaginations. You didn’t really believe what a seven-year-old told you — did you?”
“I want some hulymox,” said Patty-Ann.
“You want what?” I asked.
“Hulymox. It’s Hebrew for ice cream.”
She had actually memorized all the phoney words I made up in her bible class. We were in the Penny Arcade at the Amusement Pier and Patty-Ann had just scored a dollar from a tourist and wanted to spend it right away. If Patty-Ann ever came across any money she would immediately squander it on something, most often Baby Ruths, her favorite candy. Though to her credit, she would sometimes offer me a bite, holding up the bar to my mouth, her little fingers tightly protecting the nine-tenths reserved for herself.
There is not much amusement at an Amusement Pier if you don’t have the money to buy it with. Since I was never paid for my work and the funds given to me by my parents were long gone, Patty-Ann and I would fish for change in coin slots and telephone booths. But a far more dependable source of income came from her proficiency in hitting up strangers for spare change. She was a natural born talent in that department. It was hard to resist that little angel asking for food money.
And so the summer dragged on and I resigned myself to my fate. But my exile was about to come to an abrupt and dramatic end.
One day when Patty-Ann and I were manning the Surf Shop by ourselves, a father with two kids, who had just rented an inner tube from us took a few steps towards the water, turned around, and came back to me and said:
“Hey baldy, this is my inner tube. It was stolen from our motel balcony 3 days ago.”
The object in question was not only marked up with the PanaCabana marlin, it had been painted with the number 22 above thick yellow stripes. Apparently to no avail for this guy said he recognized a mark on the valve.
Normally we would keep our hot stuff out of circulation for a week before putting it “on the market”, but someone had screwed up here. Probably me.
“How did you get this? Are you the one who stole it?” The guy was building up steam.
I said that he was mistaken and that the mark he showed me could have come about in any number of ways. He wasn’t buying it and Patty-Ann for once was lost for words. He demanded to speak with the motel owner who, as chance would have it, was just then storming over to the shop, looking very angry. I was sure she was going to somehow put this whole thing on me.
I had misread the cause of Mrs DuBois’s fury. She told the guy he didn’t know what he was talking about and that she strongly resented his implying that the PanaCabana could ever be involved in anything illegal. If he wanted to make a fuss he should call the police. She patted the nearest child on the head and told him to take his dad back to the beach and have some fun before the whole summer was over. She turned her wrath on me when they had left and it had nothing to do with the inner tube.
“You’re teaching my daughter to smoke, you little imbecile, you creep.”
This was entirely untrue. I had merely asked Patty-Ann to be on the lookout for decent cigarette butts and she had gotten very good at it. It was like a game for her. And for me an inch of butt was a lot better than no cig at all. The problem was that a friend of the family had seen us in the Penny Arcade just when Patty-Ann had been combing through ashtrays for my benefit.
But that wasn’t all…
“And that ain’t all, Jewboy. You have brought shame down on this family.”
Uh, oh. What now?
“You have been using my little girl to beg money from strangers. I don’t know what goes on in your perverted little mind. (She said this poking my temple with her index finger.) We entrusted you with our baby and you betrayed us for your own sick little desires.”
Now this was the moment for Patty-Ann to step up to the plate. She certainly didn’t need my encouragement to beg. It came naturally to her and the fruits of her prowess were shared equally between us. As a matter of fact, she took the lion’s share. After almost a month of constant companionship surely she would stick up for me. I’ll never know.
“You shut up, young lady. You hold your tongue. I’ll deal with you later. You stay here and mind the shop. Jewboy’s coming with me.”
And with that she grabbed me by the nape of my neck and jerked me out of the Surf Shop. If I had still had any hair I’m sure she would have led me home by it, my shirt collar had to suffice. She mumbled the whole way about what her boys were going to do to me.
Fortuitously, the brothers were at that moment not able to do anything as they were out in the gulf deep-water fishing. Mrs DuBois sent me to my room. I could hear through the door she was calling my parents. I made a pact with God that if I was to be sent home now I would give up beating off for 90 days. After another 15 minutes and several more phone calls she came into the room and told me to pack my bag.
Uncle Leo drove me to the airport. I had to wait four hours for my plane, but I was going home. Open up those golden gates I was free and I had escaped a trouncing from the brothers. Now I had to figure out what I was going to say to my parents. Would they believe my side of the story? Wasn’t I a martyr? I had stuck up for the N-people, hadn’t I? I had a shaved head to prove it.
Pardon my language, but fuck Florida and fuck the South. That’s what I was thinking. Everything that was wrong with America was here – I was sure of it. I was only 13. How was I to know that in 1959 Los Angeles was one of the most segregated cities in the nation; that racism was systematic throughout the country?Segregation in the South was, how can I put it, unsophisticated, but it was not unique.
I was thankful for the milk and cookies. I didn’t question why all the maids were black, their employers (Masters) white, gardeners Asian, migrant workers Hispanic. I had personally experienced injustice. And it hurt. But I had no idea how widespread that hurt was.
PS I kept my vows with God for over two weeks.
PSS Patty-Ann DuBois went on to become the first Floridian female elected to the U.S. Senate.