By James McMurtry
I think it was 1968 when I flew off the backseat of a Ford Sedan and smacked my nose pretty hard on the back of the front seat. It seems my father had run the car into the back end of a delivery truck that was stopped at the Greenbriar light, west bound on Sunset Boulevard in Houston. We were only going about five miles an hour and my nose didn’t even bleed, but I hit it just right for maximum pain of the non-bleeding sort. The truck wasn’t damaged, but the Ford was crunched up a bit, some radiator damage. The truck driver was a young black man in a clean white T-shirt and he looked scared. I had never seen fear on a grown man’s face. I didn’t know what to make of it. I was six years old. The first policeman on the scene was, as I remember, a walking cop. I don’t remember seeing a patrol car or a motorcycle, and he had neither a helmet nor tall boots. He wore the brown uniform of sixties era Houston police and he had a pen and a ticket book ready. I couldn’t hear the officer’s questions, but he glared at my father, who kept repeating, “No sir, it was my fault, I was looking off across the street at the house with the “For Sale” sign . . .” I don’t know how many times my father had to repeat his knowledge of the fact that he was at fault in the accident and that, if a ticket needed to be written, he should be the recipient, but the conversation went on for a while. I don’t remember if a ticket was written. I do remember the driver’s fear and the policeman’s increasing anger. The features of the cop’s face just seemed to disappear. He had no lips by the time he left. Some other cops came and looked around and shrugged and drove off. They didn’t seem so angry. The cops and the truck all went away, and a friendly good ol’ boy came along with a tow truck, and I didn’t think much about that day for many years.
We had no cell phones or camcorders in 1968. That incident could have ended really badly, phones or no phones. The truck driver knew it. I didn’t. I hear the Houston police are a much better force now, but, fifty two years later, I’ll bet a black man involved in a wreck at Greenbriar and Sunset would still know that fear that the young truck driver knew all those years ago. He would still be a black man involved in a wreck in a white neighborhood.
On one of our pre pandemic tours, back in the old world, my band and I played on a fall night in Holyoke Massachusetts. I was hungry after soundcheck and managed to google up a Puerto Rican restaurant. I had never eaten Puerto Rican food, so I hoofed it over there just to find that the place was closing at 6PM. I was dismayed. After the show I asked a local why the place closed so early. She replied,
“Because if you’re Puerto Rican on the streets of Holyoke after dark, you will be arrested.”
For years, I had honestly believed we had improved.