03 My Foot in the Door

03 My Foot in the Door

It took me three days to go the forty miles to Dallas. I should’ve arrived in a day, but being a child and my first time traveling I was worried about everything. I was afraid of tiring out the horse, scared of getting lost, and paranoid my parents may come after me. If nothing else, it was the best preparation for what would become a life on the road.
I stopped after the first day in Lewisville. It was a small town, might have had a few hundred residents at the time. My plan was to spend the night out in a pasture sleeping under the stars. It is kind of funny to think of it now, but the idea of sleeping alone, in the open at night was a core part of life back then. I understood the basics of fire, shelter, water, and food. It was something that everyone had to know back then.
But, that first night I did not end up sleeping outside. Instead, I met an elderly couple that took a liking to me. Her name was Nancy and her husband Neil were taking a stroll through town that afternoon. It is hard to not stick out in a small town. You are either someone everyone knows or you are not.
They had seen me stopping at a public water trough for my horse and called me over to them. Being the first people I spoke to since running away from my home, I was nervous. I remember making sure my horse was tied good to the post and walked over to the older couple with my riding hat held down in front of me. I was spinning it in circles keeping my hands doing something.
They were both very grey and had a bit of a stoop in their back. Their advanced age had taken their posture from them. Neil spoke slowly and with some deep vibrato in his voice, “What brings you to Lewisville, boy?” I continued to approach as Nancy lightly backhanded her husband, “Don’t be rude!” She had a softer, smoother voice that didn’t seemed as aged as her body.
I was very afraid my parents would be looking for me, a fear that was truly unfounded, so I tried to keep my story far enough away from the truth to not tip anyone off that may be looking for me.
“I’m coming from Pilot Point. Making my way down to Dallas. For work, for a living.” I tried to sound like an adult as if I could fool them.
Nancy butted in, “What’s your name young man?”
I grasped for something other than my real name. Anything but John Malone. The only thing that came to mind was Andrew “the farmer” slate calling me Squirt. “I go by Squirt, ma’am.”
Neil retorted, “Mighty young man to be making that kind of journey alone.” He smiled to show that he wasn’t trying to be difficult.
“Sir, my father fell ill months ago. My mother left to remarry. I may be twelve, but I am out to make something of myself.” I hoped the story would suffice. It wasn’t outlandish or even uncommon. Children trying to fend for themselves before their teens was probably one in a hundred.
Nancy smiled and placed her head on her husband’s shoulder. She squeezed his hand tightly speaking to him through their years of connection.
“Grab your travel companion,” Neil motioned to my horse, “and come with us. We always make too much food and would be honored to hear your tale of adventure from Pilot Point.”
Over the years I have learned how to tell when someone is genuine and when someone wants something from you. I was probably lucky to have run into that couple when I was still at such an impressionable age. But, it was nice to be wanted.
I don’t recall much of the conversation that night. I remember the incredibly dense cornbread they fed me. Like the child I was, I ate more than my share, but Nancy and Neil didn’t mind. They had taken a liking to me because I reminded them of their own children. Of course their children were adults at this point. Adults who probably didn’t give their parents enough attention anymore. Adults who were obsessed with their own problems.
Not that Neil and Nancy were bitter. They understood growing up. They knew they still had each other. And for one night I was there to remind them of their best times.
That night was amazing. Lewisville had electric lines run and there were street lights that illuminated the park with its little gazeebo. Couples in love walked in the night under the halo lights of the street lamps. It was the most serene thing I would ever see. Felt like the world showing me I was making the right decision.
The second night I should have made the rest of the way to Dallas, but called it a day around Farmer’s Branch. It was a small settlement that didn’t consist of much more than a train station. I saw a general store and a few farms, but it was essentially just a blip on the rails of Texas. There weren’t any troughs, I had to rely on the streams that ran off the nearby Trinity River.
It was the night that I expected. I caught a rabbit for dinner, made a fire, and slept under the stars.
The third day I rolled into Dallas. As I came into Dallas on Elm street I was surrounded by a bustling city. There were people up and down the porticos. Horses and buggies tied up at every store front. The sight was amazing, but the smell was pungent. Even with a city employee walking through the street picking up manure, there was still an overpowering stench that seemed to invade your entire body.
I had trouble dwelling on that when I had business to conduct. Not used to the city I realized that I was not likely to find a rancher about downtown looking to buy livestock. This was much more like the square in Denton where there were specific businesses that could house their inventory locally. The difference was in Denton two hundred yards off the square was a farm. Here it would be a full day’s walk to get from a farm to downtown.
I rode in cautiously expecting to be questioned at every turn, but the city was too large and too self-absorbed to care about a random kid that came unaccompanied. I knew from the family business that a three-year-old steer was worth seventy-five dollars. I knew that a saddle horse would be worth much more. Plus, the saddle and dressings, I didn’t need.
I surveyed the area as my horse slowly trotted down the beaten dirt road. Insurance companies, banks, cotton distributors. It was a city that was so far advanced from what I was used to. I eventually saw the Sam Freshman liquor and saloon. It was the only logical place I could stop.
I tied the horse to the hitch out front and headed into the saloon. It was dark and loud for an early afternoon. They had obviously closed off many of their windows thinking their new electric lights would illuminate the place, but those early lights were so dim.
The place featured a round bar in the center of the room with a handful of tables sprawled out around the outside of the room. On one side was a door that led out to Lamar street, on the other was a door that led to a handful of rooms the saloon rented out to out of towners. It was a practice that would die out in a couple years when the Adolphus hotel would put all the saloons out of the hotelier business. The place didn’t feature a piano or a bunch of cowboys gambling like they show in the movies. Instead it was a bunch of men drunk in the middle of the day making a ruckus in a room with a tiled ceiling that echoed the noise to unbearable levels. Dallas had come too far and evolved too much to be the old west that everyone likes to think it was. Half the men in the room were bankers that never learned the basics of life like catching a dinner.
I walked up to the bar, but gravitated towards the saloon girl as opposed to the bartender. It was probably my youthful-self trusting a motherly figure as opposed to a male, but it is something that I never really outgrew.
I approached the woman who was full figured in a corset that had given up at its job of holding the woman in many moon ago. She had long red hair and was obviously trying to cover up a few decades of aging under a few pounds of makeup. As I approached her she shook her head disapprovingly.
“Ma’am.” I said as I tipped my hat in her direction.
She let the corners of her mouth dip down. Her voice was deep, but she tried to raise it to be more feminine. “Please don’t tell me you are looking for a good time.”
“No ma’am. I was hoping to talk to someone about a room.” I replied trying my best to be respectful, cautious, but adult like all at once.
“And what is it you are planning on doing in that room? I may be here to keep this place afloat, but heaven knows you are still a baby and no how am I…”
I cut her off before she had more time to insult me. “No, ma’am. I’ve made my way down here from Pilot Point. I am looking to sew some new roots. I need a place to sleep for the next few days.”
“Child, I pray for whatever tragedy you had to endure that leaves one as young as you trying to start a new life. We have a room that runs three dollars a night.” She tried to reach out and pat my head like I was a puppy.
I squirmed out of the way. “Thank you ma’am. I need to find someone who will buy my horse, then I can pay for the room.”
She put her arm around my shoulders and quickly walked me to the side door. “Your best bet is to go down Elm street to where the Mulattos and Chinese are. It’s down near first, called Ellum.” She whispered all this to me as she shuffled me out the door onto Lamar. “Bless you, child. And don’t you take anything under a hundred for that horse. You should have sold it back north and taken a train down. Be careful everyone in Dallas is going to want to swindle you.”
Basically thrown out the door I went around and mounted my horse. I took the slow path down Elm Street looking for First Avenue. The experience stayed with me for many years. At the time I saw a land of opportunity, businesses that existed to simplify life, people who had a singular purpose, and places that were existing for no other reason than to entertain people. In my young eyes it was the world I had dreamed of. Decades later in my older years I would see this all as the destruction of man’s self-reliance. There is a benefit that I couldn’t understand at the time that comes with the ability and passion to take care of one’s self.
I continued to ride in my excitement which left pretty swiftly as the storefronts turned into residential porches. The street lights became fewer and farther between and the newer architecture was replaced by shotgun houses.
I should have been more at ease and more at home as the scenery became more and more like Denton, but I was very aware that I was suddenly the only person of white skin around me. There were a few huddled groups of Chinese off down the alleyways, but the vast majority of the people that were lounging on their porches and talking in their yards were black folks. Many of them looked up at me in confusion, but most of them kept to their selves. A few of them yelled out at me with what sounded like non-sense, “Lulsquatohkuck ohyoutut” or “Whackhasheyetutee bubohyub”.
I had seen a black person or two in my lifetime, but in 1910 there was no love lost between the races in the south. As much as it appalls me now I feel that I was trained to distrust groups that I wasn’t a part of. It isn’t something I blame on my family or even my community. It was the time and what our ancestors had put each other through. Just as I trusted and listened to my parents, the stories and ethics of my grandparents were somewhat bred into me.
I didn’t get very far into Ellum before I was approached by a group of black men. They were all dressed better than anyone in my family with vests, hats, and shiny boots. They attempted to approach me in a friendly manner, but there was palpable caution being presented. The man in the front was short and stout. He displayed a wide grin that contrasted his dark complexion. He was flanked by two men on his right and one on his left, all taller and thinner. The smiling man raised his hand as he started to speak, “I think you might be a bit lost. This here is Deep Ellum. I have a feeling you are looking for the West End.”
I slowed my horse, but remained saddled as I didn’t think it was wise to give up my tall stature while riding. “I’m sorry to bother you fine folks. I am looking to plant some roots. I need to sell my horse and find some work.”
There was a general chuckle amongst the men in the street. “I really think you want the West End.” The smiling man paused thinking to himself before he resumed our dialogue. “No reason to pretend you don’t see it. You in a negro neighborhood. Now, my brothers here don’t have any problem with you coming through our neighborhood, but what happens when you sell us that horse of yours? Tomorrow you come back with your father or the sheriff claiming that we stole your horse.”
I started to rebut, but the man continued.
“And you say you are wanting to work. Well, I suggest you head back to the West End where you can sell some papers or fill some troughs because out here in Deep Ellum you be unloading trucks, putting up buildings, repairing buggies, you know, real work.” His statements brought support from the group of men at his sides.
I nodded my head understanding that we were on different teams and this wasn’t going to be a marriage of convenience. “I understand.” I turned my horse to start heading back to downtown. “But, I come from a cattle ranch north of here. I know what a day’s work is. You don’t trust me. I understand. But, if you could trust me would you be interested in the horse for one fifty?”
The men perked up at the price. They talked amongst themselves making me realize that I was still low balling myself.
Smiles called out as I was still slowly trotting away. “You selling that horse you sitting on for one hundred and fifty dollars?”
In a panic I responded, “Two hundred with the saddle, shoes, packs, and all.” I hoped I was getting close to the actual value.
I was almost out of ear shot, so the man shouted back. “We would take that deal. But, we don’t trust you, as you said.” They all turned back and headed out of the street as I picked up my speed heading back to town.
It was less than two hours before I returned to their side of town. I was escorted by a Dallas county deputy. I had come accustomed to the presence of police being a positive thing. So, I didn’t expect the reaction I got.
The smiling came out of his house at a swift jog. The smile had left and he was shouting with his fist up in the air, “I told you! You were here to set us up! We don’t want you in our neighborhood you need to be in the West End!”
The deputy jumped down from his horse immediately placing his right hand on his revolver and his left hand up trying to calm the man. My fight or flight kicked in and I was off my horse holding up both hands at the deputy trying to hold back a fire fight. I dug as deep as I could let out a voice that shouldn’t have been summoned by a child my age. “Hold on!” The deep bellow startled both men who silenced and stopped their forward motion. “I came here to sell a horse. I brought this deputy so you would have a lawman as an eye witness to the transaction. I need you to know that I am not going to welsh on our deal. If one of the two of you leave here with a toe tag, then this was a colossal failure.”
Smiley faced me, but kept his eyes locked on the deputy. He nodded his head slightly while licking his lips. “Sir, if you would take your hand off your gun I would feel much better about everyone’s motives here.” He watched as the deputy let go of the handle of the revolver and dropped his hand. Smiley visibly relaxed as the threat disappeared. He turned his focus to me and while he still had a fiercely serious look on his face he growled, “You are young so I am going to let it go. But, this could have been duck soup if you would have run it by me earlier. But you bring a lawman into this neighborhood unannounced and everyone here thinks they are going to the pokey.” With that he let his smile come back out.
Everything went well. I had two hundred dollars and ride back to town. The fellows in Ellum had a horse that was in good shape and could resell for a decent profit. And the deputy managed to not shoot anyone.
As I was riding off hanging onto the back of the deputy, Smiley was walking beside us. I asked him, “I don’t want to surprise you again, but I am going to show up here in the morning looking for work. I am not setting the roots I want selling newspapers to bankers.”
Smiley laughed at my tenacity. “Tell you what boy. Carnival coming into town on Tuesday. That’s your best bet. If you try and get anything before then the folks around here are going to assume you want to take all our jobs. So be here by sunrise on Tuesday and we’ll give you a lift to fair park.” He waved as he finished talking and walking.
I understood. I had enough money now to last me a few weeks, it wouldn’t hurt if I waited until Tuesday to find work. I had wanted to connect with the carnival anyway, I had no real plans of staying in Texas.
The deputy took me back to Sam Freshman’s saloon where I got my room, got some grub, and started to acclimate to life on my own.