A High School Hero and the Question of Race

It wasn't too often that I went into Rock Town. Two or three times my father drove there to pick up Cora, the indefatigable black woman who helped my mother cook for our restaurant on Highway 66. I went along and sat in the back seat, staring at the houses of Rock Town's dusty streets, yesterday's version of what sociologists would now call a ''low-income, ethnic neighborhood.'' There were neat little homes tucked in among all the worn, sagging houses, most patched and colorless.

Some of the houses were without electricity and probably indoor plumbing, too. In truth, most were shacks, many scraped together with the resulting third- world look of resourceful ingenuity that comes from using what others have thrown away.

Even through my nine-year-old eyes, I knew the difference between Rock Town and Duarte, the California town where I spent some boyhood years among orange groves and pepper trees. My family was not well off, but Rock Town poverty was not ours.

What I saw, and only remotely understood, was that Rock Town was the southern California version of segregation. Blacks lived there; Hispanic families, too. Several of the Rock Town children were my classmates in Duarte Elementary School, and this was l950, long before the word ''integration'' was widely used or accomplished.

So, I extend a round of applause for this partial integration even in that year. But I say partial because in hindsight I know the white boys and girls of those years had a scant idea of the privileges that came with skin color. And any blacks or Hispanics from those days could write the alternative view, a different history crafted from the pen of the oppressed.

In later years I learned that a white man of wealth named Lucky Baldwin had come to the San Gabriel Valley in the late 1800s and settled in Arcadia, two towns west of Duarte. He built a marvelous kind of tropical gingerbread house surrounded by many acres of lush palms, jungle-like flora, and a sparkling lagoon.

He ''hired'' blacks to work there and on other projects. Whether they were actually slaves or independent agents is open to question. Whatever their designation, they had to live in Monrovia, just east of Arcadia. Probably some drifted farther east to Duarte, where they formed the early stages of Rock Town.

Rock Town was always a name spoken pejoratively among white children. Monrovia had a black section, but Rock Town suffered from a lonely reputation as a place where no white person would want to be. I was puzzled by this, but never enough to ask questions that might challenge the status quo of the times.

Nor was it possible, even if I had thought about it, to talk about ''where they lived'' to the black kids that played on the playground alongside me.

But my level of racial ignorance had to end sooner or later. The road to clarity starts in surprising ways.

I changed when Sam Kellogg gave me a job as a busboy at his popular restaurant named ''Hamburger Heaven.'' I was a freshman in high school looking for money to buy Fats Domino records, more Levis, and a pair of white bucks.

Hamburger Heaven was a big restaurant with a great location on the eastern end of Highway 66 in Duarte. On Sunday nights in winter months, many skiers on their way back from Mt. Baldy or Big Bear would stop to eat there.

I don't know quite why, after a month of working on weekends, I hadn't made my way past the dirty dish bins to the room where three or four young blacks washed dishes. Steamy and hot, the room was full of loud laughter and smelled of steam, soap, and sweat.

To my astonishment one Sunday night, I walked past the dish bins and saw Hardiman Cureton in the room washing dishes. Huge and swift, Hardiman was the best lineman in high-school football in southern California at that time. He was the kind of player that became a legend. Beaded with sweat and wearing a T-shirt, he and the others were moving the dishes through the washing cycle with lightning speed and humor. ''Hey, man,'' he yelled at me, ''keep those spoons coming!''

I learned two things that night. I was getting paid more than Hardiman Cureton, and he lived in Rock Town.

There was little I could do but work through some kind of weak rationale in the following days. I tentatively grappled with the concepts of justice, whiteness, and employment. I couldn't understand the odd little twinge in my stomach.

Cureton was a famous, graceful athlete. I was too young, clumsy, and inexperienced to understand the racial implications of the case of the dishwasher and the busboy. Maybe Rock Town was not what it appeared to be, I thought. Maybe I should do something. What was the meaning of this? But any answers, any insights slid by me then like a soapy dinner plate.

Hardiman Cureton went on to college at UCLA to become an All-American football player, arguably one of the best of his time.

Rock Town was later destroyed by a freeway.

Eventually, I grew up.

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