I hadn’t really thought much about race until he asked me a simple question: “Damn, college boy, are you gonna be white your whole life?”
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I’m not sure I have an earliest recollection of Maurice Scott. We met in the late eighties, when I was a student at the University of Texas and working mornings at the state capitol. We were both sergeants-at-arms for the House of Representatives, glorified errand-runners really, except that for me, with duties initially consisting of manning a copy machine and folding flags that had flown over the statehouse dome, Maurice’s position looked genuinely glorious. He was in charge of the House’s interoffice mail run, and he spent his days in a big white Suburban with “Texas House of Representatives” written large on its doors in black block letters, delivering memos and packages to buildings around the state office complex and taking large constituent mail-outs to the main post office across town. That may not resemble the dream job of your youth, but if you had been stuck down in the sergeants’ holding tank, a dank basement bunker known appropriately as the Pit, breathing in the sour exhalations of forty other hungover, smart-ass college kids, awaiting a call from, say, the secretary of the distinguished House member from Holliday, who needed you to lick 1,500 envelopes containing an urgent dispatch back to the district and maybe fetch said member’s comb from the glove box of his car, you too would have dreamed of hopping in the Sub with Maurice and spending some time in the sunshine.
At that level of remove, Maurice carried the air of an Independent Man. He was in his mid-fifties, black, and looked like B. B. King, almost short, almost round, and always dressed in a coat, tie, and pocket square. He sang, “Yo baby, yo baby, yo,” as he strolled the Capitol corridors, responding to calls of “What’s happening, Mo-Man?” from everybody he passed with a loud “Ain’t nothing to it” or, if it was a lady who’d wondered what was going on, a simple “you.” This was his career, and he’d made himself a fixture of state governance. I was in my early twenties, white, and being a sergeant was what I did when I wasn’t sitting in class or on my couch drinking beer; it was principally a way to pay for all that brew.
But while there’s no first memory, there is a strongest one. A few months into my two-year tenure with the sergeants, I became one of “Maurice’s boys,” one of the guys he’d ask for specifically when he needed someone to ride with him and do the heavy lifting. That meant that most days my entire five-hour shift was spent riding around town with him, shooting the breeze and listening to the black community radio station broadcast out of East Austin. We’d make quick work of our appointed rounds and then pick up lunch at a soul food place on the east side and park down by the university to watch girls and eat. Eventually I became a steady enough presence in the Sub that a photo of Hank Williams Jr. appeared there from out of the blue, cut out of a newspaper and taped to the dash. It was a symbol of Maurice’s embrace, as he liked to put it, of my people and our music. I think he said something further about not wanting me to feel so alone when we were making our runs.
So, as to the strongest specific memory: I distinctly recall, on two different occasions in the Sub with Maurice, pulling up to a stoplight between the Capitol and campus. I was driving—Maurice would almost always have me drive—the windows were down, and we found ourselves sitting to the right of a car driven by a large, ugly black man who looked as if he were having one of the benchmark bad days by which a life is measured. On both occasions, Maurice surveyed the scene and started to giggle. Then he ducked down below the dashboard so it looked as if I were alone in the car, turned his head toward me, and yelled, “Hey, nigger!” at the top of his lungs, past me, and out my window. In my memory I hear him laughing so hard that the only sound he makes is a whistling through his nose, and I see myself in utter panic, a refugee from lily-white suburbia who looks as though he has just caught himself in the zipper of his pants, all wide-eyed shock, pain, and shame.
THERE WERE 1,500 or so students at Westlake High School, in Austin, when I graduated in 1985, and four of them were black: two brothers from a family named Lyons and a brother and sister named, ironically enough, or so some of us joked, Amos. The Lyons had just moved to Texas from Jamaica, so conversation with them was either about Bob Marley or, with even less relevance, the late Ethiopian emperor Haile Selassie, exchanges that the Lyons themselves seldom instigated. The Amos kids, on the other hand, were too brainy to visit with much. All I really remember of the Amos in my grade, Oscar, was that one day, after being intimidated by something particularly heady he’d said in class, I started calling him Oscrates. Like Socrates. I thought that was pretty clever.
The concept of race relations was strictly hypothetical. What I knew about race had come from my parents. My dad was an Episcopal priest who’d grown up dirt-poor in North Carolina, and he had run a black church in Rocky Mount in the early sixties, before I was born. I’d ask him what that was like, looking for crosses burned in our yard or bricks thrown through our windows, hoping for a hero from the civil rights wars who was related to me. He never lingered too long on answers to those questions, steering the talk instead to the time he and other local church leaders sat up all night in a Rocky Mount hotel room with Martin Luther King Jr., drinking gin and discussing the movement. My dad would talk about how the city’s mayor had refused to appear with King at a speech that day and how that night one of the area preachers had had to vouch for my dad when some of Dr. King’s team had wondered about the white guy in the room. But that was about all my dad had said.
I was a typical Westlake kid when I graduated. To my father’s unspeakable disappointment, I had a poster of Ronald Reagan above my bed and another in my locker at school. I was pretty sure I deserved every break that came my way and had no understanding of people who complained that those same breaks weren’t coming to them. I thought my upper-middle-class world was the real world, the whole world. And though my mom and dad had done a good job of instilling the notion that “nigger” was a dirty word, I didn’t blink when I heard it used. I didn’t have any black friends, and I had never seen firsthand the hurt that the word could cause.
Working for the sergeants changed a lot of that. Most of the other kids in the Pit were Greeks, university frat boys and sorority girls. I wasn’t comfortable in the Greek set, partly out of jealousy, because as a non-affiliate I couldn’t get any of the sorority girls to talk to me. But also I resented all the friends I’d lost to that system. Most of my high school buddies who went to UT had pledged, and I didn’t understand why I couldn’t sit with them in class at college. So in the Pit I gravitated to the guys who looked a little bit “other,” like a heavy-metal guitar player named Erik, who had to tuck his long hair into his shirt collar to hold on to his job. (Cutting it was out of the question.) And a black guy named Roderick, recently renamed from his original Rodney. Roderick wore sunglasses indoors and always had a set of dice with him that he’d pull out and roll for spare change whenever he wasn’t working.
Erik and Roderick were two of Maurice’s boys, and sticking with them was what had brought me to Maurice. I remember one early run that Roderick and I made to the post office. The mail-out we were delivering was huge, so we took the House moving van. Maurice drove, and we rode in the back, leaving the back door rolled open to ease the heat. On the way back to the Capitol after unloading, Roderick broke out his dice, and we started slinging them off the van’s walls and onto the floor. As Roderick kept winning, the dime and quarter bets thrown down grew into dollar bills, all with the back door wide open. Somebody at a stoplight must have told Maurice what we were doing, because he yanked the van into a parking lot and stopped suddenly enough to send us crashing to the floor. Then he came running to the back of the van, where I sat puzzled, and Roderick quickly scooped up the dice and money.
“What the hell is going on back here?” demanded Maurice.
“Nothing,” said Roderick as he stood up and shoved his hands in his pockets.
“Yeah, nothing,” I added, still sitting. “We’re just rolling bones.” Roderick had instructed me that shooting dice was also called “rolling bones.”
“‘Just rolling bones’?” said Maurice in disbelief. “Goddam! This is a House of Representatives truck! You don’t see those big signs on the side of the van saying ‘House of Representatives’? You think nobody in traffic sees those signs? You think they don’t see you back here rolling those bones?”
“What’s the big deal about that?” I asked him, in all honesty not quite seeing the problem.
“The big deal?” he went on. “Rolling bones is gambling! And gambling’s illegal! Goddam, college boy, are you gonna be white your whole goddam life?”
IT’S NOT CLEAR HOW it happened, but after a brief downgrade from “college boy” to “white boy,” I received from Maurice a nickname, Sponnie, and became his chief lieutenant at the Capitol. Maybe it was because I seemed as exotic to him as he was to me. I let slip that I’d gotten in trouble in high school for mooning a teacher, and that tickled him to no end. When we talk now—Maurice is 71 and living with his new wife, Larcina, in the East Austin home he grew up in—he always brings that up, plus another notable moment in traffic. “Yeah, Sponnie, do you remember that day we were driving to the post office and that rich white lady pulled up alongside of us, and she was digging in her nose? Had her finger in her nose up to here”—he points to the middle knuckle on his index finger—“and she was just digging. And you whispered to me, ‘Hey, Maurice, watch this,’ and you looked over at her and started digging in your own nose. Boy, that lady looked at you, diggin’ in that nose, and she took off, man. She didn’t know what to do. Those were some helluva times, boy.”
They were the days before FedEx was an everyday occurrence, and a big part of our work on the Run, as it was called, was to take packages to the Greyhound bus station for overnight delivery back to the members’ district offices. Every time, Maurice would get out of the Sub and go inside to fill out the paperwork, leaving me to load the packages onto the dolly and push it in myself, which usually meant a spill when I tried to negotiate the door and the dolly alone. By the time I’d regroup and get to the desk, he’d have every black employee in the place gathered around, and he’d laugh and point at me and say, “I think everybody ought to get ’em a white boy. Don’t you know my granddaddy is up in heaven right now givin’ his granddaddy some shit? Lemme give you a hand there, Sponnie.” And he’d help unload and then we’d be gone.
His favorite incident was the time I ran into an old girlfriend’s father at the main post office. Call this man Mr. Jones, and understand that he wasn’t crazy about me. I’d been a sophomore in college when I’d tried to date his daughter, but she was still in high school at that point and forbidden to leave the house with the likes of me. In fact, she was forbidden to leave the front porch with me. So two nights a week, and two nights only, we’d sit outside and talk. It was no good arrangement, but it was as close to a date as I could get, and I agreed to it.
But this encounter at the post office was a couple of years later, and I stopped to visit with Mr. Jones by the loading docks. Maurice was about twenty yards behind us, talking with a few guys who worked for the post office. Mr. Jones and I caught up for a minute, and then I got cute. I said, “Mr. Jones, you never got a chance to meet my father, did you?”
“Why, no, I didn’t,” he said and smirked.
“Hey, Pop,” I yelled without turning around. “Come here. I want you to meet somebody.”
Five seconds later Maurice put his left hand on Mr. Jones’ shoulder and his right hand out to shake. “How are you doing, white fella?” asked Maurice. Mr. Jones got the joke right away, which is not to say he thought it was funny.
It didn’t take long to fill in Maurice once we were back in the Sub. We had talked all about Mr. Jones and his daughter—we talked about everything in that Sub—and he did appreciate the joke. “I guess that man must have thought, ‘That’s how come I didn’t like this kid,’” said Maurice. “‘He got a damn black daddy.’”
We became inseparable. I got good at imitating Maurice, and during those semesters when I’d work afternoons, he could cut out of work early and I would cover for him. I’d make a phone call to the sergeants’ office from some remote spot on the Run and sound just like him. “This is the Mo-Man, and I need a sergeant with a flatbed dolly to pick some stuff up at the north door of the Capitol,” with “north door” pronounced to rhyme with “both know,” as in, “You and I both know Maurice has already left work today and won’t be showing up at any ‘north door,’ but does that have to be a problem?” No questions were ever asked.
There were a lot of favors like that. When I got crosswise with an Austin motorcycle cop who patrolled the lot where all the sergeants parked, and received a parking ticket a day for a week and a half, Maurice approached the cop and made up some story about my dad’s being a big-shot lawyer on the governor’s staff. The tickets stopped. And one day, when Maurice and I showed up for a free lunch being thrown for full-time staffers by some lobbying group or another, I was stopped at the door by our boss, who pointed out that while Maurice was invited, I was not. Maurice got hot and snapped at our boss, “Look here. He’s with me, and if he’s gotta leave, I gotta leave,” and our boss let me stay.
But then, when we found a table, Maurice looked at me. “Now you know what it’s like, white boy, and if it had been the other way around, would you have said the same thing? Or would you have just let me go and you stay? Because, John, I can remember when that was the way this shit happened.”
MAURICE ALWAYS CALLED me John instead of Sponnie when the talk turned serious. This was about the time the film Mississippi Burning came out, and I remember asking him if he was going to see it. There was some controversy around the film, a few critics who’d complained that Hollywood was incapable of producing such a movie unless heroes were made of the white FBI agents from up north rather than the black Southerners who actually suffered Jim Crow, and I wondered what Maurice thought about that. He had a different complaint.
“Man, John, I can’t watch that shit,” he said. “It’s just a movie to you, but that was my life. Like one time, when my son Leonard was a little boy, back in the fifties, I took him into town one day. And at the State or the Paramount, one of those theaters over there, Roy Rogers was playing. Leonard told me, ‘Daddy, let’s go see Roy Rogers. He’s a cowboy,’ and I had to say, ‘No, son, we can’t go see Roy Rogers.’ He said, ‘Why not, Daddy? Ain’t you got any money?’ I said, ‘Yeah, I got money.’ And he said, ‘Well, then how come we can’t go?’ Now you try to explain to your son why he can’t go see Roy Rogers. You got plenty of money, but he can’t go. You tell him he can’t go because he’s black.
“Or like my mother’s mother’s mother, my great-grandmother. She lived to be 108 years old, and she used to tell us some helluva stuff.” He thought about it, and for a moment, the memories were light. “Me and my older brother used to go see her, and I remember she used to chew tobacco and dip snuff—at the same time, man, spitting that tobacco into a little can she kept. And when she wasn’t chewing and dipping, she used to chew chewing gum, and she’d chew that gum until she got all the sweet out of it, and then she’d give it to me and my brother.” He laughed. “Boy, we chewed the hell out of that gum.”
But he couldn’t stay light. “You know, though, she used to get around pretty good, and she’d walk with us and tell us stuff, about back in the slavery time and the way things used to be. Her husband would be in the house in the mornings, and the boss would come and make him go into the field, and then the boss would have an affair with her. That was my great-grandmother, man. I knew her.
“She used to tell me stuff that made me cry, John. And when I was coming up, we used to visit my uncle and them in La Grange, and when my dad would stop at the service station and we’d have to use the restroom, they’d say, ‘No restroom. You gotta go out back.’ Or to eat, we’d have to go in the kitchen. Man, I saw some shit that’s unbelievable today. I tell my kids about it and they just start laughing. They say, ‘Ahhh, Dad.’”
THE RUN GREW beyond straight-shot drives from the Capitol to the post office, stretching to include side trips through East Austin, where Maurice would show me the places he’d grown up and the nightclubs he’d owned before he’d gone to work for the State. He introduced me to friends he’d had his whole life, some in their eighties, with names like Tailgate, Chili, Sarge, Scout, and Money Brown. Every time Maurice introduced me he’d say, “This is Sponnie. He’s that white boy I told you about, the one who shot the moon at his teacher in high school.”
At first we’d sneak away from work in the afternoons to a little strip of bars on East Twelfth: the Shalimar, the Yellow-Jacket, and the Oak Tree Lounge. There was a palpable thrill in parking that highly conspicuous House Suburban in front of a bar and going in for a beer, knowing that everybody in the neighborhood knew Maurice and there was no chance any one of them would call a complaint in to the Capitol.
We began meeting over there at night and on the weekends. Typically he’d be a little late, so I’d walk in and ask if anyone had seen him. They all knew him as Pug, a nickname he said he’d gotten when he was a kid and getting into a lot of fights. So when they told me, “No, there’s no Maurice Scotts that come in here,” I’d follow up with “What about Pug?”
“Nope. No Pugs either.”
“Well, I guess I’ll just wait then,” and sure enough, within ten minutes Maurice would come in and the whole place would erupt, “Pug!” Then the bartender would tell me, “Sorry about that. We thought you might be the law.”
Some Saturday afternoons we ran a circuit between three dark, windowless bars—the East Side Lounge, Chester’s, and the H&H—playing the jukebox, watching ball games, and always ordering the same thing: Miller Lite in cans, with a tub of ice, a spoon, and some plastic cups to set up the bottle of whiskey Maurice had brought in. It would take no time for everybody to start carrying on or, as Maurice put it, to get fired up. They’d met like this a thousand times, everybody laughing and giving each other hell, hollering at one other, the bartender, the bartender’s kids, the television. If baseball was on, Maurice rooted for the Dodgers, and he said it was because of Jackie Robinson. And if it was football season, he rooted for whoever was playing against UT, and he said that that was due to Darrell Royal. Scout, an older whiskey drinker at the table, explained that Maurice and his older brother had been stud football players for Austin’s all-black Anderson High School. Both were easily good enough to play big-time college ball, he said, but UT, which didn’t suit up a black player until 1970, 18 years after Maurice graduated, was not an option.
Maurice bought the old Oak Tree bar about the time I got out of college. By then, all the clubs on the strip but the East Side Lounge had shut down, and junkies had more or less taken over the block. But Maurice intended to reclaim the strip and planned to reopen the Oak Tree once he retired from the State. One Saturday afternoon I took another white guy from the Capitol to lend a hand with the restoration. We’d been at it about an hour, sweeping leaves off the roof and moving furniture inside, when Chili and Money Brown came by with some wine Chili had made in his bathtub. For our purposes, the whistle had blown. I bought a case of beer at the Quickie Pickie across the street, and by the time I got back, the party was rolling in the Oak Tree front yard. We sat there drinking and telling stories the rest of the day, shouting at the people driving by who’d slowed down to shout at Maurice.
During a lull in traffic, Maurice looked at me. “Sponnie, did I ever tell you and your friend there about the legend of the Alamo?” I’d heard his take on Texas history before, but my buddy had not.
“I guess it was back one hundred and fifty, maybe two hundred years ago, when Texas was fighting for their independence. It was down IH-35 to San Antonio, where the Texans were holed up in this church house called the Alamo. Outside there was, I’d say, two or three hundred thousand Mexicans, and inside there were eight white dudes. And them white dudes were bad, boy. Held those Mexicans at bay for maybe six or seven months or something. Just held ’em at bay. But then one day, Davy Crockett, who was the baddest one of all, he decided he was tired of them other dudes, and he needed to get him some lovin’. So one night he snuck out of the Alamo, and he forgot to lock the door. And that’s when those Mexicans went in there and killed every one of them white dudes.”
That was Money Brown’s cue. He was in his late eighties and had been a regular at all of Maurice’s clubs. The two of them had been going back and forth like this for fifty years. He said, “Maurice, why do you want to fill these nice young white men’s heads full of all that nonsense?”
“What the hell are you talking about, Money Brown?” said Maurice.
“You know David Crockett wasn’t at any Alamo.”
“Dammit, Money Brown, Davy Crockett was in charge of the Alamo.”
“No, he was not.”
“Then who the hell do you think was?”
“Goddam, Money Brown, you antique motherf—r. You were at the Alamo! And you don’t remember running into Davy Crockett?”
Money Brown scratched his cheek, as though he were really thinking about it. “Nope, I guess I don’t.” He paused. “But I do keep a raccoon’s pecker in my wallet. You white fellas want to see it?”
Chili laughed so hard he fell out of his chair.
EVENTUALLY MAURICE just introduced me around the east side as his white son, and there was never a better time than when we got somebody to buy it. But as those things go, we ended up moving on. After graduation I left the sergeants and the next year started law school at UT. Everything was about studying then, but Maurice and I stayed as close as we could, getting together for birthdays and holidays, New Year’s Eve and Juneteenth, but no more Saturdays at the Oak Tree. Ultimately, we kept in touch over the phone.
Law school proved to be a whole other world from college, beginning with the first lecture, where there were more black students than I’d had in most of my undergrad courses combined. But the bigger surprise came when I’d occasionally hear a white student refer to those blacks as “niggers.” It would take only one request for them to find another term, but that wasn’t the same as changing anybody’s thinking. Some of the white students automatically assumed that the blacks didn’t deserve to be there and resented the fact that they were. I remember one white guy who gave me a thumbs-up during a final exam when a black student finished his test early. He was that confident that our grades would be better.
But the real shock came when the sorority girls started returning my phone calls. Most of third year I dated a cute little Pi Phi from Houston, but my improving résumé notwithstanding, I think she went into it in spite of herself. When we met, I was taking a constitutional law course that was essentially an exercise in black militant argument, and I was so firmly a member of what I called the White Apologentsia that a couple of times when I spoke in class, I think the professor was embarrassed for me. That phase ended when I left the laboratory of the classroom, but I was knee-deep in it when she and I went out. I mentioned something to her once about “redistributing wealth,” and she looked at me as though I’d just suggested she shave off her eyebrows.
One night she and I were having dinner at an Italian place with my dad when she asked him where I’d gone wrong. How does a nice Westlake boy’s heart come to bleed so? Remembering the way my dad had come undone when, as a ninth grader, I’d asked him how someone went about joining the John Birch Society, I waited for him to crow about prodigal sons, or maybe the proximity of trees and fallen apples.
“I think that happened when he worked at the Capitol,” my dad said. “He started spending a lot of time with a black man named Maurice, and I think he learned that there were people out there who didn’t have the same story to tell that he did. Just learning that one other story had a real effect on him.” I hadn’t realized I’d even talked to my dad about Maurice.
Some while thereafter, long after I’d been cut loose by the sorority girl and taken leave of the legal world, I was driving my dad to lunch. He said he wanted some barbecue, and he wanted it from a place he’d never been before. So I took him to Sam’s, on East Twelfth. We passed over the interstate and into East Austin. I pointed out the old bars to him, the Shalimar, the Yellow-Jacket, and the Oak Tree. By this time they had all been bought by a church, which turned one into a parsonage and the rest into halfway houses. As we parked at Sam’s and walked in, I told him that this was one of the places Maurice used to take me.
And there he was, the only customer in the place, Maurice, sitting with a rib plate at a table in the corner. I was thrilled. I took my dad over to meet him, and they shook hands, strangers who knew all about each other. After my dad and I got our plates from the counter, we went and sat with him. Straight away I noticed something was off. Neither of them talked. They didn’t even look at each other. They just stared at their ribs, lifted them to their mouths, and then set them back down. They never raised their heads or redirected their eyes. I glanced at my dad and saw a curious look on his face, as though he were trying to figure out if he was on someone else’s turf, or if someone was on his. Then I looked at Maurice and saw the same strange expression. As I thought about just what that turf might be, the room grew quieter still.