On Saturdays, Dad would sometimes go to the hospital to see a couple of his patients. And sometimes he would take me along.
For years until trading up to a fire engine red Thunderbird, he drove a 1955 Ford Crown Vic, the Skyliner model that had a clear plastic roof over the front seat. The car was red and white with matching interior. At the hospital parking garage, it was very much “the Doctor’s car”.
Our initial destination was always the same. We would walk across the enclosed pedestrian bridge from the Doctor’s office building where he had a monthly parking pass over to the hospital. We would then take the main elevator down to the basement. Following a couple of long halls and passing the kitchen, we’d end up at a small room with dozens of 3″ diameter tubes coming out of the ceiling and ending just above long, wide canvas troughs.
The pneumatic tubes wound up and down through the hospital’s twelve floors with ends at various stations. Each of those stations had two tubes, one for sending and the other for receiving. On his rounds, if my Dad wrote a new prescription for one of his patients, he would give it to the nurse who would put it in a carrier, set the three digit tumbler on the end with the code for the pharmacy and then push the carrier up into the sending tube where it would be sucked up.
Moments later there would be a “thwoomp” as the carrier dropped out of the tube and into the canvas tub. The attendant would pick it up, show me the three digit code and I would match it up to the outgoing tubes before inserting the carrier into the correct tube where it would sucked up and on its way to the pharmacy.
Later, the filled prescription would make its way back through the basement switching room and up to the nursing station by the reverse route using the destination number written on the prescription by the original nurse.
While Dad made his rounds, I would stay in the pneumatic tube “grand central” station, anxiously awaiting the arrival of the next canister. But Saturday mornings were slow and the attendant and I often just sat there with not much to share.
I was very young, very white, and very ignorant of the ways of the world.
He would be black, old, say “Yes, Sir” and “No, Sir” and not much else.
This was the deep south of the 1950s. In the department stores, there were separate White and Colored drinking fountains. In filling stations, the White rest rooms were conveniently located on the side. Colored was around back.
For the attendant in the pneumatic room, it was a good job, a very good job. It was easy, required no special training, it allowed him to work in air conditioned comfort on most of the near 100 degree summer days in Memphis and he would associate with other nice and similarly advantaged people.
Doctors had a code. If someone in a Doctor’s family, office or one of the hospital workers became sick, the attending physician would often “forget to send a bill.” The pneumatic room attendant and select members of his immediate family were no exception.
It was a very good job.
And so we would sit, a young white doctor’s pre-adolescent son, and a senior black man who knew the realities of life in the American south.
In the 1950s there was white Memphis and there was black Memphis. We lived in white Memphis. Black Memphis was down past Southern Avenue and beyond the railroad overpass. Oddly, it was called the Orange Mound. Driving to some address on Lamar we would sometimes pass through it. And it seemed perfectly normal that this is where the blacks lived. That’s just the way it was.
For the big department stores and public places, it was the day of the week that decided black or white, Colored or … well, not Colored. Tuesday was black day at the Fairgrounds. And Thursday was Colored at Goldsmiths, the downtown department store.
So, after I have been forwarding the pneumatic carriers for a while, Dad would be back, all done with his patients. He would thank the attendant and I would too. Dad and I would walk back through the hospital to the parking lot where another attendant would drive Dad’s Crown Victoria up to us from where it had been parked.
And we would drive out Union Avenue past the Methodist Hospital and then the Union Avenue Church of Christ and the Memphis Bible College, over the viaduct to Poplar Avenue before turning right and down Fenwick to Picardy Place where we lived at one end of the double-headed cul de sac in, of course, an all white neighborhood.
Later, I’d probably hop on my bike and ride over into Chickasaw Gardens and along its deeply shaded winding streets, past carefully manicured lawns with red brick houses with huge and equally tended back yards. My destination was possibly the artificial lake, occasionally stocked for neighborhood kids, or I might ride around the sidewalks that wove through the grounds of the Pink Palace, possibly stopping to look at the real shrunken head in its glass case, semi-hidden in a corner of an infrequently seen room.
The Orange Mound never entered my mind.