My Apprenticeship with a Black Man
In the back of the store, beside the steps to the mezzanine, lay a small shop with a workbench filled with tools for installing stoves, laying linoleum, re-caning chairs, and repairing everything we sold. The workshop’s maven was Haywood Johnson, a tall, strong Black man with a winning smile and a hearty laugh. A veteran of World War II, Haywood seemed to be an expert at everything. He could flawlessly cut linoleum to fit any irregular floor; he could install oil stoves with intricate piping and connecting hoses, he could magiacally make a furniture scratch disappear.
Haywood was the store’s master craftsman. His skills were unmatched by anyone else in town. I soon became his apprentice. But being half his strength, I learned to use my head rather than my muscles to get things done. Linoleum was delivered to us in 12-foot-wide rolls that weighed well over 300 pounds. Haywood could lift each end of the roll with little trouble, placing each on a dolly so we could roll the monster to the display room. I was good at pushing but not at lifting. One day, I amazed Haywood by leveraging our hand-operated floor-to-floor elevator to lift the roll ends, then slide the dollies underneath. Same result, no lifting.
As the smallest of our team, I was the one designated to crawl under old houses to wind copper tubing from the oil tank to the new stove we came to install. But it wasn’t the tubing that set my nerves on end, it was the possibility of copperheads, the most common snake in Virginia. Luckily, I never encountered one. Haywood would say, “Now you look around with the flashlight before you move forward.”
Haywood and I formed the delivery and installation department of G. A. Waugh Furniture Company. Together, we loaded furniture, stoves, and other goods on the rattling Dodge five-speed truck for delivery out in the countryside. We hauled dressers, mattresses, and chairs all over Orange and the surrounding counties. We saw a close-up image of life among the rural people of Virginia. Haywood knew the territory like the back of his hand. We saw houses decorated with fine antiques, and we saw small places with only a few sticks of furniture.
One day, Hayward said, “I really didn’t know it was that bad,” after visiting some people in severely rundown housing.
Sometimes, bill collecting became an added task. The furniture store had amazingly few delinquent accounts, but sometimes people would leave town without paying.
Once, we knocked on the door of an unpainted rural house, looking for a young man named Tom who hadn’t paid anything on his account for several months. There were three relatively new cars parked in the driveway when we arrived.
A short, dark woman wiping her hands on a dishtowel came to the screen door looking puzzled.
“Hello there, Mrs. Thompson. Can we speak to Tom,” said Haywood.
“Well, lordy, man, I haven’t seen Tom for a month or more. Last I seen him, he was headed for Washington. I’m so worried about him.”
“Ma’am, whose car is that out there in the driveway? Did he leave without his new car?”
“Naw. That isn’t his car. That belongs to my brother, Tom’s uncle. Tom went away with some friends last week.”
“How come it has Tom’s license plate on it,” Haywood bluffed.
The woman shuffled in place, turning the dish towel over and over as if kneading it. Her brown eyes darted from side to side.
“I… I… don’t know.”
“Come on, Ma’am, can we speak to Tom.”
“I’ve told you. He isn’t here.”
“Well, you tell him to come see us on Saturday. He owes us some money on his account,” Haywood said loudly.
“If I hear from him, I’ll tell him,” she stuttered.
“Where do you think he was?” I asked Haywood as we got in the truck.
“Probably hiding in an upstairs bedroom and hearing every word. That’s why I was talking so loud.”
“Do you think he’ll show up?”
“I doubt it. He drinks a lot and doesn’t work much. Not like his mamma or his daddy. They’re good folks.”
Every week thereafter, when I posted receipts into the company journal by hand, I watched to see if Tom ever paid anything on his bill, but the account moved toward write-off — that never-never accounting land for uncollectible accounts. Tom became one of a tiny band of people who didn’t pay their bills to the furniture store.
Sometimes we’d spend most of a day installing tile or linoleum on someone’s kitchen floor. For that job, I was Haywood’s assistant — handing him tools and doing the low-skill tasks: helping carry heavy rolls of linoleum, spreading paste, cleaning up after the job. If we had a full day’s job, we usually carried our lunches in brown paper bags, knowing we’d be in some remote place.
One day we went to a store in Mine Run, a small crossroads in the northern part of the county, to install linoleum on a large kitchen. The store supplied bread, light groceries, miscellaneous supplies, soft drinks, and snacks to the locals. The owners lived in the back, which was surprisingly spacious considering a large portion of the building was devoted to commerce.
Haywood and I arrived at 8:30, greeted the owners, and went immediately to work, stripping the old floor and preparing to install the new one. By lunch, we were just over halfway through.
At noon, the wife leaned through the door and said, “Would you all like some hot lunch?”
I wasn’t sure where she could have cooked a warm meal since we were working in the kitchen, but a vision of hot biscuits and country ham filled my head. “Sure,” I said, smiling at Haywood. “Sounds like a good idea.”
We washed the glue off our hands in the kitchen sink and headed for the dining room. There, she had set a table for three. The Mr. was standing at his place, Mrs. standing at hers, and she motioned me toward the third seat.
“Haywood, we’ve fixed a place for you on the porch,” she said nonchalantly.
I must have turned pale. Haywood must have been shocked, but his face showed almost no emotion. I looked at him, back at Mrs., while struggling for words. The silence went on for what seemed like hours. What should I do? I don’t want to insult some of the furniture store’s best customers. Yet, I can’t let them treat Haywood this way. What should I do? What should I do?
Finally, I blurted out, “Thanks so much, but Haywood and I eat together.”
The two of us went to the porch. Soon the silent Mrs. brought my plate and place setting to the small table where Haywood’s had already been set. I wanted to know what Haywood was thinking, but I was afraid to ask. Instead, we ate our lunch without a word, each staring down at our food, Haywood with his feelings, me with mine.
For more stories, see my recently published book, “Hand on the Shoulder: Finding freedom in the confluence of love and career.” It’s available at most major booksellers and at www.handontheshoulder.com