"Okay," said Derek. Billy's streets were a couple of miles from the diner and several miles from Derek's home. Most of the kids up there were white. But Derek didn't object. Truth was, it excited him some to be off his turf.
On most Saturdays, Derek and Billy spent their time out in the city while their fathers worked at the diner. They were boys and were expected to go out and find adventure and even mild forms of trouble. There was violence in certain sections of the District, but it was committed by adults and usually among criminals and mostly at night. Generally, the young went untouched.
Out on the main drag, Derek noticed that the local movie house, the Kennedy, was still running Buchanan Rides Alone, with Randolph Scott. Derek had already seen it with his dad. His father had promised to take him down to U Street for the new John Wayne, Rio Bravo, which had people talking around town. The picture was playing down at the Republic. Like the other District theaters on U, the Lincoln and the Booker T, the Republic was mostly for colored, and Derek felt comfortable there. His father, Darius Strange, loved westerns, and Derek Strange had come to love them, too.
Derek and Billy walked east on the commercial strip. They passed two boys Derek knew from church, and one of them said, "What you hangin' with that white boy for?" and Derek said, "What business is that of yours?" He made just enough eye contact for the boy to know he was serious, and all of them went on their way.
Billy was Derek's first and only white playmate. The working relationship between their fathers had caused their hookup. Otherwise they never would have been put together, since most of the time, outside of sporting events and first jobs, colored boys and white boys didn't mix. Wasn't anything wrong with mixing, exactly, but it just seemed more natural to be with your own kind. Hanging with Billy sometimes put Derek in a bad position; you'd get challenged out here when your own saw you walking with a white. But Derek figured you had to stand by someone unless he gave you cause not to, and he felt he had to say something when conflict arrived. It wouldn't have been right to let it pass. Sure, Billy often said the wrong things, and sometimes those things hurt, but it was because he didn't know any better. He was ignorant, but his ignorance was never deliberate.
They walked northwest through Manor Park, across the green of Fort Slocum, and soon were up on Georgia Avenue, which many thought of as Main Street, D.C. It was the longest road in the District and had always been the primary northern thoroughfare into Washington, going back to when it was called the 7th Street Pike. All types of businesses lined the strip, and folks moved about the sidewalks day and night. The Avenue was always alive.
The road was white concrete and etched with streetcar tracks. Wood platforms, where riders had once waited to board streetcars, were still up in spots, but the D.C. Transit buses were now the main form of public transportation. A few steel troughs, used to water the horses that had pulled the carts of the junkmen and fruit and vegetable vendors, remained on the Avenue, but in short order all of it would be going the way of those mobile merchants. It was said that the street would soon be paved in asphalt and the tracks, platforms, and troughs would disappear.
Billy's neighborhood, Brightwood, was mostly white, working- and middle-class, and heavily ethnic: Greeks, Italians, Irish Catholics, and all varieties of Jew. The families had moved from Petworth, 7th Street, Columbia Heights, the H Street corridor in Northeast, and Chinatown, working their way north as they began to make more money in the prosperous years following World War II. They were seeking nicer housing, yards for their children, and driveways for their cars. Also, they were moving away from the colored, whose numbers and visibility had rapidly increased citywide in the wake of reurbanization and forced desegregation.
Copyright © 2004 by George Pelecanos
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No Man's Land
by Simon Tolkien
Inspired by the experiences of his grandfather, J. R. R. Tolkien, during World War I.
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