What a horrible place it was! Not at all the kind of place where Tizzy would have chosen to wait for her sister Edith. But she couldn't very well stand in the street. Certainly not in the twilight of this unfamiliar town under the gas lit street lamps. She'd only be asking to be arrested. And none of the other bars and hotels would have permitted a person of colour on their premises. But this hotel, the Breckinridge Inn, so close to the train station, had, according to Edith's letters, the only mixed bar in the whole of Tramville.
Tizzy wasn't really the kind of girl who'd normally choose to enter a bar at all, any more than would her sister, even though in Harlem there were many bars that welcomed coloured people: bars, in fact, where not only the bar stewards but the proprietors were themselves black, brown or yellow. Even so, she thought of them as places of ill repute, and although not an especially religious girl, she had many sympathies with the temperance movement. Drink was surely an excuse for vice and impropriety. And drunkenness was the disease of so many working families. Tizzy had read enough novels to know that the consequences of drink were generally bad ones.
But here she was, as arranged, at the battered heavy door to the Breckinridge Inn where she had arranged to wait for Edith who would come as soon as she had finished her day's work at the house where she worked as a maid. When Tizzy pushed open the door, she could see that there were not very many friendly Negro faces. There was one girl who looked coloured, but all the rest of the few people in the bar were all men and all white. But what could Tizzy do? After her long train journey south, she couldn't very well just turn tail and return to New York.
She bravely drew in her breath, conscious of the eyes focussing on her, and then strode across the sawdust-strewn floor, past the piano by the corner, and with her handbag and umbrella gripped to her bosom. She dressed well. She knew that. Her job as a clerk in the factory had provided her with the income to dress as a lady. And her education at the college had equipped her with the taste and manners to carry it well. But here, she was just a Negro woman. No one in Tramville would see beyond her skin colour to the sophisticated lady underneath.
She strode towards the bar, careful to stand a distance from any of the men leaning against it and leering at her. The bar steward, an elderly man who was half Negro, half White, approached her. He didn't seem especially welcoming.
"What you doing here, miss? This ain't your beat, is it? They's other gals doing business here. They ain't gonna be anyways too pleased when they sees you here."
Tizzy had no idea what the bar steward was trying to say. His Southern accent didn't help her comprehension any. She smiled. "I'm meeting my sister here, sir. She works for the Tylers. She's a maid. I shall just be waiting for her here."
"You ain't no local gal, are you, miss? You're from the north, ain'tcha? So, what's it you'll be wanting. We ain't not got no fancy wines here in Tramville."
"Just a soda," Tizzy replied. "Soda and ice."
"We ain't got no ice. But we got soda plenty. You won't be wanting it with anything else?"
Tizzy shook her head. What did the bar steward think she was? A woman who drank in public? The next thing, he'd be expecting her to light a cigarette. Like that other Negro girl she could see through the blue haze of pipe and cigarette smoke at the other end of the bar. She was smoking a cigarette at the end of a long black holder and was surrounded by men. Tizzy wondered at moral values in these Southern States. No education, that's what it was. Coloured girls were just not behaving as they should. No wonder it was known that white men in the south treated women of colour so badly. Tizzy took her glass of soda and sat on a stool by a table as far from the bar and as close to the door as she could.
As she sat perched on the stool, crossing her legs so that her dress was raised above her ankles, showing the white stockings she'd so recently bought, she studied the bar with desultory interest. Darn! The place was filthy. No wonder bars had an unsavoury and disreputable reputation. If only there was a nicer place for her to wait in Tramville. Infuriatingly, more pleasant places than the Breckinridge Inn did exist. Quite a few of them. Tea shops, a drugstore, a couple of rather more pleasant looking hotels, but none of these places admitted coloureds. Indeed, one of the tea shops even went so far as to put up a small cardboard sign in the window: 'No Coloreds'. Tizzy had frowned when she saw that, but she could scarcely pretend that it was the first time she'd seen something like that. Such signs graced so many of the shops in downtown Manhattan. And, indeed, even some shops and hotels in Harlem didn't welcome people of colour. Tizzy sniffed, but this was the way of the world. It had been like that all her life. And it would probably be like that forever. Leastways, she wasn't no slave. Thank the Merciful Lord for progress!
The wallpaper in the hotel was peeling, torn and stained yellow and brown by decades of tobacco smoking and from the flickering flame of the gaslights. The bar was both grimy and dirty. There were dried puddles of beer on the timbered floor. On the walls were faded posters for circuses that had passed by many years before, local elections that were long decided and, more troubling, sepia prints of women with voluminous petticoats and bare arms.
Tizzy sipped her soda slowly. She could see from the clock just above the bar that she had at least an hour to wait. She studied a nearby poster for the circus, amused by the lurid descriptions of freaks, clowns and acrobats. The coloured woman at the other end of the bar lifted herself off her stool and strode across floor of the bar towards her; arm-in-arm with a man she'd been talking to. When she approached Tizzy, she smiled at the man who disengaged his arm and entered through a plain door not many feet away from her. As it opened, it let free the most appalling stench. Tizzy had unwittingly chosen to sit right next to the door to the men's urinal. The black woman glared at Tizzy. She was dressed in a lurid red and black dress that was so loose at the bosom that Tizzy could see the very heave and contours of her breasts. As if that glimpse were not sufficient, the woman leaned over, her straight arms supporting her weight and the breasts very nearly falling out.
"Hey, girl!" She said in a not very friendly voice. "You're new here, ain'tcha? This once, and I mean this once, I'll take it you just don't know the rules of this here bar. But if I sees you here again, I'm gonna fucking kill you!"
Tizzy was shocked. She knew of the word 'fuck', of course. Who hadn't? But she'd never heard it uttered before. She sat silent in shock as the woman left the premises, taking her male friend with her. Tizzy was quite puzzled. Was this woman one of those women of ill repute that she'd read about? One of those people she'd been warned so many times not to associate with?
As if in answer, three men approached her from across the bar where they had previously been engaged in conversation with the woman who had just left. They strode right over to the table where Tizzy was sitting, carrying their steel mugs in their hands. This was not welcome attention, but Tizzy didn't know what to do. She couldn't disappoint Edith by leaving the bar at this moment.
And then they sat down in the chairs around the table, imposing themselves on Tizzy without as much as a by your leave, and plonked their mugs on the table. Tizzy gasped, and pulled her handbag against her chest and picked up her glass in the hope that the soda could somehow defend her. The men were not dressed especially badly. And they had shaved their chins and cheeks. Tizzy could see that they weren't workmen. But neither were they gentlemen as she understood it from her readings in popular fiction.
"You is sure a purty gal!" exclaimed one of the men, who was tall and slim with a thin moustache and wore a smart bowler hat. "You're new here, ain'tcha?"
"And I don't reckon old Emmie wants more competition on her turf, does she, gal?" sneered a second man, who also wore a bowler but whose moustache was very thick and who was perhaps nearer forty than thirty years old. "She gave you a bit of friendly advice I could see there."
"Well," smirked the third, who was portly and wore a broad brimmed hat rather like farm workers were known to wear, with no moustache but very thick lenses on his steel-frame spectacles. "This gal's damned lucky that it was Emmie and not Peggy or Bonnie who gave her a word."
"Yeah!" agreed the first man. "Then there'd have been a fucking catfight!"
That word again! Tizzy gasped as the three men chortled and laughed at their imaginings. What horrible foul-mouthed men! Oh! If only Edith would arrive!
"So, gal! What's your name?" asked the tall thin man.
"Name?" half-whispered Tizzy.
"Yeah! You got a name, ain'tcha? All God's children got names," continued the tall thin man. "I'm Tom. This here's Jack." The fat man nodded with the same unchanged smirk. "And this here's Ollie." The older man gave a thin inexpressive smile. "So, gal, what's your name?"
"Theresa," replied Tizzy, not for one moment intending to reveal the name she was most often known by.
"Turh Reeza? That's a real fancy name, gal," sniffed the man named Jack. "For a nigger. You ain't from round these parts, are you?"
Tizzy shook her head. No, she wasn't. And where was Edith? Help me.
"We got some Noo Yawk whore down for the day," laughed Ollie. "You got tired of doing tricks in the nigger bars of Manhattan? Jerking off nigger dicks. You come down here for real southern meat?"
Tizzy blanched. "I. Am. Not. A. Whore." She spelt out. "I've come into this bar only to wait for my sister. She works for the Tylers, you know. Here in Tramville."
"Old Terence Tyler," Jack remarked. "The accountant. I never liked the man."
"Pah!" Tom snorted. "All nigger bitches are whores. Ain'tcha? What else could they be? They's be just gasping for a length of a white man's dick. C'mon gal. Whatcha got? And what's it cost? You don't have to worry about Emmie. She's gone now!"
Tizzy didn't answer. She looked down at her soda. Should she just leave now? Or try to finish her drink and hope that Edith would arrive soon.
"Hey girl. Don't ignore us," ordered Jack, the fat man. "You can't pretend you came in this bar not expecting a bit of attention. A purty gal like you. C'mon. Give a man a kiss." He leant towards her and puckered his lips. Tizzy turned away, not really able to disguise the expression of disgust on her face. But turning away from Jack brought her eyes in line with Ollie. Before she had a chance to do anything, he planted a kiss on her cheek.
"See, Jack!" boasted Ollie, while Tizzy tried wiping off the slimy memory of his kiss from her face with the back of her hand. "It's me she likes."
Tom laughed and grabbed Tizzy's hand from her face. "Don't worry, Jack. I'm sure she likes all of us. She's just a little shy. Ain'tcha girl?"
"I must be going now," said Tizzy weakly, seeing that she was surrounded on all three sides of her. And she could see that a couple of other men from the other side of the bar were approaching in her direction. And they carried not looks of concern and reassurance, but leering unfriendly smirks like these horrible men. She put her drink down, still far from empty, and made to stand up. "I'll meet my sister outside."
"You ain't going nowhere, girl!" commanded Tom, in a rather less friendly manner. "Leastways not till you've given my friend here the courtesy of a kiss. That ain't too much to ask, is it?" He placed a hand on her shoulder, pushing her back down into her seat.
Tizzy was genuinely scared now. She looked around her at the five men surrounding her. The two new men wore broad-brimmed hats and their clothes were clean but designed for rough farm work. They pulled chairs over and sat at Tizzy's table. She pleaded with Tom. "Just a kiss. Is that all? Then I can leave."
Jack chortled. "A kiss that's all dearie. You have my word. Just a kiss."
Tizzy shivered. This was not good. She closed her eyes and breathed deep, while her heart thundered in her chest and threatened her composure. She pursed her lips in a kiss-like fashion and pushed her face towards where she thought Jack was. But what met her lips was not a cheek, but a tongue that was slobbery and wet and rubbery. Tizzy drew back in alarm.
"C'mon gal! A kiss!" commanded Tom.
"And one for all the boys!" ordered one of the new men, who was younger than the others, not even sporting a moustache, but with horrible cold blue eyes.
"No. I can't. I mustn't!"
"Are you telling us what to do, you nigger bitch whore!" growled a suddenly rather aggressive Ollie. "All we want is a kiss. A purty nigger bitch comes into the Breckinridge. Waaall! A fellow expects a kiss, don't he?" He grasped her wrist with a hand.
"Please leave me!" Tizzy cried, tears welling at the corner of her eyes.