South Carolina Restaurant
By Meredith Betz
Back in the 1960’s the North Jersey town where I grew up was close to being segregated. “Negroes,” as they called African-Americans, lived in one rundown section of town known as “The Row.” We didn’t go near “The Row.” It hardly mattered since I only ever had one Negro in my class at a time and none of them were my friends. It wasn’t that I didn’t want to be friendly, I just didn’t even think about it.
Every year in the spring after each frenzied Holy Week, our family traveled to Florida. The vacation was a big break for my dad, a Presbyterian minister. After the Easter service, Mom would load up the Volkswagen Beetle with clothing, supplies, Easter eggs, and candy. I sat in the back seat with my brother Andy, while my baby brother Kenn slept in the well in the back of the Beetle. We’d drive all day for three days on Route 1 to reach Pompano Beach, our destination. The only respites from the tedious travel were the twice daily stops for meals.
Billboards dotted the roadsides. We amused ourselves by reading them all. At the border of Virginia and North Carolina, billboards featuring Pedro, a cartoon character “spoke” to us. Pedro appealed to us Amigos in broken English, to stop, shop and eat.
“Dad, please can we stop at South of the Border? Please, please, please!” we’d cry. “It’s just a gimmick to get suckers to buy a lot of junk and one dollar peanut butter and jelly sandwiches. “What’s a gimmick?” we asked. “Never mind. Just go on counting state license plates. What number are you up to? Have you found Alaska yet?” Just to annoy him, we would start to sing, “A Hundred Bottles of Beer on the Wall.” He deserved it.
My father liked to stretch out the breaks as long as possible. The more breaks we had during a trip, the more money he had to shell out. I can’t blame him. When you’re trying to support a family on a meager $2500 a year, an extra stop can take a big bite out of your vacation money. Still, we were kids. When all we could look forward to on the long boring road was a burger, Dad’s priorities seemed abusive.
Of all our trips, the most vivid memory the trip when I was eight. It was the second night of our trip. We’d been driving all day.
I remember my relief when, at 6pm, we stopped at a diner in South Carolina for supper. The outside of the diner was shabby. Paint was peeling off the weathered gray siding. A red neon light flashed, “Open.” There were only two other cars in the parking lot. “That’s not a good sign,” Mom warned.
We went in anyway. We were starving and probably would have eaten anything. The tables and booths were worn out red vinyl and chrome. After we were seated, the waitress handed us three page giant menus offering breakfast, lunch and dinner. Our parents warned us that we had a ceiling of $1.50 for our choices. I had my eye on the chicken potpie. Andy was set on a hamburger.
Before we could order, Dad had to use the men’s room. As we eagerly waited for his return, Dad came back, nostrils flaring with anger. He whispered, “All right, we’re leaving. Just put down your menus and walk out. We’re going to find somewhere else to eat.”
Mortified, we slinked out of the restaurant. Humiliation coursed through our bodies. Our whines protested Dad’s cruelty in imposing starvation on us. When we got into the Beetle, Dad turned around to us. He seethed, “We will not patronize any place with a sign that says, ‘Whites Only’.”
That’s when I knew that Dad had been thinking about it. I needed to think about it, too. I needed to respond to bigotry by taking a stand.
I thought about it many times during the churning 1960’s. It was a decade of protests against war, injustice, poverty and inequality. I did do something about it by joining faith communities working for reconciliation between blacks and whites after the 1967 Newark riots.
On a trip to Florida when I was eight, my father taught me one of the greatest lessons of my life – that taking a stand was a privilege and an obligation. It was as simple and profound as walking out of a seedy restaurant in South Carolina.
Meredith Betz is a former high school Communications/English teacher whose avocation is coaching students of all ages in writing and delivering presentations. Currently she writes for the Nonprofit Quarterly. Her vocation is executive coaching and organizational consulting to for profit and nonprofit organizations.