The men gather late in front of the house every morning before the resident gets up.
Mostly in their 60s and early 70s, they arrive on bicycles or on foot with paper bags scrunched close at the top. The minority, the younger ones in their 20s, don’t use bags. They don’t hide the beer can or the pint. They pull the cheap, green, plastic chairs from the yard out to the sidewalk to start the day.
The older ones survived the St. Augustine Civil Rights Movement of the early 60s and the violent reaction of the white city fathers of St. Augustine to the passage of the Civil Rights Act. They tell stories. The younger men don’t seem to care.
I walk next door most every day to say hello. The conversations become windows into humanity, disparate perspectives, and history itself.
Why did the once young men who waded in at Butler Beach in 1964, survived the fire bombing of their homes and the beatings by theKu Klux Klan end up here bleary-eyed with paper bags?
They grow louder as the day wears on. One of them stands in the middle of the street blocking traffic as if to say to passersby, “This is OUR neighborhood!” Several times a day a car pulls up to the curb, opens the window, and exchanges something with the men. They disappear, one by one, into the house for a time.
At noon one day I walk next door and find myself in the middle of what appears to be an argument between one of the older men sitting in the yard and a 20-something man sitting on the sidewalk with his back turned to the street. I come by to say hello. The older man greets me. We say good morning. “You’re a Reverend, right?”
“Well, yes. Sort of..,” I smile, “more or less reverent.” We enjoy a good laugh.
“So,” he says, pointing to the young man holding his open Pabst Blue Ribbon, “doesn’t the Bible say ‘Instead of giving a man a fish, you should teach him how to fish?'”
“Well, no. The Bible doesn’t say that, but it’s pretty close to some of what the Bible teaches.”
“See,” says the young man, “I told you the Bible doesn’t say that!”
The Civil Rights Movement survivors recall how some of their classmates got out of town and left them behind. One of them owns upscale hotels in Atlanta and Miami. He comes home in his big Mercedes every five years or so. According to the men next door, he and others who got out look down their noses at the shrimp boat workers who lived hand-to-mouth existences in the old neighborhood where they grew up together.
The Civil Rights Movement in St. Augustine is still a matter of debate both among its veterans and among the young men who have no living memory of it. For young and old alike, the men who gather daily next door are a community to each other. They have taken their “place” in the post Civil Rights Movement era of St. Augustine.
They are part of America’s left behind. They’re going nowhere their feet or bicycles can’t take them. They care about each other. They are without pretense. They have each other, old friends and younger ones who are going nowhere. They are a local chapter of the community of the stuck. Their numbers are growing all across America.