During my late pre-teen years I was really into reading funny books. They weren’t funny but that’s what they were called. Later they were renamed comic books but I will never subscribe to that unfortunate change.
Across the street from my house and down on the corner of French and Main was a magazine distributor. I forgot his name. Many of the publishers sent their periodicals to him and he’d deliver them around town to every newsstand where magazines were sold. It was a small mom and pop operation.
At the end of each month all of the unsold magazines would have their covers removed and returned to the respective publishers for credit. The employee who made that happen was an elderly black man named Joe. I absolutely loved that old man, and after school I’d often go over to see him and we’d talk about all sorts of things while I helped him tear covers. His grandparents had been slaves and his tales of picking cotton on the Mississippi river bottoms were right out of Mark Twain. When I told him I’d like to have worked alongside him in the fields. He said, “Hush boy, you froth too much,” or words to that effect. Funny that I would remember that about him.
Joe, whose life experiences extended past both extremes, lived alone in one room that had an unshaded light bulb hanging from the ceiling. His space was so small that he sat on his bed while he worked. Joe was fluent about life on the foggy shores of civilization and I was thirsty to learn what he knew.
He told of being in a store in Hillsboro, Texas when it was robbed by Bonnie and Clyde. As the gangsters fled, a piece of paper fell from Bonnie’s coat pocket. On it was a poem she had written. Joe pulled the poem from his bible and let me read it.
I never heard Joe complain and maybe it was because he knew how to make things work. As a kid he greased wagon wheels, and for a while he walked door to door in town trying to sell turkeys. When he was successful he’d go buy one from a farmer on credit and deliver it to his client for a small profit. Then he’d walk a few miles back to pay the farmer.
Occasionally I could beg Joe into letting me go home with a couple funny books that had their covers removed. I didn’t care about that. The retail price was a dime and I couldn’t afford even one. He had to take all unsold magazines to the dump and would get in trouble if he couldn’t account for all of what he called “dead ends.” I’d read them at night and take them back to Joe the next morning before school. I had many funny book heroes but my favorites were Sub-Mariner and Captain America.
Occasionally my mom would make a mincemeat pie for me to take hot to Joe. They were his favorite, and once a month or so she’d invite him over for supper. I don’t remember what happened to Joe because my mind has mostly faded into the rest of my life, but he was much more than just an asterisk in the family scrapbook of those years. He was a mentor to me at a time in my life when it mattered. He wasn’t the kind of guy I could forget. f