Whenever I visit my hometown, Valdosta, Georgia, there always seems to be something that triggers memories of people who guided my early years. During a recent visit I remembered some men whose style helped to shape my notions of self-sufficiency, deep affection, spiritual dedication and humility. Over the next three months I will profile some of them.
Some of the stories to be presented have already appeared in my published books: Half Way Home from Kinderlou, and I Wish You Had Been There. They will be presented here again at the request of some who have not read the books — or others who loaned their books to someone who didn’t return them. Each of us has experienced the latter.
Howdy Mister Harp
Domicile and residence are often used interchangeably. A person can have many residences, but only one official domicile. Mister Harp had neither. Our family offered him both.
My mother doesn’t recall how he came to us, who accompanied him to our door, or where he came from. I just remember one summer day when I walked onto the front porch and saw a stranger sitting there. That was not unusual at our house, for many travelers occasionally stopped to refresh themselves, to share a meal, or spend a night before moving on to a predetermined destination or continuing their search. His presence did not alarm me. He was an adult, so I did what I was taught to do. “Howdy –sir.” He responded, “How you, boy?” He rocked smoothly in a comfortable chair that I had intended to use that day to watch the train. He asked, “What’s ya name?” “My name is James Edward.” “Ain’tcha got no last name, boy?” I answered, “My name is James Edward Alexander. What’s yours — sir?” “Just call me Harp,” he replied. Now I had enough information to properly greet him. “Howdy, Mister Harp.” He responded, “How you, James Edward Alexander?”
Since the seat I wanted was now occupied, I sat in the swing, alternately observing Mister Harp and the last few boxcars. When the train passed and left a normal calmness, I initiated further conversation. “Whatcha got that stick for, Mister Harp? You crippled or something?” The man smiled and said, “Naw, I ain’t crippled, James Edward. I’m blind, and this here stick is like a pair of eyes sometimes.” I sat silently, wondering if I had said something that I shouldn’t to a blind person. I even closed my eyes and tried to imagine how it would be if I were unable to see the train. Suddenly, I had some reservations about his blindness, so I checked. “If you’re so blind, Mister Harp, then how did you know I’m a boy when I spoke to you?” The blind man gave me an answer. “Boy, when you blind you see some things with your ears. Not only did I know you was a boy, I reckon you about six or seven years old.” He was close. I continued the interrogation. “Whatcha got in that bag, Mister Harp?” He didn’t answer. My mother did: “None of your business.” She then invited him inside to become familiar with the place that he could call his domicile and his residence.
Before bedtime, Daddy walked our newest family member around the yard. Mister Harp extended his cane to “see” the corners of the house, to locate the path to Mister Dye’s well for fresh water, and to find his way back to our yard and to the big black cast iron pot. He stored the information about shapes, sizes, locations, and distances in order to find his way in his new environment. The next day a car brought the rest of Mister Harp’s belongings from wherever he last slept. Among the items were a large bag of raw peanuts and a collection of tools, containers, and implements for doing what he did best — roasting and boiling peanuts.
On the third day Mister Harp rose early and got started. To help him get underway, Daddy had filled the large pot with water and had constructed a hearth on which another 10-gallon container rested. Thereafter, he toted his own water and refused offers of help, except to do those things that he couldn’t manage, such as chopping wood. He simultaneously monitored the two containers in which peanuts were boiled and roasted. When the peanuts were cooked and sufficiently cooled, the industrious blind man used his hands to fill 40–50 small paper bags with his product. After a short rest, he headed to the marketplace — the busy streets of downtown Valdosta.
In our town, in those days, it was customary that only white boys peddled their peanuts along the downtown streets. Likewise, I don’t recall seeing any white boys running errands for the soldiers on the troop trains. Economic reality in those days also restricted ownership of downtown property to white merchants. Colored businessmen only worked “across the tracks.” This territorial division was another way each race identified “our place” and “your place.” Yet, despite the customary restrictions, Mister Harp was allowed to vend on whatever corner he chose, not because of his blindness, but because of his warmth as a person and the quality of his product and service. His packages were full, and when a customer paid him the dime for a bag, Mister Harp smiled sincerely and said, “You gonna enjoy them peanuts. I cooked them with care just for you.”
There is no record, or memory, of how long he shared our home, but we learned to like and trust each other during our days together. When he left he went across another set of tracks into another hub of colored activity. He still had his downtown corner of choice, but he was not a young man when he was with us, and by the time I changed schools old age had forced him to find a suitable spot near his new residence. It was on my route to school, and each afternoon as I passed we exchanged greetings that transmitted mutual caring and years of friendship: “Howdy, Mister Harp.” “How you, James Edward Alexander?”