Code Of Honour
By: Peter Dominic Walls
"Never ever go down Sweet Street!"
I smiled at Charlie wondering what was so special about this one street.
"Its not a safe place, my friend" he explained "and that's all you need to know."
I wanted to know more.
Charlie was an excellent Ice Cream man but I was certain I was going to go mad just listening to him talk. Being from Ireland where we drove on the 'wrong' side of the road I had already nearly killed him at least twice, crossing intersections the 'wrong' way! "Stop. Jesus Stop" he yelled raising his hands above his as if doing so would save him! I suppose from his point of view driving against oncoming traffic was fairly serious but I didn't care. I was on my first trip to America. I was eighteen years old. I was young.
Poor Charlie was old. He was fun though and as teachers go he was cool. He said a lot and showed off even more. He laughed a lot and he never forgot to tell me just how good an 'ice cream man' I would make someday, if I listened and did as he said! He helped me to stay on the correct side of the road and he told me about American Cops and how they wouldn't bother me if I could only do as he said! He encouraged me when I did things right and said as little as possible when I got them wrong. All in all he was a good guy and I had a great time learning to be an American 'Ice Cream Man'.
We worked in the black ghettos in the morning and in the white suburban town lands at evening time. I had hardly ever seen a black man, except on television, so this was a great adventure. I was excited. I was young. I was naive. I was having fun!
Within one week I was fully trained and I had my own ice cream van. I followed the route I took with Charlie and had fun meeting a whole new race of black folks I had never known existed. They were happy people. They spent lots of money on ice cream, they laughed and talked and seemed quite normal to me. I got to know some of the young men so well they were even offering to have me in their gang. I took that as a real compliment. I got to know many of them by first name but I never forgot I was in their country, on their territory. I was relaxed. I was myself but I lived by their code, which was unwritten but true, simple and plainly obvious. It was a good code that respected the right to be yourself.
One sunny morning I was serving an elderly black gentleman a pint tub of ice cream through the side window of the van. I filled the top half of the tub, as Charlie had so carefully shown me how. I was on this man's street and he was surrounded by his buddies. He accepted the tub smiling as he pressed the ice cream down into the empty bottom half of the container. Without saying a word he handed me the half empty pint. I took it. I filled it. I gave it back to him. Not one word was spoken. Everything was clear. Everything was pure.
On the same morning I was exceptionally busy keeping up with sales. I was more careless than usual leaving ten dollars lying on the fridge top of my ice cream van, right behind my back as I served. My new young black friends were looking after me well. In fact, they had become so familiar that they walked in and out of the van as they pleased. Through the corner of my eye I noticed my ten dollars was gone and so had the young men parading inside the van. Without thinking I leaned out the window and looking over the crowd to a young black man at the back of the line, who's name I didn't know I took a chance "Shit man" I pleaded "that ten dollars comes straight out of my pocket you know! I have to pay it to the company when I get back!". As I spoke I realised how dangerous my position was. I was young and I was white and I had just accused a black man, on his street, of stealing from me. "Awe shit man, I didn't think you seen me" he laughed slipping his hand down the front of his Bermuda style shorts to retrieve the ten. He handed it to me without a single other word from either of us. The matter was never referred to again. The code was clear.
After a few weeks I became quite relaxed, in my knew environment. Sometimes I had to check the colour of my skin to make sure I was still white. I was amazed and fascinated at how easily I adapted to a totally new culture. I was na´ve enough and young enough to still have a wonderful sense of adventure. One morning I was passing the top of the infamous Sweet Street. Charlie's words rang in my ear but my taste for new adventure got the better of me and despite having just learned that a man had been shot there the day before I hung a left and took my life in my hands. I was definitely young!
My van just about squeezed between the rows of eight-cylinder 'tanks' lining either side of this narrow laneway that now took on a sort of sepia appearance from the days of Al Capone. I passed a sleepy corner joint. I wanted to move on but I my sense of adventure held me in place. I parked the van and waited.
I boldly tapped my hammer on my calling bell. Who would come out of the corner joint across the street? I waited but nobody came. I was about to give up when they appeared out of nowhere. They were black and menacing, just like you'd expect. One wore a peaked cap with a dark, short-sleeved t-shirt. This was a man of import and this was definitely his territory! He balanced his elbow on one knee and leaning into the van on his left foot, he spoke. "You scraped my car man". Our eyes met. I was excited now! I reacted without thinking, pushed passed him at the door, reaching out to see his car. The car was perfect and I was certain I hadn't scraped a thing.
He knew I knew.
"Awe shit, did I do that?" I moaned in my very best black American accent.
"Yeah man" he replied, confidently.
"I can give you five dollars"
"Five dollars? Man! That wouldn't even pay for the paint!"
"Of course it would" I heard myself thinking! Where was this coming from? I wasn't a negotiator and I certainly wasn't experienced when it came to bargaining for my life with a black man from another culture where they sometimes shot ordinary people like me!
I was nervous but I talked a lot and listened even more, particularly to myself. I was scared shitless but fascinated, really fascinated. I was on an adventure.
It was like watching a movie!
I normally kept all my change, which amounted to about fifty dollars, on top of the fridge. That day was no exception. Negotiations had progressed somewhat now and I was talking to another man at the driver's door about how long the scrape on his friend's car was, when I noticed through the corner of my eye, that my change tray had vanished. The original negotiator hadn't moved an inch. He nodded ever so subtly across the van to the man I was talking to. The second man quit negotiations immediately, accepting my latest offer without the slightest protest! I paid my ten dollars toll. They thanked me for visiting Sweet Street. I said I had enjoyed myself and was glad to have met them. They asked me to come by again. I said I would. They stood out of my way. I left.
I really wanted to go back there some day but I never did!