SBS 301 Cultural Diversity/Prof. Koptiuch         Fall 2009       Personal Memory Ethnographies

Patrick Mayes

A Glass of Water

I was about nine years of age and my family and I were on our way to Carlsbad Caverns in New Mexico from San Antonio, Texas. I was so excited to get to Carlsbad Caverns. Both my family and my cousin’s family were taking a vacation to see the caverns for the first time. We had to stop and get food on the way at maybe two or three different places, but one restaurant sticks in my mind, though it was 26 years ago. It was a rainy day and as we were driving through a densely populated city, I was looking outside of the car window at the large eighteen-wheelers that were everywhere. Burly truckers hoteled at the lone gas station and were filling up on coffee and getting fuel for their trucks. Across the street from the gas station was a small shopping center, which was where we saw a large yellow sign with the words “Pancake House” above a wood cabin building, and decided to stop there for breakfast. We had no idea that there was a small population of blacks in the town of Ft. Stockton, Texas, between the city of El Paso and the state of New Mexico, but we found out, in the next half hour, that we were decidedly the minority. We walked into the restaurant and sat down like any normal family of patrons would. The place was filled with a unique aroma of sweet smelling syrup and cigars. I remember seeing the waitresses walk by with white plates that were filled with large food portions consisting of humongous pancakes, steamy scrambled eggs, and red, crispy bacon. We were a group with some heavy set people and I remember my aunt commenting on the small chairs and tables. Like good boys, my skinny black cousin and I, the little chubby black kid, went to wash our hands while the adults took care of the ordering. We were both excited and hungry as we returned to the table and sat near each other. A few minutes afterwards, the waitress brought out 6 red glasses of water, but for some reason that was all.

{Yesterday, when I was a waitress at a pit stop in Ft. Stockton, Texas, this group of black people came in to eat. The place was nearly empty and we were about to close when they arrived. I had just poured old man Billy a cup of hot coffee when I heard them coming through the door. “What a loud group of colored folk!” I thought. There was about seven of them and their kids. I remember almost dropping the coffee pot because two little black boys ran by me on the way to the restroom. They came in, sat down, and started talking loudly about how hungry they were. My supervisors said, “Well, aren’t you going to go over and help them niggers?” I looked at him and laughed. “Not me!” I said. The way he looked at me, I knew I did not have a choice. I started walking over there, it was nauseating. Almost knocking me down, the two little raisins, the little black boys ran back to the table with their people. I walked up slowly and asked them if they were ready to order. They looked at me and kept talking about the trip they were on. At least I assumed that was what they were talking about, given we only had patrons who were typically on their way to see the caverns in New Mexico. Other than that, most of the people that stopped by the restaurant were locals and truck drivers. They finally turned to me and said they were ready to order. The little boys started rattling off everything they wanted from sodas to dessert. Finally, one of the dark men said they all wanted hamburgers with fries. The ladies turned to each other in agreement and continued talking about their road trip. I left a cup of “special” water for each of them and went to the counter to place the order.

My supervisor asked what they wanted and when I told him what the order was, he said to not worry about it, but to just leave them with the glasses of water. He was confident they would get up and leave. So we stood there and watched as they became restless while looking for their food. Sure enough they all left and the glasses of “special” water were nearly empty. I guess they love spit.}

At the age of nine, we did not think to notice the number of blacks in a restaurant and tally it against the number of whites, but perhaps we should have on that day. We sat there and waited, and waited and waited! We had been sitting there for well half an hour when my aunt asked one of the waitresses if they had menus. I can remember my mom looking at the glasses, which were not too clean, and neither was the silverware. They told us not to drink from the cups. We were still there waiting, and waiting, and waiting! The waitress never came back and I remember my aunt telling my uncle it was time to leave. Unfortunately, this was during a time when race was a significant issue. Six years earlier, the government was just defining race and ethnic categories. A standard government definition of racial and ethnic categories was stated for the first time. The categories were meant to aid government agencies, but they were arbitrary (i.e. "Black" was defined as a "racial group" but "white" was not). A good understanding of these definitions could have aided me in understanding why we were not treated as equal when we stepped into a small pancake house on a cold, cloudy morning in Southwest Texas and expected to be served a hot breakfast like everyone else. In retrospect, it reminded me of a story where in 1979; Viv Anderson became the very first black player to represent the senior England Football Team (Soccer). During that time it was unheard of to have an African-American in a position of authority in the sport. The clubhouse was no place for a black person. Even with all of his accolades, Anderson was not received openly when he represented English soccer. Today, thirty years later, African-Americans like Michael Jordan, or Emmitt Smith would probably receive better service from that little restaurant in Ft. Stockton as the times have certainly changed, but had they stopped there to eat in 1979, I am not so sure.

My family and I were not openly accepted and could not get a slice of bread to go with a cup of ice water when we stopped for a bite to eat in Texas. My cousin and I could not understand why. Out of curiosity we asked our parents why we had to leave. I remember my mom saying that the people there were racist. It was the first time I had ever heard the term, but I remember it like it was yesterday; my first recognizable encounter with racism. “What does that mean?” I asked. The answer I received still rings true. As she was getting in the car, my mom said, “There are some people out there that do not like you because of the color of your skin!”

I was too young at the time to get upset because I did not have an understanding of what my mom was trying to tell me when she said that the people at the restaurant were racist. I remember the ride to the caverns was a quiet one after we left the restaurant. We went on to have a fabulous time at the Caverns, but on the way back we drove right through Ft. Stockton without stopping. I don’t remember the name of the restaurant, but wish I could go back, just to see if I would be treated the same way 26 years later.


Return to Personal Memory Ethnographies homepage