Later that night, exhausted and hungry from the move and because all of the silverware and pots and pans were still packed in boxes, my mother decided to take us to McDonald’s. Only a mile from our new house, and the only restaurant still open at ten-thirty on a Sunday, McDonalds was in the middle of Palisade Avenue, Englewood’s urban, slightly worn main street. The commercial center of the city, Palisade Avenue was filled with cheap clothing stores, Chinese restaurants, corner delis, and Colombian bakeries. More famously, Palisade Avenue was home to Crispy Crust Pizza where Big Bank Hank of the Sugarhill Gang made pies before he made rhymes. It looked like a thin sliver of the Bronx or Harlem had been dropped in the middle of a leafy suburb.
Aware that the McDonald’s was adjacent to the mostly black Fourth Ward, we were still surprised to find ourselves the only white people in the restaurant. Behind this urban façade lay a close knit small town and it turned out this McDonalds was an informal gathering place for the city’s African-American community.
I tried not to let my eyes get any wider than they already were as I surveyed my new surroundings. But this was the late 1970s, and the restaurant was filled with Black people rocking the whole range of that decades Black styles. It was the beginning of my education about the lack of a monolithic anything. There were Black people of all shades and shapes wearing a range of clothing: bell-bottoms, tight white t-shirts, pro-keds, flared denim, business suits with wide collar dress shirts, and black power afro-picks. There were “cool cats” greeting each other with elaborate handshakes and smiles as wide as the distance we had just traveled from Oklahoma to get here. There was a group of older Black men wearing derby caps, Korean War veteran hats and municipal uniforms sitting in a corner booth coffee klatch laughing about something. I remember wishing I knew what it was.
Then there were the cashiers taking orders with disinterested stares, their eyes fixed to the exit signs that hung above the doors to the street. It was while ordering from one of these women that I was called “nigga” for the first time.
“Next on Line,” said the skinny teenage girl with sandstone skin, cornrows cascading past her shoulders, and a half-moon scar that appeared pasted onto her forehead.
“Can I have a Big Mac, large fries and whole milk, please,” I sheepishly said as I stepped to the register, my head barely peeking above the counter.
“You heard what he said? He said he wants ‘whole milk,’ whole milk with a Big Mac. This little nigga’s crazy!” she laughed and announced to no one in particular.
She continued, “Can I get you anything else?”
After quietly muttering, “no,” I thought to myself, “Did she just called me the “N word?”