BY-WAYS - 1/30/40 - The Rummage Sale

Now, I have heard tell of rummage sales ever since I first came to Cleveland. Although I fairly ached to attend some of them, I knew it wasn't safe for me to go; I'd be sure to come home, loaded with white elephants. I'm a born collector (of junk). But this rummage sale was different; I was to help contribute the junk, and help persuade some poor, benighted souls that they needed it. Two years ago, our dramatic club decided to raise some money on the side. (Art and lucre have little affinity for each other). Some brilliant minds conceived the idea of the rummage sale; and we yes-men (and women) fell for the plan, hook, line, and bridal biscuit. We urged all our friends to give to the Great Cause. I can remember that our wheezy old Dodge spent a half day collecting dishes, underwear, outmoded pictures, once-lovely dresses, toys, darling hats of another era, etc. It was October, and we tried to collect warm clothing, mainly. A half day was spent in the basement (I mean a modern, good-enough-to-live-in basement) of our chairman, sorting these things, and putting a price tag on each. (Terrible strain on the judgment). For some reason beyond my ken, the heart of the negro district was chosen for our great financial venture. We rented a vacant store there. Our club president had an open trailer. We loaded that, and the cars of our volunteers. Early next morning - at SEVEN - we high-pressure saleswomen and our bodyguards met at our musty hang-out. Realizing that it was a rather tough neighborhood, with possible hoodlums hanging around, our president, a salesman in his own right, took the day off and gave it to charity. Other men in the club, on their own - so to speak, came in relays of one or two, to protect us. We arranged our stock very neatly, putting one or two stunning evening gowns in the window, to attract attention. All other dresses and coats were hung neatly on hangers; in lieu of racks, we strung a clothesline from wall to wall, across the rear of the store.

The white woman who rented the store to us - a lifelong resident of this neighborhood - gave us some pointers on how to handle our customers. There would be some veteran "rummagers" who would bear watching. We were delighted with our first customers, some honest store-keepers, who wanted to replenish their stock. They bought most of our dishes. Business was getting brisk. We kept wishing that our promised helpers would hurry up and come. A mob of colored women (ten or twelve) came peering in through the front window. To our dismay, they came in. They knew what they wanted, and, in a solid phalanx, armed with black bags, marched to the rear of the store - ostensibly to examine and purchase some dresses. Every clerk was busy elsewhere. I had my hands full at the underwear counter with a man and his wife, unscrupulous storekeepers, who haggled over prices 'till I was ready to crown them both. I couldn't leave them for a split second, but I managed to look back at our new arrivals, lined up in a solid row against the dresses, with a colored girl, about twelve, posted as lookout. Her eyes were as beady and bright as a squirrel's. I called to our president, at the front door, that some customers needed watching. He caught the cue, and sent for the policeman that was supposed to be on guard outside. No police in sight. The African army moved on - to the counter of infant's wear. A saleswoman tried to wait on them - but by that time they had grown bold, and simply put what they wanted in their black bags. By now we were all up in arms; our president, a husky six-footer, tried to stop them at the front door, and examine their baggage. But they were too smart. An accomplice on the outside wedged her foot in the door; two or three thin ones slipped out, and the ringleaders slipped their bags out to them. The "infant's wear" saleswoman, a real lady, but a stickler for honest dealing, got a firm hold on THE ringleader's coat sleeve, vowing she wouldn't let her go until the villain in skirts paid for the things she took. But that black amazon gave a vicious yank, almost leaving her sleeve behind. The president thought discretion the better part of valor, and opened the door wide for her. Now, the proper ending to this episode would be the arrival of a riot squad of policemen, who would round up these female pirates and take them for a ride in the paddy-wagon. But no! With a leer and a cackle, they were "gone with the wind" - also our choicest dresses, baby things, and - I don't know what all.

The veneer of civilization is very thin. Personally, I was so mad that I made the wildest statements about my courage, if we only had another chance at them. The quiet store owner squelched this braggadocio, "It's a good thing you let them go; they would have bashed your heads in, if you had tried to hold them." She had heard of this professional gang of "rummage-sale crashers." Ah, me! The rest of the day was an anti-climax. More help arrived - men and women - and we didn't need them. The sale had its good side; for instance, the father of a brand new baby came in with a woman neighbor, and bought a nice layette for $1.25 (he was out of work at the time). A boy came in and got a warm cap for a nickle. And so on. We found, however, that "rummage sale" is well named, for the majority come, just to rummage. By mid-afternoon things were very dull. I was watching out the front window, when, behold! Down the street came a great tall black man, dressed in a powder-blue cotton suit, trimmed in white. He was hatless, barefoot, and carried something that resembled a shepherds crook. Business was forgotten; I appealed to an old colored man, poring over our pile of shoes, to tell us who the apparition was. "Oh, dat's Barefoot Jesus. He's a Prophet. He's won'erful. Folks pay him big money to prophecy their future." We should have asked B.J. how to recover our stolen property. What did we get out of the rummage sale? A lot of fun, thirty-three dollars and some cents, anyway you want to spell it. And now for our newest riddle, (at least, new to me) dedicated to all mothers of small boys: Why is a boy like a piece of muslin?...Because he shrinks from washing.

Sincerely yours,
Florence B. Taylor

Next - 2/7/40 - JULIA - A COLORED MAID