I was a small town girl with a big love for writing sticks. My birthday fell at the end of August, the last week of summer, the first week of the new school year. My early birthday celebrations were always tinged with a distinctly educational theme, but my love for pencils was bigger than any classroom.
One of the earliest rituals of my life was waiting on the front steps of our small white house at 311 West Oakland Avenue, Sumter, South Carolina, for the sight of my father driving up after work. I was his "Lovechild" and he the man who warmed my pillow on the heater grate in winter and cooled my forehead with ice cubes from his lemonade glass in hot unforgiving August. Ours was a mutual adoration society that was fed, steadfastly, by spontaneous afternoon walks and drives out in the world together.
My birthday week always set the stage for one of our special outings. My main order of business, that special week of August, was always the procurement of pencils for the school year ahead. Daddy would scoop me up from the steps, drive us across the tracks, pull in at the foot of the south side bridge and park just in front of the Manning Avenue Drugstore and Grill. Once inside my father turned and headed in one direction, and I turned and headed in another.
At the grill's barstool daddy would order a half-pound of cheeseburger, seasoned and hand-spanked by the pharmacist–grill master himself, Dr. Wilson Deas. I was on the other side of the store near the front door, parked over a cigar box full of pencils. There I would stand, until near closing time, studying the barrels and wooden nibs of pencils like some kind of mad child scientist [End Page 214] that had never seen one before. While I deliberated Dr. Deas and daddy caught up on the news of the day. They were close friends. They were young black professional men in small town America with growing families. We were neighbors. Dr. Deas was the only black pharmacist in town and my father the only black attorney.
The two entities that made up the Manning Avenue Drugstore and Grill were not in opposition to each other. The bar stools that sat in the middle of the store were the line of demarcation. On one side of his shop sat the grill, where Dr. Deas was the master chef of a two-item menu board, french fries and cheeseburgers. The burgers came with more black pepper than should have been legal in the state of South Carolina. They were the juiciest, most delicious cheeseburgers I have, to this day, ever tasted. On the other side of the store was the pharmacy. As soon as a customer walked in with a prescription to be filled, Dr. Deas would turn the flame on the grill down, walk across the floor, shed his over-the-head grill apron and don his long-sleeved, perfectly starched, pearl white pharmacist's jacket, all in one fluid motion.
My side of the Manning Avenue Drugstore and Grill, the pharmacy side, held the one-shelf school supply section and therefore was the home of the oversized cigar box spilling with a high tide of pencils of all sizes and colors. Some were #1 lead but most were #2. The men left me alone to do my pencil choosing, never rushing or hurrying me. I would turn my back to the store and the grill and study my long fingers lifting and separating almost every pencil in the box. There was something private about it for me.
I preferred #1 lead even then. Dark and glossy, it added polish to everything I scribbled. I preferred the deep gold pencil barrels with the wide, peanut brown band up near the eraser. My love of pencils was not arbitrary.
I was raised in a land of pencils and pencil users. I was reared around people who worked with their hands: seamstresses, tailors, carpenters, teachers, butchers, coaches, painters, farmers, electricians, plumbers. These small town folk...