The East Side was the fashionable part of town, but the West Side bent its back to the place, powered it, made it run. The East Side wore a lace of dogwoods, azaleas and wild plums. Here were the college professors, the merchants and professionals, the landlords and the necktie men, prominent First Baptists and Episcopalians. The nice streets were paved with asphalt and clean, white gravel. “The East Side people dranked about as much as we did,” said Carlos, “but did keep it better hid.” Also to the east, but a discreet distance away, was Eastwood, which most people called Needmore. It was a black community of small, well-tended houses. On weekends, world-class baseball players, held here by color, played in epic games as concessionaires fried fish in big, smoking pots and served it on white bread with a single daub of catsup in the middle, like a bullet wound.
To the north was the college, a beautiful landscape of brick buildings, tree-shaded and immaculate, a teachers' school that grew into something more, and a small college football powerhouse. The mascot was a fighting gamecock, and when the marching band played Dixie, the East Siders and West Siders rose together, and roared. To the south was commerce, what people even now just call the Highway. You could see two drive-in movies in a five-mile stretch, visit a bootlegger who hid in plain sight, eat the best foot-long hotdog in the known universe and buy a pistol with no questions asked, and still not be more than seven miles out of town.
In the middle of it all was the square — not really a square at all but a circle. Off to one side squatted City Hall, not an antebellum showpiece, but a yellow fortress pieced from natural rock. For my people, it was just “the jail,” and we knew it the way some people know their church or a Mason's Lodge. It was an old-time jail with iron bars and iron bunks and white beans seven days a week, but the worst thing about being locked inside was the constant sound of motion outside its iron doors, as the bored young people circled, circled in their cars.
It was there, in that orbit of Hudsons, Packards and Chevrolets, that my father fell in love, betrayed a buddy, and third-wheeled his way into my mother's heart.