In the late 1940s, I endured purgatory on Eighth Street after a little girl in the neighborhood entered a special polio hospital. My next-door friend Kay Hunt telephoned and requested a germ-free wave. I stood at the breakfast room table to flutter a hand, the closest I came to companionable play. Meanwhile, my mother, Ella Robinson, went berserk scrubbing doorknobs and window sills with Lysol, her panacea for the polio microbe. The city sent fumigation trucks down the block to poison flies and mosquitoes, possible spreaders of the disease.
When the weeks-long quarantine ended, I prepared to enroll at Oakwood School. My father, Russ Robinson, drove my mom and me to downtown Hickory and parked at the end of the square. From my vantage while plunking nickels in the parking meter, I could see idle black men across the way at Abernethy Transfer, where they hoped for one-day employment. I wondered where the black women and black children shopped. There were few on Main Street.
We three hurried through the crosswalk past the sleazy Catawba Theatre and stopped in at McClellan’s dime store for a quarter pound of red skin Spanish peanuts, still sizzling in their little pan of oil. I made a brief tour of the pencil boxes and goldfish tanks before my parents directed me around the corner to Buff’s shoe shop in Trade Alley for new rubber heels on my one-strap Mary Janes. The one-eyed cobbler always had time to chat with little girls, unlike the reception at the hated bank. Cold and grim in starkly white marble, First National terrified me. I stood first on one foot, and then the other as my parents completed business at the iron grille.
At the crosswalk, we parted. My mother perused veiled pillboxes in the window of Nell’s Hat Shop. Daddy led me past pots of blue hydrangeas and yellow calla lilies in Wanamaker’s window to the Hotel Hickory barber. A kind man trimmed up my Buster Brown cut with a few snips and evened the stubble on my father’s nearly bald head. We both received complementary puffs of talcum on our itchy necks.
We strolled on down the block past the Center Theater, where I checked out movie posters for “Heidi” and “The Boy with Green Hair,” coming soon. Beyond the pool room, richly fragrant with hot dogs dripping in chili, mustard, and slaw, we turned left and stopped at the Fresh Air Market. My grandmother, Lily Hester, had sent along her list — wax-covered rat-trap cheese and ONLY American Ace coffee (picky picky picky). Ducking in at the side door of Lutz’s Drug, we savored Cokes over chipped ice, the best in town.
Toward the underpass, we examined bolts of cloth at Isenhour’s Fabric, upstairs and down. On the ride home, I clutched the bag to me and inhaled the smell of checked red and navy gingham for a new dress — with sash. I fingered the rickrack that I alone had chosen to trim the collar. Safe once more in Hickory from dread crippling, how easy I was to please.
Mary Ellen Snodgrass