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THE PARTY



After finishing three hours of taping for a television special, I loosened my tie and headed for my vehicle. Before leaving Florida, I decided to drive by a few of the areas I had hung around in as a young boy. "Jacksonville sure has changed," I said to myself as I drove from one area to another.

There was a time when I used to walk from one side of Jacksonville to the other. One mile, ten miles, maybe even twenty miles. Distance seemed to make no difference to me when I was seven or eight years’ old. Many times I had just run away from the Children's Home Society Orphanage; I would eat what I could find in the dumpsters, and I would sleep in abandoned red brick buildings along the St. John's River, on Riverside Avenue.

I drove over to Post Street and walked up to the apartment where Bill, the schoolteacher, had molested me after allowing me to spend the night with him.

I drove to Spring Park School, which was located next door to the orphanage. I parked and walked over to the orphanage property. I stood there looking through the six-foot high chain-link fence. Other than a few new buildings, nothing had changed. All was quiet and still. There was absolutely no sign of life, and there was no laughter to be heard anywhere.

Next, I drove downtown to see the old rooming house where I had lived as a young teenager. To my surprise, it was gone and a skyscraper now stood in its place. I walked and walked until my legs began to hurt. I stood for several minutes resting against a department store window, watching the cars as they passed.

"How well I remember those red tail-lights. Thousands upon thousands of red lights all headed to who-knows-where," I thought to myself.

As it was now past dark, I thought it best that I head back to my home in Brunswick, Georgia.

"Maybe I'll stop in and have one drink before I hit the freeway," I said to myself.

I walked a block or two looking for an open lounge. As I rounded the corner, there stood a man in a suit and tie holding a door open.

"Are you here for the party? Free food and drink," he blurted out.

I looked in the door way and saw about fifty people. All were laughing, holding a drink, and dressed to kill.

"Can you smoke?" I asked the man.

"No smoking allowed in Jacksonville, inside any building."

"I'll finish this cigarette and I might be in," I stated.

"What's life without a party?" said the man, as he closed the door and walked away to join the others.

I stood there puffing away at my cigarette. All at once, I saw a large flame coming from an alleyway between two large buildings. I walked across Market Street and looked down the alley. I could see four or five people standing around a fifty-five-gallon drum that had a fire burning in it.

I stopped, turned around, and looked back at the doorway where the man had invited me to the party.

"Free drinks, free food and intelligent company," I thought to myself.

I stood there for a moment and then I looked back at the fire. Slowly, I began to walk toward the alleyway.

"Mind if I join you?"

"You a cop?" someone asked.

"No. I'm just plain old me."

No one said a word as I walked up and began warming my hands over the fire. I noticed a few eyes looking at me every now and then.

"You from around here?" asked the large heavyset woman.

"No Ma'am."

"Ma'am! Ain't anybody ever called me ‘ma’am’ for a long time.”

The four men began to laugh.

"Sorry," I told her.

"Don't be sorry," she said rather quickly.

I stood there warming my hands. I remember as a runaway boy standing around many a fire.

I did not know these people, but I had known many like them. Many times these people had fed me when I was hungry. They had given me warmth when I was cold. They had given me friendship when I was lonely.

"You got a cigarette I can borrow?" asked the woman.

"No, but I have a cigarette that you can have."

Again, the men laughed.

When I held out the package, each person began taking cigarettes and within five seconds, I had less than five left from an almost full pack.

I pulled out my Zippo Lighter and began to light everyone's cigarette. Then I closed it and put it back into my pocket. I placed my own cigarette into my mouth, bent over, and lit it from the roaring fire.

"You've done this before. I can tell," said the woman.

"Done this many times, many years ago."

Over the next two hours, we talked, laughed, and joked. I was a little uncomfortable at a few of the jokes, as there was a woman present. However, she seemed to enjoy even the coarse jokes.

Occasionally I would notice a Cadillac drive up and drop guests at the party across the street. I would watch the women in their full-length gowns enter the building. Then I would look over at the heavy woman wearing her wool overcoat, and unmatched tennis shoes.

"You want to pitch in and get something to drink?" asked one of the men.

I had about two hundred dollars in my wallet and wasn’t sure if I should pull it out.

"How much are we talking about?" I asked.

"Fifty cents each should do it."

I reached into my pocket and handed the fifty cents to the man. I watched as each gave him their share.

"You want to come?" he asked.

"Sure, why not.”

When we arrived at the liquor store, the man walked right over and picked up a bottle of the cheapest wine. I followed him to the counter where we waited in line. As I stood there, I noticed a package of clear plastic champagne glasses with push-on pedestals. I reached over and picked up the package. When the cashier got to me, he looked at the wine and the glasses.

"I see you fellows are going to have a real fancy party," he said, as he rolled his eyes back and laughed.

"As a matter of fact we are!" I stated.

I pushed the bottle of wine to the side, and instructed the clerk to give us the largest bottle of "Crown Royal" that he had in the store.

When we returned to the alley, I was surprised that no one said a word about the "Crown Royal.” I opened the box and removed the bottle from the purple pouch.

"Can I have that there cigarette bag?" asked one of the men.

I threw him the pouch and he stood there rubbing it against his face. For the next four hours the six of us stood around the fire talking and telling stories. I watched as each person carefully and slowly sipped his or her drink. Each drank as if they were high society, and had not a care in the world.

Then a police car pulled up at the entrance of the alley and threw a spotlight in our direction.

"Let’s break it up and get out of there," said the policewoman, over the cruisers PA system.

Without saying a word, everyone started walking down the alley in the opposite direction of the police car. I threw my plastic glass into the fire and began walking toward the police. As I passed them, neither officer said a word to me. I just nodded my head and walked across the street. As I stepped onto the sidewalk, I lit a cigarette, and stood there looking down the alley. Behind me, a door opened and the man who had invited me to the party came walking out with numerous other guests.

"How did you enjoy the party?" he asked.

"As a matter of fact, it was one of the best parties that I've attended in years."

"Good," he said. “What good is life without a good party and good friends, right," he continued.

”You are so right my friend," I said, and I smiled.



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