“Benny, you get the bologna, I’ll get the cheese. Leroy, you get the mayonnaise and Stagalee wear my maxi-coat, you got’ta get the bread”. Yes, it had finally come to this, Bill Clayton and his three roommates were laying down a strategy whereby they would go to the local Be-Lo Market and shop-lift enough items to make sandwiches, bologna sandwiches. They were literally starving to death and something had to be done.
The Norfolk State College admissions building loomed perilously in front of Stagalee.
This hadn’t been what Stagalee envisioned when he received his letter of acceptance from Norfolk State College during the past summer. Sure, he knew it wouldn’t be easy, heck, he wasn’t even able to raise the fifty dollars needed to secure on-campus housing, but he was determined to go.
When it came time to leave for college, Stagalee found that he didn’t actually have a ride to get there. It just happened that a neighbor and close family friend, Tina, and her husband were driving back to their home in Hampton that weekend and offered to give Stag a ride. He quickly took them up on their offer to ride along. When they arrived in Hampton he spent the night at Tina’s house, the next day they dropped Stag off on Corprew Avenue in front of the school’s admin building. Stag stood and watched as Tina and Paul drove off down the street, he was all alone now. This was becoming far too real for poor Stag, there he was standing on the sidewalk, his seventy-five pound trunk of clothes sitting beside him on the lawn, he had no idea where to go from there. He picked up his belongings and headed down the long walkway to a sign marked “Admissions”. Long story short, six hours later and being directed from one long line to another, Stag learned that he did not have enough funds ($50 to his name) to qualify to live on campus. The good folks in admissions gave Stagalee a piece of paper with an address and directions on it, he walked the six blocks with his trunk to his new home at 1719 Willoughby Avenue. He had to walk past the Twin Towers, the male and female dorms that loomed watchfully over the campus, the dorms where he should have been walking into right now. When he finally arrived at the address written on the paper, there waiting for him in the house were his 3 new roommates, Bill Clayton, Benny Sims and Leroy Whitaker. These guys were all from the Hampton Roads area, they knew their way around, had family and friends nearby and seemed prepared, at least outwardly, for the challenges that lay ahead. Stag, on the other hand, was like a fish out of water, he’d never been more than 50 miles in either direction from Remington, Virginia. This was all new to him and the prospect of living with people he’d never seen before in his life was a bit overwhelming. Bill was the oldest and seemed to be the most laid back of the three. Bill was from Hampton, owned a car but, for some reason, had decided not to bring it with him. Benny was from an upper middle class family, his family owned the first and only black-owned hotel in Myrtle Beach, from the start it was plain to see that he was a spoiled brat who had been given everything he ever wanted. Leroy was an amateur boxer, he was a self proclaimed black belt karate expert and also had a cousin who was a professional boxer, Parnell Whitaker.
Stag should have been staying in the Twin Towers dormitory, but was not financially able.
The rent for the row house was going to cost $7 per month for each of them, but it wasn’t just them living there. Behind the locked door in the kitchen lived another tenant, old man Grimsley. The landlords, Mr. and Mrs. Everett, live upstairs, they are an elderly couple with no children of their own and who decided to open their home to college students for both the extra income and to help young people as they try to prepare themselves for the future.
The first day of classes was particularly uneventful and Stagalee was glad to get back to his new digs and away from the hustle and bustle of campus life. He opened the front door, which held the foyer, directly ahead was the door to Mr. Grimsley’s room, slightly right were the stairs leading up to the landlord’s apartment. He unlocked the door to his left and went into the living room where he and his schoolmates lived. The living room was pretty large as row houses go, it was big enough to hold the bunk bed where Benny and Leroy slept at night and the normal furniture that goes with living rooms. The next room was smaller and this is where he and Bill slept in single beds on opposite walls from one another, there was also a desk for studying and dresser and mirror. The next room was actually a hallway that lead straight ahead to a bathroom and then off to the right there was the kitchen, which Mr. Grimsley also shared. The kitchen was obviously a later addition because there was a window in the wall between the hall and the kitchen, this came in handy because you could see who was in the kitchen through the window without having to go all the way to the door. Mr. Grimsley had his own refrigerator and he only came into the kitchen long enough to prepare his meals, then he would disappear back into his room. Mr. Grimsley appeared to be between 75 and 80 years old and did not seem to be very friendly, they rarely saw him at all.
Stagalee went home for Spring Break, Freshman beanie and all.
The next day when Stag arrived home from classes he walked through the living room, through his bedroom and into the hallway on his way to the kitchen. But he noticed that the bathroom door was slightly ajar and someone was inside. He went to the door, pushed it open slightly and there slumped on the toilet seat, leaning up against the sink was Benny Sims completely unconscious… with a syringe sticking in his arm. Benny Sims was hooked on scag, heroin, H. Stag saw that he had needle marks on both arms and there he lay high as a kite and knocked out. Stagalee grabbed him, picked him up and began smacking him, trying to bring him around, but it was no use, he was out. Stag laid him on the floor and closed the door. When his other two roommates arrived from school Stagalee told them what he’d found and they all went into the bathroom, pulled Benny out and began beating him relentlessly, he woke up only to be beaten some more. Benny’s three roommates told him in no uncertain terms that if this happened again he was out, he’d have to leave the house, needles would not be tolerated in the house. Of course Benny never touched a needle again after that.
The decision to steal groceries hadn’t been made lightly, for months they had been living off the kindness of others. Many days went by with them only eating peanut butter crackers or Ramon noodles, if they were lucky. On numerous occasions they stood at the back door of the Student Union snack bar waiting for “Big Mama” to hand them a few frozen hamburger patties or a bag of frozen French fries. This scene was played out almost once a week now, Robert would stand at the counter, begging her to give them something, anything, just to keep them from starving, thankfully, she was always able to find something for them. When times got really hard, Robert would tie the front of his Tee shirt in a knot and switch around in front of the gay guys who hung out in the snack bar and who always seemed to have money, he didn’t like doing it, but it kept the boys fed. This particular time we’d gone for over a week without eating anything at all. Even Jimmy, Clayton’s friend who lived on campus, had stopped leaving food in their fridge because he’d grown tired of them scrounging it all.
The Giant Open Air Market.
This would be their second attempt at stealing a meal, their first try failed miserably. The plan was to walk the one mile down Brambleton Avenue, across the vast Campostella Bridge into the area called Berkeley and on to the Giant Open-Air Market. There they sold fresh rotisserie chickens. It would be Stagalee’s job to reach into the hot case, pull out a chicken, put it under his coat and calmly walk out of the store undetected. The other three team members (yes, this was a team effort) would go about the store gathering the necessary accoutrements needed to make an entire meal, bread, well basically just bread. One other person would also grab a chicken and make his way to the exit after insuring that Stagalee had made it safely outside. There were two problems with the plan, Giant Open Air Markets, if you are familiar with them, have a unique design, they are completely open, there’s no doors, just wide open space between the inside and out. The only thing that separates the indoors from the outdoors is a high volume curtain of air blowing downwards in the front of the store. There is a grate (somewhat like a cattle guard) that customers have to walk over, that captures the air and recirculates it back to the top. These stores also maintain a security guard at the entrance, just ‘inside’ the store.
In 1971 you had to be dressed in the latest threads on a weekend night in Norfolk, VA.
Stagalee was wearing Bill’s maxi coat, which reached all the way down pass his platform heels. In 1971, begging for food or not, you had to either be dressed like Super-Fly or Shaft if you were going to be seen in public on a weekend night in Norfolk, VA. He stood at the counter dressed to the max, he grabbed the chicken just as planned and placed it inside his coat, under his arm. Stag began slowly walking toward the front of the store, but the container holding the chicken was slathered in grease and the chicken began to slide down the side of Stag’s body inside the coat. Stag held on for dear life but by the time he arrived at the entrance and the security guard, he was walking completely hunched over, the chicken was resting against his ankle, the only thing between the chicken and his hand was Bill’s extra long maxi coat. Stagalee looked like a crippled up old man in need of a cane. He safely arrived at the stream of air, seemingly unnoticed, but the force of wind was too strong, it blew the chicken out from under his coat and it went skidding across the floor and back into the store. Stagalee stood there paralyzed expecting the guard to start toward him. The other boys saw what had just happened and all three went running from the store and back toward the bridge without looking back to see if anyone was after them, never realizing that Stag had been left behind. Stag wasn’t too far behind, he was right on their heels in his Flagg Bros. platform heels, which were not made with running in mind. When they all finally arrived at the bridge they stopped long enough to realize how lucky they were and right there decided never to return to the Giant Open Air Market or try anything like that again.
But that was then and this was now and they were hungry again, really hungry. This was their last ditch effort to get food. They went over the plan at least ten times, you would have thought they were planning the rob the Louvre or the Chrysler Museum, they left no stone un-turned. “Look Stag”, Bill began, “This time you have to make sure you don’t lose the goods, we can’t all get back here and find out we’ve got everything ‘cept the bread, we can’t make sandwiches without bread”. Stag was adamant, “No man, it won’t be like that this time, we will be eating tonight. I hate that this is the only option left, I’ve never stolen anything before”.
Leroy raised his hand, whispering, “Quiet! You know Mrs. Everett listens to every word we say, last month she told our parents we were smoking funny cigarettes, so shut up!”
Well, she was right in a way, they had been smoking funny cigarettes, “Tijuana Smalls”, those little cigars with the plastic tip, everyone smoked them, she just thought they were something else.
Benny Sims turned to Stag and said “Hey man, let me hold your short”, Stag handed him what was left of the cigarette he was smoking and he continued, “We need to get going, I can’t take it no more, I can smell old lady Everett up stairs cooking Sunday dinner for her and her husband and my stomach is kicking my butt”.
Bill said, “Ok, Let’s go!”, and was out the door first, they walked the half mile to the store and everything went just as they’d planned. Stag got the bread, Benny got the pack of bologna, Leroy got the mayo and Bill got the cheese, they all made it in and out of the store without a hitch. When the boys got to the corner of Willoughby they double checked the take, it was all there, they breathed a sigh of relief and turned the corner to go “home”.
When they arrived back at the house Stag took out his key and opened the door to the foyer, they all gasped at the same time. There, in front of their door sat a large tray and on the tray were a platter of hot, crispy fried chicken, a large bowl of potato salad, a basket of piping hot biscuits and some salad greens in a plastic container. They couldn’t believe their eyes, but at the same time knew exactly what had happened… Mrs. Everett must have been listening at the vent (like she always did) and overheard every word they said. she had prepared that meal and placed it in front of their door while they were out stealing a meal. There had to be a lesson in there somewhere, but it completely escaped them because when Stag suggested the right thing to do would be to return the stolen items back to the store, Robert quickly retorted, “This chicken will only last one meal and then we’ll be hungry again. The bologna will last us all week.” And with that they went into the kitchen and enjoyed a Sunday chicken dinner fit for a king.
The following week Stagalee received his first paycheck from the Work-Study program via a loan agreement from the State Bank of Remington. This new job marked the beginning of a new set of perils and adventures in the life of Stagalee, but it also meant that the boys never had to beg, borrow or steal for their meals again.
~ To be continued… ~