I grew up on a unique street in Long Beach, California in the mid-1960's. It was a neighborhood where people from all walks of life (Creole, Black, Mexican, White People, Gay People and Interracial couples) lived away from the judgemental eyes of main streamed folk. Seems no one bothers you if you live on a block for poor people or those just starting out. Smith Place now is more expense to live at, so poor folk may not be able to live there anymore.
The stories that came out out of that neighborhood would set my moral compass and introduce me to a life I was only starting to understand as young boy. Smith Place was my Hannibal, Missouri and the Smith Place stories are my homage to a fountainhead experience like no other. Here's one such story.
The Globetrotters: Another Smith Place story
Payton’s family lived next to ours. His wife Loretta was a lovely woman whose kindness was the hallmark of what a mother should be. She cared for Vernon and Fiona, their children, with such care and consideration that they blossomed as you expect: polite, kind to others, and staying away from trouble, and existing in a childhood where they felt safe and loved.
Payton De Blanc’s family was from Louisiana. He was Creole and took pride in telling us about the Bayou and the world that raised him. Loretta was from New Orleans with the bearing of a woman born and bred in the church, a diction that pronounced words in their complete voicing and with the intention that those who invented the word intended. This was especially evident when she and Payton would sing songs.
His job at the Greyhound bus station as a baggage clerk kept Payton in gadgets that others left behind on the bus. And people left the craziest stuff on the bus. Not just rings and watches and things one would set down and forget about, but big stuff. One of the things he brought home one day was a reel-to-reel tape recorder and player, which Payton used to record songs from the AM soul station.
He would invite us in to hear when he had recorded and edited the commercials from dozens of songs. My brother Jesse and I would sit and listen to a cascade of songs. One after the other and the large speakers hooked up to the tape machine made the three room house a concert hall.
Payton would explain the mechanics of the tape player and the nuance of the songs. He especially pointed out the words. Listen to the stories, he would say. And at times Loretta would come into the living room and start singing to a song. At these times, I would hear soul songs sang as if from a church choir. Words that the soul artist slurred a bit were enunciated with each syllable’s melodic worth from Loretta’s mouth to God’s ear. I was mesmerized.
Payton was a good friend to us. On his days off he would watch as we played street baseball or had rock wars on the railroad track that crossed the edge of Smith Place, trying to keep us from hurting each other. He would tell us not to put big rocks on the railroad tracks or we would derail the train. We loved seeing the train break up the rocks and loved the bullet little rocks that would fly all over the place as the wheels crushed over the obstacles we had set. One day, just as Payton had warned, we saw a train with a few cars attached to the engine and the caboose stop right in its track. Out walked a man in a blue uniform with gold buttons on his coat and a hat with a badge at its center. The man got out and went to the houses on Smith Place and asked the parents and all the kids to come to the edge of the track. In no uncertain words he told us that if we continued to put rocks and other things on the tracks the police would be arresting all involved. The train police officer looked angry, but also tried to explain that we were putting people in danger and that the train could derail and kill the engineer and others whose job it was to get goods safely to markets across the land. Some of the tougher kids in the neighborhood would keep putting things on the track, but me and my close buddies heeded the man’s word and wanted no part of killing anyone.
And that’s why we would listen to Payton. Things he told us came to pass and having a trusted adult looking out for you is a childhood gift you never forget.
It was also Payton who introduced me to the law. Every time we had money from selling the Los Angeles Herald Examiner on the streets of Long Beach, we would go to the Salvation Army thrift shop and buy what we could afford. We bought a catcher’s glove and mask that way. One day we bought a leather basketball that let us dream of the basketball team we loved.
At Smith Place there was only one real team we kids followed. It was not the Lakers or the Celtics. We followed the only undefeated team we knew: the Harlem Globetrotters. Meadowlark Lemon and Curly Neal. That’s who we wanted to be.
In our basketball bouncing enthusiasm we decided to start a Smith Place basketball team. Of course, deciding on a name was easy: The Smith Place Globetrotters. We told Payton about our plan to start a team and our name. But he took on a worried look as we told him. Boys and girls I’m sorry to tell you this but you just can’t use someone else’s name. The name Globetrotters is a trademark that belongs to the Globetrotters and you can’t use their name or they will sue you.
Payton then proceeded to explain what a lawsuit was and the importance of protecting one’s trademark. After listening to Payton, two kids quit the team. Another suggested we change our name to the Sparrows because he was pretty sure a bird could not sue.
I was adamant that we were the Globetrotters and that’s the name we would use. Payton then explained that if we were set on the name Globetrotters we could write to the Globetrotters and ask permission to use their name. If they gave us permission, we could then legally play on Smith Place as the Globetrotters without worry of a lawsuit.
The rest of the kids wanted to be named the Sparrows because they did not figure a letter from the kids at Smith Place would convince the Globetrotters to let us use their name. I was insistent then as I would be in many things in later life, and I agreed to write the letter to get permission to use the name.
I asked my mother for an envelope and a stamp and I grabbed a piece of paper and began my first legal correspondence to a corporation making a legal request. What are you going to write they all asked? I was not the smartest kid amongst us, so I wrote only what I needed to write. Dear Mr. Globetrotter, we are a bunch of kids who live on Smith Place and we want to call our team the Globetrotters. Please let us do that. Sincerely, the team that wants to be called the Globetrotters and not the Sparrows.
I showed the letter to Payton. I don’t think I ever saw Payton smile so big in all the time I knew him. He said the letter was great and promised to mail it from the Greyhound station the next day.
We waited for what seemed like an eternity for us. In the meantime, we held practices in our driveway, and on the days he could Payton would teach us how to pass and dribble and shoot at the makeshift hoop he had created above our garage door. After awhile we just made shots against the wall because the hoop came down every time someone came close to making a basket and putting the basket back up was too much of a chore.
After not hearing from the Globetrotters the other kids were demanding that we be called the Sparrows. But Payton intervened and told us that since we had written in good faith to the Globetrotters, and they had not responded in due time we were within our rights to believe that they had no objections to our being called the Smith Place Globetrotters and we could use the name knowing we had done all we could to make it right.
By the time Payton told us all this it was turning into baseball season and our basketball dreams took a backseat to our baseball team. We decided we wanted to be the Smith Place Dodgers. And this time we knew exactly what do. I wrote another letter that began: Dear Mr. Dodger, we are a baseball team on Smith Place….