Pamela was my best friend in second and third grade at Larimer School. She was the first to smile at me when I entered my new second grade classroom. The school principal and my parents had made the decision to move me from first to second grade halfway through the year, so I returned from Christmas break to a new teacher and classmates that were a year older and who I didn’t know. Pamela made that first day easier and we became fast friends.
Pamela had kind brown eyes and a wide smile, and she had dark braided hair like mine, except that she had a few short braids while I had two long ones. Pamela lived with her mother and older brother in a second floor apartment over Larimer Pharmacy in the same block as our school. I had never been to Pamela’s apartment, and she’d never been to mine. While we were best friends in school and always played together in the schoolyard during recess, we didn’t visit each other at home. My friendship with Pamela was somehow different. I didn’t question this reality. It just was.
On a Sunday morning in the summer of 1955 when I was eight, I was walking to church alone. My mom wasn’t feeling well and I pleaded with her to let me go to church by myself. After several minutes of begging, she finally agreed.
“Be sure to look both ways when you cross Joseph Street,” Mom instructed, “and be especially careful crossing Shetland because it’s busier. And come right home after mass. Here’s the envelope to put in the collection basket, so don’t forget it, and…..”
“Mom” I interrupted. “I’m eight. I know how to go to church.”
I walked up Larimer Avenue heading to Our Lady Help of Christians on Meadow Street, and I was just in front of the school when I saw Pamela walking towards me. Like me, she was dressed in her Sunday clothes – a pretty powder blue dress with a ruffle on the bottom and a pair of black ballet flats. I knew Pamela didn’t go to my church and I assumed that she was on her way to one of the Baptist churches nearby.
Pamela and I had played together only a few times over that summer, meeting in the school yard on those days when the city employed a teenager to run a day camp for neighborhood kids. We’d draw squares with white chalk on the sidewalk to play hopscotch, and we’d jump rope singing “A, my name is Alice and my husband’s name is Al; we come from Alabama and we sell apples”. Then, breathless and sweaty from jumping, we’d sit on the school steps and play board games. The little kids liked Candy Land, but Pamela and I preferred Clue.
As we got closer, Pamela and I waved and called out, beaming, delighted to see each other. We stood for a few minutes talking, giggling, and wondering what fourth grade will be like. Then Pamela had an idea. “Let’s skip church,” she said. For me, this was exciting and scary at the same time. I feared that my mother might find out, then quickly dismissed my concern in favor of an adventure. Pamela and I thought about what we might do.
“We could stay and play here in the school playground,” I suggested.
“We’ll ruin our church clothes,” Pamela said. “Besides, we don’t have any games or toys.” We thought a bit more. Then Pamela, who was always resourceful, came up with a plan. “Let’s get a Cherry Coke!” This sounded like a great idea, and I mentioned that Conte’s Drug Store my house had a soda fountain. Pamela seemed uncomfortable with my suggestion and said that she preferred another soda fountain that she knew on Shetland Avenue.
I didn’t usually walk down this end of Shetland, but Pamela seemed to know where she was going. We walked a few blocks, passing small brick houses with neatly trimmed front yards, and we stopped at a corner drug store that was unfamiliar to me. The door was set on an angle at the corner of the building and a red and white stripped canvas awning hung over the doorway. Pamela opened the glass door and a bell chimed overhead. We went inside and sat at the counter on high swivel stools covered in red vinyl. We were the only customers.
A tall Black man wearing a white jacket was polishing the counter, and he looked up when we came in. A smile crossed his face, and his eyes had a quizzical look as he approached us.
“What have we here?” he asked, seeming amused.
“We’d like two Cherry Cokes please,” Pamela said with confidence.
“Two Cherry Cokes coming up,” he replied.
Then Pamela turned to me. “Oh, no. We don’t have money!”
I remembered my church envelope and pulled it out of my dress pocket. “I have money,” I said proudly, glad that I could contribute to our adventure. I tore open the envelope and two quarters tumbled out. “Is this enough?” I asked the man behind the counter.
“It’s more than enough.” He smiled at me warmly, took just one quarter, and gave me ten cents change.
Pamela and I watched as the man scooped ice from a chest just below the counter and emptied it into two glasses. He used a nozzle at the end of a hose to pour Coke into each glass, then he pulled a bottle from a shelf behind the counter and carefully poured in a small amount of thick red liquid. He added a straw and gave it a couple of swirls as he placed the glasses in front of Pamela and me. “There you are,” he announced.
We talked and sipped the sweet tasting Cherry Cokes until we downed the last bit so that our straws made that slurping sound. Then we pushed our glasses away and slid off the stools. We said goodbye to the man behind the counter, and he waved to us as we walked outside into the hot sun.
I was thinking how I wanted to continue our Sunday morning antics just when Pamela wondered aloud if it wasn’t time to go home. We suddenly realized that we didn’t know how long to stay away from home. We pondered the question for a while as we slowly strolled back up Shetland toward Larimer Avenue. We thought about walking toward Meadow Street to see if people dressed in church clothes were returning from mass, but I feared that I might be seen by one of my mother’s friends. I suggested that we go back to the drug store and ask the man behind the counter how long church lasted, but Pamela thought that was silly. We decided to go home and take our chances.
We said our goodbyes and separated, walking in opposite directions on Larimer Avenue. I remember thinking how happy I was that I ran into Pamela that morning. I missed seeing her over the summer. I turned around to watch her walk away just as Pamela turned to wave at me. As I walked the three blocks to my building, I turned back a few times but lost sight of Pamela as her figure got smaller and finally disappeared.
When I got home and opened the door to our apartment, my mother was in the kitchen standing in front of the stove. “How was church?” she asked.
“It was ok,” I mumbled without making eye contact.
“Go in and change your clothes and we’ll have lunch.”
I went into the bedroom that I shared with my parents. I took off my pink cotton church dress and laid it carefully on the cot where I slept. I knelt on the worn carpet in front of my mother’s dresser and opened the bottom drawer where I kept my clothes. An unexplainable feeling of sorrow came over me. I sat on the floor in my underwear and cried.
For many years, I looked back on my childhood neighborhood still believing that it was integrated. The Thompsons, who had lived next door, were Black. The Wades, whose back yard met my grandmother’s back yard, were Black. Lots of kids in my school were Black. We had played together, noticing the difference in our skin color but some of us trusting that it didn’t matter.
I didn’t think much of it at the time but in hindsight I realize that Pamela understood that our neighborhood was segregated. She knew the drug store where she would or wouldn’t be welcome. She had had to know to survive. My own lack of awareness itself a sign of my privilege. I didn’t need to know.
It’s taken me the better part of a lifetime to understand a bit of what Pamela knew when she was just a kid. The eventual realization that my beloved Larimer Avenue was segregated disrupted the nostalgic illusion that I had created of good and decent people living together without regard for their color. I wondered if many of the Italian-Americans that held a loving place in my heart were likely racist. They weren’t awful people, I reasoned to myself, but a product of their time. Like fish swimming in a bowl, getting wet from the cultural racism that surrounded them. The truth stung, though, and the image of my old neighborhood became flawed like a crack in one of my mother’s porcelain tea cups.
Thinking back on that Sunday in 1955, I realize that I could have learned more about social justice the day that I skipped church than had I gone to mass. Yet, it would take decades for that lesson to take. I did learn about friendship that day. Pamela and I shared our own communion of sorts, spending a bit of our Sunday together, sipping Cherry Cokes, blessed by the warmth of each other’s company.
The next summer, we moved from Larimer Avenue and I never saw Pamela again.
Linda Schifino is Professor Emerita of Communication at Carlow University where she is also working towards an MFA in Creative Nonfiction. Linda is currently writing a collection of essays describing growing up in an Italian-American enclave in Pittsburgh in the 1950s. She has had essays published in Voices from the Attic Vol XXIV and XXV and in DoveTales Literary Journal.