“My poppa taught all his children how to use a knife. My oldest brother can turn a man to a sifter before he knowed he been cut. I seen him do it. We don’t bother nobody, but we ain’t gonna let nobody bother us neither.”
The liberator of her own soul long before the women’s liberation movement, Maudy expresses herself as colorfully as the ribbons in her hair. She says she does not mind ‘cutting a fool till I can’t him walking or running. I’ll cut a woman just as hard. It's some tough talking, rough women out there. They'll cut a man or woman to pieces just as fast as they'll look at'em.”
Maudy does not believe in female helplessness. “It ain’t nothing but a show.” She says a woman can do whatever "she wants to as well as any man . A woman got make up her mind to do it. I never seen my mama back off nothing she had to do. That's one reason I packs a knife, and a mouth of bad words for anybody who think they gone treat me wrong. I ain’t letting no man knock me around. Not me. So sir. Not me. I never seen my poppa raise his hand to my mama. He knowed better. Mama took a frying pan to his head like greased lightening. He had a couple of knots, maybe three or four, on his head. He didn't try that no more.”
“I think a man is a coward if he hits a woman. Real men don't hit women. Enough of that talk. You look the same as when I first met you two years ago.”
“I’m the same Maudy Whitt every time you sees me. No reason to change today. Ain’t no reason to change tomorrow. I leaves that to the weather. Don’t believe in flipping my ways. Folks don’t know how you gone act from one minute to the next.”
Maudy told me that first time I met her. She was sitting at a bus stop, watching people watch her. We had talked to each other so openly and honestly, I felt like I had known her all my life.
I was impressed with her upbeat personality; her refusal to stay in anyone’s company who accepts depression and ineptitude as a way of life. She said back then, “If you ain’t cripple, you don’t need no crutches. If you crazy you need to be locked up in a nut house. If you broke you need to find a job.”
Maudy says depression is only a word waiting for somebody to pick it up. "People latch onto that mess for some kind of comfort. Depression don't go round hooking itself to folk who don't want it. I don't want nothing to do with it. Ain't never been down in my mind a day in my life."
Some people look at Maudy and immediately decide she’s homeless. That was my first impression, despite her being cleanly dressed. She was not panhandling. She asked me what time it was, and that’s how we began to talk. “I can read and write some. No much. I know peoples with plenty education and they don’t seem to be doing no better than me, money wise. I don’t understand it. Don’t make good sense.”
Everywhere Maudy goes, she has two large pillow cases, sometimes two large shopping bags filled with everything she owns. “I travels light. When I eat my whole family done ate.” She carries in her mind, memories of her travels, the people she’s met.
Maudy won’t talk much about her family. She told me what she wanted me to know then said she was through with that part of her life. Once in a while she broke her own rule. I learned quickly not to push her. About her age, she says: “I was roun' two years old when Noah was fetching animals for his Ark. My mama says we was neighbors,” she laughed.
Maudy is good at telling jokes. Dirty jokes. Few clean ones. She says if you can’t make people smile saying something nice, tell them a dirty joke.
“That’ll get they attention. Most everybody likes a dirty joke. Women folk, too. Don’t let no woman tell you she don‘t listen to’em cause she do. Even them stuck-up ones who think butter wont' melt in they mouths. I seen some of'em do some things worse than a dirty joke.”
Maudy says people laugh at her when she walking down the street, her whole life tucked under her arms. “I look straight in they eyes and throw they laughing back at’em. Don’t never let peoples see they can get the best of you. They’ll ride your backside till you can’t stand straight. I don’t have to ask nobody for one thin dime. I don’t have to lay in nobody’s bed to sleep. I don't have to turn no tricks out here for a couple of dollars so I can eat. I don’t mind taking day work to keep money in my pocket. I can sleep in the house or outdoors. Don’t matter.”
A native of Oklahoma, Maudy’s salt and pepper hair, that hangs to the center of her back, is always adorned with colorful-strips of ribbon intertwined into her hair. The color offset her caramel complexion that still has a glow. Her small feet are housed in Indian moccasins and socks, sometimes matching, sometimes not.
“My mama was half Indian. I don’t what tribe. She didn’t talk bout’em. I got some Indian in me, too. You can probably tell. We all of in the family got these cheeks. Peoples tell me all the time they likes my high cheeks. They just cheeks to me.”
It had been a number of months since I last seen Maudy. I had been thinking about her, wondering if she was alright or still alive. One Sunday afternoon some friends and I were picnicking in City Park. To my surprise, Maudy walked up, frisky and talkative as ever.
“How y’all doing this fine Sunday afternoon?” she asked. “It’s a mighty good day to be alive. A mighty good day.”
“We’re doing okay,” the five of us said in unison.
“That’s good.” She sat her bags on the ground. “Y’all young folk don't mind if I sit for a spell, does you? I already walked five miles today if I walked one." Smiling, Maudy fanned her face with a frayed fan bearing a picture of Jesus.
"You want a beer or a soda, Miss Maudy?" Jerry asked, pushing both towards her.
“I’ll take the soda water, son. Too hot for a old woman to be drinking alcohol. I don’t want to fall out on the streets. Thank you anyhow.”
“Y’all celebrating? Ain’t no holiday is it? I don’t keep up with’em much. Once in a blue moon I celebrates Thanksgiving and Christmas. Everyday I live is Christmas and Thanksgiving to me.”
"We're having a picnic. Nothing special," I said.
"Come on everybody! Let's play ball!" Fred said. "You too, Miss Maudy," he invited.
“I'm staying to talk to Miss Whitt," I told them. “I’ll see y’all later.”
“Shucks, honey. Go on and play ball with your friends. You don’t have to sit here with me. Soon as I kill this can of soda water, I’ll be moving on. I can keep myself company. Go on and have some fun with your friends,” she urged me.
“I’d rather sit and talk to you. I haven’t seen you in a long time. I can play ball with them anytime. Besides, it’s too hot to play ball.”
“Know what you mean. Thought I was gone faint before I got somewhere to sit. This is the hottest summer I seen in a pretty good spell.”
"It'll probably get cooler later this afternoon. Where have you been? I haven’t seen you in while."
“Just got back from out West Texas. Show is hot and dusty out there. White people still don’t want colored people to come in they cafes . The more things change, the more they stay the same. My mama was right bout that. Just before I come back here, a colored man got kicked in the tail on account he went in a White folks cafe. They said he caused trouble. He was with a White woman. Reckon that the trouble he caused. Them White folk didn’t like it. All they wanted to do was eat. They was hungry.
"That colored man no more got it out his mouth before the owner kicked him and her out the door. Told'em not to come back less they wanted to wash dishes or sweep the floor. That White man knowed the colored man wasn’t gone call the law. They stick together out there. The colored cook that works there told me 'bout it. He a friend of mine. Shucks! He gotta eat in the kitchen! He can't even take his family there to eat with them White folk. I thought a law was passed where Negroes can eat where they wants to.”
“Desegregation was supposed to stop discrimination. Guess it hasn't. That was a terrible thing to happen to that man. People should be able to go where they want without getting kicked out of a business,” I said. “That’s why Martin Luther King led the civil rights marches.”
“I been round white folk long enough to know it's hard for’em to drop they old ways. I found some days work while I was out there. One of the White womens I worked for wanted to give me some clothes she didn’t want. I told her to giv’em to some poor White peoples. I said it in a nice way. You know what that cow called me? A uppity nigger! I told her to go straight to hell, and take them her old clothes with her. I didn’t go to her house begging for a hand-out. I was looking for work. I seen’em treat they dogs better than they treat they colored peoples. Them old clothes she was trying to give me was too big anyhow. Fat cow!”
“I guess she didn’t see that you are a small woman."
“Reckon she didn’t. Anyhow I told her in the front so she won’t stick out behind! Sho’ did! Treating me like I'm a beggar!"
"How many cities have you been to, Miss Whitt. I’ve never been out of Texas.”
“I been bout everywhere you can go on a Greyhound bus. Rode a train a few times. You won’t see me getting in no airplane to go nowheres! I don’t never get in that big a hurry. Been thinking about going back to California or New York. I got some kin folks in both them places.”
“I envy you. I wish I had the nerve to travel like you. I’m scared to pack up and leave home. I want to know everything is going to be safe when I get where I’m going.”
“You can go if you wants to bad enough. You ain’t got but one life. Best thing to do is pack and go. Don’t sit round til you too old. If you do you’ll die thinking the world stopped you, when you stopped yourself. Let too much grass grow under your feet, you might start thinking you a tree. That’s the reason I stay on the move. I love my life. It ain’t much but it’s mine.”
“All of my friends are here. I don’t want to leave them.”
“I meet new folk all the time,” Maudy said, reaching for her purse, pulling out a wad of chewing tobacco. “I ain’t gonna offer you no chew. Young people today don’t chew tobacco. Been chewing since I was a young girl.”
“My mother caught me dipping snuff when I was younger . She almost beat me senseless. It made me dizzy and sick. After that, I swore I’d never dip snuff again.”
“You gotta get used to it. I dips and chew. Neither one don’t make me no difference.”
"No more for me. I don’t even smoke cigarettes."
“Does you smoke them funny smelling kind?”
“Miss Whitt, shame on you ! Why would you think that?” I asked, laughing.
“Just thinking out loud,” she said, a twinkle in her eyes. “When I was younger I tried it a couple times. Didn’t like it. Don't like alcohol either.”
“That’s a surprise,” I said, glad she answered the question before I asked.
“You hear about that fella what kilt hisself last week? Killing yourself is a sin. I read in the paper he was in love with this cheating gal, and they was to get married. She call if off cause she been sneaking round with his best friend. Goes to show you can’t trust n body. Not even your best friend.”
"I hate to think I can't trust my girlfriends. I don’t think my girlfriends would do that to me. They trust me. I trust them."
“I was in love one time. He was in the war. He hadn’t been gone long before he come up missing in action. His mama come to my house to tell me the news after the Army told her. I cried and carried on till I couldn’t squeeze another tear out my eyes. We was gone get married soon as the war was over. Loving somebody else didn’t cross my mind after that. Hurt too much to love somebody and then lose him.”
I turned my head so Maudy could wipe away the tears forming in her eyes. “I better get myself on where I’m going before I make a fool out myself, telling you all my business. Hope it don't be too long before I sees you again."
"Me too,” I said. I worry about you when I don’t see you. I enjoy talking to you.”
Picking up her bags, Maudy Whitt was ready to go. “ That’s mighty good to hear. Somebody in the world worrying bout me. Thank you for the soda water. It hit the spot. I enjoyed talking to you. You learn to live and stop worrying. Don't be no tree. I know you heard this before, but ain’t nothing coming to a dreamer but a dream you might not want.”
“You’re right, Miss Maudy. That’s something to think about. You be careful and take care of yourself. Who knows what might happen in the future."
“You got to make your own future. That’s the only way I’ll live a long time. And I intend to be around for a long time!”
I hugged her. She looked startled. “I don’t get too many hugs,” she said, smiling.
“Good. That means my hug is special.” Still smiling, she walked toward downtown, where I first met her. Miss Maudy Whitt was a rose, but she wasn’t looking for perfection.