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MLK and 'One-Eyed Jacks'

I learned of Martin Luther King Jr.'s assassination from a cab driver in Kansas City.

by Scot Sothern
Jan 19 2015, 8:18pm

I'm 12 years old in 1961 on my way to a Saturday matinee. My friend Walt is with me and we stop at Katz drug store. Cartons of cigarettes are stacked tall to the wall next to the comics and paperbacks. Walt picks up a Green Lantern comic and we stand shoulder to shoulder and he turns the pages like we're reading. My back is to the wall and my hands are behind me opening a carton of Kool straights and dropping two packs into the back of my underpants. The Green Lantern has a sidekick, an Asian guy named Pieface. I think he's supposed to be comic relief, but I don't find him funny.

We catch the number four bus downtown to a cowboy double-bill at the Lander's Theater; the oldest movie house in town and the only one black people can go to. White people go to the other two downtown theaters, where the better movies play, leaving the Lander's first floor and second floor balcony mostly empty.

Walt goes to get candy and popcorn. I take the stairway down to the men's room where three black teenagers are pitching pennies. They wear shiny slacks and pointy-toed shoes. One guy wears a Homburg with a feather in the band; one guy has a slicked-back conk and sunglasses; the third guy is kind of featureless. I take out a pack of Kool's and ask if anybody wants one. They take one each and we all light up. The first hit of unfiltered menthol knocks me back a step and the guy in the hat grins and says "Kool's are cool, man." They go back to pinching pennies and I ask can I play and the guy with the sunglasses says sure, he could use some extra spending money. I go into my pockets but find no change, just a ten dollar bill. I tell the guys I guess I don't have any change. The guy in the hat says what have I got, he can make change. I tell him no, thanks anyway but I'm gonna go watch the movie.

I find Walt front row center. He tells me he saw some wild looking girls at the candy counter. He tells me the girls are easy and they give it away up on the third floor balcony. I go back out and up the stairs to the second floor balcony, which is empty except for a couple of white teens making out in the back row. I take a narrow stairway up to the next level and light up a Kool. There are no seats but accordion benches with ten black teenagers sitting on them. Alone in the front row is a black girl with a pink barrette in her hair. She's wearing high-heeled shoes and a short dress with red hearts. She is skinny down to the bones with a soft-oval face and fat lickable lips. I look at her and she looks at me and she sticks out her tongue and blows a raspberry then turns back to the movie. Behind me a couple of guys start throwing jujubes at the back of my head. I don't think they like me so I go back down and watch One-Eyed Jacks with Walt. Marlon Brando is intense.

1968. I'm bumming around Los Angeles when a best friend in Missouri dies from a drunken act of stupidly. My parents wire me enough money to fly home for the funeral. I get a flight to Kansas City but need to stay the night for the puddle-jump flight home. I've got thirty-three dollars so I get into a cab and ask the driver can he take me to a whore house? He asks me do I know what's going on and I tell him I don't know, what? He tells me Martin Luther King, Jr. has been shot and killed. "Wow," I say. "Here, in Kansas City? That's a bummer. He was a good guy."

He tells me not here, Memphis.

I tell him bummer again and, "If you can't take me to a whore house do you know where I can score some weed or acid?"

He tells me if I want to go to a specific address or a hotel he can take me; otherwise I need to find another cab.

I go to a motel close to the airport and give the cabby a four-bit tip. I get a room and I take a shower and jerk off and light a Kool and turn on the television. One-Eyed Jacks is playing and it's different than I remember.

Scot's first book, Lowlife, was released in 2011, and his memoir, Curb Service, is out now. You can find more information on his website.