Town Without Pity?

Dan Riley
8 min readFeb 1, 2023

From Now Playing: Black Panther, an excerpt:

With the Strand closed down, at least temporarily, the D’Aleo family found itself with more time and less money on its hands. To shore up the family income, Ellie started looking for more shifts rather than fewer at the hospital. To assure that the closure was temporary rather than permanent Leo spent endless hours in conversation with lawyers, government officials, and theater industry contacts. To relieve her boredom, Rosemary was in a constant search for Shep, who seemed to have totally disappeared from her life shortly after the police cordoned off the theater. She had no car for getting around and there was no phone at his mother’s house where he lived. She never realized how much the Strand was central to their relationship. They could always count on seeing each other there, spending time together and making plans to go elsewhere, but all of a sudden their relationship had gone as dark as the Strand.

Frustrated and longing to see him she ventured out on foot just on the off chance she would find him. She walked up Grant Street from the family home and then took a right on Rt. 5 on the familiar path she took to high school for four years. When she got to the high school, she just kept walking toward the classic end of town…no shops…no offices…surely no theaters, but a leafy stretch of homes with Georgian columns, colonial-era churches, and historic landmarks of Enfield’s pre-Revolutionary period. She ambled, intent at first on possibly catching sight of Shep driving down the town’s main thoroughfare. But then she came to a boulder on the side of the road and her mind went elsewhere. The boulder was engraved with the following:

THIS BOULDER MARKS THE PLACE WHERE STOOD THE SECOND MEETING HOUSE OF THE FIRST CHURCH OF CHRIST IN ENFIELD BUILT A.D. 1704 AND USED FOR WORSHIP UNTIL 1775.

IN THIS MEETING HOUSE ON JULY 8, 1741, DURING THE REVIVAL KNOWN AS “THE GREAT AWAKENING” JOHNATHAN EDWARDS PREACHED HIS CELEBRATED SERMON “SINNERS IN THE HANDS OF AN ANGRY GOD”

Of course Rosemary knew “Sinners in the Hands of an Angry God” as did every schoolchild in Enfield. They knew or at least heard of it since it was mandatory reading in the town’s junior high. Rosemary had not committed the sermon to memory, but the gist of it was most impressionable on young minds and thus unforgettable: “The bow of God’s wrath is bent, and the arrow made ready on the string, and justice bends the arrow at your heart, and strains the bow, and it is nothing but the mere pleasure of God, and that of an angry God, without any promise or obligation at all, that keeps the arrow one moment from being made drunk with your blood.”

What was new to Rosemary was the discovery of this boulder marking the spot where Edwards delivered the sermon. She’d never seen it before…never knew it was there. Until that moment, the sermon was as detached from any time and place as any textbook assignment ever was. The idea that a building stood on that spot where former citizens of her hometown gathered and worshipped words that would resound for more than 200 years was revelatory to her. It made her ponder whether such a circumstance existed in her current Enfield. Was there a building in town where words were spoken that would have resonance long after she and all her contemporaries had passed? That profound question shook her being. She had always been so busy at the theater and pleasing her parents and canoodling with Shep that her mind was generally off limits to such deep thoughts. But there she was entertaining such a thought as she turned and started to backtrack her walk.

She hadn’t gotten far when she noticed on the opposite side of the street up ahead a broken down, blue painted school bus. She recognized it immediately as one of the buses from the local L.B. Haas tobacco farm where Shep worked before he came to the Strand. She also recognized the torso that disappeared under the hood and bent over the bus’s engine as Shep’s. She screamed with delight at the sight and ran towards him.

Shep pulled his head out to turn and look in her direction. She ran into his arms, nearly in tears, “Shep…Shep…Shep…where have you been? I’ve missed you like crazy.”

They kissed.

“I’m sorry, hon,” he began, “I’ve been busy with…”

“You’re working tobacco!” she exclaimed, suddenly noticing the row of black faces looking down on them from inside the bus.

“Well,” he started to explain, “I made a deal with Mr. Granger, my old supervisor there, that I’d take the bus around and pick up Colored folks and bring them by for a tour of the fields. Every summer it gets harder and harder for them to get kids to take on that work; it’s so hard and dirty. I told him I would pick these people up from, you know, Springfield and New Haven and so forth and bring them by and then he could pay me a bit per head for however many sign their kids up for the next summer.”

“What an extremely weird idea, Shep. What’s gotten into you?”

“To be honest, Rosemary, it’s a lie,” he replied a bit abashed. “I told him that just to get the use of the bus. But it’s all really for you. Your dad. The theater.”

“What on earth are you talking about?”

He looked up at the people on the bus and waved his hand over them. They all smiled and waved back.

“They want to see Black Panther,” he said. “So I’m taking them.”

“But the police still have the theater roped off, and dad heard this morning that men are coming up from Washington to maybe close the theater for good.”

“That’s why we’re bringing the Underground Railroad back,” Shep said. “You see that house,” he added, pointing to a large mansion up the road from the bus breakdown. “That’s the Potter mansion. Wealthy Ephraim Pease built it next door to his own mansion when his 14-year old daughter Sybil married Rev. Potter in 1779. Even though his father-in-law was a slave owner, that didn’t stop Rev. Potter from turning his house into a station on the Underground Railroad to help runaway slaves escape to freedom.”

Rosemary looked into Shep’s face with unfiltered astonishment. “Shep Farrell,” she said, “What’s gotten into you? I mean, what in the deepest recesses of all unholy hell has gotten into you?”

Before Shep could answer, Marcus rolled out from under the bus, holding up a small black rubber hose. “Found it!” he announced.

“That’s it!” Shep exclaimed. He took the piece from Marcus’s hand and rushed over to put it under the hood of the bus.

“I’m Marcus,” Marcus said, holding a hand out to Rosemary. She took it tentatively…and not because it would be the first Colored hand she ever touched, but because she was still flabbergasted by the tall Negro’s sudden appearance from under the bus.

“Rosemary,” she replied. Then she quickly moved toward Shep, who had ducked under the hood again momentarily.

When Shep re-emerged triumphant, he announced, “There, that should do it.” He wiped grease from his hands. “Rosemary, Marcus is my new friend. He’s helping me get all these people in to see the movie. Come on. We’ll give you a ride.”

With that he hurried in to take the bus driver’s seat. Marcus politely ushered her in front of him. As she hesitantly climbed the stairs into the bus, she was greeted by the sound of the engine turning over and an appreciative applause from the bus riders. When Rosemary reached the top step, she was shocked to see another white face against the sea of blacks. It was Mrs. Dundee, her bookkeeping teacher, seated in the front row and acknowledging her with a smile. Marcus slid by and took the seat next to Sheila, as a young Negro boy vacated the seat across the aisle and offered it to Rosemary. Somewhat in a daze she took it.

Shep started motoring north up RT 5 back toward the high school and Rosemary’s home, but he hardly travelled a mile when he stopped, pulled over and opened the door. He looked in the rearview mirror back at his passengers and directed their eyes out the door to another stately, old Enfield home. It was grand enough for royalty, fronted by four large white columns; a fancy wrought iron fenced-in balcony overlooking the main entrance, and north and south facing porticoes. Shep said, “Marcus, tell the people about that house.”

Paul Robeson one of the most famous black men in America
lived in this house (1940–1953) in Enfield, Connecticut, one of the whitest
towns in America.

Marcus gladly stood up and turned back to face the passengers. “That, ladies and gentlemen, was the home of world renown singer Paul Robeson, who lived there from 1941 to just last year. Most of you know the lofty heights Brother Robeson has reached in a world full of challenges for the Colored man…first in his class at Rutgers University, All-American football player, international musical star of the stage, and invited to give a royal command performance at Buckingham Palace.”

“Ooohs and aaahs,” rippled through the bus.

“And of course,” Marcus continued, “Many of you know of his tireless efforts on behalf of the poor and downtrodden. I was honored to be one of his bodyguards in Peekskill, New York, just a few short years ago when he was forced to reschedule a benefit concert for union workers after the Ku Klux Klan broke up the original concert. We linked arms…black and white together…to protect him while he sang his heart out for 25,000 working people from all over. I will not tell you it was an easy day in the sun, because it was not. The enemies of the common good attacked again…viciously…while the police stood idly by. No, it was not an easy day, but it was a proud day, and I’d do it again to bring about a better day. When you’re watching this glorious movie tonight just a few miles from here, I want you to remember this house and the brave man who lived here because that movie owes him a debt.”

Marcus responded to the respectful silence that followed by walking down the aisle of the bus and pressing the flesh of the passengers.

Rosemary leaned forward in her seat to ask Shep, “Where exactly are we going?”

Shep smiled and said, “Well, first to Haas Tobacco. Got to keep up appearances, and got to stay out of sight as much as possible ’til dark. If you know what I mean.”

Rosemary looked at Marcus heading back down the aisle, exchanged a cursory smile with Sheila, and then turned to Shep. “I really don’t know how you can afford to do this. How can you even afford the gas?”

“Everyone chips in,” he replied. “They bring their own lunches. So it doesn’t cost a dime. Which reminds me.” He reached down to the side of his seat, picked up a bulging moneybag and handed it to Rosemary. “Proceeds from ticket sales. These are paying customers, sweetheart.”

“Your man’s the White Panther, Rosemary,” said Marcus as he resumed his seat. Shep smiled proudly and touched down on the gas pedal, sending the bus forward.

So intent were they in going unnoticed that they didn’t notice less than another mile up the road the two black, government-issued limousines disgorging passengers…six white men in topcoats, suits and hats…checking into the esteemed Elmcroft Inn, formerly Vail’s Sanatorium for the treatment of mental illnesses.

Now Playing: Black Panther is the ideal gift for everyone on your Valentine’s Day shopping list, especially Baby Boomers, movie buffs, Black Panther fans (and those who never saw Black Panther or Forever Wakanda), US history junkies, political satire savants, lovers of short books, fans of funny books, and connoisseurs of fine literature everywhere. And it’s now very affordably available here. (5-Star reviews accepted.)

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Dan Riley

From the obit desk at the Hartford Courant to the copy desk at Larry Flynt publications to the stage at Long Beach Playhouse to books, blogs & beyond.