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20150615_040932

Sidney Poitier came up when Sydney Porter called to make dinner reservations. Porter had meant to make reservations at The Class Act at Kirkwood at the beginning of the month, but he’d let it slip. When September rolled around his wife Athol had said, “Your last year of youth. Seems to me that we should celebrate 39 for you, Syd. I think a big celebration for your thirty-ninth is less depressing than waiting for your fortieth; don’t you?”

“Thanks,” he’d replied. “Just wait, you’re not that far behind you know.’

“Yeah, I know,” she said with a smile, “But really, let’s celebrate.”

“What? Like a big party somewhere? Have people over?” he’d asked, face falling.

“Don’t look so glum,” Athol said. “It’s your birthday. You know what? Surprise me. I usually do the dinner planning thing; why don’t you do it this time?”

Sydney had exhaled, rolled his eyes and said, “Fine. I’ll do it. But that means you can’t complain about my choices.”

“On your birthday? That wouldn’t be fair at all,” she’d answered with a wink.

“Right…” had been Sydney’s skeptical reply. Syd wasn’t a big party kind of guy and he took Athol at her word. It hadn’t taken him long to cook up the night away from home for just the two of them and then he’d called his in-laws right away. Al and MJ said they’d be happy to have Margaret for the night and he’d arranged to have them pick his daughter up at the end of the school day on his birthday so he and Ath could enjoy a romantic night celebrating alone. With plans to have their little girl safely ensconced at her grandparents’ house neatly arranged he was looking forward to a rare night of child free frolic with his best friend.

It wasn’t until the Saturday morning before his birthday that he remembered to call The Kirkwood Hotel about arrangements. He used a credit card to reserve a room for Monday night and then asked to be transferred to The Class Act restaurant to make dinner reservations.

There was a short pause as his call was transferred to the restaurant and then after two rings a soprano voice said, “Kirkwood Class Act, this is Alice, how may I help you?”

“Yeah, hi. My name is Sydney Porter and I’m hoping to make a dinner reservation for Monday night.”

“How big is your party, sir?”

“Just two, me and my wife.”

“For this Monday? That shouldn’t be a problem, sir. What time did you want to make the reservation for?”

“How does seven sound?”

“Seven will work beautifully. What did you say your name was again, sir?”

“Sydney Porter. And we’ll be staying at the hotel, if that matters.”

“Oh, how nice. And a phone number, Mr. Poitier?”

“319-848-8777,” Sydney said, “and the last name is Porter, p-o-r-t-e-r, not Poitier, like the actor.”

“Oh, I’m sorry, Mr. Porter,” Alice said. “You had me a little excited there for a minute. I thought Sidney Poitier might be coming to dinner. Oh! I made a pun! You’re not related to Mr. Poitier I suppose?”

“Not as far as I know.”

“Is he even alive still?”

“Not sure. I guess you could Google him. Are we set for Monday?”

“Yes, Mr. Porter. Party of two for Sydney Porter, p-o-r-t-e-r, for Monday at seven. I’ve got you down. Thanks for selecting Class Act, I hope you enjoy your stay at the Kirkwood Hotel.”

“Thanks, Alice, I’m sure we will. G’bye.”

It had been a long time since anyone had asked W. Sydney Porter III if he was related to Sidney Poitier, but it still happened occasionally. As a youngster Porter had found the question odd, after all Poitier was a stage and film actor at least a generation his senior, a black skinned Bahamian super-star whose already bright popularity had skyrocketed in 1967 with the release of three block-buster movies that successfully intertwined gripping tales with relevant social commentary revolving around race relations and social injustice. Poitier, who had poignantly portrayed Marc Thackeray, Virgil Tibbs and Dr. John W. Prentice, was a powerful black man while Porter was a humble, pale skinned, blue eyed, blond haired assistant manager of Tyson’s Home, Farm and Auto; not that Alice would know whether he was black or white by talking with him over the phone. “Am I related to Poitier?” he asked himself. “Don’t know how if I am.”

Porter had been born when nearly half the states in the USA had laws forbidding sexual unions between blacks and whites. The 1960’s was a turbulent time of racial unrest, an upsetting of the applecart era, an out with the old and in with the new period. Sidney Porter had enjoyed renting Poitier’s on screen blockbusters including the 1967 films, “To Sir, with Love,” “In the Heat of the Night” and “Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner?” all released the same year that the US Supreme Court overruled anti-miscegenation laws with Loving v Virginia. Loving pushed aside prohibitions against interracial marriage in the 17 hold-out states that still had anti-miscegenation laws and was announced exactly ninety-seven years and 51 weeks after Maj. Gen. Gordon Granger unknowingly created the holiday June Teenth on June 19, 1865 when the Union Army asserted the North’s authority in the State of Texas and Granger issued his decree freeing all slaves in the nearly 270, 000 square mile state.

Sydney Porter was aware of the US’s racial past and things like anti-miscegenation laws that Loving had overturned but he didn’t think about it much. The sixties had been rough on the country but there was no denying that now that the US had entered the twenty-first century the nation was looking a lot more equal than it had back then. Black History was every February and things like June Teenth had been discussed in school, though Sydney would be hard pressed to provide details. He remembered the race riots, the 1968 King assassination and the war in Vietnam the same way most people born in the summer of 1962 did, which is to say vaguely.

Sydney hung up the phone and glanced at the security monitor on his desk. The bank of screens that showed scenes from dozens of hidden cameras that dotted the interior and exterior of the store was in the security office and Syd’s single screen was usually trained on the checkout area, though he could switch over to any of the multiple views. Two o’clock on a Saturday afternoon was peak time for Tyson’s and he got up from his desk to do a quick walkabout, checking on both customers and employees, making sure folks were finding what they needed and that his crew was focused on their work. Saturday was usually the busiest day of the week and a lot of the weekend staff consisted of part-time high schoolers who tended to be focused more on what they were going to do after their work shifts were over than on what they were doing right now to earn their spending money. He didn’t blame the kids, heck, he’d just made hotel and dinner reservations during the busiest part of his shift, something that was definitely supposed to happen during non-working hours, but it was his job to keep the store running smoothly; a job he took seriously. Frequent, sporadic walkabouts helped to refocus the youngsters and he enjoyed rubbing elbows with his customers. The corn belt tended to be a friendly place and Cedar Rapids was a great example of Midwestern hospitality.

Sydney headed downstairs and to the back of the store where he came across Brandon who was showing a man that Syd recognized some heavy duty chainsaws. Seeing the customer Syd’s eyes turned upward and to the right as he tried to recall the man’s name. Unfortunately the name eluded him and he was forced to say, “Brandon, you be sure to sell him something with lots of horsepower. I happen to know for a fact that this man has quite a bit of timber right there along 120th Street and L Road. That’s Plum Creek, isn’t it?”

“Hey, Sydney. Good to see you,” the man answered, shaking his hand. “Good memory. How are things your way?”

“Good, good. Think I’ll take the wife and daughter out for a little bike ride over Czech Village way tomorrow. Soak up some of that incredible early Fall sunshine.”

“On the bike trail? That sounds like just the ticket; if you don’t have dead timber to clear. Better enjoy it while we can, winter’ll be here before we know it.”

“Sad but true. You do a good job now, you hear, Brandon?”

“Will do, Mister Porter.”

Sydney waved and meandered through the aisles, asking folks if they needed help finding anything and making sure that employees were doing what they could to help customers who looked lost. Up near the front of the store Heather was showing a voluptuous young thing a pair of blue cowboy boots. “I’m going to wear these to the home coming dance,” the curvy ginger said, hoisting the boots in the air and waving them. “I’m going with Barry and I’m wearing a cute little dress with them. Are you going?”

“I’m going to the game for sure, but I don’t know about the dance. Those boots should look real cute on you.”

“You think? Well, thanks for your help. See you at school.”

“See you,” Heather replied and then started putting the rejected boots back in boxes and placing them on the shelves. She looked up in time to see Sydney watching her and blushed just a little. Heather was a bit of an odd ball but a fantastic employee; very attentive to customers and always on time. Skinny as a rail, she still didn’t look old enough to be in high school, let alone starting her junior year.

“Hey, Heather,” Sydney called with a small wave. “Good job with the boots. You know her?”

“Yes. And thanks. We go to Kennedy together.”

“Got it. You’re in the marching band, right?”

“Yeah,” she said with a smile. “This is my third year.”

“Well, have fun.”

Life at Tyson’s was pretty good for Sydney. Sure he worked a lot but he usually got either Saturday or Sunday off and the people he dealt with were good folks. It was just after nine when he pulled into his driveway, tired after a long day of work but looking forward to tomorrow with family time and his upcoming birthday. Getting out of the car he said to himself, “I guess you’re as old as you feel.”

Athol sat at the computer while their daughter Maggie watched television. Denzel Washington and Will Patton were having a heated discussion about football as Ath got up from the monitor and welcomed her husband with a kiss. “Remember the Titans? We saw that in the movie theater, didn’t we?” Sydney asked as he bused his wife.

“Oh, she thinks she’s the coach’s daughter,” Athol said. “I swear she’s watched that movie a hundred times.”

“Have not,” Margaret answered from the coach. “Hi, Daddy. How was your day?”

“Long,” Sydney replied. “But tomorrow we can all go for a bike ride, okay? I’ll make breakfast, get the bikes in the truck and then we can drive down to Tait Cummins Park and then ride downtown. Maybe stop for ice cream when we’re done? Speaking of eating, is there any dinner left?”

Ath tilted her head down and sideways asking, “Like I wouldn’t save something for you. In the microwave. Just heat it up for a minute and you should be all set.”

“Great. Thanks, honey. You’re a good mama bear.”

“Thanks, I think. Let me grab some wine and I’ll come sit with you. Want a beer?”

“Is the Pope Polish? That’d be great.”

Sydney ate the warmed over Iowa chop, baked beans and broccoli while he sipped his beer and talked with Athol. When they were done eating he rinsed his plate and slipped the dirty dishes in the dishwasher before walking over to the couch where he made his daughter scoot over so the three of them could watch the end of the movie together. He remembered watching the car crash but the next thing he knew Athol and Margaret were both tickling him and telling him it was time for bed. He’d fallen asleep on the couch again, not too surprising after a long, busy work shift.

He looked at his daughter and growled. She just laughed in return. “And don’t forget to brush your teeth,” she said, punctuating ever syllable with a downward thrust of her extended index finger.

“Yes, Mother,” he answered. It would be nice to have a day of rest and relaxation together as a family. Hard to beat a September Sunday in Iowa.

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