Mississippi of the West

Arika Elizenberry

Fremont Street, 1959

Photo Credit: Allen/Flickr (CC-by-nc)

“I went from being a nigger in Mississippi to one in Las Vegas,” said Celia Eddins out loud. She hugged her legs with her cheek on her knee. Tears steadily dribbled down her face and glistened as the moonlight peeked through her bedroom blinds. “And being a whore to white men.”

Slot machines from the Golden Gate Hotel resonated in her mind and the clouds of smoke made her nauseous all over again. Worst of all, the foreign hands of male patrons groping her breasts and buttocks in the confined spaces of an elevator or hotel room added another layer of pain.

Like many other blacks of her time, Celia and her husband Eugene emigrated from the south for better jobs in the West. Many came in the thirties for the Hoover Dam project, the forties with hotels, and now the fifties with the Test Site and hotels. Black porters, cooks, and maids staffed the biggest hotels in Las Vegas and were paid decently, but southern etiquette was reinforced to not upset white guests. Blacks were even forced to live separately from whites in the former J.T. McWilliams Townsite near downtown known as the Westside.

“Why’d you have to leave me, Gene? Even on a bad day I still had you to count on. You were there,” she said through clenched teeth.

Eugene died in 1953 after a hit-and-run while walking home from work—two years after settling in Las Vegas. When word spread of employment in hotels and casinos, Eugene and Celia didn’t hesitate to move. He had secured a job as a porter in the Horseshoe and was confident things would be better, so he had urged Celia not to work. But Celia felt they wouldn’t progress unless they both worked. Now she was doing it alone.

Celia wanted to tear down the walls surrounding her and torch every hotel in Las Vegas. Every time she closed her eyes, she saw the light blue eyes and wrinkled skin of her rapist. His thrusts, panting, and kisses to her neck and chest sent her body into a cold sweat. Celia knew she couldn’t say anything, because she’d lose her job. And if she resisted the advances of men, she’d lose her job. She had no choice but to swallow the pain, smile, and carry on. After a fitful sleep, Celia woke up at a quarter to seven. The sun’s glow provided her with the energy she needed to sit up. She begrudgingly stretched her fingers and toes and eyed Eugene’s photo on her nightstand. Sometimes she kept his photo on the nightstand or put it in the drawer when she couldn’t bear to look at it. But, last night, holding the photo of Eugene close to her heart eased her troubles and made sleep more durable.

She dragged herself out of bed and wet her face in the small bathroom in the hall. A loud knock on the door startled her, but it could only be her friend Sadie. Sadie also worked with her at the Golden Gate and lived in the tenement across from her. Celia grabbed her robe from off her door and let Sadie in. Dressed in her black-and-white maid’s uniform and black Mary Janes, she held a plate covered with a kerchief. Sadie knew Celia had had a bad night and brought her a breakfast plate of grits and eggs to cheer her up.

“How are you feeling today?” asked Sadie, taking a seat on the couch. The tenement was so small that the kitchen and living room were one. One side had a refrigerator, sink, and shelves and the other side had a couch.

“How do I look?” asked Celia. Her brown eyes were puffy with bags underneath. Although her greedy mouth was tight-lipped, the shaking of her hands and heaviness her eyes carried said everything.

Sadie couldn’t blame her for being snippy. She felt the same way, but dealt with it differently. Sadie didn’t feel victimized, but like a survivor. Celia felt the opposite, walking around half-alive and half-broken. Every maid they knew shared their struggle.

“But you still rise,” said Sadie.

Celia took her breakfast plate and ate by herself in the corner and used her knees as a makeshift table to wolf down the meal. Considering the hour walk from home to work and Celia not being dressed, eating hastily was the way to go.

Sadie and Celia started walking at eight. In their matching uniforms, they passed identical brown tenements and trailers on unpaved streets and greeted other people taking their children to school or others getting off work. The ones who worked at the Moulin Rouge, the only integrated hotel, had jaunty walks, snapped their fingers, and wore pompadour hairstyles. Hotel workers from downtown usually dragged themselves with downcast eyes and bags in tow from the store adjacent from the Moulin Rouge.

The red grandiose hotel and tower came into view. Palm trees kissed the sky in front of the hotel and a fleur-de-lis twirled with the Moulin Rouge inscribed on it. Splashes from the pool and Thunderbirds whirring east and west were familiar sounds to them.

“We should go in there again sometime,” said Sadie watching the cabs pulling in the parking lot. Mixed couples were seen walking outside and cab drivers opened doors for guests.

“Remember when we saw Nat King Cole?”

Celia’s husband was a Cole fan, and to pass the time coming home from work, they sang Cole’s hymns. She thought of Gene and herself slow dancing to Cole’s piano in their home. For a few moments, she heard Gene’s baritone voice and saw his handsome face appear. It gave her a good laugh. Sadie saw Celia round her shoulders and stand taller.

“‘Route 66’ was his favorite song,” said Celia. “But I don’t think I can go back. It was nice seeing black and white folks enjoying themselves, but I’m not comfortable being around crowds like I used to. I don’t know what’ll happen in there.”

Within the next forty-five minutes, they walked along Main Street to Fremont Street where the Golden Gate sign was. Along Fremont Street were hotels and casinos like the Lucky Strike, the Monte Carlo, Boulder Club, and Hotel Apache. The Golden Gate, a light khaki, looked drab compared to its florescent brothers, but people entered and exited it like clockwork. Through the throng of people they watched a young black man jaywalk across the street into the Buckley’s Slots. A guard patrolling the place escorted him out and shouted, “No Blacks allowed!” Murmurs and stares from passerby collected around him.

“I guess he didn’t get the warning that he’s in Mississippi of the West,” said Sadie.

“Sammy Davis, Jr. can’t enter through the front entrance,” said Celia. “We’re on the same plantation with different masters. Southerners are all up and through here and they will have you at the bottom of Lake Mead.”

The two women walked to the back of the hotel where the garbage was and entered through the back door. They passed the kitchen, cut across the lobby and gaming area, and Sadie pressed the buttons of the freight elevator. They felt the vibrations underneath them rise until the mouth of the elevator opened. The repugnant odor of booze and smoke from the gaming area a few feet away made Celia lightheaded, and the rapid drop of the elevator to the laundry room caused her to lose balance.

They were greeted with the heavy musky scent of laundry soap and Mr. Lombardo, the manager, when the elevator opened. Industrial-sized washers and dryers filled both walls, the folding tables in the center, and the key holder for the rooms was next to the time stamp. They clocked in just in time.

“Next time leave earlier ladies,” said the bald-headed Mr. Lombardo. “I don’t pay you to slack off.”

“Yes, sir, Mr. Lombardo,” they said simultaneously.

“When Shirley comes down, I want you to take floor two, Sadie,” said Mr. Lombardo.

“And when Beverly comes from third, you take over, Celia. Margaret is taking care of fourth.”

Then he went upstairs.

Soon the timers on the dryers beeped for towels, spreads, and sheets to be folded. An hour into drying and folding, two maids came with the laundry carts and clocked out. Sadie loaded her cart with cleaning supplies and linen and took the second floor’s keys. Celia did the same and headed to the third floor. The Golden Gate had a total of 106 rooms—40 on the second floor, 40 on the third floor, and 26 on the fourth floor. Most people occupied the second and third, but the fourth were luxury suites and were pricier.

Celia pushed her cart along. The floor was shaped like a blocked letter C with stairs in the middle and tacky mauve carpeting. Doors that had “Do Not Disturb” signs were to be left alone, but Celia was required to knock to see if they needed anything. The first dozen didn’t answer, but the next six wanted towels and nothing more. There was no sign on the next one, so that’s where she started.

The room reeked of stale cigarettes with liquor bottles strewn everywhere. Fresh trauma arrested her mind and held it captive. Using the doorstop to air out the room kept her uneasy. Heavy footsteps of porters and cackles from guests made her sweep the floor harder, scrub the sink and windows vigorously. She wanted to erase the words I ought to thank you as the blue-eyed guest unbuckled his belt. A lump in her throat resurfaced and she clawed at her skin to rid herself of his hands, lips, and body on her.

“No, no. Gotta keep my mind on work,” said Celia, trying to suppress what ate her inside. Celia didn’t know if she was finished or not, but she knew she had to leave the room. She rushed out, stuffing the keys into her apron and pushed her cart over a jagged piece of carpet making a right turn. Celia hit a brown-haired woman, causing the towels and linen to fall on her.

“Goddamned nigger! Watch where you’re going!” she belted and pounded her fist into the floor.

“I’m so sorry, ma’am,” said Celia removing the linen. “Let me help you up.” She lent the woman her hand, but she jerked it away. She got upon her own just to spit in Celia’s face. Celia huffed and ground her teeth. It took every ounce of her not to send the woman airborne downstairs. Instead she closed her eyes, gained her composure, and wiped the spit off her forehead.

Celia proceeded cleaning until she ran out of linen. She smelled like bleach and Windex, but was more than three-fourths of the way done. Her body felt like it been set ablaze and walking sent her into an inferno. As she trudged down the hall, she made sure to round its curve cautiously to avoid another incident from happening. Celia had to get to the laundry room, but the freight elevator could take at least twenty minutes to reach the third floor. Even though blacks weren’t allowed to use the main elevator, it was a quicker alternative. For Celia, hopping from one elevator to another was a shorter ride to the laundry room. No sooner after the elevator arrived on the third floor did a man jog from his room and yell for her to hold the door open.

“Thank you,” said the man. He had on a grey suit and tie, but his cologne was there before he was.

“You’re welcome, sir,” said Celia. She tried standing up, but the few seconds she did made it worse. Celia leaned on the elevator wall and exhaled a sigh of relief. She wasn’t aware of the man’s roving eyes over her body. He had stared at her breasts when they first got on, then her torso. However, having a view of her backside, it looked like two ripe melons under her skirt and he wanted his pick. Before the elevator door opened, he squeezed it and sent a jolt of shock to her heart. He winked and walked off. I can’t have a good day, thought Celia. What did I ever do to you?

She moved fast through the aisle of poker tables and slot machines and caught the other elevator. In the laundry room, two other maids piled warm linen on the tables around them. Celia took what she could and went back to the third floor.

Her last couple of rooms seemed to take the longest to finish. With the negativity she harbored, she should’ve been drained after cleaning for eight hours. But every mirror she wiped to bed she remade, the energy ricocheted back in her body and stayed there.

Celia stood in the bathroom of last room on the floor. Her square fingers rubbed the porcelain knobs and rim until they shined. She lifted her head and looked at herself in the mirror. Over the past four years, it had been a hard for her to look at what reflected back—her brown skin, wide nose, and big lips. What about her made others so mad to call her out her name, to take advantage of her, to spit on her? Was it not bad enough she was branded as inferior, but did her subordinate status have to be pronounced when she made a mistake? She wasn’t Celia to the whites in the hotel, but a nigger maid, bitch, or wench—terms which she heard more than her own name.

“I clean behind your shit and piss on sore knees, but if I accidentally step on your shoe I’m a stupid wench. If I don’t have your room done by the time you arrive, I’m a lazy nigger. You can take sex from me and I’m dirty, but you crawl into bed with your wife later,” said Celia. “I’m everything from a beast to a baby-making machine, but not a woman. Not someone who feels joy, sorrow, love, or hate. Not anyone.”

Celia wasn’t sure what her words would accomplish, but spoke them anyway. She tried thinking like Sadie—the treatment she received wasn’t a reflection of her, but of the person inflicting it. Mentally she knew it was true. But her heart couldn’t grasp the message. She looked for reasons to justify the irrational behavior thrown her way—that if she worked a little faster and paid more attention to her surroundings, the poison administered would be less deadly.

Soon more people started checking in, because porters were assisting them with their luggage. The afternoon was the busiest part of the day, and luckily Celia’s shift was almost over. She decided to tough it out with the freight elevator rather than being groped again. As she waited, a blond married couple, arm in arm, toted their luggage to the last room she cleaned. What struck Celia as odd was that they had no assistance whatsoever. It was rare to see anyone—disabled or able-bodied, young or old, carry their own things. They can’t be southerners, she thought.

“I think she’s out in the hall,” she heard a man’s voice say.

The woman looked in either direction and waved to Celia. She didn’t seem angry or disgusted.

“I’ll be right there, ma’am,” said Celia. She walked like she had cement blocks on her feet, but the blond couple met her halfway.

“Were you the last person to clean our room?” he asked.

“Yes, sir,” she said with a bowed head.

“What’s your name?” she asked.

“I’m Celia, sir.”

“Celia, my wife and I have been to other hotels, but the rooms were filthy. But your attention to detail and level of cleanliness shows us you have pride in your work. You work hard.”

“Thank you for the compliment, sir. I do my best.” Celia really didn’t want to be bothered with their compliments, especially if it was backhanded. They both looked like kin to the people who hurt her earlier.

“Take this as a token of our gratitude,” he said. He peeled off five ones from a wad of money in his pocket. “We insist.”

Celia made $6.75 in the nine hours she worked. She could do a lot with five dollars. However, she wasn’t sure if it was a ruse or not until she added up her observations: they were self-sufficient, addressed her by first name, and went out of their way to pay her a compliment. Even in her untrustworthy frame of mind, she could see they were genuine.

“He won’t bite,” said his wife. “Your role is just as important as a change girl and front desk clerk. You do what others take for granted.”

Celia’s boss never made comments like that, but a stranger did. The man and wife didn’t see Celia as disposable, but someone essential to the fabric of hospitality, someone with value. Celia placed the money in her apron.

“Thank you both kindly,” she said.

Celia showed them a pained smile, but a smile nonetheless.

pencilArika Elizenberry is a native of Las Vegas, Nevada. She has been writing poetry and fiction for over ten years. Notable influences on her work have been James Baldwin, Richard Wright, and Maya Angelou. Her poems have appeared in the Silver Compass, Neon Dreams, Open Road Review, and East Coast Literary Review. She holds an A.A. in Creative Writing from the College of Southern Nevada and is currently working on her B.A. in English at the University of Las Vegas Nevada. Email: wordwarrior17[at]gmail.com

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