|Corsicana's Red-Light District|
Corsicana in those days had a licensed "red-light" district. The only other town to have the same thing in Texas was the port city of Galveston. No one knew why, and no one cared. The "district" in Corsicana consisted of six big old two-story houses, about five blocks east of down town, across the railroad tracks. Four cotton gins mingled with them, scattered over two city blocks, running north and south parallel to the railway. These houses were supervised by "madams" who were licensed by the city. The "sporting girls," as they were called, were examined by the County Health Officer periodically. The whole thing was kept quire, virtually ignored by the churches, city aldermen, and the "good" element in town. They felt that it was needed to take care of the basic needs of the "rough element" in town. A polite form of hypocrisy. However, they were well patronized and endured for years, finally just fading away. The single roughnecks, and I am sure a few married ones, went to "whore town" pretty often. They were working twelve hours a day, driving to and from work seven days a week, and this did not leave much time for social life. The married men had it much better. Sam Sikes was married, lived on a small 25-acre place northeast of town, kept a cow, a lot of
chickens, and grew a big garden and lots of hay and cow feed. His wife and oldest son, who was twelve years old and taller than I was, kept up the work on the little farm, so Sam went home every night. Dee was a bachelor, thirty years old, had no car, lived in a boarding house, and made the "district" fairly often. So did my uncle, who was also single. They didn't think much about it, as it was just one of the things you did, and paid-for sex had no strings attached.
But the curious thing was that all the crew didn't want me to do the same things that they had always done. They warned me constantly about the bad things that could happen to me in the "houses": of fights, petty jealousies, the callousness of the "sporting ladies," and a host of other bad things. I can hear Dee Gregory even today, solemnly telling me to never indulge myself in "store-boughten xxxxx," because it was a bad, useless thing for a boy to get started to wasting his time and money for, and that no good could possibly happen. It was a queer kind of morality, and I felt as though I had four extra fathers, all telling me, "Do as I say, not as I do." But I liked and admired those guys because they meant well and were genuinely
interested in me. So I promised them faithfully to stay away from the red-light district, and to never even consider spending money in the place.
It was an easy promise to keep. What none of the crew knew was that I was on first-name terms with every madam in whore town, and had been in each of their houses many times. For the last two years in high school, I had worked every afternoon and all day Saturday in the shoe department of a local department store. It was the biggest store in town, was owned by a prominent Jewish family - a very moral, strict bunch of people, and very orthodox, with a reputation to sustain.
The women in red-light district were not
allowed to leave the district. The city was adamant about this. Oh, they were useful, filled a need and all that, but could not come uptown and defile the city. However, the women had money to spend, and they liked to spend it on clothes, pretty shoes, and other fripperies. The madams got together, called the owner of the store I worked in, and arranged for someone to come down into the district, bring all kinds of clothing and shoes, fit shoes, and act as a movable department store. No one in management and none of the married men wuld accept that job, so I, a single sixteen-year-old gentile kid, got the assignment. I could measure feet, knew shoes real well, and could keep my mouth shut about women's clothes, about which I knew nothing.
It worked pretty well. The women would call the store and give the boss a list of things. He and some of the lady clerks would pick out clothes. I would get about two dozen pair of our fanciest ladies' slippers and mules. We would load the boss's Studebaker and I would drive down to whichever house they were meeting in that day, and we would have a great "trying-on" session, and they always bought lots of stuff. The store kept up its image and I got a liberal education. It was lucrative for the store, and I learned a few things that stood me in good stead, and gave me an odd slant on "ladies of the evening."
That was the most uninhibited bunch of women I ever saw or listened to talk. and their language was, at first, very shocking to me. I really didn't know that women used that kind of language. The time was usually in the mid-afternoon. Most of the women were just waking up, drinking coffee and discussing the last night's work and customers - in most unflattering terms, I might add. The sexual perversities and tastes of some of the town's most respected men were talked about, analyzed,
laughed at, and ridiculed, in language that would not have been used on the Galveston docks. Most of those women came from Dallas or Houston. They had lived a very tough life and had no illusions whatever. They paid me no more attention than a piece of furniture and called me "kid" while I fitted shoes, took orders, collected money, was polite, and dept my big mouth shut.
Those ladies also wore very few clothes. They would shuck out of a negligee and try something on, and pay me no mind at all, so I became very blasť about naked women. After awhile, nudity becomes commonplace. You don't pay it any attention.
But listening, especially to the unflattering, ugly talk about their customers, turned me off completely. I would sit and listed to the talk and tell myself that I would never, as long as I lived, spend a dime on a whore and give her an opportunity to say ugly, mean, brutal things about me, or to laugh at some habit of mine. I have kept that promise fifty-nine years. I didn't tell the crew, just listened to their warnings; but I did tell Dee two years later. He thought it funny, them warning me about something I knew a lot about. And then, he told me again that they had been right to warn me.