They called it “Everybody’s,” and perhaps it was. Black, white, Latino, poor, middle class, and even the rich who know a bargain when they see one, frequented this amazing emporium that might well have been Fort Worth’s first real discount store. Everybody’s was a 20th-century proto-Walmart, a somewhat grubbier, no-holds-barred experience of bargains, merchandise and human beings. Everybody’s wasn’t just a store, it was a PLACE, a people’s place that two successful Texas merchants kept as a reminder of their bargain-basement beginnings.
My father started working at Everybody’s in 1953 and remained until it shut down in the 1960s. During those years I discovered the place, and it contributed to some of my earliest impressions about the world, the flesh and the gospel.
The employees were something of a family. You had to stick together; Everybody’s catered to a tough clientele. There was Mac, the ex-marine turned store detective, strolling around pretending to shop, able to nail a shoplifter at a hundred yards. Those were the days before electronic gadgets that beep when you make a false move toward the merchandise. Mac had only a sharp eye and quick step to defend truth, justice and American materialism. Kids shoplifting for kicks, adults who made an occupation of it, poor folks who tried it in desperation. Shoplifters were a way of life at Everybody’s.
“Just outside the store, I heard my first street-preachers.”
Then there was Betty, a wiry little woman who seemed as old as God and on very good terms with Jesus. A fundamentalist Baptist (some think that term redundant), she “witnessed” to everybody, attacked smoking as second to murder and could strike terror into the roughest trucker who wanted a refund. Betty talked eternally about God but had little compassion for people. My dad was not as religious as Betty or as big as Mac, so he never really fought with the customers. He killed them with kindness and seemed to enjoy all the different people who poured through the doors. And did they ever!
On sales days you could see the flesh of multitudes pressed against the doors waiting for Everybody’s to open. When it did, folks literally raced to the bargain counters. You could get maimed for life by moving too slowly or grabbing items someone else was eying. Five-cent tee shirts; 10-cent socks; 50 cents for pants. I’ve seen people fighting (almost) to the death over nickel tee shirts from Everybody’s.
Everybody’s introduced me to life, or at least to certain aspects. Just outside the store, I heard my first street-preachers – zealous young men with slick hair, exhorting in shirt-sleeves and sweating as if they’d been to hell that morning and come back to tell about it. Their sermons had one point: “Turn or Burn,” heaven or hell; everybody was called; few chosen. Those guys had courage; so did their listeners. My long interest in American religion doubtless began at Everybody’s.
The beggars too came to Everybody’s, seeking handouts, peddling pencils or hawking handicaps as the world passed by in pity, disgust or indifference. Everybody’s mirrored an indigent segment of Fort Worth society.
They called it Everybody’s, but everybody was not treated equally. Anglos and customers of color shopped together at the counters, their money similarly accepted, but their facilities were separate, not equal. Lunch stands and restrooms, bus stops and drinking fountains were marked with words that captured the fragmentation of a culture: “white,” “colored.” Once, when no one was looking, I took my elementary-age self to a “colored” water-fountain, drank from it and realized it tasted the same as our “white” water. Sounds ludicrous now, but it was an indelible moment of racial revelation in my racist, segregated world.
Decades later, I’m tempted to sermonize about Everybody’s, make it a kind of church full of the good, the bad and the needy, sometimes a sign of Beloved Community, yet often perpetuating the sinful separateness of a people. I still believe that the church offers a place for everybody, offering God’s grace in what for many is a desolate, difficult world. Yet I fear that most of us talk a good game, until God or life throws in a ringer or two, pushing our Beloved Community claims to the limit.
“They called it Everybody’s, but everybody was not treated equally.”
“God,” says Frederick Buechner in Telling the Truth: The Gospel as Tragedy, Comedy, and Fairy Tale, “is the eccentric host who, when the country-club crowd all turn out to have other things more important to do . . . goes out into the skid rows and soup kitchens and charity wards and brings home a freak show. The man with no legs who sells shoelaces at the corner. . . . The old wino with his pint in a brown paper bag. The pusher, the whore, the village idiot. . . . They are seated at the damask-laid table in the great hall. At a sign from the host, the musicians in the gallery strike up ‘Amazing Grace.’ If you have to explain it, don’t bother.”
If Buechner is right, then Everybody’s store taught me that sometimes the gospel finds us in the world before we find it in the Church. I remembered that this week while watching “American Idol” contestant and preacher’s kid Jeremiah Lloyd Harmon embrace his parents after his masterful vocal presentation during their first visit to the show. At his original audition Harmon acknowledged family struggles over his recent coming out as a gay man.
Did an earlier tweet to Harmon from pop singer, contest judge, preacher’s kid Katy Perry – “I see you, love you, and accept you, and am excited to keep championing you” – offer a bit of “everybodyness” grace that helped bring the Harmons together amid 21st-century culture wars? Before you think that too farfetched, try rereading the parable of the Good Samaritan.
Maybe I’m stretching the Everybody’s analogy too far. After all, it was only a store, where the employees were underpaid, the customers often difficult and the merchandise sometimes questionable.
Sort of like the Church. Right?