Sunday, January 17, 1999

Privilege of having lunch with Ernie




BY LAURA PULFER
The Cincinnati Enquirer

        My friend Ernie Waits and I have lunch together every once in a while. We spend a little bit of time figuring out which restaurant we'll choose. I'm usually negotiating to keep my feet dry, and he's trying to decide where he'll be able to find a parking space.

        We do not have to wonder if we will be permitted to eat there. It would not occur to us that we wouldn't be seated. Or served. At least, it wouldn't occur to me. People in my generation have short memories. Sometimes we are ungrateful to boot. We are, finally, getting around to noticing the gallantry of the generation before us.

Baby boomer lament
        “Suddenly, baby boomers realize that despite a buzzing economy, we are going to die without experiencing the nobility that illuminated the lives of our parents and grandparents,” writes columnist Maureen Dowd.

        Well, that sounds very fancy.

        And probably nothing like the inside of, say, the old jail at Ninth and Central. Or being told your kids couldn't go to Coney Island. Or being turned away from the Albee or the Shubert theaters.

        Ernie tells me about the time in 1939 when Eddie “Rochester” Anderson from the Jack Benny show was coming to the Shubert. “I thought they couldn't — wouldn't — keep me out when there was a black artist on stage,” he says. “So I show up, dressed to the nines, first at the window.”

        The man selling tickets refused to sell one to Ernie. He wouldn't budge, and the police were called. Mike Bizzari, who was a classmate of Ernie's at Woodward High School, was in line with his wife, Jane.

        “I saw the police grappling with Ernie,” Mike says. “I told 'em that the guy was a friend of mine. So they said I should come down to the police station the next day and vouch for him.”

        Which he did.

        “It was an awful thing to see,” says Mike, who lives now in Mason. “And I never forgot it.”

        Ernie, who had been charged with resisting arrest and disorderly conduct, got out of jail and a week later was at the door of the Albee Theater. Several years later Nat King Cole played there to a big crowd, black and white.

        Progress.

        Still, Mr. Cole was taken afterward to the Manse Hotel, owned by a black man. The Gibson was off-limits.

        “It was a fight,” Ernie says. “It was a struggle. It was constant.”

A matter of color
        Looking at Ernie, with his enormously kind face and gentle manner, it's hard for me to imagine him butting heads, sometimes literally, with anybody. But then it was always hard for me to imagine my dad as a soldier.

        Besides being a troublemaker, Ernie was the first black investment counselor here and the first disc jockey to put music by black artists on mainstream radio. Now he says he is a “retired contract compliance specialist and employment consultant.”

        I tell him that is gobbledygook for “holding people's feet to the fire until they obey the law.” And that I do not believe he has retired.

        My generation is in a frenzy of admiration just now, for our parents. We love Tom Brokaw's book The Greatest Generation and Steven Spielberg's movie Saving Private Ryan. The Great Depression. The Battle of the Bulge. Veterans Day. Selma, Ala. Martin Luther King Day. We're in the mood for heroes and, of course, nobility of all kinds.

        Nobility? I am going to ask Ernie to have lunch. That way, I can look right across the table and see it.

        Laura Pulfer's column appears Sundays, Tuesdays and Thursdays. E-mail lpulfer@enquirer.com or call 768-8393.

        Laura Pulfer's column appears in the Enquirer on Sundays, Tuesdays and Thursdays. Call 768-8393 or fax 768-8340. She can be heard Monday mornings on WVXU radio (91.7 FM), and as a regular commentator on National Public Radio's Morning Edition. E-mail her at laurapulfer@enquirer.com

PULFER ARCHIVE