A Doorman’s Tale: The Ballad of Tom Hill
October 8, 1980
Doormen, once the staid, uniformed liverymen for the affluent, have become unarmed sentries on the battleground of the Upper West Side. Yet, servants or victims, they remain invisible people. Their perils first exploded in the public’s consciousness on September 11, when one doorman on 101st Street and West End and another on 94th Street were murdered within minutes of each other. But the dangers have been a muted reality for several months now.
I live in an attractive co-op on Riverside Drive. With its locked, grilled doors, its doormen and utility men, its carefully controlled intercom, the place seems like a fortress in comparison to most buildings in the city. Or rather, it once seemed like a fortress.
On August 18, at 7 p.m., two young men forced their way into our lobby. Brandishing pistols, they forced Tom Hill, black, athletic, in his late thirties, into the back of a service elevator. They threatened to kill him if he didn’t surrender his money. On Labor Day, at two in the afternoon, two more gunmen forced a middle-aged doorman to go into the storage room, then stripped him naked and stole his money. Both men feel that they were easy, unprotected prey for junkies who needed to score a few hundred dollars to feed a day’s habit.
For years now, Tom Hill and I have been about as friendly as a doorman and tenant can be. It’s not just that we discuss baseball and politics, or people in the building. When we both have free time we talk about a mutual obsession — Mississippi. I spent about a year there as a civil rights worker and a journalist. Tom, who now lives in the Bronx, was raised on a plantation in the Delta, during the last, violent impoverished years of segregation. Emmett Till was one of his best friends. Indeed, he was with Till until about 7 p.m. on the horrible, legendary 1955 night when Till was murdered allegedly for whistling at a white woman.
Tom’s life incorporates the sea changes that have swept through Mississippi and New York over the past 25 years. It is the story of a brave man’s attempt to deal with two dangerous, difficult environments. It’s not just a doorman’s story. It is a capsule version of a crucial segment of American history.
Drive through the sultry Mississippi Delta, and you’ll see fields rich with cotton, soybeans, oats, corn, sorghum. Even now, years after the civil rights revolution, black sharecroppers cluster on both sides of the road, moving with the slow, canny patience that allows them to tend crops from sunrise to sunset. They are the last traces of the feudal economy that dominated the region in the 1940s and ’50s, when Tom Hill was growing up.
There were about 100 families on the Racetrack Plantation, where Tom spent his childhood. With luck each sharecropper earned $4 a day for 12 hours of work, during the six months when the weather was good enough to plant or harvest the crops.
The kids, like their parents, were treated as instruments of labor. The school year was supposed to begin in August, but the cotton was ripe by then. So the kids would work in the fields from August to December, when the cold weather set in. Sometimes, if it had rained the night before, they’d spend two or three hours in the classroom until the cotton dried and the plantation boss sent for them to come back outside and work. Their only uninterrupted school time was from December until May.
Of course, they had to be pliant and docile. “I grew up with a white boy — the boss’s son,” Tom recalls. “His name was Jimmy. We played with him — in his house or in his yard — until he got to be 10 years old. That birthday was a stop sign. After it, his father began to call him Mr. Jimmy when he was around us. And, we knew that we’d better call him Mr. Jimmy, too. We never played with him any more. I figure that was because, after 10, he might begin knowing about the business and we might find out things we shouldn’t know.
“The rule wasn’t just for us children. Every black person, no matter how old, had to call him Mr. Jimmy. I used to hear that his father beat people for disobeying him. I won’t say he beat them for calling his son Jimmy, not Mr. Jim, but the older people were so afraid that they always called the 10-year-old boy Mister.”
Some of the plantation hands had no choice but to obey. “They had nowhere to go but Mississippi,” Tom says. “If they had relatives who lived somewhere else, they never knew where. I was lucky. I had relatives in New York, Chicago, Indiana, and California. I knew I had someplace to go when I grew up, so I could fight back in my own mind.”
Tom’s family life was flecked with tragedy. The youngest of five boys, he was raised by one of his aunts because both of his parents died before he was six.
“My mother got sick when I was a baby,” he says. “I don’t really know what she died of.”
That meant his father, Joe Hill, had to raise the five boys. For four years the family lived in a wood plantation shack with three small rooms. There was a narrow dirt road outside the house. Tom and his brother Hardy still have vivid memories of the driving Mississippi rainstorms that would turn the dirt into “gumbo mud” so thick that it would suck their boots off their feet whenever they went out to visit friends or work in the fields.
When Tom was five his father was shot.
“He’d been gambling at one of those Saturday night joints out in the country — the kind of place where they drank liquor and played cards. It was never proved, but I think the guy who shot him was his brother-in-law. Up till then, they’d been pretty good friends. But that night something happened — maybe someone was cheating — and that started a fight.”
The wound wasn’t fatal. The bullet hit Tom’s father in the hip. “When they took him to a hospital he wouldn’t let them operate,” Tom says. “He felt like we needed him at home.” So, for the next several weeks, he lay at home in bed, with his leg suspended by a sling. One afternoon the wound became so painful that his relatives took him to the hospital. Tom remembers the uncontrollable, grievous crying that began when his aunts and uncles got home that night.
Joe Hill had died of blood poisoning at the age of 35. The following month Tom turned six.
The murderer was never arrested — a fact that still makes Tom angry. “The white people had their own law on those plantations,” Tom says. “The sheriff had to get the bosses’ permission before he could begin an investigation. The man who shot my father was a good worker. That was more important to the boss than the fact that he’d committed murder.”
When Tom was about 10, one of his mother’s sisters, who lived in New York, came to Mississippi to fetch Tom and his brother Hardy. She wanted to raise them in the North. Lunch, that day, was a sort of going away party. The two boys dressed up in their finest clothes. They ate greens and meat, and for the first time in their lives Tom and Hardy ate with a fork and knife instead of their hands. Embarrassed by their untutored ways, they sat in a corner of the room, as far as possible from the table, until their aunt bade them sit next to her. In the North, she said, they’d always eat at a decent table, with proper utensils. Tom still remembers the excitement he felt at the prospect of leaving Mississippi.
Midway through the meal, the plantation owner came to the house. He was accompanied by two of Joe Hill’s sisters who lived on the Racetrack Plantation and didn’t want the boys to leave. The plantation owner backed them up. They had more relatives in Mississippi than in New York, he insisted: they would receive more love, more attention, on the plantation than in the city. “Of course, he really wanted me to stay there so that I could keep working for him,” Tom says.
That night his aunt returned to New York, alone: she didn’t want to make trouble for the Hill family. Tom was forced to heed the white man’s ruling, “but after that,” he says, “I told myself that when I was a grown man I’d always make my own decisions.”
Tom first met Emmett Till in the early 1950s. Emmett lived with his parents in Chicago during the winter and stayed with relatives in the town of Money (about six miles from the Racetrack Plantation) every summer.
Two brothers-in-law, white men, owned a general store in Money, and the place became a hangout for Tom and Emmett and their friends. “They had a pinball machine and a juke box, candy on a stick, and the kind of ice cream you can buy for a nickel,” Tom recalls. Every Sunday, when Tom was 13 and 14, kids from the plantation would climb into an old car which one of them owned and meet Emmett over at the store.
Till was a little wealthier than the kids from the plantation. “Our people were sharecroppers and his people had their own little bit of land,” Tom recalls. (In the Delta, blacks were always better off if they had their own farms. They didn’t depend on the white man’s mood for physical and financial survival. Indeed, years later, when the civil rights struggle intensified, the independent Delta farmers were its backbone.)
“Emmett always shared his money with me,” Tom remembers. “I knew that if he had a quarter I’d get twelve and a half cents. And he knew that if I had money — which I didn’t, very often — he could get it, too.
“I was with him the Sunday he got killed. We’d been playing pinball in the store until about sundown. Then all the kids from the plantation got into the car so that we could drive home. Emmett lived nearby. He walked.”
Leaving the store, he passed one of the storeowner’s wives. “That’s when they say he whistled at the white lady,” Tom says. “I don’t believe that happened, though. By then I knew the store owners pretty well. They were poor whites. They just owned a little small-time store. I think the lady just looked at Emmett Till and said, ‘There’s a nigger. We should have him killed.’ She knew that all she had to do was tell her husband he’d whistled at her, and he’d go after the nigger.”
Later that night, the brothers-in-law appeared at Emmett Till’s uncle’s house and took him away at gunpoint. “They just took him outside. They didn’t say anything to his relatives. The next thing those people knew, Emmett was dead.”
After the storeowners killed him they weighed the 14-year-old down with a piece of machinery and dropped him in the Tallahatchie River. His skull was bashed in and his body mutilated. When a fisherman found him, three days later, he was bloated and distended from the water his corpse had absorbed.
Emmett Till’s photograph and grisly story was circulated all over the United States, through newspapers and news magazines. The murder probably did more than any other event — including the Montgomery bus boycott — to reawaken the nation’s shame and outrage at the brutal reality of segregation. It symbolized everything the civil rights movement would change. But, in 1955, those changes were completely unimaginable to a black growing up in the Mississippi Delta. The fact that Emmett Till’s murder enraged millions of outsiders didn’t do anything to comfort his friend Tom Hill.
“I felt terrible for him,” Tom remembers. “But I felt scared, too. Those white men knew that I’d been with Emmett that night. I was afraid that if I went over to Money they’d say I was one of the boys who whistled at the woman.
“After that Sunday they closed the store down. I heard there was a trial and the owners moved somewhere else. But they didn’t serve any time. I didn’t go back to that town for several years.”
By 1960, when Tom was 17, his brothers had all left Mississippi. “It was kind of sad being there, just me, when we were all raised together. I was living by myself in a rickety old wood plantation shack. I had to go to school and work and cook for myself. You know, that’s one reason I got married when I did. I’d always known my wife. She lived three houses away from me on the plantation. I loved her. And I needed someone to cook and take care of the house. We got married when I was 17. We had a baby that year, too. We’ve been together more than 20 years now.”
Tom always knew he’d come North, but, down in Mississippi, he’d heard you couldn’t get a job in New York or Chicago until you were 21. Yet he couldn’t make a living in the Delta. Even after he became a tractor driver — the best job he could get on the plantation — the low pay and seasonal nature of the work left him constantly in debt to the plantation grocery store. He hated living on credit. He hated depending on the white man’s mercy when he knew he was an honest, competent worker. So, at the age of 19, he and his wife and baby daughter moved to New York, where his brother Hardy worked in a plastics factory.
Tom got a job in a factory that made eye-glass cases. “It was something like chopping wood down South. I had to hammer plastic, to make the section that holds the glasses, and I used a big tool, like a pick, which weighed about 25 pounds. I picked it up and slammed it down all day long. At least when you chopped wood you wore gloves. I couldn’t do that at the factory, so I got corns on my hands. Once I told my boss my hands were sore. He knew I was from Mississippi. He asked me if I’d ever chopped wood. I said, yeah, but I left Mississippi to keep from chopping wood.”
By 1970, after he’d been at the factory for seven years, he was making $80 a week. There was no union, no health plan, no vacation time, no sick leave at all. By then his brother Hardy had a job in the building where I live. One day he told Tom there was an opening in the midnight to 8 a.m. shift. Tom came at once, at a salary of $100 a week. Now he’s a regular doorman and earns $256.
As a boy, Tom had been starved for an education. In New York, his factory job, though grueling, was easier than the exhausting labor on the plantation. He went to high school at night and got a diploma. “But I didn’t have any money. I didn’t have anyone to sponsor me to go to college.” His oldest daughter, Sarah, however, got a scholarship to Colgate University, and Tom feels that his decision to move here has given his children the means to realize the dream that seemed so remote from the plantation shack where he was raised.
Part of him, of course, is still the teenager whose reflexes were conditioned by the Racetrack Plantation owner’s threats, by Emmett Till’s lynching. So he has felt a sense of freedom in the North — even in rough ghetto areas — that very few natives ever experience.
“Down South, whenever a white person teased me, I felt like my hands were tied. I could whip them in a fight, but I didn’t know what would happen to me afterwards. Up here, I felt like if anyone hit me I could hit them back.”
He never worried about being mugged. “I knew it happened to other people, but I never thought it would happen to me. I felt strong enough that it couldn’t happen.”
Then, in August, two young black men came into our building and asked for a tenant named Gent. Tom told them that no one by that name lived there. A few minutes later they returned and asked for Mr. Gent again. “I still didn’t think anything about it,” Tom says. “People are always coming here with the wrong address. But when I looked at the guys I saw that one of them had a gun. You know, I thought that he was playing.
“Then the other guy pulled his gun out and said, ‘This is a stick up.’ They both put their guns in my back, took my arms, shoved me hard, and made me walk to the back elevator. That’s when I knew they meant business.
“They shut the elevator door and took everything out of my pocket except my wallet. They threw it all on the floor. Then they began to look through my wallet. One of them said, ‘Don’t look back. Don’t make a move.’
“I was scared. I was in the elevator and I knew no one could see what was going on. I thought they might shoot.”
Tom had $12 in his wallet. “One guy said, ‘Is this all you’ve got, man? How come you haven’t got more?’
“I said, ‘Man, listen. I’m just a working guy. I ain’t no big time guy. That’s all I’ve got.’
“He told me to stand with my hands all the way up. The gun was against me and I was flat against the wall. I was shaking.” Soon he snatched Tom’s watch and ring.
“He told his partner, ‘Man, we should shoot this guy. He’s probably going to call the police.’ He said that three times. Then he pushed me into a corner, put a garbage bag over my head, and got a chair and put it right close against me. That way if I moved he could hear the chair move.
“His partner was cooler. He said, ‘Man, let’s just take what we have and run.’ They told me to stay still. I was so scared I waited about five minutes. Then I opened the elevator door, walked down the stairs, and circled around to the other side of the building. I didn’t see anybody, so I called the police.”
That phone call was a matter of principle for Tom. “I know a lot of doormen who get robbed around here. They don’t report it for fear the guy will come back. But I figured someone’s got to talk or those guys are going to keep on robbing people.
“Right now, my wife is afraid for me to come here at night. She wants me to call home when I get to the building. But I’m not afraid. I feel like either you work or you stay at home. You can’t work scared — not and do your job right. Anyway, whatever happens is going to happen. One way or the other you’re going to die some day.”
Listening to him, I remembered the intense moments in Mississippi in 1964 when black or white integrationists would use that sort of raw, idealistic, rhetoric to explain a brave decision to risk their lives and register voters on one of the state’s lonely back roads. Plainly, there is something twisted and distorted about an America where someone like Tom has to explain his decision to go to work as a doorman in those apocalyptic tones.
Still, there’s a survivor’s prudence woven into his boldness — and it grows out of his troubled past.
“If a guy doesn’t have a gun, I’m sure I can take care of myself,” he says. “But I’m not going to fight with anyone who has a gun. I think about my family a lot. If someone kills me, what happens to them? I know what it’s like not having a father. It was very lonely for me, growing up watching other kids do things with their fathers. When I was younger I used to say to myself, one day I’m going to be grown up and if I have kids I’m going to do as much for them as I can.
“We’re a very close family. We always do things together. When I come home from work my kids wait on me. They compete for who can do the most for me. I think that’s good.
“I try to protect them from the things they see on the street. We read the newspapers and watch television together and I tell them what happens to people who commit crimes or become junkies. They say, ‘Wow, I don’t want that to happen to me.’
“I try to be a good example. A lot of people who were raised in New York sit down and smoke pot with their kids. My kids know I don’t smoke pot. They trust me. They believe what I tell them.
“And now that Sarah’s in college, the young ones want to go to college too. That’s what I always wanted for my family. It’s so precious that I don’t want to risk it in a fight with some crazy gunman.”
At one point I asked Tom if the emotions after his mugging reminded him of those he felt after Emmett Till was killed. He said no. The murder terrorized him in a way that nothing in New York ever can. That left a stain on his psyche. His recent experience simply made him more cautious on the streets.
But it prompted him to discuss thoughts that have been forming in his mind for several years. Now, 24 years after Emmett Till’s death, 16 years after white Mississippians thought they could kill civil rights workers like Andy Goodman, Mickey Schwerner, and James Chaney with impunity, Tom believes the Delta is a somewhat safer place than New York. The segregationist brutality he grew up with is a distant memory — so distant, in fact, that many black teenagers literally can’t believe that the events and attitudes which Tom witnessed occurred within their parents’ lifetime. There is dope and crime in the Delta, Tom says — much of it an import from the North — but since the towns are smaller, the criminals are less able to remain anonymous.
Beyond that, economic prospects that were unimaginable when Tom left the South have now become real. Some blacks he knows are still sharecroppers, but many more work in the factories that have opened near his home over the past decade. He and his brother Hardy often talk about some cousins of theirs who stayed in Mississippi. The cousins would have been sharecroppers in Joe Hill’s generation. Now they work in a piano factory, and own their own large two-story home.
“When I was a kid you would work from sunup to sundown for $3. Now they’ve got a minimum wage of $3.10 an hour. Some people I know are making $6 or $7 an hour.
“My kids are scared of the South. I don’t know if I could make a living there myself. I couldn’t just go back and tell people I’ve been in New York for 19 years, and expect to get a decent job.
“But things have changed so much. You can mix with white people on a pretty equal basis. You don’t always have to worry that a white lady will think you said the wrong thing, and get you killed like they killed Emmett Till.
“There are just as many good jobs, more good homes, more safe neighborhoods than in New York.
“If I was 19 years old right now, I think I’d stay down in Mississippi.”
Those words are a calm description of reality, not a lament. For, in spite of the troubles he’s seen, Tom Hill is a relatively happy man. “I tell my children about my childhood all the time,” he says. “They can’t believe that things were like that. But they were. I’ll never forget what it was like to chop cotton for those $3 a day, and then be so tired when I got home that I could barely make it through the front door.” Then he talked about workers in New York who strike because they’re not getting $10 an hour — and chuckled with rueful wonder at the sheer audacity of that act.
“Sure, this is a dangerous city and an expensive place to live,” he says. “But I wish more people realized what life was like for us back home. Then they’d realize that, really, they are blessed.”