CARLTON FLETCHER: For some, Arctic Bear offers painful memories

OPINION: Talk of re-opening landmark Albany restaurant not welcome by all

Carlton Fletcher

Carlton Fletcher

It’s not a question but a lesson learned in time. It’s something unpredictable, but in the end it’s right. I hope you had the time of your life.

Green Day

Hers is one of those faces that lights up a room, one whose beauty has not been altered by the passage of perhaps 80 years worth of living. (A lady never tells.)

While many of her contemporaries have gone on to their reward or are content to fill their days marking hours, she still works for a paycheck, besting some of the newfangled gizmos that give folks half her age all they can handle.

She receives a compliment about being an inspiration with grace and aplomb, seemingly happy to talk with strangers about things that really aren’t their business. When she’s asked about her work history, though, the beauty of her smile is replaced with something darker, something that momentarily sucks the air out of the room.

“I worked a long time ago at the Arctic Bear,” she says, and that dark something threatens to overwhelm the moment.

She’s quiet briefly, remembering things only she will ever see, and the joy that had highlighted her beauty is replaced with a heartbreaking sadness that renders an interloper almost speechless.

“Yeah, they’re making a big fuss about the Arctic Bear coming back, I saw in the newspaper,” she says. “A lot of folks are acting like that’s some of the greatest news they’ve heard in a long time. And I guess folks have their own memories to contend with, so I can’t rightly blame them for that.

“But you won’t see me getting all happy about no Arctic Bear. I have my own memories.”

The inquisitor is perplexed, thinking maybe his question unlocked some long-buried memory in this golden lady that took her back to a place that she’d fought hard to leave behind. But when she speaks again, there is something else in her voice that he never would have imagined. There’s more than a trace of bitterness, of anger.

“When a lot of folks in these parts talk about that bear, they talk about him licking that ice cream cone and going in there to get sweets,” she says. “But when I think of that bear, I think of his backside. My memories of the Arctic Bear are of his butt.”

Her response draws a look of confusion. She explains.

“What I remember most about the Arctic Bear is that when I wanted something to eat there, I had to go around to the back to get it,” she says. “They weren’t serving no food to black folks where the white folks picked theirs up. Oh, they’d take our money, but we had to go around back to give it to them.”

But you worked there, right? She’s reminded.

“Oh, yeah, I worked there,” she says. “But you know what? I was not allowed to even hand the white customers anything that I helped prepare. If I fixed (a treat) for one of our white customers, I had to give it to a white server to give to the customer.”

Stunned anew by this vivid reminder that overt racism in the Jim Crow South is not just something out of the history books for a lot of Southwest Georgians, the curious conversationalist notes that the proposed new Arctic Bear owners are far removed from the original restaurant, are indeed young people whose memories wouldn’t include those that she’d endured.

The lady sighs.

“That may be so, and I certainly have no fault with them,” she says. “But I can’t see that bear without thinking about the humiliation that it still represents in my life. And I think the people in Albany should be aware that there are a whole lot of people just like me whose memories of the Arctic Bear are not the same happy ones that they have.

“If it was up to me, that bear could just stay in hibernation.”

Email Metro Editor Carlton Fletcher at carlton.fletcher@albanyherald.com.