A middle-aged working woman, the remnant of a once aristocratic, slaveholding family, prepares to go to her YWCA exercise class, recommended for her high blood pressure. She insists that her son accompany her on the bus, for she is afraid to ride the buses alone as they have become integrated. The young man, superficially educated in liberal ideas, is contemptuous of her racial bigotry and fancies himself vastly more enlightened and intellectual than she.
As the story opens, she is undecided as to whether she should wear the new green hat with the purple velvet flaps she has recently bought or take it back to the store. After all, that seven dollars and fifty cents would pay the gas bill. Julian, her son, whose viewpoint dominates the story, thinks the hat is hideous; nevertheless, he insists that she wear it to expedite their departure. His mother, still doubtful, says that at least she will not “meet herself coming and going”; that is, the hat establishes her uniqueness, as befits a lady of quality. The hat attains symbolic importance as an emblem of her true station in life when, much to her son’s amusement, a huge black woman boards the bus with her small son and plops down in the seat facing her. The black woman is wearing the exact duplicate of his mother’s absurd hat. Julian exults at this magnificent putdown, even though his mother’s red face suggests a sudden rise in blood pressure.
His mother, however, seems to recover. She makes up to the little boy, with that peculiar combination of condescension and sentimentality that considers all small black children adorable. The black woman fairly bristles with suppressed anger as the dumpy little white woman fumbles in her purse for a nickel. Nemesis arrives when both women leave the bus and Julian’s mother, unable to find a nickel, offers the boy a bright new penny. The black woman explodes with anger and swings at the white woman with her purse, knocking her down. Julian self-righteously berates his mother for her stupidity and insensitivity, even as she sits stricken on the pavement. His superiority and exasperation quickly crumble to infantile panic, however, when his mother shortly after dies of a stroke on the sidewalk.