“Agricolae sunt!” (Tribute to Miss Hortenstine)

Occasionally on TV I’ll see a Farmers Insurance commercial featuring the Oscar-winning actor J.K. Simmons who describes the various ways the vaunted insurance company can save us from doom. Always, the commercial ends with the ear-wormy jingle

We are farmers! Bum-bah-bum-bah-bum-bum-bum!

To which I often sing back

Agricolae sunt! Bum-bah-bum-bah-bum-bum-bum!

which is Latin for “They are farmers!”  I’m always thrilled to participate in this little litany even if it’s about all I remember from two years and a summer of Latin at Ensley High School. And yet those twenty months in Miss Hortenstine’s class changed my life. You see, my slog through Latin is one of those life lessons that are 90 percent painful and 10 percent redemptive, but somehow, with time, the redemptive part prevails.

It all began with my naive 13-year-old notion that I was to become a lawyer. So, in eighth grade, when time came to make my ninth-grade course selections, my father said, “You’ve got to take Latin because lawyers deal with Latin terms a lot.” And so I did.

Latin 1 was misery beyond description. The teacher, Miss Hortenstine, was what we indelicately called “an old maid.”  But she did have a lover—Julius Caesar. In great rapture would she effuse the Latin for “All Gaul is divided into three parts!” which, next to “Et tu, Brute,” is apparently J.C’s most famous line.” (Sorry I can’t remember it in Latin.)

How I passed Latin1 remains as mysterious as the whereabouts of Jimmy Hoffa. I’ve chalked it up to the grace of God. And so I tried to bail out at the end of ninth grade. I told my dad, “I no longer want to be a lawyer. In fact, I hate lawyers!”  But he said, “No Stephens will be a quitter!”

So—on to Latin 2 which was, frankly, unbearable. You may have heard the phrase “Latin is a dead language,” unspoken for centuries. Well, that memo didn’t find its way to Miss Hortenstine’s desk, for in Latin 2 she spoke Latin almost exclusively and demanded the same of us. I felt as if I were trapped in a kennel of ceaselessly barking dogs—albeit dogs considerably smarter than I.

I flunked Latin 2.

This, of course, meant summer school, which meant two more months in the kennel. Here I’ll admit something I wouldn’t have then: I cried, I sobbed. I begged my parents to get me out of this hell. But there would be no turning back, I had come too far down the Appian Way to jump track now.

So summer school it was.  But contrary to my expectation, there awaited an altogether different Miss Hortenstine. With only five of us flunkies in her charge (from both Latin I and II), she sat us not in those impersonal student desks but around a table with herself, now and then taking one or another of us aside to her desk or the chalkboard where she would explain things slower and with added detail. Our main task was to translate the writings of her loverboy, Julius Caesar.

And, to my own amazement, I was actually getting it done!  What’s more: I was freakin’ having fun doing it!. The noun declensions, the verb conjugations, the syntax were suddenly making sense. This was more fun than puzzle-solving!  For the very first time, I saw how language worked—its architecture, mechanics, the whys and wherefores of grammar.  Epiphany!

And here’s the great part: this stuff applied in one way or another to EVERY language—including English. Within weeks of passing (yay!) summer Latin 2, I was in an eleventh-grade English class with a teacher who made us diagram sentences on the chalkboard, a task that, until now, had humiliated me. Suddenly, though, I was a kick-ass diagrammer.

And though I didn’t know then, I would eventually study four more languages—Spanish (in college), biblical Hebrew and Greek (in seminary) and finally French (on the African mission field).   In every case, even if my Latin vocabulary had faded from the rearview mirror, I had Miss Hortenstine riding in the backseat calling out. “Gerald, of course you remember what the future perfect tense is!  Son, you know the subjunctive mood!” And I did—and do.

Miss Hortenstine has since shuffled off this mortal coil. Still I think of her often, especially when I’m futzing around with these Legos we call words, trying to build something with them, for it was she who lit the fire of my passion for language, for painting pictures with words.  And. most importantly, it was she who showed me—now a language teacher myself—that individual attention to a struggling student can change everything.

Thank you, Miss H.  Hope you and Julius Caesar are having a blast up there!

Lemme ‘splain to you about my back-up ball

Where I was born, every boy was supposed to become an athlete. This was terribly unfair to the few of us who weren’t equipped for the task.  But there was no begging off. It was unthinkable to face your father and say, “Look, Dad, I’m really more of the bookish type.”  No, you had to play ball. And to do that, you had to have the balls to play ball—a department in which I was sorely lacking.  Still I tried.

I tried little league baseball which amped up my prayer life, as I would stand be-gloved and bewildered in right field, mumbling, “Please, God, don’t let him hit it to me.” Or bat-gripping and sweat-dripping at home plate, praying, “Please, God, don’t let him hit me.”

I tried YMCA football where the coach—a father fueled by lingering frustration that he didn’t get the football scholarship to Bama he truly deserved—pointed at me and said, “You’re chubby. You’re an offensive guard.” He taught me the three-point stance and put me next to the ball-snapper where my prayer life continued.  I got in the first four downs of the first game and was benched the rest of the season. (God is good!)

I noticed, however, that there were other, lesser balls in play. The basketball, for example, but this involved too much running. The tennis ball (ditto). The golf ball—too outdoorsy. (I was an indoor enthusiast.)

Then, one Saturday morning after the cartoons had finished, I stumbled on an amazing TV show: Professional Bowlers Tour.  I watched the greats—Dick Weber, Don Carter, and others—battle it out on the lanes.

Geez, here was the sport for me! No running. No outdoors. No human suffering. Not long after, I found myself for the first time standing about 65 feet from a triangle of white bowling pins, my feet stuffed into size 7 red-and-green bowling shoes, my trembling hands cradling something like a ten-pound cannonball.

My first foray wasn’t pretty.  My ball, like a sleepy wino, kept falling into the gutters. My prayer life gave way to cursing. But, thank God, the bowling alley was loaded with balls. I hunted the racks and found a much lighter and more sober ball—one I could keep from the gutters.

Turning to my dad who was watching from the seats behind me, I exclaimed, “This is the perfect ball!”

“Yeah, it’s a woman’s ball,” he replied.

Which embarrassed me for a few seconds until I said to myself (silently, of course), “Who gives a shit?”

Over time, I made my way into a bowling groove. As I’ve said in an earlier post, I’m pretty much a maverick in most things. Bowling was no exception, for I noticed that while my right-handed bowling heroes on TV approached the lane from the far right side and rolled a left-curving ball, I, also a right-hander, was doing just the opposite—approaching the line from the far left and rolling a right-curving ball.

Yet it was working for me. I found that if I started my approach with my right shoe between the first and second foot-markers and then released the ball so it rolled slightly to the right of the second-from-left triangle arrow on the lane, the ball would curve right into the pocket between the 1 and 2 pins! More and more was I making strikes. And with more practice, I was finding the various positions for picking up spares.

Damn, I was good! I began to bowl consistently in the 160s-to-180s, and, occasionally, when visited by the bowling gods, I could pop 200. My highest game was 226.  In high school, I got great thrill bowling against jock friends and kicking their butts.

A few years later, in my senior year of college, I was paging through the course catalog in search of an easy elective.  Imagine my thrill at finding “Bowling 101”!

Reporting to the lanes for the first class, I pulsed with pride. The instructor—a football graduate assistant—was barely older than I and reminded me of the jocks I used to crush back home. Though I had to admit, watching his opening demonstration, he had fine form—typical of my heroes: right-handed, rightward approach, silent smooth-as-silk delivery, left-curving ball.  But it took him about seven balls to roll a strike. (I would’ve done better.)

Now it was our turn.  He divided us into four student practice teams. I rolled a strike with my first ball.  We bowled on, four against four. I was putting distance between myself and everyone else when the instructor began shouting, “Hey you! Yeah, you right there!” He was pointing at me, and he wasn’t gleeful.

“You’re rolling a back-up ball!” he said, stepping onto the platform. “Didn’t you see how I told you to release? Like you’re shaking a hand!” He extended his right hand to me. An awkward moment. Was I supposed to shake it? Mercifully he withdrew it.

“You’re twisting the palm of your hand outward, away from your body!”  He mimicked the move and shook his head in disgust, then lowered his voice. “You’re bowling limp-wristed, like a fag.”  He picked up a ball and said, “Watch me.”  Lucky bastard rolled a strike. “That’s how you do it!” he said, panning his gaze over the throng that had gathered to enjoy my humiliation.  “Now! You do it right!” He stood there waiting.

I picked up my ball, moved rightward, made my approach, and dutifully released in the holy hand-shake mode.  But my ball departed in a nervous flutter down the right edge of the lane. It refused to break left, moving straight down the lane’s edge, like a novice on a tightrope, for which I felt such empathy that I started leaning my own upper body leftward as if to nudge the ball in that direction.  But—no avail. About a foot from the pins, it fell pitifully into the gutter.

“You just need to practice correctly,” said the instructor. “You’ll get there.” And he walked way.

But soon as he turned his back, I resumed my maverick way. Sadly, this course, which I’d expected to be filled with fun, degenerated into an angry game of cat-and-mouse between Jocky McJockface and me.  When I knew he was watching, I would bowl his way, but otherwise I Sinatra-ed him: I did it my way. He kept catching me, though, and finally took to hovering about whichever lane I bowled on.

I did my best to behave, despite the damage this was inflicting on my game.  Then, one day toward the end of the course, as I was en route to barely breaking 100, a raging voice in my head shouted, “Screw this guy!”

Brazenly I bowled my limp-wristed fag ball over and over.   And though I was hitting strikes and spares, the Great One went nuts. “Stephens!” He knew my name by now.  “On the final, I swear to God, I’ll flunk you for bowling a back-up ball!”

Yes. There is a final exam in bowling. You sign up for a time, and then bowl solo an entire game in front of the instructor.  I considered defying this doofus, taking the F, and then appealing to administration, until I learned this would be the Athletics Director.  When I imagined myself walking into the office of the boss of all the coaches at the University of Tennessee, and saying, “Mr. Woodruff, lemme ‘splain to you about my back-up ball….”  Well, that imagined scenario didn’t play out well for me.

So I bowled “correctly” in the presence of Mr. Smarty Jock.  I rolled a 126 and got a low “B” for the course.  But there was value in this, for it revealed to me a painful truth about the world I was entering: Orthodoxy—that is, doing things the “right way”—is regarded by powerful people as far more important than positive results.  This was the deeper meaning behind Andre Agassi’s pitch line in the Canon camera commercials decades ago, “Image is everything.” In other words, how it comes out doesn’t matter nearly as much as how you look while you’re doing it.

P.S. I don’t bowl much anymore.  But I’ve not forgotten my boyhood roots. I know I must play ball. So I traded my bowling ball for a much, much smaller ball—the one at the tip of this ballpoint pen.  Writing is my sport now. I’m still an amateur.  But, hell, I’m having fun.

Me and Russia, we go way back

[Written in response to, “How come you old farts are so pissed off about Russia?” asked by a younger friend whose political awareness bloomed after the Cold War.]

My stormy relationship with Russia began benignly enough in my front yard on an October night in 1957.  I was three years old, so it’s a bit fuzzy, but I recall sitting atop my dad’s shoulders as he asks excitedly, “Do you see it, son? Do you see it there!”  His forefinger punches skyward.  But all I see is a massive splatter of stars against inky darkness.

Fearful of disappointing Dad, I say I see “it.”

“That’s Sputnik!” he shouts. He tells me it’s a Russian satellite.

What’s Russia? What’s a satellite?

“Russia’s a huge country on the other side of the earth, and a satellite is something that goes round and round the earth.”

I have no clue what he’s talking about.  In time, though, I will learn that he could’ve more accurately said a Soviet satellite because, thirty years earlier, old Russia had morphed into the U.S.S.R. and was called Soviet Union on newscasts.  But still, pretty much everyone I knew called the Soviet people Russians, or, in their  more animated moments, Godless commie bastards.

But I wasn’t bothered.  So the Russians have shot a little star into space that goes round and round the earth. Big deal! Let ’em do whatever they like, as long as they don’t stop me from watching Captain Kangaroo.

A few years later, however, in 1962, the Russians started seriously messing with me. Nikita Khrushchev, their pudgy bald-headed boss who vaguely resembled Curly from the Three Stooges but was meaner than Moe, put missiles in Cuba and aimed them at me. (I’ve written a little bit about this HERE.) Civil Defense films at school revealed that I, along with Captain Kangaroo, Mr. Green Jeans, Bunny Rabbit and Dancing Bear, were all in mortal danger of incineration.

The so-called Cuban Missile Crisis was resolved, but my deep-seated fear of Russia had only begun. Other Russian missiles, even if farther away, were still pointed at me and my friends and remain so to this very day.

If you weren’t around for the 1960s, I get your confusion about us old farts and our Russiaphobia. Be grateful you didn’t experience the 24/7 existential terror that, at any moment, a massive solar flash would permanently switch off the lights on you and everyone you loved.  Such fear has a way of burrowing into your skull.

At some point in the 1960’s, I first suffered the nightmare that recurs even in my present old age.  A howling Civil Defense siren stirs me out of bed. I run to my parents’ bedroom but they’re not there. The siren continues. I run to wake my brother and sisters, but they’re gone, too. Frantic, I dash onto the front porch to find the sky awash in blood. The siren moans down to silence, and there’s a second or two when I hear only the wind. Then—the flash.  To this day, I wake up clutching the bed in terror.

My terror was nourished by conversations with friends and their parents, by newscasts, even by my education. Back then, the 9th-grade history curriculum required one semester of Alabama history, and the other of Communism. This was not an objective study; this was a know-your-foe course as evidenced by the textbook’s title, Communism: America’s Mortal Enemy.  It revealed the atheism, oppression of liberty, and unabated evil that composed the cancer we called communism.  And it strongly stressed that this demon disease had been loosed by the Russians.

As I stumbled toward high school graduation there came racing from the other direction the menace of Vietnam where raged a war between Russian-backed Communists and U.S.-backed Good Guys. Older brothers of friends were drafted, armed, trained and shipped across the Pacific to protect us from Communism. Fifty thousand Americans, a few of whom I knew, died there—fighting Communism. And by 1970 I sensed I might die there too, with the fatal flash this time bursting from a Russian-made AK-47 or landmine.

Mercifully, the War in Vietnam wound down in my senior year.  But still, the fact that America had essentially lost the war made my generation’s terror and hatred of Russia all the more intense. Again, much was made of the missiles Russia continued to aim at us. The fatal flash was back—bigger and badder than ever.

In 1980 Ronald Reagan was elected president and convinced us to create a “coalition of peace through strength,” which meant that we needed to aim so damn may of our own missiles at Russia that they would come to their senses and quit this Communism nonsense.  Having been a Hollywood film star, Reagan loved movies and from them got the idea that we should put missiles in outer space aimed at the Russians.

Finally, in 1989, the iconic Berlin Wall—symbol of Communism’s stranglehold on the world—was sledge-hammered to pieces. For decades—perhaps centuries—historians will debate who deserves more credit for the fall of Communism: Reagan, with his I-got-more-bullets-than-you approach, or Gorbachev (another bald-headed Russian ) with his Frankly-I’m-just-tired-of-this-shit approach.  In any case, the Soviet Union disintegrated, melting away like Oz’s Wicked Witch.

I wept for joy because I was naïve enough to think that America’s problems were solved, that the existential threat was slain. Over the next couple of decades I studied a great about the so-called Cold War, and saw where a lot of what I had been taught about Russians was panic-born propaganda.  I met Russians, taught some Russians, shared drinks with Russians (not the ones I taught), and saw that in most respects that they’re folks like me, despite their origin.

But…the pale of Communism still hangs noxiously over Russia, especially where its leaders are concerned. And while much of my indoctrination about Communism was steeped in propaganda and hysteria, what remains indisputable is that Russian leadership is still opposed to freedom of speech and freedom of choice. President Vladimir Putin is a former KGB agent. His DNA still runs toward communism as he brashly undermines the freedoms of his Russian subjects. It is a fact that the Russian government kills journalists and others courageous enough to voice disagreement with Putin.  It is a intelligence-based fact—agreed upon by both Republicans and Democrats—that by Putin’s order, Russian operatives tried—and quite likely succeeded—in manipulating U.S. elections in 2016.

So, you ask, if Communism has fallen, why am I still afraid of Russia? Because I see the Russian government as playing the role of the bogeyman in every great scary flick I’ve ever seen.  Who remembers Glenn Close’s character in Fatal Attraction, the final scene, where you’re sure she’s dead at the bottom of the bathtub but suddenly rises up slashing with a butcher knife?

Call me crazy, but I’m convinced that in this scary flick of communism, Vladimir Putin and his cronies play Glenn Close’s character. That bogeyman ain’t dead. And he’d not think twice about taking that butcher knife to me, Captain Kangaroo, Mr. Green Jeans, and all the rest of us.

I know, cuz me and Russia, we go way back.

Eulogy for Ensley High School

Last Tuesday around 2:30 a.m., a call came into the Birmingham Fire Department that a large, vacant three-story building at 2301 Avenue J was on fire. TV cameramen arrived shortly after the firefighters and filmed thick flames shooting like cannons from the building’s third-floor.  Against the night sky, the scene was especially lurid and would have left any viewer thinking, “Geez, that place is a goner!”

But for several thousand of us, sprinkled across the city, state, and even the nation, this conflagration was particularly painful, for we are Ensley Yellow Jackets, and this building was the walls, halls, floors, stairs that enveloped us from our fourteenth through our eighteenth years. For as many generations as can be counted from 1908 to 2005, this building was “dear ol’ Ensley High, her colors black and gold.” Our alma mater.

Half a century ago, in a classroom on the backside of the building’s second floor, my Latin teacher, Miss Hortenstine, taught me that alma mater means “kind mother.” Ensley High School was indeed for so many of us a kind mother—and, when she needed to be, a stern and disciplining mother, as when Mr. Lott espied me whispering during an auditorium assembly and called me up front where the spirit of our “kind mother” urged him to whip my ass with a boat-oar paddle (a very painful lesson learned).

For more than a few of us, Ensley was a “kind grandmother,” for she had nurtured and disciplined our parents whom we followed, by only a generation, through her doors, up her stairs, and into her classroom desks where Mom and Dad had learned math, science, history, and literature—and, in some cases (my own, for example), where Mom and Dad had started dating and had fallen in love.

For us, the kind mother’s grandkids, stories of dear ol’ Ensley High came to us well before our freshman year. During my early childhood, my parents repeatedly told tales of their Yellow Jacket days—for example, Mom’s daily fear of hearing Señorita Pace call her name in Spanish dialect, ¡Sarah, a la pizarra! [Sarah, to the chalkboard!] And so nearly twenty years later, even though I didn’t take Spanish, I would occasionally use a restroom pass to lurk outside the Spanish classroom to hear the very same Señorita say “a la pizarra!”

There was comfort in this generation-to-generation continuity, in knowing that you were occupying space that had been filled for decades before by families you knew and loved. I recall mornings, for example, standing in a herd outside the lunchroom, waiting for first bell to ring, when, from boredom, I would scan the memorial plaques of alumni  who had fallen in World Wars I and II, and I would recognize many of the names as being from families in my church, my neighborhood, my parents’ circle of old friends. In the late 1960s when the world outside seemed like an express train to hell—what with racial violence, assassinations, and the Damocles’ sword of Vietnam hanging over us—there was some shred of confidence in knowing that your parents, aunts, uncles, and other dear ones, had walked here before you.

So for thousands of us, those flames that leapt last Tuesday from that empty building’s roof felt like a personal assault. A friend and fellow alum wrote, “We have lost the Mother of our family that united us one.”  And I get that, because, at first, I felt that way, too. But  if you stop and think about it, you will realize that memories are amazingly fire-resistant. The tens of thousands of stories  that we in Yellow Jacket nation could tell are beyond the reach of any flames.  And so long as these memories live, so does our kind mother.

So let’s take comfort that she is alive and well, because somewhere right now, Señorita Pace is calling out “¡Sarah, a la pizarra!” and Mr. Lott is whipping my ass.

Go Jackets!

“Mr. Stephens, were you a racist?” (Conclusion)

[This concludes a five-part series that begins here.]

As I grew older, my experience of the world around me increasingly contradicted the stereotypes in which I’d been indoctrinated. I began to notice that the exceptions were overwhelming the rules. Italians were not all connected to the Mafia. Greeks were not all in the restaurant business. Blacks were not all—not by long-shot—lacking in intelligence or ability. But according to my indoctrination the world should have been a neater and simpler place, a set of rank-ordered dresser drawers into which every category should be stuffed with its own kind. According to my experience, it was not that.

The rank-order part had been immensely strong for a long time. And we in the white drawer had for centuries been told that we were top drawer, making us supreme. The Italians, Greeks, and other derivatives of Europe descended beneath us.  And, finally, on the bottom, the African-Americans. The U.S. Constitution in its earliest form helped perpetuate this, allowing for slavery and totally dis-empowering slaves. Later, in the South, Jim Crow held the ranks in order by keeping African-Americans dis-empowered. And so for generations, children of all races were indoctrinated to believe these stereotypes.

Did this mean that the variety of races and ethnic groups didn’t get along?  It didn’t mean that at all.  If everyone appropriately behaved within his/her rank order, then everyone could get along quite well.  And until Brown v. Board and the civil rights movement, everyone pretty much did.  But, by the middle of the 20th century, those folks down there in the bottom drawer had had enough. And so they began to get uppity, meaning they dared climb out of their designated slot and insist on moving higher.  Let me tell you a story to illustrate this . . .

My maternal grandfather was, to my early-childhood eyes, perhaps the most wonderful creature God ever made.  I was his first grandchild and he swaddled me in love and affection. He was also a vehement racist. I recall Sunday afternoons watching pro-football broadcasts with him—a peaceful experience until…Cleveland Browns running back Jim Brown (one of very few blacks then in the league) made a phenomenal play over which the commentators effused, thereby launching my grandfather out of his chair and screaming, “Get that [n-word] off the TV!” And he would switch off the game.

Decades later, after my grandfather had died, we would lament, “It’s painful to think Granddady was such a racist.” And, though, none of us condones his behavior, our love of him impelled us to make excuses. “But Granddaddy was kind to black people individually. He even had black playmates as a child.”

This is true. But here’s the rub: So long as an individual black person dared not look my grandfather eye-to-eye, dared not presume to approach him on equal footing, my grandfather was kind and benevolent. But the minute a black person asserted himself or herself as equal to, or more able than a white person, Granddaddy went wacko.

My uncle tells of an exchange, overheard in his own childhood, between my grandfather and a friend.  The friend, referring to a black man, said, “He’s a good [n-word].” And my grandfather responded, “Yes, he’s a good [n-word] because he knows he’s a [n-word].”  And there you have it: so long as the black man knew his place and stayed in it, he was good, but the moment he started to move up (e.g., daring to set an NFL record for touchdowns), he was not good and showed himself to be unbearably uppity.

This rank-ordering was built, of course, with stereotypes that put whites at the top merely by the notion of innate superiority indicated by skin color.  By twelfth grade I just couldn’t make the stereotypes jibe with the world I was looking at. I’ve already mentioned my black classmates, Shirley and Derrol, better students than I. (I could name more).  I’ve mentioned certain of my black teachers, not only able and competent, but more so than many of my white teachers.

So, being a 17-year-old in 1971, I was naturally in a state of rebellion. At dinner table, and in chance conversations, I began suggesting that the grownups had got it all wrong about the races.  I was summarily dismissed as being young and naive. I was a liberal as most young and ignorant people are. When I grew up, I was told, I would return to the conservative ways of my elders and see things as they did. Here’s a line they loved: “You’re young, but you’ve never been old.  We’ve been both young and old.”

Decades later, and too late, I stumbled on a rapier retort, attributed, I think, to Margaret Mead: “True, unlike me, you’ve been both young and old. But also unlike me, you’ve never been young in the present world, nor will you ever be.”

And it was, indeed, a profoundly different world than the one my parents and grandparents had grown up in. In that world, values that had actually been present all along—in the Declaration of Independence, in the amended U.S. Constitution, and, above all, in the biblical tenets of the Christian faith—had been twisted and perverted in order to support the age-old stereotypes. But now, America was gettin’ woke.

My contact with people of color (on a more level playing field), put a bright light on ironies and absurdities that had for so long been obscured.  Here’s one: Moments after my third-grade Sunday School teacher had told us, “We must pray for and forgive the Negroes for they know not what they do, bless their hearts,” we sang a song called “Jesus Loves the Little Children,” the refrain of which is:  “Red and Yellow, Black and White, they are precious in His sight. Jesus loves the little children of the world.” On the wall was a lithograph illustration titled “Suffer the Little Children to Come unto Me,” depicting children whose skin and features represented all races. Jesus was sweeping them into his arms, all at once—not white kids first, then others, but all together.

These values had been all around us all along—in our revered government documents, in our Bibles—and, I like to believe, they had also been somewhere deep in our hearts, but buried unfortunately beneath the indoctrinating stereotypes.

My elders were wrong. I have not come back round to where they were. Instead, the America I live in has moved in great measure away from the way they viewed the world. We have come a long way. But we’ve still a long way to go. Racism is, as I said in Part 1, like a stain that must be scrubbed.  And one should never stop scrubbing.

“Mr. Stephens, were you a racist?” my student asked.

“Yes, I was.”

And, honestly, I worry that I still am, insofar as my indoctrination may yet lurk in the shadows.  A few years ago, upon meeting my colleague and friend Carl, an African-American teacher, I asked where he was from. He told me he came from a family of farmers.  And I heard myself blurting in great surprise:

“Wait! What? Your people are farmers?” Somewhere inside me the old stereotype had bolted its coffin and was telling me: Blacks are farmhands, the white guys in John Deere hats are the farmers!”

I was mortified at myself, but Carl was gracious. (He’s used to it, sadly.)

So I have to keep scrubbing the stain.  And here’s what scrubbing is: putting my beliefs under a bright light, examining them thoroughly, and mustering the humility to admit when long-held beliefs are wrong, even if taught to me by people I love.

Don’t stop scrubbing, America. We’ve still got work to do.

“Mr. Stephens, were you a racist?” (Pt. 4)

[The fourth installment of a five-part series that begins here.]

“Why did you come to our school?”  I asked my 7th-grade classmate Shirley, one of only two black students in our 800-student school. She had been writing but stopped at the sound of my voice. She didn’t look up. Long seconds passed, and I was sure she was making a show of  ignoring me.  Then…

“My old school,” suddenly she was talking! “is about four miles from our house. This school is less than a mile.”

“Did you wanna come here?”

“My parents wanted me to come here.”

“Are they communists?”

She dropped her pen and turned toward me with a look that suggested I was covered in poop. “No! They’re not communists!”

“Well, then, why did they want you to come to our school?”

“It’s not y’all’s school, Gerald!” She said my name! She sort of spat it out, but she said it, nevertheless!  Until then, I’d not heard her say anyone’s name. To my amazement, this made me feel ecstatic, even honored, as if a celebrity had uttered my name!  This thrill greatly confused me.

“It’s everybody’s school,” Shirley continued. “My parents’ taxes pay for this school just like yours do.”

I had no comeback to that and figured our chat was done, until she asked what I had made on our history test. She plucked a mimeographed sheet from her binder on top of which was written in red ink “100 / A+”

“Not that,” I said.

Shirley smiled and returned to her writing.

That exchange broke some ice,  and not only between me and her.  It broke a bit of the ice that had frozen shut my ideas about race, about who black people were.

A couple of years later, in my first week of high school, another memorable moment would bring Shirley to mind. This was Algebra I, and the teacher was an old white man called Mr. MacArthur. The first thing he did was pick up a stick of chalk and etch a complicated problem on the blackboard.

“I want somebody to come solve this,” he said, extending the chalk toward us. In retrospect, I think his plan was to impress upon us our ignorance, our inability to solve hard problems, and then, perhaps, to announce that when he was done with us, we would be smarter.  But his plan was immediately derailed.

Seated in front of me was a black student named Derrol, who raised his hand, tentatively.

“Oh, you think you can do it?” Mr. Mac smiled condescendingly.

“Yessir, I think so,” said Derrol.

Mr. Mac beckoned Derrol forward and handed him the chalk. Derrol proceeded to solve the equation step-by-step-by-step without pause.

He looked plaintively at Mr. Mac who looked frowningly back at Derrol.  Mr. Mac stepped slowly toward the blackboard, read through the problem, scratched his head, and muttered, “Well…uh, yeah, that’s right.”  Derrol showed no sign of superiority or haughtiness, he just humbly handed back the chalk and returned to his seat.

He would prove to be way, waaaay smarter than anyone else in the room, maybe even in the school. (Four years later Derrol would be studying at Northwestern University on full scholarship, after which he would attain a medical doctorate in pediatrics.)

Now here I must confess something of which I am deeply ashamed. Like all racists, I had built my worldview with the straw-bales of stereotypes. Among the white grownups I knew and respected, the general consensus was that “colored folks” were mostly alike—not as bright as us, not as good as us, but useful for subservient jobs (e.g. yard workers, house cleaners (maids), farmhands, cooks, janitors, etc.) or, occasionally, as athletes or jazz or soul musicians, dancers and singers.  This is what I was taught, this was my indoctrination.

Increasingly, however, my experiences, my observations did not jibe with my indoctrination.  Looking around me, I saw smarter-than-me black students. Moreover, there was the matter of my black teachers, many of whom I still carry lovingly and respectfully in my heart to this day. I’ve already written (here) about Mrs. Todd, to whom I must add Mrs. Hanks, Mrs. Lassiter, Mr. White, and Mrs. Brown, my biology teacher who, with twinkling eyes, referred to her students as organisms:  “I see organisms in the back,” she would say, “who must either cease talking or get 20 demerits.” (I was one of ‘em.) These were professionals who ably and passionately taught me, and, more importantly, opened my mind to the world around me.

And so, for the first time in my life, I began to seriously doubt that the grownups who had raised me knew what they were talking about. I had given them a pass on Santa Claus and the Easter Bunny. But now I began to suspect I had been Santa-Claus-ed and Easter Bunny-ed about a whole lot more.

So I began to ask pointed questions, which led the grownups to label me with one of their most disparaging terms—liberal.

[to be concluded tomorrow]

“Mr. Stephens, were you a racist?” (Pt. 3)

[The third installment of a five-part series that begins here.]

In 1954, the year I was born, the U.S. Supreme Court unanimously declared, in Brown v. Board of Education, that racial segregation of public schools violates the 14th Amendment of the Constitution and that American schools must desegregate “with all deliberate speed.” Short version: “Segregation of public schools is a federal crime, so stop it—now!”

But white folks in the South—at least 95% of them—didn’t take kindly to Brown v. Board.  Nearly a century earlier “Jim Crow” laws had rooted and spread like kudzu across the old Confederacy. These local and state statutes forbade the mixing of races in nearly every public and commercial space. Jim Crow brought us the now infamous “Colored” water fountains and restrooms, the back-of-the-bus rules, and much, much more.

Above all, Jim Crow worked as a wickedly effective tool for indoctrinating children into racism—an indoctrination that had been applied to the childhood of my generation, as well as to that of our parents, grandparents, and great-grandparents. Consequently, in the minds of nearly all grownups in my world, any federal law that sought to change our Southern way of life was an invasion carried out by godless Yankee communist agitators and was tantamount to treason.

This explains why it took twelve years for my K-8, 800-student elementary school to slowly, foot-draggingly obey U.S. law by enrolling two (only two, mind you) black students: Andre and Shirley.

Andre came to us in either 1st or 2nd grade. Roly-poly chubby, always smartly dressed, this “little man” was equipped with a personality that never met a stranger. Andre created laughter—his and others’—wherever he went, and among his white classmates, he probably did more than any chart-topping soul record, to bring positive attitudes toward his race.

Shirley, in my 7th-grade homeroom, was decidedly different. Slender, shy, of studious demeanor, she, too, dressed in style—Sunday dresses, shiny patent leather shoes, hair usually worn in a ribboned ponytail.  On the first day, Shirley was assigned a desk in the back next to mine. For the first few days, our teacher was kept busy, shooing away students from other classrooms who clustered at the door to “see the colored girl.”

In a sense she was a phenomenon. I myself felt impelled (repeatedly) to turn and look at her.  About the fifth time, she crinkled her forehead and glared at me, as if to say, “Stop it!” Still, I couldn’t help sneaking glances at what she was writing or looking at. In the lunchroom she ate alone for the first week or so, until our teacher begged—maybe bribed—two or three of the less popular girls to sit with her, which they did, mostly in awkward silence.

One day, several weeks later, when our teacher was called out of the room, I mustered the courage to ask Shirley a question that had been needling me since I first saw her.

“Why have you come to our school?” I asked

And the brief conversation that ensued planted in my mind a seed that would (very) slowly bloom and contribute to a change of my heart and mind—eventually.

[to be continued tomorrow]

“Mr. Stephens, were you a racist?” (Pt. 2)

[The second installment of a five-part series that begins here.]

16thBaptistHeadlineThe church my family attended had sought long and hard to find a minister who would state openly that he was in favor of segregation.  And find him they did.

Racism imbued our church as it did almost all white congregations in the South, and the civil rights movement and the crises it (rightly) forced, made “integration” (as we then called desegregation) the topic of conversation in every place.

It became the subject of  my Sunday School lessons. (Mind you, I was in the third grade.) My teacher, the minister’s wife—a short, round, and, in my eyes then, most lovable lady—taught us: “We must pray for and forgive the Negroes, for they know not what they do.  Bless their hearts.”  All the trouble, she said, was caused by Yankee communist outsiders.  So we prayed for our local Negroes, that they would not listen to evil and go back to being the good Negroes God desired them to be.

After Sunday School was worship, and on the third Sunday of September, 1963, worship was cut short.  Outside the church men clustered round cars whose radios blared deep, somber male voices—and talk of a bomb.

Suddenly the minister and others began to shout, “Everybody! Get in your cars and go home and lock your doors!” My dad stuffed us into our car and drove faster than usual. On the way, it befell my mom to explain what was happening: A bomb had gone off at a black church downtown. Some people were hurt.

“Who would bomb a church?” asked one of us kids. Mom didn’t know. Dad didn’t say.  We just had to get home quickly because there could be more violence.  (And there was.)

Sometime that afternoon, word came that the bomb had killed four children—girls—and had injured more than a dozen.  I was too young to wrap my head completely around what had happened. But I remember several times shuddering in sorrow and horror. Those four young girls who died couldn’t have been Yankee communist agitators. They were just children, like me. Why them?

But I remember this, too: The “black community” was still held responsible.  We learned from grownups in school and church that none of this would have happened and those four little girls would still be alive if local Negroes hadn’t invited communists like Martin Luther King to town to stir up that church, thereby provoking bad men to bomb it.

Here’s what I wish I could tell you: that I called bullshit on that explanation.  But, instead, I tried to embrace it because, again, it came from the mouths of those whom I’d been raised to trust.  I actually yearned to believe it: All of the evil was being caused by “outside agitators” who had come to Birmingham to stir up our Negroes. We white folk were in no way responsible.

I tried hard as I could to believe it, but some feint notion beyond my mind’s reach, something I could sense vaguely but couldn’t name, poisoned my ability to fully believe what I was being told.

And that something drew a little closer a few years later when the first-ever black girl enrolled in my school and sat in a desk only a few feet from my own.

[to be continued tomorrow]

“Mr. Stephens, were you a racist?” (Pt. 1)

LittleRockJeeringThe eighth-grade curriculum I teach requires students to read and write about the American civil rights movement.  Truth be told, our school district starts covering the movement from fourth grade onward. So, by the time students reach me, most are worn out by the topic.

But, abracadabra! I have a magic wand that reanimates their interest: I lived not only through, but to great extent, in the arena of the civil rights movement. Born 1954 in Birmingham, AL, I remember the events of the movement.  I remember the desegregation (or “integration” as we then called it) of public schools, even of the classroom in which I sat.

Because I’m older than most teachers, because I grew up in a centrally significant site of the movement, the kids take me as a sort of interactive museum exhibit. They pepper me with questions, and the very hottest of those peppers is this one:

“Mr. Stephens, were you a racist?”

First asked several years ago by an African-American boy, it caught me totally off guard. Frankly, it panicked me. I tried to calm myself by noting that the student had at  least put the question in the past tense. Next, I had to stifle the answer I wanted to give—“Of course not!”—because, I’m sorry to say, that’s a lie.

Before I tell you my answer, let’s take a timeout to define the word racist. Merriam-Webster says: one who holds a belief that race is the primary determinant of human traits and capacities and that racial differences produce an inherent superiority of a particular race

So, recalling that in 1963 I turned nine years old, I confessed to my students that I was indeed infected with racism.

Like almost all children of any era, I mimicked the views and opinions of the adults around me. My parents, the parents of playmates and classmates, my church’s minister and Sunday School teachers, all stood strongly opposed the mixing of white kids and black kids in school, and opposed to whites and blacks mingling in restaurants, movie theaters, parks, waiting rooms, swimming pools and most other places.

“The races aren’t supposed to mix!” was the grownup doctrine in my childhood. “God means to keep the races separate!” went the credo. And it was no great leap to infer this meant my race was superior.  Why?  Because we had all the better stuff, the better opportunities, and, I was told, “That’s how God wants it.”  So, thus did I fit—as did nearly everyone around me—the definition of racist.

I would like to excuse myself with “I was just a kid, I didn’t know!”  I would like to say, “It wasn’t long before I threw off all that racism!”  But, again, that’s not true. The indoctrination of children—be it religious or racist or, in my case, both—isn’t easily and quickly removed like a coat or hat. It’s more of a stubborn stain on the skin.  And it has taken me years to scrub it away, and I’m not at all certain it’s gone.

But —  I can tell you when I first began (ever so slowly) to work on it,  or, as my students might say, when I first “started to get woke”:

Sunday, September 15, 1963.

[To be continued tomorrow]

You ain’t never gonna make a livin’ like that!

Image

Spring afternoon, 1969. We’re struggling to read Romeo and Juliet, to stay awake, really. A lawnmower moans distantly from somewhere in the free world. We’ve raised the classroom’s enormously tall windows a foot or so in hopes of coaxing in a breeze to quash the heat from the steam radiators that were necessary against the morning chill but are now hotboxing us toward a collective coma.

Our teacher is Mrs. Juanita Todd, a sweet, buxom woman—her skin the color of coffee with a splash of cream, her hair a dyed-orange afro that fits her smiling head like an astronaut’s helmet.

We hate Shakespeare, but we love Mrs. Todd. Mrs. Todd loves us, too, but unfortunately, she also loves Shakespeare, and loves to dole out roles and have us read them. So here we are.

Suddenly, it’s Ricky’s turn to read. He has a very small role—one of those nearly nameless characters who pop on stage only to give a morsel of necessary info and just as quickly pop offstage.

But Ricky’s not ready.  In fact, Ricky is asleep. Eyes shut, cheek on forearm, drool draining from half-open mouth, Ricky is very much asleep. The class guffaws.

“Richard!” says Mrs. Todd who, for some reason, insists on using birth-record names. Poor Richard lifts his head, eyes now wildly wide-open, scanning the room in an expression of “Where the hell am I?”

“Richard,” Mrs. Todd repeats. “Why are you sleeping?”  She’s smiling, which is part of why we love her: she doesn’t take anything too seriously.  Richard is still stunned, so a classmate answers for him, “He thinks he’s the Beatles. He was playing his guitar all night! That’s all he does!”

Richard’s blush answers: It’s true.

Mrs. Todd smiles, shakes her head, and says, “Here’s what I want to say: ‘Boy, you ain’t never gonna make a living with that guitar!’ But I don’t say that anymore because…well, lemme tell y’all a little story.” Mercifully, she shuts her Shakespeare, allowing us to do likewise.

“Years ago,” she says, “at Western-Olin [an all-black high school about three miles away], I had a student named Edward.  And I swear that boy slept through every one of my classes.  One day, I’d had enough. So I yanked him up by the collar and said, “Why you sleepin’ all the time?” His classmates said, “Cuz he be singin’ down at the Tuxedo all night long!”

Mrs. Todd shakes her head, still smiling, “Well, I looked him in the eye and said, ‘Boy! You ain’t never gonna make a livin’ like that! So, Edward, you need to get down to your studies!’”

Now she’s laughing with her head thrown back, a big howling sound, a long joyous shout. She pulls herself together, wipes her eyes, and says, “Well, I saw Edward on TV the other night.  Any y’all watch the Temptations special?”

“Eddie Kendricks?” somebody shouts.

“You taught Eddie Kendricks of the Temptations?” shouts another.

“One and the same,” Mrs. Todd confirms.  “And now and then, when he’s in town, he comes to see me, comes rolling up in his Coupe Deville, and he really likes to rub it in. He says, ‘Mrs. Todd, will you tell me again what you said about me sleepin’ in class?’”

“So—” she says, turning her gaze back to Ricky, “I’m not gonna say ‘Boy! You ain’t never gonna make a livin’ like that,’ because, Richard, who knows, you might be the Beatles one day. I might be watching you on TV,” she said with a big grin. Ricky grinned back.

“Look,” she said, “I learned my lesson: Don’t ever discourage anybody from following their dream.”

“But,” she continued. “Richard, I will say this.  And I’ll say it to all the rest of y’all, too.”

Her grin grew wider.

“If you sleep through my class, I’m gonna flunk you just like I flunked Edward James Kendrick.”

Well, who’d a thunk that fifty years later, I, too, would be an English teacher?  Mrs. Todd, you still remind me that I can never know how my students’ lives will unfold, so I must never act like I do know.  You remind me also that I must never say or do anything to harm a child’s dreams.

[And Mrs. Todd, wherever you are, I want to sing a couple of Edward’s lines to you:  “You got a smile so bright, you could’ve been a candle,” and I love “The way you do the things you do!”]

[Edward’s is the first face you’ll see after Ed Sullivan introduces the Temptations!]

Long Live the Prince of Darkness!

I was born into a binary world.  This was the mid- to late-1950s onward, when you were taught to put yourself on one side or the other of a passel of either/or’s.  You were to be on the side of either

Coke or Pepsi
Ford or Chevy
Bama or Auburn
U.S. Keds or P.F. Flyers
Mantle or Maris
Elvis or Johnny Cash
Mayonnaise or Miracle Whip

to name only a few.

Each side of any either/or was supported by doctrine. For example, on one side: “Coca-Cola is from Atlanta, Georgia, and that makes it Southern like us; Pepsi’s for Yankees.” And on the other side: “Nah-ah!”

Discourse could turn fierce—even violent.  On the playground, I saw a kid get his ass whipped for devotion to Miracle Whip.

All this was terribly tough for me because my mother raised me to be a lover not a fighter, i.e., an inveterate people-pleaser.  And to choose a side in any either/or was to disappoint (actually to piss off) those on the other side.

So I tried not to offend by going rogue, by making choices beyond the binary. I chose 7Up, Rambler, Maryville College (Mom’s alma mater), Hush Puppies, Pee Wee Reese, dry bologna sandwiches. But this served only to unite the binary bunch in labeling me a “weirdo” or “double-pansy.” “Nerd” wouldn’t sashay into adolescent vernacular for another couple of decades. But I was—and pretty much am—a nerd.

IBM 1419

IBM 1419 Check Sorter

Shortly after I graduated high school, my cup of nerd runneth over. I took a menial job—not a manly construction job, nor a brawny steel factory job—a “position” at a local bank where I was trained to run something called an IBM 1419 Check-Sorter.  This required me to lift (very delicately) tall stacks of checks and load them repeatedly onto an elevating platform that shot them one-by-one down a belt where the checks’ magnetic ink was read digit-by-digit and slotted into segregated stacks.  Thus does a nerd stroke the great beast of capitalism.

The job’s wage was neither abundant nor meager. And I was able, with my dad’s co-signature, to get the bank to lend me money to buy a car. This was 1972 when non-nerds went after Ford Mustangs or Chevy Camaros, or maybe the Pontiac GTO.

My allegiance. however, ran toward Rambler, which had since become AMC (American Motors Corp), and in my eyes no car was more beautiful than the Gremlin.

I had my dad drive me down to Roy Bridges Rambler where, at the edge of the showroom, there squatted my new best friend: a blue Gremlin with white stripe running down either side in whose end was smartly inscribed “Gremlin X” (X, mind you!) I lay my hand gently, admiringly, on its roof and said to my dad, “This is it!”

bluegremlin

The Prince of Darkness

With the mien of a man who just sucked a lemon, my dad cast his vision down the length of the car, and then to me.  Raising his eyebrows he asked, “This?”

Yes, this! The sticker price was $2,700. Dad whittled it to $2,560.   A couple hours later I was proudly driving home in my own car when, at a stoplight on 3rd Avenue, a sun-glassed guy in a red Mustang shouted, “Hey pal! Where’s the rest of your car?” He slapped his dashboard laughingly.

It took me two weeks to wreck the thing. I was en route home, going round the block in order to hear (on the radio) the end of Edgar Winter’s “Free Ride.” when there appeared before me, a silver Camaro with a former high school classmate  at the wheel.  She’d not heeded ithe stop sign.  So, like David v. Goliath, my little Gremlin felled the mighty Camaro—thankfully without human injury.  But the investigating officer was clearly frustrated by his inability to pin the blame on me.  He kept looking back and forth between 1) the beauty of my former classmate and her car, and 2) the nerdity of me and my car.

After a week’s repair, me and my Gremlin were again rolling down Humiliation Highway. Not long after, while innocently parked alongside a curved boulevard, the car suffered a hit and run. More than a sideswipe, this was a deep door-bashing. I don’t believe it was an accident. But the Gremlin was the paragon of resilience. You just couldn’t kill him.

A few years later, my Gremlin took me to Louisville, Kentucky, where I sojourned several years as a seminarian. A clever classmate, citing the hymn “A Mighty Fortress Is Our God,” zeroed in on the lines, “the prince of darkness grim / we tremble not for him”.  Ignoring the vowel-difference between grim and Gremlin, he dubbed my car the Prince of Darkness—a perfectly nerdy name for an unquestionably nerdy car.

After about ten years, the P of D finally succumbed to old age. I mean, he just fell apart—as I myself have already begun to do. But he’s still rolling in my memory as testimony to the thrill of rejecting the binary game, the joy of going rogue, of choosing beyond what culture expects of you.

Long live the Prince of Darkness!

godfrey&me

My present car–named Godfrey–who bears a vague resemblance to the Prince of Darkness, dontcha think?

(Stay nerdy, Ponyboy.)

 

 

 

 

 

“I’M ERNEST TUBB’S LOVE CHILD!”

Matt and I were in Manhattan’s SoHo. It was late afternoon, one of those seering, sunblazed days when concrete and asphalt work like steam radiators. We’d walked nearly the whole length of Broadway from 225th Street, counting down all 225 of ‘em, and now, with leaden legs, were wading through streets bearing surnames, only blocks from Battery Park, our destination. We’d covered nearly 16 miles, and were ‘long about Broome Street when Matt paused to ease off his backpack, pluck out his water bottle, and take a swig. I stopped a few feet ahead and did the same.

We were re-shouldering our packs when a voice called from the eddy of pedestrians, “Will you shake a black man’s hand?” Suddenly there jutted toward Matt a dark-skinned hand, followed by a wiry arm and slender body, on top of which was a smiling bucket-hatted head. Matt, grinned uncertainly and shook the man’s hand. I had already started to back away, when the guy, maybe in his late 20’s, said, “Dad! Whoa! Don’t go nowhere!”  He shook my hand now.

Instinctively, I asked, “What you sellin’?”

He tossed his head back, raised an eyebrow, and mildly reprimanded, “Hey, Pops, now you gettin’ ‘head o’ me.”

What followed was—well—street theater, I guess, with this guy as star and director, and Matt and me in supporting roles.  “You a black man!” he said to Matt (who is quite white). To me he barked, “You a white man wid a briefcase!” (he got it half right), and launched into a spiel in which race is only a social construct, but one used to exploit all kinds of people, including me, the white man wid a briefcase.  He spoke knowledgeably of James Baldwin, Malcolm X, and Donald Trump. Throughout his monologue Matt and I were put in a variety of roles. We were, by turns, Italian, Irish, Asian and Native American, etc.

All the while the guy occasionally turned to passing pedestrians, speaking as if they, too, were in our drama, which prompted several to linger. Once, a large, touristy-looking white man unwittingly brushed against Matt’s shoulder. Our actor-director flung forth his arms like a shield, admonishing the man, “Hey, hey! Don’t touch him. He’s a celebrity!” which slowed the flow of pedestrians and brought curious stares Matt’s way.

And at that, while standing on this make-shift Broadway stage, I decided: I gotta give this guy some money because this is just too damn much fun!  And then there came to mind a memory from 37 years earlier that goes like this…

*        *        *

I was a completely clueless 26-year-old, newly graduated from seminary, freshly ordained, and left in charge of a 1,300-member congregation in northwest Indiana because the senior pastor had skipped off to the Holy Land for three weeks.

On my first day at the helm, a late-1950s model Ford pick-up, smoking and steaming, squealed to a stop in front of the church. Out climbed a heavy woman, maybe in her late 40s, stuffed into a stained white tank-top and blue jeans, both of which were two or three sizes too small.

“Oh dear,” said the church secretary as we watched from the office window. Moments later, the woman was standing—more like sagging—before us, sobbing, “I ain’t a bad person. I ain’t a bad person.”

Does this sound moving? It might have been, except she lacked any semblance of acting ability.  Her sobs were tearless drones; her sags were much overplayed.

I asked how the church might help her—the prompt she wanted in order to unfold her story. She said she’d been living with the family of her sister in Benton Harbor, Michigan, when “my brother-in-law done gone and climbed into bed wi’ me, and my sister th’owed me outta the house.” More sobs and sags. “And the thang is. We ain’t done nuttin’, my brother-in-law ‘n’ me. But my sister don’t believe it. She just th’owed me out.  It was him what climbed in the bed! Why don’t she th’ow him out?”

The secretary and I didn’t have an answer.

“So what do you need from us?” I asked again.  She said she was trying to get home to her mama in Nashville, Tennessee, but “done run outta money.” She needed cash for a motel and gas.  Again she insisted, “I ain’t a bad person.”  And, to make sure we knew she ain’t a bad person, she brought out the biggest gun in her story.

“I orta to be livin’ in a big ol’ mansion in Nashville. You know why?”

We didn’t.

“Cuz my daddy is Ernest Tubb!”

While I’m no fan of Old School Country, I did know that Ernest Tubb was a Grand Ol’ Opry Hall of Famer.

“Ernest done gone and got my mama pregnant when she wudn’t but 16 and he ain’t had the decency to do the right thang!”

The woman’s story had dumbstruck us, which, apparently, she mistook as thick-headedness, for she flung her arms outward and clarified in a “duh!” tone, “I’M ERNEST TUBB’S LOVE CHILD!”

She launched back into the poorly performed sobs and sags but, at the sound of my voice, stopped abruptly.

“Well,” I said unsurely, “would you mind taking a seat in the lobby while we discuss this?”  She did as asked.

I turned to the secretary and with some exasperation said, “Look, I’m totally new here. I know we have discretionary money and all, but how do we know she’s telling us the truth?  How do we know she won’t take the money and drink or gamble with it?”

“Gerald,” the secretary said with a calming smile, “the story by itself is worth at least fifty bucks.”  We gave her seventy-five—in those days enough to get a room and buy a couple of tanks of gas.

*        *        *

Back to last week in Manhattan.  As the hand-shaking black man on Broadway established that race is only a social construct, that Matt is a black man (among other things), and that I am a white man wid a brief case, all the while working passing pedestrians in and out of his shtick, I thought: This story itself is worth some cash. Maybe not fifty or seventy-five bucks, but I’ll go twenty.

As if reading my mind, the guy wound down the show by whipping a wad of cash from his pocket. “Ain’t dat some money?” he chuckled with a grin that showed dire need of a dentist. “I even got dis Canadian sh*t!” he said, showing a twenty from north of the border. Then, from out of nowhere, his other hand presented several packaged CDs, fanned out like playing cards and bearing his likeness.

“I’m a rapper.  I want you to have one of my CDs. I’ll take what you wanna gimme.  Most people gimme ten.”  I gave him twenty. He handed the CD to the sometimes black man, Matt, and smiled warmly at me.  He thanked us both.  Matt and I continued down Broadway.  Examining the CD’s cover, we agreed that June Cancun was a fairly lit name for a rapper.

The next day, in the car on the way home, we popped the CD into the player. For what seemed too many seconds, we heard nothing and thought we’d been had. I was about to say it doesn’t matter because the show was worth twenty bucks, when suddenly beats came booming through the speakers and the voice of June Cancun was, in his way, drawing us back onto the stage.

“He’s not bad!” said Matt who listens to bargeloads of rap. There were sixteen more songs, each one revealing talent in composition and performance.

I thought, this guy’s on a much higher plane than Ernest Tubb’s love child.  And I wished I’d paid him at least seventy-five bucks.

 

 

I’m a Fool for the City

foolontrain[Writing from New York City.]  The last time I was here, I went with my granddaughter Rachel, then 15 years old, to the top of the Empire State Building. It was nearly 10:00 p.m., and so the many millions of lights of New York were spread beneath and around us as if the starriest of skies had fallen to earth.

“How many lives are we gazing down upon?” we wondered.  A smartphone told us 8.5 million. We tried to comprehend 8.5 million individual lives, their individual stories, all bumping and banging into each other. This led us to wonder how much pain was down there amid those lights. How much joy. How much despair. How much hope.  It’s incomprehensible, we agreed.

But another thing it is: amazing. Cities are the foundation of human civilization. About 5,000 years ago, people began to settle in large groups, bumping and banging into each other, collaborating, organizing, dividing labor, setting up agricultural supply lines, making stuff, building economies, arguing the hows and whys of human existence.

Cities are where humans first learned to tolerate and benefit from those who are radically different from themselves. This isn’t to say that hatred and bigotry are absent from the city. Cities do create enclaves of like-minded people who often disrespect those of different minds. But for a city to survive and thrive, diverse groups of people must learn to work with and accommodate each other.

Take New York City, for example: 8.5 million people crammed into only 321 square miles. Some may say, “That sounds horrible!”  

No, it’s amazing–amazing how well organized these 8.5 million people are; amazing to sit or stand in a subway and hear a medley of languages and see an array of races and an endless diversity of fashions. Amazing that these creatures are Homo sapiens, a species that began as little more than apes who fought at the first sign of difference.  Amazing how these people share with one another their differences–in visual art, music, drama, fashion, folklore, cuisine, and custom.  And in this melange, they make new stuff that changes the world.

Each time I visit this city I’m renewed with hope that, despite the obvious and much publicized sins of cities, the lesser told story is the most amazing one: that hundreds of thousands, even millions of different people are living together and cooperating in mutual benefit.

Twenty-seven years ago, in a massive city on the west coast, Rodney King, a victim of that city’s sins, asked, “People, can’t we all just get along?” Cities that survive and thrive must answer that question, “Yes, we can.”

And that, my friends, is why I’m a fool for the city.