I met my friend Cindy, who is a stock broker, on the subway riding to work in Boston. She married Steve along the way who, in conversation one night, I ascertained had attended the same high school as me in Staten Island. I was surprised when he inquired about racial conflict while I was there. He indicated there had been fights and riots when he attended before me, he graduated around 1973, and later in the early 80s. As I recall, there was a gang of delinquents that patrolled the front entrance of the school, there was a rumored brisk trade in prescription medication, but once I discovered a back way into the buildings that was open every morning, things went relatively smoothly for me.
One of the hallmarks of my time at Susan E. Wagner High School was the great diversity of friends I had, which I did not appreciate at the time. My two best friends were a Jewish boy named Richard, who was musically talented, and a hispanic lad with the sonorous name of Hector Vizoso. Hector was a gentle and patient soul, one of the most understanding people I ever knew, which is a great quality for a friend to have.
My parents were bigots; the Finnish were the master race if you were wondering. Other peoples were troubled in a variety of ways, and the fact that my father was drunk pretty much every day, out of work and occasionally prompted the police to be summoned seemed to have little bearing on this assessment. I laughed out loud when my mother expressed relief when I was no longer dating one Amy F. "Her family seemed very troubled," she announced.
Equally without irony, my father made much of the stupidity of others, particularly persons of color, but he had sufficiently demonstrated what a terrific mensa he was on more than enough occasions that I knew not to invest anything in his opinion. Here’s an example of a clever thing he did one night: picked a fight with a New York City bus. The bus won.
I had black acquaintances at school I was friendly with - twins Daryl and David, and another boy named David who I suspect found me foolish, but amusing. I also have very fond memories of a cool hispanic boy named Jesus, whom I formed a friendship with in homeroom based on drawing and a liking of kung fu.
My mother drove to work with Mrs. Lee, the mother of one of my more agreeable classmates, Albert. His father was a sharp librarian, I looked forward to saying hello to him at the New Dorp Branch of the New York Public Library, and he had a high achieving sister, named Pearl. Much was made by my mother of the apparent faux pas that had occurred with the naming of Pearl, violating the stringent rule that forbade a family to choose a first name of a child ending with the same letter that began their last name, forcing those who speak at a pronounced clip to call the young woman Pearly, to everyone’s deep embarrassment. At the time I wondered why stiff fines and penalties had not been assessed, and counselors dispatched to speak to the family, but I think it was the recession and New York City was at the time strapped for funds, and had no choice but to let such egregious offenses slip. I think for the reason they commuted together, no opinion was put forth about the Chinese people as a whole.
The urban educational climate was challenging, but I benefitted from having some tough friends. One boy I lunched with became a weightlifter and, although he was as mild and nerdy as myself, his biceps kept trouble away. I also befriended a distant kid named Mike over an article about Bob Seger in a music magazine. Mike was lanky, sullen and strong, projecting an aura of trouble, the kind of individual people for the most part left alone. I was initially wary when he asked me about the magazine, but he was genuinely interested. In retrospect I could guess Mike may have come from a difficult home, he hinted as much, an opening in his armor I would only recognize years later as an incredible declaration of trust, and had learning disabilities, as witnessed by the way he was mostly ignored in class. The kind of kid at the time no one much bothered with. But he took a liking to me and I liked him, talking about music, and I benefitted because of my association with him.
I don’t think it much occurred to me to think of my friends in terms of their race, as it seemed everyone in school in New York came from some pronounced ethnic group, so it didn’t seem particularly unique. I didn't encounter racism until I moved to rural Pennsylvania in the middle of my junior year of high school, where my mother assumed I would benefit from the country air and clean living. What really happened was I was removed from the good influence of a diverse core of well behaved supportive friends, and dropped into an unfriendly homogeneous crowd who treated me with suspicion. In my first week of classes, when I was quizzed upon what life was like in the city, I described my friends. The boy who was interviewing me narrowed his gaze and inquired incredulously, in low tones, head dropping between his shoulders, "You mean to tell me you were friends with these people?” Bring on the fresh air.
As history has well shown, I was not wise as a youth. I made the mistake of repeating a racial epitaph my mother had uttered about my friend Rich to him. At the time I didn’t realize how seriously it could be taken. Rich repeated it to his mother, and she expressed that he shouldn’t hang around with me anymore. Rich said, “Jon’s mother said that. Jon didn’t,” and he remained my friend, demonstrating an emotional maturity I should have envied. I did, only much later.
In college, I was telling a racial joke in keg line at a party, something I would do to deal with what I felt were awkward social situations. A man walked up and embarrassed me, and made me finish the joke. I did but felt deeply ashamed, rightly so. I vowed on the spot I would no longer tell racial jokes, and I have kept this promise.
There are wise and ignorant people all over the world and both qualities, as far as I can tell, seem to transcend race and gender.
This blog is a joint project with a number of other writers. Please be generous and read the other artists in this shared blog who share their take on the glories of travel:
Leslie Farnsworth http://www.lesliefarnsworth.com
Joan Johnson http://onefishtaco.blogspot.com/
William Pora http://williampora.com
Rebecca Harvey http://bayoucitypostcards.blogspot.com/
James McPherson http://jalmcpherson.com/