Saturday, August 18, 2018

Living For The City

     It’s the second day of freshman year and I’m outside my locked homeroom waiting for my teacher. There’s an assembly down in the auditorium that we piss-ant freshman are not invited to. Waiting with me in the hallway are three white guys and one black guy. I don’t know any of them. They come from places beyond my South Buffalo world, especially the tall stringy black guy. So, standing there in the mostly empty hallway, I hear one of the white guys, who is kind of beefy, say something to the black guy. I don’t catch it exactly, but know it includes the word “boy” because of the way tall stringy black guy responds: “Who the fuck you calling boy, motherfucker?” as he lays five or six, quick as lightning, open handed slaps about this white kid’s head. Not sure at the offense of the word boy, I’m stunned by his response and wait for the white kid to come back at him, but he just stands there, humiliated, with visible hand prints all over his face. The tall stringy black kid also stands there for a moment ready for one of us to take up our Caucasian brother’s cause. When none of us do, he turns and goes over to the window and in its slight reflection starts evening out his moderately sized afro with a pick, which has long vertical teeth and a handle shaped in the form of a clenched black fist.
     Thus began my education in race relations.

     For some years there had been a population of black kids who rode the bus into our very white Irish Catholic neighborhood to attend South Park High School. The difference in 1976 was that it was the first year of court ordered busing. The busing issue had been hotly contested and would eventually see our school integrated on a 1:1 basis. The mix while I attended was something like a 3:1 ratio favoring white over black.
     Growing up in segregated Buffalo with the racial conflicts of the sixties not that far in the rearview mirror South Park High School was the first place, away from the TV, newspaper and what people said on your street, where I would mix with black people in a substantive way. The same was probably true for the black kids. Given my narrow upbringing I guess I expected a few brush ups like the one outside my homeroom, but thinking back all these years later about that incident what surprises me is my indifference to the whole racial element of it. When you got right down to it, one kid said something objectionable to another kid and got slapped down for it. That’s the way it went. I’m not going to say skin color was irrelevant, but it was superseded by the stringy black kid asserting inalienable right to exist and his willingness to fight for that right, which all kids inherently understand and respect. I’m not sure many of my South Buffalo neighbors would have felt the same way, but to me and the other white guys standing there, it wasn’t our beef and we had no business becoming involved.     
     More interesting might have been what went on in the black kid’s head. With the racial mix what it was and our country’s less than stellar history I’m sure he expected there to be some conflicts. But, how scared was he? Or, was he waiting for it and maybe had a plan mapped out? Was he surprised when none of us white guys jumped in? Did he think we were soft or was his etiquette the same as ours—say something stupid and get a slapped down, no matter the color of your skin. And when it was over did he think: I’m going to get a square deal here.  
     Funny thing is, over the next four years I’d get to know that black guy and he was nowhere as tough or militant as this first impression would seem to indicate. His name was Lyle and he was smart, articulate and good natured. Through some after school basketball I also found him to be kind of slight and easy to push around. He was probably close to 6 ft. tall and all of a 130 lbs (I was 130lbs in first grade). I regret not asking him what was going on in his head when he stood his ground outside our homeroom. Then again, I suppose he said it all with his response.
     Besides the vague and distant knowledge I had of the racial unrest of the sixties and the not so accurate things I heard in my all white neighborhood growing up, the thing that informed me most powerfully about black reality prior to high school was TV (sports and sitcoms) and of course, music. In particular the song Living For The City, by Stevie Wonder from the classic 1973 album Innervisions, which forcefully recounts the trials of a sturdy, but barely surviving black family from Mississippi that gathers enough resources for a son to seek a bigger life in New York City. The son is instantly duped on the street and sentenced to ten-years in jail. The sequence of events in the song hit my young head hard, as did the chilling spoken part and sound effects, in the middle of the song, which ends with an annoyed prison guard dropping an n-bomb on the young black man as a cell door slams shut. It was so brilliantly unjust and final and it left me feeling ashamed, helpless and most of all confused.
     Living For The City was pretty radical for both the radio and what I heard in my own house, which was stuff that my older siblings bought— Carol King, Steely Dan, Neil Young. It wasn’t uncommon also to hear the R&B of Al Greene or Earth, Wind & Fire wafting out of our funky semi-finished basement. But, our white privilege made it easy to avoid political things like Bobby Womack’s, Across 110th Street or Cutis Mayfield’s, Pusherman. I guess songs like Southern Man and Alabama by Neil Young took on race, but they pointed an accusing finger at the white south.  Living For The City however, portrayed the black experience in horrifying terms with big ominous keyboards, a dry poignant beat and angry vocals. I was still a church going believer at the time and had an idealized version of American history, so it was hard to square Stevie Wonder’s description of black life in the land of Lincoln and Roosevelt and with what I learned at Holy Family Church on Sundays.  And, though we were by no means rich—my nine siblings and I packed in our tiny house on Lockwood Avenue—we had the white luxury of hope and promise and maybe even a feeling of being exceptional. When we gazed into the future it looked like the song America by Simon & Garfunkel, where there’s real estate in your bag, a pretty girl named Kathy on your arm and wispy bus rides through the vast landscapes with the American dream there for the taking.
     Next to Living For The City you got the sense there was two different Americas. What was idealized in our most sacred documents like, all men are created equal, and what we learned in church seemed to be complete bullshit. It was a contradiction too big for my pre-pubescent mind to accept, understand or do anything about.  
     But once I got to high school, away from the politics, the newspaper headlines and away from what I heard on the street I found the black kids I met not to be all that different from me. Funkier in dress, speech and music than we Levis wearing guitar loving white boys—but at the end of the day we were all just a bunch of dumb-ass teenagers trying to find our way.
     Being a gym rat my exposure to the black population at school was probably greater than a lot of other white kids. In classes and lunches black and white stuck together, existing next to each other in a parallel kind of way. But down in the gym, after school it was just a bunch of guys hanging out. The black kids had to wait for the Metro bus to get them home and we had stupid TV re-runs till our pissed off fathers came home and started yelling at us. 
     So we stayed at school and just kind of bullshitted, sometimes lifting weights, sometimes playing golf-hockey (which really was just shooting pucks at different objects in the gym, but you kept score like it was golf) and sometimes we played basketball. There wasn’t any supervision other than one of the P.E. teachers collecting a coaching stipend sitting in their office with a coffee and a newspaper while we screwed around in the gym.   
     It was all pretty loose. So loose, we kind of fell into these semi-regular blacks vs. white basketball games, but it wasn’t because of racial tension or anything. It was more white guys had white friends and black guys had black friends and skin color provided a line of natural competitive division—and Nelson Mandela was still in jail and the Dalai Lama wasn’t around, so for better or worse that’s the way we did it. It was friendly, fun and competitive. When you won, and both sides did win, it was as satisfying. But, it wasn’t about race, it was about the competition. Race and skin color was an added twist that was sort of incidental. Bottom line, it was a game you played to win, like the other games you played in your yard, at the park or in gym. All of it was the same, even the requisite busting of chops—especially the busting of chops.
     Outside of school, a bus ride difference between our neighborhoods, we hardly ever mixed socially. The one exception was a couple of guys on the football team —the Markey brothers had these really great racially diverse parties on Saturday nights after the games. I first attended one these legendary parties as a sophomore when I was a prolific bench warming tight end. None of my regular friends were on the team, so I went alone and was mostly ignored, save for some of the out of reach junior and senior girls inquiring about the prospects my older brothers attending the party. I had no answers for these lovely ladies regarding my brothers, but did magnanimously offer myself as a stand in until they showed which always produced big patronizing eye rolls and giggling. Like all guys with no juice I usually got stuck in the kitchen drinking beers and rehashing a game I hardly played in with other guys who had no juice. Guys with juice were sneaking upstairs or outside to make-out with girls out of our league.
     While it sucked to be ignored, it did afford me the opportunity to observe what was going on, which was fascinating. Right there in the middle of all white South Buffalo on autumn Saturday nights in 1977 there was a bunch of black kids laughing, dancing and drinking with white kids and it was no big deal.  
     In the early part of the evening the stereo was dominated by the white rock of Zeppelin and Clapton and saw a lot of kids just standing around. But, as the night wore on the furniture got pushed against the walls and the lights were turned low That’s when James Brown and Aretha found its way into the mix. Eventually the rock-n-roll gave way completely to the dance music. Yes there was some disco, (sorry rock gods, it wasn’t me, it was the times) but what I remember burning up the Markey dance floor the most was All ‘N All by Earth, Wind & Fire and Songs In The Key Of Life by Stevie Wonder.
     Given my already lowly status I didn’t dare risk the embarrassment of trying to dance, but when the place was really rocking to Serpentine Fire or I Wish it wasn’t lost on me how astonishing it was to see all those white and black kids dancing together. Astonished because I knew lots of people in our safe little all white neighborhood would have a big problem with what was going on here.
    Looking onto the Markey dance floor though, I felt kind of proud of myself, proud of all of us, that this scene was so natural and unforced. Proud that we had transcended something that produced so much anger and hatred in the larger world. It was the way it was supposed to be. And, what the whole country couldn’t figure out, us dopey public high school kids in Buffalo, NY did with seeming ease, prompted by nothing more than music, dance and the joy of being young.  
     In the process we fulfilled the aspirations of our most sacred documents and our religious creed. The confusion of have and have-not, just and unjust America that so confused me as a young man was muted, at least for a few hours.
     While I can’t say I developed life-long friendships with black classmates the interactions I had went a long way toward demystifying black people and benefited me greatly. In 1980’s I worked at the Millard Fillmore Hospital in material management department as I slowly made my way through college. Through that job I got to meet and work with a bunch of great guys who happened to be black. From them I learned so much about the challenges I was spared because of my white privilege. I didn’t always agree with their arguments but the conversations were spirited and real with plenty of good trash talking.   
     Yet, despite of this exposure and interaction I can’t really sit here and tell you I’m beyond race. There are old codes forged in me from a young age that have been really hard to extinguish. Don’t get me wrong, I am appalled at all this Trump nationalism bullshit that so animates white grievance and I hated the eight years of dog whistles from the right that the Obama’s had to endure.  
     My racism is nuanced and deeply embedded and I’m very embarrassed when it surfaces. For instance, when I’m at the grocery store and I see a Muslim woman in a chador pushing kids around in a cart I’m always a little surprised when they speak perfect English. From what I’ve seen and read and watched especially since the 9-11 attacks, these people are supposed to be foreign and scary with broken militant language. They aren’t supposed to be in the cereal aisle at Wegmans with zero accent trying to explain to their kids, for the millionth time, that Fruity Pebbles are nothing more than refined sugar totally devoid of any nutritional value and that they can’t have them. With African Americans and Hispanics, almost involuntarily I also go right to well-worn stereotypes if a co-worker has an issue or if I see some headline in the newspaper. Usually I catch and correct myself very quickly and after the moment shame passes I’m always so amazed how these old embedded codes so easily surface.
     On several occasions I’ve tried to explain to my kids my subtle nuanced racism and they think it’s  bullshit. They think I should be able fend off these thoughts in spite of the indoctrination I received through my early teens. Easy for them to say with their big sophisticated brains, positive socialization and being a couple of generations removed from this bullshit, which once again is gaining strength with the rise of Trump.
     Despite the Trump phenomenon I feel optimistic one day we will make it to a post racial society, especially with the coming generations, like my kids who don’t want to hear lame, white man rationalizations or excuses. Nevertheless, when the counting is done I still feel pretty good about how I responded when the challenge was before me at those football parties and at school. A little face to face exposure goes a long way.

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