Saturday, January 16, 2010

Guess Who's Coming to My Blog

The closest I got to black people as a child was as an avid Dodgers fan. I thought when I was an adult that I would like to have centerfielder Willie Davis’s long, lean physique. (And just missed. Willie stood 6-2 and weighed 180. Johnny, 2010: 6-1, 182.) I had a black (I realized later) classmate in fifth and sixth grades, Sandra Lucas, who claimed to be Spanish, and was really beautiful, so the alpha boys intent on wooing her would have bloodied the nose of anyone who gave her shit. Not so the lone black kid at Orville Wright Junior High School, Walter Daniels, who might have had it really bad but for the presence of the spastic Billy Snyder, whose neurological problems the school’s sadists seems to find more offensive than even Walter’s negritude.

The segregation at Santa Monica High School in my day was de facto. White kids, automatically assumed to be bright and ambitious, were put in college preparatory classes, while kids of color were consigned, along with white trash from the wrong side of Olympic Blvd., to normal or remedial classes. Aside from chipper Chris Allen, who I understand went on to own his own janitorial business, my only black classmates were in PE. They never passed me the basketball; I wouldn’t have either.

(Blacks were generally perceived as a cut above Mexicans, we anglos’ contempt for whom was perfectly understandable. They’d had the courage and resolve to leave their own country to try to better themselves in ours, where they worked very hard for rotten pay, doing jobs for which we were too good. Of course we disdained ‘em!)

The summer before junior year, I worked at Zuma Beach, collecting 50¢ from people seeking access to the parking lot. My fellow employees’ favorite recreation was bitching about the man they referred to only as Martin Luther Coon. Billy Davis thought he really had me cornered rhetorically when he demanded, “Well, how would you like to live next door to one?” Better that, I mused, than him, and the boss, a Malibu sheriff who bragged about pulling over and ticketing any [black person] who dared drive on Pacific Coast Highway during his shift, had to step — reluctantly! — between us.

The summer before senior year, I got a job as a busboy. To the infinite chagrin of the redneck existing cook at Ted’s Rancho Restaurant, dishwasher Collins Hall was promoted to cook beside him, and then had the effrontery to work really hard. He was the first black person with whom I'd ever chatted at length. I liked him, and worked up the courage to try to ingratiate myself by revealing that I didn’t hate him because of his color. Only years later did I realize he’d been mocking me when he replied, with the utmost earnestness, “Well, thank you, suh.” I'd deserved to be mocked.

The night after the Watts riots broke out, their apoplectic next door neighbor burst into my girlfriend's parents’ house wanting to know if her dad wanted to go shoot a few of the uppity [black] bastards with him. Meanwhile, at lunchtime in the outdoor free speech area of my university, young black student rabble-rousers were forever bellowing lists of non-negotiable demands. I honestly suspect their primary ambition was the same as every male student’s — to get laid. It seemed to work.

Over time in adulthood, I came to have a couple of short-term black girlfriends, the more beautiful of whom was my worst lover ever, and some black bosses, and lots of black coworkers. Some, in about the same proportion as whites, were assholes, and others angels.

Billy Davis at Zuma Beach had wanted to know how I’d feel living next door to black people. I live next door to black people now. We and Deborah and her adult daughter don’t have worlds in common — Deborah’s a committed Christian, and Claire and I equally committed pantheists — but we have no complaints with each other. It isn’t as though they’re Republicans.

[Hear my life-changing new album Sorry We're Open here! Facebookers: Read more All In Tents and Porpoises essays and subscribe here.]

1 comment:

  1. When I was growing up in Pennsylvania, we had no black families in my hometown. None. The scariest thing I could do to my parents was date the son of a Jewish dentist who went on to become a dentist, too. They should have been so lucky to have me marry a dentist! (As far as I know, he did not come out of the closet like every other boy I kissed in my early teens. I like to think my kisses started all 3 of them on the path to homosexuality.)

    Since my mother was her tepid version of a grande dame and my father was a fearful Nixon republican, I gave them a lot to worry about. But, not necessarily in the black arena - although, they did not know about Naijuka - my African boyfriend and a committed Chinese communist. If he had come to dinner, that would have sent them over the edge. I would love to have that memory.

    In truth, what did I really know back then about anything? It was 1968 and Martin Luther King and Bobby Kennedy and Lyndon Johnson and Richard Nixon were the news, and we were all activists. That was where I got to my parents. From the moment I could vote, I registered Democratic and voted against my Republican father on every issue and against him when he was, himself, running for local office. (All these years later, I'm still ashamed I did that. There is never a good reason to be unkind.)

    We continued to irritate each other through the years. After Nixon's resignation in 1973 my father uttered the comment, "Nixon betrayed me.", while I celebrated to the Washington Post March every Friday night in Georgetown during the months of Watergate hearings. So, every presidential administation was a problem between us, but the Bush years were a big problem. When I visited him, I had to take down the picture of George and Laura Bush (signed and sent to contributors) that was taped to the kitchen mirror. "Just not while I'm in the house, please." I endured without comment, his rebuke "Don't be so naive!" to my statement at a family luncheon that there were no WMD's and that Dick Cheney was running the evil empire. I listened to his fears that blacks and hispanics (He knows not a single one.) were taking over the country. And on and on it went.

    Now, we fast forward to 2008. I'm nearing 60; he's nearing 90. We are sitting in a diner with his second wife, and I nearly fall off my seat when they both tell me that they are voting for Barack Obama! Hilary, no. They can't quite go there; neither could I, but not for the same reasons. But, Barack, yes. That was the moment I knew Barack Obama would win the election.

    Now, we sit and talk about Obama; we also talk in a normal way about my enduring 18-year work relationship with a black man who has helped me achieve so many goals in my business. We are battle-scared veterans of opposing sides who have become friends of a sort. Age has a way of levelling the playing field. But, it's more than that. Times change. People change.

    Who says Obama didn't deserve the Nobel Peace Prize?