Wednesday, October 31, 2007

NOT PERFECT

Another disappointing reality occurred Halloween afternoon.

The little village at the heart of the town I live in has a “Halloween parade” every year in the afternoon when the schools let out.

My 10-year-old was in overalls and a red and white striped shirt and old converse sneakers colored red, and a big bloody knife and a “Chucky” mask he refused to wear because it made him too hot and incapable of seeing well enough to keep his balance, so rather than looking scary he looked very cute.

Two of his friends met up with us, both boys, a year or two older, “middle school” students, one partly of Asian descent and looking it, one partly of African-American descent but sometimes mistaken for Latino, and my little guy, with “the map of Ireland” on his face, as people say, constantly.

They had a great time collecting candy from the local merchants and seeing many friends and after an hour or more of that we returned to the steps out front of the old house in the village where my apartment is.

I brought out some candy and they gave it to passing kids. Eventually the loudspeakers at the end of our street, announced the costume contest winners and I went to watch. The boys decided they were too old and sophisticated now to care and stayed, along with a larger group of kids their age they knew who had stopped to rest and exchange candy.

As I watched the contest winners, I kept an eye on my boy and his friends as he got out first a soccer ball they tossed and kicked around on the lawn in front of the old house, and then a football, turning that into a real game with sides and passes and all.

I could see it was getting a little rough, and when my skinny little guy got shoved hard in the back and went tumbling over, even though he jumped right up and gave as good as he got, I headed back up the street to tell them to keep it strictly touch football and then sat on the steps to watch them play.

It was a great and typical mix of kids for this town (they separate more when they reach high school, mostly because the African-American students pull away and become more clique-ish), some so-called “white” and so-called “black” and Asian and everything in between.

There were also girls playing, even when it was looking pretty rough. I was happy to see it. I noticed the interactions, a tussle between two of the biggest boys, the way a bigger girl seemed totally unafraid to get in there and rough it up with the boys, even though she was in an outfit with a short skirt and striped tights pretending to be something I wasn’t quite sure of, as I wasn’t for most of their costumes.

One boy, a few inches bigger than my son and probably close to twice his weight—my son takes after me and is way skinny, always in the lowest percentile for his height and age group when he gets his physical—in a leather looking outfit with big spikes coming off the shoulders, I worried might be a little too rough for my son, but then he picked up his bag of candy where he’d left it and left with another boy.

I noticed an attractive African-American woman in a short skirted pirates costume hanging around in the street in front of the house and smiled at her, but she was busy on her cell phone. Then suddenly she walked onto the lawn and up to my son and started talking to him in a way that was obviously very accusative. I went over to see what was up and she told me she’d just had a call that “the boy in the overalls” had punched another boy in the face and hurt him.

When she said the boy’s name, the kids described the boy with the leather shoulder spikes costume. I assured her that no such thing had happened, since I’d been watching them pretty much the whole time. She seemed satisfied and left. By now the crowd was breaking up and I went in the house to get my son’s stuff to drive him and his friends over to his mother’s.

As the three boys and I walked to the street to cross it, I noticed the attractive black woman approaching with a white man who seemed to be her age (I’m not too good at ages but I’d say thirties) and her height and I assumed was her husband (this town has been written up by the New York Times often, for having more mixed-race couples and more gay couples than any other “suburban town” in the country) and another older (I’d guess forties) and bigger man (the woman and her fellow pirate were my height) with a bald head, a sport jacket and slacks and generally what I would have thought of as WASPy looking.

As the boys and I stepped onto the sidewalk I realized the bigger man was heading for me and looking very angry. He came right up and asked if the boy in the overalls was my son and when I said yes he began yelling down into my face, that my son had punched his son in the face. He was shaking with anger.

I told him no such thing happened, I had my eye on the kids almost the entire time and I would have seen it. He got more belligerent when my son and his friends said it hadn’t happened. Then my son’s friend, the Asian one said “May I say something.” And explained that the man’s son had him in a lock hold from behind and my son thought he was choking him so had hit the man’s son in the back.

The man then said “My son doesn’t lie”—or more accurately, spit it into my face. I lost it then and started yelling at him how ridiculous it was, that if any one was getting knocked around it was my son, I yelled “Look at him for Christ’s sake” and “Look at this lawn and the garbage they left behind” as they had, empty soda bottles, parts of their costumes, etc.

Unfortunately I could feel my blood pressure rising and my chest tightening and I became more aware of my fear of causing some kind of heart problems for myself than of smacking this man who replied by yelling back at me “You’re a liar, I can see you’re a liar, I can tell by the way you talk!”

And then he and the couple began walking away. I was unfortunately consumed by my anger at him and my fear of the feeling in my chest (I've already got one stent and have had a few "procedures" so would like to avoid any more), which angered me even more as it made me feel less than the tough street guy I used to fancy myself being, and sometimes proved I was, and sometimes still do.

So I found myself yelling “Listen Mister” as they walked away, only to have him turn back halfway down the street to yell, “You’re a liar and I know why, because you’re a racist!” or words to that effect. I couldn’t believe it. I swung my arm to take in my son and his friends “What are you talking about?! Look at these kids!”

But he was walking away with the couple, the woman smiling as if the man had really scored one on me. I was sputtering “Hey Mister” trying to get his attention, wanting to say I fucking risked my life before you three were even born, in this very area, getting kicked and beaten and arrested and harassed and ostracized and kicked out of my family and all the other abuse I took because of my love of a young black girl my age when we were both teenagers in the late 1950s.

Not even including the worse trouble I got myself into in the segregated South, ignoring and flaunting their racial laws and customs and bullshit fear mongering. But the trio were long gone and I was having trouble getting my breath.

It took me a while to calm down, and eventually forgive myself for losing my cool (thinking when he called me a liar I should have just said nice and calmly, “I’m the most honest person you’ll ever meet mister”), and for not impressing my son and his friends with either my calmness or my knocking the guy out.

But what is taking longer to accept is how he stereotyped me and my son (ignoring his friends or just not seeing their diversity), he obviously pegged me from my accent (which reverts when I’m angry) and choice of words, as an old, white-haired local, a Jersey Mick, and assumed I was racist (his son is darker skinned so I assume his wife is “non-white”) as if he has any fucking idea what it was like to take on the real, virulent, entrenched, violent racism that me and others like me confronted back in the day.

It just hurt my heart in more ways than the stress caused by my anger. This reverse kind of stereotyping. I see it often around here, and can tell when it’s being done to me, when I can’t stop looking at a beautiful mixed-race couple, feeling happy that the world has changed, partly in response to the actions of people like me and old friends who suffered a lot more than I did, some even died in the struggle to make a world where these kinds of couples (of which I have often been a part over the many decades since) can feel welcome, or at least not be legally and incessantly and violently harassed.

But sometimes, I can tell by the way they look at me and then each other, they assume that my squinty bad eyesight and thoughtful expression means judgment or criticism or obvious racist reactions to their mixed relation. And I want to stop and tell them, but they probably wouldn’t hear me, anymore than that man could hear me, or my son, or his friends.

I’ve been in that man’s shoes, confronting some stranger with my anger over a slight to one of my kids, fueled even more by my history of rage against bigger slights, like this man probably was feeling.

I’m gonna run into these people again. I recognized them from seeing them around. It’ll be awkward. I hope I can be forgiving and accepting and eventually maybe even have a reasonable conversation with them. To hopefully get them to admit, especially the man, that nobody’s child never lies, that nobody should be judged by the way they dress or talk or look or come from, that boys (and girls too) of all ages will almost always get hurt roughing it up with each other, that nothing, and nobody, is perfect. Certainly not me.

6 comments:

The Kid said...

I'm glad I took the time to read your blog today. I'm sorry that such a thing happened; it's obvious who the racist person was in the story. My husband—blue-eyed, now gray-haired, pink-faced—has been the object of such reverse-stereotyping, too. At work, he offended an African-American colleague with an innocent remark he made during a meeting (it wasn't a joke, but to explain the comment would take too long.) This was someone he always got along with and liked, and thought liked him too. I remember him saying: "She'll never see me any other way, now. No matter how many times I try to explain what I said." It made him very sad. Anyway, Mike, glad you're okay and Flynn's okay. You may not be perfect, but your taking the time to reflect on your feelings and behaviors, and work it out on your blog for all of us to see, is.

T said...

I feel your pain, the frustration.
The lack of resolution. Still hanging in the air like a damp bloody cloud.
I wish these things wouldn't happen in our town. But they do and will again.
One problem is that we're no longer talking about racism in an open way.
Then of course, there's another problem, and that is that some people are bullies. No matter where they come from or what company they keep.
When I was a kid, parents didn't seem to interfere so much in their kids disputes. As long as it wasn't getting dangeorus.
Taking care of it ourselves was part of growing up.

Lally said...

I wrote this post when I was still feeling pretty raw from the experience. But when I look back on it now, the next day, I can see, as a writer, a storyline of misconceptions that possibly fueled everyone's idee fixee, or however you spell that. The woman might have mistaken my smiling at her when she was on the cell phone, as we now know hearing about my son's supposedly punching a child in the face, as a smile of arrogance, smugness, etc. She also may have misunderstood my misidentifying one child who happened to be dark-skinned, for another (one was in a banana costume so I couldn't see anything but a bit of their face) as a typically (and stereotypically) racist inability to tell two "black" children apart. And the "bully" WASPy (there's my own stereotyping) white man whose son was supposedly hit "in the face" by mine, could have misinterpreted my initial calmness and smiling response to his outrage (what is often interpreted as my being "cool") as smugness, like I was putting one over. But I was not only upset at being misinterpreted, to the point of being accused of some kind of racism for refusing to accept his "mixed race" son's account of what happened, but I was equally upset at having my fear that I might be having a heart attack intepreted by not only the man, but my son and his friends, as well as the woman, as fear of being found "lying" and/or of confronting the man physically. As silly as it is for a man my age to be getting into a fist fight, or worse, I still sometimes feel ready to do that, and reflexively consider the possibilities (i.e. hit him in the throat, or the nose or eye, swing from below or, etc.), which I was doing when the man first confronted me but abandoned in my worry about my heart, which he could easily have seen as fear of being physically hurt by him, as well as seen it as me hiding something, because I was, my worries about my heart (because that would have made me seem old and weak in front of the woman!). To him it may well have confirmed that I was hiding "the truth" as he saw it, or as his son did. Boy, extropolate this into world affairs and it explains way too much to explicate here or in anything less than a book or two or more.

harryn said...

what a mixed bag of emotions for halloween ...
as the blog unraveled i could see with each added element this was going to start bubbling. having a seventeen year old son, and often less complicated scenarios, i know how these things escalate. couldn't help but tie it to world affairs as i was reading and re-realized the complexity of reason, fear, and control.
glad your both cool ...
the day to day stuff is the best.

RJ Eskow said...

Great post. I agree with the Kid - you're taking the time to work through it.

I struggle with letting go of experiences like this. It's hard for me when people are wrong, and yet certain that they're right and I'M wrong.

At the risk of being trite, these are always opportunities to grow - workouts in the spiritual gymnasium.

Glad you're using it that way.

T said...

misconceptions + misunderstandings + misinformation + mislabelling = mistakes.