the duck and the switchblade

July 1, 2009

We were lined up like ducks, soft white ducks, all leaning against the car. Seven of us. Or eight. Or five. Each day a different number but always in the same place, at lunchtime, at Jack’s candy store at First Avenue and 20th Street. In New York City they let junior high school students out for lunch and we would go, usually for pizza, at 25 cents a slice, spun on the two fingered mangled hand of the owner at the tiny pizza place at 19th Street. I had never eaten pizza before, or seen it made, never mind seen it thrown to the ceiling and watched a damaged hand catch its middle and seen it spin, spin, spin like a great growing floppy frisbee. It could have been a circus act, the old man spinning and tossing, barking out orders, yelling at us kids in Italian as his sons worked the register, the counter filling with quarters. You didn’t stand in line. There was no room for a line — except of quarters, we would queue our quarters and be served in that order, each of us keeping his eye on and advancing his quarter. His quarter. The seventh grade Governors Island girls mostly stayed in the relatively safe school cafeteria. We were a gang, or a clutch, a flock, of seventh grade Coast Guard brats, new to the city, naive, street-stupid White boys waddling from the pizza place to Jack’s to buy candy and soda and lean against the cars.

Governors Island was a Coast Guard base just off the southern tip of Manhattan. From its ferry slip you could smell the Fulton Fish Market, hear the dock workers in Brooklyn, and see the decaying buildings of Ellis Island, the Statue of Liberty, and watch the twin towers of the World Trade Center rise out of the bedrock. All the flag-football team photos we took would show our earnest young faces and the incomplete towers looming in the background. When I got more streetwise, and older, I would take an elevator with Eddie D. up into the unfinished heights of the north tower and wander unnoticed into the construction zone. But that was later, in the ‘70’s. This was 1969 and I was still a duck, a white bread White boy leaning against a car with his gaggle, and the fox, or the foxes, were the Puerto Ricans, usually only two or three, who would pad over, hands resting lightly in their pockets, no bigger than us, usually smaller, out numbered, but tough, fearless, “Your lunch money, give me your lunch money.” We shape-shifted, became deer and the Puerto Ricans became headlights. The one who talked would slap our pockets to find the jingle. If we resisted or stalled, “I don’t have any,” “ I already spent it,” he would slowly draw his right hand out of his pocket baring the tell-tale handle of a switchblade knife, “I’m not telling you again, give me your money.” And we’d obey, all of us, filling his hands with our remaining quarters, nickels and dimes. There was a myth that all of us believed, that every Puerto Rican had a big brother, or two, or cousins, who would materialize out of the gritty city at a moment’s notice, and that resistance was futile, and dangerous.

I complained to my father one day, and told him how annoying it was, and scary. I had grown up in the South, where White people were in charge, and the only non-White people were Black and society was unjust, and orderly, and I didn’t suffer. And my best friend was Roy, a Black kid, and I was the only White kid would walk to school through what we rudely called “colored town.” New York City was different, chaotically so, with Catholics and Jews and Italians and Puerto Ricans, and us, walking around with targets pinned to our pockets.

I will never forget my father’s speech, long, existential, anguished. “Danny, you need to realize that those kids don’t see a future for themselves in this country. They are discriminated against, again and again. They watch their parents struggle to find low-paying menial work and live in poverty. They look at you and know that all the odds are stacked in your favor. Life will be easy for you. No racial barriers, no obstacles except ones you make yourself. You can become whatever you want. But they look at their parents’ difficulties and see their own lives played out. They look at you and see what they won’t achieve.”

I wondered, many years later, how my life might have unfolded had Dad instead taken me to the gym to show me a few moves. But he didn’t. He informed me about White privilege which shape-shifted readily into White guilt. And he taught me to always look for the bigger picture, to examine the other side, to try to understand things, and people, especially ones who were different and who were angry or in conflict, and not to judge them, but try to see life from their point of view.

He taught me empathy. To feel the pain of others. And modeled it. Growing up in the ‘60’s, with the Viet Nam war raging, with the deaths of Malcolm and Martin and Robert and John, with the cities on fire with riots… watching him watch the news, seeing the tears slowly form as the weekly death count was displayed, 100 or so Americans, 1000 or so South Vietnamese, 5000 or so North Vietnamese, and knowing that his tears were for all of them.

He taught me to feel and imagine. Perhaps over-imagine. And suffer, which is the meaning of the root of empathy, and its painful, ever enduring flower. The same root which yielded patience, passion, pathos, and compassion, suffering with. Good words. Grateful to learn them, despite the guilt.

And the lunch money problem? We adapted, hid it in our shoes, wrapped it tin foil so it wouldn’t jingle, learned to stop looking like ducks, learned to run, to fly, got smart. And the Puerto Ricans? Like the Italians and the Irish, and the African Americans, they are learning to find their way, make their way in this land. Last I heard one might make it to the US Supreme Court. Perhaps my father wasn’t as all-knowing as I thought.

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One Response to “the duck and the switchblade”

  1. Catherine Says:

    I am not sure empathy is something that is learned. I begin to think that it is something you are born with like blue eyes or curly hair. But something that you grow into. I am sometimes painfully aware of the emotional states of those around me, but my sister – while she can feel real sympathy cannot truly put herself in the shoes of another …
    But we are both aware of your extraordinary privileged. Recently I was thinking that my very poverty is a privilege that my parents gave me – someone who grew up in real poverty would not be able to choose it.


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