by G David Schwartz
When I was in Schroeder Elementary School, my best friend was named Shawn. This was back in the days when the term “best friend” meant something. But “best friends,” in those days, changed more quickly than classrooms. Still, Shawn was a most interesting character, probably because I never remember him talking about homework, or a particular teacher, or anything relating to school.
But there was something different about Shawn, something obvious and somewhat unintelligible just because the difference was obvious. Shawn walked to school and I took a bus. My mother watched the local news each evening, as this was in the days of busing, and I never had the opportunity to tell my mother how much I enjoyed taking the bus.
Every morning, sitting next to some “really fine” twelve-year-old girl and clowning around right under the driver’s eyes. Me, getting away with things like unscrewing the backs of seats, right under the very nose of the driver. Sometimes we would pull into the circular drive in front of the school at the same time as Shawn was arriving with his heavy wool coat, and scarf, and cap tied tight, wrapped around, and persuasively trying to hide him. But Shawn really stood out against the backdrop of the snow.
His father was a preacher. I had no idea what that meant. No one in my family was even the nearest equivalent, a rabbi. Preacher, Shawn told me one day that his father “talks for a living.” Great work if you can get it.
Science was my favorite class in those days. What we were required to memorize seemed so clear, precise, non-debatable. I think I also liked the idea that things could be tested. So when one day I heard some voice refer to Shawn as “Brillo head,” I was very, very curious to reach under the sink at home and feel a Brillo pad. But science also spawns a discontent. Surely Shawn’s head could not feel this wiry, brittle, and hard.
Memory has an ironic timing all its own. Supposedly, we live in a nation at a time when comparison is not in favor. But I spent an exorbitantly long amount of time wishing to touch Shawn’s hair, to see if it really felt like a Brillo pad. What a scientist I was. This was back in the days when an “exorbitantly long” amount of time may have been five minutes.
Within the same five minutes, within a week, within some immeasurable, unquantifiable time, Shawn came to school after a few days absence with a dent in his head. A dent in his head. His perfectly bold forehead had an actual dent where the skull had sunk below the surface in what seemed to me to be the perfect shape for the edge of a baseball bat.
I dared not question him. I did not dare ask why he was absent, or where he received that cavity in his skull. I don’t know where that fear of talking with a friend came from, but I knew that the evening news was no longer leading off with stories of bussing.
Obviously, and unintelligibly, something was very wrong. My parent’s were going through a divorce; and why not! We were the first ones on our block to have a color television. We were the first one’s to have a microwave. Why not be among the first to divorce,
What anguish. I’ve since been put into positions where I want to tell my own children, in more or less words: My dear, you are at the age when nothing is supposed to be going right. I always want to say this tenderly, compassionately, fatherly. But it typically comes out with the words, “No, no one told you life was going to be fair. And it’s not.”
You want fair, go to the carnival.
My folks were taking turns pretending to be the carnival. They were under so much pressure to be fair, or at least guard their tongue when speaking. The result was that I grew up knowing nothing of what might have benefited me and an implicit commitment to make every mistake possible, and pay the price. Or to learn quickly to keep my own big mouth shut.
There was pressure, so much pressure to be Jewish without a working definition or clear example of what being Jewish was supposed to mean. To be proud of my heritage, but not arrogant. To be insulated and worldly at the same time. And, yeah, to avoid the baseball bat to the side of the head.
So in this ironic time of memory, I feared being myself, feared even knowing who or what I was, and fearing becoming like “them.” There were always so many of “them” I had to avoid being like, and such unclear definitions of who “they” were. I wanted a voice, just one clear voice, one scientific voice to tell me: Oh, my dear, you are at the age when nothing is supposed to be going right. But there were no voices to be found. None except the news reports.
One hot, very hot day, I decided I couldn’t take the pressure anymore and determined to go to my father’s house. But I had no money for a bus, so I started walking. I had only a vague clue how to get to his house. The only way I knew to go was through Avondale. It used to be a Jewish neighborhood. Grandpa had lived there, along with the rest of the Jewish people of Cincinnati, until they all moved away.
So through the ghetto I walked. Blisters on the bottoms of my feet, which were ignored only when I thought, “any moment now.” Any moment one of these people might take the baseball bat to the side of my head. At any moment one of these people might ask me why I was in their neighborhood. So I walked with my eyes to the ground, looking only occasionally from the corner of my eyes to the cars hastily passing through the ghetto.
A circus for the mind. No one paid the least bit of attention to me. I told this story to a friend many years later, emphasizing how the local news had talked about the violent nature of the ghetto. I knew it had to be. The evening news told me it was. And my friend countered with a different story. She grew up in South Carolina, an “outcast” charismatic Christian in a Baptist neighborhood. Her father sold very used cars to people who would come to her father’s house to look at the cars, or pay off debts.
She told me her family invited one of the neighbors into the house, and the man stepped in with a look of suspicion. He kept his eyes on the floor. He was rigid and stiff. He was terrified. Of what, she wanted to know, Why was he so afraid,
The nice thing about imagination is that you can envision reality in any form you desire, so I am four years old, fourteen, forty-six all at once.
I see large liquid-eyed men standing on a linoleum floor in South Carolina, terrified. Why, horrified. They are at the same time narrow-eyed youth in Cincinnati who are prone to violence. Because they are simply non-Jews who want to assault me because I “killed Christ”? No. Because they have a poor self-image, that’s all. They have a very poor self-image, I’m afraid. Things would be much better if they would have a better image of themselves.
How quite smart I was, thinking this, then watching white father knows white best on my white and black television screen. And for real entertainment, I fly through the channel of the years and watch the repartee between Jack Benny and Rochester.
Copyright © 2005 by G David Schwartz