Open and Roman

By Suzanne Koven


When my kids were small and they asked how my long ago childhood differed from theirs I offered up the usual martyrish recitation of technological deprivations and bad weather. We didn’t have VCRs, of course, I’d say, or computers or cell phones or even CDs. And in the 1960s Brooklyn of my memory we walked to school in snow deeper and colder than that which fell upon my kids’ suburban Boston childhoods thirty years later. But lately I have been wondering whether there isn’t some subtler and more interesting separation between the world in which I grew up and that in which my children did.

What I am thinking of has to do with, for lack of a better way to say it, a civic sensibility. It seems to me that when I was young my parents pointed out at every opportunity the connection between my own behavior and the larger good, especially when those two threatened to be at odds, When I ran the shower too long my father warned me through the bathroom door that "Mayor Wagner would be very unhappy." When I talked with my mouth full or put my elbows on the table Mom asked if this was how I intended to comport myself when Jackie Kennedy invited me to the White House. It may be that I am generalizing from my parents, who were particularly civic minded. My father was a delegate for Senator Eugene McCarthy at the 1968 Democratic National Convention. I have a photo of him from Time magazine with his mouth forming a large "O," holding up a sign that says "Stop The War!" And my mother served as the president of our local public school board during a time of great tension between white teachers and black parents. So I may be generalizing from my own family—but I don't think so.

Consider the public service announcements that were on television when I was a child. You can find them on YouTube, those images and jingles that interrupted Yogi Bear or Gomer Pyle to remind us kids of our obligations as citizens. There was the Indian (this was before "Native Americans") standing by the side of a litter-strewn highway with a giant tear running down his face (presumably gum wrappers being tossed from car windows was more distressing to him than the confiscation of the land itself) and the parade of celebrities plugging good causes (Barbra Streisand for those "people who need people," the mentally handicapped, and John Wayne swaggering against Cancer as if it were the new outlaw in town).

Even ads promoting personal health and safety seemed to connect these goals to the common good. A commercial for seatbelt use showed parents and children, football players and cheerleaders, farmers on tractors and old ladies in lace gloves all "buckling up for safety" as if this small and private act were part of some collective effort. "Show the world you care by the belt you wear," the ditty went (collar anyone over fifty and they'll sing it for you). I don't watch much television these days but the few public service announcements I've seen appeal to individual reward and punishment. If you Save the Children you'll feel better. If you drive drunk you'll end up in jail. You can imagine the howling about a nanny state that those old chestnuts of my youth would inspire.

One ad I remember particularly featured black and white kids playing together in harmony as a song from Rogers and Hammerstein's South Pacific sounded in the background:

You've got to be taught

To hate and fear,

You've got to be taught

From year to year,

It's got to be drummed

In your dear little ear

You've got to be carefully taught.

You've got to be taught to be afraid

Of people whose eyes are oddly made,

And people whose skin is a diff'rent shade,

You've got to be carefully taught.

You've got to be taught before it's too late,

Before you are six or seven or eight,

To hate all the people your relatives hate,

You've got to be carefully taught!

And whatwas I taught? Certainly no racist jokes were drummed in my dear little ear, no sotto voce comments at the dinner table about shvartzes. But I heard nothing positive about black people, either. In fact, on the subject of race my progressive and politically engaged parents were strangely silent, as they were, to be honest, about gentiles generally. The message I received was that black people were especially gentile, especially not like us and thus not worthy of our attention. My parents, were they still alive, would be horrified to hear this. Their hope, I am sure, was that my brothers and I should grow up to be sensitive and broad-minded menschen, incensed by injustice and prejudice even when it didn't affect us directly. But as I discovered when I became a parent myself, one only has so much energy. There are bills to pay and dinners to put on the table and endless tears to dry and one might be forgiven, perhaps, for failing sometimes to swim against the prevailing current.

 

The public elementary school I attended was decidedly, though not officially, segregated. Each grade was divided into three levels: "IGC" (Intelligently Gifted Children--the Jewish kids), "Intermediate" (the Irish and Italian kids who didn't attend parochial school) and "SS" (Special Studies, or "super slow," as we called it—the black and Hispanic kids). The SS'ers were bused in from other neighborhoods, though the word "busing," which was so inflammatory, wasn't used. The program under which they were transported from their neighborhood to ours was called "Open Enrollment." As a child I misheard this as "Open and Roman" and when the SS kids were called to their special bus over the crackly public address system I pictured them as miniature dark-skinned centurions with plumed helmets and spears, their beating hearts visible through little portholes in their armor.

There were two black children who had transgressed these boundaries and traveled with me through my years in the IGC classes. Jo-Ann Wright was tiny and quiet. She wore crisply pleated plaid jumpers and disciplined rows of plaits covered her scalp. Her father was a doctor and her unfinished basement had been designated a roller rink. I loved going to Jo-Ann's house, heading down to the cellar, and skating around in the dark. As a bonus, her house had good snacks: Hostess cupcakes and giant bags of pretzel rods and Cheez Doodles and Coca Cola in ribbed green bottles. At the time I was more conscious of the distinction between the kids whose houses had good snacks and those whose moms offered ho-hum milk and Fig Newtons than of racial differences.

The other black kid in my class, Martin McConnell, was a tall, thin jokester; a hyper-mobile, rubber band of a kid. By fifth grade he had grown a full Afro so he could look like one of the Jackson 5. In sixth grade we were given a little freedom and could go out to one of the local establishments for lunch on Friday afternoon. Martin was my regular companion for this excursion. I preferred crossing the smaller street separating our school from a commercial strip where there was a decent pizza place and a kosher deli. Martin preferred crossing the busier Coney Island Avenue and going to a mom and pop grocery store where they would make you a sub to order while you picked out your soda from a refrigerated case. He usually got his way. Crossing the broad avenue, ordering my own sandwich and picking my own soda, then bringing it back to the playground was tied up in my mind with a deliciously rebellious feeling that I couldn't separate from Martin's being black.

In my last year at the public elementary school, the teachers went on strike for six weeks. Because of my mother's position on the school board she was quite well informed about the situation but she never discussed it with me. What happened, I only learned from her decades later when I was visiting her in her retirement home in Florida and asked her about it, was that black parents, who newly controlled a school board in the Ocean Hill-Brownsville section of Brooklyn (the very same neighborhood where my great grandfather had run a dairy farm at the turn of the last century) had taken, as one of their first actions, the firing of fourteen Jewish teachers. Several weeks of increasingly nasty conflict followed in which teachers throughout New York City, the majority of whom were also Jewish, went out on strike in support of their fired colleagues. The teachers on the picket lines and the crowds of parents shouted at one another. Racist! Anti-Semite! All I recall of the incident was that a group of us kids from the neighborhood had "school" in the paneled basement of someone whose mom had been a teacher, and that Jackie Kennedy had just married Aristotle Onassis and that their premarital agreement regarding frequency of sexual relations was the main topic of discussion in our makeshift classroom.

A couple of years ago I happened to come across a book about the New York City public school strike of 1968 in a used bookshop. It was called Black Fiddler and told of a Jewish drama teacher at a junior high school in Brownsville who, the year of the strike, staged a production of Fiddler on the Roof in which black kids played Tevye the Milkman, his daughters, and other beleaguered residents of the shtetl. A Google search led me to an old New York Magazine feature that highlighted this healing event. "Who is Tevye?" asked the reporter of the fourteen year old who played him. "He's poor…and lives in the ghetto like we do," came the satisfying answer. But in reality there was little common ground. Jewish parents simply pulled their kids out of the public school system, as mine did, or left Brooklyn altogether, as we would a few years later.

A few black adults did make cameo appearances in my childhood, including two men appealingly named Major and Smitty. Major was our neighbors' gardener, which sounds fancier than I mean it to. We lived in a solidly upper middle class Jewish section of Brooklyn called Ditmas Park, which consisted of good-sized Victorian houses wedged onto small lots. We weren't rich—in those days you didn't live in Brooklyn if you were—but it seemed a given in our neighborhood that yard maintenance, like housework and childcare, was to be delegated. Our own shrubs and meager lawn were tended by a pair of Italian brothers who drove a green truck loaded with rakes, hoes, and fragrant heaps of mulch and peat. Our neighbors had Major, who regularly pulled into their driveway in his own beat up sedan. Though he was a grown man Major wore denim overalls, such as I associated with toddlers, and a slouchy cap. He heaved and dug and sweated away the morning, using implements our neighbors stowed in their garage, and then, at noon, he entered their house through the back door—same as the kids in the family, with whom I often played—removed his cap and sat at the kitchen table. The Mom would have set out his lunch: a sandwich of some kind of meat on Wonder bread neatly sliced in half diagonally, and a can of cold Rheingold beer with an opener placed next to it. Major would press two triangular punctures in the can, then he would reach for the shaker, pour some salt into his weathered hand, and with the other hand delicately pinch a little into each opening. This would cause a great twin bubbling, like something my older brothers' produced with their chemistry sets and which delighted me. Then Major would open his mouth, flashing several gold teeth, and gulp the bubbling brew, wiping away the foamy traces with a large white handkerchief he withdrew from the pocket of his overalls. It was an unspoken rule that neither the Mom nor any of us kids would sit down at the table while Major ate, but I liked to stand and watch this show. Did he mind me staring at him? Do kids still have chemistry sets?

Smitty worked for my father. He came to my dad's orthopedic practice near the main branch of the Brooklyn Public Library a few afternoons a week. I often took the bus there myself after school to watch my dad work, and if Smitty happened to be there that was a bonus. He was a big man who wore scrubs and a jaunty surgical cap tied in the back. He did the heavy work that my father could do, when Smitty wasn't there, but didn't have to do when Smitty was. This mainly involved assisting in the application and removal of casts—the orthopedist's bread and butter. For the former, Smitty performed the tedious and messy task of unrolling powdery bandages which had been impregnated with plaster, soaking them in a basin of water, and then cutting them into soggy strips which he would hand to my father to encase a broken arm or leg. For the latter, Smitty operated a whining hand-held circular saw, which he would press into a cast—this required considerable trust on the part of the person whose limb happened to be in the cast--raising a cloud of white dust and a racket.

As far as I can recall my parents never commented on the de facto segregation of my school or on Jo-Ann and Martin being my only black friends or on the subservient positions held by Major and Smitty. What is more remarkable to me, thinking back on it now, is that the blackness of a woman who lived under our very roof went mostly unacknowledged.

Her name was Ethel and she was a plump and irascible lady from South Carolina who kept our house and lived in a room in our attic. Every day except Sundays and Thursday afternoons she worked on the upkeep of our home and, when I was very young, of me. She sprayed Pledge onto the dining room table and rubbed Gorham's polish onto the sterling and brushed Hair So New through my curls. At her peak earning, Ethel made eighty-five dollars cash per week, which she kept in the pocket of a spare maid's uniform that hung in a closet under our front stairs next to the vacuum cleaner.

Ethel smelled like burped Pepsi and Dixie Peach pomade and laundry starch, which she ate. Yes, she ate bite-sized chunks of Argo starch from a rectangular blue box as if they were Junior Mints. Also endless ice cubes, which she kept in a mayonnaise jar that sat on the wide end of the ironing board set up in front of the television where she watched her "stories" –soap operas.

Years later, in a medical school class on anemia, I learned about the curious phenomenon called pica, where people who suffer from iron deficiency crave ice, clay, dirt, laundry starch. My memory of what had seemed a funny quirk darkened. Ethel was three years younger than my mother and she, too, must have been losing blood as my mother sometimes did in great splotches on the sheets that Ethel snatched away from the bed tactfully and without comment.

One never sees one's own childhood in a historical context while it's happening, but I know now that Ethel came north to New York City in the 1950s as part of The Great Migration of blacks escaping the Jim Crow South. She left behind two young children, just a bit older than I was: Jerome (who was also known as Wilbur and sometimes Bunk) and Ernestine (also called Teen). The children were raised in South Carolina by Ethel's mother, just as Ethel would raise Bunk and Teen's kids years later after Bunk was murdered in his twenties and Teen died of kidney failure not long afterwards.

When my mother first interviewed her in the fall of 1956, she told Ethel that her job would include babysitting for two little boys, my brothers. My mother hid the bulge that would be me under a voluminous blouse. When Ethel was cheerful—which was usually—she said I came along a few months later as a nice surprise to her. When she was unhappy with me she grumbled that she had been lied to.

My favorite times with Ethel were Saturday nights. My parents went out to a dinner party or to the theater and Ethel and I sat on our four-season sun porch in front of a color TV in a giant wooden console. We ate junk food—or what passed for junk food in those days: delicatessen or pizza or Chicken Delight. I lay on the couch with my plate on the coffee table and Ethel ate over a ripped brown paper bag on her lap, sitting on a chair pulled close to the screen. The line-up started at eight and took us through until eleven and included, for several years, All in the Family, M*A*S*H, The Mary Tyler Moore Show, The Bob Newhart Show, and The Carol Burnett Show.

One Saturday night, when I was about twelve, Ethel took me to a birthday party at her apartment in Bedford Stuyvesant. I believe it was for her brother Walter (also known as Bump). We rode an interminable city bus ride there. Motown blasted on the turntable and everyone danced and there were mountains of fried chicken and potato salad, and a giant plastic bowl filled with vodka and Hawaiian Punch. Ethel didn't tell me not to mention this outing to my parents though I sensed that they wouldn't like it so, of course, I couldn't stop talking about it. My mother said nothing about the whole affair other than, "Well, that was some adventure you two had!"

The truth was, my mother and I used Ethel against one another. We both knew just where to jab to draw a little blood. Sometimes my mother would say, in my hearing, that Ethel dusted around the lamps without moving them, something the previous housekeeper, who had worked for my parents before I was born, would never have done. Once Ethel asked for a few days off to go to South Carolina because an ancient parrot that her grandmother had kept had, at last, died. When my mother was in a good mood—which was usually—the incident went unmentioned or was, at most, chuckled over. When Mom was unhappy with me the parrot story became an eye roller. As for me, when my mother and Ethel were in the same room I ran to Ethel and threw my arms around her thighs, knowing, from a very early age, the effect this was likely to have on my mother.

1966. My brother's bar mitzvah. Ethel was sent an engraved invitation and arrived at the Brooklyn synagogue in a yellow wool dress and matching hat with a black band. She was off for the day but most of the pictures of her also include me so she must have been working: watching me. The synagogue was, as I remember it, rather airy and modern, high ceilinged and paneled in light wood; like a ski lodge, my mother used to say, with contempt. I don't think she thought much of the place or of the rabbi, a thin, elderly man, bald with white hair on his neck. Like the rabbi in Portnoy's Complaint (as I much later learned), he pumped extra syllables into each word for emphasis or merely to prolong the enjoyment of hearing his own voice. Our chil-der-en and our chil-der-en's chil-der-en. On the morning of my brother's bar mitzvah his sermon was more insufferable than usual; a diatribe on the inferiority of blacks compared with Jews, how "we" had pulled ourselves up from poverty with education and hard work and "they" had taken the easy route: crime, welfare, shiftlessness. Ethel got up and walked out.

Well, I didn't actually know until years later what the rabbi said or that Ethel got up and walked out because, other than the yellow dress and the yellow hat with the black band (which I "remember," really, from pictures) I have no recollection of Ethel's participation in that event at all or even of my own other than that, at the luncheon, my own bedroom, from which I had been banned for the day, was pressed into service as the kid's party space. A banner reading RICKY'S MITZVAH BAR hung on my wall over a rented table that held sodas, orange slices, maraschino cherries, and swizzle sticks.

I didn't hear about the rabbi's sermon until I was in seventh grade. I had entered a new school, having graduated from the public elementary school. This new school was an ivy-covered old private school in tony Brooklyn Heights; all girls, predominantly WASPs. There was no IGC, no Open Enrollment. The new hierarchy was inscrutable to me other than that I, new to the school, Jewish, fuzzy-haired and wide-hipped, and from a less fashionable part of Brooklyn, found myself at the bottom of it. But this was 1969 and even in a stuffy private school some of the teachers were "cool." One was an English teacher who practically invited us to talk about race, sex, and rebellion. I wanted to please her and when I asked my mother for an idea for a composition that's when she told me about the rabbi's sermon and Ethel's exit from the synagogue.

In my version, told in the first person from Ethel's point of view and in her pungent Southern black dialect, the wound the rabbi inflicted was deep and painful. How dare he say dat?? My daughter been to college and got herself a good job wif the phone company! I believe it went. At the end of the essay, Ethel looks over to my mother and says–this I do remember verbatim, I'm sure— The Missus tole me wif her eyes it was okay for me to go.

Of course, Ethel never called my mother "The Missus," a detail which was, like the whole thing, a fiction I had invented. Why? To take a little poke at my mother, no doubt. I received an A, but when I gave it to Mom to read, her proud smile collapsed as she turned the pages. "You don't show the understanding, the respect, the love between the two women!" she wailed. "You make me sound almost as bad as that rabbi!"

The blood bank in the Baltimore hospital where I received my medical training was segregated until the late 1950s. The bottles of donated blood were labeled "Colored" and "White" and transfused into patients separated by race on the hospital wards and even, when they died, in the morgue. The professor who told me these remarkable facts when I was a student in the 1980s also told me something that was, to me, equally remarkable: that he didn't really notice that the hospital was segregated. This professor had been a Jewish boy from a Yiddish-speaking family in New Jersey. It took a WASP from Boston, one of the few female physicians at the hospital in those days and thus, perhaps, sensitive to the plight of other victims of discrimination, to point to the Colored blood bank sign and ask, "Doesn't this seem wrong to you?" before he realized that, actually, it did.

When I did my medical training the hospital was (and still is) divided into "ward" and "private" services, which, like the different classes in my elementary school, really amounted to segregation. On the ward service lay poor and black residents of East Baltimore, the slum in which the hospital is located. The young among them were most likely to have infections related to intravenous drug use, venereal diseases including HIV, and knife and gunshot wounds. The older ones often had complications of diabetes, emphysema, and cancers gone too long undetected. On the private service we interns and residents were heavily supervised by men (very occasionally women), private practitioners who showed up at the end of the day, rubber ends of their stethoscopes peeking out of suit jacket pockets, to see what mischief we had been up to. They were the real doctors. But on the wards, we were the real doctors and though they mostly accepted our care without question, the patients occasionally complained about being experimented on by us young white physicians.

It was a funny relationship I had with those poor patients on the ward; an odd mixture of affectionate familiarity and wariness on both sides. On the one hand I knew their most shameful secrets and had seen and touched them more intimately than anyone other than their mothers and lovers. On the other hand they knew that I was inexpert and terrified. But despite this mutual understanding a decorous distance needed to be maintained, a distance that I, in those days, told myself represented "appropriate boundaries" between doctors and patients. It never occurred to me the real boundary was a line between me and my black patients and that maybe I wasn't so different than my professor had been a generation earlier when he walked unthinkingly past the Colored Blood Bank sign.

When we finished our medical training, when our first child was two, my husband and I moved to a town twenty miles from Boston with a Good School System. The town participates in a voluntary busing program called METCO—a modern version of Open Enrollment. Starting in kindergarten children, mostly African-American, can apply for the privilege of sitting on a bus as long as three hours a day to go to a school in the suburbs –to a Good School System. The program adds black faces to the photographs in the white school's PTA newsletter and its website features testimonials by black families though its benefits have never been studied systematically.

When our youngest child was in kindergarten we signed up to be a METCO host family. We were assigned a little boy named Jamari. Every Tuesday there would be a late bus back to the city, which meant that the METCO kids (as the other students called them) could go their host families' houses for the afternoon. The woman who recruited us had enthused about how her son and the black boy they hosted were like brothers, how the METCO boy kept a toothbrush at their house as if there could be no greater evidence of racial harmony.

Jamari's toothbrush never arrived at our house. Neither did Jamari, on most Tuesdays. On the night before "late bus Tuesday" I would call the aunt with whom he lived and remind her that he would be coming to our house after school the next day. Usually she had forgotten and would set down the phone and shout, "You want to go over there?" while I held my breath, fearing the little boy's rejection of us. Sometimes she would announce that Jamari had misbehaved and that his punishment was that he had to come straight home: No late bus. My babysitter, an older and plainspoken white woman said aloud what I privately thought: that the worst possible punishment for bad behavior would be to deprive Jamari of time in our lovely home, sitting on a bar stool at the island counter in our peaceful kitchen having milk and cookies after playing with my own angelic son.

After a year or two I stopped calling Jamari's aunt to see if he wanted to come over to our house. The METCO coordinator said that sometimes things didn't "gel." The other day I saw him in front of the high school; a muscular young man with stubble. I waved but he didn't recognize me.

I saw Ethel recently, too. Out of the blue she'd sent a note printed out from a computer asking how everyone was. She put her phone number on the note and I called her to tell her that my mother had died and that, as a matter of fact, we would all be in New York soon to unveil her headstone at the cemetery. Would she have any way of getting to Queens? Sure, she said. Her granddaughter had a car.

Ethel was stiff-legged after the ride to the cemetery but hugged me hard. She still smelled the same: Pepsi and Dixie Peach. She wore a wig with straight chestnut hair and bangs and an off-white dress and coat with matching shoes and hat. She'd come straight from church. Ethel's granddaughter took pictures of us with her iPhone, careful not to catch the tombstones in the shots.

After the brief service, Ethel knelt at the grave and passed her palm back and forth over my mother's chiseled name. And with each swipe of her old brown hand she whispered: "I love you. I love you. I love you."

 

Suzanne Koven practices internal medicine at Massachusetts General Hospital and writes the monthly column "In Practice" for the Boston Globe. She is an MFA candidate in nonfiction at the Bennington Writing Seminars. Visit her website at http://www.suzannekovenmd.com/

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