Paul was running. His goal within reach, he picked up his pace, as usual, dodging any obstacles in his path. Nothing could prevent him from getting there and seeing his shadow racing alongside him, he put on a burst of speed as if determined to even outrun it.
Before going to bed the prior night, he’d calculated the amount of time it would take for him to arrive at the meeting 10 minutes early. Then he’d set two alarms. He’d awakened before the first alarm had sounded, thrown on his running clothes, and
dashed out of his apartment before the second alarm had even buzzed. The predawn streets had been empty, except for him and a bulky street sweeper machine, veering in and out of the parked cars, clearing dirt and debris from the city’s gutter.
Paul looked up to the ceiling at the exact moment the time on the mounted LED board changed. He was going to be late. He shifted from side to side, leg to leg, his heels tapping against the platform. He leaned out over the trolley track, trying to will the pin prick of a trolley’s headlight to appear in the deep darkness of the tunnel.
Paul hadn’t expected to get the job when he’d interviewed for it two years ago. The moment the interviewer had laid eyes on him felt like deja vu. The attempt to mask shock. The subtle hesitation before the handshake. The too pronounced smile bordering on a grimace. He’d felt like announcing, surprise! It’s me! Your job candidate is a black man.
Now, despite hurrying through his shower and skipping breakfast, he was going to be late. He could already envision the patronizing “it figures” kinds of looks he’d receive when he finally entered the meeting room. He’d worked too hard cultivating an image of responsibility and normality to have it undermined by a delinquent trolley car. But this was his life, fighting against the stereotypes, low expectations, and preconceived categorizations fostered upon him. He was certain that the name of the Ivy league school on his resume had been the key reason he’d landed the interview. The fact that he was black had never been readily apparent to anyone who hadn’t met him in person. He didn’t have a “black name” or “sound black” in conversation on the phone. His parents had named him and the way he spoke was just that, the way he spoke.
While he’d never denied being black, he had deliberately chosen to pursue a path that presented him as non-threatening. Sharpened through years of practice, he’d perfected all aspects of that approach, until it became a cornerstone of his existence, its one disconcerting result being a sort of invisibility or loss of essential self.
Through high school, college, and even his short professional career, he’d often been the lone black person many whites he interacted with had actually encountered. As a result, once they’d “gotten to know him”, they’d pummel him with endless questions about black people. To them, he seemed a combination exotic foreign country and spokesperson for all black people. He found their childlike curiosity and naivete mind boggling. But because he rarely fit their inaccurate preconceived notions of black people, they were always quick to assert that he “wasn’t like most black people” or that he was an “exception.” So which was it? Was he the guide/spokesperson for a world and people they knew nothing about or not?
Finally, an anemic ding, ding, ding announced the arrival of the outbound trolley car. An old remnant from the past, struggling to prevent replacement by what was current and new, it stopped, sighing like a dying man clinging to his last breath.
Paul boarded the wheezing car taking consolation in knowing only two days of company meetings would be at this out of the way location.
At its next stop, the trolley’s doors opened and the rush hour commuters flooded into the car. As they spread out, filling every available inch of space, Paul shifted to his right, stepping on a foot. “Sorry,” he said to the young woman seated facing him. She smiled. The smile caught him off guard, but he returned it all the same.
She appeared to be quite tall, about 5’10” or 5’11”. Model thin, her long legs were in tight fitting jeans that disappeared into well crafted reddish brown leather cowboy boots. A plain white shirt peeked out from beneath her tailored black leather jacket. A maroon scarf was tied loosely around her neck and atop her head sat a black beret.
Dressed in his gray business suit, her somewhat avant-garde appearance made Paul feel frumpy. He stared at her wondering if she was a student or perhaps an artist? She looked fragile, but there was something, something else about her that eluded him.
When the trolley arrived at his stop, Paul got off and hurried to his meeting. Throughout the long day of boring presentations, his mind frequently wandered back to the young woman on the trolley.
The next morning, as Paul stood waiting for the train, he began thinking about the young woman. He scanned the crowded platform: transit police in bright yellow windbreakers, briefcase carrying business men and women, backpack-toting college students, tourists with maps and suitcases, and… there standing apart from the crowd was the young woman. Her height lent her a regal bearing that reminded him of an ancient statue he’d seen of a Nubian Queen.
One long strand of light brown hair hung down each side of her face. The rest of her hair was swept up and coiled at the back of her head. She was wearing a body hugging white dress and woven into it was a gold thread, that created a border around the dress’s high neckline, short sleeves, and hemline. Draped around her shoulders was a satin shawl accented in gold and brown. The contrasting whiteness of the dress against her beautiful brown skin was eye catching.
To get a better look, Paul moved until he had a completely unobstructed view of her. Now, he could see the delicate softness of her perfectly balanced features: flawless skin, high cheekbones, thin straight nose, and full lips. The way her black eyeliner curved around her long lashed almond shaped eyes before ending in a smooth upward sweep.
With a painful screech, a struggling trolley car made its way around the bend and stopped at the platform. Paul boarded along with the other passengers. As he stood in the overcrowded car, he searched for the woman, but his attention was immediately snared by three teenage boys. Each sported earplugs with thin wires connected to handheld music devices. Intermittently, one of the boys would burst into song. In response, his friends shoved and elbowed him to make him stop singing. As they engaged in their horseplay, passengers they banged into shot them angry looks but no one said anything to the boys.
Through a narrow space, Paul could see the young woman. Seated, with her eyes closed, she looked like she was wishing the boys would disappear. Paul continued watching the boys, who at times exchanged looks and gestured toward the young woman with their heads. Finally, as the trolley reached a station and the doors opened, the boys got off. Just before the doors closed, the windows behind the young woman began violently shaking.
“Freak! You fucking freak!” the boys screamed at her.
They pounded on the glass with such force it seemed destined to break. Then they ran off, continuing to shout, their cruel words echoing in the underground tunnel.
Everyone stared at the young woman. She was crying. No one said anything or offered her any aid. At that moment, Paul realized what about her had eluded him. She was a transgender person.
Anger immediately welled up inside him. Why hadn’t anyone confronted the boys while they were misbehaving on the train? Why hadn’t he? Now it was too late. The damage had been done.At the train’s next stop, above ground, Paul edged his way to the car’s doors. As he reached where the young woman was sitting, he softly said, “sorry.” She lifted her mascara streaked face toward him but said nothing in reply.
As he cut across the blacktopped parking lot on the way
to his meeting, Paul told himself there was nothing he could have done. But despite the assurances he gave himself, her tear stained face haunted him.
With one speaker after another droning on, Paul sat in his meeting, the image of the young girl in tears, disrupting his ability to focus on the presentations. Though her tears revealed her pain, eventually they and the pain would subside. What would then remain, would be her, existing courageously true to herself despite everything.
Unlike her path, the one Paul had chosen had resulted in invisibility and loss of self. He’d sacrificed freely and fearlessly expressing his thoughts and feelings, instead, always carefully calculating the most expeditiously advantageous position to adopt, leaving aside sincerity or honesty. While the strategy had been sound and the tactics affective, each decision he’d made had weighed more and more heavily upon him until he felt his knees buckling in surrender, his mind and body exhausted, unhappy, and unable to endure relentlessly being on guard anymore.
“Paul, is there anything you’d like to contribute at this time?” asked his boss, startling him.
Paul got to his feet and slowly looked around the room, momentarily making eye contact with each person seated at the meeting.
“I quit,” he said, turning and walking out the door, taking nothing with him, leaving everything behind.
As he stepped out of the building, into the bright sunlight of the day, he envisioned himself running, but he was no longer trying to outrun his shadow. Instead, its presence alongside him was a comfort. Though he was running, no goal in mind, and no idea where his feet would take him, that didn’t matter. It was worth any price to feel so completely free to finally be himself.
and find spray painted on their white
garage door FAGOTS.
Any number of people could have
done it. A nice neighborhood–
lawns dutifully mowed, no loud parties
even on weekends. Nice. Notes stuffed
in the mailbox that say Were gonna get you
Someday has an address too.
Anyone can find it. They’ve alerted
the police. Jerry remembers when he
was robbed years before he moved in
with Jeff, how the missing TV
ended up on a clipboard in the patrol car,
never even turned in. That’s what
the secretary said at the station.
Help may come
or not. The garage needs repainting.
Tomorrow pops up wearing torn fatigues.
The next message may be written
Twenty-one bangles on each arm,
red and white in color,
to be worn for at least a month,
usually a year – a signifier
of a newly-wed bride.
Given by the bride’s maternal uncle and aunt
on the choora ceremony, just before her wedding,
one by one the women in her family
would slide those bangles
onto her fragile wrists.
From this point on, she has to wear them
and get used to their weight,
until such day when they could
finally be removed,
by her husband.
My husband never
had to remove those for me.
The Australian Customs official did that job,
when she said in a loud, stern voice:
Take those things off! Put them down here!
As I took them off one by one,
saw them going through the screening machine.
The last time they made their jingling sound.
Australia will never
hear them jingling again.
All good migrants
need a reminder, and so did I.
They all have to go through
the national initiation ritual.
The reminder ritual.
This is not your country anymore. This is Australia!
the lady officer reminded me.
It was then
when I truly knew,
I had arrived.
First published in Peril magazine: Asian-Australian Arts & Culture, Australia
Irving A Greenfield
I am a Jew. That’s because I was born one. I had absolutely no say in the matter. The truth is that every human being hasn’t any choice as to whom his or her parents will be. It is decided for him or her at the moment of conception by the individuals in the act of copulation. Of course he or she could be born into one faith but raised in another, or if it suits their “spiritual or social needs” convert to another faith. But conversion, to my way of thinking, no matter how ardent doesn’t alter religious group into which he or she was born one wit. It is a patina that always needs reaffirmation.
I am neither proud nor disdainful that I am what I am with regard to my ethnicity. A word I use to substitute for religion, though I realize their meanings are not exactly congruent. But I use it because it fits me. I am not in the least bit religious; I am, in fact, an atheist or more precisely an existential relativist. But despite lack of religion and my disavowal of the existence of a supreme deity, I accept the fact that by the accident of birth I am and will always be a Jew; and that undeniable fact brings me to the story that unfolded on a particular summer morning at a small square, white table in front of the Inatteso Cafe on Little West Street close to the tip of Manhattan.
I’m there every morning, except Tuesday when I’m at the Veteran’s Administration Hospital on Twenty-Third Street. Though there are several more tables in front of the cafe, I always chose the closest to the door of the cafe because it’s less of hassle for me to get to it while holding a scone and paper cup of tea and milk in one hand and my cane in the other hand. If no one is there to hold the door open for me, I use my shoulder to push against until the opening is wide enough to pass through.
Once I am seated, I share my scone with the sparrows by crumbling a piece of it and placing those crumbs at the far right hand corner of the table. It is a daily ritual I thoroughly enjoy.
The particular morning in which the events of the story take place happens to be the Friday before the Labor Day weekend; the unofficial end of summer that really ends when the Autumnal Equinox takes place, the warm, humid morning augers for an even hotter and more humid day.
Even as I watch the birds, my brain is a swirl with thoughts having nothing to do with the birds that alight on the table just long enough to grab a piece of scone and then fly off, though sometimes one or two will stay to dine more leisurely. Mainly what I think about is my wife, Anita, who is a semi-invalid since her fall three years ago. She can’t walk without the Walker, a Rollator, or cane or me as support. These are not pleasant thoughts. They are a mixture of pity for her, self-pity, anger and the bleak knowledge that the situation will get worse.
Perhaps it is because of my melancholy frame of mind that the direction of my thoughts changes, make swift turn somewhere amid the tens of millions of neurons in my brain and I think about a book I finished reading some weeks ago, “ANTI-JUDAISM, THE WESTERN TRADITION, by “David Nirenberg.” A book that both angered and sorrowed me for two reasons: my ethnicity, I belong to the group of people he wrote about and it brought back memories of my own ugly encounters with antisemitism, which was quickly followed by the image of a Jew as written about by Shakespeare, Marlow, Hemingway, Fitzgerald and many other writers all of whom were anti-Semitic. From there, my thoughts made the leap to the Holocaust that claimed the lives of relatives on my father’s side of the family, second cousins. They were people I probably would have never known about. But they were Grunfeldts, the Germanic way of spelling my sir name before it was changed by an immigrations person when my grandfather came to the United States from a small town, a shtetel, outside of Vienna, Austria.
While this interior monologue is going on, I am involved in a conversation with a friend, Salvatore, an Italian American, who also breakfasts at the Cafe. He’s a blond stocky man, who comes to the Cafe with his small, white boutique dog and sometimes his son, Andrew, a college student at John Jay School of Law. Andrew hopes to transfer to the Air Force Academy and through the Civil Air Patrol will soon have his license. But on this particular morning only Sal (Salvatore) and his dog are at the Cafe. He is young enough to be my son oldest son, both are sixty.
Sal reads the Wall Street journal; I, the New York Times. This difference is indicatory of our political antipodes; yet, we do agree on certain things such as the vast immigration problem from stemming from the various conflicts in the Middle East, and the political shenanigans in our country, which if played out on the stage would make good comedy. But national politics isn’t comedy. The fate of our nation at best rests in “the hands” of incompetents and at opposite extreme in “the hands” of those whose politics are still in the 19th Century.
It’s during our rambling conversation on the immigration problem that we see them, two young men on the promenade between Little West Street and the West Way, where the early morning traffic is already building. They look at Freedom Tower to the North and then at us. They spend more time looking at us than the Freedom Tower.
One of them is short and not particularly well dressed. The other one is taller, considerably thinner and better dressed than his counterpart. Their interest in us continues and from what we are able to see, perhaps sparks some conversation between them and then they come toward us.
Abruptly, Sal says, “I’ll see you tomorrow.”
“I’ll be here,” I answer
He leaves the table just as the two young men arrive at where I sit.
“Semper Fi,” both say simultaneously.
I answer with the same two words. I suddenly realize the must have seen my red Marine Cap with scrambled eggs of its beak.
The heavier one says, “I’m Thomas McGinn and my buddy is Jessy Flanagan.”
I shake each of their hands and ask if they were in the Corps. By this time the McGinn is seated where Patrick sat and Flanagan has taken a seat in front of me.
“When were you in?” Flanagan asks.
“A long time ago, the beginning of the Korean war,” I tell them.
“We’re from Boston,” Flanagan says.
I nod and tell them I live around the corner. But their accent is wrong; it’s not New England and definitely not Boston, even with my hearing deficiency I am able tell that.
“Can I get you anything?” McGinn asks.
I thank him and explain that I already had my tea and scone. And suddenly, I’m uncomfortable. I can feel the increased thumping of my heart.
There’s an awkward few moments of silence before McGinn announces, “We’re Irish.”
It was more than a statement of their ethnicity. It was a challenge, but what kind of a challenge?
I decide to meet their challenge head on and say, “I’m a Jew.”
Immediately the two were on their feet. “We have to be somewhere else in a few minutes,” Flanagan says.
And without shaking hands with me, they walk quickly away toward Battery Park. I don’t know whether to laugh, scream or let loose with the string of profanity. I have been assaulted, pushed into the stinking mud of intolerance and trampled on; and I am impotent to do anything about it like all of those Jews who were stuffed into cattle cars to ride to their final destination, the gas chamber. But for me there isn’t a final destination; there’s only the bleak, horrific feeling that given the “right circumstances” the final destination could repeat itself. Even a secular Jew like me is and has always been “a fiddler on the roof.”
The victims of history speak not
to their plight, they speak not
through arrows and gunshots,
through shirt factory fires,
through schoolhouse stands and
rural church steeple bombings.
They do not speak, for they are
gone: no labour law reform, no signed bill
of housing redress, no so-called progress
shall make them whole.
No signal can cut through the
white noise cloth down draping
post-to-post in passage rites,
warnings unheeded by the number-crunching clan,
except in their moments of unearned regret.
Except in their mirrored lenses making
new liberal order of darker voids,
starring deep not long into the cold maw
depths of the thing, but to some
construction of tabulated script, some
monument made in ignorance of due
cost on plains of gold where greater
men than they shall ever hope to be
starved for lack of compass to guide
to berry bush and water spring.
They stare not into grim meaning of
coin collections, nor into spindled red
lines on FHA maps, nor into the
thin ice-water stew they ladle-heap
upon the cups and plates of sickly figures.
They stare not; they cannot face the victims,
the bombings, the fires, the bullets, the arrows,
they cannot face the calm wake of them
all the more.
They cannot stare too deep to history’s gaze,
it is too disorderly.
Still, voices emerge from riot smoke,
casting arms and rising as a last
held note of Coltrane, of Shorter, held
in blue midnight shade of strung
They go unheeded as ever, but
It makes nothing the better,
but has some conscience
I still hear them praying in the coffins, sir –
has left, nearly left the door ajar, and I can hear
their muffled weeping, and it is funny
how you can flay a man alive
with days of light upon his skin
until he cries for a hatful of darkness,
but dress his face for an hour
in black camouflage and boots
and he will peel back the lids of his eyes
to find anything left of the sun.
It is the demons, sir.
The things they do –
like the rest of us watching.
My friend is fat,
even fatter than that.
it’s not fair.
She was starved and bullied
and raped on a dare.
You think she just eats
more than her share.
People, we all breathe the same air!
So how about let’s try to care???
My daughter’s friend is super thin,
determined to be
as thin as a pin.
Isn’t that how she’ll win?
She’ll look like Barbie’s twin?
What makes girls think
again and again
that carrying our weight
is a sin, is a sin?
My head is starting to spin
cause I know this is no-win,
no way to begin,
to teach girls to starve
and then if they binge,
to purge it all up
and start over again.
Some skin is brown and some is black,
some more red, and that’s a fact.
So why was there only one called flesh in the sack
of crayons that hold 1000 colors in its pack?
The darker the skin, the more one does lack,
according to bigots who like it like that.
It’s a culture of hate that wants a master race,
who believes they must attack
and stab people of color in the back.
Steal them, enslave them, hang them on a rack,
call them ______________!
and other words like that.
and, I ask, who here is the maniac???
She likes girls, he likes a boy,
they don’t mean to annoy,
just want to feel the joy
of loving who they love
without being destroyed
by a man who calls it a sin
and shoots them dead again and again
49 times because they’re gay,
he justifies them as his prey.
Folks, we’ve got to find a way
to teach that love is here to stay,
to end the violence this very day.
she’s too fat or he’s too thin,
she has a beard on her chin.
That one has too big of breasts,
the other is missing a breast on her chest.
Radiation has taken her hair,
he is hairy as a bear.
Come on people, what’s the deal?
Is being different a reason to kill
with a word, a stare,
a lack of care,
come on people if you dare
to be fair,
to love what’s rare,
whatever they wear,
whatever their hair.
Do not compare
or declare or feel despair,
Beauty is everywhere.