Differences

When I was growing up the West Side seemed to have a bit of everything.  There were at least Jews, Italians, Irish, African Americans and Puerto Ricans.  My name, Marion was, I would learn, a disguise of sorts.  Two groups, Italians and Puerto Ricans, dropped the ’N’ and depending on accents came up with the Mario that fit into their group.  Because I was always a little dark no one knew for sure.

I foolishly took french at the William J. O’Shea junior high school.  Spanish would be useful even today, well over 50 years later; so linguistically I could only be a white kid from the neighborhood.

The West Side was filled with characters, many had no name.  There was one who often walked right through the middle of our handball and stoop ball games, he was older, white, but I wouldn’t venture a guess as to how much beyond 40.

One day, he stopped to tell us the story of his almost mugging.  All these years later I’m paraphrasing:

I was walking up the block when out of nowhere this group of half a dozen PR teens surrounded me.  They wanted my wallet.  I wasn’t about to give it up so I started yelling and stomping my feet.  You lousy Puerto Ricans, I can’t stand the lot of you, I’m gonna get away, I’m going to San Juan.  They started laughing, must have figured me for crazy, and walked off.  I got to keep my wallet.

As a child, I was pretty much friendly with everyone.  It was the way I was raised.  Although, there were few African Americans in the circle around me except for Albert and “Elizabeth” (September 9, 2016) in my class and Helen, the housekeeper. There was also Danny who often accompanied Harold (family friend and my mother’s boss) who was African American.  Puerto Ricans and other Hispanics entered my life in abundance in junior high school and continued in my life in the pool hall.

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I’ve written about “Tony” (July 18, 2016), the teenager with one arm and “Richie” (February 19, 2017), the alleged perpetrator of a school yard stabbing, both of whom I remember as Hispanic.  Both those experiences included violence from which I escaped.

I really led a racially and ethnically sheltered life.  I write it this way because then, as now, Hispanics came in all colors.  Unlike the black people in my life they spoke a different language, or english with an accent; their difference was different.

In my young mind the differences amongst us did not translate into socioeconomic class distinctions; that was too complex. I don’t think we saw the racial separations clearly either.

Racism is after all a learned behavior and in my home it was never taught or modeled.

Thankfully, what I was taught was carried forward to my children.

 

Silhouette by kjpargeter

 

A Little Bit About Class and Religion

 

As I celebrate the arrival of the fifth year of this blog, LEAVINGWEST83RDSTREET, I thought to start with what continue to be sensitive subjects in the USA.

 

My religion, Judaism, was alway important in my West Side life.  When I was five, I was so enamored of  Rabbi Jack Cohen of the Society for the Advancement of Judaism  on West 86th Street that I begged to attend religious school.  I did, right through my bar mitzvah, about which I have already written.  My sister and I traveled different paths and I traveled more than one myself, but we both kept religion close.

 

Religion was noticeable in public school pretty much only on the day of “released time” when the Catholic kids got to go to religious education.  We Jews went after school.  I doubt that they loved their religion time any more than we did, except we had to give up play time for ours, they had to give up school.

Free Jewish Star Of David image in Vector cliparts category at pixy.org

Except for those clashes with the parochial school kids coming out of the Holy Trinity school up the block , and looking out our back windows at those same kids having their knuckles thrashed by their nuns, there was no issue of religious friction in my life.  Everybody kept to themselves or just kept quiet.

We didn’t know the difference between Catholics and other Christians, we thought they were all the same.  I don’t recall any storefront churches in those days, but I didn’t wander much east of Amsterdam Avenue or along its length.

As an adult I see religion as something over which humans have fought for centuries and continue to do so.  

Right up there with religion is class as a problem among people.  

I believe that class was an unknown differentiator to we kids in public school nine.  It was, like religion, rarely if ever discussed.  Religion popped into conversations around Bar Mitzvah and Confirmation.

Rich kids went to private schools like Franklin and McBurney and we didn’t mix with them until high school.  

There were kids with bigger apartments with Riverside Drive addresses and the West End Avenue kids did seem to have more space too, but this didn’t translate, for us, into wealth and I don’t recall ever being excluded because I lived on the other side of Broadway.

Those bigger apartments had room for a grand piano and everybody had their own bedroom.  Our dining table was moved into the living room when I had to move into dad’s study (which had been carved out of the dining room) and at that time the dining room became his work space.

I always had enough, went to a Jewish summer camp for many years and then a non-denominational day camp, and I got an allowance that grew with me.  It was, of course, never enough.  So, on my West Side there was never an issue of class.  

I’ll leave race and ethnicity for another essay.  Much has already been written but there is always more.  Here, I’ll say that unlike religion and economic class, race and ethnicity were open dividers even in elementary school as kids of color (as we would call them today) were almost completely separated from the white kids right through the public school system of the 1950s and 60s.