Hashtag throwback Thursday. It’s been eight days and I’m still trying to make sense of the election. I’m not sure I ever will. It keeps me awake, and as old men do in the middle of the night they look backwards to the past and then inwards towards themselves. I’m thinking deeply about the origins of my own thinking on race in America. I grew up in a predominately, but not overwhelmingly, white lower middle class, working poor, catholic neighborhood on the east side of Buffalo, New York. The Buffalo of my youth was in a major upheaval. The economy of the city, and the jobs from the heavy industry of the steel plants, had collapsed. High unemployment, crime, and despair were prevalent. It was not uncommon to hear stories of white neighborhoods not far from mine making it uncomfortable for people of color to even walk through them, let alone live. The older grades in my elementary school were almost entirely white, but my grade and the grades below me, had more diversity. I like to think my thinking on race began then. That the otherness I experienced was more of a curiosity and not an animosity. It was as though I was going into someone’s house for the first time and looking at their pictures on their walls, then noticing the pots and pans, chairs, and hardwood floors, the mystery revealed. We were the same. I remembered Chandra, the way she smiled, and how she snuggled with me one night when some of the girls had crashed a sleepover at my friend’s house before they were found out and had to leave. Chandra, if you had to describe her in terms of color, was a light skinned brown girl. Chandra, if you truly described her, was a sunlight of smile and a fierce intelligence that was seeking. When she smiled, dimples appeared and I was smitten. I don’t even remember how we became innocently entwined that night, but it was a powerful connection for me. It was a brief moment of one night before we went back to the usual schoolyard separation of boys and girls, but here it is again all these many years later. Two people enjoying each others company. Here is what I do remember: her smile, and the way she talked to me quietly and the way we laughed together while the party went on around us. It was what boys and girls did and color played no part in it. They played at love. They held hands, and squeezed together. They saw each other, listened to each other, and looked at each other and accepted each other for who they were. My heart fluttered. Around this same time, a Vietnamese refugee family was sponsored by our church and, like that, three Vietnamese children were in our school. The Tranh’s had three children, two boys and a girl, and the youngest two, the boy and girl were for a period in our class. They were quiet and delicate. I can only imagine, as I think back now, that they were afraid and unsure. I am not making sense. I am trying to understand where my own view on race in America began. It is not perfect, but I am trying to see where the thinking began, and how I diverged from a group in the country who elected a man who campaigned on bigotry, misogyny and racism. In the middle of the night, I have come to these early instances. Chandra and the Tranh’s. There are two things I distinctly recall about the Tranh’s. The oldest was in my brother’s class and though the Tranh’s spoke English, it was clearly a second language, and someone in my brother’s class had taught the oldest the middle finger as a greeting. At recess, I remember one of my brother’s friends calling out to him from across the yard and saying hey Tinh, and giving him the finger and Tinh raising his hand and giving the finger back. I remember it clearly. It made me feel like something was very wrong. There was a grotesqueness that the gesture, of which I was no stranger to, had taken on that was more deeply troubling than I had noticed before. It was wrong. That is one recollection. The other is that the brother and sister in my class, though quiet, reserved, bent to learning could take a scrap piece of paper and fold it into a crane, or frog, or star. I want to say it was my first experience with origami. As an old man awake in the middle of the night, making sense of a senseless election, I saw Chandra again, that little girl making sense of the world and in so doing reshaping me in a brief moment of tenderness. I see the Tranh’s again and how they took a scrap of discarded garbage paper and made it something beautiful.
Hashtag Throwback Thursday. Here is a photograph I took of my friends in the late 1970s on the east side of Buffalo, New York. I would walk to my best friend’s house and yell his name and he would come out. This would continue until all of our closest confidants were accounted for, then we would walk the beaten streets to the empty school and secure our spot in a doorway, or on a red railing, or on the concrete and do what we did. Joke and josh and taunt and scoff at one another. We would trade hockey cards or baseball cards or star wars cards or football cards. If we had scraped enough change together, we bought brand new packs. We opened them and over each other’s shoulders looked to see what we got. Guy Lafleur, Reggie Leach, Gilbert Perreault, Larry Robinson. We organized them by team, put a rubber band around them and put them in our pockets. We ate the stale gum. We played a game called foot hockey with a tennis ball. We ran and laughed and pushed and shoved. We were the heroes in our pockets for those moments, and then we weren’t again. We were ourselves. We were the sons of the machinist and the sons of the car salesman and the sons of the bartender and the sons of the mechanic. I think about it sometimes now. The hockey cards and Star Wars figures. The money we made shoveling or with odd jobs that children do to earn candy money. It all seemed so free and easy at the time. The yelling at the houses for our friends to come out and play. How little we knew about how hard America was at the time. The gas shortages and plant closings, the precariousness of the lower middle class. It was more than this though, it was how little we knew about the strength and fortitude of the adults in our lives. The scrap papers of additions and subtractions after we went to bed. The mustard jar of loose change. The quiet thoughts and prayers they said. The anything is possible, and these things will turn out okay philosophy of them. We often even failed to see the hard work. The love, the love, the love. The lessons in the weekly trip to the library, where they said hello to the librarian and whispered in small talk. The austerity of the bank for my first savings book. The diversity of the bus. My mother’s smile. The way she liked to hold you like she would never let go. We should have had our parents on those cards wrapped in a rubber band in our hand-me-down coats. We could have hunkered down in the empty doorway of the closed school with the I’ll trade you a steel worker for the car salesman, the bartender for the machinist, the baker for the mechanic.
Hashtag throwback Thursday. Snow starts as a hint in Buffalo then hunches people over for a time before March releases them back to themselves. The winters are dark and sometimes harsh, but not insurmountable. A good snow quiets and calms the soul. It covers up the ugliness for a minute and remakes a place into something original and true. It did for me at least, and I’m sure if I asked, for a lot of other people too. It’s a funny thing about a long winter though, it remakes where you live and then when it leaves, reminds you of what you forgot. Here is a photograph of the little corner store around the block from my grandmother’s house. It is March, the snow has melted, but there is still the rumor of winter. The trees are bare. There is a chance of flurries. The lit windows of the houses are like eyes. Pots of sauce are simmering on stoves, but here is what I want you to know, and here is what I am trying not to forget about the east side of the Buffalo, New York of my youth. I want to make sure I am remembering the little bits and pieces of that place that stay with me. It is hard to imagine, but the corner store around the block from grandmother’s house was a relic. A beacon of the past fading slowly in the present and I am glad that I experienced it. I knew it as John’s since that was the name of the man behind the counter. He knew my grandmother. They were neighbors. Each with accents from Poland. John and his wife ran the little store and lived upstairs, participated in the community. You would open the door and a little bell would ring and then you would step into the store and the wood floor would creak and you were in a different space. This was during the advent of arcade games and skateboarding, but this place knew nothing about that. This was an old punch cash register. It was newspapers and comic books with the covers torn off. It was candy cigarettes and Pall Mall’s. The store was all heavy wood and glass display cases and shelves. The glass case that ran along the right side of the store was full of individual glass dishes of loose penny candy. My grandmother would give me a quarter and I could walk around the block and spend it. I labored over the choice and John, quietly patient, waited for me until I picked half Swedish Fish and half Smarties, when he scooped them out and put them in a little brown bag for me. He took my quarter as though it were a large bill. I carried the bag back to my grandmother’s and slowly unwrapped the cellophane packaging of the Smarties and shared them with her. It was just a little store, family run, but personable and part of the neighborhood. This was the time before CVS moved in a few blocks away. This was the glory before the steel plants moved away. This was the snow covering the cracked sidewalks and trampled down grass of autumn. This was the spring when the snow disappeared and we became reacquainted with the beauty of our neighborhood. Of the quiet lives and colorful candies in glass dishes. Bright welcoming lights. Thin slivers of the American dream. The past unknowingly disappearing into the present and my grandmother saying, here is a quarter go to the store. Here, in March, a thousand miles away it comes back to me and I like to think that what she was really saying with that quarter was go there and see it before it is gone, before it’s too late. Keep the jingle of the bell of the small shop owner in your heart; keep the creak of the floor that the countless workers in the neighborhood made smooth, and don't forget the hand of the person that handed you a brown paper bag full of sweetness.