One time while I was standing in line at the supermarket, an acquaintance hailed me to ask where my child was in the college application process. Then, in a loud voice, she began naming the schools her daughter was considering.When she got to one of the finest women’s colleges in the country, she called over, “Oh, but we don’t want her going THERE! The place is full of lesbians!”
The remark was unfair on so many levels I found myself willing her to stop, even just for her own sake. I hurried over to her. It was all I could do not to cover her mouth with my hand. I was that sure she didn’t mean to speak so carelessly.
This exchange took place in that late 90s but I had one like it just recently, when I brought a malfunctioning lamp to the one store in the county where a real lamp guru was said to work. Sure enough, while four stores had said they couldn’t help me, this man had a different response:
“This is nothing!” he said pleasantly. “I’ll take it home tonight and have it fixed for you by Thursday.”
We got talking then, and it came out that he hailed from Roxbury, the same section of Boston where I myself spent the first decade of life.
“Isn’t it beautiful though? The broad streets, and the brownstones, and that wonderful park designed by Frederick Law Olmstead?”
“It WAS beautiful, before it changed,” he replied gravely.
He was such a nice man; the last thing I wanted to do was embarrass him. Or maybe I was embarrassed for myself, because of what I took to be his implication. In any case all I could do was repeat his word:
“The people. Everything. I can’t drive in there anymore!”
“Ah, that’s just because we’re old!” I said. “Sometimes when I go there, all I can think is, ‘Where are the trolley cars? The butcher shops? The little delis on every corner?’”
But it was as if I hadn’t spoken.
“I can’t stand their music!” he blurted. “Or their… food ! Or the way their voices sound! I really can’t stand the way their voices sound!”
Did he mean black folks? Latinos? The growing Asian or South Asian population?
I didn’t know, and I didn’t stop to ask because of a sudden thought that made start laughing.
“But that’s what they said about US when we came!” (He had told me earlier that he was Irish by descent.) “Those old Yankees said the same things about us, and then WE said them about everyone who came after us!”
“I suppose that’s true,” he said, smiling again.
“For a long time I didn’t go back either, but now I’m in Roxbury every week and I wish you could see it: The new townhouses. The children tumbling out of school buses with family members waiting to greet them. The great little restaurants. Now, every time I go I see less of my own dead past and more of the vibrant life there before me.”
He smiled and patted my arm. “OK then, come back Thursday.”
I think of these stories now as we remember Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. who yearned for the day when people would be judged by the content of their character.
I believe I have made enough mistakes since I first heard those words that now my task is to cover my own mouth, lest I speak carelessly myself. And I also believe that under our fear we yearn for a day when we might stop judging altogether and instead get close enough to see that in truth we really are all one family.
This is Roxbury is it looked to my camera one day last June. The field is the site of the former Notre Dame Academy, just down the street from the 826 Boston, a non-profit organization dedicated to supporting students ages 6 to 18 with their creative and expository writing skills . NDA was the school in whose whispery corridors I moved, with my starched uniform, my Baltimore Catechism and my Hopalong Cassidy lunchbox.
And these below are the streets and driveways surrounding that old convent school where the children and grandchildren of that whole untidy wave of immigrant Irish came to get an education.