The Silent Minority

by

07/12/2007

13810 135th Ave, Jamaica, NY

Neighborhood: Jamaica, Queens

In the divorce papers filed by my ex-wife, the second one I mean, she said I never paid attention to her. While we were still living in the same house she also said, “You never listen to me.”

“What?” I generally responded from the other room.

For the record, I am, in fact, a great listener. But she was right, toward the “end of times,” I didn’t listen to her. But that was mostly because whatever she said whenever I was around to listen was a complaint. “You didn’t…” “You never…” “You bastard!” Although that last one was more of an observation than a complaint.

Again for the record, not only am I a good listener, when I put my mind to it, but I am a great observer as well. It is a skill I have finely honed as a result of my many years, according to my ex, of never “actually doing anything, but watching other people doing things from the sidelines.” For example, around March I tend to notice that the days are getting longer, even if there is still snow on the ground. And in the second week of August I notice that all the teaching money I had put aside during the school year to pay the bills in the summer is just about gone.

But besides all that, she was never really interested in what I had to say anyway, especially if my opinion didn’t agree with her opinion, which it hardly ever did. After all, I was a man and she was a feminist of sorts, when it suited her. I voted straight party line and she voted only for women on the ballot no matter what the party affiliation, and so we effectively cancelled each other out in local and national elections since 1976. In other aspects of our lives together, I wanted a tool shed and she wanted the house repainted and a dormer. I wanted a Porsche 9-11 and she wanted children.

So, I gradually lost all interest and stopped paying attention all together, and she managed very well without much input from me. It was a system that seemed to work and had taken us up to the point about two years away from our divorce, the summer I learned that Bernardo, the Fresh Air Fund kid from the Bronx, was coming to stay with us in August. Of course I didn’t learn about it directly from her, but by accident, as a result of overhearing the breakfast conversation of my two kids.

“What?” I asked when I heard them talking about all the things they were planning to do when Bernardo arrived.

“Mommy said Bernardo is coming to stay with us for two weeks,” my daughter said.

“And he’s going to sleep in my room,” my son said.

“What?” I demanded when my wife came back into the kitchen.

“The woman from the Fresh Air Fund is coming today for a look at the place, before they make their final decision. It is just a formality.”

“But–”

The kids stopped eating to listen to the exchange.

“Don’t you think we should have discussed it before you decided to bring some ‘West Side Story’ inner city gang member into the house?”

“Don’t be silly. Bernardo is only six years old. And besides, I knew you wouldn’t agree, so I made the decision.”

“But… You… We…” I stammered, my head spinning as I searched for valid points to contradict her argument. “August is crunch time,” I managed feebly, “and we can’t afford another mouth to feed in August.”

“You can always get a little part-time job if we need more money. I saw a ‘Help Wanted’ sign in the hardware store in town. So mow the lawn, clean up the mess around the swing set and vacuum the pool before the Fresh Air Fund lady comes.”

Crisis over, the kids went back to eating their Froot Loops.

When the woman arrived my wife couldn’t have been more charming. She laid out the redwood table with a red plaid tablecloth and all those picnic dishes she had bought from the Land’s End catalog and plied her with home made lemonade and fresh baked cookies while I refused to say a word the whole time she was there. Instead, I kept my earplugs in as I steered the lawn mower closer and closer to the patio in my attempt to pelt the two of them with grass clippings and small pebbles. But we passed the inspection. Not only was Bernardo’s two-week visit with “nuclear suburban host family” approved and scheduled for the first day of August, but I would have to take the mini van up to the South Bronx to pick him up and hope that I was wearing the right gang colors when I did.

In the days following the visit from the Fresh Air Fund lady, the house was filled with deafening silence. Or if there was any verbal exchange of information from my wife’s side of the house, I didn’t hear it. I elected to give her the silent treatment while I began to plan my strategies, both to prevent the inevitable invasion of my privacy, and to deal with it when it arrived.

I opted for the sensitive approach, assuming that my wife’s failure to communicate and consider my feelings was because she failed to understand my need for privacy, the whole “a man’s home is his castle” school of thought and simply needed to be reminded that since I paid all the bills, I had a vote on who ate at my table and slept under my roof. It was an assumption that was doomed to failure, but I gave her the benefit of the doubt and in an attempt to educate her, I began dropping hints where she could pick them up. I used my computer to find some suitable clip art logo of a cop holding a stop sign and composed a letter addressed to me that I left folded carelessly in the middle of the kitchen table. I knew she could not miss seeing it, and from her past performances, I knew after seeing it out there in the open she would be unable to resist reading it. Although the name at the bottom was bogus and signature belonged to one of the secretaries at the school where I worked, the address and telephone number were legitimate, just in case my wife had any ideas about verifying the authenticity of the communication. The letter said:

The Fortune Society of America

53 West 23rd Street

New York NY 10010

212.691.7554

(The only difference between a criminal and an ex-con is a short sentence.)

May 25, 1990

Dear Sir:

Thank you for your recent letter regarding “Cons Across the Continent,” the rehabilitation work of the Fortune Society of America. Your request to have a recently released ex-convict spend an extended period of time at your home this summer with you and your family has been processed. I am happy to inform you that a suitable candidate has been selected, and he is eager to meet all of the Scalias.

His name is Otis La Rue Washington, but the name he prefers is “Love Master,” a nickname he picked up during his years at Attica. Otis is 36 years old, and has spent about a third of his life behind bars at the Newburg Reformatory for Boys where he served one to three years for third degree sexual abuse, Altoona Prison for Men where he served three years of the five to seven years sentence for aggravated sexual battery. Mr. Washington was released after he volunteered for AIDS research. His most recently time in prison was spent at Attica, where he served five of the seven to ten years sentence for rape.

Although he is a convicted multiple rapist, you will be happy to know, that he has never employed any weapons, other than his hands, to subdue his victims. The New York State Parole Board has determined that he is currently in “remission” and would pose little or no threat to your wife and/or children. At present Mr. Washington is in the “final stages of rehabilitation,” awaiting release from a halfway house at an undisclosed location.

A representative of the Fortune Society of America will shortly be contacting you to set up an appointment to inspect your premises in order to determine the suitability of conditions in your home for Mr. Washington. This is simply a formality and I can assure you that there will be no problem placing Mr. Washington with you by early July.

We appreciate your time and interest in the “Cons Across the Continent” program, and we look forward to working with you.

Sincerely,

Laurie Dunkleson, Placement Director

“Cons Across the Continent”

Fortune Society of America

Although I could tell by its position and fold that the letter had been read, my wife never mentioned it when we passed one another like two battleships in the night. Neither of us said much of anything for the rest of the week, and then on Saturday afternoon a second folded letter appeared on the kitchen table.

The Fortune Society of America

53 West 23rd Street

New York NY 10010

212.691.7554

(The only difference between a criminal and an ex-con is a short sentence.)

June 1, 1990

Dear Sir:

I am sorry to inform you that the plans to place Mr. Otis La Rue Washington in your home through the “Cons Across the Continent” program have met with a minor snag.

While on a work release furlough in the upstate New York area, Mr. Washington violated one of the conditions of his release when he wandered into one of the many topless bars along Route 9W. Once inside the “Kitty-Titty Bar,” Mr. Washington ran amok among the two female dancers and three or four male patrons who were frequenting the establishment at 11 am on a Sunday morning. The exact number of victims is still under investigation by the local authorities. Meanwhile, Mr. Washington has been taken into custody and charged with two counts of first-degree rape stemming from his attack on the women, and four counts of aggravated sodomy involving the male patrons.

I have been in personal, direct contact with Mr. Washington and he has assured me that his attorney will be able to plea-bargain the charges and get them reduced to one count of jaywalking and one count of littering. He said in the telephone conversation that he should be out on the streets in a matter of days, but he will have to make an appearance in court sometime in early July to answer the jaywalking and littering charges. This will likely push back the date of his arrival for the extended home visitation by several days. Mr. Washington said he is sorry for any inconvenience and that he can’t wait to get at you and your family.

Sincerely,

Laurie Dunkleson, Placement Director

“Cons Across the Continent”

Fortune Society of America

I thought I detected a slight grin on my wife’s face when I saw her later that afternoon, but it might have simply been a flare of gas from the previous night’s Chinese food. She never acknowledged either of the letters.

And on August 1st the four of us navigated the minivan up to the South Bronx to pick up Bernardo. Of course my wife was right. He was only six, too young to be in any gang and ignorant of all those gang signs I had taken such pains to learn and flash the moment we arrived in the apartment.

His mother, who was holding on to two other children, Bernardo’s younger brother and sister, looked more worried about this Fresh Air Fund business than I did.

“Don’t worry, Mrs. Gomez,” I reassured, calling back to her as we led her first-born son out of the apartment and down the stairs to the street, “we’ll take good care of him.”

The visit went without a hitch. The kids got along as well as could be expected, with a few minor incidents. The weather held up for us to use the pool almost every day. And there was more than enough money to feed everybody those first two weeks of August. Bernardo was charming and polite, and I found that I liked him better than my own two kids. I liked him so much, in fact, that I invited him back for the following summer. And I would have had him back for a third time, but that was the summer my wife and I got divorced instead.

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