A Song of Love

by

07/26/2020

Neighborhood: Bensonhurst, Featured

 

(for ELG)

My dad, who served as an MP in Okinawa just after the war, had strong views on inter-racial dating, because of all the mixed-race babies he saw there, half-breed bastards, he called them, rejected by the Okinawans, and ignored by the American GIs who’d fathered them. As his teenaged son in the late 1960s, I caught the brunt of his strong opinions, and I gave him back as good as I got. I called him a “racist,” a “small-minded thug,” an “unenlightened primitive,” and I really got abusive when he raised the issue with one of my personal heroes, John Lennon, who was then scandalously courting Yoko Ono.

“When he leaves her,” my dad sneered at me one night in the Famous cafeteria in Bensonhurst, “and they have a baby, what do you think will become of that baby? Will that baby fit in with other English kids? Do you think that baby will be accepted in Japan? Use your head, Stevie. He’s got no business with a Japanese girl.”

I was so enraged I didn’t know where to start answering him. Yoko Ono, for one thing, was a 38-year-old New Yorker of Japanese descent.

“You’re pathetic,” I finally sputtered, “imposing your patronizing, ignorant views on John Lennon. He’s a brilliant artist, but you don’t give a shit about that, so I’ll tell you something in language you’ll understand: the guy…”

“Watch your language,” he warned me. “You’re not too big for me to smack.”

“As a matter of fact, I am,” I told him, placing my plastic tray, heaped with overcooked brisket and steamed penny carrots, on the Formica table. “Try smacking me. You’re not big enough anymore.” I had turned sixteen a few months earlier, and had grown to exactly my father’s height, a shade under six feet. “Try listening to me for once. Maybe you’ll learn something. Lennon makes a million bucks a year. Every song he writes, he makes another million. Any kid he has, believe me, will be one damned rich half-breed bastard.”

My dad snorted as he sat in his wooden chair. “And society doesn’t matter at all? It doesn’t matter what people think of you?” 

“You think John Lennon cares what you think of him? Earning the disapproval of petty-bourgeois ignoramuses like you is what Lennon lives for.”

He let out a derisive breath of air. “And you admire him.”

“Who do you want me to admire? Bing Crosby?”

He loved Bing Crosby’s deep mellow baritone, his gracious, seemingly modest public persona. Neither of us had any clue of Crosby’s wildly destructive home life, his cruelty to his family members, his general meanness. This was maybe 1969.

“It’s clear you don’t admire me much,” he said.

I had him where I wanted him, rhetorically speaking. Instead of overstating my position by shouting, now it was best to retreat into reasonableness. “Dad,” I said, lowering my voice and deepening its tone as best as I was able to, “is there really that much about you that I should admire?” His most admirable trait, as I knew well, was his strong sense of modesty. I never could get him to admit, for example, what he’d done to earn the drawerful of service medals in his night-table. I understood that he would avoid pointing out his own virtues, and I used my knowledge now.

“If you don’t know the answer to that,” he muttered, blowing on his potato soup, “I guess I’ve failed as a father.”

“Guess so,” I agreed. I had grown skilled at fending off his attempts to make me feel guilty, as I had honed my skill at deflecting my late mother’s fits of rage. Two years earlier, when she and I had argued, she made the mistake of cursing me: “You little son-of-a-bitch,” she’d said. I felt honor-bound to agree. “Well, you got me there,” I said, fourteen years old and very pleased with myself, “I certainly am a son of a bitch.” She didn’t get it for a second, and then she commenced weeping, her fallback tactic when rage failed her. In between that argument and this one, my mom had died, but I was still finding new rhetorical muscles to flex. “But it’s okay, Dad,” I said now, “there are plenty of guys I do admire—Lennon, Eldridge Cleaver, Abbie Hoffman, Lenny Bruce, Henry Miller. I’ll be fine.”

His response to my pantheon of heroes—which was identical to his own list of destructive anti-social monsters—was to pick at his food. “I just don’t want you ruining your life,” he said at last. “Getting yourself mixed up with girls…” he trailed off his sentence. I understood the rest of it: girls of inappropriate backgrounds, meaning girls who weren’t white, weren’t at least middle-class, weren’t Jewish. 

He had little to worry about. At sixteen, my face was a Himalayan relief-map of whiteheads, blackheads, sebaceous oils, acne and acne-scars, and my problems attracting the opposite sex extended far beyond my skin. The worst was probably my shyness, leading to my attempts at wit that invariably sailed right over the heads of the girls I was trying to amuse. Combined with my other top-dozen drawbacks, he had no reason to think me in any danger of involvement with girls of any background whatsoever, though of course I would eventually find plenty of trouble there. (My worst trouble with “girls” would eventually stem from those of his desirable group: to the extent that involvement with women did ruin my life, it was my involvement with white, Jewish, middle-class ones)  In 1969, though, my guiding principle was just “anything to prove my old man wrong.”

“Say it,” I challenged him. “Chinkie girls? Slant-eyed girls? What?”

“Keep your voice down,” he whispered fiercely. 

The only Chinese girl I knew, in fact, was Linda Wong, a rotund, cheerful, flute-playing girl in my “Special Progress” classes in junior high school. Linda was a popular girl with social skills, which I lacked badly. It was comical to imagine my dating Linda Wong. As it happened, her father owned the Chinese restaurant almost directly above the cafeteria we were eating in at the moment, a place my father usually referred to as “The Chink’s” with the casual, thoughtless racism of his generation. I don’t think he understood that the term was offensive, although I’m sure he would have been outraged to find that patrons of his coffee shop in lower Manhattan were to refer to it as “The Kike’s.” Now that I think of it, our fathers both owning restaurants would have given me something to talk about with Linda Wong. 

“Why? If you’re going to be a racist, at least be honest about it. You don’t want me getting mixed up with which girls specifically? Just Oriental girls, or Negro girls too? How about Christian girls?”

“We’ll talk about this at home,” he said tightly, looking around to see that none of the other diners was overhearing us. But usually by the time we got out of the restaurant, we would be too annoyed with each other to continue the conversation. Besides, I knew exactly what he was saying, and he knew I did. He was seeking to teach me the values he had acquired over the years, values that I found obnoxious. 

There was another Chinese girl I had seen around my high school who, unlike Linda Wong, seemed strangely cute. I had noticed her scowling and heard a teacher call her by name, “May Chan,” and one day, returning from Manhattan on the BMT, I spotted her in my subway car. I must have been staring at her, probably trying to assure myself that this was the girl from my school. While I was scrutinizing her face, she came over to me and struck up a conversation, which was strange in itself. Maybe my skin was beginning to clear up, I’m not sure, but by the time the train arrived at Bay Parkway, we walked through the turnstiles together and I continued to engage her in conversation as she walked towards 20th Avenue, in the opposite direction from my house. 

“Wait here,” she said, “wait just one minute.” We were standing in front of a large appliance store. I wasn’t sure why she wanted me to wait for her, but I took it as a good sign. Girls usually made excuses to ditch me.

“No, I’ll come in with you,” I said, and when we entered the store, she found a salesman and began arguing with him over some appliance her family had bought there, and it was quite an argument. 

“You think I some stupid China-girl?” she asked him in a very loud voice. “You think you take advantage of stupid China-girl?” On the train, she had spoken English perfectly, completely without a trace of accent, but now she sounded fresh off the boat. “You no take advantage me,” she sneered, “I take advantage you,” and proceeded to explain in broken English how she wanted her consumer complaint addressed. When she was done, we left the store and she resumed her unaccented conversation with me as if nothing unusual had occurred. This turned out to be the last conversation I ever had with May Chan, and the strangeness of our encounter left me uncomfortably wondering if there might in fact be cultural difficulties in my dating an Asian girl.

I would be damned though if I’d let my dad know of any practical problems. Whenever he asked, I haughtily informed him that my friends were of a variety of races and religions, unlike his friends, and that I scarcely even noticed what someone’s background was. “Your way of choosing friends is very limiting,” I explained. 

So was mine, though I had managed to befriend some black kids, briefly, averaging one black friend every seven years or so. When I was in kindergarten, my first black friend lived next door to us in Bensonhurst, a real rarity, as my neighborhood was almost all Jewish and Italian, with a few families of other white European descent. But Bruce’s dad was the superintendent of the apartment building next door, and my parents were amused that Bruce and I liked to play together. Since boys of five and six principally like playing with varieties of dirt, I would come home filthy and get told, “Go and wash. You look like Bruce,” a remark I found merely descriptive. By the time I figured out the insult it contained to my friend, he’d long since moved. 

In 8th grade I made friends with another black kid, who had gotten bussed into my white neighborhood, a boy with the unlikely name of Cephus Butts. He was a quiet boy, bright enough to get into the S.P. classes, and I discovered in the lunchroom that he liked baseball, a subject dear to my heart. I invited Cephus home several times, where we would play Strat-o-matic, an elaborate baseball boardgame I owned, until he had to catch the B-6 bus back to wherever he lived. Cephus and I stayed friends the two years he was my classmate, but we went to different high schools and I lost touch with him for a few years.

The last time we spoke was in my junior year of college. Entering my dorm one day, I spotted some black kids congregating in the lobby. This was in the mid-1970s, and college life was pretty segregated. There was, I noticed, something peculiar about a tall skinny black kid in the middle of the crowd. He was wearing a purple t-shirt with white lettering on it, and the lettering said “BENSONHURST BEES.” It was our old junior-high gym shirt!

I eyed him carefully. It was possible. I walked into the middle of the crowd and caught his eye. “Excuse me,” I started. The crowd of black students hushed. 

“Whut,” Cephus—because now I was sure it was him—said.

“I don’t mean to interrupt,” I stammered—knowing it was already atrocious form to dare even speak, “but your t-shirt? Do you mind if I were to ask you—where you got it?”

The crowd encircling us sucked in air. I understood that my remark could sound as if I were leading up to an accusation that he had stolen it, and I hurried to explain: “I assume that you got it by going to 281. I mean, I went to 281, that’s where I got mine. Did you go to 281?” 

“Yeah, I went to 281.”

“When? If you don’t mind my asking.” It was obvious that not only did he mind my asking, but the whole crowd minded my asking. He took a very long time before spitting out his answer.

“’Bout six, seven years ago.” He said it in a very unfriendly manner, a manner I hoped to penetrate. I did the math, that was exactly right.

“Did you have an English teacher—named Miss Frimer?”

He nodded up and down.

“Is your name Cephus Butts?” I felt like a panelist on “What’s My Line?” identifying the Mystery Guest.

“Yeah.

“Cephus, it’s me.” I burst into a grin, and told him who I was. “This is fantastic, running into you like this.” I was puzzled at the utter lack of warmth coming from him. I was sure we had parted on the best of terms, and that anyone could recognize the long odds against him showing up in my dorm wearing the one garment that would instantly identify him to me, but I was missing something. As I babbled my apologies for interrupting what he was doing, and asked him to phone me sometime so we could catch up with each other, I was rapidly becoming convinced that he couldn’t wait to get out of the conversation and remove himself, once again, completely from my life.

Around that time in college, I made one other black friend, a guy named Billy Lewis, who was in a writing class I took in sophomore year. We got to talking after class about our work and that of our classmates. Most students at my college lived on campus, but Billy commuted on foot from his parents’ home, through a park reputed to be dangerous, in West Harlem. It was reputed to be dangerous, of course, for white middle-class kids who got lost on the subway and, after consulting the map, decided that the 116th street exit on the east side of the park appeared to be only a short verdant walk to the other 116th street stop on the west side of the park, an error that sometimes resulted in a mugging. But Billy looked sort of imposing—his huskiness, and his youth, and his very dark skin signaled to muggers that there was easier prey to be had. Mostly what looked scary about Billy, though, were his teeth, which scared me even after we’d become friends. When he opened his mouth, he displayed blood-purple gums from which an assortment of misshapen teeth sprung, placed seemingly without regard to normal dental logic.

Billy and I avoided one subject, that of why it was that all our conversations took place in restaurants or libraries or in my dorm. Even when he was walking home, he’d stop on the Morningside Drive side of the park, and we’d talk there until I left him to enter Morningside Park by himself. I don’t know if he was embarrassed to invite a white friend home, or maybe he just didn’t think of me as a friend, or maybe he was concerned, rightly, for my safety walking through the park. Anyway, we never got over that particular barrier in our friendship, and when the writing course was over we stopped hanging out with each other.

All of this is to say that I made some small attempts to make friends with people from different backgrounds, and I considered myself far superior to my closed-minded dad, who tried hard to befriend only those people from backgrounds with which he was comfortable. 

I was on a mission to define myself, mostly by showing that my values were different from his, and part of the pleasure in making friends who weren’t middle-class Jewish kids was that it helped distinguish me from my dad. 

Lately I’ve been looking for traits I have in common with my dad, after so many years of priding myself on my separateness from him. An older cousin shocked me at a family gathering last year by remarking how eerily I’ve come to resemble my dad physically. I believe that my dad, like me, would have come to regard many of our arguments as being natural of the late 1960s, or of being a teenager and a dad, or just as a normal part of growing up, for him and me both. I think if he had lived longer (he died about six months after the conversations I’ve recounted here), we could have found some middle ground.

The other night, as I lay in bed, there was a tribute to John Lennon on TV. His songs were being sung by artists of the next generation, one of them was Lennon’s own son, Sean Lennon, singing “Julia,” a song his father had written in memory of his own long-dead parent. I thought of how healing it must have been for John to write a loving song to his dead mom, and how much more healing it must have felt for Sean to sing it both to John’s memory and for his own mother, Yoko Ono, sitting in the audience. And I thought about how ironic it was to be listening to this song by this singer, a “half-breed bastard,” whose hypothetical birth, had been such a fierce subject of harsh words between my dad and me.

And as he sang, I just lay there in my bed, tears leaking from my eyes, from the joy of knowing surely that my dad and I would have worked out our differences, and from the sadness that we hadn’t, and from the pleasure that Sean had gotten to voice his feelings for his dad, sadly too late to connect, and to his mom, happily in time to connect, and from sympathy for John seeking to write this “song of love,” as he called it, calling to his mother who had died when he was just another mixed-up, screwed-up, inarticulate, angry, self-satisfied, posturing teenager. 

***

Steven Goldleaf, a professor of English at Pace University, is writing a memoir entitled ONLY MOSTLY TRUE.

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§ One Response to “A Song of Love”

  • TSB says:

    “Since boys of five and six principally like playing with varieties of dirt, I would come home filthy and get told, “Go and wash. You look like Bruce,” a remark I found merely descriptive. ”
    -that is great. The whole piece, very good, a nice compliment to the doc I watched last night, “Breslin and Hamill: Deadline Artists,” particularly the irrepressible Breslin, who drew strength from a similar milieu to the one evoked here.

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