After viewing the marvelous “Pompeii” exhibit at Philadelphia’s wonderful Franklin Institute Sunday afternoon I was strolling with my Haitian libation and her two kids up the street for a much anticipated special dinner.
At one point a young black couple furtively eyed the four of us and softly remarked: “You see a lot of strange sights in the city.”
Hmm… undoubtedly they had never seen such a bon vivant, debonair, good-looking Jewish guy like moi before.
But then shortly afterwards Yasmine, the kids and I were laughing and teasing one another about how quickly life can change as it did when Mt. Vesuvius suddenly blew its top on Pompeii. Just as unexpectedly a gruff, hard-faced middle-aged man with a thick shock of grey and black hair began barking at us from his perch on an iron rail:
“Salt and pepper sucks!” roared the shabby fellow through the crisp late afternoon air. Beside him was his dilapidated bicycle that in reflection seemed much like the man. That is, they both started out brand new but got used-up, deflated and all but discarded much too quickly. An emptiness permeated about him.
Then he repeated himself in case Yasmine’s 4-year-old daughter hadn’t heard his impertinence.
“Salt and pepper sucks!”
At that Aly, Yasmine’s 12-year-old son who is all ingenuous coltish legs, turned to me and wondered curiously: “What does that mean?” But then he suddenly caught the drift and this time wondered: “Why would he say that?”
There are benchmark moments in every young life. And I recognized in Aly’s bright eyes that how I responded could be one of them.
Like the week before after we had departed the Philadelphia car show and were walking by the Hard Rock Café. I pointed to a middle-aged hefty couple thru the large plate glass window. They were balanced on stools with their backs to the bar.
They obviously weren’t having fun. Not talking to one another. Nor to anyone else.
What do you see Aly?
He studied the ruggedly dressed couple and finally said: “They don’t look like they’re having a good time.”
And why’s that? I asked. He floundered for a moment until I told him.
“They came out looking for something to provide them a good time. You can’t seek a good time, Aly. You have to create it. Anything in life is what you make of it. For them anticipation is always going to be better than realization.”
I made him repeat that. He said it there. And later in the week in a text he reminded me of what I had imparted. Just like I reminded him what he had imparted to me earlier that night inside the auto show, which was only the second time we had seen one another.
When he asked what cars I wanted to see I replied: The floor ‘models’ – blonde or brunette.
He thinks I am weird. And his mother appreciatively agrees.
Then I tried to get him thrilled by muscle cars. At the Corvette exhibit I climbed into one while explaining to him and all the aging fathers that: “This is known as a ‘sure thing.’”
All the ogling fathers smiled, imagining the busty blonde with her hair blowing next to them. And the ‘sure thing’ to follow.
But Aly wasn’t interested at all in my smart ass remarks… or such cars. He gravitated to the hybrids and electric models. And he was excited. Especially by the ones with such boring pedestrian colors.
“So this is what you want to take your 12-year-old French tennis mate out in,” I wondered to his blushing face. I wasn’t supposed to know about her and his Valentine’s Day desire. “You know, kid, you make me believe there’s hope for the future.”
“But don’t let that over-white Main Line prep school you go to turn you into a Volvo driving liberal.”
He had no idea what the heck I was squawking about. But at the moment, we were bonding.
Now I had to find something else to anchor this awkward moment with this degenerate racist. In many ways in many cultures it is said that it takes but a moment to destroy a boy; and a lifetime to rebuild the ashes.
The unhappy degenerate repeated his remark once more. At that I hugged Aly, in a neck lock. I pointed to the disarrayed fellow, just a couple of feet away, and mockingly offered: “You know, Aly, there are a lot of stupid fools in the world. And right here is obviously another one. What do you think we should do with him?”
Confusion flashed across his clear, youthful face.
“Spank him?” I suggested in a joking voice. “Tickle him until he cries Uncle? Tell his Mommy?”
“I know,” I said to Aly who is quite a budding tennis prodigy. “Let’s demonstrate our backhands on something other than tennis.”
At that Aly tried to laugh. But his nerves got to him.
And as we all continued a few steps on he asked: “But what if he had a knife?”
And I could only respond: “What if I have a bigger knife?”
“Look, Aly,” I smiled, “you never pick a fight with an ugly person; because they’ve got nothing to lose. And that man is u-g-l-y!”
“How ugly is he? Come on,” I insisted, “Give me some ugly jokes.”
I rambled a few to give him an idea.
He was so ugly I needed a second opinion.
He was so ugly even his boomerang wouldn’t come back.
Whaddaya think, Aly?
So Aly tried one: He’s so ugly when he visited the zoo they wouldn’t let him out.
Good one, I cheered. And then we both sauntered out a few more:
He’s so ugly he ought to be on the cover of National Geographic.
When he was born he was so ugly the doctor slapped his mother.
He’s so ugly his doctor was a vet.
He’s so ugly when he was born his mother said he was a treasure, and his father said: So let’s bury him.
So he and I stood there, pointing at the miscreant, and laughed at our stupid jokes. And the fool.
“He shouldn’t say things like that,” Aly insisted.
So I said with all sincerity that: “A fool only says what he knows. . And going to the bathroom is about all that fool is capable.”
And then I related that there was a famous lady who once said that no one can make you feel inferior without your consent.
He chewed on that cud for a bit. And while he was mulling things over I asked if he wanted me to go outside and have a man to man talk with the fellow.
Aly thinks I am crazy. But he likes that. And his little sister is happy as long as I buy her French fries.
But Aly did ask again about the man possibly being dangerous.
We are all dangerous at times, I said. Just pick your time cautiously. There are a lot of ways of beating people without a gun or a knife. I prefer humiliation. That is, if they’re smart enough to understand… and didn’t waste their 12 years in the 3rd grade.
But meanwhile, I added: There are two kinds of fools: Those who can’t change their opinions; and those who won’t.
Aly probably didn’t comprehend. But he laughed anyway.
Then I intoned guardedly. However, every once in a while it just feels good to remind somebody that they are a bigger asshole than is allowed at this party. You know, mix it up with them. Win or lose you still feel better. But if you ever cross that line, Aly, remember there are consequences. And you are black. And I am a Jew. So we’re always going to be blamed in the end. Just make sure that if you ever cross that line you know what you are crossing into.
God saves us, Aly – except from fools. And prejudices are what fools use for reason.
He seemed to swallow what I said, for he resumed eating heartily – as if his young world was no longer restless.
And I could only think:
And that’s yDrewIS on dis penal colony…