Looking Past Each Other

Because we look past each other, because we fail to understand the background and history of other peoples who are different than us, the movement referred to as “Black Lives Matter” has created a lot of controversy.  Sure, black lives matter, but from the point of view of many people, all lives matter.  Yes, all lives do matter, but that misses the point.  History is important, and the facts prove that black men have to a large degree been expendable following the Emancipation Proclamation during the Civil War after which they could no longer be owned as chattel.  Reconstruction following the Civil War brought about a backlash by white people in the South to establish, if not slavery, then at least a white superiority that became known over time as the Jim Crow culture supported by Jim Crow laws.  That very real history of Jim Crow imposed on blacks for almost a century explains why a large number of whites continue to have perceptions drawn from that Jim Crow culture even now, more than fifty years following the successes of the Civil Rights Movement.  Even today, some people of good will fail to see some of the more subtle aspects of this continuing discrimination, often failing  to acknowledge the lingering effects of second-class citizenship on people of color.

Because of this history of violence against blacks, I think it is fitting that there should be a distinction between “Black Lives Matter” and “All Lives Matter”.  The slogan “Black Lives Matter” incorporates [or should do so] that unstated history concerning the ease with which black lives could be expended in the years following Reconstruction and continuing even until today.

We do look past each other and we fail to see those unstated assumptions.  If we could simply restate the slogan like this:  “Because of the history of relationships between blacks and whites in the United States and particularly in the South, there is a perception that black lives do not matter and therefore we want everyone to know that black lives do matter.”

But, as you see, that is not a slogan.  That is not a soundbyte.  Slogans and soundbytes carry unstated assumptions, and because of the fact alone, we continue to look past each other, failing to see the pain and loneliness reflected in each face.

Here is a personal example that I have fictionalized, but it reflects an event that occurred long ago in the Birmingham law firm  Berkowitz, Lefkovits, Vann Patrick & Smith, the firm I joined as a young lawyer in June, 1967. The situation I describe did in fact occur, though all the details but one have been forgotten.. A staff person visited with Jewell [a name I made up because I no longer remember her name] on the street a few weeks after she left our employment. It was the last sentence of Jewell’s account that struck me then and strikes me yet today, and though I’ve forgotten all the details of the event but that one, I have re-constructed the story, juxtaposing the version of two people who share the same event yet fail to understand.  Who would have guessed how far off the mark was Ms. Jenkins?

 

                                    Looking Past Each Other

                                         Birmingham, 1967

  1. JENKINS

When the partners told me to hire a colored, I knew  it wouldn’t work out.  They’re so idealistic.  Why, it’s only been a few short years since the Voting Rights Act.  Not enough time to get things right.  But the partners wanted to hire a colored − thought it was the right thing to do.  Said they wanted our law firm to be one of the first, said they wanted to do their part.

Of course, I knew it was a mistake.  But I kept that to myself − wouldn’t have breathed a word otherwise.  But inside I knew.  Those people are not like you and me.

But, you know, I’ve never been so surprised in all my life.  Jewell was a joy − so tall and thin and graceful, always a smile on her face.  Why, everybody just fell in love with her, even me.  She would make her rounds with the mail, her smile as bright as a sunbeam.  And so cheerful.

During that six months, I changed my attitude entirely.  I thought, how wrong I’d been.

But now!  I just can’t believe it! After all we done for her, she just up and quits. Walked out on Friday, don’t show on Monday. No warning, no notice. That’s the way they are.

For a couple of days, we all wondered.  Even some of the partners were asking − Where is my morning smile?

So I telephoned her home number − guess it was her home − at least the number she gave us when she came.  They said, she ain’t here − got a better job.

So, it’s just like I always figured.  Can’t trust ’em.  Be nice to ’em, this is how they act.  No loyalty.  Well, I’m putting this in her personnel file.  Hope she don’t ever need a reference from here − she’ll be surprised.

And can you believe it? Now they want me to hire another.  They’re just so idealistic.

JEWELL

I’ll never forget my first real job.  I mean a job at a real business, not just domestic work.

Mr. B had told Pastor Small that his firm would like to hire someone to help out − to deliver mail and do other kinds of work around the office, you know, make copies and stuff like that.  Pastor Small knew I’d finished high school but didn’t have a job, so he asked me to call Mr. B.  Mr. B. told me to come in and meet with Ms. Jenkins, the Office Manager, which I did.

Well, she asked me a million questions. I was real nervous − never been around any white people.  Why, I could hardly talk to Ms. Jenkins I was shaking so.  You know, white people are so strange, so serious.  Even when they laugh, their bodies and heads hardly move.  Stiff as a broom handle.  I thought, there’s no way I’m getting this job.

But when it was all over, she told me I’d work out just fine, that I should come in next Monday morning at 8:30.

I was scared silly all weekend, and on Monday morning I was so nervous, jerking all over.  Felt like if I flapped my arms, I’d just fly away.  Nobody in my whole family ever had a job other than domestic or labor.  I’m the first.

Oh, I was nervous that Monday morning.  But most of them made me feel so welcome, right from the start.  I loved my job and I loved all of them, even the lawyers.

I watched the secretaries from the time I came, watched their cool efficiency, and knew that’s what I wanted to do.  I had learned to type in high school, so I went to night school to learn to type better and faster and to take shorthand.  Now I’m ready.

So I saw this ad in the local colored paper for a secretary at a small law firm.  When the lawyer learned I was working at a white firm, he hired me on the spot to be his secretary.  He asked me if I needed to give a notice.  I said what notice, I didn’t know anything about a notice.  No one ever told me about any notices.

I feel bad ’cause I didn’t go see Ms. Jenkins and tell her goodbye.  I really felt close to her and I think she liked me.  And I feel bad ’cause I didn’t say goodbye to the others, Mr. B and the other lawyers and the secretaries.  They were so good to me and I love them so much.  I already miss them and it hasn’t been a week yet.

But I don’t think I could have ever said goodbye to them in person.  No white person has ever seen me cry.

Chervis Isom

The right cross

“Your mother is upset that you’re spending so much time with that Catholic girl. It’s good to have friends, but you shouldn’t get serious with her. She’s Catholic you know, and you can’t change them.”

Those were the words my father said to me that day, though I remember none of the circumstances that led up to our brief discussion.

Maybe he said something more, maybe he pushed me a little too hard, maybe I was feeling my independence at seventeen years of age, maybe one of those reasons, or all of them  together, caused me to bow up.

“By God, I’ll be friends with anybody I choose,” I said, or words to that effect. The only words I specifically recall uttering were “By God….”

We were standing outside the back door in the sparse grass and gravel, very close and face-to-face. We were the same height, he and I, and  we were eye to eye. My father’s eyes were large and round and a vivid blue, level and steady and unblinking in that instant, flashing with rage and certitude, even as he tensed all over, his muscles and ligaments and bone suddenly contracting as a preface to some violent release I could feel coming before it happened.

The thing that fascinated me in that moment so long ago was the red lightning bolts within those deep blue eyes that leaped from nowhere as I uttered those words. I say fascinated, but I think I mean terrified. The instant I said what I said in all my independence, I knew I had overstepped my bounds. Lightning snapped in his eyes, his body tensed, and I flinched. My father  was a man of action.

I was so focused on and paralyzed by his eyes in that moment that I never until the last instant saw it coming, the right cross that hammered the left side of my face. Then his eyes, his face, everything disappeared.

I came to myself a few seconds later, or many seconds later for all I know, on my knees in the gravel where I had sunk. He was standing before me, and all I could see were his legs as he shifted from foot to foot like a boxer, itching to hit me again. Yet I could somehow feel that he was  fighting that larger battle within himself to hold back.

I struggled to my feet and stood there before him, my arms at my side, now declining to look into his eyes. This was no time to consider any further challenge to my father.

At last, he recovered control of himself and said, “Boy, don’t ever sass me again.”

I heard myself say, “Yes sir.”

And that was the end of that conversation, but it was decidedly not the end of my relation with the good Italian Catholic girl, though it did mark the fact that my parents would not willingly approve my romantic relation with the girl from the Roman Catholic Church.

My parents, like so many Protestants from the fundamental wing of Protestantism in which I grew up, thought the Roman Catholic Church was not only some cult and not really Christian, but was also anti-American, and that Catholics would be loyal to the Vatican over our own country. That strange attitude toward the Roman Catholic Church was  virulent in our country from the early Twentieth Century when so many Catholics immigrated to our country from Southern and Eastern Europe, until John Kennedy, our first Catholic president, was assassinated on November 22, 1963. After that, it seems to have gradually faded until it is now a non-issue politically, though it may continue to be a personal issue for some Protestants who fear a mixed marriage with a Catholic for their son or daughter.

This event with my father occurred in late 1956, when prejudice against Catholics was still high. Only a short time later, John Kennedy campaigned for the presidency against a wave of anti-Catholic invective, which continued during his presidency.

Now, more than a half-century has passed. I think back to my days as a teenage boy when a single pretty            Italian Catholic girl changed forever my view of Catholics and the Catholic religion. I am reminded of an event a few years later in November 1963 when I read a letter to the editor of The Birmingham News from Abe Berkowitz,  a brave Jewish lawyer in Birmingham who eloquently defended President Kennedy against the published invective of that time. For several years, the President had suffered vast abuse from letter writers whose published letters saw in his presidency the “end times,” often suggesting the our country was “going to hell in a  handbasket,” and predicting that ultimately the Pope would rule our country.

Mr. Berkowitz’s letter was published on November 14, 1963, and I took great comfort in that letter, although for only a few days, for on November 22, 1963, only eight days later, President  Kennedy was assassinated in Dallas.

Mr. Berkowitz’s letter  so inspired  me that  eighteen  months later, in the spring of 1965, as a first year law student, I sat  in Mr. Berkowitz’s law office in an interview for a job as a summer law clerk, a job I did not get, although  ultimately two years later he hired me as a lawyer and became my mentor, and my life was changed forever.

I wrote about that interview in my memoir, The Newspaper Boy, but I failed in my memoir to write about this incident with my father.  It is a painful memory and one that I wish I had written about in my book. I think that I simply chose not to place my father in a poor light. Loyalty. It is a particularly strong bond between father and son regardless of the natural strains such a relation bears, for, after all, a young man must establish his own independence. Though I’m sure I received some spankings as a young boy, that singular event was the only time my father ever  struck me.

We never spoke of that event again, my father and I.  I never apologized for sassing my Dad and he never apologized for striking me with his fist. I wonder sometimes if that event played itself out before his eyes over the years as it played itself out before mine, and I wonder if an apology dropped between us somewhere down the line might have shaded the sharpness of the image. While it was I who received the blow, my dad was a man of conscience and I wonder if his memory of the event did not cause him more  pain and regret than did mine.

Isn’t it strange – and wonderful – that our lives can change and seek new directions because of an encounter with someone who at first seems so different from us. In my own case, I was a kid whose parents came to Birmingham from Northwest Alabama bringing little more with them than their xenophobia, and I, their son, carried seeds of those same fears of people different than us.  And then an Italian Catholic girl opened  a gate for me to a world of ethnicity, proving to me that those who may seem so different are not in fact that different at all−and to the extent they are different, those differences are interesting and charming and matters to be respected and  honored.  That view into an ethnic world of my Catholic friend proved to me that the anti-Catholic propaganda of the day was not only misplaced, it was ignorant and evil. And that experience with her opened for me a larger world and thus the opportunity and the way  a few years later to seek a job with a Jewish lawyer whom I did not know but who, through that letter he bravely published,  had become a hero to me.

 

Chervis Isom,  2016

THE FICKLE NATURE OF MEMORY

I am at a retirement age and no longer bound up in the daily struggle to make a living. I think back over my life and wonder why my memories are so sparse. I know people who can open their trunks of memories and it’s like opening a pressure cooker– things boil out in great detail.

When I open my dusty trunk of memories, I must get a flashlight to find a thread here and there in the deepest corners. Where did my memories go? Did I ever have any memories? Where did I put them?

Mark Twain said, “A clear conscience is the sure sign of a bad memory.” If that were true, my bad memory should afford me a clear conscience, but I can assure you my conscience is not clear.  I seem to recall with great regret those multiple events in my life for which my conscience  berates me from time to time.  I suppose one might say I remember the bad but forget the good. Kind of like a wife, some might joke.

This has become a matter of great concern for me, and I think about it far too much. I wonder, do I have Alzheimer’s disease? Am I in some initial stage of dementia? Why do I so often need to search for a word or a  name? Why do others need to provide that information I search for?

Perhaps I should see a doctor, but in truth I’m afraid of what a doctor might say to me. So I lumber from one search to the next, substituting a word that isn’t quite right for the word that I cannot remember, and that’s wrong of course. It was Mark Twain who said:

“The difference between the almost right word – and the right word is….the difference     between the lightning bug and the lightning.”

I remember yesterday I was writing something and I hit a wall – couldn’t remember the word I needed – finally wrote around it by using the phrase  “what if ” instead of. . . but  now, suddenly I remember. . . The word is “hypothetical”.

Here’s my theory about all this, which is so much more satisfactory than the possibility of dementia:

The memory is just another muscle within our grand human design. Like my biceps, my memory muscle will wither if not routinely exercised. It will atrophy and become as useless as the appendix.

Historically, men [meaning the generic human race] lived in rural settings.  They gathered at night, their extended family groups, around a campfire or the fireplace.  There was no entertainment to speak of, so they told stories, and all those stories were based in memory.  Some of the stories arose from epic events that occurred generations before, and became the glue that held a clan or tribe together, that created an incipient national spirit.

Even after stories were written and printed, the oral tradition continued, generation after generation, until recent times, and it was memory that drove the story-telling.

I remember as a child my family would go back to the country, to Franklin County where I was born, to visit with grandparents and extended family. It would be the dead of winter and the larger family would sit in cane  bottom chairs in a semicircle before the great blast furnace inside the rock fireplace. I would stand within that semicircle, my coat on, and would turn, burning on one side, freezing on the other, and turn again,  trying to stay warm, and half listening to one after the other begin a story−”Do you remember when. . . .?”

I was thirteen when I got my first newspaper route, and after that I delivered newspapers seven days a week and never went back to the country except for funerals. I grew up in Birmingham isolated from my larger family group and from that oral tradition.

And of course my father bought our first television, a small black and white model, when I was about twelve years old, shortly before I became a newspaper boy.  That, I believe, to be one of the   real culprits in my failure to make and keep memories.

We, as a society, watch television instead of interacting as a family or as a community. Books have been written on loss of community.  See for  example Bowling Alone by Robert D.Putnam.

So does this failure of the oral tradition, this trend toward isolation of the individual from community interaction, this sense of realizing that each of us is “lost in the cosmos,” as Walker Percy put it –does that somehow lead to a loss of individual memory?

And if that is not reason enough for our loss of memory, then look at the way we live today with an I-phone in our hands and anything we need to know we can learn from Mr. Google in an instant. There is simply no reason to remember when a world of information lies at our fingertips. If I need just the right word, the mot juste, [how in hell did I remember that one?], I may simply consult a synonym in the Thesaurus app on my I -phone.  No need to remember all those similar words. The question, of course, is whether this ability to instantly find information will obviate our need to memorize, to remember, and perhaps even the need to think, to reason, and if there is a connection, a cause and effect, how will this ultimately change the nature and character of the human species?  Will this loss of reason lead to more conflict or less?  Will we as a race become more loving, more affectionate. Or more remote, more anti-social?  Will society break down? Will we bring down our own houses, as we have recently witnessed in Syria, so that at the end nothing will be left but homeless people standing in the ruins, hiding from each other because of ideological differences and loyalties we neither understand nor can bridge, reminiscent of Walker Percy’s dystopic novel, Love in the Ruins?

We are working harder than ever, each of us caught up in our own search for a better life, always looking forward to what a better life is awaiting us at retirement, though I’m beginning to see that a life with a truncated memory may not be much of a life at all.  How can we put our lives in perspective if we don’t have a sense of where we’ve come from and those people who have been so important in our lives.

I think back to my father and mother, my brother and sister, to all those people who made me who I am and gave me my values. I have forgotten or half remember  important events in my life, while I  remember some events that mean little or nothing.    How sparse are my memories, how atrophied that memory muscle has become.  How very fickle is this thing called memory. Now more than ever, before I’ve come to view memory as an illusive, elusive thief, who has taken my past and hidden it, distorting it,  dribbling it out to suit itself.

And now, as  I grieve for my lost memories, a small insignificant remembrance comes floating by to taunt me, to make me feel like an idiot.

 

The Small Black Cricket

The fog rises this morning,
a thin diaphanous veil
floating among the high rise buildings,
then quietly drifting away.

I watch in profound silence,
reminded of the thin, sparse
quality of my remembrances
and how they too have drifted away.

So strange how the mind works—
all those many memories lost; the good
advice my Dad gave me, time and
time again—all plunged into the abyss.

The things my brother did and said,
my roommate for all those years we lived at home
walking the railroad tracks, delivering newspapers,
tinkering on motorcycles—so little I recall.

And my sister, seven years younger and
more or less housebound, obviously was a keen observer
of life; for she recalls
more of my adolescence than I;

and my mother, beautiful woman,
with dark, dark hair and
piercing green eyes—so little left of what she said beyond
her desperate yearnings for me and her church.

And my first girlfriend—
the girl on the Boulevard—I remember
her shining black hair, her luminous hazel eyes,
holding her hand in my uncertain grip, her warm kiss,

The memory of my hopeless longing,
I remember so well—yet what
in God’s name did we speak of,
she and I?

Why, then, having forgotten
such matters of substance,
does that single insignificant moment
stand out so vivid to me?

I was a small boy then, maybe eight or nine years old,
and I was told to cut the grass out front,
a small lawn falling into a sidewalk,
grass between there and the street.

It was a push mower, the kind with two wheels
that rotate the curving blades between.
The handle was as high as my head
and I couldn’t get my body weight behind my push.

I amused myself by pushing the mower on the
sidewalk where the blade whirred
enthusiastically, as if I were making progress,
Though in fact I was making none.

There on the sidewalk perched a small
black cricket, harmless and minding its own business.
I whirred on, thinking surely the lawnmower would pass harmlessly overhead,
As it had not yet cut a single weed.

And then—to my horror− a thousand small remnants burst from the whirring blade,
a black cloud hovering a moment before my startled eyes,
and then settling on the sidewalk before my planted feet.
My heart sank . . . ; and I grieve the poor cricket

as if it had been a family pet.

Chervis Isom

  2015

“The Saddest Note, New Orleans 2004.”

The book I published, The Newspaper Boy, was a memoir. I have written very little fiction, and the only short story of mine that has been published can be found in The Louisville Review, Volume 75, Spring 2014.

The title is “The Saddest Note, New Orleans 2004.” The editorial staff at The Louisville Review nominated the story for a Pushcart Prize for the year 2014.  The heroic character in the story is Martha.  Though my own wife is Martha, this is a work of fiction, and no event such as this actually occurred for us.   I do hope you enjoy this story.

 

 

THE SADDEST Note

                   NEW ORLEANS, 2004

By Chervis Isom

The streetcar screeched to a halt on the slick tracks, windows all afog.  The doors swung open and we leaped aboard, relieved to get out of the rain.  I dropped coins in the slot and, as the car jolted into motion, we lurched down the aisle.

Exhausted, my wife, Martha, dropped onto the bench seat, rivulets from her raincoat soaking into the tweedy fabric, scummy from dozens of wet riders through the day. A long walk in the rain on Magazine Street had worn us down as we visited shop after shop, even though we had stopped once for coffee and pastries and again for lunch. We had made our way over to St. Charles and caught the trolley toward downtown and our hotel. It was only the second day of our short vacation and already the rain had dampened not only our clothes but our spirits as well.

It was then that we heard the sound, a protracted, mournful note, rising in intensity, then falling, sad and lonely as Taps when lights go out, but this was not Taps and though we were tired the day was not yet done.

A few seats behind us, a thin, young, black man sat, trumpet to his lips, head bowed, eyes closed against the world.

The note hung in the air, slowly intensified, then, dropping into a lower register, it withered into a ragged, lifeless plea, flickering weakly like a candle as it gutters out….then after a breath, began again a similar litany – a never ending cry of pain.

It was the sound an inarticulate child might have made if separated from its mother, the sound of despair as deep as a moonless night.

Was he stoned?  Was he going home after having been fired from his job?  Had his wife told him he was worthless and thrown him out?  Did he have hungry children at home, and the banker had turned him down for a loan?  It had been years before, but I too had felt that kind of despair.

As the note hovered around me, drawing me into myself, reminding me of the despair I too had felt, Miles Davis and his “Sketches of Spain” came to mind, the saddest sound I thought I’d ever heard drawn from a musical instrument.

The hair on my neck sprang up and a shiver vibrated down my spine. I hunched my shoulders, drawing my elbows into my ribs, against the autumn chill and the wilting note.

“Knock if off, you weirdo!”

The words snapped me to attention. A beefy middle aged man from the back of the car bolted to his feet, his face red and enraged.

One hand gripping the pole, the other clenched into a fist, crouching, legs spread, spoiling for a fight, he towered over the trumpeter.

“I said, knock it off. You got no right to blow that horn in here, disturbing the peace like this!!”

The trumpet never wavered, though the wailing ceased for only a moment. The trumpeter lifted his eyes, but they were fearless and flat and far away, lifeless and opaque. Then his eyelids slowly sank against the assailant as he resumed in a lower range his anguished moan.

I have never been one to leap into action. My nature has always been to think it through.  I think humanity is made up of two kinds of folks –the Thinkers and the Doers.  Whenever on those occasions I’ve decided that action was justified, the need had usually by then been met by someone else. So in that moment, as I dithered, my Martha leaped from her seat, brandishing her dripping umbrella like a sword.

“Get back to your seat, you idiot!”

She nailed him menacingly with her eyes, her umbrella cocked for action.

He glared as he retreated, but could not meet the unwavering gaze of the resolute school teacher.

Muttering, the beefy man dissolved into his seat, and pulled his hat low over his eyes in embarrassment.

She abandoned the attacker to his own humiliation, then planted herself beside the young man, the personification of primitive maternal instinct.  I took my position beside her, to show my full support. The lightning coruscating from her golden warrior eyes challenged everyone…even me…as I dug deeper and deeper within myself.

I said nothing as we lurched along, our stop having long passed by.

Unperturbed, the trumpeteer’s single note wailed and bent and broke and wailed again in unceasing pain…

In tandem with the screeching of the trolley on the tracks…

In tandem with the screeching in my heart.