Having the biggest breasts in the entire sixth grade may be great if you're a girl but not if you're a boy, and it didn't matter that by freshman year I'd lost twenty pounds and grown fourteen inches, and by sophomore year was a basketball star and class president: Years of teasing, bullying and rejection had taken their toll.
Maybe that's why in the early spring of senior year I got upset when Jacobs, whose head resembled a silver dollar balancing on edge, told me about Miss Kohl's tutoring project. Because even though I wasn't a genius like Jacobs and the others she'd asked to volunteer, I'd at least had experience with black kids. Wasn't I the only white player on the Exquisites in the Roxbury summer basketball league? And didn't Miss Kohl's college reference say that I'd done a fabulous job in a potentially tense situation? I just didn't understand how my guidance counselor, Brookline High School's most sensitive soul, could fail to realize that I'd want to tutor.
I thanked Jacobs for his tip, marched to Miss Kohl's office, told her that I heard about the project, and asked why she'd left me out.
Miss Kohl had a way of sucking in her cheeks that made her look like a mouse. And when she tried to answer my question, though she didn't squeak, she might just as well have. Because in trying to avoid admitting that she'd recruited only the "smart" kids as tutors, she rattled off one lame excuse after another. But when she said that she thought I was only interested in sports and I shot back, "It's not fair to pigeonhole me," she finally changed her tune and said, "You have a point, Phil." So, that Sunday afternoon at the high school steps I met Miss Kohl and a few kids with cars—including Jacobs who offered to drive me—and set out for "the ghetto."
We arrived in about thirty minutes, parked, and double-timed it down Blue Hill Avenue to a storefront window that had Roxbury Children's Center painted across in childish-looking white letters. Next door was a walk-up with a steep staircase which we climbed single file, and at the top we came to a large room where second-hand desks and chairs had been arranged neatly in clusters of two.
About half a dozen black kids who looked between eight and ten were horsing around, but as soon as they saw us they settled down and paired off with their tutors. Miss Kohl introduced me to Reverend Lane, a young white minister dressed in blue jeans, denim jacket and clerical collar, and told him that I was interested in the tutoring project. He looked up, said "Welcome, Phil Schnein," shook my hand, and then proceeded to ignore me as he told Miss Kohl about his voter registration work down south, and pointed to a catalog from the University of Mississippi displayed on a table with a sign next to it saying, "Ole Miss, the school for you." She laughed out loud because in those days Ole Miss was notorious for its segregation policy. I felt like a fifth wheel, so I went to the table and browsed through the 1962-63 college catalog, and after a while I overheard Reverend Lane say there weren't any kids waiting for tutors but he would ask around. Miss Kohl came over to me to explain, but I told her I had heard, and she said "Be patient," and then she joined Reverend Lane going from desk to desk to supervise.
I kept busy looking at the Ole Miss catalog until I heard footsteps coming up the long staircase and saw a short, chubby white lady with a face that was round like a cat's but without the pointy ears, with a boy who I figured was her son, chubby but taller, maybe twelve or thirteen, with freckled skin and a towering red cowlick not unlike Woody Woodpecker's. They were standing in the doorway looking bewildered, so I interrupted Reverend Lane and motioned in their direction. He greeted them and I went back to the table and pretended to read while eavesdropping on the conversation. The kid didn't say a word. He just stood still, like a scared deer, his arm interlocked tightly with his mother's as she explained, in a thick Yiddish accent that reminded me of my grandparents' voices, that she saw a flyer many months ago about tutoring and she kept putting it off, but finally decided to do something because her son, Stanley, was doing worse and worse at school.
Reverend Lane listened and then gave them a quick overview of the project, which I appreciated hearing because no one had bothered explaining things to me. But when he made a special point of saying that the center's mission was to serve the needs of Negro children, I practically dropped the Ole Miss catalog on the floor, because I fully expected him to act like the Mississippi segregationists and show Stanley and his mother the door. Whether he actually considered turning them down, I'll never know. The tone of his voice suggested to me that he was leaning in that direction, but to his credit he glanced over his shoulder, caught my eye, and waved me over.
After introducing us and announcing that I would be Stanley's tutor, Reverend Lane asked me to help set up some desks and chairs, but Mrs. Coopleman shook her head no and said that she'd like me to tutor Stanley at their house, which was just a few doors away, because they felt safer there. Reverend Lane said that it would be O.K. with him if it was O.K. with everybody else. I had no problem with the idea of going to their house, so Reverend Lane called Miss Kohl over to fill her in on what was happening, and she said that it was fine with her, and that it must have been by the grace of God that everything had worked out.
On the walk to the Cooplemans', Stanley never let go of his mother's arm and didn't talk, not even when I asked him about his favorite sport, and she explained that he's shy because she's afraid to let him go outside without her, and he hardly ever gets to talk to strangers. I glanced at the people passing by. They were black but looked safe enough to me and I thought how odd we must have looked in their eyes, three whites practically trotting, with me being so tall and the Cooplemans round and small.
The house was a dilapidated two-family with grayish-green asphalt shingles, and several broken windows on the street level. Mrs. Coopleman wanted me to come in but I didn't want to risk keeping Jacobs waiting, so I told her that I'd be there the same time next Sunday. She said that I should ring the outside bell and they'd buzz me in, and then I should go upstairs to the second floor and knock four times—dah. . . ddada—like the song on Dragnet, otherwise they wouldn't open their door. I bent down close to Stanley's face and hummed "dah. . . dadada" and he laughed and we all said goodbye.
Back at the center, I touched base with Reverend Lane and Miss Kohl and hooked up with Jacobs who was just finishing his own tutoring session. We were both hungry and wanted to stop for lunch, and I told him about the G & G Deli near Morton Street where I used to go with my mother's father before he died, but Jacobs wanted real American food, so he drove towards the Howard Johnson's near the Jamaica Way and Peter, Paul and Mary were singing on the radio.
"Who's the white kid I saw you with?" Jacobs asked.
"Stanley," I said. "Lane ran out of Negroes, and all of a sudden this Jewish kid shows up. He's probably the last Jewish kid in Roxbury."
"Why waste your time with a Jew? The idea is to help Negroes. That's what the colleges want to see."
"I'm not tutoring to impress anyone," I said. "And besides, I'm going to UMass. They gave me a basketball scholarship."
"UMass," Jacobs said. "You're probably the first BHS class president too dumb to get into Harvard."
I felt like putting Jacobs through the windshield but I flashed on that time in fifth grade when I had to meet with Dr. Meyerowitz, the school psychologist. His office reeked so badly from his breath that I cut a silent fart in hope of deodorizing the atmosphere. (It didn't work.) Dr. Meyerowitz taught me to control my temper by counting to ten, something I did so many times in elementary school that the cumulative total must have been in the millions.
What triggered the counseling session was an incident in gym class. We boys were in the locker room drying off after our showers and the kid standing next to me, Lester "the Molester" Plotkin, tried to rationalize the fact that he had an erection by arguing that my tits were so big and my dick so small that I looked like a girl.
When it came to defending my tits, I didn't have a leg to stand on, but I felt that I had a reasonable case to make on behalf of my penis: "It only looks small," I said, "because my gut is so big."
Plotkin started shouting, "Small dick, small dick," and when the kids joined in, the mostly tile and metal locker room boomed with their chant. What could I do? Shout back, "Big gut, big gut"? The kids wouldn't have been able to hear my voice, and even if they did, would I have felt any better if they were chanting "big gut" instead? I decided that it was a time for action, not for words, so I grabbed Plotkin, stuffed him in a locker, slammed the door shut and kicked it and kicked it with such fury that the school had to call the fire department to pry the skinny shmuck out.
Dr. Meyerowitz' advice still worked. I counted to ten while reliving the story, and by the time I finished I'd calmed down enough to put part two of Dr. Meyerowitz' technique into practice—try to understand what's so bad in a person's life that makes him want you to feel as awful as he does. In Jacobs' case, it was easy: He had a super-critical mother who dominated her family as well as the school committee which she chaired, and he had a big brother who was so successful that poor Jacobs, despite being brilliant and a good miler, hated himself, and couldn't help but want his friends to feel worthless too.
I didn't swear. I probably didn't even sound angry. I just told Jacobs that from now on I'd be riding my bike to Roxbury and that I wouldn't need him to drive me. "Then to hell with Howard Johnson's wonderful world of twenty-eight flavors," he said, speeding past the restaurant to take me straight home.
My parents weren't wild about the idea of my going to Roxbury in the first place, let alone riding my bike over there, because to them Roxbury meant Negroes and Negroes meant danger. But I argued that I rode my bike and played ball there twice a week the previous summer without having a single problem, and that now, for God's sake, I'd only be spending about an hour a week with a little Jewish boy in his home. Dad kept clearing his throat in that nervous way of his that drove me crazy, and Ma's lower lip kept twitching in that nervous way of hers that drove me almost as crazy. After about half a minute of silence—during which I decided that Dad looked like Pablo Picasso, and Ma like Anne Frank would have if she had survived and grown up—I said, "That's it, I'm doing it." And on my bike-ride to Stanley's the following Sunday, I remembered what I'd realized in the summer—how far apart Roxbury and Brookline seemed in people's minds but how close they were in reality.
I got to Stanley's without a hitch, locked my bike by the frame to the banister in the downstairs hallway, and went upstairs where I knocked like Dragnet. Even before Mrs. Coopleman closed the door behind me, she started yelling at Stanley to get his homework, and I heard a man—his father in another room—yelling in heavily accented English that Stanley was a lazy boy, good for nothing, that he knew the tutor was coming and should have had everything ready.
I don't mean to be disrespectful but the best way to describe Mr. Coopleman—and, his wife too, come to think of it—is that he looked like an oversized dwarf, but what struck me even more than his physical appearance was how he stared, because even when he stood a foot or two in front of me and looked right at me, it seemed as if he was gazing far away, and I remember thinking that he had a kind of double vision, as if what was immediately before his eyes was overshadowed by some distant scene visible only to him.
It was impossible to work with Stanley while his parents sat with us at the kitchen table criticizing him every time he read aloud, and I wished we could have had some privacy but I didn't know how to ask. So Stanley and I struggled, him feeling more embarrassed and harassed every minute, and defending himself from his parents' barbs by making short, guttural sounds that sounded like the muffled shrieks of a wounded elephant in a Tarzan movie. I felt like I was torturing him, and it was weird because the Cooplemans were yelling at him for being lazy, and there I was feeling guilty because I had tons of my own unfinished schoolwork piled on my desk back home.
Mrs. Coopleman must have had her fill of the chaos, because she called a halt to the lesson, cleared away Stanley's books and piled a bunch of Ring Dings and Yodels—those yummy little cream-filled, frosted chocolate cakes—on the table for Stanley and me to eat. I was free to have as many as I wanted—and did—but poor Stanley got yelled at for making a pig of himself. All of a sudden, Mr. Coopleman asked me what was wrong with his son, as if I was a psychiatrist or a real teacher or something, and since he'd put me on the spot I figured I'd just tell him what I thought, that Stanley could read O.K., but that he talked a little funny, as if his tongue was used to moving a certain way and had to learn new moves in order to be able to pronounce the English words, and that what he probably really needed was help with speaking, not reading, because he could read all right, it was just hard to understand him. I said some kids where I went to school stuttered and got pulled from class a couple of times a week for speech therapy, and maybe Stanley could get that at his school. But Mrs. Coopleman said that Stanley's school was worse than the Franklin Park Zoo, that they had nothing like that, the teachers were scared and the kids fought and made noise, dangled each other by the legs from the windows. I said that's why my family moved to Brookline when I was starting school, because they wanted me to have a good education, and I guess that it was compared to what Stanley was getting.
I'd been there for about an hour and a half and thought that I should be getting along, but for the Cooplemans it was as if they hadn't talked to anybody in years, and Mrs. Coopleman started cooking hot dogs and while we were waiting she told Stanley to get his saxophone and he came back and started playing, and all of a sudden he became a real kid with a glowing smile and a bobbing head and a stomping foot, and his parents and I couldn't help but wiggle along with him. When Stanley finished, I told him he was great, and while he was beaming Mrs. Coopleman piped in that his music teacher thought so too but had moved to Milton and the lessons had stopped because Milton was too far away.
Things weren't as chaotic during my next visit because Mr. Coopleman wasn't home but at the bakery in Brookline where he worked. I was helping Stanley with his math homework when Mrs. Coopleman interrupted to serve us Yodels and Ring Dings. While Stanley and I made pigs of ourselves, she left the kitchen for a minute and came back with a big black book for me to see. It was a photo album that showed what life was like for Jews under the Nazis in Poland, and she turned the pages until she came to a picture of a gallows where the bodies of several Jews were hanging side-by-side.
"That's what they did to my brother," she said. "They dragged him out of the house and killed him just like that."
Then she rolled up her sleeve and showed me the number tattooed on her forearm. I had never actually seen one of those tattoos before, and I felt weird, as if she had exposed her breast and I didn't want to look but I also wanted to see.
"They killed him," she said, "and sent my father, mother and me to Auschwitz. I never saw them again." She paused for a moment, scanning the pages. "So tell me, why they did this to us?"
"I guess the Jews weren't strong enough to stop them," I said, "and nobody was willing to help." But it was as if I hadn't said anything, because she just looked through me and repeated, "Why they did this to us?" Stanley's eyes met mine as if to say, I know how you feel, this is what I go through all the time.
"Can I see the rest of the pictures?" I said, and Mrs. Coopleman turned the pages slowly until we came to the end of the book.
"Once my mother told me," I said, "that when she was a little Jewish girl in Russia there were pogroms, that some Russians hated us for being communists, others for supporting the tsar, some because we were rich, others because we were poor, some for acting like Russians, others for acting like Jews, and all of them blamed us for killing Jesus Christ, but my mother's point was that the Russians hated us because we were Jews, and to justify killing us any old reason would do."
When I left to go home, I found my bike frame chained to the banister where I'd left it, but the wheels were gone. I climbed the stairs two at a time, knocked the Dragnet knock, and told Mrs. Coopleman and Stanley what happened.
"It must have been Robert," Mrs. Coopleman said.
"A shvartzer," Stanley grunted.
"Colored," Mrs. Coopleman yelled at Stanley, "colored, not shvartzer." And then she turned to me. "A thief," she said. "He's stolen from us before in the hallway—a shovel, a shopping cart, and from grocery bags when we couldn't carry them upstairs all at once. He lived for a while downstairs with his sister and her baby, but he stole even from her, so she finally kicked him out."
I wanted to call the cops but Mrs. Coopleman said the cops come and ask questions but never do anything, and that she's always afraid after that Robert would take revenge.
There was nothing left for me to do but figure out how to get home. Since the Cooplemans didn't have a car, and Mrs. Coopleman said that cabs didn't pick up in Roxbury, I had to choose between having Dad get me and taking a bus. I knew that Dad would get lost and the thought of him driving in circles repeatedly clearing his throat was too much for me to bear, so I unlocked my bike, mounted it on my shoulder and headed to the nearby bus stop.
By the time I got to the house Dad was already back from his job at my uncle's drug store. I told my parents what happened. Dad said, "It's enough already, you should quit tutoring," but I said that the Cooplemans were at Auschwitz, that I was learning a lot and didn't want to stop. Out of the blue, Ma asked if they were Polish. I nodded yes and she said "Oy."
"Why oy?" I asked.
"Just oy," she said.
"What is this?" I said. "Polish Jews aren't good enough for you?"
Dad nipped the argument in the bud. "Lizenu," he said, "what if he goes Sunday nights? After I get home he can use the car. A car's safer than a bike or a bus." And so it was settled.
A few weeks later at the Cooplemans, Stanley greeted me alone in the hallway in front of his apartment's partially closed door, and whispered that Robert was downstairs visiting, and I immediately had the bright idea of leaving Stanley's saxophone in the downstairs hallway, while I hid upstairs out of sight but in hearing range, so I could catch Robert red-handed. Stanley snuck the saxophone out to me without alerting his mother, and as I waited midway down the staircase, I overheard him saying that he had checked for me outside because it wasn't like me to be late.
It didn't take long for Robert to take the bait and I watched him open the case to make sure that whatever was inside was worth stealing. He looked about my age, maybe a few years older. He was tall but not nearly as tall as me, and where I was mostly muscle, he was mostly lean. I figured he was quicker but not necessarily faster, and that on the basketball court he'd probably try to dart around me while I'd try to overpower him. In a fight, we'd be pretty evenly matched, because even though I was bigger Robert grew up on the streets. Suddenly I heard the clasps on the sax case click shut and saw Robert look around and then nonchalantly walk outside. I ran down the stairs and out to sidewalk after him.
"Hey, where are you going with that?" I yelled.
He stopped, turned, saw me, dropped the sax, and ran but I had a running start and grabbed him by the arm just as we reached the Roxbury Children's Center. He took a swing at me, so I wrestled him to the ground, and he tried to get up but I wouldn't let him, and he took another swing at me, so I punched him in the face a couple of times, fast but not too hard. Reverend Lane must have heard the commotion, because he raced out the door and pulled me off Robert.
"Stop it, stop it, what's all this about?"
"He stole Stanley's sax," I said, "and I was trying to get it back."
"What sax?" Reverend Lane said, now standing between Robert and me.
"Over there," I said, pointing up the street to where Stanley and Mrs. Coopleman had come out to get the case.
"Is that true?" Reverend Lane asked Robert.
"No," Robert said. "It was lyin' in the hallway and I figured it was trash so I took it."
"And I suppose you stole the wheels off my bike because they looked like trash too."
"I don't know about no bike."
"That's a lie and you know it."
"Do you have any proof?" Reverend Lane said to me.
"Proof about the bike, no, but I put the sax in the hallway and witnessed the whole thing."
"That's entrapment," Reverend Lane said. "It sounds like it's more your fault than his."
"I didn't steal anything. He did," I said.
"Didn't you hear what he said? He thought he was taking trash! Don't jump to conclusions just because he's a Negro."
"It's not because of his race," I said, "it's common sense."
"I'm not going to argue," Reverend Lane said. "I'll call Miss Kohl and tell her what happened. I'm sure she'll want to talk to you."
"Good," I said, "I want to talk to her too," and then I walked over to Stanley and his mother, said goodbye, and went home.
At school the next day, I received a note from Miss Kohl saying that she wanted to see me. I met her in her office and as soon as I sat down she told me that she'd heard what happened from Reverend Lane.
"What did he say?" I asked.
"He said that you tricked a Negro into stealing Stanley's saxophone because you suspected that he stole the wheels off your bike, took matters into your own hands and beat him up."
"That's not exactly the whole story," I said.
"What's your version, then?"
"A couple of weeks ago, someone stole the wheels off my bike in the Cooplemans' hall. Stanley and his mother were sure this guy, Robert, whose sister lives down-stairs, did it. They said he was a thief. Yesterday Robert was at his sister's so I put Stanley's saxophone in the downstairs hall and hid upstairs, waiting for Robert to take it which, of course, he did, and then I chased him down the street to get it back, and to let him know that he better not steal anything from me or the Cooplemans again. He took a swing at me, so I punched him twice in the face."
"Reverend Lane said that Robert denied taking your wheels and that he only took the sax because he thought it was going out with the trash."
"That's ridiculous," I said. "There was no trash in the hallway, no garbage cans, nothing. And why did he run away from me if he wasn't stealing? He could have stopped, said he thought no one wanted the sax, and handed it back."
"Maybe he ran because he assumed that a white person wouldn't believe him, that he'd inevitably be found guilty."
"Oh, come on," I said, "you're just making excuses for him. It's like I'm guilty for standing up for myself, and he's innocent because he's a Negro."
"I'm not saying that at all. What I'm saying is that you made up your mind about Robert based on what the Cooplemans said, but you didn't have any real proof. For all you knew the Cooplemans could have been wrong. That's why, if you think somebody has done something wrong to you—whatever their race happens to be—you should call the police, not take matters into your own hands."
"But the Cooplemans said that the police never do anything, that's why Robert keeps stealing."
"Maybe the police don't do anything because the Cooplemans can't back up their claims."
"Maybe they can't back up their claims because Robert always gets rid of the evidence, and that makes the Cooplemans look like liars."
"We're going around in circles, Phil."
"You don't understand. Unless you have the strength and guts to stop them, some people will get away with as much as they can. I learned that from being fat, and from what Hitler did to the Cooplemans, and from what the Russians did to my mother."
"There's a difference between an uncomfortable situation and one that's life threatening."
"But if you let bullies get away with the little stuff, they think it's O.K. and then it's just a matter of time before they move on to bigger stuff."
"But you can't go around beating people up over every little thing."
Miss Kohl paused and then said, "Phillip, I can't in good conscience let you keep tutoring. You're like a time bomb waiting to go off."
"Let's put it this way," I said, "I'm a land mine and if no one steps on me the mine won't explode."
"That's what I'm afraid of. And someone's bound to rub you the wrong way. I can't take chances. It's not just you and the Cooplemans. It's my reputation, the school's, the town's, the Roxbury Children's Center. . . There's too much at stake. I'm going to have to drop you from the project.
"You mean like I'm cut from the team?"
"I'm afraid so."
"Thanks coach! I'll call the Cooplemans and tell them I can't see Stanley any more."
"That would be the right thing to do. And when you talk to them try to make sure that they don't feel you're rejecting them, or that they're any way at fault. Tell them that your guidance counselor thinks, well. . . that it's not safe for you to go to Roxbury anymore, that given the problem with Robert, she's afraid things might get out of control."
"O.K.," I said.
"Can I trust you to do that?"
"I'll let him them know, I promise."
I called the Coopleman's that night and basically told them what Miss Kohl told me to say. Stanley was disappointed but neither he nor his mother put up a big fuss. They knew the decision was out of my hands. But I felt bad, like I was abandoning them or something, so I gave them my phone number and said that if they're ever in danger or anything like that to call me, because even though I wouldn't be seeing them every week, I wanted them to know that in an emergency, I'd always be around. Then I went downstairs to talk to Ma and Dad, but I didn't want to worry them with the gory details, so I just explained that I wasn't going to tutor anymore because I wanted to have more time with my friends before we all graduated and went our separate ways, and Dad cleared his throat a few times and said, "Thank God."
One evening a few weeks later, Mrs. Coopleman called to tell me that Robert had just beaten up Stanley and stolen his money. As usual, I didn't want to get Ma and Dad excited, so I lied and said that it was the Coopelmans, and that Stanley missed me and they wondered if I could come over for dinner. My parents said O.K. but begged me not to make a habit of it, so I took the car and gunned it all the way to Roxbury where I buzzed and then knocked like Dragnet. Mrs. Coopleman let me in and I stood beside her at the kitchen table where she was washing the dried blood from Stanley's face while he held an icepack to his head and tongued his newly chipped front tooth. She explained that Stanley had been arguing with her lately because he's thirteen and she never let him go outside without her, so she gave in, sent him to the store for some groceries and that Robert saw him and pulled him into an alley.
I could see that Stanley wasn't too badly injured but there was no way that I was going to let Robert get away with what he did, especially because I felt that he had attacked Stanley to get back at me. I asked where I could find Robert but neither Stanley nor Mrs. Coopleman knew where he lived, so I went downstairs and banged on his sister's door. She answered without opening and I said that I wanted Robert's address, and she said that she forgot it and I said that I'd give her a minute to remember. Meanwhile I went around to the back, found a broken window, pulled out some of the glass, reached in and turned the lock, then climbed in and found her standing there, a heavy girl probably in her early twenties with her arms wrapped around her waist to keep her unbuttoned housecoat in place.
"I won't hurt you," I said, "just tell me Robert's address."
She shook her head no.
"Where's your address book?" I asked. "You must have an address book."
She nodded at a little table.
"What's his last name?" I said, leafing through the pages, and again she wouldn't tell me, but it didn't matter because I found a page of crossed-out phone numbers and addresses for Robert, and I quickly memorized the uncrossed-out address at the bottom of the list.
"Don't warn him," I said, "because you'll be helping a jerk. Your brother just beat Stanley up." Then I took out my wallet and gave her my emergency twenty-dollar bill.
"Here," I said, "for the window. Why doesn't the landlord fix them anyway?"
"Because they keep gettin' broken," she said, "and Mr. Goldblatt's sick of payin'."
I ran back upstairs to get directions from Mrs. Coopleman but she told me not to go, that she called in a panic when she couldn't reach her husband, but could see now that Stanley was O.K..
I said that I wasn't going after Robert just for Stanley, but for him and everybody else that Robert's hurt or would hurt in the future, and that I had some unfinished personal business with him having to do with a bike and a saxophone.
"It's not worth it," she said, "I don't want no one to get hurt," but I said, "It's worth it to me."
Mrs. Coopleman was stubborn and still wouldn't give me directions and I had to ask around outside to find out how to go. Robert's street was close by and his house was easy to locate because he was sitting on the front stoop with a couple of his buddies. I decided that the main thing I had going for me was the element of surprise, so I quickly pulled the car over, jumped out, ran to the stairs right up to Robert, grabbed him by his shirt, pulled him to his feet, kneed him in the proverbial groin, spun him around and kicked his rear end so hard that he seemed to sail like a football against the front door. Then I grabbed the front of his shirt again, yanked him to his feet and said, "I hope you learn fast because next time, if there is a next time with anyone, you hear me, anyone, you'll be gummin' your food for the rest of your life." I shoved him hard against the door, turned and headed downstairs. Robert's friends hadn't moved. I guess they didn't feel that he was worth getting hurt over. As I passed them, I said that my fight's with Robert, not with them and they nodded and didn't say a word.
On the way back to the Coopleman's, I felt no remorse, guilt or anxiety, just a great feeling of satisfaction. I knew that Robert wouldn't tell the police—a kind of honor among thieves sort of thing, I figured—and I knew from now on that he'd leave Stanley alone, because Robert knew that I was crazy enough to follow through on my threat.
I buzzed and knocked and Mrs. Coopleman and Stanley greeted me at the door. She asked if I was O.K. and I told her I was fine and she said, "Come, have something to eat," led me into the kitchen, grabbed—you guessed it—a bunch of Yodels and Ring Dings and lay them on the table. Why a baker's family only had mass-produced pastry in the house I never found out, but I figured that Mr. Coopleman, like Dad, didn't own the business and couldn't help himself to the merchandise.
"So tell me," she said, as Stanley and I sat down, "Did you hurt him?"
"Not really," I said. "A quick tutoring session on what happens to bullies when they pick on Jews."
"I think maybe you're a little meshugge," Mrs. Coopleman said. "You never know with the colored, in their pocket maybe there's a gun or a knife."
"Only a bisel meshugge?" I said, and began eating a Yodel.
"Oy," she said, "so now you fight, and talk Yiddish too."
Stanley laughed, moved his chair closer to mine and started tearing the cellophane off a Ring Ding. He was having trouble because you had to bite a hole in the cellophane in order to open it and he was favoring his broken tooth. I quickly peeled the aluminum wrapper off another Yodel, traded Stanley for his Ring Ding and ate it while he was stuck trying to figure out a new way of biting. I grabbed his Yodel, opened my mouth wide, stuffed it with the chocolate cylinder, closed, chewed, swallowed and winked. Stanley laughed again and then Mrs. Coopleman unwrapped a Yodel, broke it in half and gave him a piece small enough to chew without biting.
"I don't think Robert will bother any of you again," I said, "but if he does or if you hear that he's giving his sister a hard time, call me and I'll give him a refresher course at no extra charge."
"We have only a month left," Mrs. Coopleman said, "God willing, there won't be a next time."
"What do you mean?"
"We're moving to Brookline, Westbourne Terrace."
"That's my street," I said.
"We know," Mrs. Coopleman said. "Our friends the Pearlsteins told us. A few weeks ago when you couldn't come anymore, we mentioned your name, and their Rivka said you're in the same class, but that you're a big shot and probably don't know her."
"I can't believe she said that," I said. "She's not a close friend, but I know her. I even know that her parents were in a concentration camp."
"We move into their first floor apartment on the first of July."
"It's such a coincidence," I said, "that it's hard to believe. We should all celebrate Independence Day together."
At home later that night, I didn't tell my parents about the fight, but I did tell them that the Cooplemans would be moving to our street.
"Just don't invite them over for dinner," Ma said, getting comfortable on the couch.
"I already asked them for July 4th."
"Don't make jokes," Ma said.
"I can't forget how they treated us when we moved from Zaslav to Warsaw."
Dad reached into his bag of clichés: "It's not right to condemn every Polish Jew for the actions of a few."
"Dad," I said, "you made a rhyme."
He smirked and shrugged.
"Rhyme, shmyme," Ma said. "Look, I'm happy for the Cooplemans personally if they get out of Roxbury. But in Brookline for me, it will be as if they don't exist."
"What's new?" Dad said. "For you, even your sister, nieces and nephews don't exist."
Ma slapped the armrest and I could see particles of dust floating in the lamplight. "Don't start with me, Zalman. Sarah converted and had her children baptized. For that there's a price to pay."
"Maybe to God," Dad said, "but why to you? You're not even religious."
Listening to Ma and Dad have a "talk" was usually a good way to learn family history, but I had to skip it this time because I had something pressing to do.
The tradition at BHS was for the senior class president, not the valedictorian, to give the commencement address, and I had put off writing it for weeks. True, I was nervous about not being smart enough to do a good job, but there was a bigger reason why I procrastinated: My disagreement with Miss Kohl convinced me that the powers-that-be would give me a hard time about speaking my mind; on the other hand, I didn't want to leave out what I felt had to be said. So with the deadline looming, I decided to write two speeches, one to use with the faculty advisor and the other for the graduation ceremony.
The advisor turned out to be Mr. Grasso, a new teacher in his first year. I had heard about Mr. Grasso and seen him around, but never had a class with him. He was neat as a pin, wore stylish clothes that were totally different from the disheveled polyester of the typical male teacher at BHS, smelled of cologne (Jade East, he told me), and there was a rumor that he had recently left the seminary.
I rehearsed the "non-controversial" version of my speech with him a few times and he made some helpful suggestions about grammar, especially my run-on sentences, but I told him that I talked that way and that I could only write the way I talk, otherwise I felt like a phony.
"To thine own self be true," he said in a deep dramatic tone.
And I replied, "And it must follow as the night the day, thou canst not be false to any man."
"You like the passage?" he asked.
"Sophomore English—it seemed to me like good advice."
"To me too."
Other than that, he didn't say anything either critical or complimentary about my speech, so I figured it left him kind of flat, but at the end of the last rehearsal he surprised me with Martin Buber's I and Thou, a gift which Mr. Grasso inscribed as follows:
(No, I didn't memorize it. I have the book right here with me, even after all these years.) I never really got into Buber but Mr. Grasso's words touched me, because it was the first time anybody treated me as if I had a brain and the feeling that I got from being recognized that way is something I've wanted to hold onto.
On graduation night, anxious but somewhat reassured by Mr. Grasso's gift, I delivered the speech. The first part was about getting to know Roxbury through basketball and tutoring—the shabby conditions, poverty, bad schools, unemployment, lousy jobs—and I argued that it was the moral duty of us people in the suburbs who had been blessed with so much, to give something back. When I promised to devote my life to helping mankind the audience loved it, and everybody clapped as if John F. Kennedy had given the speech himself.
But then I explained that I learned something else in Roxbury: That the few Jews who still lived there were being beaten and robbed and that the people who should know better—police, ministers, teachers—were turning a blind eye to what was going on, and were basically saying to the Negroes that because your ancestors were slaves and your lives aren't easy, you can do or have whatever you want, and were saying to the Jews, either put up with it or get out of town, because if you fight for yourselves you're racists. And I said that the situation reminded me of Howard Johnson's ice cream counter, where they had twenty-eight flavors and picked a favorite each month, and the current favorite was chocolate and if you didn't go along you were called names and kicked out of the store.
When I finished my speech there was a smattering of applause, or maybe I just imagined it as I headed back to my seat, and as I sat down Dr. England, the headmaster, stepped up to the podium. He usually wore a brown suit and tie which, with his jowls and droopy eyes, made me think he resembled a bloodhound, but that evening he was dressed in black, was unusually pale and reminded me of an undertaker, or maybe the corpse itself. He was supposed to introduce the guest speaker, but first felt compelled to put some distance between himself, the school, and my comments: "I'm afraid this evening," he said, "that for at least one of our graduates, obtaining a BHS diploma doesn't certify the possession of an entirely open mind." The audience clapped, but not thunderously, and soon the guest speaker, a tweedier-than-thou type who was the director of admissions at a local college with a predominantly Jewish student body, got some applause and more than a few laughs when he said, "When it comes to ice cream your class president may have good taste, but his comments about race were tasteless to me."
I knew they were accusing me of being a racist but I felt they were wrong, because I wasn't prejudging blacks; I was criticizing whites for judging the two races by different standards and for attaching a higher value to helping blacks than to helping Jews. But there was no chance for rebuttal. My speech was over and done. I could only wait for the ceremony to end, and hope that Mr. Grasso wouldn't get into trouble.
After the guest speaker finished his address—for better or for worse, I can't remember what he said—the class lined up and each of us was called to the podium to receive a diploma and shake the dignitaries' hands. When my turn came, I expected to be booed, but the audience remained silent and Dr. England and the others treated me as if nothing had happened. And then the BHS band played the overture from Der Meistersinger by Wagner, Hitler's favorite composer, and the six hundred or so graduates marched behind me from the chair-covered infield of Cypress Playground across Greenough Street to the partially enclosed area of The Quadrangle, where the line spontaneously dispersed into a crowd of kids, relatives and teachers hugging, kissing and congratulating one another, and it struck me that I was a leader no more, just another kid searching for his parents, and at that moment I literally collided with Jacobs and his mother and she, "Madame School Committee" herself, called me a bigot. I told Jacobs that I'd been going to his house for four years and that this was the first time his mother stooped so low as to speak to me, and Jacobs raised his eyebrows as if he was about to say, What can I say, you're both idiots, but before he had the chance his mother said that my speech was disgusting and that I was no better than a Nazi. Then I recognized the unmistakable voice of Mrs. Coopleman: "I'm sorry Mrs. but if you think he's a Nazi, then you don't know what it is to be a Jew," and in a matter of seconds, fortunately I suppose, Rivka Pearlstein, her parents, Stanley, and Mr. Coopleman came between the two women and prevented a scene.
"Saved by the bell," Rivka said, upbeat like the BHS cheerleader she was, and then she explained that they'd invited the Cooplemans to the ceremony so they could get a taste of what was in store for Stanley in Brookline, but a race war wasn't exactly what they were expecting, and Mrs. Coopleman smiled, shook her head "nah" and grabbed me around the waist—a very long stretch upwards for her—and while she hugged me and wished me mazel tov, I glanced at Mr. Coopleman observing, as always, with that million-miles-away look in his eyes, and Stanley glowing in the same joyous way as that day in his kitchen when I first heard him playing the sax.
Copyright © Mark Mazer 2004. Title graphic: "Blind Eye" Copyright © The Summerset Review 2004.