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Sunday, February 11, 2007

Walking Home, Minding My Own Business

I found the experience of being called for jury duty last week to be extremely affecting on me, despite the fact that I never even got to actually sit in the box. It forced me to think about a number of things. By the end of the week, all will be made clear. Maybe.

Part of it involves this story about my childhood, which I could have sworn I had told before. Maybe it's that I THOUGHT about telling it more than once.

Anyway, so I don't have to keep mentioning it throughout the story, all of the players in this tale, except for my father and me, are white.

As I've described previously, I lived in a predominately Slavic neighborhood in Binghamton, upstate New York, and there were only a handful of black kids in my school. Often, I would walk my friends home before going home myself. Often it included my friend Carol (not to be confused with my wife Carol).

One day, though, when I was 16, my classmates weren't around for some reason, and I ended walking a girl named Peggy, who lived across the street from Carol, home. We weren't great friends, but we went to the same elementary school, which was small, so we were friendly.

Just as I get to Peggy's house, this guy from next door to Peggy's house started yelling racial slurs at me, and quite possibly at us. He was under the mistaken impression that she and I were dating. Having been trained in the method,of Martin Luther King, Jr., I ignored him. I said nothing, and I did not look at him.

Suddenly, the guy, who has been getting closer and closer, attacks me. I'm not sure that I saw him coming. He was, it turned out, a 23-year-old Marine from Florida who was visiting his father. Don't remember much except that my glasses flew off. I found them, and retreated to Peggy's porch. By this time, Peggy's mother, who must have heard the commotion, was on the porch in a shouting match with the Marine and his family.

Someone had called the police. I explained to the officer what happened; I presume the Marine gave his version, too. The policeman said that I could press charges if I wanted to.

I went home, talked with my folks, and decided to go downtown the next day. The judge, whose name I've forgotten, took my paperwork, but made it clear that he thought my actions were silly. He believed - perhaps from the police report - that it was just "some spat over a girl."

I went home and I was livid. LIVID. I could use a half dozen exclamation marks to express my near rage at being dismissed in that way. So I wrote a letter, a long, angry, nasty letter to the judge, commenting on his lack of listening skills. It wasn't "some spat over a girl"; this jerk attacked me, and him making light of it was not helpful. Having composed it, I did not feel compelled to mail it. And I didn't.

Instead, my father hand-delivered my letter to the judge. Obviously, I didn't ASK him to do it, and now I've a bit peeved with him, too.

The judge then called and asked to see me. I complied, and he apologized to me.

There was a trial, with that same judge on the bench. I testified, Peggy and, I think, her mother testified. I'm not sure because I didn't hear it. They kept me out of the room, to see if our testimonies jibed; my father, who was in the courtroom, assured me that they did.

Then the Marine, his father, and I think his mother and/or his wife or girlfriend testified. This testimony I did hear, and the details were wildly inconsistent.

Anyway, I suppose you'd like to know the results of the trial. So would I. I never got word from the judge or his office as to the outcome. Since I don't remember the name of the Marine, perhaps I never will. To this day, I appreciate the actions of Peggy and her mother, neither of whom I've seen in decades.

First time I ever voted, in 1971, the judge was up for re-election on my absentee ballot. I didn't vote for him, though; I wrote in my father.


Uthaclena said...

I've known you since 1971 (yes, I know you can cite the exact date!), and this is the first I've heard this tale, and I am horrified on so many levels...

When I worked in Colonie in 1978, a black co-worker told me - without accusation, although I am of the Caucasian Persuasion - that if you were Black and living in the United States, you had to be prepared to be periodically called 'nigger;' it came with the skin tone. I accepted his word, but there is a divide between accepting something in the abstract, and hearing a tale from someone you care about (that's you, dude!) that disturbs your emotional equilibrium.

Besides finding out that a friend had to face this... I don't quite know how to characterize my eternal bemusement with the lower expressions of our species... I think one of the things that I find so disturbing is how close this comes to the fate of Emmett Till, a 16 year old boy mutilated and murdered in 1955 for the 'sin' of whistling at a white woman. There but for the grace of the gods...

And, just before reading your self-revelation, I engaged in an exchange with a Canadian fellow posting on "The Daily Kos" about prejudice against Muslims, but his friendship with a Pakistani, closely paralleling a relationship I have at work. In this on-line conversation we discussed xenophobia vs. xenophilia, and although I certainly have my own biases and warps, I usually find "The Other" to be more fascinating than threatening.

My brothers sometimes argue that Humanity is a "Failed Species;" I don't agree with that assessment, but mourn the glacial pace of our empathic enlightenment.

Maybe our kids can take it to the next level, eh?

Thanks for tossing that out there.

GayProf said...

What would the possible outcomes have been for the marine?