I am beset with childhood memories of living in a similar time: before the Civil Rights Bill; before Roe v Wade; before the Americans with Disabilities Act.
I remember how bleak and uninviting my neighborhood was, the paint peeling off the porches and heartbreak and tragedy behind every doorway. A kid from a rival high school basketball team got in a fight after a game and died from a stab wound to his windpipe. A young, innocent girl down the block blossomed into a woman and was shunned as a pariah as the responsibilities of motherhood arrived before the good judgment of adulthood. The strongest, toughest kid in the class couldn’t beat the scourge of polio and left school never to be heard from again.
It was a gritty existence that rubbed off on me and left me raw. The ethnic differences from one block to the next created mini-neighborhoods, the borderline streets as impassable as high fences. The houses and storefronts looked similar but an ominous undercurrent was always there. Look-alike candy stores, groceries and fresh fruit stalls were on opposite corners, each drawing customers from their side of the block but there was no leniency when a mistake in geography was made. “What are you doing here, where do you live, go home.”
On Palm Sunday I was reminded by the kids from Saint Anthony’s church that the Jews were personally responsible for the death of Christ, and I knew enough to stay at home if I didn’t want to get the crap beat out of me for aiding and abetting his demise.
Back then, I accepted these insults to civility as a reality with which I had to deal. I learned to navigate that environment by being compliant and adaptable. Most colleges had quotas on the number of Jews they would let in, so I applied to the schools that accepted my application. The majority of resort hotels in the Poconos were segregated so I took vacations in the Catskills. When I moved to Minneapolis or Dallas the realtor took me to the “neighborhoods where I would feel comfortable.”
But to face an environment like that, today, is intolerable. In the year 2016 I won’t accept living in a world with such prohibitive boundaries. So yes, I’m frightened. But I’m also defiant.
The space for expressions of joy may have shrunk. But the need to find meaning in life for the years that are left, demands expansion. Despite a political climate that warns me to hunker down lest I become next in line for a graffiti swastika on the door and a Night of Kristallnacht in nearby Skokie, I will not accept a narrowing definition of the role I write for myself going forward.
Count me in as a man in the ranks fighting for equal rights as the War against Women attacks the gains that have been made. Find me out front working with elderly men and women who feel irrelevant and isolated by a youth-driven demographic so self-absorbed it thinks Disneyland is a country off the coast of Florida. Smile with me as I teach my granddaughter to play Jacks and Pick Up Sticks before our bedtime ritual reading books and tickling each other silly.
Sit with me as I breathe consciously and quiet my mind in a morning meditation to attain peace and an open heart and an understanding of my true nature. That is when the answer to the on-going question of “Why Am I Here?” becomes clear.
If this is the beginning of America’s dark ages, I will add my light to the radiance of millions of progressive men and women from coast to coast pledged to dispel the gloom.