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    Sunday, September 27, 2009

    Race and Diversity

    My first thought about this is “what the hell do I have to say about any of this that matters?” But yesterday, I was listening to my sibling describe a discomfort with people that spoke with accents or foreign languages – not anything like a belief they were in any way inferior, but that it made them feel uncomfortable – “like it’ll take a long time to figure them out.”

    This seemed so completely foreign to me, and because I was separated from the rest of my family for about half of my life and we had vastly different childhoods it shouldn’t be so surprising. But it shocked me. I grew up in an Italian-Irish inner city neighborhood – snatched from that and moved to Michigan at 5 – though I wouldn’t lose contact with that family till much later and spent every summer "back home" in Baltimore in that same neighborhood until I was 15. My siblings were born in Michigan.

    I have a brother who hasn’t spoken to me since 1983 but we were very close growing up. He was thrilled & content with the swing set in our backyard while I planned future trips across Europe. My brother now lives in very rural Virginia. I, on the other hand, was banned from the local travel agency for swiping all the travel brochures. I felt very different from the people around me in Michigan with their snowmobiling and deer hunting. I had a fascination with being around different people – and years later I even handpicked the most vibrantly diverse neighborhood in San Francisco, the Little Saigon area of the Tenderloin to call home, (prostitutes help me find parking spots, and crack addicts meander around freely, and in a high-rise bldg largely filled with Vietnamese mafia-I have watched the children of a hitman grow from babies to high school and his wife is among my dearest friends), because Asians were the race I was least familiar with when I came here after living in Europe and the east coast.

    The point I’m making is that while some of this is terribly personal, a lot of it was shaped by my family, my experience in the city, and the era in which I grew up, and in particular some experiences of my grandmother – most of which revolve around her love and passion for food. Those experiences and exposures have reverberated through me and is a big part of what makes me so different from the others in my family.

    My family ran the first gay bar in Baltimore… in the VERY early 1960s. My Uncle (grandmother’s brother) was gay and a prolific songwriter who got a scholarship to Peabody Conservatory and then moved to Greenwich Village and was under contract to write “numbers” for the burgeoning “negro acts” in the late 50s and early 60s. Those that became close to my Uncle would come back to Baltimore for weekends and have Sunday dinner at my grandmothers narrow rowhome in East Baltimore. My grandmother began a longstanding friendship with Little Anthony when he fell in love with her meatballs. He then offered to show her how to prepare barbecue. They wrote to one another for the next 20 years.

    When my uncle returned to Baltimore he would play clubs and make other club owners a lot of money, so they asked him to play "Pepper Hill" the family bar instead. His following was largely gay, and they found a clientele that were polite, “good punters” and would go out of their way to patronize anyplace that welcomed them. The bar was a huge success until my family failed to “play ball” in local politics and the city rezoned the building in 1963 as the new fire station which still exists today on (I swear to God) Gay Street.

    Make no mistake, apart from one boho Aunt my family has never been liberal nor ventured more than a few miles away. Devout catholics with very fixed rules about masculinity, feminity and above all never ever venturing from the family. But there was also that very Sicilian wariness of authority, a complete disinterest in the language or ever returning to the country they came from (“bad memories”), and above all, an ability to turn a blind eye to anything that was lucrative. My grandparents met bootlegging. The front was a flower cart with booze inside, and others would try to hijack them, so since the man always had to drive the cart it was the woman who knew how to use, load and reload the pistol. That was my grandmother.

    My gay Uncle regrettably died suddenly of an aneurism 2 yrs before I was born but he has haunted me constantly and for years my family was convinced I was his reincarnation (despite the fact that that’s TOTALLY un-Catholic) and my mother had a terrible fear I would die young as he did. Such inconsistent illogical superstition.

    Now the “jew food” craze I vividly remember but didn’t understand until seeing a documentary much later. There was a push in the late 60s to make bagels and lox and kosher food more mainstream in America. Somehow my grandmother ventured where no Sicilian had gone before – to a family deli run by the Levitzes – and discovered “jewish pickles” as she called them – then pastrami and knishes followed. I remember a bit of a battle of wills when crunchy “jewish pickles” (nothing like Vlasic - more like pickled kosher cucumbers) were added to the notoriously italian tomato salad with balsamic that was always marinating in the refrigerator for a late night snack. My grandfather thought leaving the skins on cucumbers was “dirty” and disgusting, but as I recall he started to eat them.

    This is where things get inconsistent. I distinctly recall anti-semitic comments in the family (“they look ugly, like fish outta water”), mostly from my grandfather, who also used the n word on occasion (which my grandmother never uttered and my mother said was "a filthy word that filthy people use".) My grandmother would say a black person attacked him when he was younger but never gave any details, and even at age 6 it was obvious she was making up some story to defend him, and that although my grandmother disapproved she’d never dare speak up against a man. The polite Sicilian word for black is pronounced NEE-vah-dah, but my grandmother later started saying black in English, but she said it as though she were saying “blech!” We were told to lock the doors and roll up the windows if we ever were near black neighborhoods. I have no idea how she reconciled all this with her friendship with Anthony.

    So basically if not for the love of barbecue & good pickles I may very well be a great big fat cracker. But things certainly didn’t end there.

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