Nate’s quote, (see last week’s post LOCKED IN LEISURE), was an accurate reflection about his impending death, but the real meat of our relationship had much more to do with living than dying.
I live in Jamaica Plain, a mixed Boston neighborhood next to predominately Black Roxbury. In the lull between writing and my trial and jury consulting, I decided to channel my unemployment into getting in shape. Located across from Roxbury Community College, the Reggie Lewis Community Center was a well-appointed gym with spacious community rooms, a state-of-the-art indoor track, and virtually no White members. It was also affordable, opposed to gyms where you gotta refinance your house in order to join.
As mentioned last week, it wasn’t very long before Nate invited me into his circle, mainstays at the Center and the heart of their senior citizens club called The Sensational Seniors. Suddenly I found myself reveling in an entirely Black social life and paying dues to the seniors club.
Now let’s time machine back about 30 years from then. I spent my last three years of high school at a residential Hasidic yeshiva in Brooklyn—and believe me, five days a week were more than enough. So I began to visit my mother and her husband Seymour’s house in Orange, New Jersey, desperately hoping to find some sort of weekend fun.
I did. Seymour taught in a local high school and his colleague, who lived down the block, had a son named Clifford who was my age.
Although he was ordered to visit me, turned out we liked each other and became really close friends, hanging out on a steady weekend basis. Clifford and his family were Black.
Which, despite my liberal upbringing, was a new do. Especially when we went out. In fact, the first dance we attended thrust my face into my own unconscious racism. There were about three hundred kids and, for the first hour, mine was the only White face in the crowd. Although Cliff had been teaching me to dance, I just paced the periphery. Then a White girl strolled through the door. My eyes lit up. I figgered I was golden. Gonna have a chance to practice my new moves. Hey, one White guy, one White girl.
A half a dozen dances later, Cliff whispered into my ear. “You know she’s Albino, don’t you?”
“What’s an Albino?”
“She’s a Black girl who looks White. Plus, her boyfriend just walked in and you’re dead meat if he sees you dancing with her. You better take that leap and dance with a black Black girl.”
He was sweet but I understood why I had waited to dance for someone who was “White.”
For the next three years my entire weekend social life was hanging with Cliff and his friends. Needless to say, I danced with any and all the girls with whom we partied and played and took to the White Castle before going home.
Still, it had been a long jump since high school and took a while to grow comfortable with Nate’s ever expanding crew. On the other hand, it was sort of like déjà vu all over again, having the time and space to rap and hang out and get to know people without rushing off to the next place to be.
Soon our hour-long gym sessions had two hour kibitzing chasers. I remember a woman confiding one of her greatest experiences was when Duke and his orchestra came to town. There were tears in her eyes as she recalled Duke prancing down from the bandstand in the middle of a song to ask her for a dance.
I also learned about the racism traveling Black musicians faced, Duke included, whenever they rolled into town during the 40’s and 50’s. Any town, but Boston was particularly nasty where they were forced to sleep in buses or peoples’ houses.
I learned through my friends’ firsthand knowledge how warm Louie Armstrong was, the hours Coltrane kept (returning from a gig at 2 A.M and practicing until dawn every night), how difficult Sonny Stitt was at times.
Eventually I began gyming three days a week then going to lunch across town at The Old Country Buffet where Nate made it clear he wasn’t gonna sit in a booth. “That’s where cockroaches live in restaurants,” he explained. There were about six of us who became regulars, becoming great friends with the manager, and spending most of our afternoons eating, talking, (serious and otherwise) and playing with other customers as many grew to know and enjoy our hijinks.
It was flat out fun and an eye opener—despite the ribbing I got from my other friends about belonging to a Black senior citizens group and spending my days hanging at Old Country. An eye opener because their stories also brought back memories—some not so sweet—to those who were telling them. Unlike my high school friends, these men and women had lived through some of the worst racism 20th century America dished out.
I learned directly about the hostility and horror my friends had faced and truly began to understand the strength it took to survive all those decades. I listened to personal accounts about how an oppressed community dealt with the shit poured on their heads and still managed to stay intact despite it all.
But what I learned the most was there really are times when color need not be a barrier to love and friendship in a way I hadn’t in high school. This despite the subtle but strong weaving of racism throughout the fabric of our culture.
Thanks Nate, you reminded me of something I’ll never forget again. He was bright and interested in ANYBODY who was sympatico. He also had the ability to have fun in any situation and was able to share that fun with those around him. That’s the really fine art of living.
“Success is not to be pursued; it is to be attracted by the person you become.” —Jim Rohn