We cut across the choppy water of New York harbor, our bow pointed toward Ellis Island. I had already had enough. The rocking of the boat didn’t bother me, neither did the weight of the passengers pressing me against the rail, waving to the Statue of Liberty. I think I had just had enough of the grandmothers.
For a month and a half I had seen the pictures of my sixth grade classmates’ grandmothers rubber cemented to sheets of construction paper along with traced maps, flags and personal histories typed out on onion-skin paper with the occasional blotch of white-out and sharpened pencil correction.
We had just finished a Social Studies unit on the American Melting Pot. Our assignment’s due date coincided with the opening of Ellis Island as a museum. There had been some kind of contest. I hadn’t paid much attention to the details. I guess the kid with the most neatly glued grandmother was invited to have his immigration report featured in an exhibit. A few of my classmates were genuinely excited to be on the trip. They would get to see their reports displayed behind glass. As for me, I can’t say I was looking forward to the trip at all. If I had learned anything over the last six weeks it was this—Ellis Island was where the grandmothers came from.
The details of the contest weren’t important to me because I had dropped out of the running early on. My report featured neither of my grandmothers’ pictures. I veered away from family stories and personal anecdotes. I borrowed the general structure of my composition from the Encyclopedia Britannica. I jazzed it up with the look and feel of a few travel brochures. I brought it to life with generous detail absconded from men riding the rail at my father’s bar on the few days I was left in his care for a visit to the eye doctor.
It wasn’t that my grandmothers were unwilling to be helpful. Either of them would have been happy to be the subject of a school report, provided she had editorial control. Either would have loved to tell her story. Grandma, my mother’s mother, would spin a yarn worthy of Tennessee Williams, replete with gentleman callers in her front parlor on Fordham Road in the Bronx. Grandmother, my father’s mother, would unfold the saga she revealed to us in glimpses each Christmas as we passed the telephone receiver from one to the other like a hot potato before dinner.
“Merry Christmas, Grandmother,” we would say in turn.
“Grandmother is so lonely,” she would say, her voice droopy under the weight of blended scotch. “Nobody ever comes to visit Grandmother.”
You can keep your grandmothers—give me an encyclopedia any day. I loved them. I loved flipping through their pages—getting distracted by a picture or a pull-out—getting lost on the way to what I was looking for—starting back at the beginning and singing the alphabet song again and again, because, for the life of me, I simply cannot recall the correct order of S and R and T.
Our sixth grade teacher had been out sick for months. We were left in the care of Ms. Zera, the school’s permanent substitute. Noticing the laps I trudged carrying heavy encyclopedias from the book shelf to the study table, Ms. Zera followed me to my seat, “Ummm, Paul Hawkins, right?” Ms. Zera couldn’t remember our names without the classroom seating chart. The seating chart was no help to her in the library. “Well, Paul Hawkins, I think you’re report will be much richer if you include some stories from your grandparents.” She didn’t know my grandparents.
I looked up at Ms. Zera and laid my situation out as frankly as I could. “I don’t think my grandmother wants to talk about it.”
Ms. Zera put her hand to her mouth. She turned to the class, cleared her throat and addressed the other students, “You might want to send your grandmother a note, letting her know what your project is about and to give her an idea of what kind of questions you’ll be asking. This way she can reflect on some stories to tell you. For some people, talking about the past can be difficult.”
This was a sensitive suggestion for the students whose grandparents had smuggled themselves over the Alps with the von Trapp Family Singers or had been liberated by the 101st Airborne, but it wasn’t going to get me any closer to a prize-winning project.
I could have followed Ms. Zera’s suggestions to the letter. I could have sent my grandmother a note and invited her to bring old photographs and sit at the kitchen table with me for an interview, but I could foresee the outcome. I would sit neatly organized with a stack of loose leaf paper, a few lethally sharpened pencils and maybe even a tape recorder.
I would begin the interview with a cordial greeting, like the interviews I had seen on television, and then move directly to the questions, “Grandma, I was wondering if there are any reflections you could share with me about coming to this country.”
Gently pressing her hands in front of her, Grandma would even out the table cloth before speaking, “Well, Pop-pop and I took a cruise to Bermuda on our honeymoon. I don’t really remember much about returning to New York. I think I was asleep in our cabin when we pulled into the harbor. But then, oh yes, I must have woken up. You know they blow all of those horns. Who could sleep with such a racket?”
“Grandma,” I would gently interrupt her. “I’m interested more in when you first came to America.”
“I’m not sure what you mean by that,” Grandma would say.
“Well Grandma, it’s like I said in my note to you,” I’d say. “My report is on the immigrant experience. Is there anything you can tell me about that?”
Grandma would squint and look around the room, searching for a personal connection to my query, “Immigrants?” she would whisper as she thought it over. “Immigrants, immigrants, immigrants… Oh, them… No, I wouldn’t know anything about them.”
The great American Melting Pot was a community to which my family did not belong. Sure, I knew that a report based on articles from the encyclopedia and Hell’s Kitchen memoirs from suburban barflies wasn’t going to win me any prizes, but I was pretty sure that the report I had been asked to write, the one based on my grandmother’s reflections, would probably land me in the principal’s office to explain the title, Immigrants: I’ve Heard They’re Good with Figures.
So it was, on a sixth grade field trip in 1978, I became the first member of my family to walk through the institutional halls of Ellis Island. Of course, I’ll take some liberties with the story in years to come, when my granddaughter interviews me for her sixth grade social studies project.
My family has no memory of the past. We have no immigrant stories, no old country, no motherland. We don’t have accents, traditions or woven tartans. Our family recipes come directly from Betty Crocker or are copied off the backs of soup cans. No matter what my report said, we had no potato famine, no crowded berth in the belly of a boat, no communal suffering in steerage. We are nth generation, time-out-of-mind Americans.
I was born the fifth of eight children to the daughter of a football coach and the son of a social climber. I grew up believing that what I was taught was American and true, that a young man should be diligent in mastering the proper three-point stances for both offensive and defensive positions and that he should also always have a clean sport jacket at the ready in the event he is invited to dinner.
When asked about my nationality, I was taught to spit out all of the British Isles at once, in no particular order—English, Irish, Scottish and Welsh. It didn’t mean anything, they were just funny words. Irish and English were like ticklish and squeamish. And Welsh? Who knows? I usually said that one last, hoping no one would ask about it. These four words were all I knew about my family’s nationality. It was all I needed to know. I could have answered the nationality question with those four words for the rest of my life, but my father had different ideas.
I saw it on the kitchen table one Sunday morning when I was seven years old. It looked like a thick-skinned football, but flatter and rounder with some kind of bumps on it. Maybe it was some kind of third-world football from a country where they used animal bladders as playthings. The bumps were probably cists or tumors. Why wouldn’t they be? I’m sure it wasn’t a top of the line bladder-ball.
The last thing I wanted was to learn a new game, new ways to stand, new rules, new made up reasons to run, hop, kick and have things thrown at me. But as I stood in the doorway, gazing at the stippled bladder-ball thing on the kitchen table and I knew the game plan had changed.
“Come on over here and taste it,” my father said.
“Taste it?” I echoed in a terrorized whisper.
The bladder crunched under the serrated blade in my father’s hand. My head began to shake involuntarily, my psyche trying to “no” away everything in front of me.
“It’s bread,” my father announced, taking a piece of the thick brown skin to his lips.
“It’s not bread,” I whispered. I knew what bread looked like. Bread was rectangular, like a shoebox; bread was golden, like bread.
“It’s Irish soda bread,” my father held a piece out to me. “Come on, it’s part of your heritage.”
I now had a heritage, revealed to me through bread that didn’t look like bread. I studied it for a couple of minutes, considering my options of fight, flight or eat. I had eaten English muffins before and they didn’t look like muffins. I broke off a piece and put it in my mouth. I ate it the way I eat things that I know I’m not going to like. My jaw chewed straight up and down, trying to break the sample into portions small enough to swallow without moving them around my mouth too much and running the risk of coming into contact with my taste buds. The bread was OK, and the raisins that I had earlier mistaken for cysts or tumors were OK too, but the difference in textures among crust, bread and raisin made it difficult for me not to get my tongue involved. I wondered what kind of breads, cakes or cookies we were going to discover to round out the Scottish and Welsh sides of our heritage.
The answer was none—no Scottish barley rolls, no Welsh oat biscuits. We said nothing about it and counted ourselves lucky that we had been allowed to keep our English muffins, because the day we adopted Irish soda bread, we abandoned England, Scotland and Wales. My father decided we were Irish, through and through. It was a bulleted point in his business plan:
- Convince family we are Irish, through and through
- Rent store front
- Get liquor license
- Paint everything green
Miss Ferguson, my second grade teacher, made a big deal over anyone wearing green on St. Patrick’s Day. You could bet I was wearing green. I loved Miss Ferguson.
Miss Ferguson transcended the second grade class room. She transcended the entire elementary school. Once, she walked the class a few blocks to an assembly in the high school auditorium—OK, all of the teachers did that, but when all the teachers sat with their classes, Miss Ferguson did not. Instead, Miss Ferguson took to the stage to sing “Getting to Know You” from The King and I with the high school chorus. My brother Tommy was in the high school chorus. Throughout all of the times I looked up to him in my life, none compares with the afternoon he sang with Miss Ferguson.
I don’t know what I was envious of. I doubt Miss Ferguson ever noticed Tommy as anything more than a voice in the chorus. She certainly didn’t notice him the way she noticed me. Not only had she made a big deal when I wore green on St. Patrick’s Day, she noticed me in other ways too. She noticed my complex artistic side. I don’t know when I first learned how to draw a swastika, but Miss Ferguson was the first to notice.
By the time I was in the second grade, I was confident enough in my drawing abilities to give lessons to my classmates. The swastika, or “saw sticker” as I thought it was called, was just a flourish—a finishing touch, hardly something worth studying or drawing on its own. It was a minor detail of a larger scene. What I really liked drawing were tanks. Like most children, boys in particular, I liked machines, big machines—fire engines, garbage trucks, airplanes, boats. Military machinery, like tanks, piqued a particular interest, because as often as I would see them on the ABC Four-Thirty Movie, I would also see them explode. In broad strokes, they were also easy to draw. I started by drawing four or five circles in a row and then drawing an oblong shape around them. On top of that, I drew two or three rectangles in a basic step-up wedding cake shape, followed by a long straw jutting out of the top rectangle. Now, for the finishing detail… right in the middle of the biggest rectangle, I drew a sticker. If the tank was a good guy, I drew a star sticker. If the tank was a bad guy, I drew a saw sticker.
What? You don’t know how to draw a saw sticker? It’s easy… here, I’ll show you on the back of my math homework. You start with a tilted plus sign then you draw little lines on the end of each leg to make the saw look like it’s spinning.
The art clinics I offered my classmates brought me a lot of attention from Miss Ferguson and my mother. I was encouraged in the future to only draw the good guys.
Miss Ferguson took it well enough. She understood art and expression. Thursday afternoons she hosted the elementary school version of a poet in residence program by opening our classroom to a college student who would encourage us to write poetry. On days when she finished her lesson plan early, Miss Ferguson would open up the class for performance art. It was like open mic night in room 114.
“Does anyone have a joke they would like to tell the class?” she asked.
My hand shot up. I remembered a bunch of jokes that my father had brought home from the bar.
“OK, Paul Hawkins,” Miss Ferguson bounced her finger in the air as if she were plucking me out of my seat.
I walked up to the blackboard and looked around the room to get a feel for my audience.
“OK,” I said, clearing my throat. “Two Jews walk into a Chinese restaurant…”
My performance piece got about as much attention as the pencil art on the back of my homework. I couldn’t figure out what the big deal was. Wasn’t Jewish just a funny word like Irish, ticklish and squeamish? And weren’t we Jewish? Kind of Jewish? Jew-ish? Weren’t we somehow related to the characters in the stories I was taught in my religious instruction class—David and Goliath, Moses and the Ten Commandments, Noah and the Ark? That was the point, wasn’t it? We were the good guys, the Hebrews, the Jews, weren’t we? We weren’t the other ones, were we? Surely, we weren’t the Philistines. And what about the famous poem:
Roses are redish,
Violets are blueish,
If it wasn’t for Jesus,
We’d all still be Jewish.
No, we weren’t Jewish, I was told. And Jewish wasn’t like ticklish and squeamish. Jewish was different.
Second grade wasn’t a complete free-for-all. It wasn’t all just jokes and swastikas. Not in the hands of a renaissance woman like Miss Ferguson. Call it hippie culture; call it the dawning of the Age of Aquarius. In the darkness of 1974 with our President resigning in scandal and the Vietnam War ending dismally, something was happening in our classroom—something brilliant and subversive.
Miss Ferguson lined us up on the side of the room for the march upstairs to Mr. Richter’s music class. We filed into the room and sat freestyle on the floor.
Other teachers led their students to the music room or the art room or the gym and just left them there, but when Miss Ferguson brought us to the music room she stayed and joined the class.
“OK,” Mr. Richter called above the noisy class. “Does everybody have a seat?” He nodded to Miss Ferguson and she closed the door. Their cooperation gave off a feeling of conspiracy. It was not a classroom anymore, but a secret meeting.
“Does anyone know the name Martin Luther King?” Mr. Richter asked.
All hands went up. We had all heard the name before.
Mr. Richter continued, “Can anyone tell me who Martin Luther King is?”
Usually, my hand would have gone up first, but I held back. I was in enough hot water with swastikas and Jews. I thought someone else could take point for a while.
Words were called out and written on the blackboard—words I had heard from the TV news—simple words like walks and marches, strange ideas like separate bathrooms and water fountains and the back seats of busses; the final word was dead. He was dead.
This was a different kind of discussion for music class. We usually talked about the weather and learned songs about the season—the red, red robin, the meadow with a snowman. Mr. Richter brought it back to music, “There are songs people sing when they march together for a cause. The song helps them remember their purpose. It helps them keep in mind what brings them together. It tries to explain their efforts to anyone who sees them marching. This is the kind of song we are going to learn today.
“The song uses the word ‘overcome,’ who can tell me what that word means?”
“To climb on top of?”
“Something like that,” Mr. Richter encouraged.
“Does it mean to grow up?”
“To get better, like to be cured of something?”
“Yes, it could mean that too,” Mr. Richter said. “One meaning it has is to rise above. So, when we sing ‘We shall overcome’ we mean we will rise above whatever our problem is, that we will get past it, that it won’t be a problem anymore.”
We shall overcome.
A chorus of children singing,
We shall overcome.
In and out of tune,
We shall overcome some day.
Voices colliding with meter,
Oh, deep in my heart,
I do believe,
We shall overcome some day.
sounds like the truth.
By the time I was in the third grade my home had become a repository of slightly irregular Irish souvenirs—coffee table books, needle point prayers, shamrock neckties. Some were gifts my father had been given by patrons from the pub. Some were broken samples of mishandled inventory—knick-knacks sold from behind the bar.
One of my favorites was a chipped plate with a map of Ireland printed on it. The map served as an atlas of Irish names—McLaughlin, O’Donohue, Carnes and the like filled the borders of the Irish counties they came from. I looked the plate over and over under the kitchen’s bright light. From Donegal to Cork, I never found the name Hawkins.
“What a gyp!” I thought. I was the victim of injustice and gyp was the only word I had for it in the third grade.
My friend Chris Cleary’s mother had a plate just like ours—unchipped—better than ours. Chris had no trouble finding the name Cleary on his plate. But the Clearys had other things too—pictures of Irish people, a shillelagh, freckles and blue eyes. They had some sense of how Irish people behaved and how they spoke. Ask any Cleary and he could easily jump into a decent imitation of a brogue. It became difficult for me to believe that my friend’s family and my family were talking about the same place. His family’s Ireland was a landscape of lush green hills opening to a third world of gaunt men, crying children and wind burned, pregnant women. My family’s Ireland was a vaguely Gaelic, clean-cut, parochial school ideal—a lopsided combination of the Kennedy administration and a community theater production of Brigadoon. We could tell jokes, but they could tell stories. The Clearys had the Blarney Stone and the Irish gift-o’gab. We had the gift of keep-y’mouth-shut. We had the gift of mind-y’business.
I looked back at the names on the plate—names like MacGeoghegan, MacGilfinnen, O’Brosnaghan and O’Dooyearma. Suddenly it occurred to me that I hadn’t been gypped at all. Sure, if my last name had been O’Mulmoghery I would have found it on the map, but I also would have found it on my book bag, on my teacher’s attendance roster and on my report card. I would constantly hear it butchered when it was said out loud. And any time someone tried to pronounce it, I’d be obliged to answer.
Nobody mispronounces the name Hawkins. They don’t sound it out slowly. They don’t raise their voices uncertainly like they suspect something doubtful about it. It is not a question. Hawkins is pronounced with conviction. It is a statement—something believed to be true—a declaration. The certainty with which my name was said nurtured the confidence with which I learned to reply.
So, I missed out on the novelty of finding my name on a plate, but even in the third grade, I knew my name was not well suited for novelty. The name Hawkins didn’t belong on a plate with a lot of other names. Hawkins stood alone. Just the sound of it conjured the image of a solitary creature.
For the boys of the Hawkins family, the name performed particularly well. The “hawk” in Hawkins accentuated every venerable male attribute—our steady gaze, our broad shoulders, the tenor clarity of our voices, and the glint of sunlight on our talons as we swept down upon our prey.
I was christened with a particularly handsome name, Paul Hawkins. It is friendly in that it is simple, unchallenging—easy to read, easy to pronounce. That makes it likeable. But there is some alchemy to it that is instantly recognizable but hard to define. It possesses a masculine beauty, something resonant and mathematical about the matching vowel sounds in the first and second name. It is like the beating of a drum. It is like striking up a band. Suddenly, you are marching in a parade, and all you have done is say my name.
Everyone loves their own name, but more often than not, it is just the effect of classical conditioning—a Pavlov’s dog type of association—from the many times they had been called by name to the dinner table. But their names weren’t like mine. Their names weren’t repeated—recited like a poem. No one bothered me with nick names. No one was tempted to try to shorten it at all, or dared to separate the first name from the last name and tamper with the spell it cast. They called me by my full name. I was always Paul Hawkins. I was Paul Hawkins in Kindergarten. My father’s business partners called me Paul Hawkins. My teachers called me Paul Hawkins. It was a name people liked to say. They wanted to meet Paul Hawkins and be friends with Paul Hawkins. From an early age, my name did most of the heavy lifting. My name didn’t provide an easy to follow, bread crumb trail to its nation of origin. Instead, my name was my nation.
My mother did not seem to get the same use out of the Hawkins name as I did. Of course, it was her married name. She didn’t grow up with it, and lacked the intimacy with it that I had. I would hear her say it over the phone or to a cashier when picking up something she had ordered. She would say it and then immediately spell it, which she never realized was completely unnecessary—“H-A-W-K-I-N-S”—though it didn’t hurt either—the three syllable W separating the rhyming A and K… it sounded cool even when you spelled it.
I remember waiting with my mother at the counter of Ancona pizzeria. When we got to the front of the line, she said our name, and then she spelled it.
“Hey,” the cashier turned his head to yell behind him, “You got ‘Hawkins’ over there?”
“Here you go,” the pizza cook grabbed the box from the top of the oven, “Treasure Island!”
I waited until my mother and I were back in the car. I could feel the hot pizza through the cardboard box on my lap. “What was that?” I asked. “Why did that guy say ‘Treasure Island?’”
“Young Jim Hawkins,” my mother said, adjusting her mirrors. “He’s a character in the book ‘Treasure Island.’”
I dropped Johnny Tremain, The Red Pony, Rascal or whatever my junior high school reading assignment had been and I picked up ‘Treasure Island.’
At the time my interests swayed toward UFOs and a TV show about motorcycle policemen, not pirates. I found the book’s language dense, archaic and hard to read, but I dug in and found the gem I was looking for—“I’ve come aboard to take possession of this ship, Mr. Hands; and you’ll please regard me as your captain until further notice,”—what a Hawkins thing to say.
Finally I had found a Hawkins to hold on to—a famous Hawkins—a Hawkins well known in literary circles and pizza parlors. At thirteen, being a young man more of reputation than reality, having a fictional character as a forebear was just fine by me.
Throughout high school, my name had a life of its own. The way I heard it brought up from time to time made me wonder what sort of adventures it had without me.
I had just started working at the village pool for the summer. Halfway through my first shift I was told to clock out for a lunch break.
“How are you doing? I’m Paul,” I said to a fellow pool attendant at the time clock.
“I’m John,” he said, also punching out for lunch.
“Well,” I said. “Where do you want to go for lunch?”
John and I sat down with a couple of burgers around the corner from the pool. We talked about the work assignments we’d been given at the pool that morning and other assignments we had heard of and had seen written on the schedule—Phase I, Kiddie, Kiddie Gate, Showers, Road, Pool and Pit—basically small areas of the facility we’d be asked to keep clean and orderly throughout our shifts. We talked about our supervisors and other personalities—it was all garbled between bites of cheeseburger and gulps of Coca-Cola. It got to where I couldn’t understand him at all.
“I’m sorry. What did you say?” I asked.
John held his index finger in the air, chewing strongly and deliberately. “Sorry about that,” He said after a sip of Coke. “I asked if you’ve met Paul Hawkins yet.”
“I’m Paul Hawkins,” I said cautiously.
“No, you’re not,” he said.
“Yes,” I assured him. “I am.”
John shook his head. “That doesn’t even make sense,” he said.
“What are you talking about?” I asked.
“Well, I guess you could be Paul Hawkins,” he conceded. “It’s just that I’ve heard the name. I mean, not a lot, and I can’t even tell you where or why, but I’ve heard it, even before today. So, there’s this name, you know? And a picture in my head that goes with the name. So, we punch out for lunch at the same time and you say, ‘Where do you want to go for lunch,’ and we’re here, eating burgers.”
“Right,” I said, trying to follow.
“It’s just that Paul Hawkins wouldn’t do that,” he said. “I mean the Paul Hawkins in my brain wouldn’t do that.”
We sat quietly. I nodded my head a little bit. John shuffled in his seat for a minute, thinking of what to say next.
“It’s a hell of a name,” he said.
“I know,” I nodded.
“It’s the kind of name you hear once, and you think you know it, like it’s famous for something.”
“Yeah,” I said. “It does that.”
“What are you going to do with it?” he asked nervously, finishing his fries.
“I don’t know,” I smirked. “I’m not sure I know what you mean.”
“It’s just,” he stammered. “You should totally do something with it.”
“OK,” I shrugged. “Like what?”
“I don’t know,” he looked at me then slowly looked across to the window. His eyes were lost in thought and consideration. He nodded his head and returned my gaze, “Something.”
On the way to finding something to do with my name, I found work in New York restaurants.
“Has anybody spoken to you yet?” Rocky asked me as I sat down across from him at the staff meal.
“What do you mean?” I asked. “About what?”
“Someone overheard us the other day,” he said. “Anyway,” he looked across the room to draw my attention to one of the restaurant’s managers who had just taken a seat. “She asked me how well I knew you… If you were a friend of mine…”
“Yeah?” I said.
“Well, I didn’t know what she was getting at. I thought it was some kind of joke, so I said, ‘No, he ain’t no friend of mine.’”
“Thanks,” I said.
“No problem,” he smiled. “‘Well, I thought what he said to you the other day was offensive,’ she says to me.”
“What are you talking about?” I asked.
“The chicken cutlet,” he said.
“I offended you with a chicken cutlet?” I said. Rocky shifted in his seat and took on an insistent posture. He looked at me impatiently. In my mind, I shuffled through the few conversations I remembered having with Rocky that had anything to do with a chicken breast.
“Oh man,” I protested. “Are you kidding me?” I’m so easily offended by what people take offence to.
I had only started waiting tables at this restaurant over the past two or three weeks. In setting up the dining room for dinner service, I had drawn the duty of preparing and lighting the votive candles. Cleaning the glass votives, finding, lighting and distributing the candles took a little longer than I expected. By the time I got into the kitchen to take a plate for staff meal, all I was able to scoop on to my plate were a few tablespoons of mixed vegetables. I looked forward to another night of running on coffee, heals of bread and weak Cokes from the serving gun at the bar.
Sitting down across from Rocky, my eyes fell upon his big, beautiful breasts—two boneless breasts of chicken sitting proudly on his plate.
“Hey Rock,” I said. “Are you going to eat all of that?”
“I don’t know,” he said. “Why?”
“Well, it might have looked like there was a lot when you put those on your plate, but when I got to the kitchen, there was nothing left.” I pointed to the broccoli flower and sliver of carrot on my plate. “This is all I’ve got.”
“Oh no,” Rocky said, poking a cutlet with his fork and dropping it on my plate. “Please have one of these.”
“Are you sure?” I asked.
“Oh, yes. That’s just it. There looked like there was plenty,” Rocky said. “I don’t need all of this food.”
So far it was a normal conversation, a perfectly acceptable transaction between two colleagues. A need expressed and fulfilled with the flip of a utensil. A simple thank you would suffice, or perhaps the remembrance of a kindness done.
I looked at the chicken cutlet on my plate. “I don’t feel good about this Rocky,” I said.
“Go on,” he said. “It’s just a piece of chicken.”
“I’m taking food off your plate,” I said. “Hasn’t the white man taken enough?”
Rocky snickered and shook his head. “Really,” he said. “It’s OK.”
“Do you know what I mean?” I said. “I mean, I don’t want to end up owing you forty acres, a mule and a chicken breast.”
Our daily lives pass without notice and the events within have nothing to do with the greater tale of history unfolding. If a moment suggests something different, if a moment speaks to you in poetry within the context of history—a literary theme—the enduring struggles of man against nature, time against man or man’s higher ideals against his basic animal desires, ignore it or risk offending the sensibilities of everyone within earshot, because our society and its history are incompatible. We cannot occupy both at the same time.
“That’s nothing,” my friend Shawn said when I told him the story. His theater company had just returned from a production they had staged in Berlin. “So, we’re artists, right? Hanging out at cafés, meeting local artists and enthusiasts for drinks after the show…”
“Yeah, OK,” I nodded, “your basic Bohemian lifestyle.”
“Right,” Shawn said, “but did you know that in Berlin, when you meet someone new, you don’t ask them what they do for a living? It’s just not done, and it’s not out of any heightened sense of etiquette either. I mean, you can tell them you want to take them to the Kit-Kat Club and tootsie-roll them, just don’t ask them about their nine-to-five.”
I shrugged. “So, what’s that all about?”
“The Nazis,” Shawn said. “What else? See, over there, whatever you do for a living is probably the same thing your old man did and his old man too. So, you’re out for a drink when someone asks you what you do for a living and it comes across like an interrogation at Nuremburg. Say you have a nice job in manufacturing or anything vaguely industrial, you don’t want to talk about it because the subtext is that grandpa built tanks and danced to oompah music with the Nazis.”
When we find roads we don’t want to go down, we wink to each other and pretend they are dead ends.
Our emotions hang there, with the question. Our thoughts and feelings are strained. There is still a great deal we cannot say out loud and our voices are strained and hoarse from whispering. So, we stick to pop culture. We talk about movies and television programs. We don’t talk about politics, because that seemed to be about white people. We stopped talking about the weather after Katrina came down so heavily upon the delta blacks.
You learn to hop gingerly through conversations, casually, easily, like a game of checkers, until you are smitten and sit across from a beautiful dark skinned woman on a first date, and you find yourself thrown suddenly into a game of grand master level chess.
I remember being struck by disbelief each time I peeked from my menu to see the rich dark skin of my date across the table. How had we navigated our way through the clumsy social obstacles to arrive at dinner together? I looked at her hands holding the menu. The menu—there was a mine field waiting to be tripped. I didn’t know what her family’s background was or what type of culture she was raised in. We could talk about all of that later, but the task at hand was to order something from the menu that wouldn’t offend her. She could be Islamic and not eat pork.
“So,” I said, because it was the type of question you could ask on a first date, “What kind of name is Vidya?”
“It’s a Hindu name,” Vidya smiled.
I smiled too and thought, OK, what does that mean? Hindus don’t eat beef, right? Or are their diets dictated by their caste? I remembered a scene from a movie where Alec Guinness played a Brahmin who would only eat vegetarian dishes prepared by another Brahmin. It was a lot to consider on a first date. Should I ask the waitress if there was a Brahmin in the kitchen who could whip up a plate of mashed potatoes?
For our first date, I thought it would be easy to avoid controversy. I thought it would take little effort to steer clear of any racially charged topics. No matter how carefully I tried to guide the conversation, we ended up talking about oppression, cruelty and slavery—as it turned out, we both had older brothers.
The notion of slavery is not born within us; instead, it is a contagion we succumb to when we see our younger sibling in our mothers’ arms for the first time. No matter how childlike and innocent we may seem at the time, we begin to calculate our moves. We know that our future happiness, maybe our very survival depends upon getting close to the younger child, manipulating the way it interprets its environment and bending it to conform to our will. It comes from the most selfish and immature desires.
Vidya had been the youngest child in her family, and the only girl, so, she wasn’t able to escape her brothers’ yoke until the day she left for college. I had grown up in the cruelest condition—one of the middle children.
I remembered one summer when my two immediately older brothers returned from wrestling camp. We were in the way-back seat of my mother’s station wagon when they decided to practice their newly learned techniques on me—not the actual wrestling moves, but the more subtle tortures—more effective Charlie-horses, delivered with a knuckle instead of a closed fist; Indian burns and methods of twisting arm hair into knots with a little spit and the palm of a hand.
Not only did I live under the constant terror of noogies, wedgies and towel snaps, I lived through the additional horror of becoming the monster I despised—terrorizing my younger brothers and sister as their Friday night babysitter. On one all too well remembered evening, I convinced my brother Andrew that I was going to flush his foot down the toilet. It is the type of story that comes up from time to time during family reunions, wedding toasts and now, on a first date.
The first date went well. By the end of June, Vidya had moved in. By the end of October, I had finished painting the baby’s room. Our baby was due in December.
One day a voice caught me by surprise in a coffee shop. It had a brassy, French horn quality to it. In a way it was like hearing an echo of my own voice—as if my voice had bounced off a tile wall and through doing so tightened its diction. The language and pronunciation were more exact than the lazy educated Brooklyn accent I had grown comfortable speaking in.
“Excuse me,” I said, following the man to the milk and sugar table at the front of the coffee shop. “You seem familiar to me and I don’t know why.”
“I don’t know why either,” he said. He put his hand out. “My name’s Michael.”
“Michael,” I said, finding something else in his face. “I think I knew you when your beard was shorter and your hair had not yet turned white.”
“You may have. You may have,” he nodded. “There was such a time.”
“And if I remember correctly,” I said. “I think I used to call you Professor.”
“I’d say your memory serves you well,” he said. “That’s one of the titles I am known by.”
“I’m Paul Hawkins,” I said. “I was a student of yours about eighteen years ago.”
“Paul Hawkins,” Michael said. “Yes, I remember that name.”
Michael’s pet project was an elective class on the history of the English language. Each spring, in an effort to bolster registration in the class, Michael would post fliers all around campus inviting students to an hour long lunch time seminar on the history of dirty words. I attended the seminar and registered for the course. It was one of those courses that didn’t really help you in later life, like statistics and economics, but it provided a foundation of arcane knowledge that I could resort to if I followed my dream to become a Jeopardy contestant. Aside from that, it provided just another craw for me to get things stuck in.
Vidya and I were due for a night out. We went for a bite to eat and to see a movie. I forget what we had for dinner, but the movie we picked was Elizabeth: The Golden Age.
“What did you think of it?” Vidya asked as we walked up Court Street on our way home.
“Something happened in the beginning of the movie that distracted me,” I said. “I couldn’t get my head back into the story.”
“What was it?” Vidya asked as we huddled against the damp October evening.
“Something stupid,” I said. “Elizabeth said ‘hurricane’. I don’t think she would have known that word.”
As the movie’s plot builds, Elizabeth snaps back at the Spanish ambassador after he says something cute about her majesty’s relationship with Clive Owen, I mean Walter Raleigh.
The Spanish ambassador cautions the shortsightedness of her majesty’s outrage with the line, “You see a leaf fall and you think you know which way the wind blows. Well, there is a wind coming, Madame, that will sweep away your pride.” He then squats out a little curtsy and turns to leave.
Incensed, Cate Blanchete, I mean Elizabeth, takes a deep breath and roars, “I too can command the wind, sir! I have a hurricane in me that will sweep Spain bare if you dare to try me.”
Fantastic, of course. Hurray! Bravo! All the shouting about the weather foreshadows the mysterious wind storms that later toss the Spanish Armada against the coastal rocks. It is all just good, cinematic drama. I didn’t get hung up on that. It didn’t bother me that the whole conversation probably never happened. I got hung up on a single word in a conversation that never happened. I just didn’t think Elizabeth would have known the word hurricane.
When we got home, I made Vidya some tea and I turned on my computer. I knew I had to exorcise the hurricane demon from my consciousness. I Googled. I Yahooed. I Wikipediaed. I typed in “Elizabeth”, “hurricane”, and “Sir Walter Raleigh.” I typed in “Spanish Armada” and something caught my eye. It was like a figure jumping out at me from a color blindness test. The screen was cluttered with text about Mary of Scotts, the Spanish Armada and the English defenses, but all I could see was a name—my name.
Slowly, I read through the material I had found. Though I couldn’t find anything conclusive on whether Elizabeth had known or used the word hurricane, I was clear that she knew the name Hawkins and probably said it a lot. Admiral Sir John Hawkins was one of three maritime characters who, along with the wind, is credited with defeating the Spanish Armada.
At times like this I wish I had an old style encyclopedia sitting on shelves in the bedroom. One reason being that I might march into the room determined to pull the H volume off the shelf to begin my research on Sir John Hawkins and suddenly forget why I walked into the bedroom in the first place. It’s happened before. I’d stand in the middle of the room for a minute and decide that I had probably decided to get ready for bed, and that would be the end of my research project for the evening. The other advantage to searching an encyclopedia in printed form is that, had I successfully retrieved the H encyclopedia, I probably would have flipped the book open with my left thumb, shuffling through the pages like I was shuffling a deck of cards, seeing entries in the back of the book first. Something else might have caught my eye and distracted me until I was too tired to read any more—hypoallergenic dogs, Hoover Dam or maybe a hiatal hernia. I could have come across a spread on the Hubble Space Telescope and floated away into a star birthing nebula.
We don’t seek information in this way anymore. We would never think to purposely mistype our search word into the text box of an online reference—to be distracted by a pleasant detour. To circuitously come to what we are searching for with a fresh mind from having learned something random and new.
There is a danger in this directness. There is a danger in finding just what you are looking for. It is the danger of tunnel vision. It is the danger of finding only what you already know. It may make us feel exact, precise, even vindicated, but it also distorts our perspective. We no longer feel the weight of a book on our lap and realize that, though the topic of our interest takes up a page or two, there are other topics worthy of consideration, enough to fill the rest of the book and twenty four books of equal size.
Now I had my blinders on, and the only thing I could see was Sir John Hawkins, an ancestor reaching out to me from history. This was bad—it was just messy scholarship. Genealogy is a methodical practice of analyzing official documents—birth records, baptismal records, death certificates and census forms. Tracing my lineage back to Elizabethan England would be a painstaking process tip-toeing through over four hundred years—fourteen generations of vital records. It really isn’t a type of work I am suited for. I’m not good with piles of documents and little slips of paper. I can’t keep a receipt of purchase long enough to apply for a manufacturer’s rebate. And in the end, what did I hope to gain, a chronicle of this one begat that one that’s about as fun to read as the phone book?
Who was I to have reservations? My ancestry had become irreparably murky years ago when I penciled the names of fictional characters like Jim Hawkins from Treasure Island and Sadie Hawkins from Li’l Abner onto blank branches of my family tree. There was a far greater chance that I was related to Sir John considering he was once a flesh and blood man.
I admit there is little science behind it, but who can argue with the holy trinity of ancestry—skin color, language and last name? What my evidence lacked in genetics, it made up for in phonetics. True ancestry didn’t matter. The name bound us together. I simplified the family tree. Generations of intermediaries fell away. I drew a straight line from him to me.
I clicked on a hyperlink that brought me to an article about Sir John Hawkins—“Whoa,” I thought.
“Whoa, what?” Vidya asked. “Did you just say ‘whoa?’”
OK, so I didn’t think it. I said it out loud, but what sat before me was whoa worthy.
“It says here that John Hawkins sailed to the Americas in 1562.” I said. “That’s before the Mayflower. That’s before Jamestown. You grow up learning names like John Smith and Myles Standish, but Hawkins was here before any of them. A man named Hawkins was one of the first English speaking people to come to America.”
Vidya walked around the sofa and looked over my shoulder at the screen. “What else does it say?” she asked.
“He may have been the first to import potatoes to be planted in Ireland, and the first to bring tobacco to England.”
Vidya rubbed my neck and shoulders and kissed the back of my head. “I’m tired,” she said. “Are you coming to bed?”
“I’d like to read a little more,” I said. “I’ll be in in a few minutes.”
“You know you’re going to be out here all night,” she said.
“No, no,” I said. “I’ll just be a few minutes.”
“It will all be there in the morning, you know,” she said.
I rubbed my eyes, stood up from my desk and followed Vidya into the bedroom.
“Paul, I’m proud of you,” Vidya said. “I thought for sure I lost you to the computer tonight.”
I shrugged and grinned. I walked around the bed and changed from my blue jeans into a pair of flannel pajama pants. I turned to Vidya and kissed her.
I should have stopped there. I should have gone to bed. I could have lulled myself to sleep to the thought of the sea. I could have slept easy through the night, dreaming of cigarettes and mashed potatoes, but I was a little wound up by my discovery and though I knew it wouldn’t rewrite history, I thought I might take a stab at rewriting my sixth grade Social Studies report.
“Before you go to sleep,” I said. “Could I have a few sheets of construction paper?”
I found a portrait of Sir John Hawkins on the Internet and printed it out. I was already way ahead of my former sixth grade classmates. I seem to remember that all of the images used of the grandmothers in the original reports were black and white photographs.
Every generation looks upon their grandparents as impossibly old. My notion of the vast canyon of time between me and my grandparents was highlighted by a shift from black and white to color photography. All of the photographs I had seen of my grandparents when they were younger were in black and white, as were the movies from their era that I had seen on TV. It seemed just as likely to me that my grandparents had come of age during a time when life itself was experienced in shades of gray. It seemed consistent with the stories of hardship I had heard—the Great Depression and wartime shortages. I imagined looking out a window to a gray field under a gray sky.
This alone would have made my report stand out among the others—I had a color image of John Hawkins. He had lived and died around 400 years before any of the grandmothers, yet he seemed more approachable. With a dangling earring and a puffy Elizabethan collar, his rosy seaman’s cheeks made him more contemporary—more alive than any of the gray or sepia toned grandmothers.
I brushed the upper left corner of my cover page with rubber cement and carefully guided Sir John’s image into place. In the upper right corner, I planned to mount the coat of arms awarded to Sir John as one of the honors Elizabeth bestowed upon him in recognition of his service in repelling the Spanish attack. Since the coat of arms had been awarded to Sir John directly, and had not been an inherited standard, the symbols of heraldry found on it had been chosen specifically to reflect the characteristics Her Majesty wished to applaud in Sir John’s person.
From black paper, I cut the shield—square at the top, coming to a rounded point at the bottom—roughly the shape of a wine glass without the stem. What I call black when talking about construction paper is called sable in heraldry, and it signifies constancy. For over twenty five years, the crown had acted as a business partner in Hawkins’s merchant undertakings, to the point of leasing or perhaps lending him the 700 ton warship, the Jesus of Lubeck.
Like a wine glass, the shape is filled with a generous tasting pour of bold azure and argent waves. The waves, of course, denote his mastery of the sea. The blue waves signify truth and loyalty while the white waves suggest peace and sincerity—qualities most likely displayed through Hawkins’s faithful perseverance through various Spanish intrigues which sought to enlist him to the peril of his Queen. Hawkins served as a valuable double agent, confusing the Spanish ambassador with misinformation and ultimately uncovering the Ridolfi plot—a plan to assassinate Elizabeth and enthrone Mary Stuart.
Above the waves hovers a golden lion in the passant guardant pose, or the looking straight at you, one claw scratching pose. The gold intones noble ideals of generosity and elevation of the mind; the lion stands for dauntless courage, strength, ferocity and valor. By my guess it is the only animal you would think to draw on the shield of a man who, outnumbered and outgunned, battened down the hatches and sailed in the face of the Spanish Armada.
At the top left of the shield sits a gold square containing a black scallop shell displayed between two sabers. As a whole, the box honors Hawkins for his travel to distant places and his victorious naval command.
Finally, to the right of the square sit two gold coins, or roundels, signifying treasure. As a merchant business partner to the crown, John Hawkins returned generous dividends to the treasury.
I looked at the coat of arms I had cut from construction paper and assembled with rubber cement. I rubbed my eyes, stinging from staring at my computer monitor. I stretched my right hand, cramped from tight scissor work. I should have gone to sleep hours before at Vidya’s suggestion. I walked over to the refrigerator, poured myself a Pepsi and grabbed a handful of pretzels. With the rubber cement on my project drying, it was a good time for me to clean up my scraps of paper, wind down and head in to bed.
I was pleased when I compared my coat of arms to the original on the screen. Of course, the original displayed details and flourishes that I would probably leave out—the helmet mounted above the shield surrounded by waving scarves of the mantling.
I liked the clean line at the top of the shield as I had it. I thought it would make it easy to square on the page next to Sir John’s portrait. I squinted in an effort to make out what was at the very top of the helmet on the original illustration. The heralds call this element the crest—it is sometimes used as a portable aspect of the coat of arms—the kind of detail one might have embroidered on a blazer or printed on one’s personal stationery. Sometimes the crest is a complete miniature duplicate of the coat of arms it sits above. Sometimes it is a thematic image—a symbolic abbreviation of the man it is meant to honor. I clicked on the image to open it in full resolution. I had never seen anything like it before. Up until this point, my exposure to coats of arms has been exclusive to vacation gift shops, but I had never seen an icon like this on any souvenir coffee cup, tee-shirt or refrigerator magnet. To my mind, it could only have one meaning.
I clicked on the tab to the article I had viewed earlier. I read slowly and carefully. John Hawkins was far more than just a simple sailing merchant, hanging his shingle and peddling his wares from port to port. John Hawkins was a commercial visionary and marketing innovator. Maybe this is where my father got his entrepreneurial spirit. My father was a natural business man. He would read his morning paper with a cup of black coffee and a yellow legal pad, scratching down the names and details of anything that caught his eye—synapses firing—every story was an opportunity, each exposing a niche to be explored.
I grew up browsing through the titles of my father’s basement business library—flipping open volumes I found around the house—behind a sofa’s throw pillow, in the bathroom magazine rack, on the kitchen table. He collected all of the great business writers and motivators—Dale Carnegie, Napoleon Hill, Og Mandino.
To my surprise, none of the books talked about business directly—instead, they all talked about how to treat people fairly and with respect. Profitable commerce, they all agreed, was an unavoidable byproduct of decency. It all boiled down to a single philosophy through which everyone involved found fulfillment through the deal. In some of the books, they spoke about the fulfillment of commerce with the reverence of a communal spiritual event. The suppliers and manufacturers felt it, the retail middle men felt it and ultimately, the customer or end user felt it. It was the win-win—everybody’s happy because everybody wins—relationship.
In school, when I read that the renaissance was facilitated in part by the rise of the European merchant class, I thought of friendly customer service and the philosophies expounded in my father’s paperback collection. I pictured the Avon lady and the Good Humor man ringing their bells along the trade routes of medieval Christendom. My impression, it turns out, was inaccurate. In the late Middle Ages such evolved notions of salesmanship had not yet quite caught on. Hell, they were just getting used to gunpowder.
John Hawkins didn’t benefit from an MBA education. Instead of modeling a business philosophy on concepts distilled from the study other successful businesses, John Hawkins culled his case studies from the only well documented international transactions available to him—military conquest.
As a merchant upon the high seas, flying the flag of Protestant England, John Hawkins found it easy enough to pick fights with nearly any ship he encountered—certainly with the Catholic powers of France, Spain and Portugal. With a note from the queen, recognizing him as a privateer, Captain Hawkins had license to operate his small fleet like it was his own private navy.
He would set sail from England with his holds full of textiles and who knows what other kinds of English goods—jams and jellies and such—all the little jars and brass containers that sit irresistibly on the shelves in the airport’s duty-free shop. He would sail west through the channel and then south along the Atlantic coasts of the European powers, with a keen eye out for other ships to harass. Docking in the Spanish Canary Islands, he would sniff out rumors of where the actions was, while trying to look innocent by publicizing his cover story as well as he could, “What? Me? My ship? Oh, you know… English stuff… jellies, jams, sweaters, that sort of thing.”
From there he would sail south, looking to trade with Portuguese merchant ships and camps along Africa’s coast. By trade, I mean loot. I mean plunder. John Hawkins traded in an old school kind of way—in an old grammar school kind of way—in an old, “trade your lunch money for a knuckle sandwich” kind of way. If he found the Portuguese booty too great to divide among his ships, he would pull an English flag out of a trunk, run it up the mast of the captured galleon and call it his own. As for the Portuguese crew, they would be exiled to the African wilderness or murdered, depending on the Captain’s mood.
If it sounds like he was hard on his suppliers, you should have seen John Hawkins on sales calls. He believed in introducing himself to his customers with a bang… no, literally, with cannon fire. Hawkins would pilot his ships into one of the harbors of New Spain, blasting his cannons to announce his arrival. It was his way of bridging the communication gap he might find with the Spanish settlers. The cannon spoke the universal language. It said, “Hello. I’m within range of your settlement, and I have a cannon. I’d like to make a sales appointment with you.”
While the cannons fired, Hawkins prepared his away team—it was kind of like Star Trek, but medieval. The selected crew members changed out of whatever fancy pirate costumes they liked to wear onboard the ship and slip into something more appropriate for a business meeting—armor and chainmail. They rowed their longboats to shore, each with his cutlass at his side and his harquebus—you know, the funny looking muskets with the yawning funnel for a muzzle—loaded and half-cocked.
Upon meeting a village magistrate, Hawkins plunged into a monologue of lies and thinly veiled threats:
Mucho gusto and greetings, Your Grace.
Allow me to introduce myself—Captain John Hawkins, honorable sailor man at your service. Please forgive the presence of my heavily armed ships in your harbor, but we’ve been thrown off course by a storm. We wish only to resupply and be on our way. I understand the Kingdom of Spain forbids you to trade with English merchants, but surely you could waive these sanctions to rescue us from our immediate peril and in turn rescue your village from our guns. Please accept this assortment of jams and jellies as my gift.
To modern sensibilities, John Hawkins presented a questionable business plan—uncertain markets, hostile conditions, threats from weather and disease, political turmoil, not to mention the distance to be traveled to get goods to market. On paper, a lemonade stand presented a more promising venture. But at the time, John Hawkins business plan was a marvel. It became the business model of the European shipping industry for the next two hundred and fifty years. Every merchant looking to make his fortune at sea would follow in John Hawkins wake—from Europe to Africa to the Americas and back to Europe.
I studied the route I had traced in red of Hawkins’s first venture to the Americas. It was more pronounced and visually appealing than the simple, one-way trails left behind by immigrating grandparents. Theirs was a collection of line segments or at best and elegant Bézier curve. Hawkins’s path had weight to it. It was a closed curve, a shape. It was a triangle.
That’s when I got it.
I clicked back to the enlarged coat of arms and studied Sir John’s personal crest. It jarred me to see such a literal figure in the midst of all the heraldic symbolism—a lion, a saber, a scallop shell and this—almost as an afterthought—a grotesque feather in his cap. John Hawkins personal crest was the portrait of a black man bound about the arms and chest with thick ropes and chains. John Hawkins invented the Atlantic triangle trade. John Hawkins was the pioneer English trader of African slaves in the early Americas. He wrote the book on it—An Alliance to Raid for Slaves by Captain John Hawkins. It wasn’t quite How to Win Friends and Influence People, it was more along the lines of How to Coerce and Intimidate One Group of Africans Into Helping You Kidnap and Enslave Another Group of Africans. It was a summer sleeper hit.
I turned off the light at my desk and found that the room was glowing. Morning whispered through the window. I walked into the kitchen and put the kettle on for coffee. If my original report, Immigrants: I’ve Heard They’re Good with Figures, would have had me sent to the principal’s office, this new draft, Son of the Slave Trade, would have gotten me expelled, maybe even deported. No matter how detailed my illustrations, or how well glued my cover, this wasn’t a report to be displayed behind glass in an American Heritage museum, it was more a document to be entered into evidence at The Hague.
I had disregarded the first rule of American history, a tenet we usually extend to our family histories—only draw the good guys. But a difficulty lies in that history, as we are told, is written by the winners. As it turns out, the winners weren’t always good guys. Now, I began to understand the ideology behind it—the warning implied in Miss Ferguson’s second grade suggestion. I should only draw the good guys, because after I’ve drawn the bad guys, and taken a good long look, I’m bound to see something familiar in them. I will have to admit to a resemblance.
What if I drew the bad guy and spoke, not loudly, from a soap box with a puffed up chest, saying, “I’m going to say this once and for all…” but softly, sincerely as to say, “if you don’t hear me the first time, I will repeat myself. I will say it again. I will say it again and forever. I recognize the resemblance. I am a descendant of slavery and I recognize the slaver in me. It is the part of me that is farthest from my heart, but it is there.” Maybe then I could work my way to something that resembled an appropriate response—something that resembled comprehension, compassion or apology. Would that be too much? Would it be far too little?
What confused me most was that, within months, I was going to have a child whose complexion would not be white. A child—as much a Hawkins as I am, as much a Hawkins as Sir John—who, historically, would sail as cargo and not kin.
I felt an anger brewing.
History understands anger. History understands difference. It welcomes clash, disagreement, and ultimatum. It whispered to me to toughen up, to prepare for conflict, to ready for battle. I would be keen to every comment. I would assess every gesture and facial expression. At the slightest indiscretion, I would be steady and unflinching. I will stand my ground and say, for all to hear, “If my child is made to feel unwelcome, someone is going to end up with his foot in the toilet. And take me at my word; I’m the man who will flush that toilet.”
The world would understand something like that. That is how the world speaks.
I stood at the kitchen window as the sky grew lighter. The trees and the roof tops, the back walls of the buildings on the opposite block, everything was dark and dull and colorless—a cityscape of gray.
Is it true what they say about daylight? Does morning really offer something new? Is there a chance to change? Will I raise a family in guarded anger, ever ready with my own bullying toilet threats, or can I do better? Is there a process to follow as the sun comes up? Do I offer up my guilt and sorrow to mingle with the last moments of yesterday’s darkness and watch as it is bleached away by the coming of the new day?
No, the dawn isn’t necessary to make a solemn oath, but it offers itself as a useful tool. It is a time of day when I am overpowered. It is a time of day when I am in awe. It is a time of day when I approach the humility needed to change. By 8:00 a.m., I’ll be playing with my house keys. By 10:00 I will convince myself of how ineffective I am, how little I can do.
At dawn, I believe in the greatness of small things—the way the diffused light casts unrecognizable shadows. It is dawn and everything is new and original. Everyone else is asleep. When their alarms ring, they will awaken into a world that I have been at work on for hours, a world that I have been finessing and fine tuning—a world that holds my small act in its memory. If I can do little, and choose to do nothing, then damn me and damn all the world.
I walked into the bathroom and turned the water on for a hot shower. History is written by the winners, I thought. So let us, by all means, do our best to win.
I have a litmus test I use with new ideas. I imagine dropping my new idea into conversations in different environments. Not standing on a soap box with a well formed lecture, ready to introduce and defend the idea, but just dropping it as an aside, watching to see if someone else will pick it up. I want to know if my idea has any legs of its own.
My idea was subtle, so near to nothing that it is easy to imagine that it would never be noticed. But then, it was so abhorrent, that dropping it into a conversation at a bar or family holiday party could easily result in a fist fight. But then, it all depends on the ears it falls on.
I pictured my friend Mark tending bar at his pub in my old home town. “Hey,” he’d say to a local he remembered from twenty five summers ago when we all worked at the village pool. “Did you hear about Paul Hawkins?”
“No,” the friend would smile to hear my name. “I haven’t heard a thing.”
“Paul Hawkins isn’t white anymore.”
“What do you mean?” he’d ask.
Mark would flip a cocktail napkin onto the bar and reach for a pint glass to pull a draught. “I don’t mean anything. He just stopped being white.”
“Well, what does he look like?”
“Oh, no,” Mark would clarify. “He’s still the same guy. He’s just stopped being white.” He’d place the glass in front of John, rock on his heels and lean on the back bar.
John would take the glass to his lips and take the first short sip. He would nod, thoughtfully, and while he did, he might catch the reflection of his own eye in the mirror behind the call liquor. In his own face, he would notice the hint of an emotion he hadn’t touched in years, something hopeful and adolescent. He’d wonder if his wife had ever seen that look in his eye, or if his children would recognize it. It has been too long, but it is not yet too late.
“Paul Hawkins…” he’d say. “Paul Hawkins stopped being white,” He would shake his head slowly, but somewhere, in his quiet consideration, his head would become still and he would begin to nod. “That’s something.”
I sing a lot. I sing all of the time—in the shower, walking down the street, on subway platforms. I’ve been caught singing out loud in my office with headphones on. When I sing a song, it is not with my voice. I am not the performer. Singing to me is just part of listening. A song can be inviting to me and I can feel drawn into it, but I am still separate from it. I am still a spectator—part of the audience. I can become passionate, even animated, but I never take it to heart. I never become the singer. I don’t know how many times I have sung along to “We Will Rock You,” but I never felt that I was part of the “we.” I never felt that I was rocking anyone. It was always Freddie Mercury and Queen who were doing the actual rocking.
As the hot shower poured over my back I began to hum and then sing a song. It was a simple song, a song I had known since childhood. I had always heard it belted out with certainty. I never confused its message with wishful thinking. I always believed it to be true.
As I sang, some kind of shift happened within me. I was no longer a spectator. I was part of the song. I was the “we” I was singing about. I was healing. I was growing. Today was the day the song promised.
We shall overcome.
We shall overcome.
We shall overcome some day.
Oh, deep in my heart,
I do believe,
We shall overcome some day.
Funny, I never thought it would be a Thursday.