My (Jewish) mother once told me that, some years before she met my father, an Italian (Catholic) man had proposed to her. She went to her mother to ask what she should do. My grandmother answered with an old saying—“A fish and a bird can fall in love, but where will they build a nest?” I assumed it was translated from the Yiddish and maybe made more sense in that language. Because, on the face of it, it really is ridiculous. Under what circumstances could a fish and a bird fall in love? How, even today in this age of the internet, would they meet? What online dating service could they use? The image that floats before my eyes is that of Sandy the Squirrel on SpongeBob Squarepants, her head encased in a big glass globe so that she can breathe, trying to make a life under water. And another thing. What’s that about building a nest? Why does the bird get to choose where they’ll live?
Of course I realized the point my bubbe was making was that you should stick to your own kind. Try as you might to negotiate between two different cultures, you wouldn’t be accepted or comfortable in either world. Life was hard enough—why go looking for trouble?
That marrying someone of another faith was considered as outlandish as inter-species mating goes a long way toward illustrating how closed minded—and maybe afraid—my grandmother’s generation was. It also shows that my mother’s generation was not that far ahead in its thinking, because my mother rejected the offer. In all fairness, the proposal must have come sometime in the 1930s or early 40s, and, although my mother was in New York and not Europe, marrying a non-Jew during the Holocaust would have felt like an act of betrayal.
My mother shared this story of her romantic interlude with me when I was 15. A neighborhood boy, Catholic, had asked me out. Lee was part of a group of friends I hung out with. He was a sweetie—and really, really cute—and attending St. Regis High School. Decades had gone by since the proposal, but my mother still said no way. I didn’t agree, but didn’t argue. Or, more accurately, being the teenage me, I screamed and yelled, but didn’t defy her and didn’t date him.
A few years later I was a freshman at City College. I was at City because my family couldn’t afford to send me to even a state college. So poor I qualified for the work-study program at a place where tuition was free. My father worked two jobs and my mother had worked until she became ill, but we were barely making it.
One night I went to a mixer, probably at the urging of my friend Barbara, with boys from Columbia University. And there I ran into an old high school classmate—M.
M., Barbara, and I had gone to the Bronx High School of Science together. At Science, the president of the student association was a black girl who later became an actress. My freshman history teacher was a black woman. But before high school, I had never even had a black kid in any of my classes. There was one Puerto Rican girl, Tina, in my kindergarten. I remember we all wanted to be her friend because she was so exotic. There were two Chinese kids in my elementary school. No black kids. In junior high, the black kids were funneled into the “regular” classes. I was in the so-called SP—Special Progress—all-white class.
The only black person I knew growing up was the superintendent of the building across the street. He lived in the basement apartment. There were no black tenants in the building. In the 1950s, at a time when children were taught to call grown-ups Mr. and Mrs., he was known by one and all as Charlie. My mother, to her credit, told me to call him Mr. Reed. She was sympathetic to the civil rights movement, horrified by the violence: the fire hoses and attack dogs, the murders and assassinations. She would say, “Negroes and whites will never really be friends until we can sit down and have a cup of tea together.” But I’m not sure if she meant that she thought that time was imminent or that it would never come. At any rate, she never actually invited a black person in for tea.
M. was pre-med. He was tall and good-looking and funny and charming. A real catch, as we might have said in those days. I hadn’t known him that well at Science, but it was nice to see a familiar face at the party and we gravitated toward each other. We had a good time together and he asked to take me home. I happily agreed. When the cab pulled up in front of my apartment house, M., the gentleman, said he would see me to the door. I told him he didn’t have to. He offered again. I said really, it’s not necessary. He didn’t ask a third time.
I liked him. I wasn’t worried he was going to do anything more than try to kiss me goodnight. So why did I say no? It wasn’t because I was afraid that my mother would have disapproved. I knew she would have—despite her fairly enlightened views. She still held firm to the fish/bird version of relationships. But I was 18 and a college girl who also had a job and the world was changing and I felt I could have stood up to her. No, it wasn’t that at all.
It was because I was ashamed of where I lived. I was ashamed of being poor. At night, in the dark, to someone looking out the window of a taxi, my building, my block, could “pass” as middle class. But I didn’t want M. to see them up close. The broken lock on the front door. The run-down hallway with walls in need of new paint and missing tiles on the floor. The cracked window on the landing of the staircase. The roaches.
After that night I waited for M. to call, but he never did. I was hurt and disappointed. I was so inside my bad feelings about myself that it was years—many, many years— before it occurred to me that M. might have interpreted what happened between us differently. That he might have believed I hadn’t wanted him to escort me to my door for a another reason altogether: I didn’t want the neighbors to see me with him because he was black.
Maybe that wasn’t what he thought. I could be putting too much meaning onto this. Maybe he hadn’t liked me as much as he seemed to, or met someone he liked even more. Or he didn’t want to date someone going to a less prestigious college. An English major, despite her Science education, to boot. Perhaps he was too busy with his studies to date at all. Or maybe I had it exactly backwards: His parents forbade the relationship. They didn’t want him seeing a white girl.
I’ve sometimes thought of trying to locate him and ask him how he remembers that night. My fiftieth high school reunion is this year, and, even though I can’t go, maybe he will, and I’ll send a message to him through Barbara. I want to know if he still thinks I refused his offer to walk me to my door because of prejudice.
I would love him to know the truth. In all probability he has long forgotten all about me. But I carry that moment inside me always. It holds so many different sadnesses: that someone I cared about thought that I was a racist; that I believed I was “less than” because I was poor; that there was an era in my lifetime when a difference in religion or skin color was considered irrefutable evidence of incompatibility. When even well-intentioned people saw nothing wrong in saying about people of another race, “It’s not that I have anything against them . . . but I wouldn’t want my child to marry one.”