Aisle Of Wit

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Free. At Last.

I’ve previously written about what it was like to spend Christmas 2019 recovering from a cholecystectomy (gall bladder surgery, to those who may be polysyllyabically challenged),  My liver had been damaged by the sepsis attack that I had, and post surgery, I had to have a drainage bag attached to my right side in order for the infected bile to drain out of my recovering system.

I was homebound, in effect in lockdown a few weeks ahead of the rest of the world.  I needed to strap this rapidly expanding bag of bilge to my side in order to simply walk and frequently needed to uncork the bag and aim it at a toilet to flush my inflected fluid away from the world.  As I never had to deal with such medical equipment previously, and because I’m a bit of a klutz, I frequently missed the bowl.  That didn’t sit well with the person I was living with.  I had to endure epithets and ridicule on top of the substantial physical pain I was still in.

So it was somewhat poignant that it was on another holiday, Martin Luther King Day 2020, that I was scheduled to have the drainage bag removed.  I returned to Cedars-Sinai Hospital, the building to which I owe my life, and had a series of outpatient procedures performed as I again went under anethesia.  Incredibly, these words were had even more syllables than cholecystectomy.  I had a double balloon enteroscopy and an endoscopic retrograde cholangiopancreotography.  I suspect there are doctors or medical professionals reading this that will have a better idea what these spelling bee words mean.  Frankly, I’m not eager to learn.  The bottom line was that once I woke up, the bag was gone from my side, and I had regained mobility.  I was, in my own way, free.  Appropriately, on MLK Day.

I’m not black, of course, but I certainly have endured prejudices of my own.  As a grossly overweight child, I frequently was the target of school bullies, particularly those that I later learned were jealous of how quickly I read books and how they’d always see me at the top of the leader board in the school library (spoiler: I read every sports book the place ever got),  And during 1968, when I was in the third and fourth grade, this was especially true.

My public school had begun to accept black students from a nearby neighborhood during the fall before Dr. King’s assassination.  It was, in hindsight, jarring for me to see different colored skin in the locker room.   I  am not, nor were my parents racist; we simply lived in an area almost completely devoid of people of color and our friends were exclusively white.

My new classmates were intriguing.  The girls I remember most vividly were sassy, smart and talented.  One in particular was especially so; she, in fact, won our spelling bee one year.  She probably didn’t have to spell cholangiopancreotography.  But I was impressed.  And I indeed had a crush on her as a fellow overachiever.  But grossly overweight geeks like me never had the guts to speak up and tell her.  Besides, there was that race gap to boot.  So I stayed silent.

The boys and men I had less luck with,  Two aggressive classmates always seemed to be hunkering for a fight, and would push me or knock down my books just for sport,  We’d inevitably start battling.  I happened to have a fourth grade teacher who was one of the first African-Americans who taught in our school,  He was a very proud Jamaican immigrant with extremely dark features, a steely gaze and a firm voice reminiscent of the great Broadway actor Geoffrey Holder.He would inevitably blame me for starting the fights, which, of course, only empowered my tormenters that much more.   My mom believed he was siding with “his kind”.  As I was the one who dealt with the bruises and broken arms they caused, I wasn’t disagreeing.

The issues with my classmates and teacher took a toll on my grades.  Eventually, it reached the principal’s office.  Our principal was a gravelly voiced authoritarian who had zero tolerance for anything disruptive.  I recall vividly the showdown between my teacher and my mom in the principal’s office when she raised her accusations.  My teacher erupted in rage, his steely face contorted as he exploded “I HAVE NO BIASES!!  I SIMPLY CANNOT TEACH YOUR BOY HOW TO GET ALONG !!  YOU SHOULD!!!”.  My mom demanded I get transferred to a different class.

I was transferred to a different class in public school to avoid my tormenters, but in Hebrew school the white bullies remained in proximity and just as eager to beat up an easy target.  During the cold winter months my Hebrew school classes ended after it got dark, making me especially prone to sneak attacks.  Eventually, I required a security guard to walk me home.  Yes, he was black.

Fortunately, he loved basketball as much as I do.  The Knicks were in the midst of a growth spurt that eventually produced the first of their two world championships.  They were the talk of the town.  We were both huge fans of their point guard, Walt “Clyde” Frazier, who was (and still is!) known for his flamboyant clothes and his showmanlike on-court moves. We’d talk about the games.  He had played a little ball himself in high school, and he had played against some men who eventually made the NBA.  He assured me that I’d probably never make a team myself, but he was impressed I was such a fan.  The otherwise long cold walks were brightened by his laughs and his stories.

He was my first black friend.

It was somewhat serendipitous that soon after my mobility returned my desire for my own freedom increased.  The pandemic exacerbated that desire, and I eventually found the courage to leave my tormenter.  I rented a furnished room in Van Nuys, literally steps from where riots were breaking out after the George Floyd verdict.  BLM protests were often the only occasions where crowds gathered that summer, and I was drawn to them like a moth to a flame.  I joined in with the crowd as they encouraged passing drivers to honk in solidarity, On one particularly hot day a couple of black men looked at me and asked “Why are YOU here?!?!”

With a determination and attitude reminiscent of my proud but perhaps biased fourth grade teacher, I said “Because you don’t my truth, but I identify fully with yours”.  And then I added one particularly impactful quote of Dr. King’s.

“I look to a day when people will not be judged by the color of their skin, but by the content of their character.”

I was wearing a Knicks jersey at the time.  Eventually, we hugged.

I still love basketball.  And I really love people who love it.  The person I was living with when I had that BLM moment once dated an NBA star, so she of course loves the game.   We watched a good deal of games together during the brief period where we got along well as the NBA season played out in a bubble in Florida.  Her favorite team, the Miami Heat, made the championship finals, so it was an especially   She surprised me on my birthday with a video from him, encouraging me to keep fighting and keep on my own path to health and freedom that she started me on.  I had never received such a thoughtful and personalized gift from anyone.   I hugged her too that day.  I became a Heat fan that day myself.  I knew then I’d never go back to nor tolerate tormenters who deny me my truth.

Free at last.  Free at last.   By G-d almighty, I’m free at last.

Until next time…

And speaking of free, Happy Birthday BFF!!