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Bigots and cowards

The kid in the Javelin was more circumspect than many of the other students I knew at the school. He doubted the existence of a loving God, for instance, and eschewed membership in any of the rigid cliques among the students. I looked up to him, as he seemed so free compared to me and many of my classmates.

Self-consciousness, low self-esteem, and doubts about my abilities at just about anything, including academics, hindered me among my peers. Like many who suffered the same ailments, the acceptance of these symptoms precluded healthy social relationships. But the boy in the Javelin was above that. He had confidence and independence. He didn’t contemplate the ways others might see him. He lacked the arrogance of low self-esteem—that is, the idea that he could know what others thought of him. In our brief conversations over cigarettes and between coaches and nuns patrolling the lots, he impressed me as mature beyond his years.

I asked him one day as the end of the spring semester my freshman year what he thought about the people who I believed made fun of me and bullied me around.

“They’re chickens,” he said. “They think they know you but they don’t want to know you.”

“What do you mean?”

‘They really believe they know how you think. But they only know how little they think of themselves. They can only think well of themselves if they can find someone they believe they are better than.”

I was in awe. Here was a boy who knew something of the world, who knew more than I did about social interactions and how to hold oneself in public. He stood tall and never bowed. He followed the rules but for cigarettes and hair. Nuns and brothers and priests did not seem to impress him. “They’re people. They have to shit,” he told me one time. I was shocked to think of Father Francis, a scary and intimidating Benedictine who spent most of his time in religion classes talking about masturbation and fornication, pulling up his robes and sitting on the toilet like anyone else.

“You see,” the Javelin boy said, “it doesn’t matter what they think. All the time they’re talking about someone they can put down. They say things about Jews, Blacks, and gay people, only they call them kikes, niggers, and fags. Imagine having to live like that, to have those words always in your head. I don’t even like saying what they’re saying. They’re bigots and cowards. They act brave but they won’t say those things to a real person’s face.”

I walked away from the Javelin that day humbled and embarrassed. These words were in my head. I had said them and they came easily to mind when I saw a Black American or someone I knew was a Jew or gay. I was able to have two notions in my head at the same time—the humanity of a person and the stereotype and pejorative I’d absorbed in the front room of my house.

That summer, I took up caddying at Blue Hills Country Club. It lie four miles away from our house. Before then, I used a unreliable lawn mower that my dad built and rebuilt from used mowers. It was hard earning money behind that heavy thing. There was no sidewalk in front of our house on Stateline and fences separated the backyards. I mowed, for instance, one of the neighbor’s yards whose backyard was one house over from ours. It was a slog for an out-of-shape fat kid to push that mower up to 99th Street and back down Holly Street to the neighbor’s house. I also mowed the yard of a neighbor three or four doors up the block. She had twenty-three trees in the backyard and the job seemed to take forever. It paid five bucks for three hours of work, and then only after a close inspection by the widow who owned the place. Often I spent another hour or two re-mowing parts of the yard she thought weren’t done well enough.

At the end of my freshman year, I couldn’t go back to mowing grass. It was too much work to get that mower around the far-flung neighborhood and then deal with mechanical problems that would take me back home and back out to the yard I’d started and had to finish. My dad told me I had to go out to the country club and carry people’s golf bags.

But that meant I would have to walk out to Blue Hills. My dad was quite proud of the caddying he did as a kid at Kansas City Country Club. Since he didn’t have a car and had to walk, I’d have to do the same. He believed it would build character.

I started out that first summer morning up and down the long hills between my house and the golf course. The walk took over an hour. I arrived at the club and signed up at the caddy bench and waited for a member who wanted a caddy and didn’t have a regular he worked with. That day, I learned what I was in for. After the walk to the club, four miles, I spent another four to five miles on the course, and then another four miles home—all for five bucks. When I arrived home that night, I had to think about what I was doing. The mower wasn’t going to get me through the summer. The walking was going to kill me, I thought. But my dad’s pressure kept me going every summer weekend and often three or four times a week, out to the golf course. That summer, I walked in all kinds of weather. Sometimes, when time allowed, I did two loops, making the daily walk 16 to 18 miles. I saved my hard-earned dollars in a coffee can.

I noticed right from the beginning that no Black golfers came out for a round. I don’t know if there weren’t any Black members, only that in my two summers at Blue Hills I never saw or heard of one. None of the caddy’s were Black. But again, the lack of Black Americans didn’t mean they weren’t in mind.

Some of the caddies were old hands and had members who used them for their golf games. These caddies also got paid premiums above the five-dollar cost for a caddy. I was never one of them. They were also the ones who, during their time on the bench waiting for their members to show up, told N-word jokes and bantered about how Blacks were always doing this or that, or that they weren’t capable of this or that, or they were always into this or that. The rest of the caddies, all boys, laughed at the jokes and were in awe of those better physical specimens who could carry more and longer and farther. Were they too, as the Javelin kid said, “bigots and cowards”?

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