Everywhere I go these days, I hear people—and I mean good people, well-meaning and intelligent—speak up and speak out against cynicism. And so would I. Except that, seriously, I don't agree with them.
Whenever I do, in fact, respond, when I choose to speak up, too, I hear myself calling for more cynicism. To my surprise, if not to my shame, I hear myself saying things like this:
"We must teach and encourage our children to be deeply and sincerely cynical. Otherwise they will be lost victims in the savage world we have made and are giving over to them.
"Those who profess to be alarmed about the power and prevalence of cynicism in our time are really and truly (and maybe only) concerned that others will be able to see through the pathetic, shabby veils of their dedicated self-interest and self-aggrandizement.
"Now is that a cynical thing to say, or what?"
As he remembers it now, the boy must have been young. Couldn't have been in the sixth grade yet; for in the picture of himself that is part and parcel of the memory he has and holds, he is still wearing short pants. That was the family custom in those days—to change over from shorts to long pants, from child to boy, at the beginning of sixth grade at the Delaney Street Grammar School. The custom may have been different in other families and in other places and at other schools, maybe even at other schools right here in his hometown. How would he have known at the time? His world, at least the one outside of home and family, was mainly composed of the raw, lightly grassy playground (with squeaky swings, with rust-jointed seesaws and a jungle gym) and the sweat-smelling, fart-stinky world of classrooms within the brick school building, that world and, as well, the dangerous zone of half a mile from school and playground to the quiet, shady block, called Phillips' Place, a dead end street ending at the edge of a lake, Lake Copeland, where he lived.
"My Lord, it's all still there and pretty much the way it was!" he exclaims to his grandchildren more than a half century later. Here he is, briefly showing them around some of the old places and the old house, if it's still there, on Phillips' Place. He had to stop for a traffic light by the school. At that same corner, when he finally was in the sixth grade and still years before there was a traffic light there, he had been a Patrol Boy with his blue overseas cap, a sash and a badge and the power to hold up his hand and stop all traffic so that the school children could safely cross. Sometimes Officer Rogers, a real policeman, was there, too; but often he was all on his own.
Stopped a moment, waiting for the red light to change, he watches a shrill swarm of black children (not a white face among them, as far as he can tell) playing on what seem to be the same old swings, seesaws and jungle gym.
In the days he is remembering it was in the midst of the deep and bitter season of the Great Depression and still very much the old world of de jure segregation. Remembering now what he will not tell or try to explain to his grandchildren from Pennsylvania, not so much out of a sense of guilt or shame or indifference as out of . . . complexity, that word we so often hide behind these days when something under discussion or debate demands more than a sound byte of serious attention.
Will not tell them, not now anyway, how Velma, the maid, and Joe, her husband, who did plumbing and odd jobs, and their several children lived in the little house (itself long gone now) set behind their house. How they always ate breakfast together so Velma could cook for all the children at once, then hurried off, books and pencils and lunch bags in hand, a block or so all together in the same direction as a group, like a little team or something, except there were no integrated teams then; until Velma's children turned off on a side street and headed for what everyone called the colored school, half a mile away in another direction.
It was, as was ever and always for any child, purely and simply the way of the world. The world was whatever it was, not to be deeply questioned or much changed, improved or destroyed, loved or hated, except in small and separate and specific parts. World was a huge mysterious grownups' game and it was our (his) necessity, not merely duty, to discover the rules of that game, and to abide by them, or else to be punished, wounded or even destroyed on account of his unacceptable and unholy ignorance. Thus they could eat breakfast together, the same breakfast, at the same kitchen table, with Velma's children (he has long since, in fifty some years, forgotten their names, though he can still vaguely see their more or less interchangeable faces); could have carried exactly the same sandwiches, cookies and pieces of fruit in their lunch bags. They could and did freely play together, a lot of the time in the pine woods behind the house or along the spooky and swampy edges of the lake where he and his brothers would sometimes tease Velma's boys with scary tales of savage alligators in the lake. World said that all colored people were scared to death of alligators. So why not? Once they made one of them, the youngest—was he named Willie?—cry from fear; and then Velma made a stern, sad face and said she was "disppointed" that they would try to frighten her little boy. And they solemnly and sincerely promised not to do anything like that again, an oath which, for a fact, they honored for quite a while, at least until that time when they stumbled onto the nest of a real live alligator who snapped at them. And they ran like a wild wind, yelling and shouting like a bunch of crazy Holy Rollers all the way back to the house and the safety of the kitchen. That Velma's boys, even little Willie, beat them home from the lake did not necessarily confirm the truth about colored people and alligators, because Velma's boys could always outrun them anyway. At least for short distances.
Of course, it wasn't all funny. There was a time, he remembers, when some boys from over in the colored neighborhood, which was not all that far away, came to play and fool around at the lake. Neither he and his brothers nor any of Velma's boys were around at the time. They only heard about it later. One of those colored boys fell in the lake. None of them could swim, so the others ran all the way back to their own neighborhood to get help instead of coming directly to any of the houses on Phillips' Place. By the time they returned, the boy was dead and the fire engines came and the firemen pulled his dark, glistening body out of the water and tried to revive him.
It remains something that the man can now see in memory as if he had, in fact, been there.
They could and did play together in the woods and by the lake; but, it was understood and strictly observed, not in the park nearby where the white boys played baseball or tackle football in season and where, in the words of the tough and trashy white kids, the ones who were barefoot, wore overalls, and "borrowed" sandwiches and cookies at school lunch time or else went hungry, "no niggers allowed." No girls either. Nigger, that was a word he wasn't allowed to use, though sometimes, playing in the park, he used it along with the other guys just to sound as rough and ready as they were. That was where he picked up another taboo word—fuck. Which, in innocence, he used at the supper table once and earned a memorable spanking with his father's leather belt.
The light will change in a second or two and he will drive on a couple of blocks and turn right into Phillips' Place to let them see the old, white frame, two storey house, recently painted by whoever owns it, looking kind of spiffy, his father would have said. No longer a little green island shaded by live oaks and almost surrounded by tall and shadowy pine woods. Now fully "developed," all the casual space occupied with newer houses, crowded together cheek by jowl. And the lake is now as tame and safe and private as a swimming pool.
"We used to climb all over those big old trees. We had a wonderful tree house in one of them," is all that he will think of to tell them before turning around at the dead end. Talking about the enormous live oaks, bearded with Spanish moss and twice as old or even more than he is and likely to live more than twice longer, too, unless a hurricane should rip and tumble them or some fool should decide to cut them down in order to widen the narrow little street by a few feet. The town itself has lost more than a hundred of these magnificent trees to progress.
He is driving his politely bored and quietly restless grandchildren to Disney or Universal or Sea World or maybe the Space Center on the east coast, wherever it is they really want to be. Probably it will be the latter, a little distance, an hour or so from where they already are. For it is during that ride, while the children doze off, that he will begin to remember the story that began with a picture of himself still wearing short pants. . . .
It would have to have been a Saturday morning, a day when his father didn't usually go to work at his downtown office. When he did choose to go to work on Saturday, he would usually take one of them, his brothers or himself, along with him. While his father did things with papers on his big shiny desk and sometimes talked on the telephone or, every once in a while, rang a little electric bell for a uniformed boy about his own age, give or take, to come and pick up a telegram and take it back to the office of Postal Telegraph or its rival, Western Union. Once in a great while he entrusted his own son, whichever was with him at the time, to deliver the text of a telegram directly to the office. This boy especially liked that, imagining himself in the splendid blue of Postal or the brown of Western Union. Jog trotting several blocks into the heart of downtown. Bringing urgent messages that would soon enough set the wires humming and at some distant place have a boy like himself pedaling furiously on his official bicycle to deliver good or bad news to somebody.
His father would do some work in his private office and the boy would have the freedom of the rest of the office used by his father's two secretaries and also the other room with all the law books in bookcases all around and a large table where, he was told, his father would meet with clients and discuss business.
So much that he didn't know or understand then. He knew his father was a lawyer, evidently a good one, popular with some people (especially the plentiful poor, both black and white) and disliked by many others, especially the Country Club people, though not even they would openly express their feelings about him because he was feared as much as he was respected. He was, in fact, a powerful man and a dangerous enemy. He was, as this old man knows now and could not possibly have imagined then, something rarer than all of the above. He was also a good man. Which is another story. His goodness was the source of much of his power and the reason that the others, those who came up against him, in the law courts or anywhere else, feared him.
"Think of him as a little bit like Gregory Peck in To Kill a Mockingbird," one of his brothers said when it came time to return and to bury their father. "Only with balls. Peck was a pussy. Daddy would have won that case. He won tougher ones than that. He was the best."
Because he was the best, he had plenty of well-to-do clients willing to pay top dollar for his services and thus willing to support his addictive habit of pro bono work.
"The most amazing thing," his brother continued, "was that even though he took a lot of cases for indigent black clients, he was never-ever named, not out loud at least, as a 'nigger lawyer.' Not by anybody."
Adding: "Not by anybody who planned to keep his full mouthful of teeth and a straight nose."
On this particular Saturday morning, like the others when his father went to work on the weekend, they would go into town, a mile or so at most, hang around the office where he could play with pencils and yellow pads and the big old typewriters and paper clips, all the stuff of an office, while his father did his work. Along about noon his father would usually quit and take him down the street to Riddle's Drug Store where—for the price of a dime, equal to the boy's weekly allowance—he could enjoy a chocolate ice cream soda. After that treat they would walk home together, his father sometimes whistling if the weather was good and he felt he had accomplished something.
The walking part, going along the sidewalk to and from the little office building, always embarrassed the boy. That was because of his father's bad limp. Badly wounded in the Great War, he had been left with one straight leg (might as well have been made of solid wood), a couple of missing fingers and some ugly scars on his face. The boy's older brothers told him that their father had been a big hero in that war, that he had (buried in a bureau drawer) medals and ribbons to prove it. That proved, then and now and forever, that he was absolutely fearless. This, to the extent that it was true or, anyway, perceived as an uncontested fact, only added to his father's aura of invincibility. That much he knows now. Then it also added to the boy's embarrassment.
His father was not a joiner in any case and never belonged to any of the veterans' groups—the American Legion or the VFW. As far as he knew, his father only spoke of the war with one other human being—a Canadian man who played the organ and was the choirmaster at St. Luke's Episcopal Church. Can't remember his name, either, anymore. (Names are lost and forgotten first, they say.) But his father always had the greatest respect for the Canadian soldiers. "They were the best I ever saw," he said. Once in a while he and the Canadian would talk in low voices about the Great War. Whatever they were saying made them laugh a lot.
They walked past the school, past a row of elegant old houses, including the home of the county judge with whom his father often joshed about this and that. Usually, it was about the latest "reversal" (whatever that was) he had achieved at the expense of Judge Copperthwaite.
"I've lost count how many times I've reversed that old boy," his father said, laughing.
At the office, after the exciting elevator ride up to the seventh and top floor, while fiddling with his keys, his father told him that in a little while a couple of clients would be coming and that he should be quiet while they were there. It won't be long.
Maybe as much as an hour later, he witnessed, through the partially open door to the conference and library room, the two men arrive and be ushered into his father's office. They were both light-skinned colored gentlemen, very well dressed, from shiny shoes to careful hair. They spoke carefully, too, with an alien, indeterminate white man's accent. By voice alone he would have guessed that his father was the black man of the group. They also had a small, slightly yippy little dog, a yellow dog on a leash, with them.
His father firmly shut the door to the conference room. But the boy knew that if he stood close, ear to door, he could hear most of what was being said in the office.
Now, driving east to some kind of tourist trap with his grandchildren, the boy, who has come to be an old man himself, longer-lived than his father, cannot begin to remember all the words spoken in his hearing. Cannot replicate the text of the conversation in his father's office.
It went something like this:
At this point the two visitors began to talk about money. Boy couldn't understand much of it at the time; and though he knows some things about money now, he isn't quite sure what transpired. He imagines that they showed him a cashier's check—"You can have it in cash if you want it"—for a large sum of money. He heard his father whistle and laugh out loud.
"That's a whole lot of money for a country lawyer," his father said. "But let's not talk about the money just yet. Let's talk about the case. I'll lay out my approach for you and you can decide for yourselves whether you want me to represent you or not."
"Not us," one of them said. "We want to hire you to represent the defendant. We don't want to be directly involved."
"Then you have a problem. You are paying for it and he must believe that you all are responsible for him."
"Who knows what he knows? The poor man is retarded."
From here on memory is cloudy, partly because the words and terms were beyond the boy. Partly because he was bored and thinking ahead to an ice-cream soda. Partly because there was a little gray and white bird, a mockingbird, outside, hopping on the window sill, singing a variety of tunes.
What happened was his father briskly went over the details of the case, a particularly vicious rape case, outlining, in a general way, the strategy he would develop. Laying in the limits of his defense.
"You are something else," one of them said. "I believe you could save his ass, for whatever that's worth, like that. I'm impressed. But that's not exactly what we had in mind. We see the case like this. . . ."
And they outlined a plan of their own, rich with legal jargon, whereby they would like to see the man defended.
"That is kind of an interesting idea," his father told them. "It will absolutely guarantee that this man dies in the electric chair. No doubt about it. We do it your way and the man will die. Sorry. I won't do that for you."
From here on the two men did most of the talking, more or less in unison.
What they said was something very much like this, allowing for the fact that it was, of course, more delicately expressed than the boy would have been able to remember.
After all that talking, it was very quiet for a minute or two, a long minute or two. Then or later, he pictured his father with his face turned to one side, resting on the cool surface of his desk. Something he had seen his father do before.
One of them spoke first: "Sir? Are you all right?"
"No, I am not all right. Not at all," his father began, clearing his throat and talking softly, though soon his voice would be much louder, on the edge of a yell or a shout.
"I want you two to stand up and walk right out of my office. Goddamn you both to hell and your little yellow dog, too! I want you to leave here and now and never come back again. I don't want to find you around here or even to hear that you are in the vicinity. I want you out of this town and out of my life before I can count to ten or I will throw your sorry asses right out of the window. And then I will piss all over your grave."
He did not have to begin counting to ten because they were already out of the office, down the hall and the stairway (unwilling to linger and wait for the elevator to come) mumbling to each other and the little dog yipping and yapping.
Then he heard his father sobbing in his office. Sobbing, as he had never seen him and never would. Sobbing out of rage and frustration and helpless sorrow for the fallen world.
He waited until the sound stopped. Looked down from the window where the mockingbird had been before and saw the two men jump into a shiny car (Cadillac?) in the parking lot and take off driving fast.
In a moment or two his father opened the door and came in the conference room. He looked fine, a little puffy around the eyes, but otherwise very much the same as usual.
He did not mention what had just happened, not then, not ever. Instead he looked his youngest son up and down and smiled at him.
"Let's go get ourselves an ice-cream soda, huh?"
Took two steps toward the elevator and then turned and looked at the boy again.
"Long as we are down here, let's go over to Morrison's Men's Store and buy you a half decent pair of long pants."
"But, Daddy, I'm not in the sixth grade yet."
"Fuck the sixth grade!" His father laughed out loud. "Fuck 'em all, son. The time has come."
Years later, when he died and we all came home from far places for the funeral, we found that he had left behind a letter for each one of us. Mine was based on the fact that, as a child, I had loved Tarzan movies and stories about exploring in Africa. For a while I talked a lot about growing up and going to Africa and having all kinds of neat adventures there.
I had forgotten all about that brief phase of my
life until I read his letter to me.
Strange, he didn't even mention the Great War, but, then, he seldom did so.
What a legacy!
As for myself?
Well, that is another story, one with its own odds and ends, its predictable ups and downs. I have lived a long and not uneventful life, but I have not (yet) lived up to his passionate example or his brave expectations.
Still, how grateful I am for that challenge. How deeply I cherish the example of his pride and hope.