I DIDN’T WANT TO BE different. I longed to be everything grownups wanted, so they would love me. I followed all their rules, tried my best to please. But there was something about me that made them knit their eyebrows and frown. No one ever offered a name for what was wrong with me. That’s what made me afraid it was really bad. I only came to recognize its melody through this constant refrain: “Is that a boy or a girl?”
I was one more bad card life had dealt my parents. They were already bitterly disappointed people. My father had grown up determined he wasn’t going to be stuck in a factory like his old man; my mother had no intention of being trapped in a marriage.
When they met, they dreamed they were going on an exciting adventure together. When they awoke, my father was working in a factory and my mother had become a housewife. When my mother discovered she was pregnant with me, she told my dad she didn’t want to be tied down with a kid. My father insisted she’d be happy once she had the baby. Nature would see to that.
My mother had me to prove him wrong.
My parents were enraged that life had cheated them. They were furious that marriage blocked their last opportunity to escape. Then I came along and I was different. Now they were furious with me. I could hear it in the way they retold the story of my birth.
Rain and wind had lashed the desert while my mother was in labor. That’s why she gave birth to me at home. The storm was too violent to be forded. My father was at work, and we had no phone. My mother said she wept so loudly in fear when she realized I was on the way that the Dineh grandmother from across the hall knocked on the door to see what was wrong, and then realizing my birth was imminent, brought three more women to help.
The Dineh women sang as I was born. That’s what my mother told me. They washed me, fanned smoke across my tiny body, and offered me to my mother.
“Put the baby over there,” she told them, pointing to a bassinet near the sink. Put the baby over there. The words chilled the Indian women. My mother could see that. The story was retold many times as I was growing up, as though the frost that bearded those words could be melted by repeating them in a humorous, ironic way.
Days after I was born the grandmother knocked on our door again, this time because my cries alarmed her. She found me in the bassinet, unwashed. My mother admitted she was afraid to touch me, except to pin on a diaper or stick a bottle in my mouth. The next day the grandmother sent over her daughter, who agreed to keep me during the day while her children were at school, if that was alright. It was and it wasn’t. My mother was relieved, I’m sure, although at the same time it was an indictment of her. But she let me go.
And so I grew in two worlds, immersed in the music of two languages. One world was Wheaties and Milton Berle. The other was fry bread and sage. One was cold, but it was mine; the other was warm, but it wasn’t.
My parents finally stopped letting me go across the hall when I was four. They came to pick me up before dinner one night. A number of the women had cooked a big meal and brought all the children together for the feast. They asked my parents if I could stay. My father grew alarmed when he heard one of the women say something to me in a language he didn’t understand, and I answered her with words he’d never heard before. He said later he be kidnapped by Indians.
I’ve only heard bits and pieces about that evening, so I don’t know everything that went on. I wish I did. But this part I’ve heard over and over again: one of the women told my parents I was going changed in the retelling. Sometimes my mother would pretend to be a fortune-teller, close her eyes, cover would bellow like the Wizard of Oz, “This child will walk a hard road!”
In any case, my parents yanked me out of there. Before they left, though, the grandmother gave my mother a ring and said it would help to protect me in all that turquoise and silver must be worth something, so they took it.
That night there was another terrible desert storm, my parents told me, terrifying in its power. The thunder crashed and the lightning illuminated everything.
“Jess Goldberg?” the teacher asked.
“Present,” I answered. The teacher narrowed her eyes at me. “What kind of name is that? Is it short for Jessica?
I shook my head. “No, ma’am.”
“Jess,” she repeated. “That’s not a girl’s name.” I dropped my head. Kids around me covered their mouths with their hands to stifle their giggles.
Miss Sanders glared at them until they fell silent. “Is that a Jewish name?” she asked. I nodded, hoping she was finished. She was not.
“Class, Jess is from the Jewish persuasion. Jess, tell the class where you’re from.”
I squirmed in my seat. “The desert.”
“What? Speak up, Jess.”
“I’m from the desert.” I could see the kids mugging and rolling their eyes at each other.
“What desert? What state?” She pushed her glasses higher up on her nose.
I froze with fear. I didn’t know. “The desert,” I shrugged.
Miss Sanders grew visibly impatient. “What made your family decide to come to Buffalo?”
How should I know? Did she think parents told six-year-old kids why they made huge decisions that would impact on their lives? “We drove,” I said. Miss Sanders shook her head. I hadn’t made a very good
Sirens screamed. It was the Wednesday morning air raid drill. We crouched down under our desks and covered our heads with our arms. We were warned to treat The Bomb like strangers: don’t make eye contact. If you can’t see The Bomb, it can’t see you.
There was no bomb—this was only practice for the real thing. But I was saved by the siren.
I was sorry we’d moved from the warmth of the desert to this cold, cold city. Nothing could have prepared me for getting out of bed on a winter morning in an unheated apartment in Buffalo. Even warming our clothes in the oven before we put them on didn’t help much. After all, we still had to take our pajamas off first. Outside the wind carved up my nose and sliced into my brain. Tears froze in my eyes.
My sister Rachel was still a toddler. I just remember a round snowsuit swaddled with scarves and mittens and hat. No kid, just clothes.
Even when I was bundled up in the dead of winter, with only a couple of inches of my face peeking out from my snowsuit hood and scarf, adults would stop me and ask, “Are you a boy or a girl?” I’d drop my eyes in shame, never questioning their right to ask.
During the summer there wasn’t much to do in the projects, but there was plenty of time to do it.
The projects, former Army barracks, now housed the military-contracted aircraft workers and their families. All our fathers went to work in the same plant; all our mothers stayed home.
Old Man Martin was retired. He sat in a lawn chair on his porch listening to the McCarthy hearings on his radio. It was turned up so loud you could hear it all the way down the block. “Gotta watch out,” he’d tell me as I passed his house, “communists could be anywhere. Anywhere.” I’d nod solemnly and run off to play.
But Old Man Martin and I shared something in common. The radio was my best friend, too. “The made me laugh, even when I didn’t know what was so funny. “The Shadow” and “The Whistler” chilled me.
Perhaps outside these projects working families already had televisions, but not us. The streets of the project weren’t even paved—just gravel and giant Lincoln Logs to mark the parking. Very few new things came down our road. Ponies pulled the carts of the ice man and the knife sharpener. On Saturday they brought the ponies without the carts and sold rides for a penny. A penny also bought a chunk from the ice man—chipped off with his ice pick. The ice was dense and slick and sparkled like a cold diamond that might never melt.
When a television set first appeared in the projects, it was in the living room of the McKensies’. All the children in the neighborhood begged our parents to let us go watch “Captain Midnight” on the McKensies’ new television. But most of us were not allowed in their home. Although it was 1955, the neighborhood still had some invisible war zones from word itself was enough to make me shy away from their house. You could still see traces of that word on the front of their coal bin, even though it had been painted over in a slightly different shade of green.
Years later, fathers still argued about the strike over kitchen tables and backyard barbecue grills. I overheard descriptions of such bloody strike battles, I thought WWII had been fought at the plant. At night when we’d drive my father to his shift, I used to crouch down on the backseat of the car and peek combat.
There were also gangs in the projects, and the kids whose parents had scabbed during the strike made up a small but feared pack. “Hey, pansy! Are you a boy or a girl?” There was no way to avoid them in the small planet of the projects. Their sing-song taunts stayed with me long after I’d passed by.
The world judged me harshly and so I moved, or was pushed, toward solitude.
The highway sliced between our projects and a in the middle of a lane for a long time in order to get hit. But I wasn’t supposed to cross that road. I did though, and no one seemed to notice.
I parted the long brown grass that bordered the road. Once I passed through it I was in my own world.
On the way to the pond I stopped to visit the puppies and dogs in the outside kennels connected to the back of the ASPCA building. The dogs barked and stood on their hind legs as I approached the fence. “Shhh!” I warned them. I knew no one was supposed to be back here.
A spaniel pushed his nose through the chain- link fence. I rubbed his head. I looked around for the terrier I loved. He had only come to the fence once to I coaxed, he’d lay with his head on his paws, looking at me with mournful eyes. I wished I could take him home. I hoped he went to a kid who loved him.
“Are you a boy or a girl?” I asked the mongrel.
I didn’t see the ASPCA man until it was too late. “Hey, kid. What are you doing there?” Caught. “Nothing,” I said. “I wasn’t doing anything bad. I was just talking to the dogs.”
He smiled a little. “Don’t put your fingers inside the fence, son. Some of ’em bite.”
I felt the tips of my ears grow hot. I nodded. “I was looking for that little one with the black ears. Did a nice family take him?”
The man frowned for a moment. “Yes,” he said quietly. “He’s real happy now.”
I hurried out to the pond to catch pollywogs in a jar. I leaned on my elbow and looked up close at the little frogs that climbed up on the sun-baked rocks.
“Caw, caw!” A huge black crow circled above me in the air and landed on a rock nearby. We looked at each other in silence.
“Crow, are you a boy or a girl?”
I laughed and rolled over on my back. The sky was crayon blue. I pretended I was lying on the white cotton clouds. The earth was damp against my back. The sun was hot, the breeze was cool. I felt happy. with me.
On my way back from the fields I passed the Scabbie gang. They had found an unlocked truck parked on an incline. One of the older boys disengaged the emergency brake and made two of the younger boys from my side of the projects run under the truck as it rolled.
“Jessy, Jessy!” they taunted as they rushed toward me.
“Brian says you’re a girl, but I think you’re a sissy boy,” one of them said.
I didn’t speak.
“Well, what are you?” he mocked me.
I flapped my arms, “Caw, Caw!” I laughed.
One of the boys knocked the jar filled with pollywogs from my hand and it smashed on the gravel. I kicked and bit them but they held me and tied my hands behind my back with a piece of clothesline.
“Let’s see how you tinkle,” one of the boys said as he knocked me down and two of the others struggled to pull off my pants and my underpants. The shame of being half-naked before them—the important half—took all the steam out of me.
They pushed and carried me to old Mrs. was dark in the bin. The coal was sharp and cut like knives. It hurt too much to lie still, but the more I moved the worse I made the wounds. I was afraid I’d never get out.
It took hours before I heard Mrs. Jefferson in the kitchen. I don’t know what she thought when she heard all the thumping and kicking in her coal bin. But when she opened the little trap door on the coal bin and I squirmed out onto her kitchen floor, she looked scared enough to fall down dead. There I stood, covered with coal soot and blood, tied up and half-naked in her kitchen. She mumbled curses under her breath as she untied me and sent me home wrapped in a towel. I had to walk a block and knock on my parents’ door before I found refuge.
They were really angry when they saw me. I never understood why. My father spanked me over and over again until my mother restrained his arm with a whisper and her hand.
A week later I caught up with one of the boys from the Scabbie gang. He made the mistake of wandering alone too near our house. I made a muscle and told him to feel it. Then I punched him in the in days.
My mother called me into our house for dinner. “Who was that boy you were playing with?” I shrugged.
“You were showing him your muscle?”
I froze, wondering how much she had seen. She smiled. “Sometimes it’s better to let boys think they’re stronger,” she told me. I figured she was just plain crazy if she really believed that.
The phone rang. “I’ll get it,” my father called out. It was the parent of the kid whose nose I bloodied; I could tell by the way my father glowered at me as he listened.
“I was so ashamed,” my mother told my father. He glared at me in the rearview mirror. All I could see were his thick black eyebrows. My mother had been informed that I could no longer attend temple unless I wore a dress, something I fought tooth and nail. At without my guns. It was hard enough being the only at the temple. We had to drive a long time to go to the nearest synagogue. My father prayed downstairs.
My mother and sister and I had to watch from the balcony, like at the movies.
It seemed like there weren’t many Jews in theworld. There were some on the radio, but none in my what the older kids told me, and they enforced it.
We were nearing home. My mother shook her head. “Why can’t she be like Rachel?”
Rachel looked at me sheepishly. I shrugged. Rachel’s dream was a felt skirt with an appliqué poodle and rhinestone-studded plastic shoes.
My father pulled our car to a stop in front of our house. “You go straight to your room, young lady. And stay there.” I was bad. I was going to be punished. My head ached with fear. I wished I could
It was almost sundown. I heard my parents call Rachel to join them in their bedroom to light the Shabbas candles. I knew the shades were drawn. A month before, we’d heard laughter and shouting outside the living room windows while my mother was lighting the candles. We raced to the windows and peered out into the dusk. Two teenagers pulled down their pants and mooned us. “Kikes!” they shouted. My father didn’t chase them away; he closed the drapes. After that, we started praying in their bedroom with the shades pulled down.
Everyone in my family knew about shame and fear.
Soon afterward my Roy Rogers outfit disappeared from the dirty clothes hamper. My father bought me an Annie Oakley outfit instead.
“No!” I shouted, “I don’t want to. I don’t want to wear it. I’ll feel stupid!”
My father yanked me by the arm. “Young lady, I spent $4.90 for this Annie Oakley outfit and you’re going to wear it.”
I tried to shake off his hand, but it was clamped painfully on my upper arm. Tears dripped down my cheeks. “I want a Davy Crockett hat.”
My father tightened his grip. “I said no.”
“But why?” I cried. “Everybody has one except me. Why not?”
His answer was inexplicable. “Because you’re a girl.”
“I’m sick of people asking me if she’s a boy or a girl,” I overheard my mother complain to my father. “Everywhere I take her, people ask me.”
I was ten years old. I was no longer a little kid and I didn’t have a sliver of cuteness to hide behind. The world’s patience with me was fraying, and that panicked me.
When I was really small I thought I’d do anything to change whatever was wrong with me. Now I didn’t want to change, I just wanted people to stop being mad at me all the time.
One day my parents took my sister and me shopping downtown. As we drove down Allen Street “Mom, is that a he-she?” I asked out loud.
My parents exchanged amused glances and burst out laughing. My father stared at me in the rearview mirror. “Where did you hear that word?”
I shrugged, not sure I’d ever really heard the word before it had escaped from my mouth.
“What’s a he-she?” my sister demanded to know. I was interested in the answer too.
“It’s a weirdo,” my father laughed. “Like a beatnik.”
Rachel and I nodded without understanding.
Suddenly a wave of foreboding swept over me. I felt nauseous and dizzy. But whatever it was that triggered the fear, it was too scary to think about. The feeling ebbed as quickly as it had swelled.
I gently pushed open the door to my parents’ bedroom and looked around. I knew they were both at work, but entering their bedroom was forbidden.
I went directly to my father’s closet door. His blue suit was there. That meant he must be wearing the grey one today. A blue suit and a grey suit—that’s all any man needed, my father always said. His ties hung neatly on a rack.
It took even more nerve to open my father’s dresser drawer. His white shirts were folded and starched stiff as a board. Each one was wrapped around with tissue paper and banded like a gift. The moment I tore off the paper band, I knew I was in trouble. I had no hiding places for garbage that my father probably knew the precise number of shirts he owned. Even though all of them were white, he probably could tell exactly which one was missing.
But it was too late. Too late. I stripped down to my cotton panties and T-shirt and slid on his shirt. hardly get the collar buttoned. I pulled down a tie from the rack. For years I had watched my father it in a clumsy knot. I climbed up on a footstool to lift the suit from the hanger. Its weight surprised me. It fell in a heap. I put on the suit coat and looked in the mirror. A sound came from my throat, sort of a gasp. I liked the little girl looking back at me.
Something was still missing; the ring. I opened my mother’s jewelry box. The ring was huge. The silver and turquoise formed a dancing figure. I couldn’t tell if the figure was aa woman or a man. The ring no longer fit across three of my fingers; now it fit snugly on two.
I stared in the big mirror over my mother’s dresser, trying to see far in the future when the would become.
I didn’t look like any of the girls or women I’d seen in the Sears catalog. The catalog arrived as the through it, page by page. All the girls and women looked pretty much the same, so did all the boys had never seen any adult woman who looked like I thought I would when I grew up. There were no this mirror, none on the streets. I knew. I was always searching.
For a moment in that mirror I saw the woman I was growing up to be staring back at me. She looked scared and sad. I wondered if I was brave enough to grow up and be her.
I never heard the bedroom door open. By the time I saw my parents it was already too late. Each of them thought they were supposed to pick up my sister at the orthodontist. So they all got home unexpectedly early.
My parents’ expressions froze. I was so frightened my face felt numb.
Storm clouds were gathering on my horizon.
My parents didn’t talk about finding me in their bedroom in my father’s clothes. I prayed I was off the hook. But one day shortly afterward, my mother and father unexpectedly took me for a ride. They said they were bringing me to the hospital for a blood test. was supposed to be done. Two huge men in white uniforms took me off the elevator. My parents stayed on. Then the men turned and locked the gate, barring the elevator. I reached for my parents, but they wouldn’t even look at me as the elevator door closed.
Terror sat on my chest like an elephant. I could hardly breathe.
A nurse explained the rules of my stay: I must get up in the morning and stay out on the ward all day. I must wear a dress, sit with my knees crossed, be polite, and smile when I was spoken to. I nodded as though I understood. I was still in shock.
I was the only kid on the ward. They put me in a room with two women. One was a very old white woman who they kept tied to the bed. She keened and called out the names of people who weren’t there. The other white woman was younger. “I’m Paula,” she said, extending her hand. “Nice to meetcha.” Her wrists were bandaged. She explained to me that her parents had forbade her to ever see her boyfriend again because he was Black. She slit her wrists in grief, and so they put her in this place.
We played ping-pong together for the rest of the day. Paula taught me the words to “Are You Lonesome Tonight?” She laughed and applauded as I dropped my voice low like Elvis. “Make trivets and moccasins,” Paula advised me. “Make lots of ’em. The more the better. They like that.” I didn’t know what a trivet was.
That night I had trouble sleeping. I heard men whispering and laughing as they came into my room. I wrapped the sheets tightly around my body and lay very still in silence. I heard the sound of a zipper laughter, and then the sounds of footsteps getting further and further away. My sheets were soaked. I was afraid I might be blamed and punished. Who had done this to me, and why? I’d ask Paula in the morning.
Nurses and orderlies came into our room when the light was still grey behind the barred windows. “Rise and shine,” they shouted.
The old woman began calling out names.
Paula fought the orderlies, bit their hands. They cursed her, strapped her down, and wheeled her out of the room.
One nurse approached my bed. I could still smell the faint scent of urine on the sheets even after they’d dried. Would she take me away if she smelled frightened me to hear her say my name. “I don’t have a signature on this one,” she told the orderlies. They all left the room.
“Goldberg, Jess,” the old woman shouted over and over again.
After lunch I snuck back into my room to get my yo-yo. Paula was sitting on her bed, staring at her slippers. She looked at me and cocked her head. She extended her hand to me. “I’m Paula,” she said. “Nice to meetcha.”
A nurse came into the room. “You,” she said, pointing at me. I followed her back to the nurse’s station. She held out two paper cups. Beautiful with water. I stared at both cups.
“Take them,” the nurse ordered. “Don’t give me a hard time.” I already sensed that giving the staff a hard time might mean never getting out of there, so I began to tilt as I walked. They made me feel like I was moving through glue.
Every day I turned out more trivets and moccasins. I began to care about a woman who talked to ghosts I couldn’t see.
And I discovered Norton’s anthology of poetry in the patients’ library—it changed my life. I read the poems over and over again before I began to grasp their meanings. It wasn’t just that the words were musical notes my eyes could sing. It was the discovery that women and men, long dead, had left me messages about their feelings, emotions I could were as lonely as I was. In an odd way, that knowledge comforted me.
Three weeks after I’d been brought to this ward, sat behind a big desk smoking his pipe. He told me he was my doctor. He said I seemed to be making going through an awkward stage.
“Do you know why you’re here?” he asked me.
I had learned a lot in three weeks. I realized that the world could do more than just judge me, it wielded tremendous power over me. I didn’t care anymore if my parents didn’t love me. I had accepted that fact in the three weeks I’d survived alone in this hospital. But now I didn’t care. I hated them. And I didn’t trust them. I didn’t trust anyone. My mind was focused on escape. I wanted to get out of this place and run away from home.
I told the doctor I was afraid of the grownup male patients on the ward. I said I was sure my parents were disappointed in me, but I wanted to make them happy and proud of me. I told him I didn’t know what I was doing wrong, but if I could just go home, I’d do whatever he thought I should. I didn’t mean it, but I said it. He nodded, but he seemed more interested in keeping his pipe lit than in me.
Two days later, my parents appeared on the ward and took me home. We didn’t speak about what had happened. I concentrated on running away, waiting for the right moment. I had to agree to see the shrink once a week. I hoped I wouldn’t have to see him for long, but the appointments continued for several years.
I remember the exact day the shrink dropped the bombshell: he and my parents had agreed charm school would help me a lot. The date is etched in my memory. I walked out of his office in a daze. The humiliation of charm school seemed more than I could bear. I might have killed myself if I could have figured out a painless route.
Everyone else seemed to be walking around equally as stunned. When I got home my parents had the television turned up loud and an announcer reported that the president had been shot in Dallas. whole world was out of control. I closed my bedroom door and fell asleep in order to escape.
I didn’t think I could survive the spotlight of charm school illuminating my shameful differences. But somehow I got through it. My face burned with humiliation and anger each time I had to pivot on the runway in front of the whole class, over and over again.
Charm school finally taught me once and for all that I wasn’t pretty, wasn’t feminine, and would never be graceful. The motto of the school was Every girl who enters leaves a lady. I was the exception.
Just when it seemed like it couldn’t get worse I noticed my breasts were growing. Menstruation didn’t bother me. Unless I bled all over myself it was a private thing between me and my body. But breasts! Boys hung out of car windows and yelled vulgar things at me. Mr. Singer at the pharmacy stared at my breasts as he rang up my candy purchases. I quit the volleyball and track teams because I hated how my breasts hurt when I jumped or ran. I liked how my body was before puberty. Somehow I thought it would never change, not like this!
Whatever the world thought was wrong with me, like vomit in my throat. The only time it receded was when I went back to The Land Where They Don’t Mind. That’s how I remembered the desert.
A Dineh woman came to me one night in a dream. She used to come to me almost every night, but not since I had been in the psychiatric ward several years earlier. She held me on her lap and told She told me to remember the ring.
When I woke up it was still dark outside. I curled up on the foot of my bed and listened to the rainstorm outside my window. Lightning bolts lit up the night sky. I waited until my parents got dressed before I snuck into their bedroom and took the ring. During the day at school I hid in a bathroom stall and looked at it, wondering about its power.
When would it protect me? I figured it was like the Captain Midnight Decoder Ring—you had to figure out how it worked.
That night at dinner my mother laughed at me. “You were talking Martian in your sleep again last night when we went to bed.”
I slammed my fork down. “It’s not Martian.”
“Young lady,” my father shouted, “you can go to your room.”
As I walked through the high school corridor a group of girls squealed as I passed, “Is it animal, mineral, or vegetable?” I didn’t fit any of their categories.
I had a new secret, something so terrible I knew I could never tell anyone. I discovered it about myself during the Saturday matinee at the Colvin Theater. One afternoon I stayed in the bathroom at the theater for a long time. I wasn’t ready to go home yet. When I came out, the adult movie was showing. I snuck in and watched. I melted as Sophia Loren moved her body against her leading man. Her hand cupped the back of his neck as they kissed, her long red nails trailed against his skin. I shivered with pleasure.
Every Saturday after that I hid in the bathroom so I could sneak out and watch the adult movies. A new hunger gnawed at me. It frightened me, but I knew better than to confide in a single soul.
One day my high school English teacher, Mrs. Noble, gave us a homework assignment: bring in eight lines of our favorite poem and read them in front of the class. Some of the kids moaned and groaned that they didn’t have a favorite poem and it sounded “bor-ing.” But I panicked. If I read a poem I loved, it would leave me vulnerable and exposed. And yet, to read eight lines I didn’t care about felt like self- betrayal.
When it was my turn to read the next day, I brought my math book with me up to the front of the room. At the beginning of the semester I’d made a cover for the textbook out of a brown grocery bag
I cleared my throat and looked at Mrs. Noble. She smiled and nodded at me. I read the first eight lines:
From childhood’s hour I have not been
As others were—I have not seen
As others saw—I could not bring
My passions from a common spring.
From the same source I have not taken
My sorrow; I could not awaken
My heart to joy at the same tone;
And all I lov’d, I lov’d alone.
I tried to read the words in a flat sing-song tone without feeling, so none of the kids would understand what his poem meant to me, but their eyes were already glazed with boredom. I dropped my gaze and walked back to my seat. Mrs. Noble squeezed my arm as I passed, and when I looked up I saw she had tears in her eyes. The way she looked at me made me want to cry, too. It was as though she could really see me, and there was no criticism of me in her eyes.
The whole world was in motion, but you’d never have known it from my life. The only way I heard about the Civil Rights movement was from the copies of LIFE magazine that came to our house. Every week issue.
The image burned into my mind was one of two water fountains labeled Colored and White. Other photos let me see brave people—dark-skinned and light—try to change that. I read their picket signs. I wondered if I could ever be that saw them bloodied at lunch counters in Greensboro, facing down steely-faced troops in Little Rock. I saw and police dogs in Birmingham. I wondered if I could ever be that brave.
I saw a picture from Washington, D.C., of more people than I ever could have imagined coming together in one place. Martin Luther King told them about his dream. I wished I could be part of it.
I studied my parents’ faces as they calmly read the same magazines. They never said a word about it. The world was turning upside down and they quietly leafed through the pages as though they were skimming a Sears catalog.
“I wish I could go down South on a Freedom Ride,” I said out loud one night at dinner. I watched my parents exchange a complex series of looks across the table. They continued to eat in silence.
My father put down his fork. “That has nothing to do with us,” he firmly closed the subject.
My mother looked back and forth from his face to mine. I could tell she wanted to avoid the impending explosion at any cost. She smiled. “You know wht I can’t figure out?”
We all turned to look at her. “You know that song by Peter, Paul, and Mary? The answer, my friend, is blowing in the wind?” I nodded, eager to hear her question.
“I don’t understand what good blowing in the wind would do.” Both my parents collapsed in guffaws.
When I was fifteen years old I got an after-school job. That changed everything. I had to convince the shrink it would be good for me before my parents would give me permission. I convinced him.
I worked setting type by hand in a print shop. I had told Barbara, one of my only friends in homeroom class, that if I didn’t get a job I’d just die, and her older sister got this one for me by lying and swearing I was sixteen.
Nobody at work cared if I wore jeans and T-shirts. They paid me a stack of cash at the end of each week, and my co-workers were nice to me. It wasn’t that they didn’t notice I was different, they just didn’t seem to care as much as the high school kids did. After school I hurriedly changed out of my skirt and raced to work. My co-workers asked me how my day was and they told me about how it was when they were in high school. A kid could forget sometimes that adults were ever teenagers unless they reminded you.
One day a printer form another floor asked Eddie, my foreman, “Who’s the butch?” Eddie just laughed, and they walked off talking. The two women who worked on either side of me glanced over to see if I was hurt. I was more confused than anything.
That night, on dinner break, my friend Gloria ate her meal next to me. Out of the blue she told me about her brother—how he’s a pansy and wears women’s dresses but she loves him anyway and how she hates to see the way people treat him ’cause after all it’s not his fault he’s that way. She told me she even went with him once to a bar where he hung out with his friends and all these mannish women were coming on to her. She shuddered when she said that.
I wondered why she was telling me this. “What place was that?” I asked her.
“What?” She looked sorry she had opened up the subject.
“Where’s the place where those people are?”
“Please,” I asked her. My voice was trembling.
She looked around before she spoke. “It’s in Niagara Falls,” she dropped her voice. “Why do you want to know?”
I shrugged. “What’s the name of it?” I tried to sound real casual.
Gloria sighed deeply. “Tifka’s.” That’s all she said.