Sunday, April 3, 2022

Not Even Not Zen 249: Biomythography - Note 25, Bigotry, in General and Particular

Biomythography - Note 25
Bigotry, in General and Particular

The air smelled fresh because it was the middle of March before the pollen had arrived. One of my friends was driving me toward Philadelphia. He had gushed about the city and its outliers, then he'd driven us past some of the landmarks: a Quaker market, a historic mill park, a synagogue, and miles of rusted pipes and towers at Bethlehem Steel.

"It's like Disneyland," he murmured as we surveyed the derelict steel plant. That seemed like hyperbole but I knew what he meant. The place had the sort of faded glory that's more beautiful in its decline than in its gaudy youth.

A few minutes after we passed the closed steel plant, he turned his car off the main road from Bethlehem toward Philadelphia. He swerved again onto a smaller, two-lane street also headed into the city.

"This is my chance to show you what I mean." He gestured with his hands to indicate a place vaguely ahead of us. "I told you that Hispanics are better than Blacks. Now, shut up for a second. I know you think everyone is equal. But that's only true with individuals. That's just not how it is with groups. It's not."

"Groups are made of individuals."

"Right. I know you think that. But it's not even the point. I can't explain what I mean. So I'll show you."

It didn't take him long to drive there. I leaned back in my seat, arms folded as I watched the vacant lots turn into a warehouse district, then single family houses, an impound center behind barbed fences, homes again, and rowhomes.

After a few blocks, the rowhomes changed color. They looked newer, built of amber bricks. Somehow they looked cheaper, too. They were not as run down by age as the earlier, turn-of-the-century rowhomes but they had weathered the years unevenly. The row looked broken in places, pristine in others.

"These are the projects," my friend murmured. "Just wait until we get to the black neighborhood."

As soon as he turned east, I could see his argument coming. The street got shabbier. It wasn't a problem with the asphalt. But it looked like someone had taken a pistol and shot chips out of a high curb and part of a wooden fence. Someone else had smashed a chain link fence off of half a front yard. Everything had been trashed. It had taken years to hurt the housing project by this much.

"Look at the weeds," he said as he leaned closer to me. "See how these people live. They let everything go to shit."

The gate on the next yard had been kicked in. By police? Doubtful, although they might be responsible for a busted door or two around here. By a random teenager? Possible. But the fence on either side of the gate was a brick one, half-height and mostly ornamental and that made the sabotage worse. You could see how nice these homes had been once and how much potential they still had. Wasted.

"They never repair anything," he said. He pointed to a cracked window pane next to a broken wooden garden step that any child with a hammer and nails could have fixed.

"They don't own it," I pointed out. "Some of this, the landlords should repair the things."

"To have the tenants deliberately break them again?" This, from a young man who had never owned anything, not even the car he was driving. But I understood his practical point. The ultimate landlord was probably the city and even their professional crews hadn't kept up.

That started our old argument up again. He drove around, pointing out details during three blocks of awfulness, and then he turned another two corners so that we were back in the same neighborhood but on a different street. This one held a row of project housing, townhouses built of bricks the same color as before, perhaps more weathered and aged. But the neighborhood looked better. The fences had been repaired and painted. I noticed that someone had decided to paint a chain link fence, which was surely an odd decision, but they had done it in a festive pink/purple color. It made me laugh.

A few houses down, someone without flowers had painted them onto his wooden fence. Most of these homes, though, had flowers and flower pots sitting out in their yards. Mostly, they weren't in bloom yet but the difference caused by the presence of those pots felt startling. Nothing that fragile had survived on the other streets.

"Look, no weeds. Everything is trimmed." He pointed to a line of laundry hanging out to dry. "They don't have dryers but they keep their clothes clean. Everything is neat. It's all fucking pretty. Because it's hispanics like me. See?"

"It's very nice." It was better than many more expensive neighborhoods.

He didn't change my mind about trying to care for the children growing up in the black neighborhood. But I didn't change my friend's mind about his superior ethnic culture, either.

A couple of months later, we met in a different state. He and other friends swung by my house and asked me to go smoke with them. I didn't care about partying but it was nice to be invited, so I hopped in for the ride. At a mutual friend's house, we met our semi-usual assortment of party-goers. Among them were a few black folks we had hung out with for the past year on the regular. We sat next to them for a while, smoking and drinking and laughing.

My friend coughed out a praise or two for Philadelphia before he picked up his beer. It made me think of the detour he'd driven to show me the difference between cultures. I poked him with my elbow and gestured to our black friends.

"What about them?" I asked. "Are you culturally superior?"

"Psssh! I didn't mean them." He laughed.

"But ..."

"They don't live like that. They're good guys."

After thinking for a while, I felt that this particular friend might be the opposite of some others. I had college friends who were integrationists in theory. They used all of the correct terms. They donated to good causes. But they had no friends who weren't from precisely the same background they had. What did that mean about them? It was hard to tell.

And was my friend sitting next to me really the opposite of them, pretending to be bigoted and using all the wrong terms but actually having a pretty wide selection of friends? No. During the drinking, smoking, and bullshitting about politics and music, I had time to think about his attitudes. My old friend was close to the opposite but I knew he really was prejudiced. He wasn't overplaying it when he used biased terms. He simply had a special exclusion zone for people he met and liked. When it came to the specifics, he had friends from the groups he hated.

It was a long night. Other friends and friends-of-friends drifted in and out of the party. I kept coming back to the concept of who among them, really, were our true amigos. And what that meant. There was no hiding the good nature of some people, I guessed, not even from those who claimed to hate their religion or race. But we were all pretty well defined, too, by the differences between our speech and our actions, between our bigotries in general and in particular.

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