With the exception of my first few years, I grew up in a neighborhood essentially devoid of ethnic diversity. When I was really young my family lived on lower Mary Street, one of the few blocks of Binghamton, NY that could reasonably be considered a multi-racial ghetto. Yet, by the time I’d turned five we’d managed to climb the ladder enough for my parents to move us to the side of town without epic roach infestations and straight-from-central-casting slumlords. But our new home on the West Side was also without our neighbor, the friendly but felonious Redbone, who used to bring my brother and me up to his apartment to share bowls of sugared popcorn when he wasn’t in jail, or my friend Big Mike’s dad, Charles, who was always warning us kids about Blacula and how he was gonna “get us” if we were bad, or our downstairs neighbor, Scrappy, whose jealous boyfriend once set our house on fire.
While Redbone, Scrappy, Big Mike, Charles, Darlene and Roy, Richard and Gloria and a host of other early friends remain part of my memory, the images from childhood that abide most are from the somewhat wealthier, and much whiter, side of town. And with Facebook now providing my generation a whole new opportunity to pore over grainy elementary school photos, I see that all my West Side friends until 7th grade were white. I’m wracking my brain, but I don’t think there were any children at Thomas Jefferson elementary school who drew from genetic roots outside of Europe: McCauley, Rapinski, McCormack, Polanski, and Rogan and Clements and Mott. Lawrence and Wilcox and Walters and Goosely and Keuter and Kirtland and Kirch. All white, all working-to- middle-class families. Still, because of the early years I knew other-flavored folk in the world existed. I just figured they were happily playing manhunt in their own neighborhoods.
At no point in my formative years, on Mary Street or Orton Ave, did I feel pitted against an “other.” On Mary, we weren’t all white, but we were all poor. On Orton, we weren’t all poor, but we were all white. Neither one of those conditions ever caused much thought. It just the way it was – and as such, there was peace.
Sadly, that innocent-if-untested sense of racial and economic unconsciousness hasn’t thrived as much as I would have liked it to over the interceding decades, as conversations overheard at some local Binghamton watering holes can attest. And while a strong argument can be made that the rising racial animus in America is being intentionally encouraged by Fox News and the radical right, in places like Binghamton it also has something to do with economic decline and demographic changes that make it dangerously easy to blame some nearby “other” for the troubles America is now experiencing.
But it doesn’t have to be that way, and it is that hope which brings me to a retelling of one of the stranger experiences of my teaching career: participating in a beautiful night of cultural diversity at the high school where I worked and watching it collapse into a race riot, and yet somehow finding a bit of humor, and some insight, between the blows.
After getting my teaching degree from SUNY Binghamton in the early 1990s, I kicked around Upstate New York looking for a job, but as the long and painful economic collapse had begun, nobody was hiring anywhere along the economic food chain. After banging my head against that wall for a year, I expanded my job search to New York City and managed to get placed at F.D.R. High School in Bensonhurst, Brooklyn.
New York City, in general, and F.D.R. specifically, were gob-smacking eye-openers for me. Just listening to the universal chorus that assembled twice a day on the F-Train was both humbling and inspirational. And F.D.R. was a unique school in the NYC public education system. I was never clear if it was intentionally an immigrant funnel school, or if our demographics were just a by-product of being situated in a neighborhood that was half Italian and half Ultra-Orthodox Jew. Understand me here: we only had a handful of Italian kids in the school and no Hasidim. The Italians mostly sent their children to Catholic school and the Jewish kinder went to Yeshiva. So maybe we ended up with the Dominicans, Puerto Ricans, African-American, Chinese, Russian, Polish, Moroccan, Georgian, Egyptian, Pakistani, Mexican, Ukrainian, Indian, Guatemalan, Guyanese, Haitian and Bangladeshi kids from the rest of Brooklyn by default.
Either way, the school was a veritable United Nations. When I left teaching six years ago there were 55 languages spoken in the school. I remember a 10th grader in my global studies class once telling me that at home he spoke “Old Farsi.”
“Hmmm,” thought I, “I didn’t even know there was a New Farsi.”
F.D.R. High School was one of the richest and most diverse populations you could find anywhere in the known universe — and generally peaceful. Sure, the kids self-segregated in the cafeteria, but in the classrooms and the school yard, they got along pretty well. As such, we held an annual “Multi-Cultural Night” to celebrate, and it was always one of the most entertaining and beautiful nights of the year. The kids who participated prepared for months. About 65 percent of our students were either just-off-the-plane, or just-crossed-the-river immigrants and this night was a chance, both for them and for the more established immigrant populations, to shine.
The night, in the Spring of 1999, started with performances in the school auditorium. There was a Russian jazz band — which might seem odd, but jazz in the post-Soviet era exploded from Belarus to Balakova to Brighton Beach with conservatory-trained young musicians longing to break out of the bonds of formality and classicism. There was Chinese opera, which is weird as hell and totally awesome. There was Greek dance and Vietnamese dance and Peruvian pan-pipes and ponchos. The Mexican kids sang Cielito Lindo, maybe better known as the “Ay, Ay, Ay, Ay . . .” song, and got the audience to “ay ay ay” along on the chorus. Seven beautiful Indian girls in saris danced interwoven circles as two turbaned boys engaged in a mock battle around them, each wearing more eye makeup than Clara Bow or the most depressed of your Emo friends.
And in the penultimate act a Pakistani girl danced herself right off the stage.
Thank God she wasn’t hurt, but as she danced unawares toward the orchestra pit, the whole audience drew a deep breath of worry, her hands sailing like sentient butterflies on a gentle, internal wind, until she drifted back upstage. Then she floated forward once again towards the pit and the audience’s whispered worries of “no no no,” only to hear us exhale as she retreated to the safety of the centerline. Three times she did this; three times she must have felt she had the audience in her hands. On the forth go-round, she took an extra step and — legs akimbo and arms flapping, like a startled cartoon turkey taken down by Elmer Fudd’s shotgun — she plopped right off the edge of the stage.
Everyone gasped and jumped to their feet as she hit the ground. There was silence, and then a bit of muted laughter. I couldn’t blame anyone; it’s hardwired into us to giggle when people fall down. Again, thank God she wasn’t hurt and soon enough her parents and a few friends arrived to whisk her backstage for some ice and assurances that she hadn’t, in fact, made a fool out of herself.
Teenage souls bruise far more easily than teenage bodies.
But the show had to go on, so the emcee ushered to stage the big finale. Little did we know that with her fall, and the giggles that followed, a fuse had been lit.
The final act, every year, was by the Dominican kids — and truth be known, if ever science comes up with “ethnicity replacement therapy,” I’m first in line to become a biological citizen of the D.R. Dominicans are fantastic people, and, man, can they dance. And, man, do they LOVE to dance. And as I later found out when some of my Dominican former students tracked me down at my local bar, they love to drink. They’re just like the Irish, only with actual rhythm and a sexuality uninhibited by generations of repression and guilt. In any case, every year the final act of our Multi-Cultural night was the Dominican troupe doing dance moves that pushed the boundaries of what should be allowed in public high school auditoria. Their final booty-shaking, floor-grinding gyrations always brought the house down — and when the lights came up, everyone was a bit flushed and privately thanking God that we are a species without the ability to read one another’s minds. With that tension and energy, the students bounded through the foyer to the school cafeteria for Part II of the night: The Big Feed.
You know the scene: the lunch tables with the round orange stools are folded up and pushed against the walls. In the middle of the room is the drinks station, and all around the edges of the cafeteria are different stalls for each participating country with samplings of their culinary delights. This is Bensonhurst, so the Italian kids always went whole-hog with gnocchi and carpaccio and sauces that made your mouth water for weeks in memory. The Polish kids did up halupki and pierogi that rivaled the finest creations of the fast-order chefs at Veselka’s on 9th and 2nd in the East Village. There were beans and coconut rice from Belize, ox tail soup from Barbados, and an assortment of paneers, samosas and gulab jamun from India . . . I had a cold ham sandwich for dinner tonight and I’m drooling on my keyboard with the memory.
The Dominicans never brought food; rather, they brought more music. Each year, as the feed was starting, the Dominican D.J. set up his turntables and within ten minutes had cut loose. As the other kids were eating voraciously and flirting wildly, the Dominicans got back to dancing. Then, as hunger was sated and dancing partners were found, the whole school, our own Brooklyn-based rainbow coalition, drifted back to the Dominican corner. The music jammed even louder, and if an angel had alighted at our window, it would have reported back to heaven that evening with a message for the Big Man that there was hope for this world after all.
Sadly, the promised land would have to wait, as that year the planning committee didn’t include a member of the Social Studies department. Had it, one of us might have told them that no matter how much love was generally shared on Multi-Cultural night, putting the Bangladeshi table right next to the Pakistani table was a truly terrible idea.
Bangladesh and Pakistan fought a devastating civil conflict in 1971 (when they were one nation) that spared no horrors of modern warfare. Organized and systematic rape, ethnically-targeted murder and attempted genocide defined the conflict. One Pakistani general said, “Kill three million of them and the rest will eat out of our hands.” There’s nothing even remotely funny about that, which makes me feel a bit self-conscious describing the fight that broke out at F.D.R. High School some 11 years ago, and how it made me chuckle.
The fight sparked during an increasingly heated conversation at the juncture of the Pakistani and the Bangladeshi food stalls. It had something to do with the Pakistani girl who pitched off the stage and the laughter that filtered around the auditorium after she landed. Unfairly, blame was placed on the Bangladeshi kids. The words, so common in Brooklyn just before fights, were no doubt employed: “What’cha gonna do, kid? What’cha gonna do?”
Someone threw a punch, and as the rest of us either nibbled or danced, a race riot exploded. I was talking to Edy and Anna, two of my favorite kids, when I saw their eyes go wide and Edy said, “Oh, shit . . . fight!!!”
I left my date with Edy and Anna, looked around for Mr. Sullivan and waded into the middle of what was becoming a dangerous, but oddly comical, situation as more and more students of South Asian origin got into the row. Now, you might think I’m a jerk for finding what was going on amusing, especially as one of our kids got stabbed, but even in the midst of that madness there were some real moments of comedy, kinda like a Benny Hill finale with both kazoos and knives.
While some Pakistani teens are sizable, the vast majority are slight of frame and yet still significantly larger than the Bangladeshi boys. Sixteen-year-old Bangladeshis probably weigh between 80 and 90 pounds each. Further, both ethnic groups have pronounced accents when they speak English, and because of their age their voices had a tendency to crack into the dog-whistle spectrum when under stress. I remember two boys wrestling and slapping one another very ineffectively on the floor about halfway through the brawl. The Pakistani kid piped a bird-like soprano at the Bangladeshi kid with his best trash talk, “You! You are a motherfuck!”
To which the Bangladeshi kid responded staccato in an even higher octave. “No no no no no no no! I am not a motherfuck! You! You are the motherfuck!”
The situation was serious, but still, one had to smile. Crips and Bloods, this was not.
Into this Lilliputian whirl I waded with Big Brendan Sullivan. He’s a solid six-foot-five, so between us we had about twelve and a half feet and 450 pounds. We, quite literally, towered over the combatants.
Once we reached the middle of the cafeteria-cum-moshpit, we started grabbing kids two at a time and dumping them outwards towards other teachers at the edge of the brawl. Things started to get pretty messy. While styrofoam bowls of spaghetti with clam sauce don’t make effective weapons, they do tend to leave a stain. Tables were overturned creating hummus- and babaganoush-powered slippy-slides. Somewhere in there one of my most adorable 10th grade Bangladeshis, a World Wrestling Federation fan, made a big show of climbing on top of his own food stall. I couldn’t get to him before he launched himself into a dramatic, screaming stage-dive, which ended badly as the crowd suddenly parted, leaving him to crash to the hard linoleum floor. After getting up, he staggered in a complete circle, holding his ringing ears and stumbled away from the fight. I think I saw little birds fluttering about his head.
By this time, Brendan and I had positioned ourselves back to back. Binghamton hadn’t taught me anything about race riots or street fighting, but I’d listened to enough war stories in bars and my classrooms to know that you want to cover one another as much as possible. We moved pretty effectively through the melee, pulling kids apart and preventing too much harm. It kinda felt like we were kindly ogres, big pink Shreks lummoxing through a Hobbiton hullabaloo after the mayor caught Bilbo with one of his daughters. We just kept grabbing kids and tossing them in one direction or another, hoping security would restrain them in our wake. They couldn’t, of course. We were fully out-numbered, and if this kept up, eventually someone was going to get seriously hurt. I started to get worried just as I heard Brendan chuckle while simultaneously elbowing me in the ribs. I looked up over my shoulder and, kid in hand, he pointed off to his left.
I looked, and — just past the event horizon of a swirling one-hundred- kid brawl — the students around the Dominican area were STILL dancing. During the crisis of a Pakistani / Bangladeshi rumble, just a few feet away, wanting nothing to do with the madness, Brooklyn was doing a merengue.
Moments later a phalanx of New York’s Finest burst into the cafeteria pushing kids and teachers out of the way — and before even dealing with the brawl (actually PASSING BY the brawl) they’d busted the Dominican kids, knocked over the bench that held the turn-tables and pushed the D.J. up against the wall. I remember one of our Dominican kids staring over at Brendan and me as he was being hustled out of the cafeteria, wrists bound behind his back by a plastic zip-tie, with a look on his face that said exactly what he thought about the New York City police department.
But the cops did stop the fight. The paramedics showed up and the boy who had been stabbed was taken to the hospital, where he later recovered. The conditions between the South Asian communities remained tense for the coming months, but no other major dust-ups ensued of which I am aware. Sadly, the principal canceled Multi-Cultural Night for the remainder of her tenure at the high school. Typical administrative overreaction; one damn fight was not who we were.
Shit happens in Brooklyn, and too often, but to focus only on the fights and the brutality is to miss what the borough is all about.
I don’t know which way of growing up is better. In the end, I’m happy with my uncomplicated memories and the relative tranquility of my hometown — be it the early years on Mary Street or the later ones on Orton. I’m glad that no one ever pushed hatred into my head while it was still soft. I’m glad I grew up playing manhunt in the neighborhood with a bunch of other kids that looked an awful lot like me, never even wondering where Pakistan was. But at the same time I’m envious of those students from all around the world who got to share, and scuffle for, turf at F.D.R. High School. If America’s the melting pot, then Brooklyn’s the hot spot, and it asks everyone the same questions in a crisis: You wanna curl that hand into a fist, or you wanna ask that girl to dance?
What’cha gonna do, kid? What’cha gonna do?