February 05, 2009

Letting Go of Old Jim (Crow)

This is the story of how I let go of a friendship. This is one of only a handful in my life that I've let go. Generally/Mostly I hang on to friendships. I've held on to at least 10 relationships that are greater than 30 years. These are the 9 women and 1 man who, along with my family, I love the utmost in the world. These are the ones I commune with at very least once a year. These are the friends who have known me for a generation, who I can tell my heart to, tell my soul to, and they can hear. They've been hearing for over 30 years now. We're good at it.

But this is about one I let go after only two years. Jim was 88 years old the summer I met him. I was 58. He walked a neighbor's dog each morning wearing Bermuda shorts and an old straw hat. He'd leave one ripe tomato on my front porch each morning for the month of tomato harvest the summer of 2006.
He'd knock on my door and want to come in to talk. The talk that people do when they're just becoming friends. But I rarely spoke; I just listened. I was still in shock from the unbelievable loss of both my sister and partner; talking about myself would elicit a flood of tears, so I didn't.
He'd talk about his wife who passed 20 years ago, he'd talk about growing up in Fon du Lac Wisconsin, about his jewelry business, about the woman who he last dated, about whatever. I'd always ask questions which kept him talking, so I'd just have to listen. It was good to have a human being in my home to break up the day. I knew how to ask questions so that I could get to know people; I'd done it for work for years.
And slowly, it became clear, not by action, but by Jim telling me , that he wanted physical intimacy. With me.
"I'd like to cuddle and have a hand to hold again." And he'd look at me.
But I never responded.

He had no idea whatsoever that I am a Lesbian who clearly wants no intimacy, other than verbal, with someone old enough to be my father. I was clear that I was just interested in being his friend.
"Jim, first of all, I'm YOUNGER than your DAUGHTER, and besides, I'm a Lesbian."

"Ohhhh." He said drawn out, slowly.
"I can see that now." And he looked at me fully for the very first time. He now saw.

So we became friends, cause I could be authentic with him, and he could have companionship. Like a puppy, he'd go just about anywhere with me, and wanted me to go places with him. We did this about once a week, for maybe a year. Movies, his doctors' appointments, CostCo, Walmart, Trader Joe's, more movies. Some weeks a movie and some appointment or chore.

As months passed, each visit produced a tenseness in me which lead to an insistence on looking for/hearing/noticing a sexist or racist remark of his. Or noticing that he would always remark on how good I looked. I was appraised, based on my looks. His objectification of me grated.

There were those remarks; his sexist and racist remarks which told his way of seeing the world. He didn't see women as equal to men, and he always/sometimes only saw their looks. His racist remarks, said off hand, common to white men of his age were appalling. If women were unequal to men, people of color were less than even women.
Words matter. Words count. And his words told his beliefs, as words always do.

And his remarks of objectification always came. Always grated, always left me feeling disrespected, and frankly disgusted. He would comment about the "girls" or "Mexicans" or reminding me that he'd only seen Black people "in the circus", and that he thought a "wide nose and thick lips" are "ugly." Oh this hurt me. Or how his past female friend had become "dumpy looking; she's let herself go." His words caused me to be sensitive to what he would say next, what obscene remark would come next. The very worst, the one that came as a physical blow to my stomach, as if he'd punched me: he said he would not vote for Obama because "if you let one in, others will follow." His distrust, his fear of "the other" was real; and it was all too typical of white men of his age. His age when Jim Crow laws were the norm, when Black men were jailed for no good reason other than to be used on farms and factories as slave labor in the south; when Black men, women and children were hung from trees, for no good reason other than sheer hate, the "Strange Fruit" that Billie Holiday sang of. The time of Jim Crow when the overarching norm was acceptance of hate, acceptance of the idea that skin color determines goodness, decency, trust. As in Nazi Germany, the acceptance of hate as the norm allowed brutality and mass murder to flourish. When we acquiesce to a norm of hate and discrimination, we further
its cause.

Could I truly believe what I was hearing? It seemed as if most of our time together became my hearing some obscene comment of his, then my pointing out why the comment was offensive to me, but also, made no logical sense. People's skin color is no different than people's different hair color, or eye color. Truly. He truly could not comprehend the idea that all people are one, because we are from One. He would try to correct his speech for the next ten to twenty minutes or so; but that's exactly the point. He was just "correcting" his speech to make me feel good. Not in any way because he too saw the hatefulness of his words. Words which were so indicative of the general feeling, the general mood of his life, that for those of his generation, they became convention. Words which bespoke another era. An era when it was just assumed by all whites, talking to each other, that any one of any color was somehow not to be trusted, was inferior. An era when "everyone knew their place."

So there we were. Me feeling the need to comment to him on comments he would make. He threw out his hate filled language as if he were talking about the weather. Listening to him, it was clear that in his circle of friends, everyone took it for granted that this is how one spoke. He would mention the "Mexican" who committed a crime, muttering about the "illegals." Or how the "girl" looked behind the counter at his doctor's office, commenting constantly about how this "girl" or that "girl" looked. Always about looks. I would point out that he wouldn't call a man of 40 plus years a "boy." I would point out that we spend more money on corporate handouts than the sliver of funds that go to provide human basics for people in need. The tenseness always lead to my becoming upset, angry that he couldn't comprehend how offensive he was.

And he would always say: "I don't mean anything by it. They're just words. I just say them. They're what everybody says."

And I'd always say: "But they mean something to me. If you're going to hang out with me, I cannot hear them."

His words stung my sense of decency. He doesn't understand that we are all One. We are to be judged by our character, by our integrity, by how genuine we are; and repeatedly he'd judge by gender, by color. People were seen through a filter of preconceptions, prejudice.

He spoke what he truly believed. Because try to hide anything, people always speak their truth. He spoke how he saw the world. His truth.

Not mine.

There we stayed for about a year. He truly believed that his words had no consequence, and I could not help but see the consequence.

Then something in me said enough is enough. I was aware of feeling frustrated, irritated, angry, when in his presence. I began to avoid contact. Especially face to face contact. I knew that each time he saw me, he looked me over and did a mental check. Not to notice skin, eyes, sheen, glow, overall demeanor; no, to notice if I were still pretty to him. To see my "prettiness".

I resented that he did this. I resented his words from a generation prior to mine. In his words
I heard the hatred of the southern sheriffs with their whips and bullhorns and clubs. And the southern folk, with so much hate and fear on their faces, in their eyes. T.V. for the first time showed societal hate and insanity. And the Chelsea Massachusetts folk, especially the young white men. They hated too. It showed in their faces, in their attacks on the Black children bussed to white schools. It was ugly. It was obscene.

I experienced Boston in the early 1970's to the mid-1980's. Each day the papers threw in our faces the hatred of the Irish-Italian establishment. In the early 1980's Black women were being killed in Boston and no one noticed, no one cared.
It was during this time that I lived with and loved a woman of color. Demita, a proud, strong, intelligent Black feminist. She never took bullshit. She was clear as a bell, and beautiful. She taught me so much about how to be strong. She kept me sane the time that my mother almost died. She'd hold me in her arms at night and talk to me and soothe me. She let me cry and hold her and be comforted. Mightily. We were not lovers. We just loved.
And I grew up in New York City, the Lower East Side, with Puerto Rican, Black, Chinese, Jewish kids in my neighborhood, my friends. I truly didn't see skin color, I was just one of the kids. We played together, had band class together, did stuff after school together. And on the subway, my mother taught her daughters to look closely at people, and to see the beauty in everyone. So we did.

So here I was, always "correcting" this man who claimed to be my friend, but who always said things which hurt me. When he made the remark about Obama, I felt as if I'd been kicked.

Sometime in the fall of 2008 I said goodbye to Jim. I accepted that he will never change and I do not need to try to change him.

I live with my decision to let him go as a friend. I know I hurt him. I know he did not at all comprehend my inability to continue to call him a friend. I know he did not "mean" to hurt me, but he did. I have family members who are racist and sexist, but I don't keep friends who are.