But They Could and They Did

Barbara - New Haven, Connecticut
Entered on February 27, 2008
Age Group: 50 - 65
Themes: community, race

My day usually begins with a glance at the New York Times. Immediately my mood sinks as I scan the latest accounts of murder, mayhem and chaos. People are killing each other all over the world for no good reason that I can figure out. I leave for work feeling helpless and so very small. How can any one of us make a dent? When I was little my father used to say- “when you see things are wrong in the world, you have to try and fix them.” It’s such a tall order.

But then there are moments when I get a glimpse of another blessed truth- individual people actually can make a difference. This happened a few weeks ago. My sister and I met at our parents’ house in New Jersey and took them out to lunch. Our town barely resembles the place where we grew up. Modest capes have given way to McMansions with three car garages. Every intersection now has an upscale shopping plaza. We had no idea where to go but headed to one of those plazas where my father thought there was a good deli. As we helped our parents out of the car, we spied it- “Baumgart’s”- and we all started visualizing a cornbeef sandwich, maybe with a sour pickle on the side.

As we entered I noticed that every employee was Asian. The décor was sleek and modern. The menu included sushi, sashimi and various stir fried dishes. We grinned at each other as we ordered, thinking how off we had been about the place. However, the food was great and as we sat and enjoyed our meal I looked at the other families coming in the door. African-American families, dressed to the nines, were going out for Sunday dinner. A mixed race couple entered with their stunning children. Within a half hour the restaurant was full of families whose ethnicity and cultural orientations spanned the globe, everyone looking right at home. A lovely chatter in several languages surrounded us, punctuated by laughter. We were in the midst of what is best about America.

With chopsticks aloft I thought back to family meals at the old Heritage Diner, surrounded by white families. I also recalled being twelve years old and walking at my father’s side down this very street, in solidarity with Dr. King who was marching in Selma that day. I could almost see the hecklers on the side of the road, and hear the threatening phone calls that came to our house because my father and his friends were organizing a “Fair Housing” committee, bypassing racist realtors, and purchasing homes for brave African American families. I looked over at the old man sitting next to me and my heart swelled.

As we pulled out of the parking lot I reminded him of those days and told him how happy it made me to see how much the town had changed. He chuckled and said, “ I remember going to the police station to tell them people were threatening my children’s lives. They said they were going to get you on your way home from school. The chief’s response was ‘You know, we used to have a nice town before trouble makers like you moved in.’ ” He grinned and shook his head, remembering.

I drove back to Connecticut with my father’s words in my head. “If you see something in the world that is wrong, you have to try and fix it.” At twelve I hadn’t really understood what he was trying to fix or why he was willing to risk our safety to make it happen. How could a small group of Jewish suburban white guys do anything to touch such a huge complex problem? But they could and they did. And I’ve had the gift of this moment- forty three years later- to sit and have lunch in the community he was aiming for. And I’m recharged with hope.