Observations on quality time with my 85 year-old father: Racism edition

Its Memorial Day weekend here in the states and many people are writing about their family’s military history. As I come from a long line of cowards, I’ve got nada to say on that subject. Well actually, my uncle was in the army. He’s the only gay member of the family, which I think says something not only about the family, but him, the military, and this country. But that’s a story for another occassion. This story is about racism.

Race is a subject that seems to permeate all other subjects. Every week we hear about another person killed in a police shooting, with race at the center of the surrounding controversy, with protests to follow. Race can be a mine field as a topic of discussion but it’s there and probably shouldn’t be ignored. I don’t profess to have an answer to the issues surrounding race relations in this or any other country. But, as always, you can depend on Lou Weiss for a number of opinions on the subject. Through him I received an education which stays with me to this day.

When he got out of prison at age 72, Lou displayed new insights into race and social justice. He’d say things like, “You know, the black man doesn’t have a fair chance in this country.” I guess jail can change a man, because I remember as far back as 1968, during the presidential campaign, when he said he was going to vote for George Wallace. You know, the segregationist third party candidate. I was aghast at the time but I realized that it wasn’t that my dad was a racist. Well, not the cross burning, white sheet kind of racist. It was that he was fed up with Republicans and Democrats and wanted to cast a protest vote. I never said he was a reasoned thinker or that he couldn’t fall prey to demagogues. In fact I also remember him making a case for dropping nuclear weapons on North Vietnam. I was only eight at the time but even then I even knew that it was a bat shit crazy idea.

In his store on Canal Street he always hired what would now be termed a “diverse” staff. He wasn’t being benevolent. To him, it was just good business. He figured that if you have customers of color, it would make sense to have staff of color. In the 1950’s, when the area was mostly Jewish and Italian, his sales staff were Jewish and Italian. When the store started to have more Black, Chinese and Puerto Rican customers, he started to hire Black, Chinese and Puerto Rican staff. My goodness: Lou Weiss did something right!

By working there I learned a lot from his multi-cultural staff. I learned how to say “penis” in Pilipino, “butt” in Spanish, and “Mother F*cker” in Chinese, although I never did find out what dialect it was. I also learned the Spanish language phrase for a man whose wife is having sex with another man. And of course there’s the word “homosexual,” which I learned to say in Spanish too, although I sense it wasn’t used in a gay positive manner. Just a hunch. I learned mixed phrases like “I got a pinga for the chinga baby!” That was a way of informing a women that you possessed a male sex organ and could use it to have sexual relations with her. I heard that one a lot, although I had my doubts as to its effectiveness. I guess you’ve sensed by now that it was an all-male sales staff.

The Chinese and Malaysian guys hated each other with a passion, which I guess goes back centuries. This was news to me as were a whole set of hierarchies among ethnic groups. The Cubans thought the Puerto Ricans were “mountain men,” and all the Hispanics hated Brazilians because they wore Lacoste shirts. I must be part Hispanic, because in high school I also hated anyone who wore a Lacoste shirt. Maybe I’m really Sephardic?

Yeah, racism seems to be universal. As Victor, a sales person from Santo Domingo would say, “I’m not racist. I hate everyone equally.” But they all worked together, when they weren’t stealing each other’s customers. But, what’s most important was that they’d steal equally from any nationality. Yep, just another sign of what a great country this is. Equal opportunity hate.

My father would not only hire people of color, but also ex-cons, junkies, and illegal aliens. He implied it was his heroic way of helping the downtrodden but I learned the real reason when he decided he needed to hire another sales person. We put an ad in the paper and after sifting through applications and checking references, it came down to a choice between a twenty-something white guy and a nineteen year-old Puerto Rican. Perhaps I was showing my own biases, but I thought the white guy was the better choice. For one thing, he was more mature and could look you in the eye, unlike the other applicant who’d stare at his feet while he spoke to you. The white applicant was also more educated and his knowledge of the merchandise was superior. However, my dad favored the Puerto Rican guy. When I asked him why, he said it was because the guy had nothing better in his life and would therefore be beholden to him. Forever. To me, not only was he inaccurately stereotyping people, but to take advantage of someone like that was a notch above slavery. But, Lou Weiss was the boss and his choice was final.

By the end of the summer, the “beholden” Puerto Rican teenager had quit to go back to school.  In my mind, I can hear the old Yankees’ sportscaster Mel Allen: “How about that?”

© Curt Weiss 2015

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