Tough lessons learned early in life
My maternal grandfather was a bootlegger and a drunk who forced my mother when she was a little girl into helping with the preparation and sales of illegal whiskey. When I was two months old, he threw me out of a second story apartment window in the Bronx because I would not stop crying.
My father had rejected me, and my mother could not afford to keep me so she abandoned me. I became a ward of the New York City Foundling Hospital, a foster child who was sent to live with various families. I quickly learned that the so called “melting pot” really did not exist.
This was the depression era and during my childhood into the teenage years most kids were identified nationally by the country their parents came from or by their religion. Often the terms used were opprobrious, and were used for nationalities and religions. Again, there was no “melting pot.”
But the kids did not always take these terms as literal insults; it was mainly the parents who drew lines not to be crossed. For instance, they said the Irish were boozers, lazy and dirty. The blacks were thieves and violent.
Because I was a foster kid, I was placed in various homes. One family was poor and often my main meal consisted of a slice of bread sprinkled with sugar. But I had more freedom to run around outside than another family who had money, but was much more controlling and constantly criticized my behavior. I was too sloppy, had no manners and “walked like a girl.” They forbade me never again to play with several black kids who had been my friends.
In the Italian foster homes pasta was served at least four times a week and Italian was spoken in the home.
More than once I was scolded because I could not understand the conversations. Many of the local merchants could also speak Italian. The stores were small, specialized and run by families: butcher shops, fish shops, greengrocers and small grocery stores. In general there were clusters of neighborhoods, each with a dominant ethnic, religious majority. At times the kids would form gangs to protect their “turf,” mainly by threatening any other kid from entering their territory. But these were not dangerous gangs; they used no weapons and could be easily turned aside. Once I was stopped by a gang, but because I knew one of the gang members, they let me go.
During high school I became a messenger boy and soon learned that it wasn’t just ethnic and religious differences that separated people, but economic differences as well.
I recall vividly how a boss grabbed me from behind and shoved me aside as he raced past me; no apology, I was an “it,” a lowly messenger boy. Another day an elevator operator offered a gracious good morning to one of the bosses, but as soon as the boss left the elevator, the operator turned to me and muttered a vicious “that s.o.b., that real s.o.b.”
I soon became aware of the tensions between the bosses and the workers, the class divisions between the haves and have nots which is even more evident 80-plus years later. But that’s another story.
George Sebouhian, English professor emeritus at Fredonia State University, is a Fredonia resident.