At this time when a racial upraising is demanding relief and change after hundreds of years of hatred, discrimination and marches, I take this moment to remember my oldest friend, Carl.
I met Carl in 1965, a time when Martin Luther King, Jr., was forcing millions of white faces to see how racism and hatred had bred corruption and inhumanity.
I am the product of a liberal family, growing up in California, who believed all men and women were created equal. When I read about the South and what the KKK was doing to black men and women, I was infuriated at the cruelty. As an idealistic and passionate teenager, and an aspiring writer, I spent an inordinate amount of time thinking up scenarios and plots where my heroine would infiltrate that evil organization and kill them off one by one.
All right. Maybe my idea of revenge proves that we are all capable of violence if called upon at the right moment. At least mine was fictional.
But I digress.
I was in my early twenties, living life as recklessly as a young woman seeking adventure and excitement could be. I was with a man thirty year my senior and the father of my oldest daughter. He was a product of discrimination himself. At the age of nine he watched his father being murdered because he married an Apache. The son spoke to no one for two years.
I was drawn to him because of what he’d been through. Five years later, I took my daughter and ran away from him because of what racism had done to him. He made it to the top of his field as a hard-hat diver and demolition expert, but never overcame the anger within, and his distrust and paranoia made him an unfit husband and father. I learned he had tried to kill his ex-brother-in-law, a Sicilian and part of the Mafia. I learned we were on the run, when I realized we had to leave towns without notice and change our last name in each new location.
So when I decided the time was right to leave him, I knew that I couldn’t count on anyone to help me. I was working as a waitress at the time in a small town in New Jersey near the Pennsylvania border. I confided in the black man who worked with me, and he stepped up when I told him I saw my chance to take my child and escape. Despite the risk, and the danger he faced if his good deed was discovered, he nevertheless offered to drive us to Philadelphia, where his older brother, Carl, agreed to take us in.
Carl asked no questions when I arrived with my six-month-old baby and ten dollars in my pocketbook. He welcomed me, fed me a simple meal, and offered to share his tiny apartment until I was back on my feet. I was the only white person living in his building, or even on his block. He was in his fifties, a retired musician from New Jersey. Retirement wasn’t his choice. He had played music in clubs owned by the Mafia. He happened to see something he shouldn’t have. The result was that he would never play music in a club or set foot in New Jersey again. He made the move to Philadelphia and found employment as a social worker.
He and his younger brother, saved my life. I have no doubt about that. I lived in his world for most of a year. Carl was the best friend I ever had. He treated me with kindness, generosity, and patience. We found mutual interests while spending hours in conversation. He took me to see Doctor Zhivago and on the way out got caught in a snowstorm. The trains weren’t running and we almost had to walk home before a cab driver decided to pick us up.
Carl backed my road to independence and gently corrected my missteps when I took a wrong turn. He found a wonderful black woman who ran a child care business in her home and took in my little white daughter while I found work. She watched her even while I had three jobs, virtually working around the clock to get back on my feet.
There have been very few people I considered best friends. Carl was one who never let me down. I hope I was able to make his life a little richer as he made mine. We understood and trusted one another. We came to the conclusion we weren’t very different from each other beneath the color of our skin.