"Whenever I go into a restaurant, I order both a chicken and an egg to see which comes first"

Friday, January 27, 2012

Ethnic Stereotypes

I grew up in an era when there were no stereotypes for ethnic, racial, or religious groupings and no pejorative terms for them.  Not because people did not pigeonhole on the basis of background; on the contrary it was because no one had ever once given a thought to the subject.  Everyone knew that yids, wops, hunkies, micks, and Polacks behaved in certain prescribed, innate, and immutable ways.  Jews were acquisitive, aggressive, and pushy.  Micks were drunkards given to bar fights.  Polacks and hunkies were stupid; and Italians yelled a lot and beat their wives.  It was what we were. It was part of our nature.  We were born that way. Nobody stereotyped anybody.

The problem with this simplified ethnic classification system was that the Polacks or micks couldn’t make any sense out of the exceptions. How could a guinea go to Yale? Maybe my father let up a bit on the wife-beating; or fewer goomba relatives patrolled the parlor, yelling, screaming, and throwing things; or fewer wailing, hysterical women in black dresses attended family funerals.  In any case my family didn’t stink of garlic, have hairy ears, or work construction.  The Polacks had to transform my family into some weird, cancerous, ethnic growth with some Italian, some WASP, some Swedish bits, so that the moral order of their universe could be maintained; so that we – like everyone else  without exception, could be as Fifties as pink shirts, black tight pants, throaty mufflers, and backseat pussy.  Basically, the Polacks thought, we must have a lot white blood.

Nor could the Polacks make any sense out of the Mafia.  How could these guineas possibly have so much power, they wondered?  From the looks of them, they sure looked the Italian part – swarthy, greasy, curly hair, lots of noise – but instead of working construction, they owned it.  In fact they owned and ran everything.

“Ya have to admit”, said one of the Polacks hanging out on Broad Street in front of the kielbasa market, “those guineas are tough sons-o’-bitches”. He was referring to the Cosa Nostra, the Black Hand, the Mafia who ran the numbers, maintained a protection racket that covered the whole city, controlled the unions and prostitution, and who were the de facto governors of the city.

“Fuckin’ micks never had a chance”, said Stash “like they did in Boston.” And Polacks who were 60 percent of the city got nothing but ‘guinea leavings’.   The Poles worked in the factories as laborers or as cleaning ladies for the WASPs in the West End. They were never able to elect anyone because the Italians worked over the neighborhoods and muscled a 100 percent vote their way.

So the Polacks made adjustments in their assessments of Italians – either they had white blood, or were descendants of the Roman Empire or whose faith linked them in an unholy alliance with the Vatican – and with these illogical conclusions, were able to see to it that the moral and social order was left intact.

The Micks had their own racket going – the Catholic Church.  The buggering Father O’Reillys, Father Murphys, and Father Quinlans, were assigned parishes by the Archdiocese of Hartford, which took its lead from the Archdiocese of Boston which was as Irish as half the counties of Ireland put together, and which was led by the most Irish of Cardinals in the Holy see.  No mick Excellency, or Monsignor, or priest laboring in the vineyard ever gave a glancing thought to ‘ethnic community’ – Italian priests for Italian neighborhoods.  The Irish Church was the Catholic Church in New England, so even the goomba tough guys had to sit through sermons on self-abuse, bad thoughts, and the shameful, if not pitiful nature of women, except, of course, for the Holy Virgin Mary, conceived without sin, Mother of God, and loving intercessor for her Son, Our God, Jesus Christ.

So the micks had their revenge on the guineas who ran things by sending their trembling sons home from confession, having been told that they were inevitably and irretrievably doomed to perdition, and if they continued to have these deranged thoughts and impure desires, the hell fires would only burn more hotly.

The goombas could do nothing, for they respected the sanctity of the Sacrament of Confession and, although begrudgingly, accepted the links between God, St. Peter, the Pope down to the parish priest.  In fact they admired the Church.  It wasn’t much different from the Mafia with its own secular rules and sacraments, social order, and administration as efficient as the Roman Curia; and like the Cosa Nostra, the farther down you got in the pecking order, the more jerks you found, and as often as you could get rid of them, the more there were to take their place.  So the goombas put up with the Church just like the Church put up with the goombas.  A convenient standoff, no turf battles.

The Jews were all smart and successful, so unlike the Italians, Irish, and Polish all of whom gave you good reason to dislike them because they seemed stupid.  No one in his right mind would ever say such a thing about the Jews.  If you wanted a smart lawyer, you went to a Jew.  You wanted clothes, jewelry, furs, a loan, you went to a Jew.  So, if they were smarter than everyone else, you had to find some other reason to dislike them.  For example, they were pushy, didn’t know their place, didn’t wait in line to serve themselves canapés and tea sandwiches, didn’t politely accept being blacklisted at the country club but said fuck you and formed their own, elbowed their way to ticket counters, shoved and pushed to get on the train, and fought for every nickel.

The Polacks couldn’t understand this either.  The Jews’ pushing and shoving, nickel-and-diming, chutzpah or whatever the Polish word was for outrageously self-serving behavior was, seemed to work.  Everywhere they were allowed to work, Jews ruled and made money, and kept moving up.  A tailor whose grandfather had been a rag-picker became a clothier who then opened a chain of apparel stores.  A lawyer who chased ambulances opened offices in Newington, Bristol, and Plainville, and his sons became famous personal injury attorneys. 

Was it because the Jews didn’t have the manners of the WASPs, those arbiters of taste and fashion in the city, who, descended from generations of shipbuilders, rum runners, slave traders, and ice shippers made the city what it was? The Polacks had no clue as to what the manners of the Manor-born were, wouldn’t know them if they saw them, and of course had no chance to see them, living as they did either below ground in the basement sweatshops of the factories, or above ground in the top, most cramped and creaky apartments of a fourth-floor walk-up.

Jews simply must have some kind of inbuilt and innate human inferiority somewhere, regardless of their material success and brains.  Once again the moral and social universe was maintained by an easy logic.  Things in the Fifties just were.  Too much thinking about them never did anyone any good. 

The City had one or two Puerto Ricans and a stray black man here and there.  The Puerto Ricans worked in the boiler room of the hospital and the blacks shined shoes for the lawyers and bankers on Main Street.  No one knew where they lived and no one cared; and just as Hindu outcastes were invisible, so were they - marginalia, not worth the stereotyping which would come later as the waves of immigrations from the Caribbean or the South hit the East Coast.  “Why, they’re just as American as you or I”, I overheard a young, idealistic, lawyer saying to his companion as they passed the Puerto Ricans coming up from the boiler room.  

“Are you kidding me?”, replied the friend.  “They’re spics, and we don’t have spics in America”.  So the logic of the moral and social universe was applied once again with little debate.

I have never been a fan of revisionist history.  The Fifties was an era of certitude.  America was the greatest country in the world.  We had just won the War, defeated the Nazis and the Japs, and were a resurgent economic power,the envy of everyone.  The Church was solidly in place, Republicans and Democrats were exemplary models of democracy and capitalism, the business of General Motors was the business of the United States Government.   If all this was true, certain, and unchallenged, then the certainty of the ethnic moral and social universe was also fixed and unchallenged.

The thing of it was, the stereotypes were not that far off.  Ethnic communities in the Fifties were still very isolated from each other.  The Poles lived in one end of the city, the Italians in other.  The Poles – I later learned from a sophisticated, cosmopolitan Polish co-worker when I travelled to Warsaw just after the fall of the Soviet Union – had come from Silesia, one of the poorest areas of Poland.  I had proudly told him, wishing to establish my bona fides that I came from a well-known city in Connecticut which was over 60 percent Polish. I knew about kielbasa, pierogi, rouladen, and kotlets, and the ways of the babushka-wrapped women I saw in the park.  I could say, nozdrowie (to your health) and bez pracy nie ma pieniędzy (no work, no money).

I got no reaction from my colleague, who was a Polish-Prussian prince whose family had been well under cover during Soviet times but who had reemerged, reclaimed much of their lost land, and were on there way to restoring the family name and fortune.  I repeated my litany of Polish references a number of times.  “I wouldn’t be so proud of your Poles”, he said and went on to relate their boorish, thickwitted, Silesian peasant ways.  So we were right after all, I thought.  Because of their poor, rural, peasant roots, they were not unlike our own Appalachian clodhoppers.  We had put them in the right category.

My trips to Poland in the early 90s were memorable for many reasons, perhaps the most important of which was the revelation that all Poles were not like the Silesian Poles of my youth.  Women were beautiful, unlike the steel-toothed, fat, babushka-ed cleaning ladies that came and banged furniture around my house once a week.  There were plenty more aristocrats, Euro-professionals, and artists where my colleague came from.  Poland was Europe.  Even though our stereotyping had been correct, it had – like most stereotypes – been woefully limited.  Accurate to a point, but in the end, ridiculously exaggerated and silly.

Religion was another one of those archetypically stereotyped fixtures of my community in the Fifties.  In addition to being a yid, wop, mick, or polack, you were either a Catholic, Protestant, or Jew.   Those two characteristics were enough for anyone.  What your father did for a living usually followed logically from them – not exactly, of course.  Not all Italians were barbers or crushed rocks for a living.

I grew up a Catholic, hated Mass and all the trappings of the religion, was forced to suffer through an hour of a Latin service in a hot, airless church, smelling of Saturday night’s liquored bad breath and lilac perfume, and to listen to the whack and thud of browbeating about sin, Purgatory, and particularly damnation.   It was not until I was eleven or twelve did I realize that Protestants did not go on like this.  They talked of social justice, equality, and world peace. They were Episcopalians and not holy roller Baptists, but to me they were streamlined, airy, and sensible.  Just going into a Protestant church, free from the baroque statues and bleeding Christ on the cross, holy water fonts, and celestial angels, was liberating.

From what I could tell from the bar mitzvahs I attended, the Jews were not much different from Catholics, except a lot more foreign language.  Their altar, rituals, comings and goings of the rabbis, were familiar – a lot of rigmarole and secret doings – so I had little interest in the temple.

My two closest friends were a Jew and a Protestant, and we called ourselves The Three Musketeers.  We were too young to talk about religion except to comment on how many presents Bruce got for his bar mitzvah or the piles of toys we got for Christmas.  Bruce’s family kept a kosher house and had a fat Irishwoman as their housekeeper who kept the dairy plates away from the meat dishes.   I was the only one who was interested in religion, or better, churches and rituals, because of my incarceration every Sunday, bullied by sadistic priests.  Bruce seemed happy enough as a Jew.  I got the impression that for him being a Jew was like our seeing him as a Jew – just part of the moral and social order of things.  Herbie, the Protestant, maybe went to church on Sundays, maybe not, depending.  His father wanted a decent show, because these were the days of Rotary and belonging and churchgoing was a must, at least occasionally; but golf beckoned and the 19th hole poker games afterwards.

It is strange but satisfying to think back on those days.  We all, except the WASPs of the West End, struggled through our stereotypes; but enjoyed the freewheeling ethnic free-for-all of the times.  Political correctness was as remote from my New England city as Bujumbura.  Ethnic identity – and the Borscht Belt comedy of our streets based on it – was far from offensive or debilitating.  My daughter had absolutely no idea what I was talking about when I asked how many Italians there were in her class.  Hispanics, blacks she knew; but Italians….?  Color and ethnic background don’t  matter any more, or at least aren’t supposed to.  We are all equal.  We all come equipped with Twenty-First Century glasses which see only the unique individuals before us.  I suppose this is a good thing, but it is way, way less fun.

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