Swans Commentary » swans.com January 17, 2011  



The N-word


by Peter Byrne


A Personal Short Story



(Swans - January 17, 2011)   Nobody at home said "N-word." The expression and its mask of political correctness hadn't been pressed into use yet. My father said "nigger" off and on. It was how he talked with his work mates in Chicago just before the start of the Second World War. My mother wouldn't let her kids say that word. She said "colored." * We knew the word "negro" but found it bookish to use over the kitchen table. So I had my first lesson in the degrees of American racism.

Jean-Jacques Rousseau said children were born innocent and that society then made them wicked. That looks like wishful thinking to me, but it may be true in the case of racism. At ten years old, something like newborn innocence lingered in my head. I couldn't get it around my city's treatment of black people. The rules seemed so arbitrary.

A black man called Larry was the root of my perplexity. He would use the sidewalk in front of our house to reach the Cicero Avenue streetcar line. His walk intrigued me as he appeared hardly to touch the ground, staying high on the balls of his feet. But what intrigued me more was that he would always nod and say "Hi" to my father, and my father would do the same to him. This wasn't a normal human happening in our neighborhood.

Out on the mid-northwest side, our neighborhood was remote from the south side of the city where blacks were confined to a narrow "Black Belt" pressed up against Lake Michigan. On that near-south side the various fiefdoms of white ethnics each guarded their borders. They maintained a kind of armed truce among themselves, but were engaged in open war with the quarantined blacks. Vigilantes kept an eye on the streets. Restrictive housing covenants, city hall complicity, and brutal unwritten laws bottled up the black population in expensive and inadequate space. Whenever a black family tried to move over the apartheid line they were met with violence. Society continued my education. Knowledge of this ultimate degree of the Chicago plague floated out to my innocent self in a cloud of hearsay and urban myth.

Such cruelty was unknown on our northwest side for the simple reason that there were no blacks around. They might come north to the downtown area during the day and do menial jobs. But they would no more come near us than go to Canada. Our working- to lower-middle-class neighborhood didn't even rise to employing black maids. We were one generation out of the slummy central immigrant quarters and paid the price by being as uneventful as a steady drizzle. There was plenty of meat and potatoes, but nothing else on the menu. We were for sleeping, a cut-rate "dormitory zone," once again before the expression was coined. The mindset was suburban but there were none of the airy amenities or the theatrical socializing of a suburb. We were paleo-suburban, left in peace but glum. Not very far beyond us, the cemeteries started.

And Larry? What was he doing in our midst? My ten-year-old brain couldn't figure it out. I asked my father and he said,

"He lives here."

"But he can't. You told me any colored who come to the neighborhood have to be out by sunset."


"But Larry?"

"Larry lives here."

"But he's as black as the man with the wheelbarrow."

That was another curiosity for me. When we ordered coal for the basement furnace the company would dump it in the alley at the end of the back yard. They would also dump a black man with a wheelbarrow and a shovel. It was his job to shift the coal into our basement storage space. Since there were tons to be moved, the job would take all day. When finished, the man would hurry to the streetcar line. The dump truck, with a white driver, would come back at dark to pick up the wheelbarrow and shovel.

On the days the coal was delivered my father would come home from work early. He belonged to a strong union and had leeway. That another man was working in his house while he himself stood idle made him uneasy. It was a working-class thing. The surprised coal heaver got an iced beer and my father produced his own shovel and pitched in. Sweat and muscle overrode skin color for the afternoon.

Myself, I'd be nervous with the drama of the situation as twilight closed in. My father would shake his head.

"He'll be all right on the cars, traveling. It'll take him a couple of hours to get back to the south side."

But all this didn't make sense to me.

"And Larry?"

"Larry lives here."

"Yes, but he's black. Can he walk around after nightfall?"

"Larry? Sure."

"Okay. But say Larry's cousin comes to visit him from the south side. And, you know, maybe there's a blizzard like last winter and the Cicero Avenue streetcars stop running."

"He could take the Addison bus and transfer. It's only three cents more."

"But say that's stopped too. Can Larry's cousin stay with Larry for the night?"

"No. He has to get moving back to the south side. He could walk. To stay here stationary, I wouldn't recommend."

"But you said the wheelbarrow man would take two hours to get home on the streetcars! Larry's cousin would be walking all night in a blizzard."

"Winter's no time for visiting."

I was beginning to feel the superiority of my ten-year-old logic and tried a touch of irony.

"But Larry's stationary then, even when he's doing his funny walk past on the sidewalk?"

I could see it coming. My father sat back, pushed The Daily News away. He was going to give his personal myth an outing. Well, I always enjoyed that though I had come to note certain discrepancies from one account to the next.

"You know," he said, "my grandmother built this house back in 1903 when I was just two years old. She was a hang-in-there Prussian who had buried two husbands. Grossmutter wanted to get out of the old neighborhood and back to the country, chickens, rabbits, a cabbage patch."

"Yeah. You told me that. And this was all empty prairie."

I liked this part. He would tell me now about how he played baseball all day long in the empty fields. How when the workers came to lay out the streets they would grab his bat and knock out fly balls all afternoon for my father and his buddy to chase.

"Jumping over the ditches we'd catch anything they hit at us. We were pretty good, me and Larry."

"You and Larry?" This was a new angle. "Larry lived here then?"

"Sure. His house is swallowed up in the next block now. But in those days his father's place and ours were the only two lights at night as far as you could see."

"You mean Larry was kind of born here? Before, you know, the Black Belt, the 1919 race riot and all that?"

"Right, and he was a damn good left fielder who could always steal a base or two."

"So, because Larry was here before everyone else and before they made the rules, he could stay, be stationary?"

"That's it."

"But his cousin couldn't stay overnight?"


"Even if, say, he was a crackerjack pitcher?"

"Don't be dumb."

The next five years purged me of much of my dumbness. I rode the streetcars every day. It took me an hour to get to my Catholic high school set in an old immigrant quarter. I had shed my northwest-side provincialism. The new streets ran over with life and danger. Kids my age smoked, drank, and talked blasé about sex. Some afternoons we'd risk taking the streamlined Madison streetcars into the Loop to sit in the balcony of the Oriental Theater and watch a movie and a stage show. When the comedian made risqué allusions, we pretended to understand. Once we booed him and he said,

"You kids are alone too much."

That got laughs from the adults and we never booed him again. But the times were exhilarating. The war was on and the Americans who didn't get killed in it never had it so good. My father had been reduced to public charity in the Depression and the memory made a miser of him for a dozen years afterward. Now, with unlimited overtime, he became a small-time big spender. Kids had a choice of part-time jobs. I worked in the clubhouse of a golf course.

My boss was a jumped up redneck, though the word then was "hillbilly." He'd risen socially through his golfing skill and became the "pro" and manager of the course. Beer and age put a big belly on him that inhibited his swing. But the war saved him as it did the rest of us. A Sunday golfer who owned a war industry hired him to manage the catering in his factory.

I had to wait in the evening till my boss, the pro, would return to his home in the clubhouse from industrial Chicago. He'd smell of drink and tell lurid stories of the wartime cultural mix. "Filipinos now!" The need for workers had skewered the city's racial arrangements. Newly-arrived and employed blacks stretched the boundaries of the Black Belt. The tensions made my boss fear that a black uprising was in the offing. He continued my instruction in south-side racism as I hid his Schlitz empties from his wife. ("Schlitz, the Beer that Made Milwaukee Famous.")

He assured me that "the government" had a warehouse full of machine guns near his factory to put down the coming racial revolt. He'd heard from an insider that even the despised F.D.R. was scared. While I swept sawdust over the floor pitted by a thousand golf shoes, the boss huddled with his Philco Cathedral radio listening to Gabriel Heatter. ** Heatter was an exalted news commentator with a taste for schmaltzy big thoughts. He began every broadcast with the sign-on, "There's good news tonight." The boss would ruminate a moment after listening with a concentration that always awed me, and then pronounce his unchanging view of WWII: The Japs were another race and had to be squashed, but white men shouldn't be fighting one another.

I'd come a long way from Larry and his light-footed walk that hardly touched the sidewalks of our northwest side. That's what education did. My high school was quite near the overflowing Black Belt. But of a thousand students, only a half-dozen were black. The poor kids were "tokens" avant la lettre. The tough Irish priests in charge looked down on hillbillies, but they agreed with them in matters of race. ("White trash" was just making its way into the urban vocabulary. "Trailer trash" was still in the future.)

But the contradiction between the counsel from the pulpit to love our neighbor and the thuggery winked at in the streets was too much even for a brainwashed teenager. I broached the subject with my schoolmate Zack. He said the priests were right. They stood up for the neighborhood.

"What neighborhood? It's a school. Students come from all over."

"Huh!" said Zack. "It's like saints. The Church can do with a pair of Negroes with halos for show. But three's a crowd. You want to go to a jigaboo high school?"

The "Huh" meant I didn't live on the south side and therefore was some kind of simple-minded pussy. Actually Zack was undersized, wore glasses, and had the nickname of "Mousey." Most of his mental energy went into defensive strategies and stepping back from trouble. But in racial matters he'd bellow like Tarzan.

"You shanty Irish...," I said.

I knew what was coming. Zack was going to tell me about the woes of his Irish enclave. The Black Belt had started to wash over it. He would repeat that his father was born and lived sixty years in their house and that there used to be six solid blocks of Irish around them. The Italians were beyond and the Polish farther along. He'd cap it with the nec plus ultra of inner city wisdom: "Your Wop or Polack knows what he can't do in a Mick street. We know what we can't do on his block."

I confess that I got a kick out of hearing this atavistic tough talk delivered by slight, squeaky-voiced Mousey. I goaded him.

"So you no longer hear the Daley family playing horseshoes next door. The new neighbors are eating watermelon in the sunshine. What's the difference?"

"Difference?" he said. "You should have been at my house this morning. My dad gets up and looks out the front window. Then he's fiddling with his new double lock. As usual he goes to check the front porch. You hear him huffing and puffing out there. Then he comes in all red in the face and tells us what he's found. First of all the bottles. Two empty half-pints of Old Grandad and a quart that he thinks had been full of muscatel. What annoys him is that the bottles weren't just tossed on the porch. They were stood up on the top step in a row like a fresh delivery from the milk man."

I was laughing. Zack began to see the joke too. At the time I couldn't put into words what in a flash I understood. Mousey's Ku-Klux-Klan line of talk wasn't his at all. He was only repeating words that hung over his neighborhood since he was born like its everyday pollution.

"And wait," he said, "there's worse. Look at my shoes. They're size seven. And you know what my dad wears? Size six and he's always bragging about his aristocratic feet. Well, what does he find on the porch beside the door next to the rolled morning Trib? They're sitting there together as if waiting for him to come out and step into them -- a pair of stinking work shoes, huge, at least size fourteen."

That was too much. I roared with laughter till I had to hold my sides. Zack got the giggles and when he stood up his glasses slipped off and he just managed to catch them.

"So the neighborhood's gone to hell," I said between shrieks.

"Yeah," said Zack, with another puff of laughter.

We were fifteen and I don't know what Jean-Jacques would have thought of us. Maybe our innocence was still up for grabs.


*  Of course you didn't hear "Afro-American" or "black" then. "I'm a man of color," says John Edgar Wideman in his brilliant piece in The New York Times of October 7, 2010. But that's clumsy and too literary for everyday use. As for slurs of ethnic abuse, there is no better depository than James T. Farrell's Studs Lonigan Trilogy. Fortunately, Americans aren't much interested in Studs anymore. Otherwise they might try to cleanse him of historical truth, as they are doing to poor Huck Finn.  (back)

**  It was only many years later that I learnt Gabriel Heatter had got his start in 1931 arguing against Norman Thomas that a socialist party shouldn't be allowed in the U.S.A. William Randolph Hearst had then taken him under his wing.  (back)


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Swans -- ISSN: 1554-4915
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Published January 17, 2011