Elizabeth is an unattractive city in the armpit of northern New Jersey. Some important neighboring cities are Newark, with which it shares a seaport; Linden, with which it shares a refinery; Bayonne, with which it shares a bridge; and Staten Island, with which it shares an inferiority complex and an existential despair.
In the 1960s the seaport was dimly lit, dangerous, pocked with pubs and public housing. It was bordered by a netherworld known as “The Berg” which was intimidating even for the tough Italians and blacks from the Port. The Berg was the stronghold of tough, nasty immigrants who liked to provoke fights. The paisanos of the port like Chick, Sal, and Joe would become my friends; however, we all avoided the people from The Berg.
Downtown was small. It offered a Woolworth’s that sold very good pizza, and a rival Grant’s Department Store. There were carts that sold sausage and pepper sandwiches, gyros, kosher franks, and Italian ices in the summer. Vogel’s Record Store was a highlight. I remember dozens of busses that used to run along Broad Street headed to ugly cities with exotic names: Perth Amboy, Dunellen, Rahway, Bloomfield, The Oranges. The 11, 12, and 49 all went to different areas of Newark.
One of Elizabeth’s idiosyncrasies was that at the time it had two public high schools — one for each gender. The boys went to Thomas Jefferson; the girls attended Batten. There was a mixed trade school, Edison High.
Life at Thomas Jefferson could be scary. There were fights in the hallways, in the playground, and on the stairways. When a fight started, someone always shouted very rhythmically, “Jump that muthafukka.” I never ascertained whether or not it was the same person every time.
There were occasional spontaneous rebellions, which were at once frightening and exhilarating. Someone would begin chanting, “Hey, hey, hey, hey…” and in moments there were more than a hundred voices. When this occurred in the cafeteria, auditorium, or the hallways, no teacher or group of teachers could control the situation. It took the rasping authority of the voice of Principal Abner West to silence us, or the Mario Cuomo-like voice of the football coach, Mr. Ciccarrelli, aka “Little Cesar.” They would simply say, “That will be enough, gentlemen,” and the rebellion would end.
When I entered my first year at Jeff, the two groups of people I was most afraid of were blacks and Italians. However, very soon most of my friends were from these two groups.
The blacks were more mature, more intelligent, funnier, and more playful than I had imagined. In my provincial mind, I had thought of them as cunning, sullen and violent. They were amused at white folks’ fears of them. I remember sitting in the gym one day between two of the black guys who would become basketball buddies and friends, Stu and Reggie. Stu was behind me, Reggie in front.
Stu (to me), “Now why do you want to call that boy a nigger?”
Reggie (turning around with appropriate ferocity), “What!!?!”
Before I soiled myself, both broke into hysterical laughter.
Light skinned honor student Ronnie Brown was my lab partner and his brains got me through chemistry. Willis Baily, amateur fighter, Muslim, aesthete, intellectual, philosopher, and fan of John Coltrane, became my friend and spiritual advisor.
The Italians were equally wonderful. We drove to football games together, ate at each other’s houses, and exchanged tasteless ethic slurs. Chick and Joe asked the Jews in the locker room during gym class whether we were afraid to take showers because gas might come out instead of water. We made comments about The Holy Trinity and joked about flies being the national bird of Italy.
Mr. Gralla was our homeroom teacher and our homeroom was his physics class and lab. Behind his back, we called him Mr. Gorilla. He walked slightly bent over and looked like a gorilla.
Willis Bailey and I would split The New York Times and read it during homeroom period. Even today, Willis’s insightful comments about events seem germane.
At that time, the early 1960s, the school day began with a different student each day reading a bible passage of his own choice. The most popular choices were Psalms 1, 23, and 100. This ritual was followed by the class recitation of the Lord’s Prayer. Then came The Pledge of Allegiance and the singing of Francis Scott Key’s abominable “The Star Spangled Banner.”
A small group of us, led by the diabolical and charismatic Mr. Bailey, decided to rebel against this routine.
Seating was in rows and in alphabetical order: Bailey, Bedrock, and Goodwin. When it was Willis’s turn to read the bible, he informed Mr. Gralla, “I ain’t reading the bible.”
“What do you mean you’re not reading the bible, Willis?”
“I mean I ain’t reading the damn bible.”
Mr. Gralla looked at Willis Bailey. Gralla was a big man himself, an ex-football player at Saint Patrick’s and Holy Cross. Willis was younger, about six feet, two inches tall and close to 200 pounds. Willis had the look and credentials of an amateur boxer.
“All right, Willis. We’ll talk about this later. Louie, read the bible.”
I hated the name “Louie” and repeatedly requested that teachers and friends call me “Louis,” a request that Gralla routinely forgot or ignored.
“I ain’t reading the bible either,” I said, trying my best to recreate the menace of Willis, although I measured about five feet six inches and weighed about 140 pounds.
Gralla turned red. Then, purple. He growled at me through his gritted teeth: “Louie, I said to read the bible!”
“No. I don’t believe in God or Jesus, and I’m not reading the bible or saying The Lord’s Prayer, or pledging allegiance.”
“All right, Louie, we’ll talk after class. Edwin, read the bible.”
Edwin, smaller and more timid than me, although a member of our cabal, read The Twenty-Third Psalm.
Homeroom ended at nine o’clock and as the rest of the class got up to go to their first classes of the morning, Gralla said, “Louie, please remain in the room. I’d like to talk to you.”
When everyone had gone, he grabbed me by the collar of my shirt and threw me into the adjacent storage room. He smacked me in the face with a solid backhand blow and slammed me against the wall. His face was purple and contorted.
“What the fuck is wrong with you, you little commie bastard? Do your parents know what you are?
(Another smack in the head, this time forehand),
“Are you fucking crazy?”
After a few moments of silence, “Go on and get the hell out of here. You make me sick.”
If I had ever laid a hand upon a student during my days as a teacher in P.S. 30 in the southeast Bronx, or spoken to her as Gralla had spoken to me, I would have been brought up on charges, fired, and jailed.
But this was 1961. My parents were lower class working people who believed that any problems I had with my teachers were consequences of my own behavior. I never mentioned this to them or to anyone else.
Except to Willis Bailey, who expressed his wish that Gralla had spoken to him in that manner or had laid a hand upon him.
My lingering memory is of Gralla’s face contorted with rage and hatred. I was an infidel and if he could have done so with impunity, he would have killed me.
The Golden Rule of Christianity is not “Do unto others as you would have them do unto to you.” (See Matthew 6:31 and 7:12), but rather “But as for these enemies of mine, who did not want me to reign over them, ... who would not have me reign over them, bring them hither, and kill them before me.” (Luke 19:27).
And the Jews’ Jehovah and the Muslims’ Allah are no more tolerant. Both deities, or their ventriloquists, have their own grisly solutions for eliminating non-true believers.
Muslims divide the world into Muslims and Infidels. Jews see the division as between Jews and Goyim.
Denis Diderot, one of the voices of The Enlightenment once proclaimed, “Men will never be free until the last king is strangled with the entrails of the last priest.” I would caution that we not forget the last rabbi or imam.
High school provided many epiphanies. I had grown up in a homogeneous ethnic neighborhood and learned to fear other ethnic groups. In high school I took the final steps out of this insularity. Through meeting people like Willis Bailey, Ronnie Brown, and Steve Shepherd, vestiges of racism instilled in me by family, neighbors, and friends were eliminated.
Willis was a special source of enlightenment, not only because of his own brilliance, but because he introduced me to Malcolm X, John Coltrane, Miles Davis, and Yusef Lateef among many other important black artists and intellectuals.
My rejection of religion had begun when I was in sixth grade. In high school, I stepped out of the closet and expressed and defended my feeling that gods were imaginary and religion nonsense.
Standing up to a bully like Gralla strengthened my metaphorical backbone. For the rest of the year we spoke to each other as little as possible. I never read from the bible again, nor intoned the Lord’s Prayer. I stood during the Pledge of Allegiance and the Star Spangled Banner, but refused to utter the words or lyrics. I no longer go to sporting events, because I abhor the ritual of standing for and saluting pieces of colored cloth.
My heroes are people like Willis, Malcolm, Che Guevara, and Fidel Castro, Carl Sagan, and Neil de Grasse Tyson who have discovered that the moral of James Thurber’s fable, “The Owl In the Attic”, makes a lot of sense: “You can fool most of the people most of the time.”