My Summer as a Young Black Man

If you want a really good voice coach, hire a blind person. They hear everything. They connect words, intonation, and pauses in ways those with sight cannot. They have a vision of the world that isn’t corrupted by visual preconceptions.

The summer before my senior year of college, I came down to New York to live with my girlfriend and her family in the Bronx. They lived on the 17th floor of a towering building near the southern edge of Van Cortlandt Park. I had never lived in New York City. I had only visited as a tourist, and that hadn’t included spending time in the Bronx.

I needed to find a job. A friend of my girlfriend got me a job working at Barnes and Noble on the Upper West Side. I worked a desk in the bargain book section and my boss was a tall, skinny African man named Elijah. He would come by and chastise me for reading the books. I hated it and after a few weeks, I quit because someone gave us tickets to see Bruce Springsteen at Madison Square Garden.

I needed to find another job. My girlfriend’s mother worked at a social services agency that did work all over the Bronx and they needed some office help preparing for an annual audit. So, I began to work at an office in the South Bronx. For the first time in my life, I found myself in the minority. In the morning, I would be one of only a few white people waiting for the 4 train, and I was always the only white person to get off at 167th Street. At lunch, I bought sandwiches from a bodega that also sold loosies and ran a numbers game out of the back of the store.

I quickly finished the office work for the audit and they started to look for other things for me to do. One of my assignments was to make weekly home visits to an old Jewish man that lived off the Grand Concourse. His name was Mr. Marcus and though he was legally blind, he could see high contrast and thus, was able to read and write with the use of an LED typewriter and a microfiche reader.

He had lived in his family’s apartment — a sprawling art deco space — his entire life. When he was a boy, the Grand Course lived up to its name with brilliant architecture, massive stores, and opulent movie houses — all built by wealthy Jews that were refused space on Fifth Avenue in Manhattan. Over the years, to his unseeing eyes, the neighborhood around Mr. Marcus had deteriorated and became a very different kind of ghetto. The movie houses and department stores had all closed, replaced by bodegas, check cashing places, pharmacies, and fast food joints.

Mr. Marcus was the last of his family and his apartment was filled to the brim with books and ancient furniture. Upon our first visit, he set the ground rules. We would take walks in the neighborhood. He would choose where we would go and how we would get there. When we walked together, I was not to hold his arm. If it was raining, we would stay in the apartment and I would read to him.

And so it began. I never held his arm and he always knew where he was going. We’d arrive on a corner and he’d announce if we were turning left or right. Thankfully, he had the entire Bronx mapped out in his head as I never had any idea where we were going. We visited Edgar Allen Poe’s house, walked Arthur Avenue, sat in various parks, and roamed college campuses. He marched along — a man on a mission — and I’d be sweating in the summer heat, just trying to keep up. And we’d talk.

He wanted to know everything he could about me. Where did I grow up? What was that like? What was I studying in school? What plays had I performed in? What was I going to write for my thesis? We’d talk about the screenplay I was trying to write. We talked about acting. We talked about what it was like to grow up in Maine. We talked about Shakespeare. Our conversations were always of an intellectual bent and a sharp contrast to the scenes we passed on the streets of the Bronx.

One day when I arrived, it was raining heavily. He told me he wanted me to read to him from Hamlet. He directed me to a room in the apartment I had never seen and he sat across from me and told me which scenes he wanted to hear. He was and still is, the most critical audience I’ve ever encountered. He would listen and then tell me to stop. He would give me direction, and then have me go back and re-read. My Ophelia was flat. My Hamlet was not registering the proper levels of reflection. My Laertes was too friendly. Was I an actor or not? I didn’t mind. It was some of the best direction I’ve ever received.

As the end of the summer drew near and I was to return to college for my senior year, I had my last visit with Mr. Marcus. Per usual, he had our afternoon planned. We would walk to Lehman College. They had a series of statues that he wanted me to see. As we wandered the campus, he was in a very reflective mood and for the first time, he began to talk about the changes that had happened in his neighborhood. This led to the topic of race and then he asked me a question that I will never forget. He asked me, “What do you like to be called?”

At first I had no idea what he meant, and then it dawned on me — he thought I was black. Without thinking, I blurted out, “Mr. Marcus, I’m white.”

“What?” he said, grabbing my hand and pulling it in front of his eyes. After a moment, he dropped my hand and said, “I’m so embarrassed. Please don’t tell anyone about this.”

He was ashamed. I think he had spent the entire summer romanticizing that he, an old Jewish man, had forged a friendship, based almost entirely on intellectual discourse, with me, a young black man.

I was so sorry to have disappointed him.

After I returned to school, he and I kept in contact through the occasional letter, but over time, like so many summer flings, we lost touch.

 
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