Breathe Out

     When the Klan rode in Louisiana 100 years ago, Huey Long would go to my great-grandfather’s store in Shreveport and buy a barrel of whiskey and a barrel of cigars. That weekend after the Klan rode they’d drink the whiskey and smoke the cigars.
     I know that’s true because my grandpa saw it. He told me. I don’t know if Huey rode with the Klan or if he just bought them booze and cigars.
     When Huey Long came into the Shreveport general store, he’d tell my great grandpa, “Hello, you kike bastard.”
     And my great grandpa would reply, “Hello, you Irish son of a bitch.”
     “You see, Robert,” my grandpa said, “Southerners speak two languages: English and obscene. When you see your friends you have to cuss them out or they’ll think you’re mad at them. It’s true.”
     I love the old stories.
     As a Jewish storekeeper, my great grandpa was a natural target for the Klan. They never got around to him, though. They had other targets.
     My grandfather moved to Chicago when he was 12. He went up to visit relatives one summer, on a steamboat or a train, and he thought the schools were better up North, so he stayed.
     Imagine a 12-year-old kid doing such a thing today.
     My grandpa must have returned to Shreveport summers. He was 4 years younger than Huey Long, and I don’t imagine Huey was buying whiskey for the Klan when he was 15.
     Though you never know.
     My grandfather kept a photo of Abraham Lincoln on his wall. We had one in our house, too. He was proud of the fact that in his first year of school in Chicago – it must have been 1909 – he was the only one in his class who knew the Gettysburg Address. He recited the whole thing and no one else knew a word of it.
     About 30 years ago, my grandpa moved to Tucson to die. In those days I lived on an Indian reservation outside of town. When I went to town to visit him, my grandpa always asked, “When are you going to marry an Indian, Robert?”
My grandpa thought that the United States of America would never get over its racial hangups “until everyone had married everyone else for so long you couldn’t tell who was which.”
     My grandpa was probably right. Still and all, we’ve come quite a ways.
     When I was 12 years old, Martin Luther King came to speak on the town green of the wealthy village where I lived, Winnetka, Illinois. I believe it was the richest town in the country then. Winnetka or Scarsdale. I was in the 7th grade.
     A friend and I went around the neighborhood handing out leaflets for Dr. King. I will always remember the lady in an enormous house on Tower Road who spit on me and cussed me out – and not because I was her friend.
     The Nazis showed up for Dr. King’s speech. There were about six of them and they wore their brown Nazi suits and swastika armbands. They were protesting something – I can’t imagine what. What does a Nazi have to protest about in America?
     The Winnetka police formed a line around the Nazis to protect them. I found that confusing. My mom told me the police were protecting the Nazis’ right to speak. I understood that, though I still found it odd to see police protecting the Nazis.
     Then all of a sudden the Nazis left. I found out later it was because the police chief told them he didn’t have enough officers to protect them for the whole speech, and he would have to send his officers somewhere else. So the Nazis decided they had protested enough for one day. They went back to whatever goddamn rock they lived under.
     Ten years after that I went to New York City to try to make it as a jazz musician. I didn’t make it. But I thought it was great that the worst thing you could say about the way a guy played was, “Well, that sounded white.”
     I always vote at the polls, not absentee. I like going to the polls, thinking that all over the country people are doing the same thing. I liked watching the jubilation around the country Tuesday night when the election was called for Barack Obama, a few seconds after 11 p.m., Eastern Standard Time.
     What I felt, above all, was relief – relief to see our country take a step, at last, toward becoming the place we’ve always said it was.

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