A Jewish Friend
Stirring a melting chunk of butter in the mashed potatoes, putting the wooden spoon in the sink, Marsha went to stand at her husband’s side as he opened the door.
As her husband opened the door, her eyes…
“Ruby, hi!” Shaking hands, “Come on in.”
“Mitch,” looking from Mitchell to Marsha, “this is Sherry.”
“Hi, Sherry.” Shaking her hand, “I’m glad to meet you.” Standing aside. “This is Marsha.”
“Uh…” Her eyes widening, her mouth opening, swallowing nervously, Marsha glanced at Mitchell, then, attempting to regain some semblance of composure, Marsha held her hand forward to the tall and—by any standard—beautiful Negro girl standing alongside her husband’s new ‘Jewish’ friend, Rubidoux Meyers, whom she recognized as not exactly white, but also, as not exactly ‘colored’ either, “…Hi!”
“Marcie,” closing the door, “this is Ruby and Sherry.”
Returning the handshake, “Hello, Marsha,” Sherry said in a soft, but nervous tone of voice. “It’s nice of you to invite us here.”
Seeing the look on her face, smiling, “Hi, Marsha,” Ruby said. “You’re just as pretty as Mitch here said you were.” Then, “for desert,” handing her a pink, cardboard box containing a bakery made chocolate cake. “He didn’t tell you,” nodding his head in Mitchell’s direction, “about me—us—did he?”
“Oh, sure!” Smiling back, Marsha punched Mitchell, not too softly, on the shoulder. “He told me you were from Baltimore and that you were a, uh…” trying to think of his exact words, “…you were an interesting Jewish guy about his age.”
“Well, that’s all true . I am Jewish. I am about his age, and just by looking at me you do know that, if nothing else, I certainly do look interesting.”
Warming to the couple, smiling, looking from Ruby to Sherry, “Come on, sit down,” Marsha said, leading them to the sofa. “Welcome to our little, and I do mean little, home.”
Looking about the one-room apartment, “It may be small, but it’s beautiful.” Sherry said sincerely. “Did you do the decorating?”
“No. Believe it or not,” jerking her thumb over her shoulder, in the direction of Mitchell, “Ding-Dong did it.”
Dinner over, on either end of the sofa, their shoes off, Sherry and Marsha each sat with one leg folded beneath the other. Their shoes off, too, sitting on the floor, Ruby and Mitchell had their backs against the sofa. Her hand on his head, Sherry’s fingers were entwined in Ruby’s longer-than-regulation, near-platinum colored hair. Her left hand over his shoulder, Mitchell and Marsha held hands. All four held cordial glasses of liqueur.
“It’s really unbelievable! Even now, in 1956! Even in the north! And it drives papa crazy!”
“I never thought about it before, Ruby. But is it really the same? From white people and, uh…”
“Mitchell, blood is blood! It doesn’t matter if it’s from a white person or a shvartzer! B-positive is B-positive! And lately, according to papa, hospitals are all short of it and, mostly, the only blood they have in good supply for transfusions comes from shvartzers. It happens all the time in papa’s hospital: They’ll bring a bleeding accident victim in and he or she won’t have an address or phone number on them, or the hospital can’t reach anyone in time to get permission and the person could have been saved! But they won’t use the blood of a shvartzer on a white person without… not just permission, but written permission—even if that person’s dying. And it drives my father absolutely crazy!”
The infusion and mixing of Caucasian with Negro blood a concept neither had thought of and actually did not know what to think of, so, not sure how to respond to Ruby’s impassioned discourse, Marsha and Mitchell sat quietly for a prolonged moment. Then, glad to change the subject, noting his glass was near empty, “Hey, pal,” pulling the cork on the bottle of liqueur, refilling Ruby’s glass, looking about, Mitchell added a bit to Marsha’s, Sherry’s and his own glass.
Living only in white neighborhoods, Marsha, as Mitchell, had never harbored prejudices. But unlike her husband, Marsha had not experienced living on the west side of Chicago when the change from Caucasian to Negro had occurred. Also, she had never met a “Junior Johnson” and his friends and hadn’t the opportunity to realize, as Mitchell, had that, They’re kids, just like us, only with brown skin. Also, Marsha hadn’t the experience of three years in the military to meet and learn that some Negros, like some white people, you liked and others you didn’t. Never having Negros in her home before, or for that matter never being in anyone elses home with a Negro, unless a maid; afraid of offending her company, earlier in the evening Marsha had carefully weighed each word she’d spoken. But now, unused to alcohol of any type, working on her second cordial glass of 100-proof liqueur, listening to Ruby, having become relaxed with her two guests, “Ruby,” she asked, “how come you use the word ‘shvartzer’ instead of ‘colored’ or ‘Negro’?”
Wondering the same thing, he’d chosen not to ask because, familiar with the Yiddish word ‘shvartzer’, Mitchell found it an easier word to use.
Draining the liqueur, motioning with his glass, “Thanks, Mitch.” It was re-filled.
“Marcie,” looking at her, “I hate the word ‘nigger’, and ‘nigger’ is a derivative of Negro. And the word ‘colored’ sounds to me like they’re talking down to me—like colored is the word they use when they don’t want to admit that there are two other races in the world besides the white race and yet they don’t want to be so crass as to use the word ‘nigger’. Besides,” smiling broadly, “just what color is colored?… So I guess that leaves only one word and that word, for me, says it so perfectly: ‘Shvartz’ is German for black. ‘shvartzer’ is a person that is black. And even thought I’m really,” smiling again, “really white,” lifting his hand, rotating his wrist, “I am really black.”
“That makes sense.” Adding softly, “I guess,” Marsha said.
“Yeah, Marcie, I think it does. So until someone comes up with something better to call us like, uh, Americans with ancestors originally from Africa or something like that, then I’m going to call myself a ‘shvartzer’ ” Turning, getting onto his knees, kissing Sherry on the mouth, “Okay, my love?”
Responding, draping both arms over his shoulders, “Sure, Rube. Whatever you call yourself is okay with me.” Kissing his forehead, “So long as you always call me ‘your love’.”
“Hey!” standing, Marsha asked, “who’s ready for coffee and some of that great looking chocolate cake?”
“Me! Me! Me!”
“Yeah, Mitchie,” going to the kitchen, “somehow I knew you’d be wanting cake!” Marsha began to put cups and saucers onto the table.
Following, “I’ll give you a hand,” Sherry said, pouring coffee from the electric percolator.
“Having you here tonight,” looking at Sherry, “reminded me of something I haven’t thought of in years; something that happened when I was, oh… ten or eleven.” Taking a sip of coffee, Marsha put the cup down. “My parents and aunts have summer cottages in Michigan. One summer my cousin, myself and two of our friends went to summer school in Benton Harbor, which is about twelve miles away, and we were picked up and brought back by a school bus. One day two other friends, kids from school, twins, a brother and sister that lived, oh, just on the other side of the highway came home with us… My mother and father stayed in Chicago during the week and came to the country on weekends. So it was only my older brother and me in our cottage, and because I knew he’d be at the beach and we’d have the cottage to ourselves, that day after school we had a party there with—here it’s soda, but in the midwest it’s called pop—so we had a party there with pop and cookies and potato chips.” Taking another sip of coffee, now looking at Ruby. “We were playing a game someone thought up. We put all kinds of clothing in a pillowcase and the kid that was ‘it’ would take something from the pillowcase, put it on over their clothes and act out some kind of a charade. It was very funny and we were having a really good time and I guess we were making a whole lot of noise because…”
Stopping, thinking a moment, “You know,” Marsha said, more to herself than to those at the table, “one of my favorite people always used to be my Aunt Ida. I could never remember why, not until now, why she stopped being my favorite aunt. Anyway,” bringing her focus back to the three at the table, “I guess we were making a lot of noise and Aunt Ida came in…” Stopping again, “You know what, Mitch? I think she was drunk! The thought never occurred to me before, but thinking about it now, I’m sure of it! At the time it didn’t make any sense to me, or to the other kids there that knew her, but when you’re a kid lots of things adults do don’t make sense. Anyway, Aunt Ida came into the cottage screaming, and when she saw the twins she absolutely had a fit and started yelling at me: ‘What are ‘they ‘ doing here? Why are ‘they’ here? Get ‘them’ out of here!’ I’ve never been so embarrassed in my life! Never!”
“Let me guess: the twins were shvartzers.”
Looking at Ruby, “Yes,” Marsha said, “they were. The next day on the bus the four of us tried talking to the twins but they ignored us. We kept trying to make up but they wouldn’t talk to us no matter what we said and pretty soon we got mad at them for not understanding that it wasn’t our fault and by the end of that day we stopped trying altogether.” Stopping, looking down at her lap, “And that was the very last time I ever tried being friendly with…”
Lifting her head, “Yes.” Looking directly into Ruby’s green eyes, reaching across the table, Marsha took hold of his and Sherry’s hands. “I’m sorry about that, and I’m glad to know both of you and am truly happy to have you here.”
Squeezing her hand, “Marsha, you’re a ‘mensch’ and we’re glad to know you, too…”
“Sherry,” Ruby said, “mensch means a person of good feelings. A mensch is someone who does, or tries to do the right thing.”
Said in the darkness, “You know, you really should have told me!”
But he hadn’t. He’d wanted to see Marsha’s reaction to Ruby and now he had, because, “Come on!”
In a lilting tone of voice, “Nope!”
“You had a good time, didn’t you?”
Pleadingly, “Come on!”
Good naturedly, “Nope.”
Questioningly, “You liked them, didn’t you?”
Moving to her side of the bed, nuzzling her breast, “So…?”
Turning onto her stomach, becoming un-nuzzled, though she really did want to, “I don’t want to!”