He Was White, I Was Black, and it Was Syracuse!

“In the life of each of us, I said to myself, there is a place remote and island, and given to endless regret or secret happiness.”

Sarah Orne Jewett

Here I was, trekking off to the barbershop for my biweekly haircut. It was a regular routine. Come hell or high water, I was to make my way to the barbershop every other Saturday. No excuses. I never understood why my dad was such a stickler for this process. Oh, there was another stipulation, high and tight. Which meant close to the scalp. That restriction bugged me, as big fluffy Afros were the style of the day. Not for me. Dad was not having any of that in his house. As an only child, there was no one I could share my frustration with.

Taking my usual path to the barbershop, an older man stared at me. He was mowing his lawn. Well, it was sort of a lawn, and there wasn’t much grass but enough that required attention. His look was haunting. Perhaps it was the length of time he was staring at me. I thought I was about to experience a rash of racial epitaphs, not something that had happened to me, but it was 1965, and this was Syracuse. But nothing of the sort occurred. I nodded my head in acknowledging him, and he did the same. Yet, I still had a strange feeling about this encounter.

I finally made it to my destination. Kennedy’s Barbershop. Before entering, I took a deep breath to ready myself for what was about to transpire. No, not the haircut, but the verbal haranguing I was about to undergo for the entire time I would be waiting, and the second I got in the chair and during the hair-cutting process. Every time I went, I had always hoped it would only be one of the brothers working with their mom. I might as well be wishing for unicorns and fairytales because there was never a time both brothers weren’t working with their mom. But one can always hope. As I entered, I was cursed, not with just Marcus, Benney, and their mother, but Doris, their older sister, was there too. The entire Kennedy clan. My worst nightmare. It was as if Loki, the Norse God of pranks, had it in for me that day. Damn.

I gave as good as I got while waiting for a chair to open. Once in the chair, I was at the mercy of whoever was cutting my hair. You don’t argue back – at least not successfully – with someone who has electric clippers for the simple reason you don’t want to hear them say oops while cutting your hair.

The verbal haranguing finally ended, and I was soon on my way, but, given it was Friday, I would only have Saturday to get over it as I would see them all again on Sunday. Our families went to the same church. Lucky me.

But what happened on my way home put me on a path that would change my life and provide me the confidence to finally tell the Kennedy kids to go fuck themselves without actually saying go fuck yourselves.

You see, there is something about being an only child. No, it’s not the misnomer that we are spoiled; it is growing up having to fend for oneself in numerous ways. There are no siblings you can confide in or talk with when you’re dealing with the process of growing up. No one you can talk to when you have a bad day in school. No one to bounce a line of argument or well-crafted insults and barbs you want to use with the likes of, oh, I don’t know, the Kennedy clan. But what happened to me that day on my walk home eliminated my need for that. My life was about to change.

Walking back home, I thought about what I should have said to Marcus, Benney, and Doris, but my thoughts were cut short when I saw the man mowing his lawn again. He was on the ground, trying to breathe. We made eye contact, and I was scared to death. This man, a human, whom I thought was going to hurl a slew of racial epithets at me, was on the sidewalk gasping for breath. Kneeling down, not knowing what to do, I recalled a film clip I saw in seventh grade on mouth-to-mouth resuscitation. At that moment, I heard a voice asking what had happened. There was another person next to me. I told him I had just found him lying on the ground. Explaining what I was about to do but wasn’t sure and asked if he knew how to do it. He looked at the Flem in the man’s mouth and said he wasn’t about to attempt anything. I felt a sudden flash of rage at this man. A dying human was lying on the sidewalk, and he refused to help because of Flem. I did what I could with the scant knowledge I had. By then, the Police and Fire department had arrived and taken over.

Standing alone, I saw the man I asked to help speaking with the Police officer and pointing at me. I immediately thought I was in trouble. After all, the man who died was white; I was Black, and it was Syracuse. The officer sensed I was nervous and scared. When he asked if I was the one who tried to help the man, I said yes. He said, ‘it was a brave thing you did. There wasn’t much more you could do. You can go home now.’

Walking home, I was in a daze, still trying to understand what had happened. As I slowly walked up the steps to our apartment, the door flew open before I could put the key in the lock. Dad wanted to know why I was so late, and I couldn’t contain my feelings. I broke down crying, and I told him what had transpired. I said I tried, but I couldn’t do anything. The look my dad gave was not his usual sternness. It was compassionate and understanding, not something he often showed.

Soon after the incident, the man’s grown children knocked on our door. My dad invited them in, and we spoke for a short time. They thanked me for what I tried to do. They told me if there was anything I would like from their father’s house, I was welcome to it, and I declined. When they left, my dad looked at me and said something about asking them for tools. I was bewildered by my dad’s comment, but they were white, we were Black, and it was Syracuse.

As life returned to normal, I again found myself walking to the barbershop. This time, I altered my route so I would not have to go past the house where the incident occurred. When I got to the shop, Marcus’s chair was open. He wasted no time with his harangue, but the Norse God of luck, Hamingja, was with me because in so many words I told him to go fuck himself without actually having to say the word. After all, we’re both Black, and it was Syracuse.