ELYSIAN FIELDS LOST
It was during my two-year reign as a downtown hotel concierge that I had the pleasure of befriending one of the shortest men whom I had ever met up to that point in my life. His name was, indeed, Zachary Taylor, and everybody just called him "Zach" for short. He was an African-American man who barely stood even 4'5" high, and who had aspirations in life which were no loftier. Along with meeting Zach, I believe I also had the joint pleasure of making the acquaintance of the second shortest, normally healthy grown man in the world whom I had ever encountered (second to Zach), a long-time friend of Zachary's, Remus Tanner. Of the two, Tanner was the smart one - and not just because he was the older one. (Everyone called him by his last name because he hated his first name!) He had an associate's degree in accounting, yet preferred the money that he was making earning tips as a bellman with Zach. Every now and then, I would try to convince Tanner that he needed to go out and market his accounting skills so that he could earn what a man of his intelligence was worth, and not have to rely on such a menial job for his livelihood. But he would always insist that he liked what he was doing and that the money was well worth it. It would be some time later before I would finally realize that Tanner could never be able to enter the professional levels of employment in the business world - not with an associate's degree from an obscure Southern junior college, and certainly not as a black man in New Orleans. I was naive about all that, and very embarrassed later when I became aware of how things really work. Oh, well - I'm sure ol' Tanner forgave me for being so insultingly stupid to him. Zach, on the other hand, would never have noticed such insolence, so I've never worried about anything I ever said or did to him. This, not only because he was a bit dull in wit, but because he had such a mean sense of humor about things - all things. He was probably also one of the least sensitive persons whom I've met before. The only thing or person he ever truly cared for was his wife, Janice, who worked in the hotel's housekeeping department. She was a diabetic and, for years, had neglected to properly take her insulin. This came to a halt in the spring of 1990 when she had to be hospitalized for it. She pulled through it okay, but it had such a powerful affect on Zach that he brought himself to quit a 30-year smoking habit! This brought waves of enthusiastic applause from the entire hotel staff, especially the general manager who then decided that everyone in the hotel's upper echelon of leadership who smoked (which was all of them) should also be able to quit the disgusting and inhospitable-looking habit if such a lowly creature as that black bellman could. Thank God I had given up cigarettes two years beforehand! The general manager, assistant manager, front office manager, executive housekeeper, the food and beverage manager, and a host of the hotel's sales staff had been reduced to angry, jittery zombies for about a half-year afterwards (it seemed as if I and Zach were the only two who had any control of our faculties during most of that time)!
So, I said Zach had a mean sense of humor. I suppose that is how one survives in life after one has had to exist solely by trial and error, and what little common sense one may possess. Zach once told me that his first memories of school were those of when a teacher showed him how to wipe his bottom and clean up after using the toilet - his mother never taught him at home, probably because she was so busy with the seven other brothers and sisters that Zach told me he had. Another pitiful example of how neglected he was as a young child was that he didn't know the words for colors - like blue and green - before he came to school where he was taught them. But he would recount to me favorite stories about things he was shown. He knew the word nigger before he started school, not because white people were always calling him that (he said he never saw a real live white person before he started school at age eight, leaving his family's housing project on a regular basis to do it), but because that's what his friends, siblings and adult relatives at times called one another for one reason or another, good or bad. I'm sure practically everyone in America is familiar with the practice of casually using this slur among sections the nation's African-American minorities. It is a repulsive and antiquated reference which should not be regarded as anything but distastefully inappropriate for anyone to make. It is not funny. It is demeaning and shameful. It reflects only the poor character of the one who chooses to use it. An African-American Judas is what this intra-racial use of the word nigger should well be known as. But I never heard Zach use that word - that was one of a few saving graces he still had as an adult.
Concerning some of the really mean things that he had done before, he told me of an instance that occurred when he was a child. It was about a certain visit that he made to a friend's house. He told me that he felt special at that time because he had a friend who lived in an actual house, and not in a project apartment like everyone else he knew then. It was unusual for a child whose family lived even partly independent from public assistance to mingle with the child of a family who was primarily dependent on public assistance - a solid caste system existed then and exists yet today between the various echelons of black society in New Orleans and, I'm sure, in the rest of the country. This system seems to exist because the blacks who emerge from the socio-economic underclass are trying to shelter themselves from getting pulled back down into it. Once they have graduated a rung on the socio-economic ladder of American life, they do not want to be associated any longer with the class or classes below them. Even though a family may live in a house right across from a housing project, the children of that family are heavily discouraged from playing or associating with children on the other side of the street. Of course, this doesn't always happen, but it does enough to serve to cut the children in the project off from a lot of outside stimuli, and they wallow deeper and deeper in stagnation. And those who have obtained a fairly good standard of living, something that smacks of or actually is middle-class living, tend so often to ignore those who are left beneath them in desperate need of role-modeling and support. (New Orleans Ninth-Ward Creole blacks, those in the black community who have obtained a decent standard of living, are notorious for ignoring the African-American underclass struggling all around them - that is, until their families run for public office in New Orleans or at the state level. Then they make out as if they're just as much a part of the powerless, black minority-class in the city as the most impoverished, forgotten souls lost in the worst housing project. I suppose that this attitude is just another of many African-American Judases.)
Anyway, at his friend's house, Zach joined in on doing worse things to a cat, which belonged to his friend's mother, than was ever described by Mark Twain in The Adventures of Tom Sawyer! The cat was fairly old and fat and very mean to Zach's friend because he used to tease her all the time. So it was the boy's intention to exact revenge on the poor creature. Outside the house, out in the back, there was a large heap of old corn cobs which had been compiled from several years of harvesting corn out of the family's small garden. Zach told me, with tears of laughter, how his friend went out and then came back in with a rough old cob, and how he instructed Zach to hold the cat down, using his mother's oven mits to protect against the animal's furious clawing and biting. He told me:
I was left speechless by the cruel story. He told me the tortured animal finally dashed out of an open window to escape her misery, and was never seen again until Zachary came across her body laying dead in a street a long while after. His friend's mother sorely missed her pet, and evicted her son from the premises forever after she found out what he had done.
Zachary's name seemed to be a constant source of aggravation for him. He recounted an incident that happened to him once as he was working as a clerk in a little neighborhood grocery store. He was busy unpacking boxes and shelving products when a white man - a tourist - came upon him at work and noticed his name tag. "You're a little too short to be the Zachary Taylor, ain'tcha?" he asked with a heckling snort. "A little too dark too, I'd say . . . ." With the last comment, Zach said he balled up his fist and landed it right between the man's eyes, laying the man out cold on the floor for at least a couple of minutes. Of course, Zach lost that job, but he said it was worth it.
There might have been a million reasons why he wound up with the name of Louisiana's only native-born contribution to the White House, but I'm pretty sure it was due to the overwhelming odds that his mother never realized how the pairing of the name "Zachary" with her last name equals that of the 12th U.S. President. (I say this because, forty or so years before that time, single black mothers who lived in the city's housing projects were not given the educational opportunities to study things like government and who all the U.S. presidents were - most of them were chained to sub-standard lives by illiteracy, and they wouldn't have been able to study such things had they even had opportunities to do so!) This was Zach's actual appellation. It is not just a creative addition to the other personages in this work, thrown in for zest or any other cause or convenience.
Zach had learned how to avoid frustrating situations with his name in the hotel by simply never wearing his name tag. I don't know how he got away with it in front of the different managers, but he did (so much for the better, I suppose). He had been there for what seemed to me to have been a staggeringly long time to have worked in such an undependable position in such an undependable industry - eight years altogether. He had two jobs, though; that one as a bellman and another as a delivery person for some downtown courier firm. "Ah tank Gowd dat ah got dis uhdduh jowb!" he would always tell me when the hotel management would go into one of its frequent and spontaneous fits of firing and laying people off. I was supposed to report any bellman who was not in proper uniform, but I never did, especially when it came to Zach. We just had too much fun together. For example, when he would come down from the upper floors after helping people with their bags, mumbling and complaining because somebody didn't tip him, we would tickle each other by seeing who could come up with the most vulgar references about them. Once, I made the mistake of teaching Zach how to thoroughly cuss somebody out in French if he got stiffed again, and he went around the whole day afterwards practicing the string of obscenities, accompanying them with very graphic body gestures (even around French tourists)! It was embarrassing.
Zach would always delight at my imitations of foreigners. He especially liked a little routine that I would do of my Chinese dry cleaner after I went to pick something up and it hadn't been done right or it wasn't ready as promised, and I was upset about it. We would love to make slant-eyes and talk "chop-chop." After I saw how it made him laugh the first time, I would do it more often to see just how far yet another African-American Judas would reveal himself. "Dem is some strange people dare!" he would say. "But'choo know who ah hates? Ah hates dem Iranian-lookin' mu'fuggez!" He really despised the food and beverage manager because he looked like a Mid-easterner (though he wasn't). There were sure reasons to despise him all right, but not just because he looked like the ayatollah's nephew. Something would hit me when I heard Zach start talking like that. One day, it knocked me in the head: Here was a minority member who had taken a beating all his life, primarily because of the way he looks, who used to tell me exactly how they used to move the signs that said "WHITE PATRONS ONLY" from one row of seats on a streetcar back to another (depending on whether there were enough seats up front at any given time for the whites who got on), who was being just as racist as all those white people who used to move all those black people back and even make them stand sometimes. Here was somebody who had been called all kinds of names because he was different from those who called him those names, calling others names for the same reason. Here was Judas in the flesh before me, betraying himself and others by selling out on what he had been struggling against for so long. Perhaps it was fitting that he was forced to go through life with the name of one who had gone down as being somewhat hypocritical in history, the president who attempted to prevent the spread of slavery throughout any newly acquired areas in the Southern part of the U.S., yet who died owning quite a few African-American men and women himself.
But that was rather en vogue around President Taylor's time, so I suppose that it's best that I not label him a hypocrite. However (somewhat off track now), what can be labeled so is the fact that free men of color owned slaves as well, way back before Taylor was ever even in office. This disturbing and mind boggling piece of information was brought to my attention by a black history professor in college who gave an assignment which covered, among other things, a book by T. H. Breen and Stephan Innes entitled, "Myne Owne Ground" - Race and Freedom on Virginia's Eastern Shore, 1640-1676 (Oxford University Press, 1980). The book is largely expository, being based on the compilations of old court records, land deeds and other such documents of the time. But it tells a story - the story of free blacks who owned and farmed land in Virginia's Northampton County with the aid of slave-labor. Some of them even had white indentured servants! It is eye-opening reading, and I recommend it to anyone who would like to add a new dimension to what they think they may already know about the story of slavery in America.
And what do we know about slavery in America? In fact, it still exists, here and there, in different nuances, in different, more modern forms. Black Americans are still the ones being enslaved by both whites and, as in 17th-century, Northampton County, Virginia, blacks. Most of the country's collegiate athletic programs are evidence of the white enslavement of modern American blacks, for example. A black youngster will be lured away from reality by dreams of making it big as a pro-athlete someday, and American colleges and universities play on these dreams to take advantage of the youngster, and ruin his future by making him concentrate all of his energies on sports, instead of directing the "student's" energies in a more omni-beneficial manner, and having him tend tediously to the coursework of a college degree which could someday allow the youngster to serve the greater good of society in general.
Sure, enough attention is paid to the books to get the passing marks required to play the game and bring victory and glory (and lucrative commercial contracts) to the school, yet it happens most often that the youngster will leave the school setting as an untalented and uneducated adult with nowhere else to go in life except back to the dismal circumstances from which he or she emerged with all those false hopes of riches and fame in the first place. And what a pity that just enough of them do make it to the riches and fame, setting up examples which only serve to lure more and more naive boys and girls to their doom! So everybody loses, except for the college coordinators and faculty members who are able to make a little money off of their athletic chattel, and except for those few kids who do find themselves lucky enough to make that once-in-a-lifetime shot at getting a high-paying position in the very small world of professional sports. But I shouldn't have referred to this solely as a white end of modern African-American enslavement because so many blacks are involved in it, too! Black coaches and talent scouts play just as much of a role in it as white coaches and talent scouts, though there are fewer of them.
It would be negligent of me if I were to fail to mention the role of black leadership in yet another ugly form of African-American slavery - the modern American drug gang. Here, as with the college sports situation, we find the fuel for fires of high hope in black youngsters all over. Blacks who find lucrative windfalls with their illegal drug dealings in the impoverished, mostly black areas of the nation's inner cities are the cruelest backstabbers, and their role-modeling is the greatest form of betrayal to their fellow Americans.
Those of them who flaunt their expensive gold jewelry in front of pre-pubescent on-lookers might like to say that they are there because they were betrayed by the "system." As much as this may be true, it lends no validity whatsoever to their unsavory attitudes and habits, especially because of the high visibility that they create for themselves before those who know nothing about fairness or hope, the children who are really never afforded the chance to test the "system" because they get pirated off from the inspiration of trying to lead good and wholesome lives, and of trying to work in legitimate ways to help bring about change if, like so many, they find crippling flaws in the system.
How, then, will the "system" ever become the system that it was originally meant to be, if there are none with the intelligence and integrity to fix it in the wake of the majority-directed selfishness and narrow-mindedness that has come to lay a smoke-screen over its truly intended purposes? And then, if these children aren't simply lost in the onslaught of faulty judgments and suspicious rationalizations (as perceived by those who feel betrayed by the "system"), they're lost in the onslaught of bullets from drug-dealers' guns which serve as nothing less than vehicles of modern genocide. In this sad chapter of American history, we find something as embarrassing and as shameful as the de jury institution of slavery recorded in an earlier chapter of history. But this time, emancipation is not as simple a matter as declaring it and enforcing it with the lawful use of guns in righteous warfare. The answer is a hundred times less obvious and a thousand times more complicated. Its realization will only come after a great many have strenuously labored to discover it - and only after every form of slavery is brought to an end!
And though Zach was well over forty years old and cognizant of the biggest modern-day slave driver, dependency on drugs, he had somehow escaped getting hooked on anything - anything except cigarettes and booze, that is. As I said, Zach managed to quit smoking after his wife's health faltered, but his biggest vice remained, as he constantly ended his work-days by getting blind drunk at home. He enjoyed it, and he enjoyed talking about it. It was part of his life. And no wonder; in every part of town one can see billboards and other advertisements plastered all over bus stops and boarded-up windows which dictate a certain black-American lifestyle to the masses. The message is that blacks can only smile and be sexy when they smoke certain brands of menthol cigarettes, and booze it up with certain brands of beer and liquor. These signs are no less cruel than the sting of the driver's whip out in the ante-bellum cotton fields of the Old South. I can't imagine what billboards for legalized drugs would ever look like, except that one would certainly always see blacks in them! And, as in the cigarette and alcohol advertisements, one would always see three or four guys closing in on some smiling girl with strikingly Caucasoid features. That seems to be the standard recipe for African-American directed advertising (as if it's the only priority of all black men to chase crazily after shallow relationships with girls who don't look too black, and as if neither black men nor women ought to be too concerned with more self-fulfilling, scholarly or humanistic pursuits).
And there was Zach, happily married to a beautiful, faithful, loving black woman, yet he was full of stories of stealth infidelity with younger women, and who was drunk every night after work. He told me how his wife once found out about a potential extra-marital relationship that he was trying to establish, and how sorely his wife had neglected him for so long afterwards. She even balled up her fist and knocked him out for an hour or so the moment she got it out of him! For a period of some weeks thereafter, Zach found no meals lovingly prepared for him, nor was he blessed with clean laundry, or even conversation (as mean-spirited as that might have been)! Well, I guess they ironed things out between them because they were a happily married husband and wife when I knew them. I thought that going through something like that would surely have taught Zach a lesson, and that all the outside signals from all those unscrupulous billboards and other advertisements would no longer be able to influence him. But, his stories continued (for better or for worse).
That's not to say that unscrupulous, outside messages ever had any affect on Zach - he may have always been able to shut them out and ignore them. Who would ever really be able to say? I don't believe that Zach himself ever distinguished between those external sources of corruption, like minority-aimed advertising, and those internal sources which could be just as unscrupulous. I'm talking about plain old selfishness. Zach was like many of those who find themselves in his socio-economic circumstances - sick of the deprivation, and longing for some kind of relief from it. Some relief is easily found with blind acts of self-gratification; but the relief brought on by self-gratification is only temporary at best. Zach got drunk, then he would sober up. Then he would drink again, and on and on. It was really throwing him out of sync with reality. He told me things that he had done and that he had been through, because of the alcohol abuse, that were really hard for me to understand. For example, he got a real chuckle out of telling me how a long-lost son of his had come knocking on his door after a long search for him. He said he was so drunk at the time and so out of control of his faculties, that, after not being able to recognize the young man, he just shut the door in his face.
Then is when Zach told me about all the women he had slept with and fathered children by. I guess he was trying to brag, but I wasn't impressed. In fact, I was horrified to hear him more or less confirm a long-standing white stereotype about black Americans. After I asked him how he managed to support all his way-side children, he just laughed and looked at me like I was an idiot. "Ah don' support no chiwlren - dey all on AFDC!" he said, as if it were no sweat off anybody's back (especially his). "Dat's awl dey mamas' be wantin' anyway!" Now, I'm sure Zach didn't quite have the story straight, at least with every single one of those women he allegedly had his way with. I would be willing to bet a year's salary that at least one of them (if there were as many as he claimed) was hoping to gain a long lasting relationship and not merely welfare fodder from him.
Zach was so out of touch with everything except his own wants and needs, that, looking back on his bragging, it doesn't surprise me a bit that he couldn't see the social and moral implications of that kind of behavior. That's the problem with too many people now. It's not that everyone's like that, but enough people are to make life a real mess for a lot more people. And, though the reasons for it are unclear, it wouldn't hurt to take an eclectic approach towards the situation by crediting as many extrinsic or environmental influences to it as there may be intrinsic influences. I'm sure there are a lot of whites out there who behave as Zach did - abuse is not limited to any particular race or creed. Instead, I believe it is fermented within similar circumstances; those who are made desperate by poverty behave universally, be they black, white, Hispanic, or what have you.
But selfishness is not the worst result of the frustration which has been born of repression, especially in the case of Africans in America. When coupled with the African-American Judas, that hypocritically racist attitude some blacks have towards other races and themselves, the situation black Americans find themselves in worsens exponentially. A black man or woman may find going by the numbers in the system, that is, playing the government game to get work or public assistance, to be impossible sometimes. And it is hard - that's the nature of the system as it has been groomed to operate by the majority (but not necessarily just to keep blacks and other minorities from achieving anything - anybody who needs a helpful boost in life is suffocated into submission by all the red tape). If a black man or woman does not achieve the amount of success that Zach did with getting over on the system, he or she will give up, just like anybody would in that situation. He or she could be the one whom one comes across out in the streets doing nothing except trying to hustle a little change off of the next white person or well-dressed black or other minority person who passes by.
It seems as if some of those, in fact, must think that every white person they see is able to spare some money for them. If this is so, I would say that is just as racist as when some whites think all blacks are on welfare or have many children. When a white person can't afford to spare any change, those who do have this idea lodged in their tiny brains see just another white oppressor, not another poor person. This they interpret via the misuse of the word prejudice.
"Excooz me, mista'! You got fifty cent'?"
(He is ignored by the white passer-by.)
"Ah say, hey MISTA'! You got fifty cent' fo' me?"
(Still no response - not even a look.)
"Hey! HEY!!! Damn cold-hearted, prejoodis honky, huh!?"
I heard this from a black man as he was passed by a white man on the corner of Prytania and Jackson one summer day in 1989. Both men were young (in their thirties, I would say), and neither one was dressed to kill. I was heading up from my apartment to a market on the corner of Josephine and Prytania to get a newspaper, so I crossed over to the other side of Prytania to avoid the guy on the corner. He had me thinking about that all day. The more I thought about it, the less I could understand it. But thinking about it was my mistake. There was nothing to think about because, obviously, that guy hadn't thought about it at all. So what if the white guy didn't give him fifty cents, or whatever change he might have had in his pocket? So what if he didn't say anything as the black guy was verbally accosting him? That was no reason to think that he was prejudiced. Maybe he couldn't spare anything. Maybe he was scared or intimidated by such frightening, tacky behavior. I've seen black people do virtually the same thing as that white guy did while getting hit up for loose change. Would it mean that they were prejudiced if it was a white person asking? I think most would say "no."
A pity about that situation is that both men probably came out of it with wrong notions reinforced. I can't read minds, so I don't know what the white guy was thinking, but I bet he came away from there with a less-than-favorable impression about blacks or poor people or both (assuming that he was just another average Joe). I think it's safe to say that that kind of situation would leave a bad taste in anybody's mouth! And, being humans, we're going to look for someone or some group to pin the blame on for bad conduct. In that situation, who do you think would probably take the hit for that black man's behavior? Knowing the typical white New Orleanian, as I do, it would be blacks in general. Others elsewhere might attribute the man's uncouth behavior as being typical of just the sort of person who begs out in the streets, black, white or whatever. Still others might just have written him off as "your typical" low-class, inner-city dweller. Who knows? But the biggest pity of it all was that neither one probably knew what the other's situation really was, and that it ended up being just another of the countless ways by which Americans from different or, perhaps, even similar backgrounds get divided.