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Just As I Thought
By Grace Paley
Farrar, Straus and GirouxCopyright © 1998 Grace Paley
All rights reserved.
When I was about nine years old, I was a member of an organization called the Falcons. We were Socialist youths under twelve. We wore blue shirts and red kerchiefs. We met once a week (or was it once a month?). To the tune of "Maryland, My Maryland," we sang:
The workers' flag is deepest red
it shrouded oft our martyred dead.
With the Socialist ending, not the Communist one, we sang the "Internationale." We were warned that we would be tempted to sing the Communist ending, because at our occasional common demonstrations there were more of them singing. They would try, with their sneaky politics, to drown us out.
At our meetings we learned about real suffering, which was due to the Great Depression through which we were living that very year. Of course many of my friends already had this information. Their fathers weren't working. Their mothers had become so grouchy you couldn't ask them for the least little thing. Every day in our neighborhood there were whole apartments, beds, bureaus, kitchen tables out on the street. We understood that this was because of capitalism, which didn't care that working people had no work and no money for rent.
We also studied prejudice — now known as racism. Prejudice was particularly sad, since it meant not liking people for no reason at all, except the color of their skin. That color could happen to anyone if they'd been born to some other parents on another street. We ourselves had known prejudice — well, not us exactly. In Europe, that godforsaken place, our parents and grandparents had known it well. From a photograph over my grandmother's bed, my handsome uncle, killed at seventeen because of prejudice, looked calmly at me when I sought him for reminder's sake. Despite its adherence to capitalism, prejudice, and lynching, my father said we were lucky to be here in this America. We sometimes sang "America the Beautiful" at our meetings. Parents were divided on that.
At each meeting we paid 5¢ or 10¢ — not so much to advance Socialism as to be able to eat cookies at four o'clock. One day at cookie-eating time, our comrade counselor teacher, a young woman about eighteen years old, announced that we were going to do a play. There would be a party, too. It would include singing and maybe dancing. We began to rehearse immediately. She had been thinking about all this for a couple of weeks. The idea had matured into practical action.
Our play was simple, a kind of agitprop in which a father comes home; he says, "Well, Sarah, the shop closed down today. No more work! And without warning!" The mother is in despair. How to feed the children! The children's breakfast bowls are empty. Some boys carry the furniture (lots of chairs from the meeting room) out to the hall. Eviction! In the second act, neighbors meet to drag the furniture back, proving working-class solidarity. They then hold a rally and march to City Hall at the back of the room, singing the "Internationale" all the way. The event would have to take place in the evening after supper in case some father or mother still had a job.
I was one of the little empty-bowl children. Every day after school I worked in the bathroom mirror at the creation of a variety of heartrending expressions. But my sweetest contribution would be the song
One dark night when we were all in bed
Old mother Leary took a candle to the shed
and when the cow tipped it over
she winked her eye and said
There'll be a hot time in the old town tonight.
This song had been chosen to show we had fun, too; our childhood was being respected.
Before supper that important night, I decided to sing for my mother. When I finished, she said gently, lovingly, "Gracie darling, you can't sing. You know you can't hold the tune. The teacher in school, she even said you were a listener. Try again — a little softer ..."
"I can so sing," I said. "I was picked. I wouldn't of been picked if I couldn't sing." I sang the song once more.
"No no," my mother said. "That girl Sophie, Mrs. Greenberg's Sophie? She has no idea. She has no ear. Maybe deaf even. No no, you can't sing. You'll make a fool of yourself. People will laugh. For Sophie maybe, the more laughing the better."
"I don't care. I have to go. I have to go in a half hour. I have two parts."
"What? And I'm supposed to sit in the audience and see how your feelings are hurt when they laugh at you. When Papa hears — well, he wouldn't go anyway. That Sophie, she's just a kid herself."
"But, Mama, I have to go."
"No no," she said. "No. You're not going. Just to be a fool. They'll have to figure out what to do."
Guiltless but full of shame, I never returned to the Falcons. In fact, in sheer spite I gave up my work for Socialism for at least three years.
Fifty years later I told my sister this story. She said, "I can't believe that of Mama — that she would prevent you from singing — especially if you had an obligation. She wasn't like that."
Well, I had developed a kind of class analysis, an explanation which I think is pretty accurate. Our parents, remarkable people, were also a couple of ghetto Jews struggling with hard work and intensive education up the famous American ladder. At a certain rung in that ladder during my childhood they appeared to have climbed right into the professional middle class. At that comfortable rung (probably upholstered), embarrassed panic would be the response to possible exposure.
"Exposure to what? What are you talking about?" my sister asked. "You forget, really. Mama had absolutely perfect pitch. For a person like that, your wandering all over the scale must have been torture. I mean real physical pain. To her, you were just screeching. In fact," my sister said, "although you've improved, you still sound that way to me."
My sister has continued to be fourteen years older than I. Neither of us has recovered from that hierarchical fact. So I said, "Okay, Jeanne."
But she had not — when she was nine — been a political person and she had never been a listener. She took singing lessons, then sang. She and my brother practiced the piano like sensible children. In fact, in their eighties they have as much musical happiness in their fingertips as in their heads.
As for my mother — though I had no ear and clearly could not sing, she thought I might try the piano. After all, we had one. There were notes on paper inside a nice yellow book that said Inventions by Bach on its cover. Since I was a big reader, I might be able to accomplish something. I had no gift. That didn't mean I must be a deprived person. Besides, why had the Enlightenment poured its seductive light all across the European continent right into the poor endangered households of Ukrainian Jews? Probably, my mother thought, so that a child, any child (even a tone-deaf one), could be given a chance despite genetic deficiency to become, in my mother's embarrassed hopeful world, a whole person.
— 1995CHAPTER 2
The Unfinished Bronx
I remember the day that the East Bronx began to become the South Bronx, though no one realized it at the time. I was in kindergarten. My entire class, probably many other classes as well, walked all the way from our school, P.S. 50 on Vyse Avenue and East 173rd Street, east, east to the Bronx River. There the Mayor of the City of New York, Jimmy Walker, dedicated the East 174th Street Bridge. Dedicated to what?
Probably to real-estate development (bridges, roads, benign or sneaky, are good for that). Soon some little houses and big houses called tenements or apartment houses were established, much like those on our side of the river. But in only a few years out of the frantic good-time winds of the 1920s, the merciless Depression sprang forward, stalking money, houses, people.
Then everything was unfinished, even in our neighborhoods. There were empty lots on many street corners, rocky, hilly, good for games, but already jammed with garbage and rats (our mothers said). Someone must have owned those lots and was hoping for better days. They never came — to that neighborhood at least. Evictions were a daily fact. Many neighbors and most of my friends were on home relief. It was only the terrible war news from Europe and the beginning of a war economy, then war, that returned people to work, saving them, as well as the system called capitalism.
The Depression was the first great blow to the unfinished Bronx. There were demographic changes, too, as the Irish and Jews, recovering from the harsh 1930s, began to move out of the old tenements to the North and West Bronx, New Jersey, the Westchester suburbs. Puerto Rican families and African Americans had already begun to move up out of Manhattan hopefully to the Bronx. But normal American racism never did let everyone into the melting pot at the same time.
The second great blow from which the Bronx has never recovered was the Cross-Bronx Expressway, which was hacked across the borough east to west in order to get the automobiles of suburbanites and the huge trailer trucks of commerce from New England to New Jersey and the rest of the United States.
It was a conscious decision, made finally on all levels of government, to sacrifice the poor and middle class, the communities in change as well as the stable communities of the mid-Bronx, to the arrogant dreams of engineers, politicians, real-estate developers. They believed the bulldozers would follow the hackers and lo! great areas of brand-new land would appear. It didn't happen that way. The populations for blocks and blocks north and particularly south of the expressway were delivered to years, decades, of instability, abandonment, devastation, fire.
In this way, the East Bronx that Mel Rosenthal and I knew (about twenty years apart) became the South Bronx, one body of human suffering.
I left home in 1942. Several years later my mother died. My father sold his neighborhood medical practice and moved to Gun Hill Road, where there were elevator apartments. But that street between 172nd and 173rd was my childhood home. So I returned every few years sentimentally and out of persistent political interest.
At first the neighborhood seemed almost the same. Except for the fact that mothers called to their children in Spanish instead of Yiddish. The grocery store in which the Statman family had worked maybe twelve, fourteen hours a day had enslaved another family in what was now called a bodega. The little shul just two doors away from my house was still God's house — Iglesia Pentecostal. The children still owned the streets, but more dangerously. There were more cars. The second time I returned, I saw among a dozen buildings in fairly good shape at least two tenements that stood empty, five stories of broken, soot-blackened windows. My house sat, a kind of squat red brick, kids playing stoop ball on its excellent stoop.
By my third visit, absolute disaster had taken the street in its teeth and had been shaking it with fire, drugs, rage, leaving an occasional building untouched. The street was jagged with glass. A block north, a sheet hung from the fourth floor of a half-intact solitary building. In big black letters printed on it: PEOPLE STILL LIVE ON THIS GODFORSAKEN BLOCK.
Mel Rosenthal made this book of portraits and places for those people. Also for those he looked for everywhere, photograph in hand, who were no longer in the neighborhood. Often the neighborhood was gone, telling the awful success of the depopulation schemes called "planned shrinkage."
He brought with him to the Bronx not only his particular gifts but the real experience of working in Tanzania with Paolo Freire, whose Pedagogy of the Oppressed played an important role in the literacy programs of Latin America.
In a way he was lucky. He was a member of a generation that thought it was a good, even joyous, political idea to put its brains, energy, labor at the service of the people.
So he did.
— 1996CHAPTER 3
The Illegal Days
It was the late thirties, and we all knew that birth control existed, but we also knew it was impossible to get. You had to be older and married. You couldn't get anything in drugstores, unless you were terribly sick and had to buy a diaphragm because your womb was falling out. The general embarrassment and misery around getting birth control were real.
There was Margaret Sanger at that time, and she had a clinic right here in Manhattan in a beautiful house on Sixteenth Street; I still walk past and look at it. As brave as the Margaret Sanger people were, they were under very tough strictures. It was scary to go there. I was eighteen, and it was 1940 when I tiptoed in to get a diaphragm. I said I was married.
When I was young, it really angered me that birth control was so hard to get. Kids who were not as sophisticated as we Bronx kids just didn't know what to do. But I never felt that this was happening just to me. I had a very good social sense then from my own political family. I also had a lot of good girl friends, and we used to talk about it together. We had in common this considerable disgust and anger at the whole situation.
I grew up in the Bronx in a puritanical, socialist, Jewish family. My mother was particularly puritanical, and all that sex stuff was very hard for her to talk about — so she didn't. My father was a doctor, but we still didn't talk about such things. I really never felt terribly injured by all that. It just seemed to be the way it was with all of my friends. We considered ourselves freethinkers — in advance of our parents.
Most of my friends married early. I married when I was nineteen; then my husband went overseas during the Second World War. I would have loved it if I had had a child when he went overseas, but we had decided against it.
When he came back, I was in my late twenties, and in the next couple of years, I had two children. When the children were one and a half and three, I got pregnant again. I don't remember if my birth control failed ... I wasn't the most careful person in the world. Something in me did want to have more children, but since I had never gotten pregnant until I really wanted to — I was twenty-six and a half when I had my first child — I had assumed that that general mode would continue.
I knew I couldn't have another child. I was exhausted with these two tiny little kids; it was just about all I could do to take care of them. As a child, I had been sick a lot, and people were always thinking I was anemic ... I was having bouts of that kind. I just was very tired, all the time. I knew something was wrong because my whole idea in my heart had always been to have five, six children — I loved the idea of having children — but I knew I couldn't have this kid.
Seeing the state I was in, even my father said, "You must not have another child." That gives you an idea of my parents' view. They didn't feel you had to just keep having babies if you had a lot to do, small children, and not a lot of money.
And my husband and I were having hard times. It was really rough. My husband was not that crazy about having children anyway; it was very low on his list of priorities. We lived where the school is now, right next door, and were supers of the rooming house. He was just beginning his career. He eventually made documentary films, but he'd come back from the Army and was getting it all together, like a lot of those guys. So anyway, it was financially hard. But it was mostly the psychological aspect of it that would have been hard for him.
In the 1930s, my late teens, I really didn't know a lot of people who had had abortions, but then later on — not much later, when I was a young married woman in the 1940s — I heard much more. People would talk about it. By then, women were traveling everywhere — to this famous guy in Pennsylvania, to Puerto Rico. And you were always hearing about somebody who once did abortions but wasn't there doing them anymore.
I didn't ask my father for help. I wasn't really a kid, stuck and pregnant and afraid that the world would fall down on me. I was a woman with two small children, trying to be independent. I didn't want to distress him. He already wasn't feeling very well; he had a very bad heart. And he really couldn't travel; he lived in the North Bronx, and I was living on Eleventh Street — it would have been a terrible subway trip. I just didn't want to bother him.
I talked the situation over with the women in the park where I used to hang out with the kids. None of them thought having an abortion was a terrible thing to do. You would say, "I can't have a kid now ... I can't do it," and everybody was perfectly sympathetic. They said to me, "Ask So-and-so. She had one recently." I did, and I got a name. The woman didn't say anything about the guy; she just said, "Call." I assumed he was a real doctor, and he was. That may have been luck.
My abortion was a very clean and decent affair, but I didn't know until I got there that it would be all right. The doctor's office was in Manhattan, on West End Avenue. I went during the day, and I went with my husband. The doctor had two or three rooms. My husband sat and waited in one of them. There were other people waiting for other kinds of care, which is how this doctor did it; he did a whole bunch of things. He saw someone ahead of me, and when he put me in another room to rest for a few minutes afterward, I heard him talking to other patients.
Excerpted from Just As I Thought by Grace Paley. Copyright © 1998 Grace Paley. Excerpted by permission of Farrar, Straus and Giroux.
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Table of Contents
Dedication and Thank Yous,
I / Beginning,
The Unfinished Bronx,
The Illegal Days,
Six Days: Some Rememberings,
Like All the Other Nations,
II / Continuing,
Report from North Vietnam,
Everybody Tells the Truth,
"The Man in the Sky Is a Killer",
Thieu Thi Tao: Case History of a Prisoner of Politics,
Conversations in Moscow,
Other People's Children,
III / More,
Some History on Karen Silkwood Drive,
Women's Pentagon Action Unity Statement,
The Seneca Stories: Tales from the Women's Peace Encampment,
Pressing the Limits of Action,
Of Poetry and Women and the World,
IV / A Few Reflections on Teaching and Writing,
The Value of Not Understanding Everything,
Some Notes on Teaching: Probably Spoken,
One Day I Made Up a Story,
Imagining the Present,
Notes in Which Answers Are Questioned,
Coat upon a Stick,
Language: On Clarice Lispector,
About Donald Barthelme: Some Nearly Personal Notes,
Thinking about Barbara Deming,
Feelings in the Presence of the Sight and Sound of the Bread and Puppet Theater,
V / Later,
The Gulf War,
Life in the Country: A City Friend Asks, "Is It Boring?",
Across the River,
In a Vermont Jury Room,
Introduction to a Haggadah,
VI / Postscript,
My Father Tells a Story: "I Should Have Been a Lawyer",
My Father at Eighty-five,
My Father at Eighty-nine,
Also by Grace Paley,