There are days, especially lately, when I feel that way. I matter to the people I love and to others whose lives are tied to mine in numerous ways. I don't matter in this country. My freedoms have been taken from me. I a spied on. I have lost insurance that could endanger my husband's life. I keep hoping that something will happen to stop this nightmare. I hear anger, I see starts and it goes nowhere. It is easy to get discouraged, to wait for that magic moment when people, mad as hell don't take it, But I learned this from my families experiences in WWII as Jews: there is no magic moment when people say NO. Waiting for others to start something is always a bad idea. Never believe it can't go on. People say that when they can't imagine the horror of the eality developing around them. It can get worse unless someone stops it. That someone or someones are the people who will keep it simple and ACT and keep acting.
I want to tell you a story - that happened to me when I was a young girl growing up in the Bronx where people who didn't matter, didn't think before they acted won.
he Power of People that Don’t Matter
I was in the 6th grade, when I learned about media bias. Ms. Stern was teaching us how to read The New York Times, which we all knew was the most important newspaper there was. If they said in in the New York Times it had to be true. You actually had to learn how to fold it! . I felt so grown up
When I got past the folding, I looked at the first page. In the right corner was a box, that said "all the news that's fit to print.' . It was impossible to miss, very official looking, proclaiming its monopoly on the truth. We were all the child of immigrants. ad had been insulted enough to know that a person who is not suspicious is a fool.
There was something that bothered me about the slogan. The next thing I remember is hearing myself ask the teacher “Who decides what’s fit to print? “To her credit ( and unlike teachers today) she did not send me to the principal.s office.
AsShe chose a short article about something that happened in n our neighborhood the day before, We were all that upset about it. Construction of an addition to a project housing began during the day. Sometime during the night two kids fell into a deep hole and died.
By the end of the period we had a class project. We were to use the story, to see whether NY Times claim was true. Had it printed all the news fit to print about the two boys. We were to check other newspapers, speak to people, friends at the construction site and find out what was left out of the article , what the contradictions were.
What I did not know at the time was that my father a Rabbi and principal of the Jewish school school, had called the Priest who was principal of of the Catholic school and arranged for this to be a joint assignment.
I knew the two boys who were killed. One was Jewish and the other Irish- Catholic. Jews and Catholics were never friends. It was a rule you didn’t break ever. These two were the exception because “Beanie” ( he was Jewish and wore a Yarmulke)could fight better than any one on the block. He and ‘four eyes’ (wore glasses) became friends and explored the construction site, They fell into a deep pit. Four eyes was killed immediately or that was what the police said, Beanie broke both of his legs,, waited in the hole with his dead friend until dawn when someone found him He died at the hospital.
We remembered seeing the NY times truck and now we read their article “Two boys thirteen and twelve killed at Bronx construction site” They described the event as tragic. and said the parents were distraught and not able to speak to reporters. The paper didn’t actually say that the kids were to blame but wondered what they were doing there at night. The reporters spoke to someone from the construction company who said his heart went out to the parents of the kids. We take every safety precaution we can, put up signs, speak to the police, and other people in the community. People who live near these types of places know to be careful because buildings are often added to projects when there is empty space. No matter what you do, accidents happen. Just to be sure, the construction company would put up barriers The date of and time and location of each funeral was given.
We ran home to find the Catholic kids waiting. . This was long before “political correctness” or “diversity”. If we weren’t fighting, Irish kids, Italian kids and Jewish kids stuck to themselves, except for the little kids who weren’t smart enough to know that yet. This might have been the first time in the history of the Bronx that Irish and Italian and Jewish kids we were ever together peacefully
Because we never talked to them, nobody knew what to say and we just stood there until One of “their” girls handed me a copy of the homework. After the shock wore off, two guys (it was always the guys and it sucked to be a girl) appointed themselves in charge to decide who would do what. The boys would check out the crime scene, and talked to people near there, Armed with flashlights and the cop on our beat they set out. [ Back in those says cops had beats, Several blocks that they were responsible for. ]
Our pack of girls ran up from Davidson to University Avenue, Tremont and back to Jerome, collecting newspapers, leaflets from the Irish Italian churches and synagogue. A few policemen told us what they wrote in their notes and then we were off to the library.
The librarian made everyone to sit down and took a few of us to a room in the back that seemed to have several infinities of newspapers piled in giant bookcases that almost touched the ceiling, They were lined up in rows with thin aisles in between. We followed the librarian who climbed ladders, carefully pulled out newspapers, put a red construction paper to mark the places and collected them into a large briefcase, until it was brimming. We sat and read as she went for others.
The “American” papers either didn’t cover the event, or limited what they said to how sad the parents and friends were, how life was cruel and watch your kids as best you can.
The Irish Daily told a different story. “Corrupt Unions responsible for death of two children,” It said something about payoffs, getting rid of someone and Mafia. The catholic kids were flabbergasted that we didn’t understand but explained. The Mafia were criminals, who killed people , so they had to find ways to get rid of the bodies. The newspaper figured they found out about construction that was about to happen and paid some construction people to bury a dead man. underneath. cause nobody would ever look under a house.
My eyes bulged.
Why do they kill people?
The Jewish paper’s story was “Will the deaths of innocent boys be swept under the rug?” There were lots of questions Why did construction on a project that nobody seemed to know anything? Why weren’t community leaders notified? Who decided to build when it had not been request by locals? Why had schools not been notified? Why was there no response to calls the paper made to the construction company. Something rotten is going on here. That was the end. There were no answers. I felt like Nancy Drew. We would solve this mystery. I reread the Times article.
“They lied about telling people in the neighborhood.” I said to the girl next to me, pointing to that part of the times article.
Wonder what else they lied about? she said, We reread every sentence.
Did you know about projects getting more houses.? she asked
I didn’t neither did anyone else.
With the help of the librarian we found out that the last building was completed 16 years ago -- before he boys were born. They had no way to know.
It was time to talk to people. The policeman who was back on the beat, told us that nobody told him about any construction. We spoke to a lot of people. Nobody knew in advance-- even those people in every neighborhood that make it their business to know everything. The parents of both boys told us that nobody from the newspaper had asked them anything.
The boys found were a couple of signs near the whole but they were small, stapled to a tree and easy to miss, and not visible at night. There was no rope around the hole.
Some of the old people who sat on the benches talking and feeding pigeons recalled seeing them from across the street heading towards the area. Kids played there all the time and they thought nothing of it. From the distance nothing appeared out of the ordinary and kids played there all the time.
The boys found a large collection of shovels, other digging tools whose names I didn’t try to remember and piles of dirt. that blocked the hole from one side. I could imagine “Beanie and two shoes, shoveling dirt at each other, or fighting with the poles they imagined to be swords.. Did four eyes loose his glasses in one of those piles. Did he grope around trying to find them and fall into the hole? Did Beanie come to help him , try to pull him out with a shovel, and fall in?
“Was there a shovel at the bottom of the hole?” I asked.
“Does it matter” someone said
“Not really.” It was dark, Piles of dirt hid the hole. and they fell in.
I thought back to the New York Times. What was I? A 6th grader who could barely turn the pages. They didn’t even bother to look at the hole. If they did, they would have seen that it looked a lot more like the holes they make for a coffin than the beginning of a construction project. News fit to print was news about people whose grandparents were Americans. Why would they care what happened to a couple of SHEENIES, and KIKES even if they were kids.
The “Everybody knows..” was a lie. But the paper, just wrote what the construction people said and told the world it was true without bothering to check.
That was the first time I didn’t want to be Nancy Drew. I wanted to do something that would tell people the truth.
By the time we got home the next day, everybody knew what had happened and they were VERY ANGRY. Not for a moment was there a question whether this disgustingness would continue in OUR neighborhood. This was America and people could not just come into OUR neighborhood with THEIR construction workers, build without asking us and kill our kids.
Remember I am talking about the 1950s; there were no laws against discrimination.’ Catholics taunted Jewish kids for killing Jesus, called us KIKES, we called them Sheeny or WOPS (we didn’t always remember who to call what). But when something like this happened and everybody put differences aside without thinking about it. There were bigger enemies.
Religious schools were called off on Monday. When the construction workers came, kids and families blocked the way and surrounded the hole. Across the street, crowds from the neighborhood fought for a glimpse.
There were plenty of men there ready to fight. I could see their closed fists and the look on their faces. Eyes met eyes and didn’t waver. Nobody moved for a long time. There was no fighting. The workers left, and the building was never built. Some people had called the NY times but they didn’t come. Nobody had trouble figuring out why. The news a paper decided was worth printing, depended on which side they were on. We knew they weren’t on our side.
The funerals were both the next day. Larger than any I could imagine. Long processions in the streets stopped buses from running. The public school closed early because nobody came, The Priest, my father, the local Rabbi, spoke, There was lots of crying and there was lots of pride, One Neighborhood of people who nobody thought mattered united against rich crooks who couldn't’ be bothered to put up a signs you could read. Probably they didn’t care if a couple of us died.
In a few months later, things were back to “normal”. The hole got filled up and grass grew over it. We played in the street, until are others leaned out the window and called us to dinner, Hopscotch and jump rope resumed. Boys practiced baseball. We kept to ourselves and didn’t cross the line. We fought just like before. without Beanie to protect us. KIKE, SHEENY , and WOP re-entered our vocabulary.
Still, I like to think that what happened in those days changed us all. We knew that ‘they’ , the people with power could think we were idiots and pushovers. 'They' could refuse to hire our dads, 'they' could not rent us apartments. But they were no match for all of us, Not when we stood against them together.