When I was 13, my mother told me that my father was xenophobic, which I would not have understood until I became an English major in college, for my earlier years were spent looking at photos in surfing magazines, had she not added for my benefit, “He’s scared of foreigners.”
This struck me as odd, years later, for I recall having lunch near my dad’s office when I was six, me in my Trinity School blazer and khakis, my father and I joined by a man named John Okawa, who was reputedly a prince from Ghana. He was darker than anyone I’d ever met, and his smile beamed from across the table as he asked to have a bite of my peach ice cream. I let him, not wanting to seem rude, but after he did, oddly using my spoon, I told my dining partners that I was not hungry for any more dessert. It could have been I was afraid of black people, or foreigners, or that I was deathly worried about catching germs.
The germs thing was real. I mean, it was such a part of our family conversation that I remember my parents – particularly my dad – making fun of me about my fear of germs, that I refused to eat or come into contact with any comestible had it been handled by human skin without benefit of the utmost sanitary conditions. Or made by anyone other than mom.
For instance, we were vacationing at my grandparents’ house in Warwick, Rhode Island, and we had the misfortune – or so my ten-year-old mind reasoned – to be invited to breakfast across the street at the very nice home of a very old lady. She must have been about a hundred and fifty. She made scrambled eggs, and while I am sure 35 years later looking back that these were from legitimate chickens who lived long before the avian bird flu, they must surely have contained at the time some form of Rapidly Acting Irreversible Germ Poison which, if ingested, would cause me to faint or to puke, were I to even get the eggs past my lips on a fork that itself had not been sanitized in 220-degree water.
So when I sat across the table looking at John – Mr. Okawa – I looked then at my dad and said I was full. And then I looked at John and I noticed – even then, I discerned at age six – an emotional wince in his eyes, as though he had detected a small note of disapproval in me, a slight, Aryan child, at receiving a utensil that had touched the lips of a man from Africa whose surface was as dark as my nightmares on East 96th Street. He looked into me and saw my adolescence and teenage years. My twenties. Even my thirties and forties when, ostensibly “enlightened,” I might not be aware of the depth of my reaction to those whose surface was so visibly different. It might not be peach ice cream now that is shared. It might be dreams. Hopes. Values. Pain. I may still not want the spoon returned. It’s soiled. Or am I soiled?
As I consider now what my dad might have thought as he watched me look at – or avert my gaze from – John, I think about how I would feel were it one of my three sons. Wouldn’t I feel that indeed I myself were rejecting the ice cream from the stranger? That my son voiced my prejudices, like a ventriloquist’s dummy, by virtue that he lived under my house and under my teaching? How much original thought does a six-year-old have?
I wonder whether dad and John ever mentioned it when they got back to the office, after my traumatic bowl of peach ice cream that I probably forgot about as quickly as I saw my Hot Wheels tracks at home and the race I needed to do with Jim to see whose cars were the fastest – winner take all. Did dad laugh it off as his son’s germ obsession? Did he make apologies? Did he ignore it, leaving John to wonder how dad himself felt about Africans?
It was, after all, only 1969, and one didn’t need an excuse.