Tuesday, April 20, 2021

Everything Happens

I saw a suggestion recently that life in the Keys in the 1950s was the Good Old Days, in referring to a sign at the Southernmost Point surrounded by Conch shells for sale. I tried not to think about it and moved on.
I have difficulty with nostalgia because it always shows up to bite me in the rear when I least expect it and I have an awkward habit of looking back at the incorrect moment and second guessing myself. Usually common sense reasserts itself  and daily life continues uninterrupted. Sometimes however I have to pause and think. Why are we nostalgic? Why do we think the past was better than the present? I like to say toothache will knock nostalgia out of your head. I like modern dentistry very much indeed. Medicine in general is much improved and surgery is a whole new pain free world compared to the good old days.
In the 1950s the Southernmost Point was in Black Town, not Bahama Village and there are still people in the city who describe it thus. Key West has struggled with its past and historians are the people who talk about those injustices these days, not politicians or advertising agencies. For example Key West Weekly  and the Blue Paper...exposing the city behind the advertising which goes thus: Visit Florida.
It  seems inconceivable that these peculiar ideas were commonplace in our lifetimes. A friend of mine who grew up in South Florida remembered the "Whites Only" and "Colored Only" signs that we see in historic photographs and my wife's family lived through anti Jewish discrimination in Rock Island, relatively modest yet hurtful rejections from country clubs with swastikas painted on walls of Jewish businesses even as the Ukraine branch of the family was gassed out of existence in the Shoah. better to be a Jew in Illinois than in the Russian Pale of the 1930s of course. My own grandfather, an Italian gentile and an anti Fascist came close to execution in those years of ferocious political upheaval.
I had a bizarrely sheltered upbringing, growing up in middle class England with a  Catholic mother who spoke with an Italian accent (and embarrassed me) in the genteel 1960s.  It was then I learned I was weird when one of my 8 year old friends expressed astonishment on finding out I was a Papist...I was shocked by his surprise and revulsion because being a Catholic was what my mother did (my Father was an atheist) as a matter of course. I went to Catholic boarding schools and spent  my summers in Italy where Catholicism was the state religion and thus observed in the breech more than anything. But in England, a land where church going was falling rapidly into disfavor, I was a weird minority. That was a lesson in being different.
I get lots of angry off the cuff bigotry at work every day. Anyone with a beef against the police, whose problem I can't solve over the phone, can casually attack me for my foreignness. At first it shocked my colleagues when they heard callers telling me to go home or demanding to speak to a proper American, but they are as used to it now as am I. I guess these days I have to be glad I'm not Asian as they rate more death threats even than Muslims...I haven't had a death threat for years now at work, and I have never taken the ones I received seriously. People just get mad and choose the easy insult. 
I was much more concerned to read about the new voting restrictions in Georgia where it is now illegal to give people waiting in line to vote, food or drink as they stand in the sun. Similar proposals are being considered in Florida. Some headline writers have dramatized the voting restrictions as Jim Crow 2 but I hope they are wrong, and I trust the people who think these voting restrictions are acceptable will be voted out.  Denying people the vote is a weird way to celebrate democracy. Even if they voted against you, especially if they did.
Its all enough to make one skeptical of human nature. So going for a walk with a  dog and seeing trees and birds and vast open spaces lapping gently at the shoreline helps to restore equanimity. I grew up an antifascist as matter of course, in a family that fought Fascism for years, was imprisoned for it and was hounded for it, and now I find being an antifascist is to be a weirdo. People confuse me as much now as when I was eight listening to stories of terror and repression carried out against people I knew by men in black shirts who kept order with castor oil and  nightsticks.
I hear people remark that everything happens for a reason, which is the sort of aphorism you can stand behind only if you ignore most of what goes on in the world.  Starvation happens for a reason? Cruelty? Bigotry? I find it odd to imagine so many people and animals are being hurt so that we privileged few might grow stronger or more aware or more capable of managing our own lives - for a reason. As far as I can tell nothing happens for a reason unless some human puts it into motion usually for nefarious ends.
I know why the Georgia state lawmakers voted in restrictions to keep themselves in office, I know why the Klan used to terrorize minorities in Key West (and elsewhere). I know why people protest saying black lives matter as black lives get  cut short. And I know why white people push back saying all lives matter because they don't see the disparities and are fearful of change. And none of it gives me much hope as the institutions, big business, churches, community leaders  stay silent and we on the sidelines look away unless we donate online or drop a secret vote in favor of some or other prancing politician full of promises and demands for money in exchange for favors. In that respect the good old days haven't changed.
I have memories of people saying stop the world I want to get off. Webb Chiles calls it the monastery of the sea, where he is now. I call it going vanning where I will be soon enough. Then when people tell me to go home where I came from I can take my time driving there, the long slow way and enjoy the ride as I go.