I had just moved into my new apartment on the upper Westside. It was my first grown-up apartment.
It was January 15th, 1990.
I walked into my building, got into the elevator, and before the doors closed, two huge black men got into the elevator with me.
All I thought was, “Oh my god, I’m gonna be raped.”
I grew up in a family where the word schvartza was common. It was sprinkled about as frequently and as often as salt and pepper on steak. If there was an abandoned car on the side of the L.I.E with all tires stripped, my mother would casually say, “Schvartzas.” If there was a robbery or a break-in in our all white neighbor, it was the “schvartzas” who would be blamed. Anything unattractive, unappealing, it was always, undoubtedbly, the schvartza.
Schvartza, goy, faggot… not uncommon words used in my house. And these words were passed down generation to generation. Rumor has it that when a black person got up from their seat on a bus, my grandmother would take her cotton handkerchief and wipe down the seat. And yet, I can’t say that my parents were hateful or prejudice. My parents were friends with gay people, non-jewish people, “colored/non-white” people. All races, all walks of life. I think the truth is there was an underlying unease, feelings of superiority and unconscious (or not) fear that seeped out without any thought what so ever. Both my brother and I, on more than one occasion, were mortified at what came out of our mother’s and father’s mouth. An off color joke here, a nasty remark there, a vile dig here, and a loud rant there. My mother often said that if I dated a black man she would disown me, and I would often respond, joke, ask ... “what about sleeping with one?” She would laugh and smile. I had then, and have now, many friends who are black.
BUT... I grew up with the word schvartza embedded - like a chip - in my soul, and I would wager I’m not sharing anything new, however, it is not something I have ever admitted.
Back to the elevator.
There I was standing in the back of the elevator, convinced that these two men – both at least 6’7” – were going to hurt me. Rape me. Kill me. I heard the word schvartza playing over and over and over in my head. I heard my mother saying it, I heard my grandmother saying it. Schvartza. I knew I was afraid. I knew I was petrified.
I also knew it was the night of the Cooney/Forman fight, a big night in boxing. One of the guys asked me, “You like boxing?” I said, "Yeah, oh, yeah.” “Really?” he asked, “who you betting on to win?” Without blinking, I said, “I’m betting on the Black guy.”
They both laughed.
It turned out one of the guys lived in my building, in the penthouse. He was a professional basketball player. He played for the Nets. He was throwing a party that night - a Cooney/Forman party – and right there in the elevator, invited me to come, as his guest.
I asked if there would be any food.
“Yeah,” he said, “We’re roastin’ the white guy.”
I lost every bit of color I had regained. He looked at me, and saw how scared I was.
“Hey,” he said, “I’m jokin’. Really. Cooney’s gonna lose, Forman’s gonna knock him out in the first round. Please, come on up… we’re ordering Chinese. You like Chinese?”
“Yes, I like Chinese,” I said.
I was the only white person in a sea of black people watching Forman punch the shit out of Cooney in the second round.
At the end of the evening, my new friend made sure I got home safe and sound - two floors below him - and thanked me for coming to his party. He was gracious and kind, and he and I remained good friends until he moved out of the building a few years later. He was traded and moved to a different city.
As I think about what’s happening in this country, and the tapes that play over and over and over again in someone’s head – the words that are embedded, the phrases that stick, the stories repeated, the hatred circulating, the ugly, the nasty ... the nigger, the faggot, the homo, the goy, the kike, the jew, the queer…
I think about that night, in that elevator, and that bet that I made ... and I never, ever thought years later I would say, “I’m betting on the black guy,” out of complete love and respect, and not one ounce of fear.