Color, in Black and White
by Andrew Sarewitz
Why can't we all just get along? A single, well intentioned comment unthreads the tapestry. Decades removed, having said it out loud at a party in Simone Johnson's living room still makes me cringe. I am not Rodney King.
Late 1970's, I was invited to a celebration at the Johnson's home in South Orange, NJ. It could have been Simone's birthday or to laud our high school graduation, but since she finished a semester early, that doesn't fit the calendar. No matter. It was the one time I was inside their house. She never came to mine.
Simone's mother, about age fifty, was beautiful. I'm speaking physically. Back another generation, her mother's mother was also striking. This grandmother was well known locally for catering fine affairs as well as owning a restaurant donning her name in New York City, across from Lincoln Center. The party was crowded in the living room but I favored the four of us escaping to the kitchen, sitting at a table by a window toward the back of the house. Three charming, formidable women of blood, and me. Mrs. Johnson told me Simone rarely spoke about her classmates but she often talked about me with great warmth.
1971. I'm twelve years old, entering a new school. In this modern, pink brick building on Ridgewood Road, three years of students were academically sectioned into Cycles, each traveling together as a class from first to the final period, with homeroom, gym and a few "electives" being the exceptions. I was intellectually above average but not at the top. Simone and I were in the same Cycle from day one of seventh grade. The friendship continued through high school. Always there, but not within each other's cliques and circles. I'd like to say this has nothing to do with it: Simone is black and I'm white.
Late sixties, early seventies: a television commercial (a public service announcement?) ran locally. In a glass and metal booth, a woman's white gloved hand lifts a public telephone receiver while her other hand dials. She makes an appointment to see a house that is for sale. The voice on the other end, with gracious anticipation invites her to view the home. When the person opens the door, the camera pans to the prospective buyer. She's black. The white person who opened the door says, "The house is no longer available."
I loved and liked Simone for six years without our crossing into each other's social groups. It may be circumstantial because the majority of time we spent with each other was during school hours. The friends we did share outside were hers and they were black. I remember three young women in particular.
Mary, whom I knew independent of Simone, was tall, athletic and very dark skinned. By eleventh grade, Mary was having an illicit affair with a much older white gym teacher, hairy, with a ginger beard. Simone swore me to secrecy.
Debbie. She was lighter skinned, like Simone, with long, wavy hair and beautiful hands. In high school, when Debbie, Simone and I walked down the halls together arm in arm, we called ourselves "the Oreos," which we thought was hilarious.
And Barbara (this is her real name). In tenth grade, her boyfriend, who also was black, called me a faggot in front of her. She told him to shut his face. He never picked on me again.
My Polaroid memory of Barbara is the bangles she wore halfway up her left arm. Whenever I performed in a school play, she would lend me a particular silver bracelet for luck. It was "second up from her wrist." Toward the end of our junior year, Barbara was killed in a car accident driving home from the Jersey Shore on the night of the senior prom. Her boyfriend fell asleep at the wheel. When they careened off the highway and crashed, Barbara's neck snapped. The boyfriend was unharmed.
The only funeral for a young person I've gone to was Barbara's. I was one of a few white guests in the church. The casket was open. Her skin was powdered with an unnatural amethyst sheen. She was wearing all her bangles and a blouse her stepmother had previously refused to buy. During the memorial, a friend of Barbara's that Simone accused of being an attention-craving drama queen, stood and sang "You are My Starship" very emotionally. I audibly sobbed. Simone was sitting to my left. Stone faced and staring straight ahead, she pulled a Kleenex from her purse and passed it to me while I wept.
Late sixties, early seventies: a local television message. A white, unshaven, beer bellied man in a tee shirt with a cigar butt in his mouth is talking to someone you don't see. He's showing a shitty rental, with a naked light bulb glaring overhead. He gets to the bathroom toilet and jiggles the handle, which is broken. He says something like, "you can replace that for fifty cents. Look, there are a lot of people waiting for this apartment. You want it or not?" The camera pans to the prospective tenant, a black man. He says, "I'll take it."
The Slam Book. In seventh grade, I didn't know what this was until Simone explained. Teenage girls in particular had notebooks in which they wrote personal questions that would be passed around to other friends who'd enter their truthful answers. An example might be:
Q - Have you let a boy go to second base with you?
A - Yes.
I'm assuming Slam Books have evolved since 1971.
By the time I entered my responses in the folded pages, a number of Simone's friends had participated. For the question, "Have you gone all the way?" Only one person had answered "YES."
This is the reason I'm not using Simone's real name. I vacillated on whether to write about it. I wasn't shocked that she had made love with a boy. I already knew before reading her Slam Book. He was older than Simone but still a teenager. In 1971, she was more mature than I or my white suburban friends. YES was inscribed by a twelve year old girl with adult self awareness foreign to me. She visibly fitted in at school but I think she was an inconspicuous spectator in the crowd. I'm not defending my view, I just believed her. I wonder how she'd see things now, if Simone has a daughter.
Circa, 1975. I was at the home of a neighbor, Laura Goldberg. She was a grade above me at school. Our friendship was forged during the school musicals, in which we were often paired. I thought she was an emotional mess, but Laura was charismatic and talented and we had a lot of fun together. While we were sitting at a steel and Formica table, Laura's mother came into their kitchen. Mrs. Goldberg told us that a black family had bought a house down the street. She had walked over and rung their doorbell. When the lady of the house answered the door, Mrs. Goldberg said to her, "I wanted to see if it was true that a Nigger moved onto the block."
I never stepped foot in the Goldberg's house again. But I said nothing. And I did nothing.
In the 1970's, there was a small population of black and mixed marriage families in South Orange. I thought of Simone and her friends as connected by race. I'm not implying black kids didn't have white friends but our village was primarily a white society. These families didn't live in some section of town segregated for color, but I remember the black students sitting at one or two lunch tables together in the school cafeteria.
I didn't know anything about what it was like being black, let alone being a black girl or woman. Rich, poor, light, dark, accomplished, uneducated, stoic, angry, not white. Simone and most of the other black kids grew up middle to upper middle class in what at least appeared to be an accepting town. I lived across the street from Orange Lawn Tennis Club, which didn't allow Jews or blacks to join until sometime in the late 1960's, yet I felt no anti-Semitic behavior thrown at me. Possibly because by that era, more than half of South Orange was populated with Jewish families.
I don't have a first impression stored. I found one black & white photograph taken of Simone in profile, sitting in a classroom holding a copy of "Animal Farm." It candidly catches a student's boredom but doesn't help me much beyond that. I think Simone stood around five foot three. Caramel colored flawless skin, brown hair and eyes. Petite, beautiful, mature. In junior high, I can see her walking into class wearing bell bottoms, a tight fitting print blouse, large hoop earrings and a huge Afro.
I was always attracted to her. We "made out" one night during high school, in the front seat of my mother's Pontiac. With her soft lips passionately taking the lead, I credit Simone for being the person who gently taught me how to really kiss well. I don't know what she saw in a skinny Jewish white boy with out-of-control wavy brown hair and a nose I wouldn't grow into until I was in my late twenties. I know she was willing and wanting to take my virginity. I was intimidated, not just because of my inexperience, but because of how immature I looked. I physically aged with such delay, at age 16, I hadn't yet grown hair under my arms.
Though I dated girls through high school, I'm gay and knew so from an early age but had made up my mind that I would never act on it. I didn't until I was at college. In the whole time I knew Simone I never told her I was gay. I never spoke of it to anybody.
If I'm not illustrating the depth and ease of our day to day friendship, it's because I can't seem to access many casual details. More than forty years have passed. Eyes closed, I visualize Simone finding me in the Columbia High School hallways. Rolling her eyes and laughing at some hopscotch twist I'm rehearsing, she takes me by the hand, drags me to a classroom, scolding me like a longtime lover, saying, "come on you strange, strange boy. We're going to be late for class!" When I describe us as being close, I had seriously considered going to the college to which we both were accepted so that I could be with her. I chose NYU instead.
I had a vintage army backpack that had been my father's. In high school I used it to carry my books. I had tattooed every inch of it in ink. The same was true for certain blue jeans I wore. You'd think it wouldn't have been acceptable to wear graffitied denim to school, but in the 70's, apparently it was allowed. In tenth grade, Simone sat next to me in algebra class. While deciphering a math test, she discreetly took a blue ballpoint pen and drew an arrow diagonally up and across the left front pocket of my jeans, aiming directly at my fly. Below the arrow head, she wrote "Property of S.J." I held onto those jeans for twenty years.
Before I reached the age of ten, Medgar Evers, John F. Kennedy, Malcolm X, Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr, and Robert Kennedy had all been assassinated. In the summer of 1967, there were violent civil rights uprisings throughout major cities in the United States, including five days in July, in Newark, NJ, which borders on South Orange.
Like a framed Christmas card, I revisit the Johnson's party with one magnified detail provoking my face to burn. Why can't we all just get along? Who there would remember or care what I'd said decades ago? And maybe it was common to hear a well meaning but ignorant, prejudiced white boy say something so naive. Prejudice: Preconceived opinion that is not based on reason or actual experience. It doesn't always insinuate hate. But it does mean you have no idea what the fuck you're talking about.
If Simone describes me now, I would guess she would include that I am white. As a detail, not a category. When Simone remembers me, I wonder if it's sentimental. I hope it's as a friend who utterly adored her.
About the Author
Andrew has written several short stories (published work listed below) as well as scripts for various media. His play, “Madame Andrèe” received an Honorable Mention from both the 2018 Writers Digest Competition, Play/Screenplay Division, and the 2018 New Works of Merit Contest (Loyola University, New Orleans), as well as garnering First Prize from Stage to Screen New Playwrights in San Jose, CA, winning the honor of opening the festival series in August of 2019. The script for his play “Five Men, Four Beds” advanced to the Second Round at the 2019 Austin Film Festival Competition.