Fathers and Respect

“The more cruel the wrong that men commit

against an individual or a people, the deeper

their hatred and contempt for their victim.”

-Albert Einstein

I had lunch with an old acquaintance a few years ago. She is bright; articulate; accomplished. She enjoys life and she is committed to help others. She had moved downtown a few years before I made the move. She wanted to help; to do civic work. The typical educated left-wing liberal that I strive to be. I told her that I had met with a city government official about doing volunteer work.

“He’s an idiot,” she said.

I was shocked. I had never viewed her as a negative or hateful person.

Have you met him?

No; she had not. 

I spoke to him for an hour. I have no doubt that he is a very smart professional. I think that he wants to do the right thing.

I could tell that her conviction of this man’s stupidity was beginning to waver.

“He’s not doing anything.”

That is not an accurate statement. He is: there are concrete plans in the works. There are dozens of political and regulatory hurdles to be cleared.  And there is never enough money available when it comes to aiding the poor. Be patient. I think that his approach is going to work.

She hurriedly agreed to cut him some slack. We moved the conversation on to other topics.

I went home after lunch and began to think. It was difficult to come to grips with the reality that I was confronted with. Even nice people who have the “right” feelings have their hateful moments.

I thought about my father, and the lessons that he tried to share with me. He was a righteous and dignified man. For sure he would have had something insightful to say about hate and prejudice.

There was the time that he volunteered to take me and some of my middle school classmates to the university planetarium. We were talking about one of the custodians at our school. The man looked as if he were asleep even when he was walking about. He rarely said anything: he preferred to nod. Often, I walked past him and did not even realize that he was there. 

We called him “Juan Muerto.” Juan the dead man. What may have been devastatingly painful shyness and self-consciousness was a source of humor for us. I laughed when I described his behavior to my father.

“I don’t think that it’s funny to mock anyone who’s working for a living. Anyone.”

A few (stern) words, yet I felt worse than if he had given me a beating. 

I never made fun of a disadvantaged soul again. I began to notice when Juan was around. In my mind, he sprung back to life. I saw him much more than I ever had. I even had a few short conversations with him. He stopped being a dead man for me.

There was the incident with the snow cone man. His name was Francisco, just like the name I share with my dad. He was Black. Although many Puerto Ricans were (and are) proud of saying “We have no prejudice here,” racism was (and is) a prevalent force in all communities. Everyone who lived in the neighborhood and knew him called him Don Cico. The “don” is a title of respect.  A very formal way of saying “mister.”

I say “who knew him” because he was an institution. Every morning except Sundays, when the sun rose, he would push his cart to its location just across the railroad tracks from my apartment building. He had a large block of ice delivered to him early in the morning and shortly after noon. He used a hand-held scraper to grind away at the massive block. He sold the snow cones for a nickel; he also had Mary Janes and Butterfingers, and occasionally a few bananas. Somehow, he kept track of everyone who went across those railroad tracks. He knew who did not belong, and he made sure that they knew that he was watching. There was a secretarial school down the block. He knew most of those those young women, and he made sure that no nasty or sexist comments came their way. A few pennies at a time he college-educated all his children; I think that there were five. The community loved him.

He was my father’s best friend. The college professor and the snow cone salesman spoke for hours on anything that happened to be in the papers that day. From Roberto Clemente’s heroics to complicated political issues to the latest scientific discovery. My dad would stop at the stand on his way home from the university; he would order a tamarind snow cone, and he would stand there talking while Don Cico tore into the block of ice and gave his opinion.

The railroad tracks (which were no longer in use) were the crossroads of our small civilization. Dozens of people on their way to the university walked by the stand. Most of them bought something. These transients called my father’s friend “Francisco,” skipping the respectful title that he so richly deserved.

There came the day when I had saved five pennies. I had a craving for a tamarind snow cone. I ran across the tracks with great anticipation. My father was at the stand. They were talking about an upcoming election.

Francisco, give me a tamarind snow cone.

I noticed a hint of surprise, maybe even pain, in Don Cico’s face. He looked to the ground for a split second and proceeded to do his work. After I got my snow cone my father said goodbye and walked home with me.

He asked me to go in his bedroom.

“That man that you just addressed as Francisco…”

He paused. I could tell that he was very emotional.  Not sure if angry or close to tears. I squirmed. He continued.

“His name is Don Cico. To you and to everyone else.”

I was puzzled. I was too young to establish the distinction.

“He works hard. He loves his children. He’s my friend.”

He paused.

“Not only that. I have spoken to him. If anything happens to me, he has agreed to make sure that you are OK. He will be responsible for you.”

The privileged golden child would be raised by the Black snow cone salesman. Suddenly, I got it. I also understood, without further explanation, that if anything happened to my dad, I was going to be OK. Better than OK.

“Here are three pennies. You go back to the stand and buy yourself some candy. Make sure that you say Don Cico, and please.”

One of the longest walks of my life. Not even half a block in urban terms. Many giant steps for me.

Don Cico, may I please have three Mary Janes?

My soul was cleansed.

From then on Don Cico clearly favored me over the other kids in the neighborhood. He beamed whenever I approached him.

Many years later, during a break from medical school, I went to his house to say Hi. He had retired; he was not well. He was at his rocking chair.  It dawned on me that I had never seen this man sitting down. 

I leaned down to hug him. He began to cry. His wife joined in the tears.

“Paquito,” he said. “My boy is going to be a doctor. I’m so proud.”

Not as proud as I was to be called his boy.

On these days of never-ending turmoil, I thought about my dad’s lesson. Don Cico’s love.

I thought about my city-dwelling friend. A good person who somehow felt that it was OK to call someone that she did not know an idiot.  The tornado of hate and invective that we hurl at each other daily, thinking that it is OK to do this when someone does not agree with our views.

The escalating cycle of cruelty and contempt for others who are different… The politicians who do not have the brains or the guts to say something, anything, that would urge us to tone it down.

To love.

Is there hope?  Will anyone listen?

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