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Jewish Journal

Black and White

January 20, 2000 | 7:00 pm

I met Cliff Freeman the summer I was 16; it was the end of the 1940s. He was about a year older than me and was the first black person I ever knew well. We became friends in part because it was summer, and my parents, aunts and uncles, and their friends -- the family -- had begun to spend July and August "in the country," about 55 miles from New York City where we lived.

We had acquired a group of cottages outside the town of Washingtonville, a small village which was, literally, a town square that stretched out towards farms in all directions. Blacks worked some of the farms and lived along a string of adjoining towns, a vestige of the abolitionist's underground railroad in pre-Civil War days. Perhaps because of the large number of black families, the rules were quite clear: Blacks and whites never mixed, not to form a boy scout troop or even to attend the same Episcopal church.

Cliff worked as a delivery boy for the local market a 100 yards up the road from us. At day's end, he walked the three miles home and, invariably, passed a group of us playing basketball. After a week or so, he stopped to watch; we invited him to play, and soon he became a regular in our games. No problem.

One day he saw me scoop up a book after the game. He peered over at the title. It was a book of poetry, "The People Yes" by Carl Sandburg. He looked at me for a moment, and then, almost casually, asked if I had ever read any poems by T.S. Eliot.

I would like to think that I was surprised because no one I had ever played basketball with read poetry. But I knew my astonishment was in no small way related to the fact that Cliff was black.

Yes, I said, but found a lot of it difficult. Yes, he acknowledged, he did too. Did I know the poem that had the lines: "In the room the women come and go..." I jumped in, "...Talking of Michelangelo." We both laughed.

That's how we started. Soon we were lending books to one another, sharing biographies, and behaving like fast friends. It would not have worked in Washingtonville, but out there in the country, where I lived amidst family, it was noticed, commented upon... and left alone.

Of course, it turned out we had several things in common. He wanted to move away to New York City; to escape a stern father and a closed, limited black world; he hoped to become an artist. I wanted to flee New York and an overpowering father; I hoped to become a writer.

Meanwhile, we played basketball, often on opposing teams for we were evenly matched. Just before play began, we would glare at one another and then shout in unison, "In the room the women come and go/ Talking of Michelangelo." No one really got it, but I suppose it was our version of high-fiving one another.

One day towards summer's end, there were just the two of us alone on the court. We played a fast one-on-one over and over again, each edging the other out from game to game, until exhausted, we called a halt. I urged him to come down to the lake for a swim, he could borrow a suit from me. I noticed him hesitate, but I pushed ahead. And so we trooped down to the lake that served all the houses in the area. We were both quietly relieved that no one was there to see us. Or so we thought.

You can guess the rest. A meeting of adults. My father gave me a tongue lashing, lecturing me on social reality and common sense; he told me that Cliff's boss had warned him if he ever did that again he would be out of a job.

Cliff and I never referred to it. But I needed to do something: The rest of the summer, I avoided swimming in the lake. At first, my father was faintly amused, then irritated. But by then, it was September, and we returned to the city.

During that year, there were occasional letters. We wrote about books, school and parents; and about ourselves. We counted the remaining time ahead before we each would leave home. The next summer Cliff and I simply picked up where we had left off. I joined his all-black basketball team, which played in an unofficial all-black summer league. And, to my father's fury, I refused to swim in the lake, the place where the family gathered to socialize and bond during the summer.

I wish I could tell you that there was a happy ending; that Cliff and I remained friends to this day. I certainly thought that was the way our lives would play out. But I went West, and he moved to New York. We corresponded for a while... and then silence.

Two years later, when I visited my family one summer weekend, I called Cliff's father. He sounded evasive, so I asked around until I finally discovered what had happened. Apparently some time after he had arrived in New York, Cliff had thrown himself in front of the cars heading down the West Side Highway. He had been hospitalized, and then, when his injuries had healed, the doctors and his family had sent him to the State Mental Hospital about 30 miles away.

I called the hospital, found he was allowed visitors, and the next day drove there. I waited outside on a bench in the garden and watched him come out of the building. He had put on weight, and where once he had a light bounce to his walk, he now seemed stiff and careful. He saw me, but he kept his face blank. We talked for a while, making conversation. I am not very good at this, I suddenly realized. Soon, to my relief, visiting hours were over.

I returned the next week, but it went no better. And then as I turned to leave, he asked me: Do you still read Eliot? I nodded. I don't anymore, he said. Please don't come back. Please.

It was maybe five or six years before I saw Cliff again. He was living at home with his parents, working as a helper for the local landscape gardener. I knew it was inappropriate, but I came to his father's house anyway and asked to see him. He had thickened, turned a bit tranquil, almost slow, and had a ready, facile smile on his face for just about everything that was said. I asked if he wanted to shoot some baskets, but he shook his head rather quickly and waited for me to leave. I never saw him again.

I have had black friends -- good friends -- in every city in which I have lived. Except Los Angeles. The Jewish world I inhabit here is a white one. There are black associates on The Jewish Journal, but I am after all "the boss" and we go our separate ways after work. When I visit friends for dinner or a party, it is a white society I encounter. It is not what I envisioned 40 some years ago when the power of Martin Luther King, Jr. first made its presence felt. But it is the social reality, as my father would have said. It is my loss. It is a loss for many of us. -- Gene Lichtenstein


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