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The Shoe Salesman as Relic

27 Sep

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He is thin, well postured and wears a fine suit and silk tie. His shoes, of course, are high quality. They are shined.

 

He is the Shoe Salesman, a man from another era. Proud, maybe arrogant, certainly fussy about footwear, he treats you, his customer, with respect and wants you to walk away in style and comfort.

 

You are seated when the Shoe Salesman approaches. He is polite and professional. You notice he moves well. There is some discussion about what you need and want. He makes suggestions and you tend to agree with him.

 

Now he must measure your feet.

shoe measuring device

The Shoe Salesman pulls up a specially designed bench that allows him to sit and you to put a foot up so he can place a shoe on it. But that comes a little later, after the measurement, which is done using a device that looks as if it belongs in his hands. He can move it about easily, flipping it to measure either your right or left foot.

 

On his request, you stand for the measurement. He moves the calibrators, touches your big toe, presses the foot flat and – regardless of what size you see on the device – tells you what size you should wear.

Eatons Shoe Salesman Chair 1970 1

Using the information from your earlier discussion with the Shoe Salesman, he goes into the back to get your shoes. A moment later he returns with three or four boxes. There are different styles and even different sizes, just in case his measurement is off.

 

The Shoe Salesman puts down all but one box. He holds it in his left hand, gracefully removes the lid and secures it underneath the box. There is a “fliff, fliff” sound as the Shoe Salesman deftly pushes aside the two pieces of tissue covering the shoes. You notice how good the shoes look.

 

He sits on his bench and takes one shoe from the open box. Then, in a move that would humble a magician, the Shoe Salesman produces a silvery shoehorn from somewhere. You are not certain from where. He manipulates the shoehorn and the shoe glides silently onto your foot with minimal friction.

 

The Shoe Salesman ties the laces like you never could. He repeats all this for the second shoe and asks you to stand. With your foot inside the shoe, he uses his thumb and forefinger to squeeze the tip of the shoe. This is to judge the distance, if any, from the top of your big toe to the leather in front. The Shoe Salesman decides if it’s enough.

 

He asks you to walk, which you do. He watches you closely. He asks questions.

 

You try on another pair or two and, upon the recommendation of the Shoe Salesman, make a decision. He expresses delight at your choice and while boxing up the shoes asks if you need socks. You say no, and then a point of importance is mentioned: Do you need shoe trees?

CedarShoeTree

Cedar shoe trees: $25

The shoe trees, he explains, are vital to the care and life of shoes. They allow the shoes to hold their shape and help to disperse odor. They come in plastic, but those are not recommended. You should only buy cedar, the Shoe Salesman advises, even if they are expensive.

 

With a degree of embarrassment, you decline the shoe trees. There is a look of disappointment on the face of the Shoe Salesman. This detracts from the near joy of the shoe purchasing experience. Something in you wants to make the Shoe Salesman happy, and you seemed to have failed at that.

 

But the Shoe Salesman rallies and the transaction finishes in upbeat fashion. There is a request that you visit again soon.

shoes-2000-dollars

A pair of $2,000 shoes

 

The Shoe Salesman may still exist at fine men stores where shoes sell for the price of a good suit. There was a time, however, when they were found in main street establishments and in family department stores like Sears.

 

It takes dignity, a reasonable salary and longevity to produce the kind of service described here. It is unfortunate these things were severed from shoe sales decades ago. So today, we are accustomed to what would have been an unacceptable horror in 1960: We must try on our own shoes and judge for ourselves whether or not they fit. In the entire shoe department, it may be impossible to find anything even resembling a rudimentary shoehorn.

 

Like in restaurants where we must serve and clean up after ourselves, we are pretty much on our own in the shoe department.

 

This is the American economy, a place sucked dry of everything deemed unessential. Remarkably, without someone trying to sell you shoes, the shoes manage to get sold. This is the miracle of our time. In a society where labor is horribly undervalued and skills like those of the Shoe Salesman will never be properly rewarded, the American public has been trained to supply free labor that previously was paid for.

 

How did this happen? Damned if I know. Perhaps it’s the results of global markets and the ability of foreign people with lower living standards to produce things once produced by those in countries with higher standards of living.

 

But I think it’s also related to the predatory nature of our society championed by corporations that want to keep an increasingly larger portion of their revenue. They succeed at this in the absence of any morality requiring a more even distribution of wealth, and with no market forces pushing up wages.

 

When Henry Ford needed to ramp up production on his new assembly line in order to meet the swelling demand for his cars, he famously boosted wages to $5 a day, an unheard of rate. Slyly, that rate was enough so all his employees could afford cars.

 

Today there are legions of undervalued workers, many at multi-billion dollar companies such as Walmart and Amazon, who cannot afford an automobile. As long as cars and other American products are purchased by consumers in the global market, this presumably doesn’t matter. It does, however, create instability, conflict and adds stress to government.

A Snug Fit

A shoe salesman attends to a customer in 1955

 

 

I say this not because I am a Bleeding Heart Liberal. I say this not because I want to penalize private enterprise. Rather, I say this because I am a person who once enjoyed purchasing a pair of men’s shoes and would like very much to someday enjoy that experience again.

 

By Lanny Morgnanesi

 

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A Modest Place of Distinction Continues to Survive

26 Sep
2018-09-26 14.13.55

Near Broad and Wolf

 

Circumstances brought me to South Philadelphia this week.

 

For those unfamiliar with this legendary locale, it is a crowded little sub-town of look-alike row homes. South Philly probably is best known as the birthplace of the Philly Cheesesteak and as the home of 50s teen idols like Fabian, Frankie Avalon and Bobby Rydell.

 

Traditionally, it is considered an Italian neighborhood, and although it has had its ups and down, with people moving in and people moving out, it remains intact. Its vibrancy is illustrated by the thriving Italian market that has been in existence since the early 1900s. In the movies, Rocky runs through it as part of his training.

 

The area is broken up into many neighborhoods. I was at Wolf and Broad streets, a humble section without landmarks. One day at around 1:30, I decided to find a restaurant for lunch. I knew the big name South Philly restaurants were elsewhere, but whatever place I chose had to meet at least baseline standards in order to exist here.

The_South_9th_Street_Italian_Market_Festival

The Italian Market

 

I came upon a small corner joint named Johnnie’s at 12th and Wolf. My plan was to takeout, a good idea since the place was empty save for a waitress sitting at a table. Didn’t matter. Johnnie’s was clean and decorated with wine bottles, plastic flowers and garland. There were several religious icons, including a statue of the Sacred Heart, which is Jesus exposing his bulging heart through an open robe.

 

I ordered some pasta and sandwiches, including a Cheesesteak with sauce and onions.

 

“Sauce?” the waitress said with a puzzled face.

 

“Yes, sauce and onions.”

 

“You mean red gravy?” she asked.

 

“Yes, red gravy,” I said, remembering where I was.

 

After she put in my order we chatted. Having walked down Wolf Street, I noticed a good number of the 3-story homes had been gentrified, with beautiful wooden doors and fancy nameplates displaying address numbers. I hadn’t been in one of these homes for decades, but I recollect at least two common interior features. First, all couches and chairs were protected with clear plastic slipcovers. Second, one interior wall – the whole thing — was faced with mirrors to give the narrow homes a feeling of depth. The mirrors may still be there. I’m guessing the plastic slip covers are gone.

1959_Fabian_Forte

Singer Fabian Forte, from South Philly

“How’s the neighborhood doing?” I asked the waitress.

 

“Well,” she said, “I’m not from here. I’m from the other side of Broad Street (three blocks away). But I’d say it’s doing OK. Things have picked up. For a while, I was thinking about moving. Not now. It’s pretty good.”

 

South Philly has been targeted by an army of millennials looking for a small town feel in the big city. They have made South Philly one of the hottest Philadelphia neighborhoods for rentals.

 

“What do these homes sell for?” I asked. “A good one, not a great one.”

 

She thought about it. “Maybe the low 300s. That’s what they go for on my street. Maybe the high or mid-200s.”

 

“It’s nice when a neighborhood comes back,” I said, thinking about the Chambersburg section of Trenton, which has not come back.

 

Trenton, New Jersey, was where my father was born. Our family lived there for a few years. I think we moved out when I was seven. We didn’t live in Chambersburg, but as children we’d hear talk about this very ethnic Italian neighborhood. Occasionally we’d eat at a restaurant there, but mostly we bought bread and pastries from its bakeries.

 

As an adult, while living in suburban Philadelphia, I joined my father’s Trenton-based lodge, The Roman Society. In its day it was a remarkably successful organization, and I’ve written about it here. Without repeating too much, I’ll just say the lodge owned a beautiful restaurant and banquet facility called the Roman Hall. It outlived its usefulness after the unmistakable truth became known: Chambersburg was no longer and never again would be Italian. Also, walking the streets was getting dangerous.

 

No surprise. The restaurant went under.

 

An entrepreneur wanted to turn the place into an Hispanic-style nightclub. He asked that the lodge to hold the mortgage, which it did, and our signs were taken down. For me, this was like Rome falling all over again.

 

But back to the better-fated South Philly.

 

Not far from Johnnies, a young man I know (non-Italian) lives happily with his new wife in a South Philly row home. The couple, both of whom work in Center City, got married at an old but stately South Philly high school that had been converted in a bar/banquet hall. It’s a large, slightly Greek-style building on a small, cramped side street. Hardly any parking. I’m told the wedding attendees stayed at a riverfront hotel and Ubered over.

 

South Philadelphia is an indication that things can change for the better. The defining question is how much better and for how much longer. Either way, I hope Johnnies’ dinner trade is better than its lunch trade. It’s not Dante and Luigi’s or Ralph’s or Marra’s, but it’s a nice place for quick, simple food. If you, like I, are near 12th and Wolf due to circumstances, I can recommend it. Be sure to remember it’s “red gravy,” not sauce.

 

By Lanny Morgnanesi

Amid haute cuisine and class struggle

12 Feb

oysters-rockefeller-52891-1

Last night I had Oysters Rockefeller. It was accompanied by green beans, a baked tomato and finger potatoes. Preceding that was chicken noodle soup and a salad of baby spinach, walnuts, goat cheese and dried cranberries. Dessert followed. This was dinner at the retirement home – not mine, my father’s.

 

The food was slightly better than usual because it was Birthday Night, the once-a-month event that celebrates all those born in that month. But even on regular nights, the meals are of high quality. Overall, the place is well-maintained, very clean and well-functioning. The staff is attentive and friendly.

 

Sitting in the dining hall, however, I realized my father was unlike nearly all the other people. He was of a different class. Even in old age, maybe especially in old age, this kind of thing comes through.

 

“Hey,” a man who had the look of a retired corporate executive shouted across several tables at my father when he was a newcomer. “You’ve got a hat on. Take off your hat!”

 

My father is bald and wears a hat to keep his head warm. He explained this to the man yelling at him and declined the directive to remove it. I don’t think the two have spoken since.

 

Dad has his friends at the home. All the Italians, plus the open, gregarious people who don’t think too much of themselves. Still, I’m certain few share his background.

 

european-immigrants-disembarking-everett

My father was born to immigrant parents. He worked in factories, served in World War II and afterward took a job with the United States Postal Service. He never made much money but late in life was approved for a 100 percent veterans disability pension (loss of hearing in one ear during the war). This was a boost to his income at a time when his expenses were low. Actually, he never did spend much money, but with this second pension he was able to save even more. He invested mostly in CDs and government bonds when inflation and interest rates were in double digits, and made good money when he sold a house originally purchased for $15,000.

 

So, unlike a lot of working men, this working man was able to afford a berth in a rather nice retirement home. By doing that, he has to put up with the kind of people who may have had servants and commanded a realm.

 

“I wouldn’t sit there,” a thin, small, patrician-looking woman told me on Birthday Night. I was trying to sit down with my father at “her” table. “Mildred will be coming soon and that’s where she sits.”

 

We sat anyway. The hostess had  placed us there, advising that Mildred would be seated at another table, and so the suggestion was ignored.

 

But it did not stop there.

 

When I asked my father what he was going to order, I spoke somewhat loudly into his hearing-aid assisted “good” ear.

 

“Please lower your voice, ,” the woman told me.

 

“I need to speak loud enough for him to hear,” I said.

 

“He can hear you,” she said dismissively. “And Mildred will be coming soon.”

 

When she spoke again of Mildred coming, I was tempted to call her an old bat. Before I could, the hostess came over and said, “If you are uncomfortable here, I can seat you at a different table.”

 

I took her up on that.

Walker

Officially, there are no assigned seats at this particular home.  But so many residents insist on sitting at the same place all the time, and with the same people, that things can get nasty. It could just be that old people are nasty, yet I sense past lives of entitlement influencing the forcefulness of these individuals. Most are dressed fairly well as they push their walkers about. Many women get their hair done regularly and accessorize with jewelry. My father, meanwhile, doesn’t care much about his appearance.

 

Overall, the class distinction here comes down to look and attitude, since there isn’t a lot of spending and few extra possessions. There’s a haughtiness in at least a strong minority of the residents. In some cases, it’s mean arrogance.

 

One night I brought my father back to the home after dinner at my house.

 

“It’s not quite seven,” I said. “You can get in on tonight’s poker game.”

 

He didn’t answer right away, then said, “I’m never going to play poker here again.” His face was full of hurt.

 

“Oh no,” I said. “What happened?”

 

“Four of us were playing in the game room. Nickle and dime. Everything was fine. Then I won four hands in a row and this guy, a very bitter man who always seems to be in a bad mood, says in a loud voice, ‘I’m not going to play with a cheater.’ He was referring to me.”

Minolta DSC

“What?” I had this ridiculous image of arthritic hands trying to deal a second, with cards flying everywhere.

“I thought maybe I didn’t hear him right or that he was kidding. But he repeated it. ‘I’m not playing with cheaters.’ I said something back and then I got up and left. That’s it. I’ll never play again.”

 

It was difficult for me to believe anyone in a retirement home could act this way over a game, but I guess I’m naïve. Anger and unhappiness, and perhaps paranoia, don’t disappear with age. Maybe they get worse.

 

My father’s accuser, whom he pointed out to me on a latter visit, had the appearance of a grumpy man in charge of something important who treats everyone around him poorly. It’s possible he was delusional, and that this was not about class, or feeling superior, or not trusting someone unlike you. Still, while eating dinner in the dining hall and looking over the patrons (they all look so similar), I had an idea.

 

Why not adopt the college model for retirement homes and diversify the population by offering scholarships?

diverse students

Colleges and universities see a homogeneous student population as a detriment to learning and understanding life. By working hard to diversify those who are admitted, higher ed administrators believe they improve the student experience.

 

The retirement home experience sure could use improvement. So why not take some affirmative action and offer elderly scholarships and admit people who otherwise would not even think of applying? It could become a whole new thing. Corporate sponsors could be found. In trying to recruit the residents, personnel from the home could attend retirement parties at factories and other places of blue collar employment. They could even go after people with special talents.

Shuffleboard

For example, a scholarship could be offered to a champion shuffled board player who could be entered in a new retirement home league and bring pride and glory to his particular home. Maybe there’s a bingo player out there who has developed a strategy that goes beyond chance. He or she would be an attractive find. Or, if there are any left, old vaudevillians could be recruited. They could entertain fellow residents in exchange for their scholarships.

 

In the beginning, the scholarship elderly would be looked upon as beneath those who pay full price. But I suspect – and hope – that with time they would be accepted and maybe even be able to sit at the table of their choice. Like at colleges, they would change the atmosphere, attitude and culture of retirement homes, bringing more tolerance and empathy.

 

And less grumpiness.

Less grumpy old person

I think this is worth a try. Now who will fund that first scholarship?

 

By Lanny Morgnanesi

What is so attractive about the opposite of modesty?

9 Dec

Modesty miniskirt high school

 

I’d like to share some thoughts on a topic often considered inappropriate, even offensive. That topic is modesty.

 

Decades ago, modesty was a common word and part of a common discussion. It was considered a good quality, something advocated by parents, teachers and others who sought to guide and instruct.

 

Today, it has become a pejorative. The reasons for this include:

 

  • Our present adversarial relations with Muslims, whose women often wear headscarves and sometimes cover up completely.

 

  • The belief that to advocate for modesty is to imply that a female’s manner of dress is at fault for a man’s assault or victimization of her.

 

  • The fact that current styles make it almost impossible for women to dress modestly and be fashionable at the same time.

 

modesty-Hepburn

The modesty issue first confronted me in high school, in the 60s, when the miniskirt was popular. That tiny article of clothing made it difficult for a young woman to sit down without revealing much of herself. There was a lot of pulling at the skirt in an attempt to cover up, but this was mostly ineffective. I recall wondering if my female classmates knew what was in clear view. They must have. They must have seen each other. The exposure was so common that a male friend had a name for it. He called it “having your picture taken.”

 

I felt sorry and embarrassed for the women wearing these skirts, thinking how totally ashamed I would be if, for example, I were caught walking the halls with my zipper down. I wanted to say something but lacked the nerve.

 

Men in high school, frankly, seemed more modest than females. But to this day I don’t know why. The swimming coach at school once told me it was difficult to get men on the team because they had to wear those tiny Speedos, which showed masculine protrusions. This I understood. So why didn’t women have a similar concern with the miniskirt?

 

Out of high school and college and into an office environment, I had an unexpected and really surprised warning from an older male colleague about my own modesty. It was a hot summer day and I wore a short-sleeve shirt.

 

“That’s not professional,” he said. “You’re supposed to wear long sleeves. Always long sleeves. You don’t show your arms at work.”

Modesty minnie-driver

I had never heard this rule and took heed of his counsel. The next day also was hot, but I wore a long-sleeve shirt. In a meeting that day, I noticed the women were showing an assortment of arms, legs, shoulders, cleavage, even toes. Not fair, I thought, and questioned how this double standard came to be. Would the women in the office accept me if I were showing my chest or toes? I was certain they would not, and that everyone would believe I had lost my mind.

 

These little stories are not to suggest that modesty is alien to all women. I dated a woman once who, while not overtly modest, had a disdain for showy fashion and sexy clothes. Her common attire was jeans and a shirt. She wore a dress only when it was called for, and never used make up or styled her hair.

 

She made an exception at a Halloween party. As a costume, she put on heavy makeup, fixed her hair and wore a provocative dress. She looked totally different, very enticing. I raved about her appearance and told her to do it again sometime. As long as I knew her, she never did.

 

I respected and admired that.

Modesty

Earlier I mentioned Muslim women. Years ago, I had one as a friend. She was Indonesian. Pretty hip, fashionable and not at all religious. We were both living abroad in an international community. After a harsh winter, spring broke out to our great relief. On a warm bright day, I told my friend, “You know what I want to do? I want to make a picnic lunch, take a blanket outside and lay in the sun. Would you do that with me?”

 

She said she would, but after a minute on the blanket she got up and said, “I’m sorry. I can’t do this. I know you just want to enjoy the day and don’t mean anything by it. But I’m a Muslim woman and I can’t lay out on a blanket in public with a man. I just can’t.”

 

I assured her I understood. We packed up and went to a restaurant. I felt horrible for not realizing what I had asked her to do. I had been totally blind to it.

 

This might have been more about dignity than modesty, but the two actually meld.

Modesty-quote-dignity

Clearly, there is some trace of a belief that says modesty has its place and that it can be adopted by choice and without compromise or surrender of rights. With fashion the way it is today, with so many women going out confidently in pants that are nothing more than a second layer of skin, and at a time when so many men are being exposed as sexual predators and uninvited Lotharios, why doesn’t a modesty movement – a small one – take hold?

 

To help me better understand this, I need women to explain the issue to me, mainly why even a modest amount of modesty is moderately objectionable. So please comment here. More important, what is the strong attraction to modesty’s inverse?  Why the other extreme? That’s the even bigger question.

 

This is what has truly confounded me, ever since those high school days when young boys, uncaring about the dignity of their female friends, regularly got their pictures taken.

 

One final note. I know a man who became a woman. After the change, she seemed obsessed not by womanhood and all that it can and should be, but rather by the superficial — jewelry, clothing and appearance. Something there seemed missing or wrong.

 

Can it be the same with the modesty issue?

 

Lanny Morgnanesi

Does anyone remember John and Peter’s bar and the great Johnny’s Dance Band?

24 Mar

Some condemn immigrants; many benefit from them

28 Nov

dim-sum-garden2

As a twist to what is current, I’m writing positively about immigrants.

 

Whether we acknowledge it or not, newcomers have always played a role in improving American’s special brand of capitalism. A recent innovation I stumbled upon involved food, a truck and a series of parking lots around the Philadelphia suburbs.

 

The participating entrepreneurs are Chinese and the heart of the operation is

a Chinese app called We Chat. This single app, available in English and Chinese, is something like Facebook but has been built out so it is many apps in one. It is used by millions of Chinese people around the world to do things for which Americans use multiple apps. Now it is being used to find and organizing markets for products.

 

Business people from Philadelphia’s Chinatown section use it to sell food products to people in the suburbs who might not want to drive into Chinatown. There are a number of groups doing this.  I’m not sure how many, but I know one sells just mushrooms, one vegetables, and one food from Xian province.

 

The seller I did business with was selling frozen dim sum products. They buy from wholesalers and sell in bulk, mostly on the weekends.

 

As the weekend approaches, We Chat is used to tell buyers what products are available in the upcoming delivery. Most important, they are informed of the the times the food truck will arrive and depart from each parking lot on the delivery circuit.

 

The customer orders using a phone and is given an order number.

 

The closest stop to my house is about 20 minutes away, and the truck would be there Sunday from 10:20 a.m. to 10:50 a.m. It’s a small window because the truck has to move on to the next lot and new customers, like a bus on a schedule. I arrived around 10:15, and saw an unmarked truck at the far end of the lot, away from a large shopping center. That was it.

 

The back of the truck was open and loaded with boxes labeled with numbers. There was a man inside.

 

On the ground was a woman with a clipboard.

 

“I’m number 56,” I told her.

 

shanghai-house-xiao-long-bao

I had ordered two 5-pound bags of something called Shanghai Xioa Rong Boa. In English they are called soup dumplings. These dumpling have become a big hit in several newer restaurants in Chinatown.

 

Not long ago, Chinatown in Philadelphia was a tired, weary, unexciting place. The restaurants were dirty and the menus hadn’t changed in years. Most, I believe, were owned by long-established Cantonese. Now, after a whole different wave of Chinese immigration, there is a new breed of entrepreneurs in Chinatown. They have opened stylish eateries with fresh, fun, unusual offerings. Some are inexpensive and have attracted large numbers of urban hipsters.

 

As a result of this renaissance, soup dumplings are found all over Chinatown. They come in several varieties. To properly enjoy them, you have to master the technique of eating them.

 

The soup dumpling exterior skin is made from dough. Inside is the filling, usually meat and soup. If you eat them wrong, you risk scolding your tongue on the hot soup, or exploding the dumpling and having soup cascade onto the table and your clothes.

 

One way to eat them is to use a Chinse soup spoon. Put the dumpling on the spoon and take a small, gentle bite of the skin. Let some of the hot soup leak out onto the spoon, where it can cool. In addition to cooling, this releases the pressure and prevents an explosion. Sip the cooled soup then, after a moment, bite fully into the dumpling or put the whole thing in your mouth.

 

At Dim Sum Garden on Race Street you can get an order of eight pork soup dumplings for $6.25. These are fresh, not frozen. You can even watch them being made. At the truck, a bag of 100 frozen dumplings is $20.

 

“Only two bags?” the woman outside the truck asked.

 

“Yes, just two.”

 

The man inside put my order in a plastic bag. From the looks of things, all the other orders were in larger boxes.

 

“And, I heard you get a free drink,” I said.

 

The man in the truck put a can of Sacred Lotus Leaf Herbal Tea in my bag. As required, I paid in cash.

 

The tea was from Fujian province in China but the frozen dumplings came from a factory in the Maspeth section of Queens, right near Brooklyn. The commercial neighborhood was established in the 17th century by Dutch and English settlers. I guess immigrants continue to operate strongly there. In fact, Queens – the home of President-elect Donald Trump – may be the most diverse town in all of America, maybe the planet.

queens

“There are 1 million immigrants and a mix that is perhaps unprecedented in this borough’s history,” said Joseph Salvo,  a demographer with the city Planning Department.

 

He said the population is almost equally divided among Asian and Hispanic groups from countries such as China, Guyana, Ecuador, Colombia, the Dominican Republic, India and Korea.

 

Either way, someone there in Maspeth was working a job that helped bring soup dumplings to my table, and people closer to my home have come up with a great and inventive alternative to food shopping in the city.

 

The whole thing seems pretty good, and my thanks go out to the immigrants – or sons and daughters of immigrants – whose hard work and clever approach made it happen. They were attracted to the U.S. because of our system. They learned it, and grew it, and allowed many to benefit from it.

 

Bon appetit! Or maybe I should say, hen hao chi!

 

Lanny Morgnanesi

 

 

 

 

 

 

Police shootings: Finding answers among Seven Spanish Angels

15 Oct

seven-spanish-angels-2

There’s a song called “Seven Spanish Angels” that makes you feel sorry for the protagonist, who probably is a killer.

 

When you hear the song you don’t think of him as evil or bad. Instead, you sympathize with him.

 

The subject of the song is a Mexican outlaw. Alone with his woman, he is trying to make a stand against a posse and vows that this time he will not be taken back to Texas alive. As he battles on, Seven Spanish Angels at the Altar of the Sun wait to receive him once he is killed in the Valley of the Gun.  And he is killed, along with his woman, who points an empty pistol at the posse so they are sure to kill her, too

 

It’s tragic.

 

The love of the man for the woman, along with her devotion to him, and his weariness and his struggle, and the sympathy of the Spanish Angels, makes you believe that maybe he is innocent.

 

Perhaps you even think he is you.

 

willie-nelson-ray-charles

Willie Nelson recorded the song with Ray Charles and you can hear it here.  It’s a great tune, but it is not life. In life, we more often think the worst of people rather than the best. This is especially true if the people are not like us. Even in the song, it requires Spanish angels to look after a Hispanic, suggesting that Anglo angels don’t much care.

 

True understanding takes a rare kind of wisdom born of diverse experience.

 

A character in a French film, the name of which I’ve forgotten, has that kind of wisdom. He is a retired judge who befriends a young woman. In a melancholy moment, he tells her, “Many people have come before me in court, and many I’ve sent to prison. Yet in every case, had I been in their situation, I would have done the same as they did.”

 

Makes me wonder what I would do if I were among those who worry every time a police officer approaches, even if I’m just sitting on my front porch. If my life could be taken at any time by an officer of the law, and for no good reason, could I be silent and passive while waiting for change?

 

I tend to think I could not. My reaction would edge toward protest and revolt. I know there are people like me who would take up arms rather than submit to this kind of treatment.

 

But not actually being subject to it, and believing it can never happen to them, those who would arm themselves can’t comprehend how the real victims could possibly do the same.

 

When someone is not like us, we can’t see their humanness. Beyond that, we ascribe all sorts of sub-human qualities to them.

 

Not long ago, I met a former NFL assistant coach, a big, powerful man who came close to tears telling a story of someone who once didn’t think much of him.

 

In the story, the future coach is attending a small college where the typical student came from a small town or farming community. The coach was not typical. Relevant to the story are these facts: He is black, good at math and a frequent hand washer.

 

One semester he tutored math to a white student who fit the school’s rural profile. At their final session, the white student expressed sincere appreciation and said he had learned more than just math. He said he discovered that something taught to him all his life – that black people lack intelligence and are dirty – was just not true.

 

The coach, in telling the story, said that if people just got together more the walls of division and hate would crumple.

 

He makes a good point. But even with more mixing, there sometimes can be an element of protective posturing that confounds true understanding. We’ve got to break through that as well.

 

Which brings me to another song, a 1961 hit called “The Bristol Stomp.”

 

There really is a place called Bristol and the Stomp (a dance) was first done there. The song says, “The kids in Bristol are sharp as a pistol when they do the Bristol Stomp.” I grew up not too far from Bristol and I can tell you that in the early ‘60s the kids in Bristol weren’t just sharp, they were required by some unwritten code to be utterly and fantastically cool.

 

Even the older men – all the Italians and about half the Irish – thought they were Sinatra.

 

There was a walk and a talk; a way of standing and a way of dressing. Outer toughness was always present. My neighborhood was nothing like this.  Bristol was a kind of threat to us. If there was going to be a fight at a high school basketball game, we’d prefer it not be with Bristol. For lack of coolness, we would never think of dating their girls (although I once did and it was great).

 

They acted superior and we bought it.

 

Yet they were destined to end up working in the local steel mill and we were destined for college. Their defense mechanisms could only get them so far.

 

What surprised me was when, through a part-time job, I actually got to know a couple of kids from Bristol. Their veneer suddenly became transparent.  They weren’t much different from me. Fears, worries, hopes, dreams – all about the same. Some weren’t even tough – or cool.

I came to understand them, rather than fear them.

 

The Seven Spanish Angels looked after and rooted for their Mexican brother because they had something in common with him. They recognized the difficulty of his life and sympathized with him. But outside of songs, there are no Spanish angels. Angels have no nationality or culture. At the Altar of the Sun, there is only universal compassion. It is for everyone because everyone in the human brotherhood is deserving of it.

 

Down here in the Valley of the Gun, it is most important to learn the sameness of our species rather than the unimportant differences. It is much harder to aim a deadly weapon at someone when you can see yourself on the other side of the barrel.

 

And so I add a few words to the conversation, one that will take a great deal more than words to resolve.

Lanny Morgnanesi

 

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