At age twenty-four, Nick was confident of his open-mindedness, his lack of prejudice, his 60s credentials. No one had ever alleged or even hinted that he had done or said something that was racially biased or bigoted. Had they, he would have righteously, indignantly, defended himself.
Still, in his hidden spaces, his reptilian places where primal instincts incubate and fear and the reflex to survive rule the unconscious roost, he was a conventional creature, afraid of the un-him.
It’s not that he wanted to actively harm or belittle black people. He was, in fact, a liberal, which was just fine in those JFK-LBJ days. He had marched, for goodness sake—for school integration, for civil rights, for voting rights. He may have hated the war in Southeast Asia, but he loved the war on poverty. He dug the wit of Dick Gregory, the dignity of Rosa Parks, the passion of James Baldwin, the audacity and courage of Muhammad Ali.
He was raised by a black woman named Effie Smith, well, half-raised. She came all day five days a week to his family’s West Side apartment, to cook and clean and take care of his sister and him. This was commonplace in their Jewish middle-class culture, whether moms were employed or not — and most moms, including his, were not.
Effie was treated as one of the family. She ate at the table, shared in family celebrations and gift-giving, went along on vacations. She was valued and always addressed respectfully. Still, in her absence, his parents called Effie ‘the girl.’
At least they never called her the schvartze, a word his mother abhored. His father, however, used it in reference to other people’s domestic help, as well as for pretty much any other black person on earth. His mom shooshed his old man about this for the entirety of their fifty-seven year marriage.
Nick’s prejudice was fearful, not hateful, and it was specific. He was afraid of black male strangers. In his defense, he was taught to be. He was told that they might be dangerous, that they might have knives or guns. The west side and south side ghettos were forbidden ground. You would never choose to walk in those neighborhoods, you didn’t even want to drive through them.
Carjacking wasn’t yet a word much less an urban epidemic, but the prospect of a brick through the windshield was deterrent enough. There were exceptions, though. It felt okay in a crowd—on Maxwell Street on a busy Saturday or Sunday, at Comiskey for a Sox game, at the Chicago Stadium for the Blackhawks or the Bulls.
He’d even gone with his high school musician pals to the black blues clubs. Those adventures were something else again, spine-tinglers, the scared shitless price they were willing to pay to see and hear geniuses like Muddy Waters and Howlin’ Wolf and Little Walter.
He’d known from the start of medical school, for almost four years, that his two week rotation at the Maternity Center was required and inevitable. He was not panicked or obsessed with worst-case scenarios about personal danger. His anxiety was mostly about screwing up medically. He was thinking about obstetrics and grateful for a break from the traditional grind of student rotations on the hospital wards.
He looked forward to having a huge learning experience and surviving this remarkable cultural-professional immersion. Still, there was a quiet physical fear, a simmer, one part common sense discomfort on those authentically mean streets, one part paranoia amid dark skinned bogeymen.