Papergirls for Social Justice
My ancestors immigrated to the United States in the mid-1800s during the great potato famine in Ireland. Several generations of us lived in Brooklyn. When my parents decided to move out of Brooklyn, they liked the idea of being Irish and having a home on land in New York that had once been a potato farm. They did not know that Suffolk County, a little further east and forty years prior, had been a hub for Klan activity. My parents were hopeful that the legacy of William Levitt’s racism in Levittown one and a half decades prior also had righted itself by now. Ten plus years since this terrible trouble, the media had documented forthrightly that Levitt would not sell homes to Black families.
The following is a clause from a 1948 Levittown lease:
The tenant agrees not to permit the premises to be used or occupied by any person other than members of the Caucasian race. But the employment and maintenance of other than Caucasian domestic servants shall be permitted.
The clause was dropped from the leases that very same year when the Supreme Court called such clauses unenforceable. Certainly by the early sixties, Long Island suburbia would be more diverse – or open to diversity, one hoped – after all, most of us newcomers were formerly urban.
In 1964, New Birchwood was a Catholic-majority neighborhood, mostly Italian and Irish, and mostly from the city. We had three Polish-Jewish families on our block. One Chinese-Catholic family and two Black families — one Catholic, one Baptist — who would buy homes in our neighborhood the first year we were there. My parents felt this was a sign of social progress, a hopeful relenting of the strictures in Levittown. After all, the Klan hated all of us. Might all of us among the hated, all together, make at the very least an accepting and diverse community: to newness, to detached homes, to enthusiasm and a ruddy-faced life full of lawns, children, bicycles and fresh-air for everyone?
“Not so fast,” my eighty-something-year-old mother interjects once again.
In the first decade we lived on Long Island, my parents saw recurrent racist acts. The first one happened shortly after we moved in. A neighbor phoned every home on the block to participate in a meeting at his house about a Black family moving in soon. My mother said it was horrifying to witness.
“You went?” I asked, surprised.
She said she was too afraid to say no. She thought not going would be perceived as a threat.
“So what!,” I said.
“It was a different time,” she said, “I could not stand up to people.” I reminded myself that in 1964, my mother was twenty-eight years old. I reminded myself that when she was twenty-two, she had been fired from her job because she was pregnant. I rebuked myself, knowing full well that as a girl, a man — her father — had wrecked her world.
My father sensed big trouble that night, so he stayed home waiting for the start of The Ed Sullivan Show. He pinched tin foil hats the size of his thumbnail onto the tips of the rabbit ear antennae for the console television his sister had given them as a wedding present. Making these doohickeys would take up most of his waiting time.
My father was an expert in the art of making simple apparatus. Several nights a week he’d make new foil hats, a man of ritual indeed, because in a matter of days the old ones started to sit askew on the rabbit ears. Since they really did reduce white static on the television screen, why not keep at it? These foil hats were gems, always identical twins.
Once done, he would wait in his recliner for his show. This is how he found solitude in a house of eight people. However, some days the catalyst for making new apparatus was less benign.
“Lorraine, who touched the antenna?,” he’d yell because after a long day at work he found the rabbit ear vectors had changed position, and the foil hats were on the rug.
It drove him crazy if we touched his shit. He’d write “MINE” in black marker, all capital letters, on a piece of paper from the miniature, spiral notebooks we used to keep track of homework assignments. He’d tape the note to all sorts of things, his tools in the furnace room, for one, that was a given, and on leftovers in the refrigerator. “MINE” taped on half a boiled ham and swiss hero from the deli. “MINE” on the transistor radio. “MINE” on the half gallon of ice cream. Here’s the thing, the memo pad paper had the ragged edge trimmed off so carefully you could not tell the page was torn from a spiral notebook. The paper edges were trimmed as if with a mathematician’s protractor: symmetrical edges, true right angles, true parallelism of vertical and horizontal perimeters, the four letters in MINE unequivocally uniform.
My father was a veteran seeking order and control, a veteran with five children. Sometimes his life was too intense and staying orderly was a compensatory mechanism for him.
That night, at the neighbor’s house, the fat man running the neighborhood meeting said they were going to place a snide ad in Newsday, the Long Island newspaper, thanking the New Birchwood realtors for integrating the neighborhood. Then, he said, they would all sign it. My mother was in over her head. She would torment herself for going to this meeting for the next fifty years, but there was no way in hell that her name would appear in the newspaper as a signatory supporting this. Oh my god, she needed to leave, and she knew she needed to leave.
Another neighbor said, “I know people who can take them out.” This was the truck driver across the street who had a black lawn jockey statue holding a lantern at the foot of his front walk and a grotto of Mary, Our Lady of Grace. Would you look at that: the most hostile neighbors at the meeting were prominent in the church and thought themselves good Catholics.
A woman who lived in the court, in a house with the same split-level footprint, said, “I for one would like to get to know them” to someone at the top of the stairs.
“Me too,” Mom said. Thank god she said something.
She did not sign their letter and found a reason to leave.
She came home. She came in the front door, stood on the landing, and took off her Jackie O coat. Hadn’t someone just assassinated the president, and now this?
People were really going nuts.
“Lorraine, is that you?” my father said. He was waiting for her.
“Hypocrites,” she said, walking downstairs to the family room to tell him all about the meeting.
“You were expecting milk and cookies?” he said. She sat. They watched Ed Sullivan.
From that day forward, we would be good-enough Catholics. After the neighborhood meeting, our mother distanced us from church social functions. That was her line in the sand. Sunday mass, yes. No church picnics. No church dances. No church parties. She did not want to be in a situation where she would feel pressure to pretend she liked everyone. This was certain. She never wanted to hear our neighbors pontificate about race again. Neither did she want to hear such hateful thoughts. No more social functions at church for us, period: dollars to donuts some congregation members would surely speak the unbearable, especially if they were drinking, which was pretty much a given at church functions.
Meanwhile, the neighborhood was still new. Children were young. I was an infant. Thank goodness my parents wrote off these racist neighbors, and thank goodness my mother told me these stories.
By the time I was ten, the church interior ran out of room for more statues, so the bishop gave the monsignor permission to put more of them in the parking lot, because there should always be more of them; the new, suburban population boom was helping the church financially. There would be an influx of even more parishioners in the coming years, so they would put more statues throughout the parking lot. After mass, people could mill from one to the other, check them out, mutter an intercessional prayer, leave coins, rosary beads, scapulae of Jesus and candles at the feet of their favorite saint.
We sat idling in our gold Chevy wagon in the church parking lot, ready to get out of there while the fat man who ran the infamous neighborhood meeting paraded people through the parking lot like a docent for catechism. Even fatter now, he still wore his Sunday best, the white sport coat and plaid pants now cinched by a belt under a beer gut.
Hypocrite, my mother would mutter for years to come whenever she saw him. Some Sundays, the crowd was so large it seemed like a bar crawl from Mary the Immaculate, to Saint Peter, to John the Baptist. It was bad enough that we’d run into the fat man at church, but now he was creating traffic.
Causing traffic is a mortal sin on Long Island. We had an actionable issue: cars sat running, parents sat silently as did their children woefully writing in the breath-fog on the car windows, waiting to get home to watch Sunday television.
“You paid for those statues, Lorraine,” my father would say in exasperation.
As a papergirl, I saw hate crimes too: the N word spray-painted on garage doors, trash cans knocked over repeatedly, trash cans done up with swastikas, black children asking permission to join an outdoor game because their inclusion depended on whose white lawn the game was being played.
It was sad, plain and mean, and I reported these findings at dinner.
“If you ever do that, I will get out the spoon,” my mother said.
My mother’s children weren’t angels, but we were empathetic. The threat of the wood spoon really just meant that our mother was serious about the point she was making. The wood spoon in the junk drawer in fact came out only on rare occasions and even those moments concluded inconsequentially. One of us or another would run into the dining room, circle the oblong table, hitch right and left to keep our mother on the opposite side. By the time she caught whomever it was, her verve was gone and the glassware in the china cabinet was jingling.
A petite swat, a ridiculously spastic one, and it was over, typically followed by laughter at the absurdity of the glassware sounding like altar bells. Our mother’s disappointment in us, on the other hand, could hurt like appendicitis.
By the time we were teenagers, the priest asked Tim and me to run the coatroom during the Saint Patrick’s Day dance in the church basement. We happily obliged because we would make money in tips. Our mother granted this one exception to our no-socializing-at-church rule, but we were to keep a distance from some parishioners. We knew exactly who she meant.
On Saint Paddy’s night, when it was time to go home, couples came for their coats.
The fat man handed my brother the plastic coatroom chip.
“Here, let me get that for you, sir,” my brother Tim said.
“I like your hair,” I said to his wife.
“Tip them,” the wife said to her husband. They were wholly drunk which made them ugly too: teased hair, combovers and flushed faces, white rabbit stoles and velvet smoking jackets. We pretended otherwise, but we were kind of afraid. Even so, we stuck to our plan to work them over. If being polite would keep us safe, then flattery would open their wallets.
Tim and I were used to working together. We shared a paper route. We balanced sixteen papers each on the handle bars of ten speed bikes. On days when the newspapers were particularly heavy, whether thick or wet, we dumped the advertising circulars into storm drains to lighten the load. We rang doorbells on Friday afternoons to collect dues from people we did not know. We learned the art of being polite for better tips. I did particularly well because I was a girl, not just money but gifts too, like Avon and oversized candy bars, and I gloated about it. I didn’t have to say a word. I would go home, walk through whatever room Tim was in, pull a king-sized Hershey bar out from under my zippered hoodie, flick the brown paper wrapper, look at him, half smile, and leave.
The coatroom gig was a different story.
We never talked about the dollar bills that we took from the fat man, never talked about how his money felt different, like warm tidy-whities in his damp, dumb hands. We felt shitty about this money but took it anyway, as a reckoning. We had already tag-teamed his children, out-flipped them in baseball cards and spent hours sorting their cards alphabetically by teams and players, mixing them with our other cards in shoeboxes under Tim’s bed.
Was this what social justice looked like among white children in the suburbs of New York in the seventies — or had we been the only ones to take justice work into our own hands? I pray not. On some level, my mother’s reasoning to allow us to work the coatroom ran deeper than just saying yes to us earning money. Racism is not something one forgets. My mother sensed the priest asking her “good-enough” children to work the coatroom to be testimony to her resolve against hypocrisy.
Had we told our mother what we had done that night in the coatroom, how we fleeced a feral man, how we grifted a racist, I believe she would have laughed quietly and whispered something plain about payback.
 Lambert, Bruce. “At 50, Levittown Contends with its Legacy of Bias.” New York Times, Late Edition (East Coast) ed.: 23. Dec 28 1997.