This may be a long one.
On the highway today, a sign: “Purple Heart Trail.” I thought briefly about the presidential race and the role of military medals therein, but my thoughts quickly hopscotched to a Baltimore-area thrift store, the Purple Heart, and the taunt: “You dress like you shop at the Purple Heart.”
There were really only two fashion faux pas in my world, sixth grade through eighth — “fish-heads,” defined as any athletic shoe that wasn’t a Ked All-Star or a Jack Purcell, and high-waters. (“The flood is over/The land is dry/So why do you wear your pants so high?”) I still try to wear my pants a little on the long side, which is hard with a 35-inch inseam. If you wore fish-heads, the taunt was: “Fish-heads! Fish-heads! Mama buys your shoes at the Pantry Pride.”
At least, that’s what Lorenzo said. Lord, I haven’t thought about Lorenzo in, well, forever. He looked a little like Harpo Marx, if Harpo were an African-American 11-year-old. Cherubic, expressive face, tight curls, but, unlike Harpo, verbal. I realize now how precise Lorenzo’s taunts were. “Purple Heart,” not Salvation Army or Goodwill. “Pantry Pride,” not the Giant or Safeway. Those are a writer’s choices, a sense of what sounds funniest, what conveys the most.
Lorenzo was part of a huge flood of sixth-graders sent to my more sedate school while theirs was being renovated. Growing up in West and Northwest Baltimore, even pre-desegregation, schools were pretty well-integrated in terms of race. Class was a different matter, and the Pimlico kids were scary. Tougher, angrier. Our grades were pretty ruthlessly tracked, so Mrs. Emerson’s class got the smartest Pimlico kids. I remember Lorenzo, Kirk (or was it Kurt?) and Larry (the one who sat next to me whispering “Harvey KLINGER, Harvey KLINGER,” in reference to a “Brady Bunch” episode because I looked like Marcia Brady to him.)
As I said, it was it a clash of class, not race. I believed that my long-time friends — Cherby and Tawna and Robin and Susan W. and Susan C. — were as horrified as I was by these loutish boys. Then Susan W. sat next to Kirk (Kurt?) at the Martin Luther King Jr. documentary we attended on a field trip, and I realized something was changing. Later, at Tawna’s birthday party, I sensed it again. We were growing apart. Why? What was happening?
We split for junior high, a split dictated by geography, yet it was also somehow black and white. (With the exception of Cherby, who ended up on the white side of the invisible line.) My black friends went to Lemell; the white kids went to Rock Glen, although Rock Glen was probably almost 50-50 in terms of black and white. Two years later, we rejoined at Western High School in what was known as the “A” course, sort of a pre-magnet program for the city’s best and brightest. We weren’t friends anymore. No hostility, no anger, just no possibility of friendship now.
We rode the same bus, though, the #15 Lorraine. I was one of two white girls on that bus. And I was the one who became the target. It wasn’t particularly bad. (Nowhere near as bad as Portia, back in sixth grade, who had vowed to kick my ass and opted out only after learning my mom was the school librarian.) Just a lot of trash-talk and, once, literal trash, stuck in the canvas satchel I carried. My former friends didn’t join in, but they didn’t defend me, either. I was out on my own. I was white. And, far more damning, I was kind of a nerd and a goody-goody. I remember Susan W. reading a short story I had prepared for our English class. My story was small and flowery, very write-what-you-know-ish. “It reads like the kind of thing teachers give A’s to,” she said, and it was clear she found those values suspect. Susan W. was loud and funny and flamboyant. She danced her short story, as I recall. Well, if not danced it, performed it with such flare and passion that it felt like a dance. This was around the time that they were trying to make our all-girl public school coed (boy is that another story) and I remember someone rising after Susan W.’s vivid performance: “I just want to say that could never happen if boys were in our class.”
A year later, for many, many complicated reasons, I transferred to another school.
Where are they now? I suppose I could Google them. I ran into Susan C’s mom on the street almost 10 years ago; she said I looked the same as I did in grade school. (!) In fact, Susan C.’s sister is somewhat well-known. Susan W., Tawna, Cherby — I haven’t spoken to any of them in 30 years.
There’s a photograph. I’m going to describe it from memory, then go look it up to see if I’m right. It’s third grade, the last-day-of-school picnic, and a group of Mrs. Shapiro’s kids are sitting on the tail gate of my family’s red station wagon. We all have our arms around each other. We are black and white, nerds and cool kids, spazzes and athletes, boys and girls. The differences didn’t matter.
Then, one day, they did.