"The more cruel the wrong that men commit..."
Fathers and Orlando
“The more cruel the wrong that men commit
against an individual or a people, the deeper
their hatred and contempt for their victim.”
I had lunch with an old acquaintance a few days ago. She’s bright; articulate; accomplished. She enjoys life and she’s committed to help others. I told her that I had met with a government official about doing volunteer work.
“He’s an idiot,” she said.
I was shocked. I had never viewed her as a negative or hateful person.
Have you met him?
No; she hadn’t.
I spoke to him for an hour. He’s a very smart professional. I think that he wants to help.
I could tell that her conviction of this man’s stupidity was beginning to waver.
“He’s not doing anything.”
That’s not an accurate statement. He is; there are concrete plans in the works. There are dozens of political and regulatory hurdles to be cleared. And there’s never enough money. Be patient. I think that this is going to work.
She hurriedly agreed to cut him some slack. We moved the conversation on to other topics.
I went home after lunch and began to think. I needed to write something nice, thoughtful, and inspirational about the Orlando tragedy, but nothing original came to mind.
We got to Father’s Day with my mind still blank. I saw the tributes to their fathers that all of my facebook friends posted. I thought about my father; a most righteous and dignified man. For sure he would have had something insightful to say.
There was the time that he volunteered to take me and some of my middle school classmates to the university planetarium. We were talking about one of the custodians at our school. The man looked as if he were asleep even when he was walking about. He rarely said anything; he preferred to nod. Often I walked past him and did not even realize that he was there.
We called him “Juan Muerto.” Juan the dead man. We thought that what may have been devastatingly painful shyness and self-consciousness was humorous. I laughed when I told my father about him.
“I don’t think that it’s funny to mock anyone who’s working for a living. Anyone.”
A few words, yet I felt worse than if he had given me a beating. I never made fun of a disadvantaged soul again. I began to notice Juan; it seemed that I saw him much more than I ever had. I even had a few short conversations with him. He stopped being a dead man for me.
There was the incident with the snow cone man. His name was Francisco, just like the name I shared with my dad. He was Black. Although many Puerto Ricans were proud of saying “We have no prejudice here” racism was a prevalent force in all communities. Everyone who lived in the neighborhood and knew him called him Don Cico. The “don” is a title of respect. A very formal way of saying “mister.”
I say “who knew him” because he was an institution. Every morning except Sundays when the sun rose he would push his cart to its location just across the railroad tracks from my apartment building. He had a large block of ice delivered to him early in the morning and afternoon. He used a hand-held scraper to grind away at the massive block. He sold the snow cones for a nickel; he also had Mary Janes and Butterfingers, and once in a while a few bananas. A few pennies at a time he educated all of his children; I think there were five. The community loved him.
He was my father’s best friend. The college professor and the snow cone salesman spoke for hours on anything that happened to be in the papers that day. From Roberto Clemente’s heroics to complicated political issues to the latest scientific discovery. My dad would stop at the stand on his way home from the university; he would order a tamarind snow cone, and he would stand there talking while Don Cico tore into the block of ice and gave his opinion.
The railroad tracks (which were no longer in use) were the crossroads of our small civilization. Dozens of people on their way to the university walked by the stand. Most of them bought something. They called my father’s friend “Francisco,” skipping the respectful title that he so richly deserved.
There was the day when I had saved five pennies. I had a craving for a tamarind snow cone (is an addiction to sourness hereditary?). I ran across the tracks with great anticipation. My father was at the stand; they were talking about an upcoming election.
Francisco, give me a tamarind snow cone.
I noticed a hint of surprise, maybe even pain, in Don Cico’s face. He looked to the ground for a split second and proceeded to do his work. After I got my snow cone my father said good bye and walked home with me.
He asked me to go in his bedroom.
“That man that you just addressed as Francisco…” He paused. I could tell that he was very emotional. Not sure if angry or close to tears. I squirmed. He continued.
“His name is Don Cico. To you and to everyone else.”
I was puzzled. I was too young to establish the distinction.
“He works very hard. He loves his children. He’s my friend.” He paused.
“Not only that. I have spoken to him. If anything happens to me he has agreed to make sure that you’re OK. He will be responsible for you.”
The privileged golden child would be raised by the Black snow cone salesman. All of a sudden I got it. I also understood, without further explanation, that if anything happened to my dad I was going to be OK. Better than OK.
“Here are three pennies. You go back to the stand and buy yourself some candy. Make sure that you say Don Cico, and please.”
One of the longest walks of my life; not even half a block in urban terms.
Don Cico, may I please have three Mary Janes?
My soul was cleansed.
From then on Don Cico clearly favored me over the other kids in the neighborhood. He beamed whenever I approached him. Many years later, during a break from medical school, I went to his house to say Hi. He had retired; he was not well. He was at his rocking chair. It dawned on me that I had never seen this man sitting down.
I leaned down to hug him. He began to cry. His wife joined in the tears.
“Paquito,” he said. “My boy is going to be a doctor. I’m so proud.”
Not as proud as I was to be called his boy.
On Father’s Day I thought about my dad’s lesson. Don Cico’s love. My friend; a good person who somehow felt that it was OK to call someone you don’t know an idiot. The tornado of hate and invective that we hurl at each other on a daily basis, thinking that it’s OK to do this when someone doesn’t agree with our views.
The escalating cycle of cruelty and contempt for others who are different… The politicians who didn’t have the brains or the guts to say something, anything that would have urged us to tone it down.
Is there hope? Will anyone listen?