I interviewed for a job at a warehouse for a chain of department stores in Detroit. It was a summer job and the HR guy knew that I was in college. He was a black man, and he seemed to like me. He offered me the job and then said ‘Let me give you one piece of advice. Whether you’re on the floor of the warehouse or the campus of University of Michigan, or in the jungles of Viet Nam, just remember one thing: Survival!’ He shook my hand and wished me luck.
I suppose he was warning me about the culture of the warehouse, which was largely working class, some African Americans, and then the summer crop of college kids who were widely despised by the lifers. It was the summer of 1968, a year after the Detroit riots, the Viet Nam war raging with an ever increasing amount of young boys who were not in college drafted, while college kids like me had a deferment.
I did alright keeping out of harm’s way. There were only two times I was harassed. The first was for being a ‘college kid’. The second time it was for being Jewish.
The first time, I had to move a large pile of boxes from one location to another while counting how many were moved, under the watchful eye of Ellis, a large black man who didn’t put up with crap from any of us. Helping me was a boy my age who had worked there for a few years and made it quite clear how he felt about college boys. ‘Hey college boy, you think you can move faster?’ he kept saying, and the more I didn’t acknowledge his taunting the louder he became. I knew this boy couldn’t have been too bright if he was carrying on like that in front of Ellis, and I also knew it would be a matter of time before Ellis would put a stop to it—which he did.
Ellis erupted suddenly, and leaped up from the box he had been sitting on and standing upright, which emphasized his six foot two frame yelled ‘Leave him alone!’ The boy didn’t say another word, and we finished the job.
The second time was shortly before my time at the warehouse was nearing an end. I sat across from a boy named Don at lunchtime who decided to join the table where I usually sat with guys I worked with. He asked me ‘What’s your nationality?’ It was the first time I had ever been asked that, and instinctively I answered ‘Jewish’ though I don’t really know why.
Don pretended to be friendly toward this disclosure and said what he thought would be something that would make all Jewish people relaxed, comfortable and friendly: ‘Pretty good job you’re doing in Jerusalem.’
This made absolutely no sense to me. He kept going, asking where my parents were from and my grandparents, and then finally the question he had been dying to ask: ‘Why’d you kill him?’
‘Kill who?’ I asked.
‘Jesus Christ, you idiot!’
My sense of history and heritage was weak, so I answered him the best I could. ‘The Jews didn’t kill Christ; the Romans did.’ This was met with groans from everyone at the table who all believed that the Jews alone were responsible, though my interrogator was the only one who thought it should be brought out in the open. ‘Bullshit,’ he said.
Lunchtime was over, and we went back to our assigned work spots. He worked stacking boxes on the upper shelves of the warehouse. Don took advantage of his various ‘sniper’s perches’ by throwing an empty box at me whenever he happened to see me.
It was his last week at the warehouse. He had enlisted in the Marine Corps and was hot to trot, telling his coterie of admirers at the warehouse about this. On Friday of that week, I was standing in the line by the punch-out clock. There was a kind of game to this; if you punched out even two minutes early, you were docked an hour’s pay. There was a way to punch out with a minute remaining and not get docked; it was a game of chicken.
A man probably in his thirties was waiting in line. On Fridays he would always ask me if I was going to go out on a date over the weekend. I had grown tired of this question, mainly because my answer was always ‘No’. But that day I decided to answer ‘Yes’ to which he suddenly got rather preachy and started talking in rhyming couplets, saying things like ‘Keep your eyes in your sockets and your hands in your pockets.’
He came to my rescue that day. As we were standing in line, the future Marine suddenly decided to get some sympathy and attention and announced ‘Wow, tomorrow at this time I’ll be on a train heading for Parris Island to be in the Marine Corps.’ Don shook his head woefully as if to say ‘What have I done?’
After a few rounds of such talk I piped up and said ‘Did anyone hold a gun to your head to join the Marines?’ His face turned red and he was getting ready to deck me one, when my rhyming couplet friend held him back and told me ‘Punch out now even if you get docked and get the hell out of here, now!’ Which I did.
I don’t know what happened to the guy. I like to imagine that his drill instructor was Jewish or he insulted the wrong Jewish person and got the shit beat out of him. He’s likely alive and well, having survived the war, and still hating on people. Or he may well have not survived the war, and died in battle, mourned by those who loved and adored him.
About the author
Barry Garelick has written non-fiction pieces that have been published in Atlantic, and Education Next. His fiction has appeared in The Globe Review, Cafe Lit and Fiction on the Web. He lives in Morro Bay, California with his wife.
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