When I was 8 we moved. Again. School had already started and that made me “the new girl”. Again. It would start with the staring as I walked in the room. I would want, so badly, to look around the class and spy the open desk so I would have some idea where I would be sitting and who I would be sitting next to. But the feeling of thirty pairs of eyes staring at me always stopped me. The mispronunciation of my name came next. This unique name that I really loved always brought me discomfort at this time. It would cause anyone who had looked away to look up at me again, a little more intently, thinking they misunderstood. And those who hadn’t looked away would frown trying to figure out my name.
A new school was only part of it. There was always a new neighborhood as well with all the social obstacles that came with it. There were always safe people and mean people and hateful people and they all looked alike at first. It was hard to know which was which until someone either told you or you found out for yourself. And some people might seem to be one, but turn out to be another.
So there I was 8 yrs old navigating a new school and a new neighborhood. One thing I noticed right away way the family next door had two children, a boy and a girl, and from the looks of them, they were around my age. This could either be good or bad depending if they were safe or mean. I did what I always did, kept my distance and watched for clues, some kind of action or words that would let me know if they were mean and I would then know to stay clear. However since it was cold out I didn’t have a chance to see them that much. I would usually watch them as they came and went from their car to the house. But I never really got any solid indication. That all changed one snowy night.
I remember it had been snowing since the afternoon. Not a heavy snow, just a steady snow. By dark I was tired of being in the house and thought it might be fun to shovel the walk. Also I loved early dark. The dark that came though it wasn’t really night. The dark that was there when the news was still on. I had never shoveled before and it looked so easy. So I put on my coat and gloves went outside and started pushing the snow. As I got down by the end of our walk, near the sidewalk, the boy from next door came walking by and asked me what I was doing. I wanted to reply with something smart like “What does it look like I am doing?” but not knowing if he was mean or not I opted for “Shoveling.”
“Why are you doing that?” he asked.
Again, I was careful with my reply and answered, “So the snow won’t be on the sidewalk.”
“No,” he clarified, “Why are YOU doing that? It is men’s work.”
Mind you, he didn’t offer to take over, he just wanted me to know.
This was my first contact with a family that would off and on for years take me in as their own. I felt like I belonged to their family more than I felt like I belonged to my own. It was the one friendship that withstood all of the many moves my family made and the test of years passing. Even after years, see them was always like we had never been apart.
The boy was in my grade at school, his sister a grade below us. We all played together had the same friends and I slept and ate at their house as often as I could. If they had family outing or their parents took the kids to go somewhere, I was invited.
In the two years we lived next door to them I got to go so many places that I had never been and would never had had the opportunity to go. We went to the dairy where they got their milk; to the drive-in where their dad parked the station wagon backwards to we could lay in the back and watch the movies. There was an exciting trip to Eliches where my best-girlfriend-ever and I screamed and scream because we were quite sure we were going to die on the Sky Ride. You know, the one that was like a ski lift that went to the Round-Up and back slower than the people walking below? Yea, we were scared and enjoyed every minute of it. There were trips to Farmer’s Markets and to Metropolitan College were their dad went to school (and a vending machine was). There was also one memorable trip though that taught me about hatred, prejudice, compassion and love.
One hot summer day when my girlfriend, her brother and I were playing their dad came up and said, “Come on, we’re going.” Nothing unusual there, we got in the car to go. When we asked where we were going the answer was “You’ll see.” We knew that meant he would not tell us no matter what so we just waited. And waited. And waited. We drove through the city, to the country, past all these farms. We would approach towns, but go right past them. What seemed like an eternity later we were parking at some kind of amusement park with rides!! It was Cheyenne Frontier Days. I had never heard of it but it had games and food and rides and music and horses and cows and everything! It was incredible. We walked around and saw everything. There were all these cowboys walking around. I had never seen a real cowboy before that. It was so exciting. The rides, the games and as night fell, all the lights. It was beautiful.
There was this one game that was similar to the games you see in some restaurants now where you have a claw thing and try to get candy or a stuffed toy. This was like that but shorter and longer with games all lined together with the attendant standing behind them. Well my girlfriend took her money and put it in one of these machines but nothing happened. The attendant didn’t notice. My friend tried to shake the coin drop and pound it, but carefully since the attendant was there. Nothing helped, the game was not working. She walked over to her dad and told him what happened. He came over and tried it but it still wouldn’t work.
“Excuse me,” he called to the attendant, “this machine took my daughters money.”
The attendant looked at him and shrugged.
“I don’t think you understood me. This machine doesn’t work. She didn’t get to play, it just took her money.”
The attendant said, “Too bad.”
“Look this game took my daughters money, you either let her play another game or give her her money back.”
I don’t remember exactly what the attendant said next but I know it had the word nigger in it.
Before he had finished saying it my friend’s dad had his hands on the counter and was on his way over. The attendant was ready and pulled out something silver and quick as lightening hit my friend’s dad in the forehead. The blow knocked him back and blood started running freely from a cut above his eye. My friend started to cry and everything around us seemed to stop for an instant. My friend’s dad then had us go with him to find a cop. I remember rushing after him and trying to calm down my crying friend, lying to her that everything would be alright, but I wasn’t really sure. I was scared too but I was more concerned for my friend. I wished that I was older, more grown up so she would trust my words and I could make her not worry. Wishing I was big enough to hold her so I could wrap safety around her with my arms.
I don’t really remember much after that other than the cop we found wasn’t really nice to my friends injured dad. And I remember the long quite ride home, all the happiness in the day erased by a giant wrench swung by a redneck racist no better than his upbringing. It has been 40 years since that day, I have never gone to Frontier Days again, but every year when the advertisement comes on I think of that night.