We are in Friendly’s, an American institution that provides serviceably mediocre food and miraculously pleasure-inducing concoctions called Fribbles. I am immensely content. I am on my annual summer pilgrimage back to the homeland and my younger brother, Paul has come out to dinner. The atmosphere is jovial, even though my parents are also out.
I usually know what subjects to avoid with Mom and Dad, such as politics, on which my father and I stand on violently different ends of the opinion spectrum on most issues, but I am relaxed, my guard is down, and it is July. The Trayvon Martin case is still fresh in the national consciousness, open and raw as a wound. I forget myself and marvel aloud, “Whew. That Trayvon Martin case. Pretty horrible stuff, huh?”
My Dad’s eyes widen in what I mistake for agreement, ‘Absolutely. Such a terrible case. I feel sorry for his family.’ I am touched by his uncharacteristic compassion until he continues, “I mean, if I was in his situation, I would’ve killed a black guy too.” I hear a record suddenly screech and come to a halt in my head. My brother’s fork drops from his hand to his plate with a loud clang.
My father looks around at all of us to make sure his assertion has had its intended effect, hooking his audience. There are several black families in close proximity to our table, some in clear throttling distance of my father. He continues chewing his rubbery steak vigorously and continues asserting with equal vigour. “Yeah. I’d have killed a black guy too in that situation. I definitely would have killed the black guy if I were Robert Zimmerman,” and then as an afterthought, perhaps registering slightly the collective horror on our faces, adds, “Or a white guy,” making no attempt to lower his voice.
Most people would look around and lower their volume. Most would know better than to say something like that out loud anyway. My father is not most people. He could not care less whether he is in the comfort of his own home where none of the public at large can spew racist bile even in context never mind utterances taken out of context. I am inclined to think that even people who agree with Dad know better than to say so out loud, in public. For I feel most would have the wherewithal to fear for their safety after exhibiting such behaviour. Frankly, I think even David Duke would know better than to say such things out loud.
But not my father. Oh no.
He is at the point in his life, his mid 70s, where he is both aware of his own impunity due to age (“Mommy, who is that racist firebrand in the corner?” “Oh, leave him alone dear. He’s from a different generation. Don’t stare now.”) and feels duty bound, utterly convinced of his own rightness, to “spread the word”. Ed Lawler, truth-teller, Christian soldier, saviour of the universe.
Likely as not, none of the other customers really care about what my father says as he launches into a tirade — before Paul or I can get over our collective shock and construct any kind of coherent response — about how much Trayvon Martin had it coming to him, how he was a gang member who bragged on video about how many people he had killed, about how he sold drugs and about how he was “high on drugs” that infamous night in Florida. In a furious internal race for a response, I discard the idea of reminding my father about that part in 12 Angry Men where Jack Lemmon proves to the rest of the jury that just because you talk about killing people doesn’t mean you are going to or have done the deed. Instead, I opt for a gentler, socratic method.
“But Dad, he would have had to have been high on PCP to act as ragingly violent as you say he did, wouldn’t he?”
Without missing even a half-beat, “That’s the least he was high on according to reports!” He’s worked up a righteous sanctimony at this point. What drugs, I wonder, that my Dad actually knows about, are worse than PCP for turning human beings into raging lunatics? Amanita Muscaria? Sure, my Dad has worked as a social worker with disadvantaged youth, but a narcotics squad consultant he is not.
As my blood pressure rises, I try a different tack. “But the emergency services told him not to approach the kid, didn’t they?” I think I manage a pretty reasonable tone.
“No! No they told him not to let the kid get away because the police were looking for him! He might have gone on to kill someone that night. He was into all sorts of gangs.” Should I mention that loyalty in sticking to one primary gang is generally valued as important in gang culture? Nah. Besides, facts are no longer germane to Dad’s argument.
Even as he makes this last comment, my mother, the June to my father’s Ward Cleaver (my parents’ relationship started in the early 60s and has worked its way backwards ever since), the woman who has most adeptly mastered the Nancy Reagan gaze of unquestioning adoration, even my mother is shaking her head in disagreement, “No Eddie. I think Pete’s right. The police…”
“No, let me finish,” Dad barks as we waves away my mother’s words with his fork, wielding it like an imperial sceptre.
He is in his irrational stride and has struck upon another favorite of the right wing debate playbook: emotional blackmail.
“Think about Paul! The guys who attacked him were black. They targeted Paul. If anyone’s guilty of racial profiling, it’s them. Paul could’ve sued them for discrimination.” Ah yes, from the sublime to the ridiculous in one short leap. The dogmatic AK 47 rifle of the conservative arsenal — reverse racism. My brother looks less than impressed that his experience of a few years before of being beaten to the point of hospitalisation being moved out as a pawn in our father’s great oratorical onslaught. Then comes the proverbial smoking sidearm.
“If Paul had a gun, he wouldn’t have ended up in the hospital. They would.”
“Actually,” Paul pipes up, “I’m glad I didn’t have a gun because frankly, I think I’d be dead by now if I had since they probably would have used it. On me.”
This neutralises Dad’s attack, momentarily, but long enough for me to seize the momentum and redirect the course of the conversation, “Well done!” I exclaim in my son’s direction. “You’ve eaten all your vegetables!” The boy beams with pride and my mother, rallying without hesitation, says, “I think someone deserves an ice cream.”
And with that, hostilities temporarily subside, but this conversation is not over. And I know it.
That evening, I find myself driven by rage to the internet, desperate to find cold, hard fact, verifiable, documented, evidential weaponry with which to penetrate my father’s impregnable fortress of fiction founded on hoodie wearing youths, brains addled with a toxic combination of THC and PCP, knives and guns drawn, rampaging through the streets looking to slaughter innocent white and Hispanic neighborhood watchers concealing weapons.
I search out my father’s insular illusions first, entering the search terms, “Trayvon Martin was high on PCP,” only to find that he has gorged himself on the gluttony of a steady diet of Fox, Glenn Beck, Sean Hannity, Greg Gutfeld, and others derivatively drawing on this guest list for the party to take America back for the stuffy, rich and white. Sifting past, I finally find what I’m looking for, print out my research, study it, and tuck myself into bad with a sense of excitement and smugness.
I don’t have to wait long the next morning before My father somehow manages, in the uncannily circuitous way he has, to bring the topic of the conversation back to his own myopic vision. Like me, he has trouble letting go. Over breakfast:
“That’s why I say, this guy was on drugs. He represented a clear danger to society.”
I waste no time.
“Actually Dad, according to the toxicology report from the trial records, there were only trace amounts of THC in his system that could have been at best, three days old and therefore would not affected his behaviour at all. Plus, since it was THC, not PCP, it would have made him anything but aggressive.”
This gives him pause. But not long pause. Here peers down at me as he helps himself to more coffee, with obvious patience and a bit of condescension. Suddenly I am 11years old again. He is teaching me chess and I have just fallen into the trap of the devil’s crossroads, again. Oh Pete, his eyes seem to say, will you ever learn?
“Well, a toxicologist is not a psychologist. I worked with a psychologist for years who said that anyone on drugs would kill their own mother for their next hit. Believe me. Being on drugs affected Trayvon Martin and he had no morals.” Believe me. Hmmm. With this pronouncement, he shrugs and walks back into the kitchen to fetch the maple syrup,
“But did you know that Zimmerman rang the police 40 some odd times in the last couple years to alert them to his suspicions of random black people around him?” I call futilely after him, to which his response is another shrug, as though calling the cops every day to express suspicions about racial minorities is a daily occurrence in his life. Surely, we should all have a quota of calls to make to the police expressing some anxiety about random strangers of a different skin color?
His defences are back up. My attack of reason has failed. My father retired from New Jersey to the backwoods of Pennsylavania to isolate himself from the challenge of the outside world and his mind has remained comfortably, sitting, defensibly, atop the peaks of his mountain.
But then, I consider, perhaps if a position is unassailable by logic and refuses to give account for itself through vigorous interrogations, then perhaps it is not a position any rational, reasonable person would take anyway.
Cold comfort, as I sip my coffee and look over at my son, carelessly popping Cheerios into his mouth and I wonder about his cultural inheritance, and the world into which he is growing.