To be honest with myself I never saw it coming.
It happened a few days ago and it changed the way I look at the world. My mother did something that made me so proud that I could have burst.
After all, it was she that raised me to be so liberal.
It was only a decade or so later when she began to become so jaded, when we returned to New York City after living in various suburbs around the country for all those years.
Over the course of this time I have watched my mom develop a side that neither one of us are proud of. Sometimes she blames it on the arrest and conviction of John Gotti.
“When ‘Johnny Boy’ was still in the neighborhood this shit never would have gone on” she would say whenever we drove down Crossbay Boulevard past a graffiti-ed wall or city bus. It appalled and saddened her enormously when she passed the home of her childhood to see a once glorious neighborhood in a shambles.
“They come here from India for a better life and look at what they do when they get here!’ ‘They bring the shit with them and ruin our nice neighborhoods.”
Everybody around New York is always talking about their neighborhoods - tattooed ink permanently etched in skin, a forever form of braggadocio.
She called me up on a Tuesday. The San Gennaro festival in Little Italy was coming to a close and I had been promising for years to go with her.
We caught a crowded Manhattan bound A-Train on Wednesday morning. It was standing room only as is usually the case at that hour during the week. When a pregnant woman got on the train at Utica Avenue, nobody noticed - nobody except my mother and me. There were two fifty foot long rows of young, healthy men sitting on two fifty foot rows of seating. Not a single one of them moved. I knew what to expect when I looked up at mom but I did it anyway. She gave me the look that said it all:
“Look at all of these kids not getting up for the pregnant girl. Who the hell raised these people?!”
She wasn’t wrong. Thanks to her I was one of the last gentlemen in this city, the sole revivalist of chivalry.
We got off the train at Spring Street and walked to Mott. After an hour of perusing trinkets and obnoxious tee-shirts we decided to eat. All of the restaurants along Mulberry and Mott had set up tents outside of their front door. Under the tents were makeshift dining areas set up especially for the week of the festival. We chose one with a decent menu and were sat by a young man with a thick Italian accent. Ah’ yes, a little taste of old Italia right here in the Big Apple. We ate our meals and began the usual conversation in which we berate each other’s lifestyles. When the two women sitting at the next table asked for their check I used the opportunity to request ours as well.
My mother overheard them talking about something and leaned in for a better listen. I gave her a little kick under the table as if to say “mind your own damn business”.
She ignored me and within seconds was involved in their conversation. Apparently, the checks had come and there was a gratuity added to theirs. Aside from the time spent during her two marriages, my mom has been a waitress for her entire adult life. She found it interesting and a bit class-less that they would include a gratuity on a check at such a nice restaurant.
I picked up our check and realized that there was no tip added to the total. It was only then that I noticed the mocha skin of the two ladies sitting beside us. Without saying anything aloud, I slid the check over to show mom that we were not obliged in the same way. She looked at the check with bewilderment. After a few moments of silence, I told her that I wanted to go. I felt embarrassed in my own skin.
“What’s the rush?” She asked.
I told her that I had never been so embarrassed.
She said “Why honey?”
“Right now, at this very moment, because I am white!” I snarled for dramatic effect.
It was not until that second that she caught on. Her jaw dropped wide open like a cartoon character in love. I could see a fury come over her face that was normally reserved for my hung-over breakfast meetings.
She got up from the table along with the two slightly more observant women beside her and the group made a bee-line for the manager.
I quickly followed and reminded my mom that we were in Little Italy and to calm down a bit. She was having none of it as she began angrily asking the maitre’d why the two checks were different. To the total shock of all in earshot, the man answered that the “other people were cheap” and we were not. We had never been to that restaurant before. Neither had the two women who we later found to be a well-to-do mother and daughter from out of state.
“I am embarrassed to be a New Yorker right now!” my mom shouted at no one in particular but to be sure that all could hear.
Together we apologized to the women “on behalf of all New Yorkers” and walked out of the restaurant.
As we made our way to the train we did not speak. I did not really know what to say. I wasn’t sure what to say to the woman that for so long I had thought to be callous to the plight of certain others. As it turned out, she was no racist or even bigot. Mom was just a hopeless nostalgic trying unsuccessfully to hold on to a simpler time in her life. From what I have read it was a simpler time in all of our lives; all that is, except for those women at the restaurant; all that is, except for those people now living in her childhood home.
It made sense to me now that I was raised to be so liberal, compassionate and understanding. During the “good ol’ days” when life was not so simple for everyone and during these days as well, there are people like my mom who are willing to stand up for those who don’t have such a simple life.