I grew up Irish Catholic in NYC, Northeast Queens, in the 1970s.
Archie Bunker wasn’t Irish Catholic, but I never saw All in the Family as a sitcom, but more like a documentary.
I’m not ashamed of my hometown: you grow up working class, and you understand working, and class, and if you can keep your eyes open, that’s a gift. But I’d be lying if I didn’t admit that that world was bound together by bigotry.
My maternal grandfather was a stone racist… and when my great uncle died we found in his apartment a cache of powdered food, and a shotgun — plus a trove of John Birch Society pamphlets and phonograph records. The crazy sonofabitch was convinced that one dark day the Darkies were going to march up Northern Boulevard and steal his toaster or some shit like that and he wanted to be prepared.
My mom was smart and thoughtful, and even though she tried to get out of that world as best she could, that wasn’t so easy in her day and age. Because that world was hostile to women who aspired to be anything besides wives and mothers. In the end the best she could do for her kids was to tell them that it was wrong to hate black people — and not just wrong, but, well, déclassé. Intelligent people, people who were not grotesque fools, would have no place in the new world that was burgeoning.
You want to get ahead, she taught me, you can’t be a racist.
And she was right. And prescient. But there’s a price for everything. One day we had a barbecue, and her dad, my grandpa, was there, and my crazy great uncle, and my mom said something, and suddenly everything got tense, and my grandpa said “nigger,” and I was maybe eight, and I piped up and said, “grandpa, that’s a bad word.”
And he looked right at my mother and asked, “I hope your boy isn’t a faggot.”
Faggot was in that world the worst thing you could ever call someone. Because if the harsh outside world was populated by Outsiders who wanted nothing less than your toaster, or some shit, or the women you never really had anyway, the faggots could be anywhere. Or anyone. Even you….
I was straight, as a kid. Still am as a grownup. Have a wife, kids of my own. But I got called faggot a lot, growing up. Got beat up twice, other kids yelling “faggot, faggot,” as they hit me. In my dreams I still burn with fear and rage. And I had it better than so many others.
What I mean to say, is that all forms of bigotry, sexism, racism, homophobia, and even hatred of the working class — I can drop or put on my Queens accent easily — are all Hydra heads of the same beast.
It’s very discouraging because the opposition is very well oiled, very well financed. They have all the elites behind them, whether it be the TV talk shows or radio or newspaper columnists. It’s a real David and Goliath battle.
They also claim to speak for the overwhelming majority of people, but they wouldn’t accept my invitation: perhaps to go to Staten Island and visit some backyard barbecues and sense what the people really believe.
I pray my mother’s ghost shames even them.