When I gave my cousin a copy of Mistaken Identity, she called the next day to say how much she liked and admired it. Then she gave it to her dad, my Uncle Frank, (Frank Martin) for his 78th birthday. He e-mailed me immediately to say how much he and my Aunt Joyce liked the book. They have always been the best sort of aunt and uncle–fun, wise, and they always supported my choices.
Frank also sent me a story of his which, he said, he was inspired to send by reading the Afterword of Mistaken Identity. With his permission, I am sharing his story:
It was in the early 70’s. Joyce and I had gone to Chicago for a meeting of the American Association of Late Deafened Adults. A few years earlier there had been some serious racial conflict there, especially when the Democratic Party Convention was held there. We arrived in the late afternoon and were not very hungry, so we decided to pick up a pizza. We checked the map and local information in the room and called in an order to a nearby store.
When I came out from the hotel I saw a picket line walking around the place next door. It was some type of business and the line had about 25 or 30 men circulating, most of them carrying signs. I stood at the entrance for a moment and realized I wasn’t sure whether I should go to my left or right.
Now let me digress for a moment. When I was a kid growing up in a very traditional Irish Catholic family, church, and school, we were indoctrinated to believe that any one who was “different” was to be a bit “suspect.” That included people who might look different (it was very rarely we ever saw anyone of color) or who might have a different religion. (“Francis can’t you find some boys to play with who go to your school ?”) These attitudes were absorbed over the years and became part of the inner self in a kind of unconscious incorporation.
Over the years I matured (a little), understood myself and others in a fuller way, and fortunately discarded most of this indoctrination. But we never eradicate these attitudes completely. They are always buried somewhere inside.
Meanwhile back in Chicago outside the hotel entrance as the line circulated, I noticed that just one of the picketers was a “big black guy” (as we used to say in the St. Patrick’s school yard). As luck would have it he was just coming around the end of the line as I stepped out and realized that I had to ask someone directions.
As I looked up my child yelled, “Hey stay away from that big black guy.” (And he was big–about 6’5″ and 200 pounds.)
In nanoseconds my adult intelligence kicked in and said in a calmer tone, “Frank you want directions from a Chicogoan; go and ask that person closest to you for Christ sake.” And I did.
I put up my hand and said, “Excuse me.”
He stepped out of the line and asked “Yeah, what are you looking for?”
I said, “I’m not sure whether I should go this way or that to get to State Street.”
I told him the name of the store, and he leaned down a bit and said, “Oh yeah. You see that green sign down there?”
I looked to where he pointed and saw three signs about a block away, all of which looked grey in color. I looked up and said, “Well, as a matter of fact I can’t, because I’m color blind.”
As the words came out I had a fleeting awareness of the possible “double entendre” that had emerged at that time of racial unrest. The big guy looked down at me, put his arm firmly around my shoulder, gave me a firm hug and with a broad smile said, “I kinda thought you were, brother,” and went on to further identify which sign he meant.
As I walked away I looked back at him. We were both laughing and we waved. And as I continued down the street I wondered if my face had reflected to him my momentary hesitation and fast decision.
Uncle Frank’s last line to me was, “The story doesn’t say, but I was a different person from the one that came out of the hotel.”