The good-looking one, the one in need, the one that almost was
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The spring that Dr. Martin Luther King was assassinated I was the only white person in an all-black Girl Scout troop. I loved being a Girl Scout. I wore a green starched dress and a shoulder sash with badges. I had a badge for reading books and a badge for camping out. I did many things that were totally unnatural to me, like learning to roast a hot dog on a stick, which seemed the height of athleticism. I earned more badges and sewed them on the sash. Then I became a Cadet. Cadets wore green skirts and white blouses. I had a green beret. By now, no cool white girl in my school was still a Girl Scout. However, cool black girls with big breasts and mean mouths were still Girl Scouts. Gradually all the other white girls left the troop, and I was left alone — a short Jewish girl in a black troop.
The night of the day that Dr. Martin Luther King was shot, my parents had gone to the art museum in Cleveland to see a stunning painting by Titian of Mars and Venus, a fat naked Venus and a Mars clad in Renaissance armor. But instead of eating a fancy dinner or making love in a motel room, they were frantically trying to book a flight back to Newark, New Jersey, which was burning to the ground.
My grandfather and I sat watching the pink castle go up in flames. The pink castle was not a real castle at all, but a large suburban house with a round turret. Now it formed a huge conflagration in the dark, just behind a screen of venerable copper beeches. My grandfather and I sat in the so-called music room and watched the fire. The music room housed no musical instruments, no harp, no piano, just a television set with the headphones my father insisted my grandfather wear so that my father did not have to listen to Ed Sullivan. I was thirteen. My grandfather was sixty-one years older than I was. His name was Avrum. He was my favorite person on earth. He was the only one in the family who did not criticize my harem pants. He read Life magazine and knew all about America.
My grandfather was born in the Ukraine, in Russia, between Kiev and Odessa. He once tried to ride a cow. The cow kicked him between the eyes, leaving a crescent-shaped scar from eyebrow to eyebrow. His mother died in childbirth. His father was a miller. My grandfather came to America to build boats. He had two hundred dollars in czarist gold; when the revolution broke out, it was worthless. A handsome, dapper man, he drove a truck delivering candy to mom-and-pop stores. He wore a hat with a visor. He never had a sick day in his life. Then he began to bleed uncontrollably. At Beth Israel Hospital, they replaced all the blood in his body three times. His colon was perforated like a sieve. Stress had turned it to old lace.
My mother, his only daughter, brought him to live with us. One night he took me out to look at a full moon. He whispered in my ear: that may look like the moon but it isn’t really. The Russians have got the real moon hidden inside the Kremlin. Up there is just a moon-sized replica of the moon.
As the pink castle burned we did not laugh about the moon. Firemen came and battled the blaze until dawn. We sat up to watch that the copper beeches did not catch fire. The pink castle was abandoned; the owners had moved to Florida. An old wooden house on a stone foundation, it went up in satisfying smoke and flame.
I went to look up “Tanganyika” in the Encyclopedia Britannica. I had to do a report for Girl Scouts. I found it in volume number twenty-one, a heavy book embossed with a golden pineapple. Zanzibar was in Tanganyika. So was the Great Rift Valley. So were the mountains Kilimanjaro (19,565 feet) and Meru (14,980 feet). So, presumably, was Lake Tanganyika with its hippopotamuses and crocodiles. The people were Bantu, Hamitic, Zulu.
Tanganyika was green on the map. It exported, I decided, coffee. Its major city was Dar es Salaam. Zanzibar, that mythic city of traders and gold, dancing girls, camels, harems, and slaves, sat on its coast. My Girl Scout troop had been chosen to represent Tanganyika in the Girl Scout International Folk Dance Festival on a football field in Bergenfield, New Jersey. Other troops of buxom blondes would portray Denmark, while Girl Scouts in little wing hats would be Holland. Others danced the dances of Belgium, England, France, and Germany. My troop alone would do a dance of Africa. The Girl Scout motto was “be prepared.”
While the pink castle burned, my friend Sandra was locked in her house by her mother in a downtown black neighborhood. Sandra was one of two black girls in our homeroom class of sixty. She was the smart one, the fat one, the gentle one whose heart wished peace for all mankind. The other black girl was named Mickey — she was the dumb one, the skinny one, the popular one. In her heart she wished for half a joint and red boots from Bloomingdale’s.
After the riots, when the pink castle was just a smoking foundation, and my grandfather had gone to bed for two days, Sandra and I prepared our Girl Scout troop to be Tanganyika. I made a poster of the flag to hang behind our booth of African things. We did not have many things from Africa. Our booth consisted of some carved animals from the UNICEF gift shop, straw mats brought back by Sandra’s merchant seaman father, coconuts — which we fervently hoped grew in Africa — and a record playing “It’s A Small World After All.”
The colors of Tanganyika were red, green, and black. Later these colors would appear crocheted into the hats of black militants riding the New York subway system. I filled in those three large blocks of color on the poster board. Green was the color of Girl Scouts.
Sandra was recovering from having been locked in the house with her mother and the dog. The dog was little and yippy, and they felt sure rioters would kill it in a minute. So they stayed at home, eating tuna-fish sandwiches with celery and olives. Luckily there were plenty of cans in the house. When they opened the front door on Monday morning, downtown was reduced to rubble, smashed glass, boarded storefronts, a wasteland.
The next weekend our troop went to dance in Bergenfield as Tanganyika, wearing costumes we believed were authentic and convincing. We had taken yards of Indonesian batik — a blue fish design on burnt red — and wrapped ourselves in it. One large piece went around the waist. The folds fell to the ankle. Another piece was tied around the breasts. The more modest girls wore T-shirts. We all wore turbans, tied on any way that would hold.
Sandra and I were both wearing flip-flops. Hers were red and a size eight, left over from summer at the community pool. Mine were pink, with a loose thong. Music struck up, drums beat. But there was one problem: we had never practiced dancing. We had been too busy pinning our wrap costumes, too busy coloring in the colors of Africa, too busy hiding in our houses. We stood there in our turbans. Our mothers and fathers watched us from the stands. Then we began to sway as one Girl Scout, to shimmy, to shake to the music of Africa: thunk thunk thunk/thunka thunka thunka. Sandra and I danced next to each other. Our hips loosened, half hula and half the way girls have always moved for boys in New Jersey. We shook our hands. We put our hands over our heads. Tanganyika was on the east coast of Africa. When it gained independence it would become Tanzania. The moon was gone. The Russians had it in the basement of the Kremlin. The pink castle had burned to the ground. In a year my grandfather would be dead. Once Zanzibar was in Tanganyika. Once it was an island of cloves. Once I was a Girl Scout in an all-black Girl Scout troop.