Afternoon On A Train

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 Part 1

The blurb describing award-winning author Octavia Butler’s sci-fi novel “Fledgling” wraps up by asking a question: Are all humans bigots, or are all bigots human?

Don’t panic yet. Take a deep breath. Smell the optimism in the air.

And here’s a little back story first.

The book my father, Dr. Edward Bryan, and I were supposed to write together was called “I’m Innocent,” a memoir detailing his experiences as the Chief Dental Officer of the Federal Bureau of Prisons, Metropolitan Detention Center.  Ala the Shawshank Redemption, a curious universal innocence thrives in the prison system where the inmates affectionately refer to my father as “Dr. No Pain.” That seems like an accomplishment, considering how much dentists tend to be feared and avoided. Of course, my dad has a captive audience with little or no choice but…still. In that situation, it would have been fairly easy not to care.

 Eleanor Roosevelt said something about caring. She said: “We are afraid to care too much, for fear that the other person does not care at all.”

And for her, championing civil rights before it had technically become a cause, decades before Ms. Butler would submit her conundrum, it probably seemed like there were not many who cared. She received lackluster support, if any at all, from her spouse President Roosevelt, managed to incite J. Edgar Hoover’s everlasting ire, and acquired a 4,000-page FBI dossier documenting her philanthropic activities.

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I figure anyone who has a 4,000-page FBI dossier on them is either someone I really don’t want to know or someone who’s really worth knowing. Assuming Mrs. Roosevelt to be the latter, that’s probably why, when she took the train one day 70 years ago and met my father, he was deeply affected by their meeting.

But first let’s set the stage a little. Fly back with me. It’s 1944. A 2-pound bag of coffee is 85 cents. Gas goes for 15 cents a gallon. The average house costs $3,450.

Just those three things alone should have your head awhirl, imagining the things you could accomplish with a time machine. Double Indemnity and Gaslight came out that year, the average price of a ticket reaching about 32 cents. Can you imagine today removing $1 from your wallet and buying a ticket to Star Wars? And then receiving change back? The mind boggles.

 

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Fly back with me. My father is a 15-year-old African-American kid living in Boston. His cousin gets him a sandwich boy job working weekends and summers on the Boston to New York train. One afternoon, the usual humdrum routine disappeared, unveiling a moment of magic. Mrs. Roosevelt was on the train. It must have been the equivalent of General MacArthur appearing out of nowhere, his gigantic pipe clamped between his jaws, or today, say, Mick Jagger sauntering into Old Navy while you’re busy folding the jeans.  Not talking about humanitarianism here. Just remarking on pure celebrity factor alone.

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My dad approached the president’s wife: “Excuse me. Aren’t you Mrs. Roosevelt?”  She responded, “Yes, I am. Sit down, young man.” Of course, back in time, in the world that no longer exists, it amazes one to realize that she was completely alone, no security in sight. She wasn’t even riding in the parlor car but chose instead to travel in coach. She asked him if he went to school and where (he matriculated at English High, the first public school in the U.S., which was also a college prep school). Mrs. Roosevelt then told him to believe in the beauty of his dreams and to get an education.

“That is the way,” she told him, “you will help yourself and your people.”

In the movie Anger Management, an African-American man becomes upset with Adam Sandler whom he perceives to have used the alienating phrase of “you people.”

But in the ‘40s, what’s not P.C. today was everyday life back then. And not that she meant anything by it. Well aware of the importance of education, the advice, for dad, must have been a pleasant exclamation point at the end of a sentence he’d already memorized. He recalls giving Mrs. Roosevelt an apple which he didn’t let her pay for. She disembarked at Greenwich, Connecticut, alone, and he never saw her again.

To be continued………….

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