Archive for June, 2015

WHO’S WHITE? WHO CARES?

A few weeks ago, Rachel Dolezal stepped down as president of the Spokane, Washington chapter of the NAACP. Ms. Dolezal claimed to be—and still identifies as—Black. However, she is the child of Caucasian parents. I’ll let African Americans decide whether or not they’re offended. But I do share something in common with Ms. Dolezal: I don’t identify as white.

There’s nothing wrong with being white. Some of my best friends and all that. But being Jewish, I identify primarily with all Jews regardless of their genetics. The Jewish people are Caucasian, Black, Latino and Asian. Maybe a few Native Americans. And mixtures. Loads of mixtures. Jews come from the Arab world and India, too. Are they white? Other? I have no idea. I simply don’t care who’s white and who isn’t. It’s just that being white’s not my thing.

I’m not alone in this thinking. Remember the 1990s TV hit Northern Exposure? Each Thanksgiving, Native Americans in the fictional Alaskan town of Cicely pelt “whites” with tomatoes. Dr. Joel Fleischman (Rob Morrow) protests. He’s Jewish. White people—Russians—persecuted his ancestors in the Tsarist Empire. No tomatoes for him. Then there’s the Ku Kux Klan and its ilk. All espouse white pride along with hatred of Jews. Dylan Roof, the alleged killer of nine African-Americans at Charleston, South Carolina’s Emanuel AME Church, wrote a manifesto. He not only ranted against Blacks but also cited “the Jewish problem and other issues facing our race.”

A statement by Chip Johnson, the common-sense columnist for the San Francisco Chronicle, bolsters my point. In his June 16 piece on Rachel Dolezal, Johnson wrote: “Throughout history there have been light-skinned African Americans, people of mixed race and those of Jewish heritage [italics mine] who have passed for white to escape oppression, improve their prospects or simply to survive.” Johnson’s comment leads me to believe that I’m not the crank I may appear to be.

Ethnic makeup and identity certainly can be complex. In my novel Flight of the Spumonis, Jimmy Q, who accompanies 13-year-old Marco Spolini on a cross-country journey, is equal parts Chinese, Native American, Jewish and African American. The world pigeonholes him as Black, so that’s how Jimmy sees himself. He knows that puts him behind the eight ball, so he persuades the white Marco to hit the road with him.

Racism, of course, can work both ways, changing colors like a chameleon. Some Latinos, Asian Americans and Native Americans—people from ethnic groups who’ve had precious little to do with each other—band together with African Americans under the banner “People of Color.” They assail “white privilege.”

Being white has been and still is an advantage in American society. But people don’t get to pick their genetics. Many leveraging “white privilege” study, work hard and, while succeeding, open their hearts to all of their fellow Americans. The opponents of “white privilege” see skin, hair and eyes, not human beings.

Is race a social construct? Given the large number of Americans with mixed genetics, that’s becoming true. Whether or not race means anything, it should never be taken as the equivalent of species. Whatever our colors or features, we’re all part of the same human family. That should privilege all of us

Read the first two chapters of FLIGHT OF THE SPUMONIS here at www.davidperlstein.com. You can get a signed copy from me—$20 plus $3 postage if required—or order a soft cover or e-book at Amazon.com.

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THE MAYOR OF CLEMENT STREET: PART TWO

San Francisco changes constantly. For thirty years, Jesse Fink, 61, owner of Toy Boat Dessert Café on Clement at Fifth Avenue in the Richmond District and unofficial “Mayor of Clement Street,” has kept his finger on the neighborhood’s pulse.

Jesse and his wife Roberta opened the Boat in 1982. People asked why own a store “way out there?” Once, the Richmond, built on sand dunes, was thought uninhabitable. But it had long been thriving when Jesse arrived. The neighborhood was home to a large Russian community and many Russian bakeries. Chinese moved in from Chinatown. “Already there were people from Asian countries like Vietnam and Thailand,” Jesse notes. Irish settled in the Richmiond. Russian Jews came in the ‘80s and ‘90s. As the British prepared to shed their last colony, Hong Kong Chinese bought real estate.

Jesse is proud that Clement remains one of San Francisco’s few un-gentrified streets. “We kept Starbucks and most major chains out,” he says. “The retail orientation is local.” The problem with chains? According to Jesse, former president of the Clement Street Merchants Association, “Chains take away the integrity and individuality that mom-and-pop stores offer neighborhoods. They’re basically rubber-stamp businesses. People come here from Manhattan, which is filled with chain stores, and say, ‘This is so nice.’”

A welcome change: upscale stores and restaurants span Clement from Arguello (equivalent to First Avenue) to Third. Jesse would love hipper stores to open nearby and bring their customers in. But few properties become available since relatively few businesses leave. Still, the Seven-Eleven at Tenth Avenue and the framing shop just west have been vacant for years. Jesse’s take: landlords may not want to give long-term leases or want too much rent or just seek tax write-offs. “You never know what’s really going on.”

Rents go up regardless. As a result, Toy Boat had to change its business model. Jesse and Roberta established the Boat as a coffee and dessert place, open from 11 am to 11 pm. To counter rising rent, they added breakfast and lunch, opening the store at 7:30 am.

People like to hang out at the Boat. Supervisor Eric Mar comes by frequently. Former House Speaker Nancy Pelosi dropped in recently. Robin Williams came by a lot. Jesse would speak with him as a neighborhood guy, not a big star. Out-of-towners drop in, too. Now, young people—including students at the University of San Francisco and San Francisco State—are returning to the neighborhood as rents in the hipster-oriented Mission District soar. “There are a lot of bars on Clement. You come here on a Friday or Saturday night, and there’s no parking.”

Jesse, like all City retailers, faces rising labor costs. In April, he raised prices before San Francisco’s May 1 minimum wage increase. Only two customers said anything. “Everyone’s prices have gone up to compensate,” he says. As the minimum wage ascends to $15 an hour, prices will have to keep pace.

Two important questions patrons ask: What’s the Boat’s best-selling ice cream? Chocolate Salted Caramel. Jesse’s favorites? White Pistachio dipped in hot fudge and Soy Cherry Chip.

How long will Jesse keep at it? He’s not sure. But he loves coming to work. Toy Boat, he says, is a performance piece. It’s a performance worth catching.

Read the first two chapters of FLIGHT OF THE SPUMONIS here at www.davidperlstein.com. You can get a signed copy from me—$20 plus $3 postage if required—or order a soft cover or e-book at Amazon.com.

To respond, click on “comments” above then go to the bottom of the article.

THE MAYOR OF CLEMENT STREET: PART ONE

When Carolyn and I moved to San Francisco in 1974, we settled in the Richmond District. We were drawn to funky Clement Street. In 1982, a novel ice cream shop opened on Clement at Fifth Avenue. Ever since, I’ve been going to Toy Boat, presided over by the man who’s earned the title, “The Mayor of Clement Street.”

Jesse Fink, 61, and his wife Roberta opened “the Boat” in 1982. A born schmoozer, Jesse sounds like he still lives in Brooklyn where he attended PS 193. He earned a BA in Liberal Arts/Art at Queens College and an MA in Arts and Education. Degrees in hand and accompanied by his dog Sidney, Jesse drove his 1968 Dodge Coronet to art schools throughout Massachusetts and Vermont seeking a teaching job. The market was down. He headed west.

Arriving in San Francisco in 1979, Jesse worked for his brother Steve and partner Michael Sachar, who’d opened an ice cream shop on Castro Street and developed their own brand, Double Rainbow. That’s where Jesse met Roberta. They’ve been married thirty years and raised two children. After traveling in Europe, Jesse and Roberta came up with the concept of an ice cream shop—offering Double Rainbow, of course—that sold toys.

“Everyone likes toys,” Jesse explains, reflecting his love of art. “They’re fun to look at.” At first, the Toy Boat focused on unique tin toys. “We collected, bought and sold old toys,” says Jesse. Today, the Boat features the Bay Area’s biggest collection of Pez candy and collectible dispensers—bigger, Jesse claims, than the Pez Museum in Burlingame. (Yes, it exists.)

His biggest seller ever? Beanie Babies. “People used to line up down the block to buy them. We always kept our prices low, and we sold a lot. It was the oddest thing to ever hit the market.” Toy Boat also sells lots of retro toys, which adults purchase far more than kids. For example, there’s Gumby, the clay animation figure from the TV series of the ‘50s and ‘60s. Jesse relates that most of his employees have never heard of Gumby. Big sellers also include jacks, small plastic submarines propelled by baking soda (I played with them in the bath tub) and hand buzzers, the kind that used to be advertised in comic books. The buzzer fits in your palm and goes off when you shake someone’s hand. Jesse’s stock also includes Pee Wee Herman and Star Wars toys.

Jesse also sells a lot of Spalding pink rubber balls. New Yorkers (myself included) called them Spaldeens. We used them for playing handball, punchball and stickball. He also sells stickball bats while acknowledging that as kids, we made bats by cutting off the handles of old (sometimes not so old) brooms. He notes that, “Many people fifty and above come in, look at the toys then tell me a story about growing up. Kids in their twenties or thirties buy Spaldeens and stickball bats for their fathers, who’ve told them stories about growing up in New York.

Jesse shares stories and conversations with everyone. Patrons often seek out his advice, as well. He offers it freely. I even held the launch party for my novel THE BOY WALKER at the Boat. Of course, Jesse has seen Clement Street evolve, reflecting the major changes that have affected San Francisco. More about that next week

Read the first two chapters of FLIGHT OF THE SPUMONIS here at www.davidperlstein.com. You can get a signed copy from me—$20 plus $3 postage if required—or order a soft cover or e-book at Amazon.com.

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HAPPY BIRTHDAY, KING

Last Sunday, Carolyn and I reached a milestone. Aaron became the first Perlstein son to clear his last possessions from our garage. Another important milestone now approaches. This Sunday marks my father Morris’s 112th birthday.

The King—I’ll explain the nickname—died in 1983. But he’s never been gone. It’s not that he had an outsize personality. Rather, his ordinary life offered extraordinary examples of what it means to be loving, honest and kind—to be a mensch.

A little history: My father was born in Warsaw, Poland. He came to America in 1906 with his parents and two sisters. I like to imagine my grandfather holding my father up on the deck of their ship to see the Statue of Liberty. I like to think of my grandmother saying, “In America, you can be anything you want.”

What my father wanted to be was an American. His parents were thirty-four when they arrived at Ellis Island. While they all became Americans—the family was granted citizenship in August 1911 while living on 17th Street in Manhattan—my grandparents had to feel their way into the new culture. Some of America remained alien as it often does to adult immigrants, particularly Jews in a “Christian nation.” My father came here at two-and-a-half. Moishe became Morris. He had no memories of Warsaw. I once asked him what he thought of his parents. His answer: “I thought they were greenhorns.”

As a kid, the King played sports. He also wanted an education and believed that he could get further ahead as a college man at a time when relatively few people went to college. After graduating from the old DeWitt Clinton High School, he worked to help support the family. He also attended night classes at New York University—for eleven years. In 1932, he received his B.S. from NYU’s School of Commerce.

Four years later, following a whirlwind courtship, he married my mother Blanche. He made a good living. After the War, he became a salesman, selling springs to bedding and furniture manufacturers. My mother though he’d never succeed. The King was an introvert. She soon had both a mink stole and a mink coat. Did I mention the lamb’s-wool jacket? My father’s pleasures were modest: family, food, cigars, Broadway musicals, Friday-night gin games and summers at a Catskills bungalow colony—Kappy’s Kottages. He took me to baseball and basketball games. Later he and my mother enjoyed Las Vegas—craps for him, slots for her.

As to the nickname: I started calling my father King after an episode on TV’s The Honeymooners. Ralph Kramden (Jackie Gleason) ranted to his wife Alice (Audrey Meadows) that he was “the king of the castle.” I ran with it and soon referred to my mother as the Queen. For decades, I sent birthday and anniversary cards portraying kings and queens. On the King’s cards, I always drew a cigar.

The only memorials to Morris Perlstein are his descendents. He lived what New York Times columnist David Brooks refers to as “the small, happy life.” There’s a big idea there. The world just might be better off if more people lived lives not of celebrity or wealth accumulation but of peaceful integrity. Happy birthday, King. Your memory is a blessing.

Read the first two chapters of FLIGHT OF THE SPUMONIS here at www.davidperlstein.com. You can get a signed copy from me—$20 plus $3 postage if required—or order a soft cover or e-book at Amazon.com. 

To respond, click on “comments” above then go to the bottom of the article.