Pinned in public

Copyright 2005 Ben S. Pollock

Saturday, November 12, 2005. Two observations from a luncheon. OK, two and a half. This is long; sorry. It’d make a dandy underpinning of a story or play, and be clearer, but it’s taken me a lot of years for one hour today to merge these thoughts into an informal essay.

Here’s the half. Social boxes are as awful as they are inevitable. When people of one sort or another are put together in a group context, they search for and find conversation topics in common, such as the pluses and minuses of a particular geographic area, sports teams and of course the dependability of undependable weather. Someone announcing himself or herself to be a dentist or a professor spurs some conversation but not a lot, and that discussion tends toward bland agreeability.

But announce (or be announced that) you work for a newspaper, and you are told with certainty with whom you’re in cahoots: You’re deliberately putting matters into the paper or hiding them to help some governmental body or an official or some company or industry. Or you’re deliberately trying to jeopardize any of those, again by promotion or omission.

This reminds me of how in less urban circles — and this happens to me not just in the South but did in Grand Forks, N.D., where I lived in 1980-81 — someone I knew often would introduce me to another with, “You know, Ben is Jewish.” Does any Lutheran introduce a Methodist with, “You know, John Wesley is Methodist,” or Baptist saying, “You know, Mary Martha goes to Church of Christ.” It may come up but never at the beginning; Protestants give fellow Protestants introductions using their jobs, home towns etc. Protestants in less-than-metropolitan environments also identify Catholics right off the bat.

Transition. This morning, area journalists and lawyers met for their fourth annual mutual seminar. The beagles get continuing-legal-education credit to keep their licenses up, and the reporters and editors get mere knowledge, as we are unregistered mutts. Afterward there’s always a darned good lunch at a nearby restaurant.

Following the morning’s stimulating discussion, libel and open meetings this year, I was surprised at some of the banter of the beagles (weren’t they listening?). With tact and skill, we journalists rebutted this, deflected that, promised to look into the other (I rarely observe others handling this and was gratified to see my colleagues be as deft as or more deft than I’ve learned to be).

One such topic within earshot was Our Public Schools. The good thing is it was only one older beagle who bayed and that the others pretty much kept their distance.

Whole point one: However, his comments did spur a pleasant-enough stranger to tell him about either the blatant or nascent — yes, those are rather opposite but she tried to combine them — racism of the creation of Southside High School in Fort Smith, Ark., my alma mater in my home town (her town, too, but she went to Northside, apparently of the Class of ’75 while I graduated in the Class of ’76).

She told the older beagle how, In The Beginning, there was Fort Smith High School and the city grew as cities do, and this one grew south. Thus it was proclaimed that the additional high school be Southside, with logical minds deciding the existing school be called Northside. Northside continued the old mascot, the Grizzlies, but what to bear as the standard of a school called South? The Rebel or Rebels, with “Dixie” as the fight song, all of which continues into the 21st Century. Well, I agree this is sad, but it began in the 1960s, and we weren’t perfect then as some of us since evidently have become.

The lady continued how this contained an irony: Southside was and remains mostly white while Northside’s then sizable black minority student body now is a majority. She called this racism but all she cited was the composition of populations, no examples of speech or action due to prejudice, which is bigotry.

Her tone was patronizing, with a whiff of: Because I recognize this, and I am brave enough to name this, and moreover I call strangers’ attention to it and expose the crime for what it is, I am a saint.

Allowing apologists in the Big Red Tent — it can’t be blue — is why I hate being a liberal.

I returned two points. Fort Smith indeed was growing south, as that was the only direction it could being bounded otherwise by the Arkansas River as she knew, and most incoming families in the ’70s and ’80s were white. African-American families new to the city tended to move into established black neighborhoods. My second point was that Springdale is building its second public high school now, and biased residents there are worried it may have a sizable Latin-American student body as Hispanic families seem to have been moving into the more affordable outskirts. Thus, demographic irony.

Point two. The hometown reference from which I apparently never will escape and always comes by surprise was asked by this same female beagle: Are you related to X— Pollock? No, I respond. Oh, really, they always respond with skepticism, forcing elaboration.

The hostess of the lunch, you see, had just introduced each of us to the group.

How did she know I was from Fort Smith? She didn’t, but Arkansas is a small state and Pollock, she like the others always say, is such an unusual name. Then the woman spelled Pollock like that, not Pollack, the other main spelling. This woman, unlike most of the others, was well-meaning. She went to Northside with X—, knew the fellow she later married, where they went to college then lost track of them. I lost track, too, and about the same time, I told her.

I left Fort Smith upon my high school graduation 29.5 years ago, and once or twice a year, on visits to Fort Smith and rarely here, too, 50 miles north, I am asked if I am related to X—, either of her two brothers, their father or his father.

My mom and dad got this, too, and passed their resentment on to me. Mom told me these strangers heard of rumored problems in that family and wanted to tie us in, simply in the small-town meanness that happens.

Mom would answer, properly, “They’re the furniture-store Pollocks, and we’re the dry cleaners Pollocks.”

I told this woman the same, adding I knew the other Pollocks in that both families’ businesses both were downtown. She gave me a blank look.

The room was noisy so I did not give my follow-up lecture on how the name Pollock is not unusual, that A) it is a common ocean fish — read the side of almost any fish stick box — and B) Pollock is one of the main clans in Scotland. (Google separately “Pollock Scotland” and “Pollock fish.”) Oddly, I would add, I am not Scottish.

I did throw in that when X— and I were growing up, the Fort Smith phone book listed a Don Pollock and a George Pollock whom neither X— nor I knew, so did my questioner know them and wonder if they were related? She did not. (If today you do a Yahoo people search of “Pollock” with “Fort Smith AR” you get George, Mary F., M.R., Paul and S.J. Pollock — no kin of any of them.)

But though I trust her motive was good, she did give me an “I don’t think I believe you” look.” They all give me that.

Two years ago, I figured it out. I chose not to tell Mom. It’s not small-town meanness by most-but-not-all of these interlocutors: It’s worse. It’s “code.”

That time, I was introduced to a reporter at the Fort Smith newspaper. I knew of his family, as it’s prominent in town. This guy asked me, and I saw the smirk, if I’m related to Z—- Pollock (one of X—‘s brothers).

I gave him the jovial response of our families knowing one another being longtime small businessmen before the fathers’ retirements, and he gave me the “I don’t believe you” look, which I finally understood, though he may not have meant it in this way (who can read minds?).

It said, “You’re a Jew, too.

“They’re Jewish, you’re Jewish, aren’t you. Therefore you have to be all together.”

So I gave him the Scottish clan origins of the name but not of my particular family, and he gave me more of the Look.

Tonight, two years later, I come up with the snap: “Your name is Ben, too. Are we related?”

White folk hate it that white folk basically all look alike. -30-

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