Writings and observations

Zorba and Baltimore

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Like many news junkies, I’ve been reflecting on the events in Baltimore over the last ten days. I keep coming back to a fact that has been completely absent from the debate. I will explain by first quoting from Nikos Kazantzakis’ great novel,Zorba the Greek which was made into a fine movie with Anthony Quinn playing Zorba.

Zorba is getting acquainted with the sober-miened Englishman who asks Zorba if he is married. Zorba replies:

“Am I not a man? Are not men STUPID? So I married—wife, children, home, the whole CATASTROPHE!”

Inevitably, one laughs because this hits too close to home. As the old saying goes, the truth often is in a joke. Most, if honest, will concede, even the brightest and most disciplined among us can and often do stupid things, some totally inexplicable.

In my expereience, young men, regardless of race, creed or color, full of too much testosterone, sometimes do some really stupid things. Take me, for example.

True confession: Fifty years ago I “technically” assaulted one of New York’s finest.

It was early fall of my freshman year at Columbia. Classes had just started so many young men were milling around with little to do but cause mischief. Someone said, “Let’s do a panty raid on Barnard (the women’s college next to Columbia).” Yes, in 1965 this anachronistic practice was still in vogue.

Before you could snap a finger, 200 young men had stormed across the street and were standing on the south side street of the main Barnard residence hall, chanting and demanding that they be tossed women’s undergarments. I went along­­­ as can happen when in a crowd.

Of course few items were tossed out. It was then the Idaho kid decided to show these wimpy easterners how to take action. Amidst cheers I scaled up the side of the dorn two stories and into the residence hall where there were indeed young ladies milling around, screaming at the sight of a guy demanding undie’s and bra’s. Some young ladies handed me the items so back to the window I went to toss the contraband to the wimps still standing and yelling for such.

Then back down the wall I went and dropped straight into the arms of one of New York’s finest just waiting there. Grabbing me buy the arm, he informed me I was going with him. I replied, “Like hell, I am.” Then I committed the real stupidity, I struck the officer’s arm holding me, knocking his grip loose, ran and melded into the crowd.

As I wandered back to my dorm room I realized just how stupid I’d acted. I easily could have not been able to get away. Then, I would have faced an “assaulting an officer” charge, a felony no less, and easily could have lost my scholarship and probably might even have had to do jail time.

My future no doubt would have been quite different. Try getting a job even today if you’ve got a felony on you record.

Life has ways of evening things out. It’s often called the “school of hard knocks.” My hard knock was literally a hard knock but I looked upon it as an element of divine justice being meted out. No matter what you term it, New York’s finest got even in less than three years.

In April of 1968 a student protest led by the Students for a Democratic Society (SDS) against Columbia building a new gym on a large part of Morningside Park (One of a few areas where the African-American population in Harlem could recreate) led to a shut down of the campus. SDS leader Marc Rudd led the seizure of Hamilton Hall and Low Library where the administration offices were.

After several nights of a stand-off it was clear the police were about to move. I joined a group of students that formed a circle, holding hands, around the library. We thought as pacifists we could protect those that had seized the building and that the police would respect our non-violent stance.

We thought wrong. When the police moved we were all shoved and clubbed out of the way. It was then the scales of justice evened out for one of New York’s finest nailed me in the back with his billy club.

The moral of this story is yes, the chattering media can talk about lack of jobs, lack of education, lack of fathers or male mentors, lack of hope in Baltimore, and it all does contribute and it all needs addressing. Don’t forget, however, that men, especiallly young men, can act in a very stupid way at times. Only God knows why.

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