Almost Friends: New Fiction by Jay Greenfield

July 12, 1964 (Freedom Summer)
Celeste, Louisiana

Frank knew he was violating three basic rules: Don’t drive on country roads, particularly at night. Never drive alone. Always let the office know where you are. He stepped on the gas and violated a fourth: Don’t go above the speed limit. If he followed these rules, he might violate the most basic rule of all: Don’t get killed. It had been barely a month since the three civil rights field workers — Chaney, Schwerner and Goodman, a Black and two Jews — had been murdered in Mississippi. It had been a day since Frank’s picture was on the front page of newspapers throughout Louisiana, and he had already received death threats. In the Celeste Sentinel, which he had seen a half hour ago, the headline above his picture said, “Landmark Ruling — Local Restaurants Ordered to Integrate”; the caption below the picture reported, “New York Civil Rights Lawyer, Frank Shapp, tells Judge Burke, ‘It’s a new world.’”

How the hell had he gotten here — an ambitious Jewish boy from Rockaway with a wife, two children and an enviable job at a prestigious law firm? The answer, he knew, went back to both his father and to Willie Gunn. He must not think of them. Willie, the only Black friend he had ever had (if they were friends), had told him two days ago: “Your Celeste case is going to do more harm than good; it might kill people.” Twenty years ago, his father had died violently alongside another country road in the Deep South. Frank pressed the pedal to the floor.


* * *



Bronx and Rockaway, NY


Willie Gunn was a colored kid. That’s what we called them then, and that’s what they wanted to be called — at least I think so. I was afraid of him long before I saw him or heard his name. But for a while, in 1946, when I was almost thirteen and preparing for my bar mitzvah, he was my friend—or almost my friend.

My cousin Ira first made me afraid. In 1944, soon after my father went to North Carolina to organize garment workers, Ira and my Uncle Danny came to our Bronx apartment to help my mother and me with the final packing. We were moving to Arverne, a summer town in Rockaway, at the other end of the City, where you were never more than a few blocks from both the Atlantic Ocean and Jamaica Bay. We were going to share an apartment in a two family house with my mother’s parents so that Grandma could take care of me while my mother went back to work as a nurse.

“It’s only temporary,” both my mother and father had assured me before he left — “a trial arrangement.” They said that if the North Carolina job worked out and we could have a good family life there, we would all move south. Otherwise, my father would come back to New York and either continue working for the Union or join Uncle Danny’s real estate business.

I never believed my father’s move to North Carolina was temporary. There had been too many arguments between my parents, too many days of silence, and they looked away from each other when one of them told me “trial arrangement.”

My mother asked Ira, who was eighteen months older than me, to go with me to my room and make sure I threw out everything I didn’t need. “Otherwise,” she said, “there won’t be enough space in Arverne.”

Ira, who never paid attention to his own parents, paid no attention to her. He closed my bedroom door behind us, pointed to a chess set at the top of one of the cartons I was packing, and said, “Let’s play.”

I nodded yes. Although I usually beat him quickly, I planned to drag the game out so he wouldn’t talk about the move. But he didn’t even wait until the pieces were set up.

“You going to P.S. 34?”

“It’s the only school in Arverne.”

“They got a lot of colored kids in 34. Big kids — with grown up bodies almost. I met this guy who goes there when I was visiting my grandma’s summer bungalow by the Rockaway beach — not our Grandma Shapp, my grandma on the other side — and he told me about them.”

“Let’s play.”

Ira stroked the white king in his hand and continued. “You ever have colored kids in your class?”

“No.” Almost all the kids in P.S. 93, my school until now, were Jewish. The few Irish or Italian kids who came into the class usually didn’t stay very long.

“You know anything about them?”

I didn’t answer. Except for Uncle Danny’s and Aunt Lilly’s maids, I’d never spoken to a colored person. I read about the “Negro problem” in Solidarity, the United Women’s Garment Workers Union newspaper my father brought home twice every month, and in a letter my father sent me from North Carolina. But these weren’t about individual people — certainly not about anybody I knew. The Solidarity articles, which I have to this day, were essentially editorials condemning segregation, particularly in the military during a “war for democracy,” and calling in bland language, for “social and economic spade work both in American labor and in the general community so that the Negro will come into his own as a worker and as a citizen.”

My father’s letter — five pages of small script — was passionate. He mentioned “the horrors of segregation in the South,” “the hypocrisy in the North,” and “the special duty of Jews to stop discrimination in this country because we’re being persecuted by Hitler.” But he gave only one specific:

“In the South, even the white workers who support the Union don’t want to work side-by-side with Negroes. One guy who invited me to his house for Sunday dinner and who will probably be the shop steward if we ever organize the factory, said, ‘They’re shiftless, and they smell, and they just want what we have without working for it.’ I didn’t argue with him because we need him so badly, but the next time we meet I’m going to have to educate him about the causes and evils of racism and how important it is for all workers to pull together.”


Sitting over the chess board and surrounded by cartons, I decided to write to my father as soon as Uncle Danny and Ira left. But what should I say about Negroes? Should I mention that the Union itself seemed segregated? That the names in Solidarity were all Jewish or Italian and, except for choruses or bands, the pictures were of white people only? That all of our friends from the Union — from every place — were Jewish?

“Frank, you hear me?” Ira asked. “You okay?” I had to concentrate on what Ira was saying because, otherwise, Uncle Dan would tell my mother that I was acting funny again, and she would become even more upset.

“I don’t know about colored kids,” I answered. “Why don’t we just play? You can be white.”

Ira lifted the white king and passed it from hand to hand. “I think you should know so you’ll be careful.”

“They’re just like white kids, I guess. Why should I be careful?”

I was pleased with my answer — my father would have liked it — but Ira ignored it. “I had some in my class,” he said with authority, “and I know some kids who had a lot, including that kid from Arverne. It ain’t too good. In P.S. 34, they’re a lot bigger because they just came up from the South after the war started and they got left back a couple times. They don’t have real schools for them down there. A lot are from Mississippi where they really hate white people and think Jews are like the Devil, and you might get punched. They ask for money. You might even get beaten up. You gotta watch yourself.”

“Ira, I don’t want to talk about colored kids. Let’s just play, okay?”

Ira, who had been very kind to me since my father went to North Carolina, put the king on the board and made the first move.

* * *

My father died in North Carolina on the day we moved. I don’t want to think about it, let alone write about it. But if I’m going to write about Willie Gunn and Louisiana, I have to say something about my father because my memories and thoughts of him, even though cloudy and inaccurate, steered much of what I did.

I’ll mention only three things:

First, from the moment my mother collapsed alongside our new Rockaway telephone, I tried to convince myself that his death made little difference to me — and, to a large degree, I succeeded. He left my life when he went to North Carolina, and now I had to accept what I had suspected: He was gone forever, and I had to move on without him. Did I miss him? Why think about it?

Second, we never knew the cause of death. While he was driving alone on a winding country road, his car went down an embankment and crashed head-on into a large oak. The autopsy reported massive internal injuries as well as a coronary. But which came first? And was he forced off the road? The accident report of the Fayette County Sheriff stated: “Decedent was a controversial figure who was trying to unionize several large dress factories. His life had been threatened by an anonymous caller who claimed to be a Dragon in the Ku Klux Klan.”

Third, I was determined not to absorb a single word said at the funeral and, here also, I succeeded. I didn’t even listen to the eulogy by Joseph Pearlstein, the revered International President of the United Women’s Garment Workers who had been a confidante of President Roosevelt. But that night, I learned a little of what Pearlstein had said, plus some things I didn’t want to know.

As hardly anything had been unpacked in our new apartments, my mother and I spent the night after the funeral at Uncle Danny’s and Aunt Lilly’s house. My room, a new spare room in the attic, was directly above their bedroom, and they must have forgotten I was there. It was impossible not to hear them and, unlike at the funeral, I couldn’t close my mind to what was being said.

“It’s a great honor, Pearlstein, himself, giving the eulogy,” Lilly said. “He painted Norm like the hero he was.”

“Great honor?” Danny replied angrily. “It’s a great pile of crap. If it’s such a noble cause, why didn’t Pearlstein go himself, or send some of his flunkies in their handmade suits? Hero! My poor brother was cannon fodder in hopeless causes: Trying to unionize hillbillies so Pearlstein could become labor czar of the whole country. And trying to do something about segregation in the South so he can go down in history as the Jewish Abe Lincoln.”

“Show some respect,” Lilly hissed.

“Respect!” The whole house could have heard my uncle. “For what ?” His voice returned to its normal loudness. “I spoke to Normy the day before the so-called accident. No accident. The bastards must have forced him off the road. He said that Pearlstein himself had called him and told him to lay off the colored stuff. It was upsetting the union supporters they were counting on. They’re pro-union but they’re southerners. Take the world as it is, Pearlstein ordered him. Get the union in the door, get FDR reelected, and get the Nazis and Japs beaten before we worry about the colored. When Norm started to argue, Pearlstein said he should come home if he wasn’t willing to follow union policy. The great man didn’t mention any of that in his eulogy.”

“Was Normy planning to come back?” Lilly asked. “Were he and Celia going to try again?”

“He was leaning that way, but wanted some time before making up his mind. I loved my big brother,” Danny’s voice trembled, and I wondered whether my uncle would cry. But then, his voice steadied. “For the hundredth time, I tried to convince him to forget that utopian crap and go into business with me. With my street-smarts and his brains, we would make three fortunes. And I would have an honest partner — not like your Uncle Velvel.”

For a while, both Lilly and Danny said nothing and, although I knew I was imagining it, I heard them breathing loudly. Finally, Lilly spoke at a measured pace, enunciating each word clearly:

“I’m sick of your criticizing my uncle.”

“And I’m sick of your uncle—of your whole damn family.”

Then there was silence; then more silence; and then a door slammed.

* * *

Ira was right about the colored kids in P.S. 34: They were older and bigger. My new friend, Eddie Mandelbaum, whom I met in the ocean just before Labor Day, told me, “they smell different, even when they don’t fart.” I vowed not to get near them.

They sat in the back of the room, never raised their hands, and were hardly ever called on. When the teacher was there, they weren’t behavior problems like I had become in my new school. But when the teacher wasn’t around, some of the colored boys would punch us and demand something small like a pencil or baseball card. The punches weren’t hard enough to make a bruise, and they never asked for money. There was an unwritten treaty: They wouldn’t cross an invisible boundary, and we wouldn’t tell. I kept out of their way as much as I could and, for the most part, they ignored me.

But the boundary was crossed soon after the start of 7-A, my second year at P.S. 34. Eddie and I were in the boys’ room at the end of lunch recess, each of us standing in front of an enamel urinal that began on the floor and was taller than most of the boys who used it. That fall, for the first time, Eddie and I were taller than the urinals, but only barely.

“I used to be afraid some colored kid would push me in while I was peeing, but now I won’t fit,” Eddie said laughing. “Let’s write our names in pee like we did in the sand under the boardwalk. You have enough left?”

I turned towards Eddie to tell him I couldn’t write the letters if I was laughing. Three colored kids were by the door, two of them with folded arms. I looked back down into the urinal and could see my hands trembling. Maybe they had heard what Eddie said about being pushed in. My stream was going from side to side and I was afraid some of it might get on my pants. Miss Boylan, our 7-A homeroom teacher, would see the stain. She didn’t like me and might say something — maybe to the whole class. I stopped urinating even though I wasn’t through, buttoned my fly, and turned to leave, without flushing. Eddie’s hands were shaking more than mine.

The biggest of the three, the one whose arms weren’t folded, was Willie Gunn, a neck and a head above the urinals. He had just started P.S. 34. Some kids said he had moved from Mississippi and had never worn shoes before. Others said he had moved from Brooklyn and had been in reform school.

They were blocking the door. I was afraid to stand still and afraid to move. Please God, I silently prayed, let the bell ring.

Willie came to us and grabbed the top of Eddie’s tie. “Hey Mandelnuts.” He yanked the tie down. “Take out your funny-looking little Jew dick so we can see where they sliced you.”

He’d demand the same from me, and what would happen after that — or tomorrow? The bell should ring soon, I reminded myself but, by then, Eddie might have obeyed. “Don’t, Eddie. You don’t have to.” I was amazed by what I said. It’s not safe to refuse colored kids flat out.

Willie stared at me, still holding Eddie’s tie, and the other boys smiled meanly, without separating their lips. Eddie looked as if he would cry. Now that I had time to think, I was afraid I would wet my pants; this hadn’t happened since I was a little boy but, after my father died, I often worried about it.

Then, as I’d hoped, the bell clanged and I was saved. Lunch was over, and we had to line up in the boys’ yard, by class in size places. Willie seemed to relax; maybe he, too, was saved by the bell. He let go of Eddie’s tie and punched him in the arm, but not very hard. He turned to me, laughed, and shook his head in wonderment. “You are one crazy, lucky sucker, Shit-Shapp.”

After we had lined up in the boys’ yard and were climbing the stairs single file towards the classrooms, I could see that the other boys knew what had happened. Although we weren’t allowed to talk on line, Eddie must have told them. They looked at me differently, but I wasn’t sure whether it was admiration or pity.


Soon after we reached the homeroom, the bell rang for gym, and we returned to the boys’ yard to choose up sides for softball. I expected to be picked near the end and I stood to the side. But Willie, who had been chosen by Miss Boylan as one of the captains, picked me second. He told me to play second base and to bat second even though I usually played the outfield and batted seventh or eighth. When we went into the field, he whispered in my ear, “Don’t let me down, tough guy.” I made no errors and got a hit. From then on, second base was my regular position and I batted second or sixth.


Even if Willie hadn’t crossed back over the boundary and rewarded me for showing guts, I couldn’t tell any adult what had happened in the boys’ room. I’m not a snitch, and there was nobody to tell. Miss Boylan would glare; she wouldn’t have to say “snitch.” My mother would only look more tired and hopeless. Grandpa would turn away in defeat — another failure to understand America.

Grandma would try to understand and to help me, but she might call the three boys “rotten schvartzes.” Then what would I do? Give her a lecture or ignore a word my father had hated? Not as bad as the N word, but bad enough.

* * *

There was a snowstorm on the Sunday before Thanksgiving — eight inches. Eddie called and said we should shovel walks. People were paying a dollar a walk, and we could finish one in less than an hour — good money. We did the walk for Mr. Kaplan, our landlord, who lived downstairs from us, and then went next door to Mr. Lazar.

Mr. Lazar opened the door about an inch, and we asked him if he wanted his walk shoveled. Smoke from the cold came out with our words. “How much for the walk and driveway? I have to get my car out and I don’t want to skid in that little space and maybe hit something.” There was no smoke with his words. I looked at the driveway. It was a lot more work than just the walk.

“Three dollars,” Eddie answered. I was shocked although the price seemed reasonable.

“A colored kid was just here, and he said he’d do it for two. I told him to come back in an hour.”

“But he’s colored!” Eddie said it as I was thinking it. I wondered what I would have said if Eddie hadn’t been so quick.

“Could you explain to me what that’s got to do with shoveling snow?”

“We’ll do it for two dollars,” Eddie came right back while I wondered what my father would think.

I shoveled as fast as I could because I feared that Willie was the colored kid coming back. When, after nearly two hours, we were through shoveling, Eddie planted his shovel in a pile of dirty snow and said: “There’s no colored kid. Lazar said that just to get the price down. I should’ve asked for two-fifty.”

“It’s too cold,” I said, aiming the smoke from my words right at Eddie’s face. “Let’s go to Paulie’s to see if he wants to play Monopoly.” Eddie nodded. Holding the shovel in both my hands, I started to run the two blocks to Paulie’s. Willie might still come back.

* * *

The next day, Miss Boylan told us we would be taking achievement tests just before Christmas vacation. “If anyone is more than a year behind, he’ll be left back although we’ll work hard to try to make sure that that doesn’t happen.” After pausing and slowly surveying the room with her pale blue eyes, she went on: “Because the class sizes are out of balance, one or two of you may skip 7-B and go directly to 8-A and start high school at the beginning of 1947. The tests may decide that.”

The news upset me. I expected to get the highest scores — I usually did — but I was afraid that no matter what my scores, Miss Boylan would not let me skip a grade.

Willie, I soon learned, was even more concerned. We were lining up in the boys’ yard after lunch, when another new colored kid — Shoot was what he wanted to be called although his real name was Earl Collins — grabbed Willie’s arms and shouted almost gleefully: “Hey, boy, after those tests, they’re gonna leave our ass back again.”

In what seemed to be a single movement (although it couldn’t have been), Willie pinned Shoot’s shoulders to the ground with his knees and held an open switchblade knife at his throat. They both were sweating in the cold. Shoot’s dark brown head was on a patch of snow; his eyes seemed all white.

“You leave me, Nigger,” Willie said slowly, his chest heaving. The word overwhelmed me. “You leave me alone or….” Short bursts of smoke shot from his mouth. “I ain’t doing this grade again no matter what.”

Suddenly seeming to appear out of nowhere, Miss Boylan was bending over Willie and Shoot. “Give that to me, William,” she said calmly. “Right now.” Her white hair, with a tint of blue in it, almost glowed next to Willie’s short black hair. She put her hand out.

Willie handed her the open knife without looking up from the ground. His knees still on Shoot’s shoulders, his body shook and he started to cry. Miss Boylan closed the blade and then touched him on the cheek. “We better go to the Principal.” She handed Willie a handkerchief, and he got up slowly. “You get up also, Earl, and come with us,” she told Shoot. “The rest of you, line up. Everything will proceed normally.”


Willie did not come back to class that day or the next, but he was in the boys’ yard Wednesday morning, looking glum. Everybody stayed away from him, even the colored kids.

We all followed the No Talking Rule as we climbed the four flights to Miss Boylan’s homeroom. Nobody even whispered until we went through the door and could see the word “FRACTIONS” printed on the blackboard in large capital letters right under the picture of General MacArthur accepting the surrender of the Japanese on the U.S.S. Missouri a few months earlier. “Oh man, fractions; that’s tough stuff,” an anxious white boy’s voice whispered behind me, and several other voices grunted concern. I wouldn’t tell anybody that Ira had taught me fractions a month ago.

During math, while Miss Boylan was writing some fractions on the blackboard, I turned around to look at Willie. He wasn’t even trying to follow what she was saying. I saw what would happen: Fractions would be on the achievement tests, Willie wouldn’t understand them, and he would be left back again. How could I permit that when Willie respected me? After he put me on second base and moved me up in the batting order? After my father wrote to me about the evils of racism? I had to tutor him.

But as I sat there, acting as if I were paying attention, I realized it wasn’t that simple. Where could I do the tutoring? We couldn’t go to my house. My mother was on night duty at Rockaway Beach Hospital, and she slept in the afternoon. Would Grandma ask me: “Why do you bring a schvartze into the house? Aren’t you afraid he’ll steal something?”

I couldn’t imagine going to Willie’s house. Some of the colored streets weren’t paved, and I had seen from the bus that some of the houses had boarded-up windows even though people lived in them. The dogs in the street seemed ready to attack. And who else would be in his house? How would it smell? I had never been in a colored person’s house.

For a moment, I thought of asking Miss Boylan if I could tutor Willie in the homeroom after school, but that was the worst idea of all. Everything in 7-A had gone wrong. Maybe it was me, maybe it was Miss Boylan, but I always seemed to be doing something that annoyed her — not tucking in my shirt, getting ink on my fingers, chewing paper and putting the little wet balls on the bottom of my desk seat, forgetting the homework, talking in class, not staying in line when we climbed the stairs from the boys’ yard. Once I even sat down at my desk when the seat was raised and landed on the floor. Miss Boylan led the class in laughing; it was the only time anyone had ever seen her laugh. I was sure she would say no to anything I asked about Willie; she would tell me I was acting out of place again, and would advise Willie to stay away from me.

Then I saw the solution — the library annex on Seventy-third Street, just at the end of the Jewish neighborhood and before the colored neighborhood began. The lady in the children’s room always seemed happy to see me; she called me “Super Reader.”

But even talking to Willie alone wasn’t easy. Miss Boylan was always watching both of us and, in the schoolyard, you just didn’t walk up to Willie Gunn and talk about fractions. On the way to and from school, Willie walked only with colored kids and I walked only with white kids. Nobody planned it that way; it was just how things were.

I did the best I could. When we were lining up in the schoolyard, I handed Willie a note and asked him to put it in his pocket:

“Come early tomorrow to school and meet me in front of Bernie’s Candy Store. I have to talk to you about something very important. Don’t forget.”


Willie was at Bernie’s the next morning when I got there, but he looked angry. I was glad to see white grownups coming in and out of the store.

“What’s important? What you want from me? I don’t want more trouble.” Willie jerked his head sharply down after each question or statement. “I leave you alone. You leave me.”

I told him about the tutoring. “We can do it in the library on Seventy-third Street. The librarian there’s nice — not like Miss Boylan — and she’ll let us. That way you won’t get left back.”

Willie inhaled deeply, and I thought of Shoot. “You crazy, boy.”

“Why? You’re smart even if you have trouble with tests. I’d be a good teacher.”

“I don’t need you.”

“But I can help you. You helped me when you gave me second base.”

“Look, Frank.” Willie had never before called me by my first name. “Look. I don’t want to get left back again. Okay? I’m the biggest one in the class now, and almost two years older. How am I gonna look if I get one more class behind?”

“But that’s why—”

“I don’t need your help, I just said. Miss Boylan, she told me she would help me for the tests after school. We’re going to start today.”

Although it was cold out, I felt myself perspiring. “But I can help you, too.”

Willie took a step back. “Boy, I said no.”

“I want to. Please.”

I grabbed Willie’s coat sleeve, and Willie pulled my hand from it. He moved his face close to mine and spoke softly, stretching out the vowels: “I said no. Fuck you, you little Jew bastard. Don’t try to run my life.” He turned and left me standing there.


Design from a photo from Getty Images. Jay Greenfield is a writer and lawyer. His last novel, Max’s Diamonds (Chickadee Prince Books, 2016), is available on Amazon and Barnes & Noble in paperback and e-book, and at your local bookstore.

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