I was born in 1961 in San Francisco, California, to Max and Sibyl Metheny. Max was either a beat poet who clerked, or a clerk who did beat poetry depending on how you prioritized profession and passion. Sibyl was a social worker who, at the moment of my birth, transformed into a stay-at-home mother.
It wasn’t an easy birth. Most of Sibyl’s doctors thought it wouldn’t be a birth at all, but rather the death of my mother and the fetus she carried. She proved them wrong. The drive to reproduce is strong.
Because my birth was hard, my mother had to have a cesarean section six weeks before my due date. In 1961 this was a big deal. Now it isn’t. Medical science is wonderful. But prior to being wheeled in for surgery, Sibyl was given a sedative and this led to an odd occurrence at the hospital that she would talk about in later years. She always told it as a funny and self-deprecating story, and she told it freely enough that it stuck in my mind. Heavily sedated and loopy, as she was being prepared for the surgery an alarming prospect suddenly popped into her head, one that she had to deal with immediately before the anesthetic took her completely. She caught the attention of the orderly, desperately fighting the effects of the drugs to get her message out before it was too late.
“Please,” she said to the orderly, “please tell them in surgery not to give me any negro blood.”
“Don’t worry, ma’am,” said the orderly, who my mother would later describe as being black as night, with an afro out to here, “I’ll let them know.” Sibyl, greatly relieved, surrendered to the anesthetic
What brought about that outburst? As Sibyl told the story, it was an effect of the disorientation from the drug. But we already know that Sibyl had issues in this area.
In any event, I got me born, was briefly held by my mother, then stuffed into an incubator and wheeled off to the chapel where I was baptized as Edmund Martinus Metheny and then given last rites. I was rather problematic – six weeks premature with an umbilical hernia and an rH compatibility problem. I wasn’t considered particularly viable. But it turned out that I was. So eventually I went home to the Haight-Ashbury district of San Francisco where the beatniks were slowly transforming themselves into hippies. My mother took care of me. My father clerked, wrote beat poetry, and drank too much – which may have been a requirement to write beat poetry.
The first person of color I recall knowing in my life was the street sweeper. We had street sweepers then, actual people with brooms and trashcans who would come and sweep the streets clear of trash and debris. I no longer recall the man’s name, but I knew it at the time. He would appear on our street early in the morning with his can and his broom, and as often as not he would be singing. I would toddle over to the window to listen and wave at him. I asked my mother if I could meet him, and she introduced us, and thereafter he would wave at me when he saw me in the window. He was an older man.
In my young life he was one of the coolest people I had ever met. I would cry if I missed him. Even now I can remember my enthusiastic waving, and him smiling and waving back.
The first really sick person I recall knowing was Mrs. Mack, who lived upstairs from us with her two daughters and husband. Mrs. Mack was dying. She had cancer. It had started in her throat, and her vocal chords had been removed and a stoma cut in her throat so she could breathe. She used to stick cigarettes in the hole in order to smoke. It took me a long time to figure out that Mrs. Mack was in fact the mother of the two girls – she looked older than my grandmother. She scared me, particularly when she would hack what seemed like gigantic amounts of phlegm from the hole in her neck. Because she lacked vocal chords she also spoke in a hissy, clicky whisper.
The girls, who were about 6-8 years my senior, were always in good spirits though. It must have been hard having a dying mother in the house at such a young age.
Eventually Max departed the scene in order to devote himself to drinking and writing poetry, Sibyl divorced him for intolerable cruelty, and there was a lot of yelling and crying and acrimony, which bewildered the living hell out of 4-year-old me. I have a vivid memory of my mother crying and me running to the bathroom, there to tear off a single square of toilet paper to help her dry her tears. Another memory of that time was of my watching out the window as my father left after a visit. He strode off down the street with those big, adult strides. I waited for him to turn around because I wanted to wave at him again, but he didn’t. That bewildered me for years afterwards – why my father wouldn’t turn around and look back at me – but it makes a lot more sense now that I am an adult.
After my mother got her teaching credential she started looking for work. She went to lots of different places, but it was hard for a single mother even in the 60’s to find work – the stigma was much reduced over previous years, but it remained. It took a couple of years for her to get her teaching credential and find a job in teaching, and during that time my aunt Gertrude Phillips came to live with us and provide care for me. Aunt Gertrude was a former nurse who had worked in tubercular wards. She was a spinster who loved those lurid “True Detective” magazines – the ones that featured tied up women – often with their clothing in disarray – being menaced by shadowy figures. Make of that what you want. Maybe she read them for the articles. It’s not like we had discussions about it, but there were always a half-dozen issues of various such magazines lying around her room. She also chain smoked, which eventually led my mother to restrict her smoking to her room with the door closed. She was an average cook, and most importantly for me a lax disciplinarian. Finally, she was somewhat afraid of black people, despite having worked with a lot of them in tubercular wards in her younger years. On Allport’s scale she was a stage 1 who occasionally drifted into stage 2. Because of where we ended up it was relatively easy for this to be a non-issue most of the time.
But I digress.
I was diagnosed with amblyopia during this time, which was later refined to lazy eye. I got an eye patch – not the cool pirate kind initially, but rather a big adhesive thing that looked like an eye-shaped bandage that I had to stick over my dominant eye to give the other one an opportunity to strengthen. This had exactly the effect that one might imagine – my dominant eye got weak, my weak eye got strong, and the problem jumped back and forth from eye to eye. Finally when I was in second grade (further up the narrative from where we are right now) the doctors just said “to hell with it” and let the lazy eye settle into the eye that it was currently in (my right) and gave me glasses. I bring this up mainly because it led to my very first encounter with being part of an out-group. My very first encounter on the wrong side of discrimination.
My mother sent me on an overnight outing sponsored by the day care center I attended. I had never been on an overnight outing before, and was a bit apprehensive to say the least. At the time I had three possessions that I considered really important – a light blue “security” blanket, a stuffed bear (“Preacher Bear” – named because we had gotten him at the local church thrift shop) and the eye patches that I wore religiously with the understanding that I would surely go blind without them. At some point during the outing my stuff got stolen by other children, and my blanket, bear, and eye patches got pitched into the camp fire where I got to watch them all burn.
To say that this made me upset would be a profound understatement. I had a complete and total nervous breakdown. I would not stop screaming and crying. Eventually one of the adult supervisors had to drive me back from the Marin hills to San Francisco in the middle of the night and return me to my mother and Aunt. There was a lot of screaming and yelling – my mother was not happy with my treatment – but mostly I just cried. I cried for hours. I cried for days. I was convinced that I would now go blind. I was devastated by the loss of my blanket and Preacher Bear – we had been inseparable. And I simply could not wrap my mind around the idea that other people had done this to me maliciously, because I wore an eye patch or had a blanket, or for whatever reason they had chosen as their excuse to single me out for special treatment.
Lets be clear – this was a mere taste of the ice cream of prejudice. It wasn’t like I had gotten a full scoop. It was a terrible, traumatic event but it was nothing, nothing, NOTHING like what those who experience systematic discrimination must endure. This was casual. This was small children being mean in the way that small children can be. This was drive-by discrimination. I was a target of convenience, nothing more. If the mix of kids had been different, if I had been a bit less conspicuous, it could easily have been me on the opposite side of that event, doing something casually cruel because my child’s mind didn’t really grasp the extent of it.
Nevertheless for me – FOR ME – it was a shattering event. As I write this the events happened approximately 50 years ago, and I can still conjure up with ease the image of Preacher Bear burning in the camp fire.
I had to go to a child psychologist. God knows where my mother got the money for that. I don’t remember too much about it except that the child psychologist had lots of nice toys – way nicer than the toys that I had at home – and he and I would spend about an hour playing with them and making up stories about them. I went for several months before the child psychologist pronounced me to be in reasonable psychological health for someone my age who had parents going through a divorce. The child psychologist gave me some books (in truth I think my mother probably paid for them because I had drawn all over them in crayon). Of these, my favorite was “The King, The Mice, and the Cheese” (which was a new book at the time). I kept that book for decades, crayon marks and all.
Again, draw your own conclusions from that.
Following this, my mother kept me close for some time. Despite the presence of Aunt Gertrude who was there ostensibly to watch me, and frequent visits by Ruth, I went with my mother on many of her job interviews – to Oakland, to San Jose, to Davis. Eventually we hopped into the 1966 Volkswagen my mother had purchased and headed off for a little town in Northern California called Oroville, where my mother was seeking employment as a Home Economics teacher.
They hired her.
Away we went.