I Pissed All Over Paul Robesonís Trousers ©
By Yosef Bar-On
My father shot and killed a Czarist official in 1905. He was
then sixteen years old and a member of a revolutionary socialist party. He was
arrested and sentenced to death. The family was able to gather enough funds for
a bribe by selling almost everything they owned and he was released, luckily for
me of course, and left Russia. He came to America and, except for two trips, one
in which to find and bring back with him a woman to marry who would eventually
become my mother, and the other, to meet his grandchildren, he never left the
United States again.
My father was a short, physically strong man. He was perpetually suntanned and he was always carefully arranging the few thin strands of hair left to him across his broad pate, trying to hide his baldness. He was a bit of a dandy during most of the year. He wore a carefully brushed pearl-grey Homburg and a business suit but he was always unmistakably a working man. I have a number of snapshots of him from the twenties and the thirties in which almost invariably he is well dressed, sporting a cane and striking a pose. Very often on the edge of the picture is some woman or other, holding his hat or his overcoat. In the summer however, he seemed to allow himself to be a bit sloppy. One of the snapshots shows him wearing shorts, a torn T-shirt and a sweat-stained sailorís cap. HeĎs playing hand-ball with my cousin Phil. He was a hard worker but never a success and, in spite of the efforts he made to advance himself, and they were many, he exuded an aura of defeat. I think he thought of himself as a failure. He remained a working man always, having failed in an attempt to open his own tailoring shop. The Stock Market, in which my cousin Phil excelled, remained largely an enigma to him. In spite of his political beliefs he tried to make himself into a little capitalist and his failure at that is one reason he felt himself unsuccessful. I also think he blamed himself for the failure of his marriage. I myself have doubts about that; I doubt if any man could have been successful with my mother, at least then. I always thought of him as a good man and a loving father. He read the New York Times and the Morgen Freiheit. When no one was looking, he would stand in front of the bathroom mirror carefully enunciating over and over, Ďvegetable soup, vegetable soup.í But it would always come out as, Ďwege table.í He smoked cigars and even today whenever I smell a cigar, no matter where I am, Iím reminded of him. The depression was particularly hard on him. From what I gather from family anecdotes, since I really canít remember much from that time, I realize that he was unemployed for years.
He was a highly skilled menís tailor; what the British call, I believe, a bespoke tailor. The sort of craftsman who could take a bolt of cloth and your measurements and make you a suit of clothes that would fit as if you were poured into it. A rare and expensive talent for which unfortunately, there was little call during the depression years. He was short, as I said, and he had large expressive hands with prominent veins, which Iíve inherited. I donít know what else Iíve inherited. Once when I was a child, he saw me sewing a button back onto a shirt of mine. He smiled ruefully when he saw me wrap the thread expertly around and around the threads to anchor the button properly. He muttered something about a tailorís son and I was inordinately proud. Of course now I know that he would never have wanted me to follow in his footsteps. I haven't.
During the depression years, as hard as they were, I was well dressed. I know from snapshots of myself from then that I still have among my family papers. In them I appear as a skinny little boy in well cut clothes, knee-length knickers. In one picture I am wearing a Mackinaw coat with a perfectly fitted and intricate zippered hood, which he had designed and sewn. He made all my outer clothes then. He made them from remnants and bits. I was a small boy; they didnít have to be big pieces of cloth and he had the time.
The hardness of those years comes to me now only in bits and pieces of recollection. I was really too young then to have any direct knowledge or understanding of what was going on. Some things stand out: My favorite shirt hanging with the laundry on the fire escape in the freezing winter so that when I tried to take it off the line I accidentally tore the frozen sleeve. It actually broke and I burst into tears. The present I received on my seventh birthday, that I remember well.
It was a mattress, from some welfare agency, the Salvation Army I think. A simple blue-ticking mattress filled with dusty yet fragrant straw. My father had to pay a nominal sum for it but even that was difficult for him then. I knew that and I appreciated the gift. What was so special about a mattress? I slept on a cot, probably from the same source. It was a surplus U.S. Army cot left over, I suppose, from the first world war. It was made of canvas and wood and built to be easily taken apart. When it was opened the canvas was as taut as a drum. It was comfortable in the summer. The trouble was that in the winter I would freeze lying on it. No matter how many blankets I piled on top of me, the cold came up right through that thin canvas and froze my skinny bottom. That night I fell asleep easily, tucked into a warm bed, sneezing a bit from the dust and pollen in the mattress but warm throughout.
When I was seven my father took me to Camp Kinderland, which was situated somewhere in New York state, not far from Poughkeepsie. Together with the snapshots I mentioned, there are a number of fading five by seven photographs from then. In one of them we, a bunch of seven and eight year-old city kids, sit on a long bench in front of the rustic bungalow we lived in. On both sides of the row are two buxom women in shorts who were in charge of us. Iím seated near the center next to a really fat little boy. Iím the skinny kid with the dreamy expression. I look at the photograph and I smile. I had a great time there, though I donít remember what I did. I was really skinny; you could see my collar bones easily. Iím not skinny anymoreóIt was so long ago!
I even remember the name of one of the two women, the blonde one with the pig-tails and the athletic thighs who stood on the left. Her name was Sonia and I think she laughed when I told her my fears about a prayer I must have learned in school which was terrifying me; ďIf I should die before I wake, I pray the Lord my soul to take.Ē Now Iím not sure if it really was Sonia who relieved my fears. Maybe it was a schoolteacher, but I certainly remember fighting falling asleep because I was sure to wake up dead!
On the bottom of the photograph are a few lines in Yiddish in white ink, I suppose that they were written onto the negative. It says something about working class city kids enjoying Nature. My Yiddish is poor and the only thing Iím really sure about in the writing is the date, 1937, written in a European hand with a crossed seven.
Together with the photographs is a neckerchief, which was once bright red and had a lot of words in Yiddish stamped around and around on it in gold and black. Itís completely faded now and the letters are almost illegible. It was just like the red neckerchiefs worn by Komsomol kids in the Soviet Union. It wonít fit around my neck anymore. Why have I kept these things? Iím not sure. As I said, I enjoyed myself there very much. I think that it may have been the first time that I ever was outside the city and by myself with a lot of kids my own age. Iím not sure that it was the first time in the countryóI do have a vague early memory from some time or other of playing by myself in a green field being frightened by a cow or a heifer and running away.
I went to Camp Kinderland two summers in the late Thirties and I have a very warm feeling about the place. Iím not sure exactly why, but I do remember two events quite clearly. The first is of a concert held there one sunny afternoon. The second happened at the end of my second and last summer there when I contracted pneumonia and had to be taken to a local hospital. I believe that I was there for a long time but all I really remember are white muslin mosquito nets and my frightened father and dust motes moving erratically in hazy rays of afternoon sunlight. I must have been very ill. I lost a term at school and never came back to Camp Kinderland again.
The concert was something altogether different. It probably took place on a weekend because there were a lot of parents there. I suppose that the concert was really for the parents. It surely wouldnít have interested us! I was in the youngest age group and we sat up front, right up against the stage. We sat there expectantly for there was a gala atmosphere and the adults were all excited. I sat impatiently with my buddies on a long low bench and the stage towered high above us. There was a lot of colorful bunting and flags on the stage and it was very hot and sticky. Finally someone, one of the camp staff I suppose, climbed onto the stage and made a speech. There was a great deal of applause for the speaker but I think I must have been bored. I couldnít understand what he was so excited about. Spain, Spain, thatís all he talked about and he was very excited. I nudged the kid next to me and we giggled. Every time he mentioned Spain all the adults applauded and we giggled. I whispered, ĎSpain, Spain!í into the kidís ear and we sniggered. When the man finished his speech, he raised his fist high above his head and we all did that too. I think that I must have looked quite silly; a skinny kid with protruding collar bones with a tiny clenched fist raised high.
Finally he finished and it became very quiet. We looked around, I donít know what we expected but suddenly there burst forth a wave of applause from the audience behind us that quite frightened me. All the adults in the back stood up and I saw that a couple of the staff were coming towards the stage leading a big black man.
We didnít say black then. Nobody said black, they said Negro, carefully enunciated so as not to say the bad word, Nigger. Or they said colored. But I looked at that man coming closer, he was huge and he was black alright. I donít know if I ever been that close before to one of them. I doubt it. Our family and all our neighbors were all eastern-European Jewish in origin and in school the kids were either Jewish or Italian, Calabrese in our neighborhood, to be exact. There must have been some blacks then, but they donít come to mind. Later on of course, there were blacks in the elementary and secondary schools I attended and I was aware of them and myself and I became uneasy in my own prejudice. All the while the applause grew and then he was standing there, up right on the edge of the stage directly above me.
I recall that he wore a dull brown wool double-breasted suit and a tie, which seemed silly to me in the summer heat. What is clearest in my mind is the memory of his shoes, which were only about a foot or two above my head. They were two-toned brown and white wing-tips with leather tassels and they were enormous! I had never seen such big shoes.
Some woman in a big straw hat came up onto the stage and sat down at the piano just behind him and started to play something or other. Everybody stopped applauding and they all sat down. The man smiled, bowed once to the audience, clasped his hands at chest height and then he began to sing.
I must say something about that singing. I donít know what he was singing or even what kind of songs they were but I never had heard anything quite like it and rarely since then have I heard so deep and expressive a voice. ItĎs difficult now for me to gauge how much that voice affected my innocent ears. It was a revelation. His voice had a timbre, a resonance, aóIím using words that can only approximate what I was experiencing. Here I sat on a bench and there right above me was one of the biggest men Iíd ever encountered, black as the night, he seemed and he sang to a large audience, adults and kids, all seated under the trees and his voice thundered through me. When his voice went lower and deeper I could feel, I most definitely could feel the bench under me shaking. I glanced at my neighbor but he was looking up, open-mouthed and glassy-eyed. The man stopped singing and stepped back and bowed. Behind me the audience went wild, up on their feet, bravoes, cheers, whistles and loud applause. I just sat overwhelmed.
I canít say that is was because of the singing. What could I have known about singing then? I think that it was the elemental force that that man expressed. Big and black and possessed of a deep devilish voice, he represented a passion Iíd never faced, never even imagined existed.
Gradually the applause faded away, the audience sat down again and the man stepped up to the front of the stage, but this time he began to speak. I listened carefully but I couldnít grasp what he was talking about. His speaking voice was deep too, and warm and the word Spain was scattered throughout whatever he was saying, but this time we didnít giggle. Now again the lady in the straw hat played a chord, everybody became quiet and he began singing again. This time it was a soft song, maybe a lullaby. He sang almost in a whisper but everybody was quiet so every word was clear. It was in some foreign language. I couldnít understand the words but I saw Sonia, who was standing at the end of my bench, and she had tears in her eyes.
Someone put a chair on the stage, a kitchen chair and the singer stood in front of it and he said, I remember every word now: ĎThis is a song for the children of this world!í Again there was a lot of cheering and applause and then he bent down, towards me. He smiled at me, I looked around but it was at me that he was smiling. He reached out and down with those huge black hands, plucking me effortlessly right off the bench and he sat down on the kitchen chair, planting me on his lap.
I canít blame myself for what happened, although for years I was terribly ashamed of what I did. When I got older it became a useful anecdote to tell people and even to try to impress girls with. The truth is that I was absolutely terrified then. You can picture it. There I was; high above my own small world, everyone staring at me, seated on a huge lap, held by big black foreign hands that were probably four times the size of my own. I was powerless, held by something, someone far beyond my understanding. My father, who had been my tower, was far away on the edge of the crowd. I could barely make out his round bald head. I realized suddenly that this big black man was bigger than my father, stronger than my father and nothing could be done for me. I was trapped.
I didnít cry but no credit is due to me for that. I was like a rabbit transfixed on the light beams of an onrushing car. I was just paralyzed with fear and all the while I could hear the applause. He held me easily; I didnít squirm or try to get down. Then he began to sing.
When he sang before, as close to me as he had been, and there had been only a couple of yards between us, we were after all, quite separate. He had been up on the stage; I had been in the audience. Now I was on his lap and his voice went right through me like a knife. I was like a sounding board. The manís voice was loud and deep and passionate. I shook all over and I wet my pants and pissed all over Paul Robesonís trousers.
Of course I didnít know at the time who the man was. But many years later I saw him in ďThe Emperor Jones.Ē I canít remember if it was at a concert or in the movie version. Most probably it was the movie. When he began to sing, and I again heard that voice, it all suddenly came back to me and I realized whose trousers I had wet. My God, how ashamed I was! It was funny really, it was so many years since that little incident and here I was in a movie house, a grown man myself, ashamed almost to tears.
He didnít stop singing and I donít think that many people were aware of what had transpired. He, after all, was a professional. He finished the song and got up and deposited me in the kitchen chair. Luckily his trousers were dark so no stains were visible. He looked at me, smiled ruefully and then he said, so quietly that no one could hear him but me, ĎItís alright Sonny. Donít let it bother you.í Then he patted me once on the head with his big gentle black hand. I looked at him and just gulped. What could I say?
December 1991 Ė January 1992
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