A Russian Jew, Black Homosexual, and Baptist Minister Walk into a Bar: 6 Minute Read
A Russian Jew, Black Homosexual, and Baptist Minister Walk into a Bar
In 1997, Puerto Rican police officer Reinaldo Salgado of Brooklyn died from cancer. He loved children, and served them every summer in a park that today bears his name.
The children still come and feel his love. So do their parents and grandparents— and, in fact, just about everyone else.
During mornings, lunchtime, and late afternoons, employees from nearby businesses find their way here. They come to eat, walk through, and people-watch. There’s a mechanic shop on the corner ran by Hassidic Jews. They stand outside wiping their hands with towels. Small children wearing glasses and hijabs skip by, holding hands with their mothers. The crossing guard has a distinct Jamaican accent. A half-hour later the teachers in skirts stroll by with their books.
By late afternoon the playground empties of small children and mothers. They go home for dinner. The basketball court fills. Teenage boys yell for the ball. “Foul!” they cry. The makeshift baseball/soccer/football field crowds, too.
To the left is a group of African American eleven-to-twelve-year-olds. Straight ahead a group of Hispanic men have set up a miniature soccer field with cones and small goals. To my right is a group of very goofy white men plus one Indian. They play an odd game with a hand ball and a small trampoline.
The Hispanics kick the ball out of their field and into the domain of the handball/trampoline exhibit. One of the white guys jogs towards the ball. He kicks. The ball sails through the air and hits one of the black boys practicing football in the back. The football practice stops.
What will happen next. A brawl? An angry email? A news story?
Everybody laughs. The boy turns, picks up the soccer ball, and throws it to the Hispanic.
The Indian kids the white guy.
The dance goes on.
There’s no real story here. And that is the story. That Americans somehow, somewhere, can get along. In small, significant moments, what Americans needs most still grows: Love.
My computer is about to die and I’ve got a book to write. I walk down the block, past the community garden, to a bar at the corner of the park. I tell the bartender, Ryan, that I need less alcohol and more battery power in my life.
That’s when the Jew, black homosexual, and baptist minister walk in. Turns out, the black homosexual and the baptist minister are married.
They sit in a corner booth and play a card game. They are having a blast. Natalie, the Russian Jew, has an incredible ability to make the cards stick to her forehead.
She tells me that her family fled communist Russia in 1980. She was born in New Jersey five years later. According to Natalie, the communists killed, imprisoned, or expelled Jews. "They decided based on a family's commitment to Judaism and usefulness to society.”
In Russia, her grandfather practiced his Jewish faith behind everyone's back for years. He had Natalie's mother buy train tickets for him on the Sabbath and never put gravy on his meat to avoid dairy.
Early one morning Natalie’s grandmother discovered her husband wearing his religious garments. They fled with Natalie's mother, father, older brother, and partially paralyzed great grandmother. They left their belongings, their city apartment and home on the Black Sea. They only took what they could cram in a few suitcases. First they fled to Israel, then Vienna, Italy, and finally to New Jersey where they lived in a ghetto for a year. In New Jersey, Natalie's mother and grandmother were robbed at gunpoint. Her father was stabbed in a grocery store.
Somehow, they smuggled the family’s chandelier and hand-painted china. Natalie wore her great grandmother’s wedding ring.
“Success can’t be owned," Atiba, the black homosexual and educator from Trinidad, tells me. "It can only be rented. And rent is due every day.”
He gives a lengthy definition of success. He tells me of his struggles with manhood. “This is it,” he says. “I’m 33 years old. I am a man. I’m doing it. There is nothing else.” Then he tells me that “I respect artists. They push the culture forward. When our culture’s ideas limit us, it’s the artists, and prophets, who push us forward. They are bullied, persecuted, and oftentimes killed so that our species can survive.”
Atiba tells me “the only power you have over me is that which I project onto you.” He goes to the bathroom and his husband Devin, the Baptist minister, walks up. He wants to start a homeless shelter for families in his hometown outside of Charlotte, NC.
We discuss non-profit and for profit-models. "Little monsters of self-righteousness and greed can exist in both," I warn him. "I know from personal experience."
When he leaves to pay his bill, Natalie returns.
“Here’s how my family’s story has affected me,” she says. “My family and I are alive today because of the state of Israel. I will do anything for it.” She goes on a rant for five minutes. Turns out she’s liberal in every way except the liberal BDS movement against Israel. She calls it “bullshit” among other choice words.
Her cheeks grow less red as she tells me how her family’s history reminds her of the Passover. “Do you know the story?” she asks.
“Of course!” I say.
She tells me of the Jews’ exodus from Egypt. "I'm part of that story, my family is a part of that story, we all are part of that story." I glance at Ryan, Atiba and Devon. I imagine us leaving Egypt to cross the Red Sea and wander through the desert together. “It’s a story of perseverance, a willingness to overcome, and gratitude. I think about it every day.”
She’s got her teacher’s bag over her shoulder. She finishes ranting about the “BDS bullshit.” Her cheeks grow red again.
Natalie, Atiba and Devon exit and wait for rides to take them home. Natalie gets a ribbon out of her bag, twirling it in a circle through the air.
Before he left, Atiba told me that “Hell is when I see the difference between us and let it separate us.”
His comment reminded me of earlier that day as I sat in the park and chatted with a friend. She's Catholic and works at a Lutheran and Anglican seminary. She recounted C.S. Lewis’s version of hell from The Great Divorce. "People struggle to see themselves in one another. They distance and isolate themselves from God and humans. It's through Jesus we can connect."
I take my dishes to Ryan. "Thanks," I tell him. "I stayed five hours longer than I'd intended to." I walk out the door, down the street in the cool Brooklyn summer air.
“You’re a white, heterosexual, American and I am a black, gay, immigrant." Atiba continued. "But I don’t feel a difference between us. And so, I’m in heaven.”