reflections on a memory

One person who heard my reading of a vignette, part of an intended family epic novel, asked me if it was fiction or nonfiction. “Fiction,” I said. A precise answer for the form, a direct response to her choice of words. I wrote the character’s thoughts from my writer’s imagination and years of perspective.

However, in reflection I think she might also been asking if the vignette’s events actually happened.

The setting, the actions, the few words spoken – all are exactly as I remember them.

A lifetime ago, I was that twenty-something-working-stiff-with-four-years-of-college. I remember working that gardening job in Pebble Beach, mostly low-stress duty working with plants more than people. Back in the now-forgotten-days when West Coast landscapers and yard and park maintenance workers were mostly Japanese Americans, so much so that the term “Japanese gardener” was redundant.

Most of us now alive were not yet born in those days of California de facto segregated churches and clubs, and exclusive housing. In the days before black folks migrated from the South to work at World War II munitions factories in the Bay Area and Los Angeles, “exclusive” housing in California meant neighborhoods closed to Orientals (a more polite term than other words in common use). Realtors and sales reps used the code word “restricted” for no-Jews housing or membership. Most black kids today don’t realize “ghetto” was the word for a part of a European city to which Jews were restricted.

Many of us now couldn’t imagine it, not in these days when Asian Americans make up half of many ritzy neighborhoods and everybody eats at Canters. Lox, eggs, and onions 24 hours! (Substitute tomatoes for the onions as needed.)

I remember many little or not so little slights over the years delivered by people of other colors, most what we generally call white, but also various other races. Those incidents were rare enough that I was always shocked.

The incident in this vignette did not come close to an actual threat to livelihood, much less life, and being innocent I felt no fear in the moment. I didn’t feel much of anything in the moment except surprise. Over the next minutes and hours, with reflection, I felt embarrassment and anger. Then I felt a touch of fear. After all, how many people have been innocent victims of revenge over perceived crimes? Of merely perceived errors in manners? Almost every Chinatown in the western states was burnt to the ground in the 19th century and lynchings occurred in many black communities.

Shootings still occur; I guess this is still the Wild West. The white supremacist that shot several Jewish kids a few years ago later that same day gunned down a Filipino letter carrier (a friend of a friend).

What if the pink- and red-faced man did not have a more observant companion to find whatever he thought I had stolen and carried down the hillside? What if he had actually accused me and later been too embarrassed to admit he simply misplaced the item?

A lot of what-ifs, enough for me to make into another story. One far more fictional, but not far fetched.


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