Pride and Prejudice
Growing up in Germany, I was raised to be unpatriotic. But in multicultural New York City, where everyone loves a parade, ethnic celebration can also carry undercurrents of hatred.
On her deathbed, three years ago, her voice and mind twisted by yet another stroke, my grandmother said to my father, “You know what we need now? A horse and carriage, then we could go home.” It seemed to me that in her last hours she was reminded of the best times of her life and the horse-drawn carriage on which she rode home from the Nuremberg rallies.
In the cab Otto had a sad expression on his face. The parade, one of the highlights of his year, had come to its end. I suffered, too. The thick, tight fabric of my dirndl was now soaked with sweat. The dirndl, a symbol of home—or Heimat—encased me like a casket.
“If it wasn’t for Maria,” Otto said. “I’d be on a plane home by tonight.”
“You must really love your wife,” I said.
“Love? Ha-ha!” Otto laughed. He elbowed his friend in the ribs.
Another season, another parade. It is virtually impossible to escape parades in New York City. If there is one that represents my values, it is “St. Pat’s for All” parade in Queens. It takes place each spring and starts on the block where Otto, Maria, my husband, and I live. “St. Pat’s for All” was the first Irish parade in New York City to welcome everyone who wishes to celebrate Irish culture, most notably the gay groups forbidden to take part in the Manhattan St. Patrick’s Day parade. “We err on the side of hospitality,” its organizers announce on their website.
After a group of African-American schoolchildren from the Bronx performed Irish dances in the pouring rain, Sunnyside’s openly gay councilman, Jimmy Van Bramer, affirmed the parade’s motto, adding that Sunnyside is a place where everybody is welcome. Soon Otto appeared. As the Queens Lesbian and Gay Committee passed us, Otto began to boo emphatically. He turned to me and said, “I thought the gays were only in the Village!” Then he continued to boo.
I wanted to say something, but didn’t know where to start. Since my grandmother had died I hadn’t had this kind of conversation. I knew from his comments about his brother-in-law that Otto wasn’t the most open-minded of people, but I had categorized him as a Mitläufer—the German term for the many Nazis who were party members out of convenience—rather than a Rädelsführer, or ringleader.
I felt sick and went home. For the next three days I fretted over how to deal with Otto’s reaction. While my mother would have probably just screamed something at Otto, it certainly wouldn’t have changed his opinion. A few weeks before, I had gotten into a discussion with a complete stranger in the subway about the proposed Islamic center in downtown Manhattan, which he vehemently opposed. In a calm conversation that lasted from Grand Central to Sunnyside I spoke about America’s concept of “freedom of religion.” This seemed to resonate with him. “Maybe you are right,” he said as we parted.
I decided to write Otto a letter—in German, of course. It began with an expression of my hurt feelings. “My husband and I moved to Sunnyside because we thought that here people of all cultures, religions, nationalities, sexual orientations, and skin colors were welcome,” I wrote. “This is the 21st century. Many of my friends are gay, our councilmember is gay, you are married to a Puerto Rican.” And remembering his earlier comments about his Jewish brother-in-law, I wrote, “I thought we had learned our lesson from the Third Reich. I expected more from you.”
Writing the letter put me at ease temporarily, but on my way to Otto’s house I felt sick to my stomach again.
Until I rang Otto’s doorbell, I didn’t know what I would say other than that he had hurt my feelings. The door opened, and Otto, dressed in shorts and knee-highs, asked me to come in, while Maria hovered in the background.
“I would prefer not to,” I said. “You know, last Sunday at the parade? It hurt my feelings when you booed.”
“At the Mexicans?” Otto interrupted me.
“At the Mexicans?” I repeated, perplexed. “You booed at the Mexicans, too?”
Otto nodded. “That’s OK,” he said.
Nothing is OK, I thought.
In one breath I released my little speech about the way I felt when I heard him boo at the gay-parade participants. “Many of my friends are gay and they would feel terrible if they were booed at. I felt terrible.”
“That’s OK. That’s OK,” Otto said again. He tried to shut the door into my face.
“Hold on,” I said. “I also wrote you a letter.” I slipped it to him as he closed the door.
Later, I thought about how it took another parade for me to respond to Otto’s bigotry. To me, parades can reveal how closely pride and hatred are related. The celebration of one group has the potential to fuel discrimination of another—be it Jews, gays, or Mexicans.
The St. Patrick’s Day Parade reaffirmed how happy I was to live in a mixed neighborhood. This is my home. While I still feel a little uncomfortable every time I walk past Otto’s house—as I have to every day—I feel better now that I have responded to his bigotry. I owed it to all those who were not my grandmother’s people.
Sabine Heinlein, a recipient of fellowships from New York Foundation for the Arts, the MacDowell Colony, and Yaddo, lives in New York City.
The misguided prophet Balaam—who knew that words have meanings and must be used judiciously—should be the patron saint of the Internet