An essay from Steve O’Connor:
The Best and the Worst
Have you ever found yourself in a room in which you felt out of place because you didn’t have a trust fund or a summer house in Falmouth? Has anyone ever approached you and said, “Are you aware that this is a private beach?” Or “Are you a member here?” At such moments, one comprehends completely the impulse toward revolution.
My father must have felt this same resentment. He was what we always called “a drywall man,” and was consequently usually covered with joint cement and the dust of sanded joint cement. His name was James O’Connor, and his truck bore in florid script the nickname he loved, “Gentleman Jim.” I think I sense smiles of recognition among a few old timers in the listening audience. My older brother Rory and I learned the drywall trade, and spent many a day taping and troweling, and sanding the finished walls. Most of our jobs were in houses that were under construction, but once I remember going to a grand house in Andover. There had been a leak, and we were to replace the ceiling, finish it and paint it.
Jim told me to start unpacking the tools, lay the drop cloths, and set up the step ladders. I had just about got everything in, when I heard the woman of the house speaking sternly to my father. “Now I want you to leave this room the way you found it! I don’t intend to be cleaning up after you! And if you get paint on the walls, you’d better clean it off right away!” She railed on, with all her warnings and demands, as if she were speaking to little children whom she knew could not be trusted. My father gave me a look, and a slight nod of the head in the direction of the door, and it dawned on me that rather than unpacking the tools, he was packing them back up. The task master must have noticed the same thing, because she paused in her harangue and asked, “What do you think you’re doing?”
“We’re leaving,” Gentleman Jim said.
‘You’re what? You’ll do no such thing! I need this room redone by this weekend!”
I don’t think a young man could have been prouder of his father when he responded, “Listen lady, you think you’re better than me because I’m a working man. Well, I got news for you – you’re not. So long!”
I felt that some small revolution had taken place there, because in addition to the issue of class, I couldn’t help wondering whether the contempt the woman showed for us had anything to do with the O’Connor name painted on the side of the truck. There we were, a working man and his son, but also a couple of harps in the home of this Yankee whose ancestors, I was sure, hobnobbed with Cabots, and Winthrops, and Lodges. Was it her pedigree, or just her wealth that lent her the gall to address us with undisguised condescension?
Brian Mitchell and many others have written of the discrimination the Irish faced when they arrived here, and my old friend Jay Pendergast even dug up one of those 19th century signs that read, “No Irish Need Apply.” I always thought of those words as a curiosity of history-representing something over and done a long time ago. Once, though, at a gathering of non-Irish people with a woman I knew years ago, the conversation turned to some acquaintance of theirs who someone berated as a drunken ne’er do well. To that, another of the party responded, “Yes, well, what do you expect? He’s Irish.” Now I’m pretty thick skinned, and I don’t mind jokes about the Irish, because I don’t take them seriously. But in the uncomfortable silence that followed his remark, as these people cast discreet glances at their shoes, and at me to see how I would react, it occurred to me that the remark had actually reflected a real prejudice, which is kind of a shocking feeling.
And for the first time I experienced just a hint of the sort of crap that a lot of people must encounter every day, and so me trusty shillelagh came over his head. Actually, I decided to smile and enjoy the discomfort I had apparently created, and the young man, realizing his faux pas, offered an apology which I accepted like a civilized man, which is what I am, despite the Hibernian heritage that may yet trouble some blue bloods, even after so many years.
We Irish Americans have to put up with very little really these days, a few petty stereotypical remarks here and there, some of which, let’s face it, we seem to enjoy perpetuating ourselves with our drinking songs and our parades and our pugnacious leprechauns. But like old Gentleman Jim, it only bothers me when I get the feeling that someone really believes that they’re better than I am, or better than anyone for that matter.
It’s a platitude, but nonetheless true, that prejudice thrives on ignorance. I remember a guy I once met at a certain watering hole in Lowell who for some reason wanted to share with me a lot of contemptuous remarks about Hispanics. I said to him, “Hey listen, before you get carried away, let me just tell you that my wife is Colombian, ok?” With complete sincerity, he responded, “Oh, I like those Asian people.”
“Not Cambodian,” I said, “she’s Colombian.”
“Yeah, I like all those Asian people.” How can you even get mad at someone who is that stupid?
My great aunt Mildred was in her late eighties at the time, about 20 years ago, when I told her that I was dating a Colombian woman. “I saw a program on the television about those Colombians,” she said, “and they have a lot of cocaine in that country, and I would be very careful if I were you.”
“It’s true that a lot of cocaine is produced there,” I said. “But that doesn’t make every Colombian a drug dealer.” I told her that I didn’t think that Olga and her family were cocaine importers, but she shook her head knowingly and said, “Well, I wouldn’t believe it.”
A while after that, I brought Olga by Mildred’s house, and the three of us sat in her parlor drinking tea, I watched my ancient aunt start to thaw out and warm up to the woman I would later marry. At one point, Aunt Mildred took me aside and said, “Say, she is a very nice young person. She has excellent manners. I like her very much. And you know, I don’t think she’s selling cocaine at all.”
Dona Maruja, my mother in law, once said to me, “Steve, most of the Colombians are very good people, but the bad ones are very bad.” I thought immediately of something that John O’Connor, my grandfather from County Limerick, had said about our own people. “I’ll tell you about the Irish, Shtay-phen, as some writer once expressed it: ‘ The best, and the worst, of the human race.’” Seems to me a pretty fair description of all of us.