Tuesday, December 4, 2012


Fifty Seventh and Osseo Road where my family lived in Brooklyn Center, was a mile and a quarter beyond the end of the Penn Avenue streetcar line north of Minneapolis. That was 1943-55. Every house along Osseo Road was occupied by a white Christian family, accustomed to working the sandy-soiled vegetable farms, which covered most of the area.  

At an early age I learned the importance of being able to pass, a word I borrowed from African Americans, who use it to refer to light skinned Black Americans who learned they could pass for being white.  While I was definitely very white, I learned how to pass for being the son of one of the uneducated blue color father and mother who spent their entire lives digging the dirt out from under their fingernails from the extraordinarily heavy, hard work they did over long hours and for little pay.  Our neighbors attended one of the local Protestant churches, mostly Lutheran.   Some, but not all had graduated from high school and none had gone to college.   Reading was not a priority in my community. There were no libraries in Brooklyn Center at that time.  Higher education was considered an effete activity for rich Easterners. 

The school bus ride from the corner near our house to Twin Lake Elementary School, a mile away, provided my introduction to the first rule of passing.  My parents had gotten me eye glasses in second grade because I had trouble reading what the teacher had printed on the black board, which was otherwise all blurry.  The first day I proudly donned my new black rimmed glasses, several boys on the bus called me "four eyes," "teacher's pet," and "sissy." I stopped wearing my glasses on the way to school.  I didn't understand the connection at first, but later I figured out they thought the glasses made me appear excessively studious, which was definitely verboten.

Although I liked to draw and paint pictures from an early age, I learned to hide that fact from other boys my age who called me a "fairy," when they found out I liked to draw and paint.  Apparently art was for girls only, and a boy who liked art must be effeminate.  In fourth grade I became interested in science, and checked out books from the school library about astronomy.  I had found where my interests lay, and it was within the world of science.  A boy on the bus grabbed the book from me and held it up waving to and fro for the others to see, as though he had found pictures of naked women in my possession, yelling, "Travis is a brown nose," and another yelled "Teacher's pet!"  From then on I was careful to hide my science books from other kids.

In sixth grade I noticed several guys consistently shoved other kids on the playground or when waiting in line.  They punched girls in the stomach and picked fights with other boys.  They said "shit," a lot and called other kids "assholes," when there didn't seem any reason to do so.  Most of the other guys in my class shrugged and seemed to accept their obnoxious behavior as though it were something you just had to tolerate, like an annoying pimple.  I began feeling I must be from another planet, because their behavior seemed totally unacceptable and so alien to me. When I told them to cut it out, they threatened to “beat me to a pulp.”  No one took my side.

When I was in 7th grade we were transferred to Robbinsdale Public Schools five miles away.  After school I walked into town down to West Broadway to get a haircut. The barber was an older balding guy who did his best to make conversation with his customers, including kids like me.  As he clicked his scissors around my ears he said with a chuckle,  "How about them Gophers, sure kicked the Hawkeyes butts!   He was referring to the previous Saturday's football game.  I said, "Yep," but had no idea what he was talking about.   That was when I learned about guy talk.  I played touch football nearly every day after school in Fall, and played basketball outdoors all winter, and softball in the spring, but I had no idea who the Hawkeyes were.  I didn't follow sports news.  It was of no interest to me.  I was a doer, not a watcher.  My dad wasn't much of a football fan either, though he enjoyed watching Friday Night Fights on television.   After that, I looked up the Gopher game scores before going to get my next haircut; it was part of passing.  

My parents let me get a driver's license when I was 16 years old.  The problem was that I didn't have a car.  I saved my money and for $24 bought a dark green '37 Plymouth. I earned enough money working odd jobs to buy gas and oil.  It used way too much oil.   When my friends gathered round to see my purchase, I discovered I was expected to lift the hood lid and prop it up so they could see and listen to the engine running. I wasn't sure why, but that was definitely what guys did. The really cool guys lifted one foot and rested it on the bumper while the engine was running, as they talked about compression, carburators, distributors and plugs. I tried to do that in order to pass.  I knew what a sonnet was, where the superior vena cava was located and the names of Mars's moons,  but I couldn't remember the difference between a carburator and distributor.  That's a real problem when you're trying to pass.

When I was a feshman at the University of Minnesota I came upon Dick Guindon cartoon that explained everything to me. Guindon had drawn cartoons for the Minnesota student "Daily" before he made it big. The first frame showed some cows in a pasture standing on their hind  legs chatting with one another.  A fence and roadway ran along the field.  In the second frame, one cow shouted to the others, "Car!" and they immediately got down onto all fours and started chewing grass.  In the final frame, as the car passed into the distance at the furthest end of the field, they all stood up on their hind legs again and resumed their conversation.  I finally discovered what passing was all about.