Tuesday, February 12, 2013

My valentine to Sammy Franklin

Notice how none of these guys is black?

You know how when you are young and you’re busy with your education or your love affairs or your growing family, you never think much about or notice much about your parents or grandparents’ lives? 
You know how you never showed much interest in what they’d been through personally or the cataclysmic events they lived through, like the Great Depression and World War II, or thought about the friends they accumulated over the years?
I was thinking about that for just a moment tonight because a guy I used to know a little bit came to mind for the first time in years and I thought, “Wow, it’s a damned shame nobody but me remembers this guy.”
My grandparents, Camille and Rosalie Richards, came here from New Brunswick, Canada, in the 1920s and settled in New Haven, Conn.  My grandfather was a carpenter and iron worker who worked on many of the Yale University construction projects and on I-95, from the 1920s to the 1960s.
Even during the Great Depression he earned a living from construction work or running whiskey across the Canadian-American border or making bathtub gin.  My mother claimed she couldn't take a bath for seven years. 
And my grandmother ran a rooming house through all those years from the 1920s until (unbelievably) 1999, working hard cleaning rooms and changing sheets for single men who needed a place to live. They did have a woman tenant in their last years.
Camille (Ca-Mill) was a short man but strong as a bull.   Everyone called him “Frenchy.”  I used to hear stories about how he once fell three stories off a construction project and got up and walked away, or how when he bought his first (actually only) refrigerator, he picked it up at the store and carried it home, or about how he pulled his own teeth with a pair of pliers.
But it’s not him I am remembering at this moment, it’s his friend, Sammy Franklin.   My grandfather was a French-speaking Canadian and Sammy was a black American.  This is an important element of their story, but, I think, for them not the most important.
They worked shoulder to shoulder for years and remained fast friends even though my grandfather was a hard drinker and Sammy was a Seventh Day Adventist teetotaler.  
As my grandparents aged and became frail in the 1980s and 1990s, as they themselves entered their 80s and 90s, there were relatives who were close geographically but who did not extend a hand to help them.  
I lived in New Jersey and when my grandfather became bed-ridden and my grandmother, suffering from osteoporosis, began to experience more and more hospitalizations for broken bones, I was the one who went to them.
And, I noticed, each time I went, Sammy, who had risen high in the New Haven Housing Authority and then retired, was always there. 
Over the years, he repeatedly arranged for members of his church to provide home health care services for my grandparents at a pittance. 
Sammy made sure my grandparents had Meals on Wheels and every time one of them was hospitalized, Sammy was at his or her side.   Sammy came over to shave my grandfather and bathe him a few times a week for several years.  He shoveled snow and took out the trash. 
One time I asked my grandmother, why does Sammy help you so much?  And she said, “Well, you know he and your grandfather have been good friends for a long time and your grandfather helped him get into the union.”
Of course, my grandmother had no idea what an extraordinary statement that was. 
Throughout the 20th century up through the late 1960s, the construction unions were a closed shop.  If you were not related to someone in the unions and were not white, there was no hope for you.  If you were an able-bodied black man, maybe you could get a job pushing a broom and cleaning up the brick shards.
I don’t even know how my grandfather got into “the union,” which he must have done in the 1930s or 1940s, let alone how he got Sammy in (in perhaps the 1940s or 1950s), but if he did, that was a big, big favor.  
And if that was the case, Sammy repaid that favor a thousand times over, even when his own family’s problems were overwhelming, even when his own health was failing.
I remember one time walking down a hospital corridor to visit my grandmother in the 1990s and while I turned left when the corridor zigged left, Sammy kept walking straight, right into a wall, because he had glaucoma so bad he could not see a thing.
Sammy was one of the few people at my grandfather’s funeral.  My grandmother leaned over to me and said, “It’s a shame so few people have come, of all your grandfather’s co-workers.”
“Grandma,” I replied, “Papa was 93.  There’s nobody left to mourn him.”
Sammy was also at my grandmother’s funeral when she died a couple of years later at 95. 
Someone asked me tonight why I thought my grandparents helped Sammy and I said, “I don’t think it was altruism or nobility, especially. 
“I think they were from such a homogenous society, they never knew anyone with a different skin color so that it never occurred to them that they should treat someone differently because of their color.  They were just ignorant.  They didn’t know the concept of racism.  Or maybe it was because they were strangers and outsiders themselves because of their language and nationality.”
And why did Sammy love them and care for them so much?  I don’t know.  Maybe it was because they treated him as an equal.   
Or maybe he just loved everyone that much.  I do know this:  Sammy practiced the doctrine of Christianity as purely and wholeheartedly as anyone I have ever known.  Thinking about his faith is almost enough to make me convert.
And the thought occurs to me, Sammy may have done even more for my grandparents than I am aware of.   
My grandparents lived for nearly 80 years in a neighborhood of New Haven that went from Ukrainian and Polish for most of that time to black and Hispanic in the 1960s. 
In their last 30 years, they were virtually the only white people in a black neighborhood, and they were never bothered, taunted, ridiculed, attacked or treated with anything other than respect. 
Maybe Sammy had something to with that.  Maybe it was just their own character.  I’ll never know.  
But I do know this, it never occurred to them to move out of that neighborhood.  When they were in their 80s, HUD drove them out of their building and they did move across the street, taking their rooming house tenants with them.  It was their neighborhood and that was that.  French Canadians are nothing if not stubborn.
I’m ashamed to say I lost touch with Sammy after my grandparents died.  I think he must be dead now himself.  He doesn’t show up on Google, which is a darned shame.  If you don’t show up on Google these days, who are you?
I’m very grateful Sammy was there for my grandparents and they were there for him.
I suspect this is one of many millions of past and current American stories about individuals being kind to each other, standing by each other and looking straight at each other beyond the barriers of fear and hatred that, after all, are the very foundations of racism.
I hope that someday Sammy’s descendants may, in looking for information about him on the Internet, come across this little valentine of mine.

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