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I Used To Live Alone Before I Knew Ya

I grew up with a lot of conservatives. Well, I grew up with the kids of a lot of conservatives. This was by no means a reflection of the prevailing demographic; rather it was our small group of largely Italian friends and family who tended to spend Thanksgiving and New Year’s together. And even “Italian” is a stretch here. My mom is Scottish, my grandmother Irish, and the group extended outward to all neighbors. But the names on the predominant mailboxes were Italian. And these people were and still are among the warmest and most inclusive sorts I’ve ever known.

As kids we didn’t know from Italian or any other group simply by hearing a name. “Monaco” or “Picetti” or “Galli” only reflected a family, or the kid in question. We applied no more ethnic identity to them than we did “Greenman,” “Greenberg,” “Callahan,” “Ramirez,” or “Jones.” The name meant a face — this was the immediate association. (Granted there weren’t a lot of African American kids where I grew up, but had there been equal numbers I believe the same would have applied.)

Then we all got a bit older and distinctions crept in. One of the first for me was the after-school catechism classes that my Catholic friends attended. They’d make a left turn climbing up the hill to go to Mrs Costello’s house and learn about Jesus and his pals while I continued onward alone. “Catholic” became a distinction for me. It was something they were and I was not. I wasn’t alone in this regard and it wasn’t as though I was a single non-believer in a sea of followers. But I didn’t go to Hebrew school or temple either. We weren’t Catholic or Jewish or Protestant (though I used the last when asked as a catch-all.) We were nothing.

By the time high school rolled around the distinctions were more clear. There was an entire school for the Catholic kids where they had to wear uniforms and study theology. It was also where the kids who were already fucking up badly tended to be sent, whether they were Catholic or not and if their parents cared and had a bit of money. My public high school was more diverse in makeup from Catholic school, but still largely white, affluent and liberal given the demographic. It was a relatively large school though, so there were plenty of kids from more conservative families as well as a handful of blacks and other minorities. By the time we all graduated, lines had been clearly drawn. Yeah, we were mostly rich white kids by national standards, but we definitely distinguished between ethnicity, religion and politics.

I won’t go into my college experience .. I didn’t graduate until later, anyway. In between I quit and went to work for our family company. We ran a motion picture lab in San Francisco, a city so liberal it would later have an actual proposition on the ballot to name a sewage treatment facility after George W Bush. My father grew up in North Beach and is a third-generation San Franciscan. When he was a kid, what passed for “liberal” politics in the city would be considered conservative today. And he ran a (relatively) small business in a city that never made that easy. The people I worked with — young, interested in film, and having moved to San Francisco — were mostly liberal in outlook. The company itself had a long tradition of informality and was rich in varied personalities. Put another way, we employed a lot of nuts. This was not Dow Chemical nor Goldman Sachs. We threw parties and played softball together. Management and middle-management were respectfully mocked at times, but it was kept to a healthy level. Most people knew that the shit that flew at our company wouldn’t be tolerated elsewhere and this served largely as glue more than dissent. I made many good friends working there, several of whom I’ve kept to this day.

There’s been a lot of talk of bubble-breaking recently; a need to reach out beyond one’s prevailing circle to engage others who might have a slightly different world view. I’ve heard some speak to the difficulty of this .. “I don’t know these people .. how can I reach out if I never come across them? Do I have to get in my car and go find them?” But I don’t think it’s about the staunch liberal and the gun-toting conservative crossing state lines for a Kumbaya moment. You don’t have to look too far to find someone who thinks slightly differently than you do and you might not need to pierce your own bubble. Perhaps I’m over-simplifying or being naive in light of too much time or water under the bridge. It’s almost 2017 for god’s sake. But I can remember a time when a name just meant a kid’s face, and in that fact I still find hope.

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