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I find racism in the City of Brotherly Love

The mug on the telltale badge.
Well, it wasn't racism, but it was definitely related. I am talking about my first personal experience with the kind of hate and bigotry that ignorance so readily fuels. The subject came to mind as I watched the very ugly tactics that are currently being employed by the extreme right in its efforts to kill a sorely needed health bill. Of course, these scripted town meeting disruptions are really manifestations of racial hatred and fear. There are people who cannot get over the fact that America elected (legitimately, this time) a President who isn't pure white. The mere fact that Bush managed to get as many votes as he did in 2005—having had four years to prove himself thoroughly unfit for the job—is evidence that the electorate includes an alarmingly large number of voters who cast their ballot mindlessly. These are the same people who now swallow the venomous fabrications of Limbaugh, Hannity, the Fox News media thugs, et al. They have been told—by agenda-driven people who know better—that health care reform is an evil plot by an administration that embraces Nazi-ism. That would be laughable if it wasn't so serious and one can only hope that these misguided lemmings learn the truth before it's too late.
Now, back to my original thought, the personal memory triggered by these ugly mobs is one of being called derogatory names for no other reason than that I wore a blue badge. It was when I worked for Armed Forces Radio at Keflavík, Iceland. I was the only broadcaster there who was neither American nor in the military, so I guess it didn't occur to most of my listeners that I could be one of those dreaded furainers. What gave me away was that little blue badge with my picture in the middle.

American civilians wore these badges, too, but theirs was green. In fact, my Danish wife was accidentally issued a green badge and some people—assuming that she was American—wondered (aloud on a couple of occasions) why she married a "fishhead." Yes, that was their wonderful name for Icelanders—a different kind of "F" word.

I should say that the majority of Americans on the base were wonderful people and add that Hanne and I had many friends among them. They, I think were more upset about the hateful name-calling than we were.

All this to say that in 1957, when my paper finally came through and I immigrated to the U.S., I arrived in New York with an inkling of how it felt to be regarded as something that just crawled out of the gutter. Of course, in Iceland, I could simply cover up or (in defiance of rules) remove my badge, so to make an analogy with racism is a bit of a stretch, but I think you know what I mean.

In 1958, after about four months of not making it in New York, I took my last $10 to the Greyhound bus station and asked the ticket agent if it was enough to get me to another "big city." "Three bucks will get you one way to Philly," he said."

It turned out to be a good move. I quickly landed a producer/writer job at WCAU, the CBS station and became a jazz dj on WHAT-FM, a year later.

This station featured jazz around the clock on the FM and R&B and gospel on the AM. It was owned by Dolly Banks, a horrid woman, and her brother, Billy. I never figured out what his role was, an old man, he more or less stayed in his office all day. She, on the other hand, was busy hustling up sponsors. She insisted that the FM be all white—except, of course, for the music—and the AM, all black. She had two cocker spaniels, a white one named "FM" and a black one named "AM." She referred to black people as "them" and paid her AM disc jockeys less than $100 a week, which is what I received for a seven-day week on the air. Needless to say, Dolly made far more money on the AM side.

One day, when the AM newscaster was taken ill, Dolly called me into her office.

"Can you talk like them?", she asked.

At first, I had no idea what she was talking about, but then I realized that she wanted me to do the AM news affecting her notion of a black manner of speaking. I refused and that was the beginning of the end for me at WHAT. When I finally quit, I dedicated my last record to Dolly: June Christy singing "Ding, Dong, the Witch is Dead." it wasn't long before I was back in New York, but this time with a job. Nat Hentoff—whom I had yet to meet—put in a good word for me with Bill Grauer, at Riverside Records. Nat's magazine, Jazz Review, had carried a review of WHAT, written by John Szwed, who found me to be a voice in a wilderness called WHAT-FM.

I joined Riverside in October, 1960. The following Spring, I went to my grandparents' 60th wedding anniversary in Copenhagen, and stopped in Paris on the way back. At Orly, I happened to see a post card depicting an historic women's prison. The devil made me scrawl on one, "Wish you were here," and send it to Dolly.

Joel Dorn, who replaced me at WHAT, later told me that Dolly showed the card to Sid Mark and wondered, "Why is he being nice?"

I could go on about Dolly's racism, but I don't wish to bore anyone. Perhaps another post.

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