When I was in seventh grade, I went on a fishing trip with my friend Jeff and his racist uncles who were visiting from upstate. It was one of those deals where they load fifty onto a boat and head three hours out into the Atlantic Ocean. I think we were fishing for bluefish. Or fluke. I can’t remember. Even if I caught any fish, I didn’t feel like I actually accomplished anything, because the uncles did all of the baiting, the rods were firmly secured to the side, and once I started actually reeling something in, the adults promptly took over to wrestle the animal to submission.
Whenever you go on one of these fishing trips, they always offer seasick pills. Every time I’ve opted out, and every time I’ve been one of the only people not to get seasick. Obviously this isn’t much of a scientific study, but still, I’ve always been wary about taking loose medication from strangers.
At one point, when my friend and his cousins and most of his uncles were busy throwing up in the bathroom, it was just one of the uncles and me standing over my line. I got a tug. I pulled and two seconds later the uncle pushed me out of the way and took over. Out from the ocean came, not a fish, but a giant crab. And I really hope I’m remembering this right, because I was a little kid, and more than a decade later, I’ve since learned that memories like this often prove more unreliable than not.
But the crab was huge. Scary even. It was almost daring us to pull it up. All I could think was, wow, my parents are going to be so impressed when I come home and show them this giant crab. How’s my mom going to cook it up? But I was also kind of skeptical about my friend’s uncle’s maritime skills. I think he already had like eight beers. And I’ve already mentioned how not scared the crab looked.
Because it wasn’t even really hooked, it was holding onto the line with its claw. Some other adult came over with a net. The crab was maybe like two feet up from the side. And I’m looking at it. All of its spider legs are moving seemingly independent from the rest of its body. And just like that, just when the net might have been able to capture it, the crab opened up its claw from the line and dropped right back into the ocean. Bye-bye. Plop.
The crew cleaned up all of our catch and at the end of the trip some guy wearing a rubber suit handed me a really dirty plastic bag with some fish filets. My friend’s uncles decided that the day was still young, that we should all go bowling.
We got to the bowling alley and the racism, which had been so far limited to off handed comments and weird innuendos, it sort of ratcheted up a notch. I don’t even know if I should call it racism or prejudice, it was definitely racist, but it was so lame, it was like these guys were the token racists on one of those PSA episodes of the Fresh Prince. It was bigoted. It was nasty.
And I’m like twelve years old. Black people this. Mexican people that. I’m aware that this is probably my first conscious real taste of any of this stuff outside of TV. I grew up in a pretty sheltered white suburban life. There were maybe like two or three minorities in each of my elementary school classes growing up.
But in defense of that suburban white bread life, nobody in my family or my friend’s families said stuff like these guys were saying. And say whatever you want about how cheesy all of those TV shows were, the Fresh Prince, Family Matters, they gave a kid like me a pretty good idea of what’s right and what’s not right to poke fun at with your white friends and their uncles. So when one of the uncles said something about the physical characteristics of a certain ethnic group, I replied, “That’s not true. That doesn’t even make sense.”
And I definitely remember this guy’s response, pretty much as clearly as I remember the whole crab thing that happened a few hours earlier. He leaned down and kind of got in my face and said, “Oh yeah? Well how many (ethnic group)s do you know?” And that shut me up, the way any adult can kind of impose himself upon any little kid and shut them up.
I went home feeling stupid. I handed my mom my bag of fish filets. “Huh,” she said, “I don’t think I’ve ever cooked fluke/bluefish.” She put them in the freezer. Months later I remember her cleaning out the fridge, finding the still frozen bag and tossing it straight in the trash.