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146 I last saw him a few years after high school when I was driving down Murray Avenue in the Greenfield section of Pittsburgh, not far from the Homestead Steel Works. Johnny —I will call him Johnny Duncan—was sitting on the steps of a bar called The Coop, smoking and drinking beer with a couple of other guys, drunk and disheveled and surly, the way young men are when hanging together and booze makes them big and bold. He looked me right in the eye as I cruised passed The Coop, and I can now still hear what he said then, through smirking lips, as clearly as I heard it forty years ago: “Kike.” Johnny Duncan and I were never friends in high school, but we knew each other. He was short, wiry, and brooding; he never said much in class and remained at the social fringes, tangentially connected, yet never really a part of the fragmented social scene. We were kindred spirits in that respect, for I too was a loner and lonely, but from totally incompatible sides of the tracks. Where I lived, in the primarily Catholic blue-collar section of Greenfield, which was where Johnny was also rooted, children of the few Jews isolated there, like me, usually escaped the dour, confined atmosphere of work in the mills—J&L Steel, US Steel, Mesta Machine, multi-million-dollar Trojan horses, gone and forgotten now—through education. College, graduate school, law school, MBAs. We never remained, although we often returned . It was the unwritten rule—a tacit understanding in Greenfield around the neighborhood or in school—that you denigrate, beat up on, the college-bound boys, mostly Jews, because they’d be back in the neighborhood ten years later—doctors, accountants , and attorneys—beating up on you and your family by squeezing your pocketbooks dry. This in essence is the meaning of the word “kike”: someone who is shrewd, dishonest—and Jewish. So, according to most dictionaries, Johnny’s disdain is well founded. But according LEE GUTKIND REVENGE 147 Gutkind to Leo Rosten, in The Joys of Yiddish, “kike” was first used on Ellis Island, when mostly illiterate Jewish immigrants refused to sign entry forms with an “X,” which to them was symbolic of the crucifix and the horrors of their Christian oppressors. Instead, they used an “O”; the Jewish word for circle is “kikel.” So at first “kike” was not meant as a denigrating racial term. Rosten doesn’t say how it got that way, but it did. My family—my grandparents, parents, and two brothers— were really not anything like those alleged bloodsuckers the Greenfield boys fixated on. My parents had no money to send me to college. Why would we have lived in Greenfield if we could have afforded better? This shabby, rundown corner of a once vital and now dying industrial center was no place for the Chosen people. And I, classic Greenfield underachiever, very much like those boys hanging out at The Coop, scraped my way out of high school, barely graduating at the bottom fifth of my class. College was an impossible dream. After high school, I went into the military. At the time when Johnny called me a kike, I had just mustered out and was living back at home with my family, trying to decide what to do with the next act of my life. Had it been some of the other Greenfield boys who had terrorized me in the neighborhood—those tough kids who waited to beat on me as I walked up and down the front steps at school, morning and afternoon—I might have stopped my car and demonstrated what I had learned in the military about selfdefense and attack, but I had no bad history with or resentment of Johnny Duncan—until that moment. I let it pass—and have regretted letting it pass up until today. Now, forty or so years later, I am at Ritter’s Diner with my twelve-year-old son, Sam, where we have breakfast almost every morning, sitting at the counter in almost the same place we always sit. There are many other morning regulars at Ritter’s, people I have...


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