Popa Nan Alley In New Orleans

I was about 6 years old when I heard that Hitler refused to congratulate Jesse Owens at Berlin Olympics. I am one of those who knew that Hitler was the hideous name of a bad man, and Jesse Owens – a kind Negro who ran faster and jumped further than anybody. Hitler could not admit this – that a Negro be better – and it is said that he wouldn't shake hands with him to congratulate him, thus showing his stupidity and wickedness. My father believed for a long time, vehemently holding speeches in the living room, in this image full of enlightening signification. He was one of those who don't need a strict truth for a right idea. The strict truth was – like Jesse Owens said it himself – that Hitler couldn't possibly shake hands with him, because Hitler was sitting in the guests' box, and he was on the field, and it was good like that: he didn't get closer to Hitler, and didn't want to either; he was happy that in a country where racism ruled, he had proved that there is no superior race, and that God created people to be equals. An eye-witness, a bookseller from Nice, a quarter of a century ago, wrote that he could notice Hitler's reaction when Owens won the long jump, defeating the German Lutz Long, who was leading with a 7.87 m. jump, in the ovations of the crowd convinced that nobody could ever defeat him. Jesse jumped 8.06 in the fifth round. That moment, Hitler made a spiteful gesture, then he applauded. That was all. The strict truth is that Long ran to congratulate Owens, and the two athletes hugged there, on the stadium, in the ovations of the spectators; it's no enigma of history why this hug did not turn into a legend from which the tyrant in the box would have come out much more humiliated, and his racial laws even more despised than the untrue story that excited my father… at his death in 1980 – he died in poverty, waiting by the horses to enter the race, on a hippodrome where the Blacks weren't allowed in – President Carter sent a message in which he said that Owens symbolized the fight against tyranny, poverty and racism. The strict truths die monotonous. I saw Owens, on TV5, in a documentary about the "Gods of the Stadiums", gloriously running and jumping at Berlin Olympics; I was sitting in an armchair and Katrina, the hurricane, was drawing closer to Alabama, where Jesse was born. I was still 6, on that day, the day of Max Schmelling's victory over Joe Louis, when I saw, in Popa Nan Alley, a big gentleman taking his boy away from us, Toni he was called, slapping him in the back and yelling at him: "…I told you not to play with them anymore… did I tell you or not?" Then, with the others following me, I ran towards Toni's father and yelled at him: "Why don't you let him? We are playing nicely!" "You," the man snapped at me, "if I catch you here again, I'll do to you what Max Schmelling did to Joe Louis!" "What has it got to do with us?" asked a girl which I loved even though she was two years older than me. "It has!" the gentleman shouted out, locking the gate to their yard with the key. "It has, because you are scum!" We looked silently at each other to see if we are scum and why. I couldn't make out why, we were all the same; we went home, in a monomial, in a sort of somber common mystery that wrapped us for the first time. The next day, before all the games, on the basis of the information that each of us gathered at home, we arrived at one of those logical operations whose mechanism the kids learn quickly and painfully. Schmelling is white, Joe Louis is black. We are scum, Joe Louis is like us, a scum. We will be with Joe Louis; we had never put it like this in these terms, of black and white, we had divided the world only in parents and children before, in goshawks and doves, in thieves and cops, the supreme idea being that the last one saves the day. Toni confirmed in the evening, coming secretly out of the house: his father says that the Whites must wipe out the Blacks, and the Germans all the Jews…we kept staring at Toni to see if he's not an idiot. "And what do you think?" my girlfriend asked timidly. "I came to play with you." For two summers, until he took his revenge in 1938, I was on Joe Louis's side, none of us – the inhabitants of this planet called Popa Nan Alley – would be Schmelling, White, or German. Instinct asked us not to accept the wiping out, and in all the games we jumped to be the scum, that is people who would not allow to be wiped out. …A few days ago, I saw on TV Sport, in a series about the great boxers of the world, the very episode on that day in 1938 when Joe Louis, the Brown Bomber of Detroit, put down Schmelling after three punches, and the German radio stations stopped their broadcasts; I switched channels at once (I no longer like boxing), got back to CNN, and I saw what Katrina did in a town with a colt's name, Biloxi, a young black – of Joe Louis's strength – was crying on a roof, and I remembered that the last news about my girlfriend in the alley, it must be 40 years since she left, came from there, from New Orleans. Her name was Pusi and she liked us to hide together when we played hide-and-seek. Dilema veche, 23-29 September 2005

by Radu Cosaşu