I’ve never really understood racism.
Having been raised Jewish, the reality of the Holocaust and religious and ethnic persecution seemed atrocious to me, and as alien as walking on Venus. On the other hand, I love being a member of a small religious minority, a family per se. There is something very warm, friendly, and inviting about being a part of something bigger, but not too much bigger than myself—a home away from home.
When my wife and I moved from Indianapolis to Pittsburgh for my residency, I knew that I was moving to a city with a large Jewish community and expected to be welcomed. I knew the transition would be quite easy. The landscape of mezuzah-clad doorways that lined the community of Squirrel Hill would feel familiar. There was the Katz Deli owned by Koreans, which sold the best lox, a huge bagel store, and kosher groceries and pizzerias. The Jewish Community Center was a seven-iron shot away from my front door, if you played a fade. Orthodox children scurried to school past Pinsker’s Bookstore. It just felt right, even to a modern guy like me. Mind you. I grew up in Indianapolis: the pickle-loaf, white bread capital of America.
There is sort of an unspoken language among Jews as I am sure there are with other minority groups: we are all in it together, and share very similar values, pasts, hopes, and aspirations for the future. That being said I can also understand that to others that may be viewed as clannish, isolated, and perhaps even sinister. So, when the specter of anti-Semitism raised its vile head in the ER, I was ready to strike back. I just didn’t count on it to be so damn funny.
“I hit a deer,” he said, slurring his words.
“You hit a deer?”
“No, I said, ‘I hit a deer.’”
“Okay . . . did it hit you back?”
He was about 35 or so, dirty, blond-headed, ragged, and of course, drunk. He was dressed in a filthy T-shirt, jeans, and scuffed work boots. He smelled of sour beer and cheap cigarettes, and peered at me through cloudy, bloodshot eyes. His face was covered with broken glass; part of his upper lip dangled down from a large tear below his nose. His skin was a sea of road rash and asphalt burns. A myriad of small lacerations and missing divots of skin lined his bare tattooed arms, decorated with a slew of swastikas and satanic symbols.
“Do you think it’s funny?” he snapped back, his eyes boring into me.
“Yeah, actually, I guess I do,” I replied. He let out a stifled grunt trying to keep from laughing, staying in his tough-guy role. I continued my physical exam, looking over all his injuries, making sure that nothing more serious was occurring, like brain or spine trauma, a ruptured spleen or a cracked liver. In the end, I was left only with miles of road rash to clean, glass to remove, lacerations to sew, and one ‘five-pack’ of beer to drink.
During our encounter, I felt slightly uneasy and perhaps a little threatened by his hostility. After all, he was somewhat physically imposing, not to mention being wild-eyed and drunk. It was evident that this guy lived on the fringe of society, in that dark world of methamphetamines, acid rock, and racism. He said very little and stared through me as I did my exam. I focused my attention on one large laceration in particular on his forearm. It was the size of a silver dollar and coursed around the top of his wrist, elevating one half of a quarter-sized swastika as it burrowed into the fatty layers of skin.
“You ain’t one of them foreign doctors, is yah?” he inquired in a thick drawl after a while.
“No,” I said, probing around the laceration with a pair of tweezers. “But I am Jewish, and I find these swastika tattoos very offensive,” I responded as I looked up from my work and stared him down. He dropped his eyes for a second and cleared his throat.
“Uhhhh, doc, that don’t mean nothing but goddamn indepen- dence . . . besides . . . I ain’t no Russian.” I coughed to keep from exploding with laughter. “Hell. It don’t make no difference. You can cut that motherfucker out if you want to,” he said, pointing to the large laceration.
“No problem,” I said. So, with a little extra lidocaine and creative excision work, I did my part to rid the world of a small piece of racism. I folded the flap of skin in a patch of gauze, and, with a satisfactory smile, dropped it in the trash, closing the lid with a satisfying clap.
I remember thinking briefly as I worked on him that this guy was so dumb he wasn’t even a good racist. But then I felt a bit ashamed of myself, that I had prejudged him based on his hard appearance, his low-life persona. I think this guy hit the nail right on the head. His swastika was not about racism; it was about belonging. We all need to feel that we are part of something bigger, an extended family. If we are not so fortunate to have grown up in that environment, we seek it out anywhere we can find it. For many, it is church or religion; for others, it is the military; and for some misguided individuals it is a shadow- world alliance, but one that still serves the basic need of belonging, no matter how perverse its venue.
Later that week, barely sober but pleasant, he returned to have his sutures removed and to bring me a present: dangling from an empty plastic ring was a five-pack of Blatz beer. To this day it was the best beer I have ever tasted.
(From the book: The Patient in Room Nine Says He's God)
Dr. Louis M. Profeta is an emergency physician practicing in Indianapolis and a member of the Indianapolis Forensic Services Board. He is a national award-winning writer, public speaker and one of LinkedIn's Top Voices and the author of the critically acclaimed book, The Patient in Room Nine Says He's God. Feedback at email@example.com is welcomed. For other publications and for speaking dates, go to louisprofeta.com. For college speaking inquiries, contact firstname.lastname@example.org.
Dr Louis M. Profeta is an emergency physician practicing in Indianapolis. He is one of LinkedIn's Top Voices and the author of the critically acclaimed book, The Patient in Room Nine Says He's God. Dr Louis holds a medical degree from the Indiana University Bloomington.