The morning of our first protest march, Jack and Exley pretended to be big trucks pushing garbage around. The role of garbage was played by a big pile of baseball cards from the late 1980s and onward. I keep my childhood cards in a couple of boxes in the closet but let my boys do whatever they want with the ones that have come to me since then. They pummeled them for a while and then Jack wanted to pretend we were all Rescue Bots saving people from volcanoes.
“We have to clean this up first,” I said. This statement, which is on a constant loop from my mouth, can often make the ensuing passage of time unpleasant, conflictive, but for some reason this time Jack just said OK.
“I’ll bulldoze them over to you and Exley and you put them in.” This is what we did. Jack stopped at one point.
“Who’s this?” Jack asked. He held up the card you see here.
“Can you tell me?” I said.
Lately he’s been showing some signs that he’s ready to start reading. I don’t push him much with this kind of stuff because it seems to me childhood is already under siege by adults drilling their kids unceasingly, worried that the kids, no matter how young, are “falling behind,” and in this frantic worry passing along no love of learning at all but just frantic worry. The philosophy I try to adhere to is summed up best by the chant that climaxes The Bad News Bears in Breaking Training: Let Them Play. But still, we’re talking about my son being on the brink of humanity’s greatest skill. I can’t help myself sometimes.
“Look at the letters,” I said.
“Muh,” Jack began. “Muh aah . . .”
Later that day we took our homemade sign and met up with some other families at a park a few blocks north of our home. People stood around eating donuts for a while, the whole thing seeming more like a neighborhood parent meetup than a march, but more people kept arriving, and then eventually what could reasonably be called a small crowd started walking in a line out onto the sidewalk.
Exley, our two-year-old, rode with my wife in a carrier, and Jack, five, rode on my back in something called a toddler carrier. We figured it might be difficult to have a bulky stroller in a march, and we knew that neither boy would make it if we made them go on foot the whole way. And as it turned out the march was a long one, down Clark from Jarvis all the way to Morse and then over to Sheridan and back up to Jarvis and west again. I carried our sign: “THIS IS A SAFE PLACE FOR EVERYONE.” Other people had signs too. Some tried to get a chant going—“no space for hate”—but everyone was too self-conscious about it and maybe not used to being in marches. Everyone had spent the previous few days, since Tuesday night, stunned and scared. It was the first time I’d ever been in a march, and outside of baseball games, where I’d joined in on such things of massive import as “we need a hit” (or one time in a movie theater when I was ten and shouted “Let them play” over and over along with all the other kids in my town and, up on screen, Kelly and Ogilvie and the rest), I’d never chanted anything before. I felt like a fool but not as big a fool as I’d have felt like if I’d not done anything, and not as big as fool as I feel like for going so long without doing anything.
“Muh aah rrrvvv ell nnn,” Jack read.
Marvelin. He misread the capital I for an l. He kept going.
“Fff rrr ee eeee mmm aaahh nnn,” he said.
For a second I said nothing. Marveling. That would be just about the exact right word for how I felt for a moment on the morning of our first protest march.
We walked through our neighborhood, maybe a hundred of us, more or less, everyone with kids along. Some cars passing by honked their horns in support. A police car stopped and asked us how far we planned to go and followed us to our stopping point. On Clark, where the sidewalk was narrow, I got the distinct impression that we—a bunch of white people, with a few exceptions—were inconveniencing the people we were trying to include in our benevolent collective gaze: a couple of stocky Hispanic guys walking north as we walked south, a Muslim woman pushing a stroller through us north as we walked south. I thought I detected bemusement on some black people we passed. I was very self-conscious about my sign at these junctures. The sign was intended to be an affirmation, a pledge. But what power do I have to back up that pledge?
The figure serving as a sickening inspiration for our march had been using the city we marched through, Chicago, all through his campaign as shorthand for the lack of safety everywhere, promising that he had the answer for this. He never provided specifics, but other aspects of his rhetorical bluster suggests that the answer will involve bias and brutality, a combination that never leads to any lasting safety. And yet his implications seemed keenly attractive to those who pulled the lever for him. The sign I carried was thin cardboard, maybe not as thin as the cardboard shown at the top of this page but not a whole lot thicker. What will it do against what seems to be coming our way?
“Marvin Freeman,” I said. “You said it! You read his name!”
“Marvin Freeman,” Jack said.
“You want to put it in your box?” I said.
“You were thinking what I was thinking,” he said.
Jack has his own box of cards now, with Dustin Pedroia and Big Papi on the top for easy access. I pulled the box down from the top of the bookcase and we put Marvin Freeman inside.
Today I borrowed his Marvin Freeman card for a while. I read the name on the front, and it occurred to me that the last name was taken on upon emancipation, an ancestor of the pitcher not wanting to carry the name with him of his oppressor. I turned the card over and discovered one of the greatest bits of back-of-the-card text I’d ever seen.
I can’t wait until Jack can read it all. It’s the kind of thing that I read when I was first starting to read, like when I read that Richie Hebner was a grave-digger in the offseason.
You learn when something pulls you forward. For me, with reading, the thing pulling me forward was the ability to decipher messages on thin little rectangles of cardboard just like this one.
“While attending Chicago Vocational High School, Marvin was employed by a violin bow-making company hand-shaping and finishing concert-quality violin bows.”
I want everyone to feel safe and free in a world of such marvels.