The Morning Call
March 16, 2013
They called him "Shim." Great fun, at his expense.
He lived in a shack along a highway. When I was a child, he was a customer and the butt of jokes in the neighborhood bar my parents owned and operated. I did not, until years later, realize why they called him Shim.
There was no partition between the side room of tables and the community bar. Families frequented the side room. A First-Communion party took place there for me and my classmates. The place was a small-town Cheers, where everybody knows your name.
As a child, I had easy access from our kitchen and living quarters. I thought of our customers as my friends.
My father was bartender and bouncer. In his kingdom, he made the rules; he enforced them, as required, with warnings, fists or club.
He so wanted his regular customers to be pleased that he might talk them out of ordering what they wanted from that day's menu when he thought my mother had prepared something better.
"Your father's motto," she told me, "is that the customer is always wrong."
He befriended one of our customers in a moving way. I went along when he took Loddie, a blind and disabled World War II veteran, to a pay-for-fish place where the trout jumped into your creel. Loddie was thrilled when he caught a fish. Dad was thrilled that he was somehow responsible for such happiness.
Dad's rules at the bar were simple. Anyone with a hint of intuition knew them. (1) Behave. No fighting. No loud arguing. (2) No cursing. (3) No foul language. (4) No service if you came in drunk or if he thought you reached your limit.
If you came in a car and seemed unsteady when about to leave, he took your keys.
No rules, however, protected "Shim." Nor were there rules about racist talk. It was Schuylkill County in the 40s and early 50s.
Few gay men were out of the closet beyond the occasional "Shim" who tolerated verbal abuse.
Persons of color? If one – other than the "ragman" – was seen driving through town, he became the topic of town and barroom speculation.
"What would you do, Bill, if one of them came in?" a customer asked my father. "I'd have to serve him," he said. "But, when he left, I'd break the glass."
I may have been a child, a teen or a young adult. I don't remember. I do remember that it broke my heart. That and the dehumanizing treatment "Shim" received. He was embarrassed when he saw that I heard the exchange.
I knew it wasn't personal; it was business. Having had a hard childhood, working in the mines as a teenager, he never forgot the depression. Were he not careful, it might happen again. Dad told those customers what they wanted to hear. Heads nodded. They remained good customers.
As I process this once again, as a man of 75, I recall that there were closeted gays in the seminaries I attended, both in Philadelphia and Rome, but no students of color. I can't believe that was personal? Was it business?
We've come a long way. Or have we?
Some people now forward racist, Latino and Obama-bashing lies on email distribution lists. They want President Obama to fail, and that's not partisan politics. When challenged, the poster is offended, insisting they are not racist or homophobic. "Some of my best friends," etc. They insist their forwards are not lies, Snopes notwithstanding, or that they are just having good-natured fun. To suggest that God hates what they hate, they also forward some sappy spirituality.
It's no longer small-town culture of the 40s and 50s. Nor is it business. Could it be personal?
[Canon Bill Lewellis, firstname.lastname@example.org, a retired Episcopal priest, served on the Bishop’s staff of the Episcopal Diocese of Bethlehem for 24 years and on the Bishop’s staff of the Roman Catholic Diocese of Allentown for 13 years before that.]