There are only five people in the world who still call me "Joshy," and the Garcia family has four of them. In turn, I believe I am one of the very few folks who still call Marshall Jr. "Marshallito" -- as he was known when we were both kids.
His dad, Marshall Sr., died last week at the age of 77. He was one of my late father's dearest friends, and he was one of my heroes.
Marshall was a longtime organizer with District 1199 of the SEIU -- a health-care workers' union (in fact, it was the union that Martin Luther King Jr. had once called his favorite). I hope and trust that Marshall, during his long battle with throat cancer, received loving and respectful care from the workers for whom he had battled for so many years.
My father and Marshall both grew up in the Bronx, at a time when the Young Communist League brought together energetic young people who -- in another time and place -- might have joined the Boy or Girl Scouts instead. The son of Cuban immigrants, Marshall was passionate and joyful and fierce and playful -- a mensch among men.
When I was a child, Marshall was between union-organizer gigs: he owned a beauty-supplies shop in Spanish Harlem, and I loved to visit him there. His clientele (mostly women) would come in and order his famous shampoo, said to be exclusively ordered from a foreign company, which was supposedly made with placenta (whose placenta? I never thought to ask!). As I recall, the shampoo came in many variations, and often the one being requested was not on the shelf. In those cases, Marshall would excuse himself for a moment, so he could go check for any extras "in back" -- at which point he would quickly mix up a new batch, bottle it, affix the appropriate label, and take it out to the customer: "Found one!"
Often I would be joined at the store by Marshallito, who was my age and yet was better than me at everything. (The one time I beat him in a game of H-O-R-S-E, we both treated it as an anomaly of historic proportions.) In fact, all of Marshall's children -- Marshall Jr., Maria (slightly younger than me), and Carmen (a few years older) -- were (and remain) beautiful and brilliant ... which probably has something to do with their mom, Edith, an extraordinary woman who -- as wife, compañera, and fellow 1199 organizer -- complemented Marshall in so many ways.
Edith also made the meals that ensured I would become an overweight person. They were feasts! Huge trays of lasagna, and spaghetti, and artichokes, and cakes, and ... The food was endless! And you didn't want to miss the parties at the Garcias': not just the food, but the jokes, and the singing, and the dancing -- watching Marshall's hips gyrate as he danced with my stepmother, Sue, and the other women, I began to understand the crucial roles of flexibility and torque in the sensual world.
Marshall said and did some things that have stayed with me all my life. At one point his beauty shop was being robbed repeatedly. This was in a neighborhood that did not receive the most excellent service from the New York Police Department, so Marshall took it upon himself to stop the break-ins. The thieves had kept busting a hole through the brick back wall of the store, which was next to an alley. One night Marshall took a baseball bat and just sat in the store, with the lights on, from dusk to dawn, letting any potential burglar know they'd have to deal with him. "But what if they have a gun?" I asked him, terrified. Marshall was undeterred: his work at the store supported his family, and he'd do whatever he had to do to defend it.
Not that Marshall was at all tough when it came to deriving income from his business. As Edith and others would often lament, he was amazingly lenient with the customers who owed him money. As I recall, family members would have to pratically beg him to try to collect; when it came to asking people for what they owed him, as well as loaning money to people when he himself was strapped for cash, Marshall was the ultimate softie. ...
I mentioned that he also said things that have stayed with me. Here's a story he told me that has become a touchstone in my life: Marshall spoke of a man he knew, living in a lower-class tenement in New York, whose teenage child was the only kid in the building not hooked on drugs. Drug pushers would hang out in the lobby of the building with impunity, as they did in the rest of the neighborhood. But this dad decided that, whatever it took, his child would not become another addict -- so each night, he stood guard in the lobby with a baseball bat (you can tell that bats were popular defensive weapons in those days), greeting any pusher who entered the building with the threat of a bashing. I remember sitting in the Garcias' living room, full of Edith's great food, with Marshall leaning in to emphasize this point: "The real heroes, Joshy, are people like that father."
And also, I would add, people like Marshall Garcia. In his last years, even though he had to receive all his nutrients through a feeding tube, he marched in antiwar demonstrations. That's the kind of fighter Marshall was.
In his final days at the Columbia Presbyterian Medical Center, he was surrounded by family (he and Edith also had nine grandchildren), who regaled him with "Joe Hill" and other songs of protest. “Marshall was an amazingly loving husband, father, and friend,” Edith told the District 1199 newsletter. “Near the end, I spoke into his ear, and I told him he gave every bit of himself for what he believed in -- and what life could be better than that?”
The generation that helped defeat fascism also included people, like Marshall, who continued fighting for peace and freedom into the 21st century. Goodbye, Marshall, and thank you.
7 comments August 28th, 2006