DEBATING IN QUICKSAND
It occurred to me that something was definitely wrong. The more clearly the picture formed in my mind, the more ill at ease I became with it. I wasn't quite sure what lie at the bottom of it; the tipping point came soon enough, though.
Living in what could euphemistically be referred to as a neighborhood on the wrong side of the tracks, I became ill one day at school and was led to the nurse's office by a teacher's aide. I was instructed to lie on a cot and was given a blanket to put over me as the school nurse was out for a few minutes. When the young, vivacious nurse returned, she took my temperature while engaging in buoyant conversation, as I lay under the blanket. I could tell she was impressed by how articulate I was for a fourth-grader, and by the level of my general conversational skills. She was probably in her mid to late twenties; and I felt heartened that she was treating me as a real person, almost as a peer.
The banter continued for a few more minutes; and although I was only nine and not yet pubescent, I was vaguely sexually attracted to her; she was pretty, after all. She cheerfully made arrangements to take me home from school mid-day, nonchalantly asking where I lived. Unsuspectingly, I gave her my street address in the same, pleasant tone that had characterized our conversation from the start.
You cannot imagine the change that came over her, not quite instantly, but over an interval of a few seconds. Every aspect of her demeanor was markedly altered. The easy tone in her voice was gone, replaced by one defined, rather, by its edge. Everything about the situation was drastically different, in fact. I was perplexed initially, yet knew, at some level what the explanation was. As I climbed out from underneath the blanket, I noticed her sizing me up, in my unstylish attire. My hunch as to what was going on was confirmed. She drove me home, making a few curt remarks, and asking a few coldish questions. The friendly tone in her voice, and the talk about things that were cool, had been utterly annihilated. I felt absolutely awful, but took it with a stiff upper lip. This was my first explicit experience with othering.
I was bewildered by all of this, but gradually came to make some sense of it. Over the next three years, I began to hop the bus down town and go to the library. I spent hours looking up things about social classes and geographical regions. I was becoming more and more alarmed by what I was finding out, though: that Appalachia itself was the most economically depressed part of the United States, and worse, that people living here, in lower socioeconomic echelons, had the most miserable and wretched of lives, and the bleakest of futures.
But I wasn't like that; I wasn't like any of the unfortunate people I was reading about. I felt really bad for them. Geez, I am going to be a scientist or something. The mystery was this: so, why are people treating me the way they are? Don't they get it? And then one day, I had a horrible experience. There was a store downtown whose large, plate glass windows had mirror-like tinting applied to them; as I was walking by it one afternoon, deep in thought, I happened to glance at the image to my side. My immediate response was to step away from the scruffy looking ne'er do well but a few feet from me. And then it hit me. My God, I had no idea! My gait. My countenance. My attire. My body language. Holy shit. I was one of them. That's why people are treating me the way they are. I was so shaken by this I could hardly sleep. I was twelve or thirteen at the time; the full significance of this was like being hit in the face with a board.
But I wasn't like that; I knew it with as much certainty as I knew anything. Musical talent or athletic prowess were the usual tickets out of the slum; yet neither of these were available to me. I rather liked jazz, and tried playing the clarinet, but I could tell I didn't have what it takes to be a real musician. The athletic option was even more hopeless. I was skinny and not terribly tall. I was wiry though; l had a good throwing arm, and rather liked baseball. There was a complication, however: I couldn't see well. Even with monstrously thick glasses, I could never pull off success at baseball, but merde did I try.
After school and on weekends, I did my damnedest to help my father keep his business afloat. It was a losing battle, however. He had a painfully small trucking concern, specializing in hauling coal during the winter months, and gravel, peat moss, or anything else he could scrounge up during the rest of the year. He never made any money, to speak of, though. He had three trucks; they were all old cast-offs from other companies, well beyond being merely worn out. I remember helping him replace the blown engine in an ancient GMC dump truck one night, working by flashlight, under a tarp to keep the sleet at bay. He had found that one from a certain model of Pontiac would actually fit in the truck, and by an incredible stroke of luck, we had found the exact match in a local junkyard. Frozen fingers notwithstanding, I considered us to be pretty fortunate people.
We were a rather ghastly pair: a rail thin, cadaverous, middle aged consumptive, looking a good bit older than his actual age, in his 40s, and a skinny twelve year old with thick glasses. I knew full well that we were scarcely getting by, and also, unfortunately, that my dad was just barely keeping it together. It was clear to me that for me, job one was to do whatever I had to, to insure that he did. He had a ninth grade education, and that was from a one room schoolhouse in a dirt road town, but he was a bright guy, and incredibly well read, especially in American History. So, bouncing around in the cab of that old GMC truck, on curvy, pot-hole-filled, two-laners, all over a good bit of upstate New York and northern Pennsylvania, I learned everything knowable about the Pony Express, The Homestead Act, the stringing of telegraph wires across Wyoming, and you name it.
That next spring it began to occur to me that if I had managed to endure all these things and I was still alive and kicking, then perhaps there was some hope for me, after all. Before long, though, the general situation in our lives began to nosedive. I knew things were not going well for us financially; still, I was surprised to find out one afternoon that we were being evicted. Our rented house was substandard by most any reckoning, but it was serviceable, and I recoiled at the thought of having to abandon it. We were never actually served with eviction papers by the sheriff's office; we left before the axe fell, but with the inevitable hanging over us.
Forced into a trailer park, and an especially run down one at that, the lowest point in my life ensued. I was nearly fourteen; the bust things were turning out to be overtook me as an inescapable fact. For the first time in my life, I really began to wonder about my sanity. In the evenings, I would often go out for long walks, several miles, in fact, trying to think things through. What on earth was I going to do? This is all such a fucking bitch! I had better come up with something. And soon.
One afternoon, while I was there alone and especially depressed, I dug out an old, large print reader I had bought for a dime in a used-book store. Thumbing through it I came across a long excerpt from The Grapes of Wrath and began to read it. I read it twice. The picture Steinbeck was painting came alive before my eyes. I was fully engulfed by it. I baked in the scorching heat. I smelled the oily exhaust. I felt the bone jarring ride and the desperation of the characters. More powerfully, though, I was overcome by the general abasement of the entire reality he was describing.
I put the book down and closed my eyes. It hit way too close to home, and was disturbing beyond words. Within a few minutes, however, a life changing thought welled up from within me. The reality Steinbeck was portraying was real, too real in fact. But the fact that it was he who was portraying it gave me an insight. His perspective, as the portrayer of it, was to a degree removed from it, and not imprisoned by it. I was so taken by this insight that I didn't have any idea what to do with it. But I knew, somehow intuitively, that in following out its implications lie a strategy for dealing with the disaster that was my life.
I actually had felt somewhat removed from my hideous existence from the very beginning, as if I had gotten off the elevator on the wrong floor, or had gotten somebody else's order in a restaurant. Now, I had a framework within which to understand this feeling. Just as Steinbeck could describe the wretchedness of the characters' lives, while being close enough to describe them intimately, he was enough detached from them not to be dragged along with them, into the abyss. I slept well that night, for the first time in months.
I kept mulling this insight over in my mind for weeks. What it meant to be a part of a situation, and yet still removed from it, stretched my thirteen year old mind to its extremities. I envisioned myself as a modern day Joad, who climbs right out of the page and becomes Steinbeck himself. He then is in control, pulling the strings, so to speak, no longer at the mercies of the forces shackling him. I was in awe of where this might lead; it was somewhere of which I could catch only fleeting glimpses.
For the first time in my life, moreover, I felt as if I might really have some literary talent. I rolled this thought over carefully in my mind. Then it dawned on me: I have good grades; not quite straight A's, but neither had I worked very hard. I never even studied. Why not really try to play this card? It was an idea that I thought would save me. The more I thought about it, though, the more I realized that something wasn't quite right. If I were bright enough to get some real traction academically, why had I never received any recognition for anything I had done? Other students in my class were always getting awards for their achievements. What was going on here? I came to realize that the basic insight of Ralph Ellison's The Invisible Man is really quite true. The achievements of marginalized individuals just don't get noticed; or if they do, they are grossly misinterpreted.
One of the biggest day to day hassles of living in a rough part of town is dealing with the neighborhood toughs. I was in a few fights, but never picked one. Astonishingly, although I was skinny and never much of a fighter, I never really got beaten up, either, even though I had to deal with some incredibly nasty people. When I was taunted or insulted by one of the local hoods, I would go into survival mode, and instinctively argue him down. I could launch such a withering verbal attack, mustering from somewhere within an authoritative enough tone in my voice, to stupefy him long enough for me to face-savingly extricate myself from the situation.
None of these neighborhood toughs is still alive, by the way; none of them ever saw thirty, so far as I know. Some of them overdosed, some were killed in fights or drive-by shootings, a few were sent to prison. Of those incarcerated, one was killed by his cell mate, another in a prison riot.
Speaking of arguing…… About the time I turned fifteen, I had another idea. This time I was convinced I had finally hit upon a sure-fire plan. It had occurred to me that I really did have an almost uncanny skill at arguing. It had plausibly saved my life on more than one occasion; and I actually rather enjoyed it. Much of what I said in arguing was tongue-in-cheek, to a large extent, and this was part of its appeal. It had an imaginative element to it. It didn't just save my ass in the workaday sense; it also transported me, metaphysically, out of the drab awfulness of my quotidian existence. To where, I wasn't sure, but clearly out of this.
It was in this spirit that I decided to go to room 252 that afternoon. There had been a small notice on the bulletin board indicating that anyone interested in trying out for the debate team should report there in the block after eighth period. I knew fully well it was going to be rocky; that the students showing up for this would be part of a clique I decidedly wasn't in, and that Mr. Rudolph, the Honors English teacher coaching the debate team, was somebody who would neither speak, nor even make eye contact with me, in the hall. Nonetheless, I thought: what do I have to lose?
When I got to the room, the door was ajar. In hindsight, I should have jerked it open and briskly taken a seat near the front. This type of act doesn't come easily to people from my side of town , however. So, I opened the door just enough to gain entry into the room, aiming to locate myself at any desk, the passage to which would offer the least resistance possible. I did not reach it, though, before I heard,
"Yes?" directed at me, in a tone I was unused to; and turning I saw a genuinely quizzical look on the face of Mr. Rudolph. He was caught off guard; he didn't know me, and even less what to say. He had a "please help me" look on his face.
"I know him; I think he is looking for the shop class;" blurted out one of the especially preppy types, not quite arrogantly, but clearly patronizingly, "they have some kind of after school program going on down there, I believe."
"Yes, yes," responded Mr. Rudolf, with both a bit of boredom and relief in his voice; "Would you care to walk down there with him," he continued, gesturing, and with feigned friendliness in his voice. Mike got up, and, with the affect of one being sent in to clean the john, approached me. "I don't want the fucking shop class," I screamed loudly and defiantly, in my head; but my vocal chords, lips, and pharynx were as immobilized as had I suffered a stroke. Words cannot express my revulsion at this turn of events, and even more so how the me that wasn't me was responding. I, who could handle toughs who wanted to stab me, was paralyzed in the company of a room full of preppies, and a bespectacled, fifty year old, sans-a-belt wearing English teacher. "What on earth is going on here?" I thought.
Mike got closer, but passed me, moving toward the door, glancing back, genuinely baffled as to why I wasn't heeling like a spaniel. Throughout all this, time crept, as were I at death's door, reality somehow perforated, revealing a level we aren't supposed to see. The tension was clearly rising; the thought of bolting crossed my mind, yet not a muscle in my body contracted. I had no idea what I was going to do; I was as much a spectator to my actions as were any of the other people in the room. For all I knew, the entire universe would shatter at the next instant, like fine crystal on a slate floor, and I almost wished that it would.
At this point, just two desks away, Ingrid rose, more from reflex than deliberate choice, and offered me her hand. She was beautiful, brunette, with a physique and features revealing her Swedish ancestry, and the motivations and mannerisms of her Lutheran upbringing. "Take her hand, you idiot," flashed through my mind. I nearly did. I looked at her face; she was trying desperately not to let how pathetic she thought I was show in her slight smile. "She is going to lead you down the hall . . . ." my thought continued, and the image of this flashed into my mind. Nobody from my neighborhood could have dreamt of walking down the hall with Ingrid, "to the shop classroom…" the thought continued, her graceful hand inches from mine. I was horrified.
After a few moments, the awkward silence was broken by the sound of Mr. Rudolph clearing his throat, and then:
"We've covered everything we need to for today," he blurted out, "we'll meet again next week," he continued, placing his notes carefully in a manila folder. He then picked up the handouts he decided not to distribute that afternoon, and placed them back into his briefcase.