|Oct/Nov 1998 Salon|
'Do not neglect to show hospitality toward strangers, for thereby some have entertained angels unawares.'
Hebrews 13: 2
'....and I won't be an orphan in Glory
'cuz Mama and Daddy'll be there.'
Reno and Smiley, "Someone Will Love Me in Heaven"
I have exactly five original memories of Manitowac, Wisconsin—where I lived for about two years—and where I started kindergarten—(McKinley School, named after an American President assassinated by a foreign-born anarchist). Two of the memories are of possible interest to others, and three are of significance only to myself. That's the way it goes, isn't it? We live between two worlds. A world shared—and a world so thoroughly our own that in it we are like water in water.
There is a scene in Mr. Bowles' "The Sheltering Sky," in which a wife tells a husband that his dreams are not interesting to anyone else. It's a harrowing scene, full of foreboding and flight. He is leaving her. But even outside the confines of the book's plot it stands as astonishingly true. Other people's dreams are rarely interesting—at least until analyzed—until rendered part of a shared world.
For what it's worth, I think it is probably not a good thing to live too completely in either one of these two worlds. There seems to be much to be said for keeping the doors open to the communicating halls. But that is neither here nor there. Two memories speak to a shared world. The other three are like black cats running in a dark room. They are most certainly there—but they have nothing to do with you and me, dear reader, here in the well-lit room we share.
I am very small. I'm aware of this. I seem to be wearing baggy, woolly pants. They are huge on me and I like that. I imagine the pants must have been some kind of snow pants, so I assume it was either late in the winter or late in the fall. There was no snow, but the weather hinted at it. Mama was prudent. In any case, the pants made me aware of my size. They were scrunched up at the cuffs. I would grow. I would grow into things.
Anyway, there was a show on TV about that time that played a prominent role in my fantasies and imagination. It was called "Combat". Apparently, it took place during W.W.II. The enemies were all German. I remember arousing and resonating scenes in black and white. Haggard looking G. I.s hid behind crumbling urban ruins. They were firing machine guns at Germans. They were heroes and always victorious.
I was out in the front yard. The sidewalk was all buckled and sparkly. A black couple walked by. I stopped whatever I was doing. I stared. They stared back. It was one of those moments. I still have them. Moments when things become clear. Little white boy making sense of his world. They passed on. I ran into the house so proud. I had made a discovery. "Mama! Mama! Look! Germans!"
It was 1966 or 1967. Martin and Bobby were still alive. Malcolm wasn't.
If you want to know the truth, the period to that last sentence prompted a cigarette break. I reached for my pack and found it empty. There is nothing like an empty cigarette pack to bring an unregenerate nicotine addict back to an awareness of the here-and-now. The here-and-now? It's suddenly six-twenty-six, Post Meridian, Eastern Standard Time, on September twenty first in the year nineteen hundred and ninety eight. I've been here approximately an hour and a half. Hard to believe, isn't it? The preceding took an hour and a half of cramped scribbling on the back of old papers I happened to have in my bag when I arrived at the backroom of the Dublin House on 79th and Broadway on the upper westside of Manhattan. An hour and a half.
I, of course, dashed around the corner (the machine here is prohibitively expensive) and bought another pack. Marlboro Lights, if it's of any interest. When I returned, "Please Release Me" by either, Tom Jones or Englebert Humperdink, (forgive me, I never could tell them apart) was playing on the juke box.
"Please Release Me." Yes. From where do these interpretive grids come? My parents in '66 or '67 were, for all extensive purposes, riding a great wave of post-war prosperity and optimism. My father had grown up in Idaho. He talks of an idyllic existence and describes with a sense of wonder how the first time he saw an elevator (or was it an escalator?) was when he left to join the army. He also talks of meeting his first-ever live black person at about the same time. He is a good man with an abiding sense of fairness.
And Mama. How to describe what I know of Mama's life? She criss-crossed this country in a trailer. 48 contiguous states. Southern identified. Oh Big Mama and Big Daddy! She bought her ticket out of such a life and paid the price. And such a price included a brave new world. Mr. Kennedy's world. Oh do not ask what your country can do for you.
"Mama! Look! Germans!"
Point being, in '66 or '67 I highly doubt that such sentiments could have come directly from my folks.
Oh but they must have come from somewhere. Maybe even somewhere from within my little boy self. The old ghost of the need for an identifiable enemy come to haunt a little white boy in Manitowac. Race in America.
There are beasties running in the attic. Black cats in a dark room. They know my name—but they are not for you and me together, dear reader. We have a shared and well-lit world. And the world we share, at least here in America, is a world riven with the issue of race.
I don't believe that this issue is essential. That is, I don't believe that race must necessarily divide. I do believe, however, that there is something deeper—which is, perhaps, essential. And that is, the need to divide. But I believe also that this is one need among others, no less essential.
Look at it this way. We have two mutually exclusive needs. And this is me, talking as a grown up here. My opinion. We have the need for identity and the need to escape from identity. We have the need to experience a continuity of self over time. But a continuity of self over time is predicated on difference—on isolation—on loneliness. The island is present by not being the sea—and it continues to be present by continuing to not be the sea. But at the same time there is mud at the shore. There is erosion. This too is an imperative. This too is a yearning.
In America we take our enemies where we can find them. We are a resourceful people. We build our dikes with whatever is at hand. Race, class (especially class), religion, gender, ideology, evil empires, etc. But always race. It is so handy. So at hand and evident—obvious—even to little boys, who are beginning to divide the world and create an identity. And finally, it is so handy to disguise other hungers—perhaps especially our deepest and most democratic and egalitarian hungers.
What? Strange as it seems, I have long suspected that our greatest tendencies toward bigotry and division mask a deeper demand—a demand which frightens us mightily in the land of the pilgrim's pride and shame. In the land of the inner puritan. Frightens us even more than the need to turn difference into hostility. Every hate masks a more frightening desire. Like the magician's right hand. Oh don't he call attention to it? And yet, the real hocus pocus is taking place right there in the left.
In America our racial divides serve perhaps to protect us from another hunger. A hunger that threatens to uproot us once more from our forever newly acquired homes—our so sorely fought for identities. Oh land of wanderers. Experimenters. Immigrants and weary travelers. The hunger of the island for the sea. The old, old hunger. The hunger to eat a peach and disturb the universe—with the juice running down our leg.
It is the other who makes it possible for us to be here. It is the other who allows us to believe we are at home. But it is the other also that calls us, whispers enticingly to us. Sings to us like sirens of new seas and unspeakable possibilities. The lure of boxcars. Ramblin' Man.
Perhaps in the end it is this. We must hate the other, because, like Mr. Rilke's angels, the other is too beautiful. It is what we want to be. Other. Other than what we so irrevocably are in the prisons of our identities and our land-locked, lonesome bodies. Ecstasy. From the Greek, "to stand outside oneself". Beauty. Not what is merely pretty or handsome. But Beauty. And as Mr. Breton so famously put it: "Beauty will be convulsive—or it will not be at all." *Mysterium Tremendum*. Tremble ye puritans. Our others wear a mask.
Still, such longing is dangerous. Just ask Orpheus. Ask Moses. Ask Icarus. Ask the trembling lover.
Go ahead, ask the angels. But, you and I, dear reader, let's sail with Odysseus, our bodies lashed to the mast.
I am in the back yard. I am still very small. Manitowac. It's twilight and we're in the backyard. The air is full of the smell of burning leaves. The ground is damp. Tonight there is a special Batman on TV. I have been waiting for it all week. They are going to show a new superhero. Her name is Batgirl and she rides a motorcycle and has tight leather on her body like Mama's gloves. I have always loved Mama's gloves.
It was not really Batgirl I was excited about. It was something else. Batgirl in her costume reminded me of Catwoman. And Catwoman was really the thing. She terrified me like thinking about going to the haunted house the Jaycees put on every year—just not as much. She thrilled me in a way that I didn't ever think to question.
Sometimes when Catwoman was on Batman, that night, later in bed, I would play a game. I would pretend that my bed was really a big bag. I would ball myself up under the covers at the end of the bed. I would pretend I was being carried around by giants. I thought of ways to escape—but was full of tummy-tingling joy to be underneath the covers in pajamas at the bottom of the bag. When I got older I would remember this feeling. But there would be other games.
Sister is in the backyard. And neighbors. The backyard is huge and we're running around. Like "nincompoops", Mama would say. And we would giggle. We're playing Batman. I insist on being Catwoman. Sister is mad. She's two years older than me and knows that boys can't be girls. I know this too. I'm not a dummy. But it is cool and the weather is changing. And it would be pleasant to run around and be Catwoman while someone is burning leaves.
So she's yelling at me and I'm crying. And that's why I don't have a chance to see the dog. The neighbor's dog. A chance to see that the neighbor's dog isn't playing. The neighbor's dog and teeth and running. I am such a little boy and when I see the neighbor's dog I get smaller. And barking and snarling and the hand. He is biting me. Ripping me. If I had known the word, I would have said, "savagely". Intentionally. He is angry. Neighbor's dog. And the hand. Visceral. Mangled. And blood and perforation. And it hurts.
And Mama so kind in my terror. The lawn tilted. And rocking back and forth and back and forth in her arms. I didn't get to watch Batman. I missed Batgirl on her motorcycle. And I think I cried about that. But the way that that flesh was torn on my hand. It fascinated me. Trembling, punctured hand with slivers of red. Pain. Red that had been there all along running in deep deep but underground canals, but now on the surface. And visions of Mama's hands in black leather gloves. And masks.
Terror. Like finding an obscenely pale worm underneath a log. Terror. Like the not-altogether benign grotesqueries of clowns. Terror.
I understand that for a long time after that I was afraid of dogs and things on the periphery that would come upon you suddenly when you were crying. I don't think I ever insisted upon being Catwoman again, though.
Truth be told (I am trying to say true things), the period on that last sentence prompted another cigarette. Still Marlboro Lights. Though I am no longer at the Dublin House and that last cigarette was not even from the same pack I bought while hunkering down with pen and paper and a pint. The here-and-now this time is a few days later, here in my study in Elmhurst, Queens. I am not watching my reflection in a glass but in a computer screen. There was music a little while ago. But I don't know what happened to it. The Delmore Brothers. They are dead and gone. The music's over.
I'm still wondering where these interpretive grids come from, though. These almost always wrong-headed, though necessary, grids. Or better yet, how we might alter them. Change them. Change the course of moon and stars.
I don't believe that it happens altogether consciously. You and I, dear reader. We could chat all day in the well-lit room we share—and that would be pleasant—but I don't think it would amount to much. Our animals, our beasties in the attic, running like shadows in dark-rooms—they need to be consulted as well.
This is the way it seems to me. It's simple. We need others to be other in order to be who we are—and yet in order to be who we are, we need to be other than who we are. We need security and we need ecstasy. With the first, we remain shipwrecked—with the other, we are in danger of drowning. It is not a good thing to be lonely, but secure. But neither is it a good thing to be free from the tyranny of us and them, but ripped apart by the ecstatic Bacchae. Race is a smokescreen for a larger tightwire act.
I think our beasties understand this as well. That's why they run across the attic floor when we are down here together in the well-lit room—padding across floors, just loud enough to remind us that we are not alone. Can you hear them? Are they yours or are they mine? And this is also why they sometimes burst out upon us like the dogs of hell when we begin to drift too far from shore like Ambrose Bierce off to discover Mexico.
The bottom line is that it is not a good thing to live too exclusively in one of the two worlds we inhabit. One can neither live in a perpetual Mardi Gras of solipsism, nor remain forever bound to the merely what-is—to the merely agreed upon and shared world of this well-lit, room of reason. It is good to keep the doors to the communicating halls open.
If for no other reason than that we might hear the siren's song in America.
And dear reader, do you hear? I think she yet sings. Our shared world is changing. It has already changed. The old grids of black and white. The old words to talk about race in America. They no longer make sense. It is already a new world. Here-and-now? I live in Queens, New York. In the most diverse zip code in the nation. Perhaps the world. There is no black and white here, because there is no one majority of strangers. We are all strangers.
Down the street from me lives an ethnic Chinese man from Indonesia. We wave at each other as we both come home with our take-out dinners. The Pakistani woman who serves me coffee at the Dunkin' Donuts across Queens Blvd. does not look me in the eye and is careful not to touch me when she gives me my change—but she knows how I like my coffee and doesn't ask anymore. The Ghanaians and the Nigerians wear colors that would make me look silly. And they tease me and seem so proud when I dance with them at weddings in the church social hall. I am flattered. And out here, crematoriums have had to put special see-through doors on their furnaces because Trinidadians insist upon seeing the body meet the flame. And older Guyanese are sometimes worried that the funeral directors will steal the bodies and sell the skeletons to medical firms and outfits. And none of my interpretive grids work out here. And no one can digest anyone else's food. And none of it makes any sense. And none of us can understand each other. And there are times when that is truly horrible. When, truth be told, we are tired of looking at others who never look like us. And don't make sense to us. And there are times when we are all invisible because we are all so strange to one another. It is the vertigo of the long distance traveler across the great plains of our America. The dizzying horizontality of it all.
But one thing is clear. Where there is no one clear norm. Identity becomes most fluid. Resilient. Our America has always been a great swamp sucking down influences from a thousand old worlds, breaking them down and creating something new. And, dear reader, I think we are creating something new here in my swampy American neighborhood. New ghosts to haunt the future. And this is both frightening—terrifying—and oddly liberating. I am both changed—and more deeply the child of my parents out here. And all my memories are being transformed.
Now, I, of course, realize that my neighborhood is not particularly representative of America—but I do believe it is representative of the challenges that face our America as it struggles to create a new American identity. A collective identity. A national identity. A body of disparate members.
And I think. To guide us on our way. The siren sings in our America. And the song is erotic. Promiscuous. It is a song for bodies in the here-and-now. Young Chinese boys dress like black rap stars. Young Indians and Pakistani's fall in love and worry about what their parents will say—but do not seem to care that India and Pakistan are flexing nuclear muscles in each other's direction. And everything is mixed and everything is confused. And nothing is lost. And nothing is lost. And nothing is lost—we are all strapped to our masts. And nothing is unused. Nothing is unabsorbed. Utter rank, beautiful creativity in the New World. And our animals are laughing. And they are telling us that every other is a mask. And behind the mask—lies a communicating hall. And in the communicating hall, in the eyes of my animals—in the ferocious and violent eyes of my animals—I saw angels ascending and descending from a shining city upon a hill.
Dear reader. The well-lit room we share. This well-lit room of reason. It is growing ripe and blooming in shadows. And the animals leap at their cages with a fierce joy that I understand. Someone has left the door open. Look away, across the wide Missouri.