(WARNING: This began as a short post, but progressed into eight “variations on a theme”, [to steal a idea from classical music]. It is basically eight posts in one, or a short book, tracing the hot topic of what makes a homeland and what makes a refugee.)
A GATED COMMUNITY
The Garden of Eden saw no winter,
Judging from the fact they wore no clothing
In their innocence. Eve didn’t hint her
Wardrobe was outdated, or stand posing
Before mirrors, nor scorn Adam’s choice of hats.
Fashion’s unknown when you stroll in the buff.
You are what you are, and you’re certain that’s
All that you need. What is given’s enough;
Fashion’s absurd; you don’t know what shame is,
For nakedness allows no snobbery.
There’s no need to keep up with the James’.
There’s no chill. Warmness is all that you see,
And, if that is Eden, I’d like to know
How the heck poets find beauty in snow.
Our fallen world is full of nonsense and needless woe and other bad stuff which I, as a grumpy old man, am acquainted with, and am an authority on, and can lecture you about in great detail, if you venture too near.
Some will advise you to stay clear of wise old grouches like me, suggesting old men have lost the wonder children own. I disagree. I wonder plenty, to be honest, and, among many other things, I wonder how anyone in their right mind can think children are so wonderful.
You see, I made the mistake of opening a Childcare on my farm, and, after putting up with irreverent rug-rats for ten years, I can testify children are likely a reason our world is fallen. Yes, they are full of wonder, but the little imps are usually wondering what rule they can break next.
If you study the Bible, you will notice there is no mention of children in the Garden of Eden. They came after, along with thorns. Also Jesus said we should “suffer” the little children. That sure doesn’t suggest children are pleasant critters. Lastly, Jesus suggested that if we want to get back to the Garden of Eden we should become like little children, and wouldn’t that mean we wouldn’t have to suffer little children any more? (Besides ourselves, of course.)
Perhaps, if you are discerning in nature, you may detect that, after ten years, I am getting an itty bitty bit fed up with my job. Also, if you are from the north, you may detect symptoms of winter weariness, (also called “cabin fever” or “becoming shack-wacky”.)
When I was younger, I derived great pleasure from winter. But back then I laced my own skates. Now my old hands suffer lacing other’s skates, or zipping other’s zippers, or finding the wet mitten lost in the snow.
When young I drove roads that others plowed. Now I am the one responsible for making sure cars can drive into my Childcare and park, after storms. When a young father, I might make extra money by shoveling drives and walkways and roofs, and snowflakes looked like dollar signs to me. Now I’m the backbone of the economy, (called “a small business owner”), and either I must pay others for snow removal, or do it myself for free. I see no dollar signs in the falling flakes any more.
Lastly, if I actually find the time to sled or skate, my old body winds up achy and bruised. Winter just isn’t any fun any more. When I was young, snowstorms meant school was cancelled and I got to play. Now my work is doubled and troubles are trebled.
The old derive a different wonder from snow. I have old friends who have died shoveling the stuff, or lugging firewood through the stuff, or even, in one case, slipping on the stuff and falling from a roof. The wonder of the old is, “I wonder if I’ll live to see the spring.” Winter is no vacation for the elderly, and snow is no holiday.
I don’t think it was always this way. As recently as thirty years ago, when I wandered into a local church as an unmarried bachelor, I was immediately enlisted (along with a large troop of boy scouts) to “honor” elders by shoveling their drives and walkways for free. Now that I myself am the elder, that “honoring” doesn’t seem to happen any more. Both the church and the scouts are so poorly attended they are on the verge of shutting down. Instead the elderly sit at home awaiting a check in the mail, so they can pay others to do what boy scouts once called “good deeds.”
I don’t know about you, but to me a check-in-the-mail seems to lack the humanity of a pack of scouts. True, the cynical will say the scouts were only in it for the merit badges, but I seem to remember that there was a wholesome sense of virtue involved, and an assurance that good deeds did not go unnoticed in heaven, and also oldsters sometimes invited scouts in for cookies and hot cider. Now oldsters peer this way and that, nervously, if they get a check in the mail. Why? Because, rather than developing character with church or scouting, youth is drugged when young, and that develops drugged characters. Then youth turns to drugs more independently, as teens, and eventually must mug elders for their pension checks, to afford their heroin or what-have-you. (This is why “direct deposit” was invented, but that only takes away oldster’s reasons to venture as far as the mailbox, and heightens their chronic agoraphobia.)
I blame my own generation for a lot of the current disrespect towards elders. When young, too many of us scorned traditional values and thought it was wise to say, “Don’t trust anyone over thirty.” Some blame likely rests on our elders, who didn’t make it clear why we should go fight the Vietcong far away, but many of my peers refused to fight for their country claiming their resistance involved high principles, which I know darn well they completely lacked. (A true pacifist will accept prison or death, but a Vietnam draft-dodger was often just a coward, who preferred to party.) In any case, what goes around comes around, and disrespect towards elders does not seem like such a good idea any more, now that spoiled baby-boomers look in the mirror and see wrinkles and gray hair, and look past the fencing of their gated communities and see lurking youths with hungry eyes and baseball bats.
While my generation sowed a crop of thistles, and deserves to reap what it sowed, I don’t. I’m not like the others. The simple fact of the matter is that when my friends were busy being hip and cool and oh-so-groovy, (also known as “decadent”), I was mocked for being unhip and uncool and oh-so-square. I couldn’t seem to help myself. Even when I attempted to copy James Bond, and used the exact same line that worked so well for him in a movie, my voice had a lame quality and the line didn’t work so well. Rather than weak-in-the-knees, women would adopt a pained expression. (And my attempted seductions went swiftly nose-diving downhill from there.)
I didn’t like being mocked, but had an older brother who tried to toughen me up by mocking me relentlessly. He found it amusing to tweak my sore points and watch me explode like a volcano. Rather than toughening me up he merely made me more pyrotechnical.
He would say something like, “George Washington didn’t believe in freedom,” just to get me going, and when my patriotic fury flared he’d floor me with, “Then why’d George own slaves? Huh? Huh? How can you believe in freedom if you own slaves? Huh?” My response would be to attack him with a whirlwind of fists, and, because at first he was over a foot taller and more than a hundred pounds heavier, this only made him laugh. Later I grew, and there at long last came the glorious day when I knocked him over the back of our living room couch, but this didn’t win me any intellectual arguments, (especially when I was preaching that peace was better than war, just before I exploded.)
To be honest, when I look back, my fierce loyalty doesn’t give me all that much to brag about. Basically I was appalled by the behavior of my friends, but they gave me such a hard time about being a “prude” I’d try to be appalling myself, with disastrous results, because down deep appalling wasn’t appealing. My heart wasn’t in my efforts to be hip and cool, and there is nothing quite so ridiculous and absurd as a seduction conducted by a person who really doesn’t want to be there.
Other guys could brag about how many women they used (and were used by) and, being cynical Sophists, make it sound downright sophisticated, but where Paul Simon could sing “there must be fifty ways to leave your lover”, I’d have to sing “there must be fifty ways to totally botch a seduction.”
Not that I couldn’t fall in love and become devoted. It was just that I was a pain, (nowadays I think I might be called “a stalker”), because I might even be faithful and loyal to a woman who just wished I’d dry up and blow away.
I was very idealistic, and this made me a great friend to have if you happened to be a liar, thief and con-artist, for idealism made me very forgiving. My idealism was certain you only lied, stole and conned because you were “a victim of your circumstances”, and that, if I could change those circumstances by being the loyal and faithful friend you’d never had, then surely you’d reform. Not.
Over and over I found out people didn’t want to reform. They happened to like being liars, thieves, con-artists, drunkards and drug addicts, and took offence if you only liked them under the condition they stop being themselves. When I thought about it, it seemed wrong for me to be so conditional with my affection. So slowly I learned to stop being affectionate.
This slow chilling of my heart did not go unnoticed in heaven. Apparently, even when pity is not to be found down here on earth, it does exist up there, and, at unexpected times and in unexpected ways, I was blessed by warm sunbeams that kept my heart from completely freezing. It is difficult to explain this phenomenon, so I won’t try. Let it suffice to say that, while externally my luck went from bad to worse, internally I cheered up, and even became jaunty.
This does involve a certain amount of self-trickery. For example, at one point a woman told me in no uncertain terms my loyalty was not appreciated, and punctuated this statement by moving in with another man, and then relocating thousands of miles away. I was rather discouraged:
I think I am going to die soon.
I see a skull’s face in the full moon
And high in the sky hear a mad loon
Luting a lonely and sad tune.
Why am I staying here grieving?
Who do I think I’m deceiving?
Why am I staying here groaning?
Life’s just a way of postponing.
Some body some body
Ask me to stay.
Pretty mournful, aye? However at this dark point in my 30-year-old life I found a way to trick myself. I decided that, just because I couldn’t love that specific female face-to-face, it didn’t mean I couldn’t still love her, and the way I would do so was by loving people she might someday meet, who would be slightly nicer to her if I made them happier people, and, because this included absolutely everyone I’d ever meet, I couldn’t sit around being mournful any more. (Pretty tricky, aye?)
Another test of my loyalty involved the Calvinist fifth commandment, which states I should honor my parents. My parents made this difficult, for they went through an incredibly acrimonious divorce, and each explained to me in great detail why the other could not be honored. This put me in one hell of a bind, because to honor both parents I had to agree with both, and that meant I had to agree both were not worthy of honor, even while honoring them. Basically I had to adopt an attitude that honored the fact they both had shortcomings, and basically both sucked, but love them all the same. My friends told me I was nuts, but my respect was an example of my extremely prudish, Puritan loyalty. I simply accepted the situation they inflicted me with, as a thing I should honor.
In an odd way it paid off. Both were enormously idealistic (that’s where I got my idealism from) and both suffered terribly when ideals failed to manifest in reality, but one ideal, “until death do we part”, did fall by the wayside when they divorced, and that failure planted thistles, and later in life they both reaped a crop of thorns, and slumped into terrible depressions. And luck would just so have it that it was just then I came wandering back into their lives, with my jaunty attitude and my bag of tricks. It was an honor and a privilege to cheer both of them up, and to see them shake off their depressions, and (in situations years and miles apart), to watch them reenter life with their enormous idealism revived.
Not that either seemed to recognize what I’d done, or give me credit. I think they both deemed me their least-sane child. I was a sort of pleasant madman, whom they couldn’t help but like, even though I suffered from the absurd fixation that their former spouse was worth the time of day.
Nor can I truly claim credit for their recoveries, for to be honest they vehemently disagreed with just about every intellectual point I ever made. Rather it was something working through me that changed their attitude from despair to hope. Perhaps it was as simple as them thinking, “If a total loser, like this complete misfit-child of mine, can be jaunty, maybe there is hope for me as well.” In any case, whatever it was, it worked.
My point in bringing up this ancient history is that being loyal and faithful doesn’t seem to be a way to become rich and famous, or to gain praise and popularity, in modern society, but it may very well be a way to be happy.
This being Valentine’s week, I should note that three decades ago I had decided I was getting too old to hang around bars, attempting to get drunk enough to be charming. I no longer could excuse such behavior as that of a “lusty young man,” for I was old. Gosh, I was thirty-five, and had a couple of gray hairs. If I persisted, then my behavior would be that of a “dirty old man”. Therefore I vowed to become celibate. I went to a small church, primarily to sing four-part harmony in a choir. There I met my future wife, but sternly looked away, for I had long before vowed to have nothing to do with divorced women. She sternly looked away from me, for she had sternly vowed to have nothing to do with cigarette smokers.
Those stern vows didn’t stand the test of time, (they crumbled pretty quickly, if truth be known), but the vow of loyalty did stand strong, until now we can go out to eat on Valentine’s Day, and remember, and talk about all that loyalty has brought us:
Not much, in worldly terms. We started out poor and we still are poor. Our “new” cars are always used cars, usually ten years old. We still work hard, and our vacations are few and far between and seldom longer than a four-day-weekend and are never “paid.” Our insurance is minimal, and only that which is required by law, because, like most poor people, our greatest insurance policy is “In God We Trust”. So far God’s insurance hasn’t been “minimal”, (although rather than the word “insurance” perhaps I should use the word “assurance”).
Loyalty hasn’t spared us from descending into the trenches of marital warfare, for, looking back, it is difficult to think of something my wife and I haven’t argued about. Nor has loyalty freed us from thinking about the “fifty ways to leave a lover”. This world makes certain of that. At times it is as if the modern world mocks fidelity, and Paul Simon is incessantly singing his inane, sophist jingle,
You just slip out the back, Jack
Make a new plan, Stan
You don’t need to be coy, Roy
Just get yourself free
Hop on the bus, Gus
You don’t need to discuss much
Just drop off the key, Lee
And get yourself free
I think it is the misuse of the word “free” that makes loyalty look bad, but this isn’t apparent when you are young. It is only when you get older that you understand such a use of the word “free” also means “lonely.” All the cold gold a miser sifts through his fingers, and all the “financial independence” in the world, and all the hours freed from people dubbed “bothersome”, can have the haunting hollowness of an empty auditorium. A billionaire is no different from a bum, and has the same yearning look in his eyes, when watching a young family pass on the street, though both the billionaire and bum are “freer” than the burdened father and harassed mother.
In the end the rewards of loyalty are not measured by the teaspoons and tablespoons used by this world. All the world sees in faithfulness is irritation, and not the pearl the oyster grows from irritation.
It is an invisible pearl, like a halo of light around the faithful, yet it is a pearl people notice. Some hunger for it, and some hate it. The hatred seems odd: The fond, old couple witnessed may be merely walking together and minding their own business, yet the hateful feel strangely offended. I’m often astonished by the sneers that blurt from onlooker’s lips. I don’t want to examine the sneering much, so you will have to research it for yourself. (I’m not talking about humor, concerning marriage, such as Rodney Dangerfield’s. I’m talking about scalding scorn. Google the search-words “hate marriage” or “stupid marriage”, and you can start your research from there.)
It boils down to this: People cling to garbage, and are threatened by the invisible pearl of faithfulness.
One time my wife had a job at an expensive retirement community, and part of her job involved driving wealthy women to art museums and gourmet restaurants, and, one day, as she drove, she heard one of the elderly women say, “Those people scare me.” When my wife followed the haughty lady’s regal eyes she saw the rich widow was peering with disapproval at a bumper sticker that read:
No Jesus. No Peace.
Know Jesus. Know Peace.
I have heard of old ladies being scared by tiny mice, but being scared by a bumper sticker? This was a new one for me, and initially I chuckled at my wife’s tale, but later I grew thoughtful. I realized I’d seen the behavior before.
Some people seem to think it is “progressive” to think of others as backwards and behind-the-times and even dangerous, for being loyal to their traditional faith. But is it not possible that such high-nosed “progressive” behavior is, in truth, not a display of being smarter than others, but rather a display of woeful ignorance? Because they are ignorant about the pearl the poor may possess? One wonders: Are rich people who are incarcerated in wealthy retirement communities actually better off, or do they inhabit a madhouse where the mad think they’re sane?
I have always preferred to live in un-gated communities. During my days as a young drifter in an un-gated world I owned the attitude that I should be kind to all people, even those who were apparently mad, whether they were bums or billionaires. Even though I myself was a bum, I was a fiercely idealistic bum, brimming with pity for others I deemed less fortunate. This may have surprised some, who might have assumed they were more fortunate than I was. Was I not the bum? And were they not rich? Ah, yes, but it was a sunny morning in May, and they had to go to work in a gloomy workplace, whilst I walked whistling in the sunshine, drifting off to seek another job in some different state.
When I was in my late twenties I landed a job delivering furniture to homes on the coast of South Carolina. I was the strong back who sat beside the fellow who drove the truck, and one gruff driver liked to have me along because I told good stories, and also because I had a knack of striking up conversations with rich customers, and he felt this increased the odds we’d get a tip. I didn’t really feel I was doing anything unusual; my knack was a skill I’d developed hitchhiking in the 1960’s; I’d learned the miles usually passed more enjoyably with good conversation, and it didn’t matter whether the driver drove an old pick-up or a Cadillac. I suppose I might also have been less intimidated by the wealthy, because I grew up in a wealthy suburb, (back before they had gates.) In any case, I first experienced a “gated community” in 1982, on the outskirts of Myrtle Beach, and the phenomenon initially struck me as downright bizarre.
I was curious about the inmates, and, despite the fact I was a grimy grunt, laboring in oppressive heat and humidity and dripping with sweat, I’d strike up conversations in air conditioned living rooms, and, to the horror and delight of the gruff driver, sometimes the initially snobby customer would get charmed, and we’d be invited to sit and have a cold lemonade, or a gin and tonic. Of course, this charm didn’t always work, but the gruff driver would then say, “nice try”, as we headed back out into the sweltering heat and clambered back up into the rattling truck, and then he’d regale me with choice expletives describing snobby people, who don’t tip.
During this period of espionage into gated communities I kept notes, for I planned to someday write a book about the brief period of poverty I felt I was undergoing, before I became a fabulously rich and famous writer. “The Book” was to describe all the interesting people I’d met, including the gruff driver of a furniture truck, and the recluses hiding in gated communities.
Later on in life I became more modest, but when in my twenties I was quite cheerful and open about the fact I was going to write a fabulous book. In fact the gruff driver would turn to me, after a delivery to a particularly interesting customer, and say, “Put that one in your book.”
In compliance to the request of that long-ago work-companion, I will now briefly describe our worst customer. She was the fat daughter of a fat man, a New Jersey “princess” whom I think was attempting to put on the airs of a southern belle, while blissfully ignorant that southern belles are beautifully adept at southern hospitality. The sour-faced young woman opened the door, saw us standing with a heavy sofa in southern heat, and then slammed the door in our faces. From within came an only slightly-muffled voice, stating, “Daddy, some white trash is here with the sleeper sofa I ordered.”
The gruff driver was not white trash. I witnessed the color of his skin. It went through various shades of purple, with bulging veins. However he was extremely tolerant, for he did not speak a word during the entire delivery. I did hear the sound of grinding teeth, but it seemed best that I do the talking.
Even my idealism had a hard time with that fat princess, who was about my age but several weight classes above me. Maybe I was afraid she might deck me, if I was anything less than ingratiating, but I hit her with both barrels of my kindest, politest charm, (even adopting a slight English accent), to no avail. I think even her sad-faced father was afraid she might deck him. We moved the 225 pound sleeper-sofa hither and thither, room to room, under the whining orders and belittling demands of the fat princess, but in the end she rejected the sleeper sofa, and we lugged it back to the truck, scolded for the fact it had looked different in the showroom, and without a tip. The gruff driver had a look, by then, like he could kill. I was afraid he would blare his horn in road-rage at the first innocent old lady we met at a cross walk, so I didn’t wait for him to say, “Put that one in your book.”
Instead I told him, “When I put that one in my book, I’m afraid I’ll rip her to shreds. I’ll tell the entire world where the true white trash live. I’ll say it is not in hillbilly trailers, but in gated communities. I’ll have no mercy and have no pity. Jesus had compassion towards tax-collectors and harlots, but that New Jersey %$##*&, %&#@%, *&&%# *&%$@# would’ve gotten the treatment of Sodom and Gomorrah or have been turned into a pillar of salt or pillar of shit or some other such Biblical reward-for-evil, and even that would be too $%&^^% good for her. And what’s more…”
By this time the gruff driver was laughing. It was a sort of comical role-reversal, for he was usually the one regaling me with choice expletives, and usually I was the one attempting to sooth him with idealistic platitudes. Now I was the one educating him with a few expletives even he had never heard before, and he was the saintly elder, calming me me down, gruffly laughing, “Hey, kid. You can’t let these zeroes get you down. You are better than that.”
(As an aside, let me say this is one of the beautiful things about working Real Jobs with real people; this sort of role-reversal occurs every day. If you are midst the sweat and strain of real and honest work, things like “the color of your skin”, whether it be white or black or purple, ceases to matter a hill of beans. Simple survival comes first. [In the novel “Moby Dick” Melville accurately describes how, in a fight with a whale, it didn’t matter if the person was white or black or tattooed Maori, you just wanted the best man wielding the harpoon.] Racism doesn’t originate among sweating workers. It is born among isolated people with time on their hands, people with the thing called “leisure”, which enables them to do a fairly useless and often destructive thing called “blame”.)
Having kept my word, and described the worst inhabitant of a gated community I ever met, I should also consult my notes and say she was an exception to the rule. Many customers were faceless, and all-business, and could not be moved beyond the simple exchange of a delivered sofa for a signed invoice, while others were susceptible to my charm. All I needed to do was quote a poet like Shakespeare, and they were all ears, and the gruff driver with me would roll his eyes.
I don’t see why it was such a surprise to the folk in gated communities that the guy lugging in the furniture might have spent long hours studying Shakespeare. After all, such study is no way to get rich. In my time working low-life jobs, I often have met other English and History majors, and even while up to my elbows in suds I have enjoyed exchanging knowledge with brainiacs. Our wisdom was, in the eyes of the workaday world, basically useless trivia. We learnéd-dishwashers compared notes, and agreed that, when looking for jobs in the want ads, “applicant must have studied Shakespeare” wasn’t something we had ever come across, nor had we ever seen, “applicant must be over-educated.”
When delivering furniture the delivery often involved maneuvering huge objects in narrow entryways, and sometimes bric-a-brat got dislodged from shelves, and, if it was round, (perhaps a carved coconut from New Zealand), I was always tempted, while picking the object up to restore it to its dusty place on a dusty shelf, to crack the same, old joke. Peering at the round object dramatically, I’d pretend it was a skull, and utter, in my richest English accent,
Alas, poor Yorick! I knew him, Horatio; a fellow of infinite jest, of most excellent fancy; he hath borne me on his back a thousand times; and now, how abhorred in my imagination it is! My gorge rises at it. Here hung those lips that I have kissed I know not how oft. Where be your gibes now? Your gambols? Your songs? Your flashes of merriment, that were wont to set the table on a roar?
My good buddy, the gruff driver, would roll his eyes when I indulged in such intellectual antics, but he would glance in a calculating way at the customer. He knew, from experience, that some customers delighted in such blather. We might even be invited to sit in an air conditioned living room, and, if not a tip, we might get a gin and tonic out of the deal.
What I, as a young writer taking notes for my million-seller novel, noted down was that a lot of people in gated communities were bored out of their minds, and starved for intelligent conversation. I was glad to give it too them, (although my boss did not always appreciate the fact we were late to the next delivery, and arrived tipsy.) (When the next customer also delayed us with a gin and tonic, and the following customer did the same, we might arrive back at the warehouse late and laughing, and the boss was fuming, but he couldn’t fire us, because the customers were happy, and the customer is always correct.)
Looking back at the yellowing pages of my long-ago notes, two things become apparent. First, people working in southern heat and humidity (especially roofers) sweat to such a huge degree that they are capable of imbibing somewhat shocking amounts of alcohol without accidents or arrests. Second, perhaps due to the fact both customers and fellow employees were constantly offering me drinks, the job I was actually suppose to be attending to was an incidental thing, that I did on the side. Far more important were slurred conversations about Shakespeare and, (because alcohol makes people absurdly honest), also about “how the heck a decent fellow like you could ever wind up trapped in this sarg…sarf… sarcophagus of a gated community.”
Judging from my notes, there were three reasons: Winter, children, and emptiness.
Winter and children were most apparent, but the emptiness was key.
In essence the individuals had worked long and hard in a cold-hearted city for ungrateful spouses and children who lived in lavish luxury out in the suburbs, spared the city-ugliness the money-makers saw every day. Often the hard worker’s reward was not gratitude, but divorce and alienated children. Despite all their hard work, they had been spurned by the “community” of the suburbs, and their true home was the “community” of their workplace, but that was a place that had only a heart for money, and no use for them if they became obsolete, so at some point they took as much money as they could, and basically ran with it. They fled to a place where their money could attempt to build a sort of moated monastery, a “gated community”. It was a last-ditch attempt to create the sense of community that the sterile suburbs lacked, and which their work place also lacked.
It took a lot of money to live behind such moats, and by worldly standards the people involved were “successful.” However many were failures, in terms of so-called “family values”, because they had spent so much time making money they had no time left to build a true home or raise a true family. They had attempted to buy stuff (not merely objects, but also situations), to make up for the fact they had no time left to spend with spouses or children, only to see this substitution completely fail. Rather than fulfilled, the worker’s spouse or child incessantly whined for more.
One tale I heard over and over was that the whining, grown child refused to move out, so the parents themselves had to move out of the suburban house, to escape the grown child.
I was quite familiar with the phenomenon, from a different perspective, for I myself had grown up in a wealthy suburb, and knew all about spoiled rich-kids, being one myself. However I had moved out, (though I confess I did return a few times.) One motivation for my moving out of a comfortable home into a far less comfortable world was that I didn’t want to become one of those rich losers, wasting away in their mother’s basement, seeking a futile fulfillment in drugs and porn and reruns; (video games didn’t exist back then.) It was a horrible wasteland, and I fled it.
Parents also hated seeing their children sink into such quicksand, and sometimes the only recourse that budged the child from the basement was to sell the house, and to move far away, into a gated community that didn’t allow children, or teenagers, or trust anyone under thirty. In essence it was a sort of bomb-shelter for shell-shocked parents, a bunker for people who had seen the American Dream explode into dismaying shards of drugs and perversion. It was an escape from the bothersome, a place to lick wounds and think.
I think such people recognized I was a fellow thinker, despite the fact I was the very sort of person whom the rules of their gated community specifically banned.
The funny thing is that there were times I turned the tables on them, finding rich people bothersome, and deeming them the very sort of person I wanted to ban from my own place, where I myself had withdrawn to, in order to lick my own wounds.
One place I withdrew to was a campground in New Mexico where I retired when in my early thirties, brokenhearted about yet another failed attempt to win a woman’s love. The campground was inexpensive, and also away from people my age who were bad influences. I was sick of my peer’s propensity towards drugs and perversion, sick of the way America seemed determined to make itself spiritually sick, and just wanted to pitch my little pup-tent in a remote spot, and go tippity-tap-tap with my little portable typewriter at a sunny picnic table, thinking aloud on paper. The last thing I wanted was any interruptions from any bothersome rich people, and one good thing about the campground was it wasn’t very modern and only had a few spots equipped to handle the gigantic, bus-like “campers” rich people drove around in. However God works in mysterious ways, and often does not allow us to escape the bothersome.
Despite the fact the access road was not made for such huge vehicles, it seemed entire convoys of these “campers” chose just then to descend like gigantic locusts upon that campground. Though they were keen on “seeing America”, initially I was not the sort of America the wealthy wanted to see at a campground. Apparently, at other campgrounds, people who looked like me had been incredibly annoying, asking for hand-outs, or pestering them with offers to wash their huge vehicles, at a price. Therefore the wealthy initially shot me disapproving looks, as they passed my site in their lurching, squeaking, swaying monstrosities, and they parked as far away from me as they could. That was fine with me. I was glad they were going to just leave me alone to sit and sulk, and didn’t expect me to make any polite conversation.
But apparently, when I never bothered them, the sight of me sitting there going tippity-tap-tap on a typewriter, (furiously chain-smoking and occasionally laughing at my own wit), made me attractive. At first they looped far from my table, on their way to the showers, but with the passage of time they ventured closer and closer with each pass, looking more and more curious, until finally they couldn’t stand it, and just sat down at my table and interrupted my flow of thought by asking, “What are you writing about?”
There is no short answer to such a question, especially when you are basically ventilating on paper, and your writing is a search for sanity in an insane situation. I learned to give evasive answers that didn’t explain much, such as “my childhood”, and then, (because my mother brought me up to be polite and not to tell people to go get lost), the conversation would revert to more usual campground topics, such as, “where are you from?” Often I soon was learning a lot about them, and had more notes for “The Book.”
It turned out a motor home was a sort of gated community on wheels. There was less chance of the kids moving back in, when the kids couldn’t track you down. Also the motor-homers didn’t like the cold weather, and liked being able to flee south. However they were as homeless as I was. They just were a heck of a lot richer, in their homelessness.
By this point in my life being “free” had lost a lot of its charm, because I was increasingly aware of the loneliness involved, and that the loneliness could get so bad it felt like it might kill me. Bothersome people no longer seemed quite so bad, provided they had reasonably good manners, and in the end I never was unwelcoming when people sat down to interrupt my typing.
I was never sure whether it was my typewriter that attracted people, or my campfire. I came to expect arrivals at sunset, and once a first person broke the ice and sat down at my picnic table, others found joining the firelight scene easier. Some evenings were quiet and I got some typing done, but I was never surprised by the appearance of total strangers. Each gathering involved a different crowd with a different chemistry. I had a lot of good talks at my picnic table, and never did finish “The Book”, (though I took a lot of notes and gained a lot of good stories).
One year I stayed at that campground from May first until October 23, living off spot labor I found at the local unemployment office, but often not bothering to leave the campground to go look for work. I got by, without welfare, on amazingly little, and where friends wrote me letters that bragged about how much their income increased each year, I bragged back about getting by on less and less. (My record low was $3200 in 1986). Winter was less fun, but during the summer I often felt I was living like a king; it felt like all of America came to my table for dinner. For a bum, I had a gorgeous living room, with walls of towering red sandstone, and for a recluse, I was darned sociable. It also seemed very kind of God to send me so much good company when I was so lonely. The variety was amazing, and peculiar combinations of stereotypes rubbed elbows, for example archaeologists rubbed elbows with Pueblo Indians who detested archaeologists, or tea-totaling Mennonites chatted with oil-riggers swigging rotgut whisky.
Oddest was the fact I was suppose to be the drifter, but I didn’t go anywhere. I was what was called, at that time, a “transient”, but I didn’t budge from that campground. It was the rest of America that seemed to be on the move, and I took profuse notes as they passed through.
In the morning the campground would empty out, and it would hit me that I was still alone, and it seemed very likely that was to be my fate. I’d played my cards badly, and, by the time I finally realized that what I really wanted wasn’t freedom, I’d gotten too old for the slavery of marriage.
People at my picnic table, (especially the women), would assure me I wasn’t too old, (though I recall one woman smiled and added, “but you might be difficult to train.”) I’d then say I had been burned too many times, and probably lacked the trust necessary to ever give my heart to anyone again, and I remember another woman then spoke a line so poetic I wrote it down, “You’re lucky they leave if they love you so little.” I made it an extra verse for an old blues song:
I drink muddy water and sleep in a hollow log.
I drink muddy water and sleep in a hollow log.
It’s all because my baby treats me just like a dog.
My friends say forget her; your heart is too big and too brittle.
My friends say forget her; your heart is too big and too brittle.
You’re lucky she left you if she loved you so little.
I figured it was my fate to be a sad man who made music out of misery, but you, of course, know my future, which I couldn’t see back then. I did find happiness. I did marry. I did have a house with a white picket fence, and raise five children in a town that was an actual community, and not a sterilized suburb.
In a sense I was lucky to be so lonely earlier in my life, because it taught me bothersome people were worth the bother. The irritation is what allows a slimy old oyster to grow a beautiful pearl.
However the experience of sitting in that campground off an interstate highway has stuck in my mind, for it allowed me to see free people on the move, seekers seeking…seeking…seeking. Americans are a restless people, on the move, often immigrants from far away lands, but what are they seeking? Often they are not all that different from an invasive species called “the boll weevil”.
The boll weevil is a little black bug from Mexico, they say.
Came all the way to Texas, just alookin’ for a place to stay;
Just alookin’ for a home. Just alookin’ for a home.
In a way it seems ironic. People leave home looking for a home. However if you stay at home and don’t leave, it can get you in trouble.
Then, when you are on the road looking for a home, it always seems you are trespassing on someone else’s hunting grounds, an invasive species like a boll weevil. People consider you an illegal alien. Not many people know that even the Beatles could be unloving and unwelcoming, and the song “get back to where you once belonged” originally contained a verse about Pakistanis immigrants in London.
During the mid-1980’s some powerful legislation was passed in Washington DC to penalize employers who hired illegal immigrants. They faced a $10,000 fine. At that time I had lost my wallet and had no driver’s license, and for some reason a Hispanic lady at the unemployment office, (who did not like me, for some reason I could never identify), stated I could no longer get spot labor. She had a funny smile as she did so, and I had the sense she enjoyed telling a white Puritan from New England that he was an undocumented alien. It was amazingly hard to get any of the documents she demanded, considering I was a drifter two thousand miles from the hospital where I might be able to match my fingerprints with a birth certificate. For over two weeks I was an illegal alien. I managed to survive by selling blood and collecting aluminum cans.
In the end it turned out I did have the necessary paperwork, for I had a passport, but the lady refused to accept it, stating I needed two proofs of identity. Actually a passport was all I needed, but I didn’t learn this until I worked my way up to the manager of that particular office. I found the appointment with that man interesting, for when the manager found out what I’d been through he shot the Hispanic woman a look of complete disbelief, (that rural bureaucracy was a bunch of desks in a room with no separate offices or even cubicles), and she simply smiled to herself in a very self-satisfied way.
In the end I found the experience of being an illegal immigrant an interesting challenge. I couldn’t feel too much self-pity, for some of my Navajo friends were in the same shoes. They had no documents because they were scornful of white men’s need to regulate everything and couldn’t be bothered with papers; quite a few didn’t even bother getting plates for their pick-up trucks. The delicious irony of Native Americans being called illegal aliens wasn’t lost on them, and one fellow informed me it wasn’t the first time it had happened to him.
He said one time he had been picking potatoes up in Idaho when the I.C.E. agents swooped down, and he couldn’t convince them he wasn’t a Mexican pretending to have a Navajo accent. Along with other genuine Mexicans he’d been trucked down to the border and was deposited on the Mexican side, though he could not speak a word of Spanish. It had taken him three days to convince border officials he was a legal citizen. When he made it back north to Idaho, the Mexicans he’d been deported with had made it back to work before him.
This sort of tale was told by the campfire without anguish; it was as if being deported was an amusing incident that happened while on the way to work on a subway. I wouldn’t call the lack of wrath stoicism, as much as a droll sense of humor. In some ways it was as if the narrator was not going to give the World the satisfaction of knowing it had ruffled a single feather. I, somewhat accidentally, was a good audience, for I didn’t become indignant and exclaim, “That’s outrageous”, (perhaps because I often was equally impoverished), but rather was amazed and simply curious, and tended to ask, “What in the world did you do next?”
To become indignant was a bad choice, partly because it marked one as a member of the “Wannabea” (I-want-to-be-a) tribe. Lots of young, white college students wanted to side with Indians against the whites, which was embarrassing and uncomfortable for reasons too numerous to mention. Outrage was a topic to steer away from, by a campfire, as it turned the subject to politics and spoiled the mood.
(I like to think I was a gracious host, by my campfire, and was adept at steering conversations towards laughter. Even if I was hopelessly doomed to be homeless, I could still aim to make my space have the enlightened feeling of a better Parisian salon.)
One thing the Navajo would chuckle was, “It served me right.” Part of their lore was that no harm would befall them if they stayed “home” (which was the area between the Four Sacred Mountains), but there was no way to make money on the Reservation, so they would be tempted to go to far off places where danger lurked.
One fellow was tempted away to Chicago, where he worked as much as a hundred stories up, walking on I-beams in strong winds, erecting skyscrapers. He made twenty times as much as I did per hour, (I usually made $3.35/hour), when he wasn’t getting overtime. His expenses in Chicago were minimal, as he shared a crash-pad with between ten and twenty other workers, and he paid no taxes, (because Indians weren’t taxed.) After a few months he’d come home to the reservation with a huge amount of money (I recall the figure $60,000 was mentioned). Within a week or two the money would be gone, and he’d be heading back to Chicago again. He joked, with just a trace of sadness in his eyes, “My son doesn’t know who I am.”
When I asked him why he didn’t make his money last longer, he gave the curt reply, “Only fags save money.” A different Navajo explained that returning to home with money was like a hunter returning with meat, and if you kept it to yourself the meat would spoil. Basically what happened was the clan would descend upon you the day you got home, and the money would be gone in a flash. Not that you didn’t get yourself new jeans, new boots and a new pick-up truck, but your mother-in-law got a new pick-up truck as well. (Gallup, New Mexico had the largest pick-up truck dealership in the nation, back then.)
I also met other men traveling large distances for big checks, (or not-so-big checks, if they were truckers.) I recall Oil-riggers (often missing a finger or two), telling me that if I wanted to go home with a big check I should give up on “My Book”. Instead I should learn how to operate a crane. However one thing they tended to agree upon was that their marriages suffered and their children could hardly recognize them. Privately I wondered if marriages and children might be a reason for a man to stay home, but it was a mute point, for I had the worst of both worlds, with neither a fat check nor a fat chick. As days shortened and another winter approached, my campground salon would be sparsely attended, and, during orange twilights when I sat alone, the specter of loneliness would loom. However I still didn’t think of running home. Instead I thought I’d head for Alaska, if I could ever save up enough money. Going home destitute would be too much like a dog creeping back with its tail between its legs. But often I’d hear the Beatle’s singing, in the back of my mind.
Get back; get back; get back to where you once belonged.
I heard this “get back to where you once belonged” advice a lot, in my drifting days, usually shortened into the concise package, “Yankee go home.” I did not merely get this advice from Hispanics, or Native Americans such as Navajo and Zuni, nor merely from dark-skinned, English-speaking people in the Bahamas and (years before) in far-off India, but also from white-skinned, English-speaking people in England and in Scotland, and even from fellow Americans in the deep south, and (amazingly) out in California, (amazing because it was difficult in California to find anyone who was actually born there.) People like me, (Puritan prudes from New England), were unwelcome illegal aliens, and we should just get back to where we once belonged. We Yankee should just go home.
However being a Yankee who should go home presents one with a bit of a problem, if one is from a wealthy town. Back home there were sophisticated people who didn’t really want me moving back in. These people, who I called “the Sophists”, had barred the gates, and home had become a gated community, and I was on the wrong side of the gate.
What a predicament! Outside of my home, I heard, “Yankee go home”, but, where Thomas Wolfe wrote, “You cannot go home again”, the Bible states “a prophet is never recognized in his own community”. Back at home Sophists did not really want to hear what their children had learned. Even if I ever completed, “The Book”, no one would wish to read it.
The more I thought about it, the more I could become indignant about how I had been treated by my wealthy home town. Had I not lived there twenty years? Did I not know trees and brooks like the back of my hand? Has I not been true to my school?
It seemed odd to me Sophists were so against loyalty. Where I saw something sweet and touching about the faithfulness and loyalty youth exemplifies, Sophists couldn’t stand it. It made their skin crawl. Their distaste seemed visceral, like an allergic reaction, and therefore not intellectual.
Of course they wanted to make it sound intellectual, and were quick to growl that an innocent boy being patriotic towards his high school football team resembled a Nazi being loyal to Hitler. It seemed like overkill. They’d dust off old quotes, “religion is the opiate of the masses”, as if that was written by Christ, and “patriotism is the last refuge of a scoundrel”, as if Samuel Johnson’s focus was patriotism and not scoundrels. And, because they were scowling at the intellectually young, they could overwhelm youth with their sophistry, but they couldn’t fool me. I was over thirty. I knew their response was visceral, like a bully so enraged by the sight of a small girl playing with a doll that they wind up leaping up and down on the doll, roaring and writhing in wrath, to the total astonishment of the small girl.
Not that I had any desire the head home to save children from Sophists. I’d headed the opposite way, west until the Pacific stopped me,and if I’d been Jonah I’d have continued on until I wound up in a whale.
Yet I didn’t really escape the Sophists, because I couldn’t help but think about them. They were stuck in my head. What made them so mean? Perhaps they were scarred by embittering pessimism born of realizing, at some point, that the child-like belief that “my Dad’s better than your Dad” was incorrect, and all Dads had imperfections, (or perhaps not.) In any case Sophists sneered at the faithfulness and loyalty of being “True to your school”, deeming it the behavior of a sucker and a chump.
Then they moved on to belittling other forms of faith. Perhaps they aimed to have others avoid the disillusionment they themselves had suffered, but to me Sophists were a disillusionment and downer in and of themselves, swift to crush the budding tendrils of hope. In the face of the clear-eyed faith of a child, any flickers of altruism in their behavior was hidden behind a dense smudge of meanness.
To me it seemed Sophists could not be completely unaware of the pain they inflicted, but they did seem strangely unaware that belittling the Loyal and Faithful only meant they preferred the company of the Disloyal and Unfaithful (who were not exactly people they could trust). Also it meant that people who actually were loyal and actually were faithful would be getting, slowly but surely, really, really pissed off.
Such gathering storm-clouds of anger was exactly what I sought to avoid at my picnic table, steering conversions away from disillusion and towards hope, and, on the nights when I sat alone, attempting to steer my own psyche away from my own festering grudges. I wasn’t always successful.
I wanted to be as uplifting as a better Parisian salon, but I was pretty much on the far side of the planet from Paris. I was in the Wild West, which was known for gunfights and brawls, and some of the most bruising brawls occurred in my own head on nights I sat alone. Summers were not endless, and as the days grew shorter and the campground emptied out, winds and hearts grew cold.
I knew I should know better. After all, I was suppose to be mature, and not some little boy who could still be turned into a whirlwind of fists by a teasing older brother. But loneliness brings back the ghosts. Nor was what I suffered really a form of Post-Traumatic Stress. With the chill of another winter approaching, it was actually a sort of Pre-Traumatic Stress. As the night winds grew bitter so did I, gazing out past the firelight to a deepening void of darkness. Was this my reward? To be so alone?
I missed my home, which my brooding had concluded the Sophists had stolen. They had smashed my home, because their Sophist theology said divorce was better than marriage, and then their Sophist love-of-money drove the poorer Townies from my home town, and many of the elderly. My parents left and my siblings left and my classmates left, until only I remained, but only because I lived in back rooms. Finally I left, for my town wasn’t mine any more. It had been invaded, and transformed into a sterility inhabited by merciless strangers.
So then, what had the Sophists taught me about the rewards of being “True to your School?”
I had learned that the day I graduated from high school I was no longer part of the community. I was exiled. I could not afford a million dollar house, because I had chosen work on “The Book”, and it never sold. But even if I had chosen to stay in college, I would have been hard-pressed to repay the tuition I would have been saddled with, let alone would I have been able to buy a million dollar house.
The more I thought about it the more my lower lip protruded. To me the future which Sophists offered seemed a grotesque status quo, wherein only money mattered. What other society throws its teenagers to the sharks, and has no space for them? What other society exiles its elderly? Only the filthy-rich build communities with gates that forbid the return of their own children, as if their own prodigy were illegal immigrants, or even as if Sophists were ancient Ammonites, sacrificing their own children to Moloch to assure their own prosperity. Only the filthy-rich honor their elders with exile to a place called “a home”, which was the antithesis of a real home, and in some ways more like a death camp.
On the autumn nights when the campground was empty and the orange twilight came early and the chill of the air told me I had better find winter housing, no one interrupted my typing, and the keys pounded the paper like a whirlwind of fists. I wrote raves, stuff which I now would erase by tapping the “delete” key, but which couldn’t be denied so easily back then, and now still shames me, from yellowing paper, as part of the notes for “The Book”.
I always was filled with a feverish urgency to finish “The Book”, so I could have something to show an editor, or agent, or some other such philanthropissy person, who would “discover” me. I basically dreaded another winter on the road. Winters could be rough, and my typewriter languished in its case until spring, for survival was a full time job when winter’s cold gusts raised stinging desert dust that made my nose bleed. As the nights lengthened I worked frantically, like a man facing a deadline, and in that state of mind I felt like answers were near, just beyond my fingertips, only a paragraph ahead.
But wouldn’t you just know it? It would be just when I felt on the verge of some profound conclusion that I’d hear voices approaching. High, cheerful, naive voices. The voices of college students. I’d roll my eyes and softly moan, “Oh no, God. Not this interruption. Not now, God. Not Wannabeas.” But it would be Wannabeas.
Then strange things would happen. A cloud would stream across the full moon, and my forehead would get hairy and my teeth get sharp. Also my skin would turn green, and my muscles expand until my shirt ripped. Or maybe it just felt that way.
Like Dr. Jekyll turning into Mr. Hyde, I’d find myself turning into a cruel Sophist, facing the naivete of Wannabeas. It was a test of all the good manners my mother ever drilled into my head, to avoid foaming at the mouth. Actually I think I did rather well, all things considered. However Wannabeas always seemed surprised I wasn’t in complete agreement.
Looking back, it does seem a bit unwise of those college students to lecture a homeless man about how he had stolen the Indian’s Land.
Land? Land? Where was all this land I had stolen? What on earth were they talking about? I was facing yet another winter of sleeping in my cotton-picking car! And they had the nerve to call me a thief?
For the life of me I don’t even know why the topic would be brought up, but it always was. You could set your watch on it. Perhaps it was because there were Reservations nearby, or perhaps the collegiate flowers had left the hothouse of their university, and spent a whole day or two doing field-research in the fresh breezes of reality, and were tingling from the excitement of having their preconceptions buffeted, and needed to talk about the thrilling experience of witnessing people who did something besides type papers, and, because I typed a typewriter, they figured I must be of their tribe, the Wannabeas.
I wasn’t. I’d been on the road too long, and taken too many notes for “The Book”, and any preconceptions I once owned had turned into post-conceptions, (which are far better to have).
I far preferred the evenings when a Navajo friend or two were present. They tended to make sport of Wannabeas, who always blurted amazingly racist preconceptions with a dewy-eyed innocence that made me want to cringe. (Wannabeas were like the one relative we all have, whom we don’t want to see meet our preacher or grandmother, on that day they actually do meet our preacher or grandmother, and we get to hear them say all the worst possible things. Only worse. No. Even worse than worse. They were like the known pedophile, the day an unknowing person gives them an infant to jounce on their lap.)
Wannabeas tended to be dangerously softhearted, uttering some incomplete knowledge of a savage historical event that occurred over a hundred years ago, while displaying a complete ignorance of what was occurring right before their eyes. For example, a Wannabea might start a conversation with a Navajo with, “I really don’t approve of the Long Walk.” (The Navajo “Long Walk” was like the Cherokee “Trail of Tears,” but significantly different because the Navajo did get to go home, in the end.)
This is a bit like a Japanese youth coming up to me today and stating, “I really don’t approve of Pearl Harbor.” It would seem strangely off the point, because I wasn’t even alive back then, and it would seem especially off the point if I was dealing with a flat tire, and had a baby in my car. For people with Real Jobs, who have to deal with Real Winter and Real Children, the concerns of college students can be close to completely meaningless.
It also seemed Wannabeas only brought up obscure facts from the lives of your grandparents in an attempt to be “on your side”. They wanted to gain your confidence, because they were basically confidence tricksters. They had something to sell you. And of course ordinary people then immediately heard some version of “the buyer beware” go off, as a jangling alarm in the back of their minds. Wannabeas, like all salesmen, didn’t always get a fair hearing.
It would be one thing if a Wannabea had something like a poem they had written, that they were attempting to trick people into standing still long enough to listen to (and perhaps pay them spare change for writing), (though a sandwich might be enough.) However it was quite a different thing when the Wannabea had nothing they themselves made, but rather owned an echo, parroting a psychology they were taught by some university guru-psychologist who thought he was the next Jesus. It was different because the buyer was being slyly asked to do more than buy; they were being asked to convert.
As for me, I didn’t want to convert anyone. The very idea was ridiculous. Who in their right mind would want to be broke in a cold campground with winter coming on? Who would want to convert to my way of life? Not even an idiot. But I did have friends who liked my poems, and the far-away sunrise I envisioned, hand in hand with my acceptance of the grayness of my current daybreak. I think it was for this reason that my friends opened up to me in a way they didn’t for Wannabeas, though perhaps it was purely because I was poor. (One advantage of being broke is that no one is after your money.) When someone needed to ventilate, I was something like a psychologist, only I charged zero, and I must have been half decent at whatever it was I did, (listen?), because fellows came back to visit again.
For this reason I am able to speak of the sport a few Navajo friends made of the Wannabeas. I was there, a witness to such sport. It was always a little painful to watch, though also fascinating, like watching a confidence trickster be tricked by his victims.
Certain Wannabeas would show up wanting to know the truth about the Navajo, but it seemed they already had an idea of what the answer would be, and how it would fit into their “world view”. They had some “Better Psychology” in mind, and were only interviewing the Navajo in order to show how the “Old World Order” wasn’t as good as their “New World Order”. They were only interested in tribes because they wanted to show how tribalism was as bad as racism and sexism, and their only interest in the Navajo was because in a few ways the Navajo Tribe resembled their “New World Order.” However, because the “New World Order” would involve the extinction of all “tribalism”, any pretense they were really friends of the Navajo Tribe was a lie. Therefore the Navajo felt justified to meet lie with lie, and told hilarious tall tales about their “sacred traditions”.
I’ll save the actual tales for some other book. Let it suffice to say there is laughable lore carefully archived in university libraries, and also that I had to bite my lip when some friends put on their “Native American Face.” They would square their shoulders and gaze away at a distant horizon stoically, and the Wannabeas would be beside themselves with breathless anticipation. Whatever statement followed, (if silence wasn’t enough,) would be intoned in a guttural voice, and seem cryptic and invested with deep significance, even if it was, “The west wind is picking up”. The Wannabes would look at each other with wide eyes and clutch each others hands. Meanwhile my friends would look at me. Even though their faces remained stoic, their eyes talked a lot.
It might seem mean to respond to innocent questions in this manner, but I’d seen the same thing in Scotland, where the local Highlanders would take a naive outsider on a “Haggis Hunt”. (Haggis was a traditional Scottish food, but the outsider was told it was a fierce creature that lived on mountainsides, that had short legs on its uphill side and long legs on its downhill side.) The Highlanders were a conquered and oppressed people like the Navajo were, and it seemed a sort of revenge, when they made their oppressors look like complete idiots.
This was especially true when the outsider, in some way, shape or form, felt it was the locals who were the complete, or partial, idiots. I didn’t have to hang around the Reservation long before I met all sorts of kind and caring people who called themselves “missionaries”. There were Catholics and Protestants and Mormons and Baha’i, and they all meant well, but couldn’t help but be condescending, for they all felt the Navajo needed to be converted to “a better way”. The secular government meanwhile felt the Navajo needed to be “reeducated” to a better way (sometimes forcibly.) Having such an onslaught of helpful people constantly disrespecting your intelligence by inadvertently calling you in-need-of-education gets old, after the first hundred years or so. I could understand why one might want to play such people for fools, especially when one didn’t ask the others for “help” in the first place.
I was in no position to help anyone anyway, because I usually needed help, but was too proud to ask for it. There are actually ways that fellows too-proud-to-ask-for-help do help each other, but the politics of respecting each others dignity is too complicated to elaborate upon in this paragraph. Let it suffice to say I didn’t want to get anything out of the situation because I wanted to get out of the situation. Nearly from the day I arrived my goal was Alaska, and the fact I drifted in circles in the desert for over four years is proof my compass either didn’t work very well, or was under the control of some Magnet.
In any case, I hung around long enough to learn the ropes, partly because I was constantly mistaken as either a Wannabea or a tourist.
A tourist was fair game, and I sometimes felt I should wear a t-shirt that said, “I am not a tourist.” I was especially vulnerable because, once I discovered licence plates didn’t matter in that area, I never bothered get new ones. (As I had drifted around the USA I had registered my car long-distance, via mail, and put new stickers on my Maine plates, but I didn’t even bother with that any more; even the stickers I once bothered with had fallen off the bent and battered plates.) Therefore, when I puttered up to some obscure trading post in my tiny car I might notice a fellow scrutinize the Maine plates, and then look at me, squaring his shoulders and putting on his “Native American Face”. Then I’d wryly comment, “Look at the date on those plates.” They were dated 1975, and the year was perhaps 1987. The fellow’s eyes would dance a bit, as he turned away.
I actually thought it was nice that the Wannabeas were played for chumps, because they could have received worse. The Navajo had been conquored, oppressed, and brutalized, and therefore had every reason to be brutes. (And I knew a few whom I was very careful with).
Where Wannabeas thought of fasting as a sort of dieting, for physical well-being, or perhaps as a Native American ordeal, designed to develop spiritual gifts, the locals knew hunger was different if it was against your will and part of your childhood. In like manner, public schooling was not a blessing, but a brutality, when you were snatched from your mother and incarcerated in a drab and distant dormitory with strangers and not allowed to speak your native tongue. (It was about as opposite Home-schooling as one can get.)
It made me ponder what English-speaking-people would do, placed in similar shoes.
I think some of the missionaries had no idea what they were proposing, when they spoke of spiritual “submission”. It went completely against the grain of a harsh desert reality where everyday existence involved an acceptance of an ordeal, married with a refusal to surrender. However the Wannabeas could be even worse.
They would begin their visit to the Reservation with some claptrap such as “I so admire the way you Navajo live in harmony with nature”, somehow making it sound as if the harmony was all roses, as if survival in a desert was a church picnic on a day in June. Then they would continue, “I so want to learn from you,” hovering a pen over a notebook, unaware of how similar they looked to a psychiatrist. However the sincerity of this wooing was revealed after they left the Reservation, when I might have the pleasure of having them sit at my picnic table on their way back to their college after a “field study”. Then they no longer had to be on their best behavior, and in some ways resembled adolescent boys gathering to compare notes about the girls they had attempted to grope, after a high school dance. The romance collapsed to crudity. It was worst when their professor was with them, because I always had the feeling these learnéd fellows didn’t admire the Navajo a tenth as much as they admired themselves.
Usually I did my best to keep my mouth firmly shut, because I knew anything I had to say would ooze antagonism. I might ask a few questions that I thought might make them think, but mostly I listened to their glaring preconceptions and compared them to my own. But one professor struck me as particularly annoying because he looked like me, (without the sun-damage to his skin). I found it slightly shocking that a person as young as I was could be a professor, because I didn’t feel any older, but here was a fellow my age with a whole flock of dewy-eyed students in his train, saying the most idiotic stuff, as if he was Moses giving Commandments, and likely getting paid five times as much as I did. Likely envy played a part, as did weariness, as I’d just completed a day of laying asphalt for minimum wage. To top things off, I’d worked up a thirst, and they arrived long after dark, when I was, as they say, “well into my cups.”
I think what ticked me off was that the fellow didn’t seem grateful for the hospitality he had received from a farming family at their hogan, but rather was congratulating himself over his cleverness in getting inside their walls. He’d brought them a couple bags of groceries, and, rather than seeing the groceries as a hostess present, made the food sound more like a bribe, and was talking along the lines of, “didn’t I say that approach always works?” He sounded more like a spy conducting espionage, than a friend or guest, and also sounded a heck of a lot less entertaining than I was, when I delivered furniture to a different sort of gated community in South Carolina.
I asked him how many visits he’d made, and it amounted to something like twelve weekends, and two vacations, or a total of roughly ninty days of “Field Work”. Then I told him I’d spent roughly four years in the same area taking notes for “My Book”, and tapped the cover of my typewriter case significantly. He started to look a little uneasy, but I cracked open another beer, lit a cigarette, and lectured a professor.
I told him my Navajo friends had taught me some neat things, but I’d never presume I knew all that much about the Navajo, because they were a thriving people who were changing so fast that anything known about them had to be revised weekly. I knew one fellow who shot a bow and arrow as a boy and then moved on to working with nuclear missiles as an adult. The Navajo were quick to grasp the mechanics and electronics of modern gadgetry. In fact the Navajo and Apache might turn out to be the Aragon and Castile of the Modern world.
The professor knew a fair amount about the history of the American southwest, but didn’t know about Aragon and Castile, so I got to lord it over him a bit, (as a history buff), and when I was in my cups I really enjoyed getting garrelous about history.
I told him Aragon and Castile were a couple of no-account kingdoms off at the edge of Europe, barely noticed by the big-shots, but when Ferdinand and Isabella married the kingdoms joined and became Spain, which rose to become the greatest power of that time. Then, when power made them uppity, a no-account island called Britain rose up and became the greatest power. Then, when power also made them too uppity, a no-account collection of thirteen colonies along a distant coastline rose up and became the greatest power. And the one thing that repeats in history is no one sees the new power coming. The big-shots of any given time think they are the ones in control of history, and laugh at the idea of some no-account people rising and thriving, but the Hand that controls history is not the hands of big-shots. If that Hand wants, the Navajo will be next.
Then I went on to say that what makes the big-shots too uppity is that they think they grasp the reason for their success, and try to cram it down other people’s throats. Even if their reason is real, it doesn’t fit everyone; it would be like Mozart trying to make everyone write music at age three. Spain wanted everyone to be as Catholic as they were, and it turned into the horrors of the Inquisition. Britain called their own wish to uplift others, “The white man’s burden”, but not even white men wanted to be one of their colonies. And how might the United States do the same thing? Or, if the Navajo became a great power, how might they get too uppity?
The young professor didn’t like where my logic was heading, and started to interrupt a lot and to drink some of my beer, and he started to expound upon his beliefs, which seemed to be that folk could be forced to treat each other as equals. I said forcing would be impossible, because everyone is different. Mozart has no equal. But the fellow got stubborn about some sort of socialism he liked; I think in his socialism it was the university professors who got to decide who was too high and uppity, and who was too low and needed uplift. Then we got tired and ran out of beer and the discussion ended there.
The next daybreak found me less talkative, for some reason. It was gray and chilly and I was stiff and sore from spreading asphalt the day before, and I knew I had to go to the unemployment office to see if I could hustle up some more work , because I was running out of cigarettes. Also I was no good until I’d had a coffee, and didn’t want to go through the bother of starting up a fire, so I figured I’d stop at a coffee-shop on the way to the unemployment office where I knew a waitress.
The young professor looked worse than I felt, and sat away at a different picnic table glowering about something, but all his young Wannabeas were full of the resiliency of youth, and popped out of their tents like prairie dogs and came bounding over to my table with bright eyes. Apparently I had intrigued them the night before, and they peppered me with all sorts of questions about Navajo traditions. I doubt I would have given them the time of day, but one of the young men, perhaps brighter than the rest, had the presence of mind to bring along a coffee pot. I figured he might be bribing me with coffee, but accepted the bribe, explaining I had to get to work and couldn’t stay long. (What I didn’t explain was that I had only five cigarettes, which back in those days meant I could sit and be serene for around a half hour.)
In the end I stayed a little longer, partly because one of the youths was a fellow addict and generous with his cigarettes, and partly because it so obviously irritated their young professor. I told them a few Navajo traditions I knew about, but mostly got them wondering about what I was wondering about in those days, which was what our own traditions were. It turned out they didn’t have a clue.
I told them the little I knew about Navajo traditions concerning planting corn, and then asked them what the Yankee traditions were, and it turned out most had never gardened and had no idea. So I told them some Yankee traditions concerning corn, and how they differed from the Navajo for very sensible reasons, and suggested that we should do this with every tradition in every culture. Rather than trying to convert anyone we should just exchange ideas. Then I left them busily discussing this topic, in the manner of young men. (One young fellow was telling his companions how the French insisted the African woman in their colonies stop going topless in the 1950’s, only to turn right around and start going topless on their own beaches on the Riviera in the 1960’s.)
The trick to getting spot labor was to be first in line at the unemployment office, for there were usually only two or three jobs available. When things were most serious I’d arrive in the twilight of dawn, and even then I might be second in line. Then I slouched by the doorway for two or three hours, waiting for the office to open.
I like to think we slouchers were a better sort of bum, back in those days. There seemed to be less of a sense of entitlement, unless it was a sense that we were reaping what we had in some way sowed, and were “entitled” to be down on our luck. Not that anyone talked much. Everyone seemed to have a sense that standing outside an unemployment office was nothing to brag about.
When I first appeared in 1984 I think some of the fellows might have been leery of me. A white guy was not common in the line, and, while I didn’t carry about my typewriter, I did sometimes scribble in a notebook. Even though I rarely mentioned “The Book” I think I was identified as one of those cub reporters who, back in those days, did more than bleat out the copy the editor required. Back then reporters actually did some research “on the street”, attempting to emulate Simon and Garfunkle and be
Seeking out the poorer quarters where the ragged people go
Looking for the places only they would know.
As time past it became increasingly obvious I wasn’t a reporter on an assignment seeking a “scoop”, but was just a bum, and this made me more acceptable. After four years there were some fellows who were nodding acquaintances and a few who I’d call friends.
It didn’t matter that I was late, that particular morning, for when I walked in and glanced at the sign-in sheet I saw there had been no spot labor at all. That made me nervous. The event wasn’t unusual in and of itself, for the area had an unemployment rate of around sixty percent in those days; but it was becoming too commonplace. It was another sign winter was coming, to have the spot labor dry up.
When Plan A didn’t work it was time for Plan B, which was to slouch down the street and sell blood. Or, to be more accurate, sell plasma. The people near the bottom of the unemployment office’s list would give up first, while those at the top hung on longer hoping for work. Singly, or by two and threes, tough-looking characters would take the same walk, about a mile, to the vampires by old Route Sixty-six.
We were a scruffy looking lot, but I felt we had a sort of class, for none of us were asking for a hand out. We might have been riffraff, but we were riffraff with dignity. We deserved a better word than riffraff, so I used to say we were the hoi polloi. (Riffraff sounds better in French.) However, at the same time, I knew our egos were deflated past being flat tires; we were more like the shredded rubber of a blow-out. We didn’t much want to talk about our downfalls, but we had our reasons; bums always have their reasons; but I worried that having been used and abused might turn us into users and abusers, in which case we’d become Sophists in our own right.
One of the uglier reactions to being used and abused was a use-’em-and-lose-’em attitude towards women. Because the interstate highway was near, a lot of this had been seen, especially after the Sophist concept of “free love” became popular in the 1960’s, and one-night-stands became more acceptable. Many of my fellow bums had no idea who their fathers were, or only knew what his first name had been. Due to what I saw as a “male abdication of responsibility” on the part of cross-country travelers, a generation of used and abused children grew up to think a use-’em-and-lose-’em attitude towards woman was normal, and even manly.
I disagreed, and it wasn’t only because I was a prude by nature.
One time I had landed a spot-labor job I was asked back to, and wound up running a small gas station for a couple of months. Nearby was a tourist trap selling replicas of Navajo jewelry, run by a Navajo couple I befriended. The wife had truly remarkable eyes of a deep green and brown, with a glitter to them that danced. One afternoon she and her husband got into a typical marital quarrel, and she had stormed off to a bar, where she had the misfortune to meet someone of the use-’em-and-lose-’em, date-rape mindset. I don’t know the details and don’t want to know them. In the middle of the night she was pushed from a car in the middle of nowhere, and froze to death. I’ll never forget her husband’s face.
Due to this tragedy (and others) I tended to be a bit of a wet blanket, when men gathered to brag about their conquests. My tale began the same as the others, “I once knew this gal with sparkling eyes…” but my tale did not progress to the ordinary happy ending. Oddly, it was not the gruff and crude fellows who objected to my conclusions, but the more intellectual Sophists. They always differentiated between a “right” sort of free-love and a “wrong” sort of free-love, and I’d respond by saying that as soon as you started to talk about right and wrong you were instituting morality, and free-love wasn’t free any more. If they hadn’t told me to shut up by then, I’d go on to say history showed that morality tended to gravitate back to ten basic commandments, which in turn could be boiled down to two, but the intellectual Sophists never asked me what the commandments were. Instead they tended to justify, in great detail, their “alternative” reasoning, which to me just sounded like excuses for being irresponsible and insensitive.
The gruff and crude fellows turned out to be more sensitive than the intellectuals, for, even though they didn’t quote poetry and often didn’t say a word, the gruff fellows would simply look sad, and might nod slightly, when I told my sad tales. I got the feeling they too had once known a girl with sparkling eyes. In any case, I know they liked hearing they had bigger hearts than intellectuals, (if not that they were more “sensitive”).
Selling plasma was a strange scene. It could nearly be a book in and of itself, but, to keep it short, it involved having a pint of blood removed, taken to another room, spun in a centrifuge, and then having the red blood cells brought back and returned to your body. You had to lie around for over an hour with a needle in your arm, and it was uncomfortable. Because the body is swift to replace plasma you could donate twice a week. They encouraged return visits because it somehow reduced the amount of testing they had to do. (AIDS was just then becoming a serious problem.) I’m glad to say testing proved the bums I hung around with were not only sensitive, but very healthy.
There could be up to ten fellows waiting on a bench out by a reception window, and ten to twenty lying on cots with needles in their arms, at various stages of the process. There was a single old doctor in a wheelchair, the receptionist, roughly six nurses, (and perhaps a few lab technicians out of sight). These then were the characters for a sitcom. The conversation for the sitcom would have been easy to write, for silence was the rule.
On this particular day, as I stoically lay down to have my arm jabbed, I had the sense I was looking around for the last time. I’d had the sense before, because I did not like selling my body and was always vowing I wouldn’t do it again, but this time the sensation bred a sort of piercing clarity.
It seemed to me that, besides being sensitive and healthy, my fellow bums practiced great self-restraint. Beautiful young Navajo nurses hovered around dressed in white, and not a single man leered. Of course, the nurses were also practicing self-restraint, for they were clean and the men tended to be filthy, but not a nurse held her nose. The nurses were very reserved and cautious. Even talking about the weather with them was difficult. The men were very respectful, but perhaps it was because it isn’t wise to offend a woman holding a needle. All in all I decided there was something very brave and sad about the room. Despite long absences, I’d been in and out of there for more than four years, and even when you do not talk to people you get to know their faces, and see them go through changes. However silence ruled. A few time I’d brought my notebook and tried to write some notes for “The Book” with my right hand as my left arm stretched out for the needle, but I found even writing seemed impossible.
The only one I really chatted with was the old doctor. Perhaps it was because we were usually the only two white men, but I think it was because my Dad was also a crippled doctor. The doctor didn’t come out of his examining room much, but I’d drop by to see him occasionally, and he always seemed glad to see me. I found talking a relief to my garrulous side. I do like to talk, and the silence of the place sometimes felt oppressive. It was always with a feeling like the last day of school that I stepped out of the place. The pay was seven dollars for the first visit each week, and nine for the second.
That might not seem like much money, but I could get a cheap loaf of white bread for 99¢, and for some odd reasons Maine sardines were cheaper in the mountains than in Maine, and I could get two tins for 69¢ each. Reservation cigarettes (without the tobacco-tax-stamp on the packs) were only 99¢. I’d read Euell Gibbons, and knew about lots of nutritious vegetables in the roadside weeds. Gas was down to a dollar a gallon, and I didn’t drive much. I was good to go, for a day or two.
The problem was rent. The campground only cost $25.00 a week, yet I was hard pressed to even come up with that. With winter coming on I needed give up on walls that flapped in the wind and dripped in the rain, and get a motel unit for $60.00 a week. It was either that or sleep in my car when blue northers dropped temperatures well below freezing, and I’d had enough of that the winter before.
After I sold blood, or on days I couldn’t sell blood because I’d sold blood the day before, it was time for Plan C, which was a bit of a problem because after Plan A or Plan B there wasn’t really any clear plan. I tended to drift about seeing if I met anyone I knew, with a vauge hope they might be in a generous mood.
People had been more generous in a not too distant past, when businesses were booming, however I had an uncanny ability during my drifting days to arrive in areas just after booms were over, when economies were crashing and generosity had evaporated. On the streets I walked I never saw any pan-handlers; I think if anyone had asked for spare change all they would have received was an incredulous look. Anyway, the one time I tried pan-handling I got yelled at, which I decided was God’s way of telling me not to take that line of being a-writer-seeking-an-advance.
Instead I dropped by various places where I might meet people who might offer me a coffee, or might not. If they didn’t, I had good manners, and stayed to chat and exchange news, which seemed only proper, because if you didn’t it was too obvious you were just there to mooch. Again, a lot was silently communicated. Sometimes I would glance across a street and the cold look I got from a shopkeeper told me it was a good day to nod at him and keep walking, but then the next day he might wave me over.
Sometimes a chat might lead to an unexpected adventure. For example a shopkeeper might ask me to come along with him as he made a delivery fifty miles away, out into the desert. He’d say he only wanted a fellow along for the ride who could tell good stories, but I was no chump, and knew he likely had to deliver heavy boxes, and wouldn’t mind a bit of help. Even if I didn’t get a hamburger out of the deal, driving around in a warm car was better than standing on a cold street, and also I liked exploring the landscape.
For a time I had worked as an assistant manager at a fast food joint, and was kind to the employees. The kindness was nothing illegal, and seemed like no big deal to me, but one girl, who had moved on to work at a coffee shop, was so impressed that she made a fuss over me, giving me free refills. It got a bit embarrassing, as I’d bought the initial coffee months earlier. The shop was open all night, but out towards the interstate, or I might have lived there.
Another warm place was the public library. I was a bum with a library card. However that refuge was best saved for the dead of winter. There was no conversation there.
I might drop by bars and nightclubs early in the day, when things were quiet. The economy was so poor that no one bought me drinks, but I liked to catch up on the news, and the places were warm, and someone might push a dish of peanuts at me as we chatted.
Sometimes I might fall in with a group of glahnies (drunks) in a back alley, and just pass some time talking. One way or another I wandered through the day, and that was Plan C.
However on this particular day all doors seemed closed to me.
I knew things were not going well when I saw a group of four glahnie behind a building and strolled over to talk. They were decent enough fellows, though perhaps inclined towards theft, which they explained was a “tradition”, with a smile. (They had always raided surrounding tribes). Also, because (before the law was changed) they had been put in jail, when found with a bottle of alcohol, they habitually would swiftly throw away the bottle, after secreting the entire contents in their stomach. I told them this was an ungodly way to drink, and again they told me it was a “tradition”, and that I drank like a wimp, also with a smile. We had some fun conversations, and I thought we might have another one, for they were cheerfully smiling as I approached. The conversation began brightly enough, but in a matter of minutes their eyes were glazing, and then one went reeling away as another sagged against a wall and the other two started to look blank. I realized they had combined the money they made selling plasma to buy a cheap gallon of wine, and had consumed the entire thing moments before I walked up. Now that I looked for it, I could see the empty bottle on the curb. So much for that conversation.
As I continued on the whole town seemed in a bad mood. I walked in the back door of one bar and simply passed through and out the front door without saying a word, the faces were so unwelcoming. At the newsstand I checked the headlines to see if there was some bad news I hadn’t heard about, and the owner glared at me. None of my friends seemed to be around. Acquaintances seemed to all have compressed lips and be having bad days. I didn’t know whether it was the onset of winter, or the course of the moon, or if the home team had lost, or just plain bad luck, but Plan C was not working out at all well that day.
I finally found a shopkeeper in the mood to ventilate out loud. He was an Italian silversmith who had learned how to make Navajo Jewelry from the Navajo, but now muttered he was closing his shop; he swore he couldn’t compete with an influx of cheap Navajo Jewelry imported from Singapore, though he said any fool could see it was not made in the traditional way he had spent years learning. He griped stupid college students didn’t care if a watchband was real silver or the inlay was real turquoise; if it was blue and shiny they’d buy it and strut about feeling they were earthy, but now the fashion was shifting to self-mutilation with safety pins and the Jewelry Boom was going bust. Too many greedy people had spoiled a good thing, and…and I left him still muttering to himself.
I hoped he was just in a bad mood about the tourist season ending, but his talk of closing his shop gave me a bad feeling, for I remembered another, closer friend was also talking about closing his shop. I suddenly found myself hurrying. When I arrived at the door I saw the glass was as dark as the eyes of a skull. Pressing against the dusty panes I saw empty shelves and display cases, and an unswept floor. At the bottom of the door’s glass was a piece of scrap paper with two fatal words: “For Rent.”
The place had been a typewriter repair shop I dubbed “The typewriter tavern.” People gathered there after work to spin yarns and laugh and talk of the town’s news, and on colder nights I sometimes slept in the back among the machines. The owner’s father had been a bandit who fled north after Pancho Villas was assassinated, and I loved to hear the history.
The owner was also highly skilled and able to repair every sort of mechanical cash register and both manual and electric typewriters, and he even had some big contracts at Bureau of Indian Affairs and Tribe offices, but recently he had seen his first word processor. Immediately he saw the writing on the wall: Typewriters were obsolete. The party was over.
He probably handled it better than I did. The west is full of ghost towns, dating back to the Anasazi. Simply building the interstate had bankrupted countless little businesses along old Route 66, and their ruins were a constant reminder of how tentative any blooming is on the shifting sands.
Me? I was tired of constant reminders. I was sick of them, and slouched away in a very bad mood. It wasn’t just the expertise of my friend that had become obsolete. My own knowledge of where safe havens lay was also out of date. I’d only been in the area four years and already was becoming an anachronism. The world was changing too fast. What was the use of tradition? What was the use of learning anything?
I actually had learned a great deal in four years, and knew how to be polite in a potpourri of cultures. I had friends who were Navajo, Zuni, Acoma, Native Hispanic, Wetbacks, Wetterbacks, Wettestbacks, B’hai, Mormon, Italian, Chinese, and various Rancher families, but I was always a guest, and a guest must know their place:
I could be a charming guest, full of useless trivia, (such as that the above quote was originally Greek, and the first English version was, “Fish and guests in three days are stale,” written by Shakespeare’s predecessor John Lyly in 1579, 200 years before Ben Franklin), but that didn’t buy me an extra day. There was no way around a stark reality: I wasn’t really wanted. I really didn’t feel all that different from the bits of dirt and dust blowing down the street I walked.
A sense of bitterness swept over me. I felt every culture was a gated community, a sort of conspiracy against me. I was a Yankee with no home to go to, on a Long Walk worse than the Navaho’s, or even the Cherokee’s Trail of Tears, for mine seemingly had no end.
As I watched the dust blow down the street with bits of litter, I thought about the old drifters I’d met, gray men in their late sixties and early seventies, who had experienced the Dust Bowl. I thought maybe it would be good to think of those people, who went from owning frame houses and farms with tractors, to being homeless migrant workers. The drought had lasted eight years, and something like 350,000 Americans became refugees.
To get myself in the mood I hummed a little Woody Guthrie:
So long, it’s been good to know yuh;
So long, it’s been good to know yuh;
So long, it’s been good to know yuh.
This dusty old dust is a-gettin’ my home,
And I got to be driftin’ along.
It didn’t work. It just reminded me of my high school social studies teacher, a closet communist who wore a silly beret and had a bunch of students who wore silly berets. Even at age sixteen some of my peers had embarrassed me. They read Grapes Of Wrath as if it was an exposé from 1969 rather than 1939, and strummed songs on their guitars about being oppressed workers when they’d hadn’t gotten their first job. (The only work that oppressed us was Algebra, and it was to escape Algebra and a New England January that we all decided to head for Cuba to help Castro cut sugarcane, at which point the teacher got a little freaked-out and less zealous, but that’s another story for another night.)
Things seemed to look a lot different, on the street. It is one thing to talk of universal brotherhood, and to frown at all gated communities as being apartheid and tribalism, but when winter winds start to blow, a bit of shelter does not seem like such a bad thing, especially shelter where you are more than a stinking guest: Not a homeless shelter run by bureaucrats, but a warm hearth run by something called “hearts.”
It seemed to me idealists were always attempting to legislate spirituality, and always wound up running roughshod over hearts. In my youth I’d watched Boston attempt to make blacks be better friends with whites and whites be better friends with blacks, by forcibly dragging children from their home neighborhoods and busing them into alien neighborhoods, as if the idea of a neighborhood was somehow evil. Then idealists were astonished their idea generated a lot more hate than love, (though both whites and blacks did agree on one thing; that idealists were detestable.) In any case, it seemed fairly obvious to me that you can’t make people kiss with a hammer.
It also seemed to me idealists were amazing hypocrites and employed flagrant double standards. For one thing, they removed their own children from the schools and sent them to private institutions, to avoid the riffraff. Then they frowned on others helping their own families, but when they got their brother a job it was “family values” and not “nepotism.” When they were influenced by favors (basically bribes) it was “friendship” and “brotherhood”, but when others did it it was “cronyism”. They said you should become poorer, giving to charity, but somehow charity always made them richer.
And so on and so forth. But I wasn’t guilty of any of those crimes. As I walked down the street I considered what an amazing saint I was. I wasn’t guilty of nepotism or cronyism or favoritism or tribalism or racism or sexism, and was part of no apartheid, and the proof was that I was homeless, destitute, and unwanted. Thanks a lot, World. I wondered if other saints had the urge I had, to get rip-roaring drunk. But at least I was in good company. It occurred to me that Jesus himself said,
“Foxes have dens and birds have nests, but the Son of Man has no place to lay his head.”
At this point I was hit by an odd feeling, and I say “hit” because it was a bit like an electric shock. It likely was due to stress, but I’ll note it down just in case any interested psychologists are reading.
I had the strong sense someone was looking over my shoulder; not from behind, but rather above. I glanced up, but there was only a brassy sky. Yet I couldn’t shake the feeling.
Accompanying the feeling was the sense I was small and very helpless, about three years old. It was some sort of memory from the age when life was mostly out of my control. The weirdest part was how my feet felt. Even though I could look down and see my worn cowboy boots, I felt I was wearing those pajamas that had feet, that little children wear. All in all it was a feeling of security, a trust a Grown-up was watching over me. It was nuts, but I didn’t mind it one bit. It might be extremely impractical to feel warm and fuzzy, considering the predicament I was in, but it sure felt better than how I felt before.
As I continued on my way I decided it was time for Plan D, which was an exercise in futility, but also involved warm and fuzzy feelings. It involved walking to my post office box to see if I had any mail.
I’d gotten the box when I first arrived in the area, to stay in touch with a person who had seen some sort of synopsis I produced about what “The Book” might be about, and expressed some sort of slight interest. They soon came to their senses, but I kept the box, even though it cost me something like $25.oo twice a year. It was my portal to hope, even though it never did hold the “miracle mail” I hoped for. Having the box was like buying a lottery scratch-ticket and then putting it in your wallet without scratching it. It likely was empty, but I never knew for sure what it might hold, and sometimes hope was all I had.
I checked the box about twice a month, and often it was empty. (You know you are really down on your luck when you don’t even get junk mail.) Occasionally I did get a letter from old friends and family, which always made me feel remembered and inordinately happy. Perhaps it was recalling that warm and fuzzy feeling that drew me to Plan D on this particular day. I wasn’t all that surprised to see the box held a letter.
I was immediately suspicious, when I saw the envelope, for I recognized my stepmother’s handwriting. Despite the fact my Dad was crippled and couldn’t help, she insisted on running a small farm that involved big work. We did not get along very well.
Like many hardscrabble farmers she had to pinch blood from each penny, but her manner of wheeling and dealing seemed too much like roulette and poker to me, when I just wanted a square deal. She’d pay a square meal for a hot day baling hay, but make me feel guilty for not doing the dishes. I admired the fact that when she traded her farm’s meat, she seemed to get fifty dollars a pound for the bacon, but only when it involved other people. I felt differently when it involved me. When I sat down and calculated the value of our barter (she seldom had cash) it was clear I made around 29 cents an hour. I had gotten increasingly fed up with her manipulations, and had vowed to never work on her farm again, on three separate occasions. After the third time I figured “three strikes and you are out”, and had been away for fourteen years, except for perhaps five brief visits on holidays like Christmas (and even then I seemed to wind up shoveling stables.)
I wryly read the letter, and saw she wondered if I could fly home to watch the farm for two weeks, while she went on a business trip. She offered to pay for the airfare. I then did some translating. For “watch the farm” I put in “watch the farm and your father”, and for “business trip” I put in “get a vacation from your father.” I knew he was hitting the bottle, from a recent letter I’d received from him that he likely didn’t remember mailing, and knew they had nearly gone through some inherited money, from a letter I received from my sister.
I said, “no fucking way” and shoved the letter into my pocket. Then I apologized to the postmistress, and then walked to my car and puttered back to the campground. Then I sat looking at the fire for a long time. Slowly my mind began to change. I was comparing the idea that guests were like fish, with Robert Frost’s idea:
Anyway, what could be the harm of it? It was only two weeks.
I actually had a good hunch that my visit back east would last more than two weeks. For one thing, when my stepmother sent the ticket, I couldn’t help but notice it was only one-way.
In any case here it is, thirty years later, and I’m still back east. I won’t be here forever, but a crabby hermit must take the home he is given.
The first two years were hardest, when I actually was helping my stepmother part-time and living at the farm, but things seemed to improve there; my Dad stopped drinking and began making money with a new career at age seventy. I saved up enough to hit the road again, and was in the process of packing to go when I met my wife, and the rest is history.
I never did finish “The Book”, but I think I was constantly referring to the notes I kept, even when I didn’t actually look at the yellowing pages up in my attic. Because I had been so homeless, I knew what a home was worth. It was worth the work, and I didn’t complain (much).
As I raised five kids I seemed to be constantly in a quiet state of war with the Sophists, who seemed to feel the home should not be a center. They felt the government should be the center, and be a sort of fount of accepted policy which would be deemed correct, but I preferred to be incorrect. When the disagreements became too great I quietly pulled my children from the public schools, and home-schooled them. Big Brother was not my boss.
With five kids I seldom had the time to sit down and articulate what I believed, but it didn’t matter that much, for on the road I had learned that an important aspect of Truth is not intellectual, and defies calipers, thermometers, and especially wallets. It is for this reason it cannot be governed by a central bureaucracy. Truth involves words like “love” and “heart” that defy the defining gadgetry of physical science, and these indefinable words contain a Power greater than the greatest kings.
I like to say, “Stand by the Truth and the Truth will stand by you,” but this becomes more than a good-sounding motto, when you actually live it. If you fight to be honest and see clearly it is as if some part of a Greater Reality rubs off on you. It seems to direct you into situations you would never look for on your own, to learn what you need to learn, even when you don’t want to learn. I certainly never wanted to stay stuck in the desert for four years, and then, just when I started to think I might like to stay there, I never wanted to see all the doors close as only one door-out opened. Some might like to call this Director some grandiose term such as “the Hand of Destiny”, but to me it seems as simple as following my nose. If you keep your nose buried in Truth, you won’t go wrong.
That is where home begins. Home is where the heart is, and perhaps young men like I once was need to wander a bit, sowing some wild oats, in order to see Truth more clearly. There were times when I was perfectly at home at a picnic table in a campground, without a nickle to my name, for that simply was the Truth, for that moment in time.
But that seems but the center, the splash in still waters, before ripples start expanding outwards. Truth will not rest in isolation, but begins to reach out. Love will let no man be an island. First you find a true love and marry. Then you expand out to children. Then further outwards to neighborhoods, a small community, and only at the end do you reach out to the level of the State. It is quite the opposite of what Sophists believe, when they claim the government should rule inward to the households. Yet a focus on the small individual’s freedom is what our forefathers believed in, when they wrote our Constitution. They did not believe in big government.
Sophists have had all sorts of names, and most recently they are called “Progressives” and “The Elite”. In my opinion they have had too much power and have made a terrible mess of things, always thinking they are improving life when the evidence is glaringly to the contrary. One of the clearest signs of their ignorance is their disregard for the Truth, when they need to “spin” ideas to support some dogmatic policy with blaring propaganda. Falsehood seems justifiable to them, when “the ends justify the means”, but the ends they promise are always around some corner or over some hill, as the present crumbles to rot and ruin.
It is painful to watch this rot and ruin be promoted, especially when people you care for get swallowed up and destroyed. It is bad enough to witness even one woman with sparkling eyes killed by the sheer callousness of uncaring hearts, but when it extends to a multitude of youths killed by pushers, and wars devastating entire landscapes, and millions wandering homeless, one gets impatient.
Anger’s a dagger thrust deep in my heart.
My heart is a scabbard of pain.
I would draw out the long bloody blade
And see all my enemies slain,
But blood is a terrible stain.
My fingertips shake with the strain.
In actual fact my experience has been that, while murder and mayhem do spring to my mind at times, what is most effective is to follow my nose, and do the job presented to me. It may seem a small and insignificant deed, but one can never see the Entirety. A grain of sand may start an avalanche, a journey of a thousand miles may be started by a single step, and a kid with a sling shot may take down a Goliath.
Of course, it is possible that some, following their nose, may find themselves kings in control of vast armies, but that is Power given to few of us. We actually should be thankful for that. Who in their right mind would want a king’s many cares? Anyway, the battle remains the battle, no matter where you stand on the field. All play their part, and in the end the entire conclusion may hinge upon a two-penny-nail.
Or it may hinge upon a small thing called a “home”. When a vast multitude of people fight to create a vast multitude of such places, the reverberations are great, though no single household is huge.
Oddly, this brings me back to the beginning. In case you have forgotten, I began this writing talking about how I was tired of children after ten years of their shenanigans at my Childcare, and tired of winter as well. I meant to lead on to a short and humorous essay about my desire to retire to a gated community in Florida, where there were no children and there was no cold. (Instead I have, in a sense, rambled to a degree it comes close to writing “The Book”.)
After all, I’ve been fighting Sophists for decades, and at times retirement from the fray seems attractive. It seems unfair to have to be dealing with the consequences of things that I myself did not do, and in fact came out against, forty years ago, (such as drugging children who misbehave). (I became adamantly anti-drug in 1972). Now I am not dealing with the consequences, or even the consequences of the consequences, but the rather the consequences of the consequences of the consequences. I’m not dealing with my drugged peers any more. The “parents” I deal with are their children, and the “children” I deal with are their grandchildren.
I’d say that the people who should be bearing the consequences of society’s sex-and-drugs-and-greed stupidity got off Scot free, but that would just be me being cranky, for I know a lot died or went insane. However some survivors have indeed taken the money and run to gated communities, where they are probably laughing up their sleeves at people like me, who have to deal with the mess they left behind.
It doesn’t seem fair. It would be one thing if old grouches like me were respected elders, but part of the mess left behind is a rejection of tradition, calling it obsolete, and a dependence on the government as the new “elder”. Rather than gratitude there is just the squawking maw of an overgrown chick who never leaves the nest, demanding more and more. When the chick is another person’s chick, you are basically dealing with a cowbird.
At what point do you call a cowbird a cowbird? When you first notice the egg?
Or when you notice one chick is a demanding pig?
At some point caring for other’s chicks just gets absurd.
And then one has to speak a reality no one likes to hear: “If you don’t work you don’t eat.”
Such wisdom is never received well, whether it involves the rich dandies of the Jamestown Colony in 1609, or people receiving food stamps today. Yet such unpleasant Truth is part and parcel of the foundation of what makes a “home,” even if it makes a Dad sink in the popularity polls.
To be the bearer of such tidings does not win me a lot of smiles. What I get is what I think is now called “blow back”. Young parents do not always want to hear the advice of a cantankerous anachronism like myself. And sometimes I get equally fed up with them.
A while back I was sitting in church, feeling fed up with “blow back”, and not really listening to the sermon. I didn’t want to hear how it is good to be giving, because it didn’t seem to be working. I had given until my giver had given out. I wanted some excuse to just bail. So I let my Bible flop open, hoping it would reveal some text that got me off the hook of running a Childcare, something that suggested I should not “throw my pearls to swine” or that I should “shake the dust off my feet” and leave the northern snows for Florida. What I read was,
Jesus said, “Let the little children come to me, and do not hinder them, for the kingdom of heaven belongs to such as these.”
(Drat. That was not what I wanted to hear.)
Once again Truth seems to be directing me into situations I would never look for on my own, to learn what I need to learn, even when I don’t want to learn.
In a sense a home is a sort of gated community, in that you want to erect some sort of walls against ignorance and falsehood. However it is home on the move, like a hermit crab’s.
There is no retirement, if you want the Truth. There is no rest until the race is run. Then, I have heard, there is indeed a gated community. They say it has pearly gates.