Wednesday, April 25, 2012

April 25 2012
Forget about property. Let’s get down to cases.
In 1949, Oklahoma was just a decade or so past the worst of the Dust Bowl of the mid-1930s. The Great Depression had ended; a world war had come and gone. Most Okies that were vulnerable to being driven from their homes by weather or banks had long ago left for California. Of those remaining who had not been kicked out by circumstance, the able and the adventurous had gone to California, too, to work in war-time shipyards and aircraft factories. That left the old and the infirm and the Indians and folks with oil wells. Then my folks moved to Okmulgee.

They had married during the Great Depression, my mom and dad, she just out of high school and him just two years ahead of her. Photos show a handsome couple. She was a cheerleader and ROTC “sponsor,” a kind of girls’ auxiliary for the high school junior officer corps of the day. She had black hair and grey eyes and a nice figure. She was pretty. He was handsome, a football and basketball star with wavy blonde hair and a ready smile. While she finished high school, he and a friend, Jack, set out to make do as best they could in the mid 1930s: they started up a little logging operation in the swamps and along the bayous of north and central Louisiana. They had a team of mules and a wagon. They’d go into the swamp with the mules, cut down as much as they could, chain the logs and mule-drag them onto dry ground. At nights they’d sleep on the front porches of the Negroes who lived in and around the swamps and along the bayous. Once they had a wagon load they’d drive the mules into Shreveport and sell them to a black man who had a lumberyard. This fellow was a good businessman and he was honest and gave Dad and Jack fair price for the trees. It was common knowledge that he had a silent partner in the business, a white man who owned the local Ford dealership. This was pretty much the way black folks had to do business, but old man Harmon made out ok, it seemed.

Anyway, while Dad logged, Mom lived at home with her folks and finished high school at Fair Park, where Dad had gone and where I went twenty years later. Her father, Ernest, worked for the Kansas City Southern Railroad, a line which ran between Kansas City and Shreveport. Shreveport was a railway hub in those days and the KCS had a big yard down in the West End. Ernest had started working for the railroad back in the ‘teens, before the first war, finally exchanging a life as a sort of ne’er-do-well Kansas cowboy for that of a solid married working man once his wife, Elva had presented him with three kids; there would be five but one, the baby Buddy, died in the 1918 flu epidemic.
Ernest had a good job; he was foreman of a repair crew in the yards and he worked right through the Great Depression. That made it possible for him to support a household of his married children and their families and the two children who were still in school, my mom and her younger brother. So, once Mom graduated and she and Dad got married, she just stayed there and Dad moved in. That household was eight all told: Ernest and Elva; Mom and Dad; sister Blanche and her husband Carl, a  carpenter; brother Ralph who fooled around with radios and his wife, Juanita, a student in a nursing school. Dad’s folks lived on the outskirts of town with his two brothers, Ted and John Allen, and his sister, Ruth. Dad’s father, Floyd, had grown up on a farm in East Texas and married over there, where my dad was born. By the late 1930s, he had brought my grandmother, Madie (Mary Jane), and the family into Louisiana, to Shreveport where he found work at the Libbey-Owens-Ford glass factory as a snapper. A snapper was the guy who came around and nailed shut the boxes of lights the cutters had set out. Dad was the oldest child, so in 1937, when he and Mom got married, Ted and John Allen and Ruth were all still in school.

I don’t know too much about Dad and Mom’s early married life except that they were young and handsome and full of life. There are stories of big dances out at a swimming park near Cross Lake where bottles were thrown and knives pulled. Dad played a kind of semi-professional baseball in those days and their “team” would travel to little towns in Texas and Arkansas and play the local lads for half the gate. Wives would come along with baskets of fried chicken and bottles of illicit beer and sell them at the little ball fields. There would be the occasional dispute over money, either between the teams or among the women, and a hasty retreat was beat now and then. Dad said that Mom was the best pistol shot he had ever seen; they used to go riding out around Cross Lake sitting up on the back of Uncle Ralph’s Model A and shoot at mail boxes. Mom never missed Dad said, no matter how fast Ralph drove. My favorite picture of my mother was taken during WWII; Uncle Carl was home on leave from the SeaBees and Dad was over in the Philippines so there are Mom and Carl just back from hunting squirrels and Mom in her rolled up jeans and her left hand on the rifle at her side looks as comfortable as
Annie Oakley—or Bonnie Parker, whose personality, I have since come to think, was probably closer to Mom’s than was Annie Oakley’s.
The war came and it finally caught up with Dad, even though he was married with a kid and worked in a defense industry; by the middle of the war he was cutting glass at L-O-F in Shreveport, logging long behind him. He got drafted in late 1944 and we moved up to Kansas to be with Mom’s mother in Baldwin City, a small farming and college town about 50 miles west of Kansas City. Ernest had been killed in 1940, just months before I was born. He was scalded to death when a high-pressure steam line broke in the round-house where we and his gang were working on an engine. Elva had gone home to Kansas and was running a small cafĂ©. We spent the rest of the war and a year after up there; Mom worked in a factory making ammunition boxes and I just ran around this little town of about 1200 living a kind of life that only exists now in Steven Spielberg movies—before the aliens arrive.

When Dad got back from Japan, where he had served in the first US Army unit to set foot on Japanese soil, we went back to Shreveport and Dad went back to the glass factory. He had turned down a commission and a career in the Regular Army. They took up with old friends, some changed by the war, Dad told me later, but others still the same. They danced and drank and smoked and the men in the glass cutting trade kept an eye on which plants were open and which were closed. I started school in Shreveport, at the same grade school my dad had attended but then we moved to Arkansas when the L-O-F plant shut down. Soon enough it was back to Shreveport but not for long. In the winter of 1948-9, we left Shreveport for several years. First stop and fateful, was Okmulgee, Oklahoma.

Monday, April 23, 2012

April 23 2012

[In my sketchy report about my trip to Viet Nam I mentioned that there were many pregnant women everywhere we went and promised an explanation. This is it: According to a local informant, the Year of the Dragon, this lunar year, is the most propitious one in which to be born, especially for boys, and so women try to achieve pregnancy at a time that will allow them to give birth in that year.]

Not long ago a friend who labors in the lawyering trade asked my opinion about adultery. Did I think, he asked, that there was as much adultery going around as one found in current fiction, or was adultery like quicksand? I wouldn’t blame you if your first thought was, “Who should know more than a lawyer?”  But then, maybe your first thought was, “Quicksand?” I went through those in that order and then asked myself, “Why is he asking me?” and “What does he mean by ‘current fiction’?”

This is what he was up to: He was asking me because he assumed that as a literature professor I spent a lot of time thinking, if not worrying, about the relationship between fiction and “truth” or “reality.” It seems he had been reading novels and New Yorker fiction for some time and had been struck by the number of these works in which adultery was situated at or near the center of everyone’s concern, if not everyone’s activity. This did not square with life as he experienced it or saw it, even as a lawyer, and the question to me was not whether it squared with my experience in life with adultery but whether it squared with my experience with literature. Or, he asked, was adultery like quicksand?

As the father of a young child, he had also spent some time not so many years ago watching television on Saturday mornings. He noticed that the cartoon adventure shows that made up so much of that programming was convention-driven, like much of popular culture. One convention, it turned out, was the ever-present threat of quicksand. Hardly a Saturday could go by without one episode in which a daring pre-teen hero or heroine would get herself stuck in deadly (always “deadly”) quicksand, followed by an episode on another channel of the exploits of yet another daring pre-teen adventurer freeing himself, or being freed, from deadly quicksand. No one ever explained what, exactly, quicksand was or why it was there, but it was omnipresent, for sure. Now suppose, he suggested, you were a member of an advanced alien race observing matters on Earth from another galaxy by monitoring what stray bits of television came your way on the extra-galactic equivalent of a Saturday morning. Among all that you might learn, one true thing should stand out: Earth was 10% water, 5% dry land, and 85% quicksand. Was not, he asked, adultery like quicksand? Was it not that medium in which New Yorker short story writers loved to enmesh their protagonists? Wouldn’t an alien of a certain age and disposition assume, every two weeks, that human relationships were 10% politics, 5% the search for weight-loss camps, and 85% adulterous?

Friend lawyer knew that the world is not awash (can one say that?) in quicksand. A few years ago a quicksand maven plotted a Google map with 100 known quicksand locations around the world; not so many considering that parking lots make up approximately 1/3 the metro footprint of American cities alone (there are 800 million parking spaces in America). While there is the occasional shooting, pepper-spraying, and/or irate-spouse-drive-over in a parking lot, these places don’t show up with anything like the frequency of quicksand as sites of mortal danger. (Actually, friend lawyer caught a “literary” convention in its waning hours when he watched Saturday morning tv. The heyday of tv and movie quicksand were the 1960s and 70s. Daniel Engber has documented quicksand’s rise and fall in this Slate piece from 2010:

But what about adultery? I’m going to posit that friend lawyer’s real concern was not for the misguided alien but for us. What are we to make of the seeming centrality of adultery in adult fiction? Do we care how many such stories there have been since the git-go? Is it the case that only Adam and Eve were successfully monogamous and every marriage after has been the steamy stuff of literature? Or are we concerned about the effect? Does, as Louise De Salvo suggests in Adultery (2010), the very act of reading about adultery make us more likely to commit it. (“To commit it.” Stop a minute and think about that phrase. We don’t say, “to perform it” or “to accomplish it,” or “to achieve it.” This is a nasty act for us. We commit it. I remember when my once-Protestant parents joined the Roman Catholic Church, my Methodist grandmother did not write to the family at large that Joe Bob and Mary Helen had “converted” to Catholicism but rather that they had “turned” Catholic.) There might be a matter for concern if we thought by assigning Madame Bovary to be read we literature professors were endangering the marriages of those in our classes so encumbered.

But I rather think the issue is with fiction’s relationship to truth. If people don’t commit adultery all that often, should the act show up in fiction all the time? You know the answer is, “Why not?” Fiction’s relationship to truth is not an aggregate/disaggregate issue. The real question, or one of the real questions, is of “why” adultery shows up so much. After all, there are plenty of things we all do all the time that aren’t situated at the center of a complex of plots and motivations for sale on Amazon in numbers too large to ignore. Next installment I am just going to explore one of several reasons we write about and read about adultery: property.

Tuesday, April 10, 2012

April 10 2012

Back from my trip to Viet Nam. I’ll try to get down a few things I think about the last three weeks and then, in subsequent posts, get back to threads left unsecured last month. I wish I had some already-synthesized summing up to put here but I don’t; I have observations but I am really not sure they add up to much.

Let me start by saying that the confrontation between my war-time activities and present day Vietnamese reality never materialized. That is to say, I felt no deep emotional conflict over having bombed that physically lovely country so many years ago and then returning only to snap photos and soak in the exotic. At the war museum in Ho Chi Minh City I was repelled by the evidence of all of our destructive history there, but the difference between what I felt there from what I have felt at moments over the past 45 years was one of degree, not of kind. Sometime later I want to try to talk about the “American war” as the Vietnamese call it, but not now. I will only say that the Vietnamese seem an extraordinarily resilient people and their narrative of that war characterizes it as but one episode in a long, long war of national liberation beginning in the 19th century.

Generally, Viet Nam is a young country demographically. Most people are younger than 40 and the rest seem to be old. I’m not sure, though, that the last part of that observation is accurate. At first glance, people on the street seem either young and handsome/lovely or old and worn; where, one wonders, is everyone over 30 and younger than 65? I’m not sure but there are a couple of possibilities, each premised on the assumption that they are present but obscured.

One, which accounts for some of the phenomenon, presented itself just a few days before we left for home. We were “trekking” near Viet Nam’s border with China, in the northwest of the country, near a town called Sapa, and were joined from time to time by Hmong women going to or from market, fields, or bamboo stands. Often they wanted to sell us something but in every case they would casually fall into step along side us and walk along for a mile or so before veering off in one direction or another. My wife chatted with one woman who had some English (most Hmong women [we saw few Hmong men and they never spoke] knew the phrases “Where are you from?” and “Will you buy something from me?”) and said later to our trek guide that Hmong life must be very hard. “Why,” he asked, “do you say that?” Her response was that in conversation she discovered that the woman she had assumed to be in her seventies, as is my wife, was really only fifty. What other than a hard life could age one so? The trek guide’s answer was one word, “opium.” Many Hmong women smoke opium their entire lives and one consequence is the haggard, worn look. Opium production is illegal in Viet Nam but little energy is spent enforcing those laws against local grower/users. This is the case even in the region just to the west of Sapa where Viet Nam, Thailand, Myanmar, and Laos come together in the Golden Triangle, one of the world’s two major sources of illicit opium, the other being the “Golden Crescent” with Afghanistan at its center.

The other possibility is the one put forward by my wife: life in Viet Nam is harsh. I think this is particularly true in the major cities. Actually, life among the Hmong and the other ethnic minorities of the northwest seems hard but not harsh. Life in the streets of Ho Chi Minh City and Hanoi, however, looks harsh to me. Those two cities remind me of New York City in the 70s and early 80s and of Managua, Nicaragua, in the mid-80s. Life there seems to be lived in the streets, endlessly engaged in curb-side capitalism; on corners and sidewalks men make keys, repair shoes, cut hair, practice every variant of bricolage. My favorite was the man who sat on a small stool on a corner of a busy intersection with a tank of compressed air and a hose, waiting for the moto (motorbike, of which there are seemingly five times as many than autos) with a flat tire to struggle up to him. Both times I saw him, on successive days, he had no business but he was stoically (?) waiting for fortune while entertaining his young grandson (?). Interestingly enough, given the rarity of cars on side streets in Hanoi, there were a number of tire repair store fronts where punctures and the like could be fixed on the sidewalk. Folks reading this in Brooklyn will remember 4th Avenue in the late 70s and the “Flats Fixed” storefronts along that big street between Atlantic Avenue and Sunset Park. Just like that! Men sell services on the street in Hanoi and HCMC; women sell goods. Because the sidewalks are filled with men at their tinkers’ trades and with hundreds of small “pop-ups” for eating, seated on low plastic stools at low plastic tables while the food simmers over charcoal fires in ingenious small burners, women walk in the streets carrying baskets full of pineapples, onions, dried fish, bread, pastries, flowers, mushrooms, herbs, caps, scarves, t-shirts, flags…I can’t do justice to the number of women or the variety (and redundancy) of their goods. The only men I ever saw selling a “thing” as contrasted to a “service” were selling books, carried in the crook of an arm in a small pasteboard box.

I don’t know how this life feels; it looks harsh because it seems the effort to make it work is unremitting. At the Women’s Museum in Hanoi we saw a short film in which women street vendors described their lives: isolation from families, incredibly long hours, poor health, little profit. None of these women, and none of the men at curbside, was young. About half-way through the trip a text came to mind that made it all a bit more familiar to me. In 1941, in an essay on comic postcards, George Orwell noted that in the Britain of such postcards the population was either quite young or quite old. This was not, he argued, just license on the part of such postcard auteurs as Donald McGill, but rather a reflection of a desperate reality of English life. In the England of the 20s and the 30s, Orwell said, there was no such thing as adulthood. There was youth and then there was old age; life in England erased anything like the possibility that the impulse to love and procreate would lead to domestic adulthood, family, hearth, comfort. Reaching one’s majority meant the onset of toil and deprivation in a heartless industrial landscape where youth served until suddenly overtaken by age. That is how urban Viet Nam looks; there are many many beautiful young women and energetic young men and there are many many haggard, thin, worn elders. There are very few men and women of simple mature adulthood.

Oh, and there are many many young children, all astonishingly lovely. They will soon be joined by a considerable number of younger siblings if the presence of pregnant women on every block is any indication. Just why there are so many pregnant young women in Viet Nam at this moment is a matter for next time.

Sunday, March 18, 2012

March 17 2012

No occasion to savor. That’s how Charlotte saw this inevitable mess of teen-age sex.  If Darlene was popular, a cheerleader, petite, perky, Charlotte was quite, desperate, unlovely. All they had in common was that they were both Mormons; they didn’t even know each other. Charlotte went to the other white public high school in town (there was also a black public high school, a Catholic boy’s high school, and one for Catholic girls), so my meeting her was really by chance as the town was divided not only along racial lines but by class. My high school was in the working class part of town and the other school, Byrd, was over where dads wore ties to work and moms belonged to clubs. Charlotte and I met at KJOE, one of the radio stations in town that courted a teen-aged audience. KJOE played popular music of the day, including rock and roll, and on Saturday mornings offered a show “hosted” by two teenagers, each from a different high school. On the Saturday in question, I was the boy from my school, Fair Park, and Charlotte was the girl, from Byrd.

Charlotte’s father ran a record distributing company, so she and her younger sister got all of the latest releases before any of us heard them; it may have been that the knowledge of pop music that proceeded from her inside track had led the radio show’s producer to pick her from all those teeny-boppers who applied to be guest disc jockeys. It may have also helped that the record distributing business in Shreveport, like my dad’s dice game, was a bit on the margins of the law and had, whether it was Charlotte’s dad’s choice or not, ties to organized crime, no small influence in radio at the time. (KJOE was not the biggest station on the air in Shreveport in those days, so they tried hard to capture as much of the high-school audience as they could. They even went so far as to hire a part-time afternoon “personality” for Saturdays, a young airman from the local base over in Bossier City who had auditioned as soon as he got to town. He didn’t know a lot about music but he had created a stable of on-air characters that got your attention. My favorite was AL Sleet, the Hippy Dippy Weatherman. George Carlin—who knew! I think KJOE was his model for the “Wonderful World of W-I-N-O” routine.)

Charlotte and I only did one show together but we hit it off pretty well and I spent more and more time driving over to her side of town. We dated and went to a few drive-in movies but Charlotte was as inhibited as Darlene was not, so we saw a lot of monster movies. I always took my old Plymouth, not the Rambler. Over time, we considered ourselves “going steady;” the problem was that she didn’t know about Darlene and Darlene didn’t know about her. Back then the irony of going steady with two Mormon girls was lost on me; I was just caught up in the unfolding possibilities of romance and the peculiar force of custom. I made the best adjustment I could.

But this part of the long explanation of my inexperience and my reluctance to take Louise up on her patio invitation has nothing really to do with that last year in high school. Charlotte and I “broke up,” for reasons that made little sense to either of us since we weren’t angry or hurt by the other; we just sort of lost interest. Then Darlene and I broke up for real reasons, mostly that we couldn’t stand each other, and events just swept me along through graduation, that next summer, and then off to college. In November, I came home for Thanksgiving and hadn’t been home more than a couple of hours before I got a call from Charlotte. She wanted to go to a party in town but didn’t want to go without a date; would I take her and we could catch up on things? I have no memory of the party, over in Byrd territory, but boy, do I remember what happened later. I drove over to a spot by the river and parked, just to talk. Charlotte was a year behind me, so she was very much caught up in matters that I by then considered pretty juvenile, and I listened to a long list of parental and school issues. Then, suddenly, she offered herself to me, offered with such directness and desperation that she scared the hell out of me. Had she been less desperate, or seemed less so, matters might have taken a different turn but something about the moment seemed wrong. Not morally wrong but emotionally. All the time we had gone together I had never succeeded in convincing Charlotte about sex, anything about sex, especially sex, and I wasn’t quite dumb enough to think that because now I was a college man I was suddenly more attractive than I had been nine months ago.

It took a few minutes but I convinced her that we weren’t going to have sex. She sat there and then began to cry and apologize at the same time. At first I thought she was embarrassed, caught up in some unfathomable wave of desire or illusion or something. But that was not it. Charlotte was pregnant by a guy whose rich parents had sent him away to military school and she didn’t know what to do. Her plan, such as it was, was to have sex with me and then somehow convince me that I was the father. Her sense of me, probably correct, was that I was a much nicer guy than Ben-whose-last-name-I-forget, and that I would marry her. What I am about to say sounds absurd, even to me, but to that moment I had never actually, realistically associated sex with paternity. I mean, I understood about sex and babies, but had no real notion of paternity, what it meant, how it proceeded from this act, that decision, those compromises. Well, it all came startlingly clear to me, in an instant. The moment was one as if I had just cheated death, had seen the bullet in slow motion as it slid past my ear, had watched the car on ice turn and turn only to find itself on the right side of the road headed in the right direction.

So, on the patio at the Shreve’s Landing Club three years later, with, truth be told, not much more experience than Darlene’s gift, Louise’s offer pulled up images of a tearful Charlotte and the fate I had escaped. Had I been as sophisticated as I thought I wanted to be, I would have accepted Louise’s rides and would have then, only a few months later, understood immediately what Marie meant. As it was, it only hit me as I was walking down the street from Marie’s toward my parents’ house. While the understanding lacked the immediacy of the revelation of mortality that Charlotte’s unveiling of her plot brought with it, it was every bit as transformative. I have, in all my physical relations since that day, kept my weight on my elbows. Even more, I have tried to be the kind of man who keeps his weight on his elbows in every occasion. I mean, it seemed to me, right then, that I wanted to be the kind of man who was both in and yet sympathetically apart from every moment. By sympathetically, I mean not detached coldly but watchful, aware of the reality that the other or others in the moment are experiencing. I confess that the temptation is to hold myself away more icily, as that is actually easier than what I consider the morally responsible thing to do, to be constantly careful of the presence of others without giving oneself over to abandonment in their presence, whether in sex or any other discourse. Cold detachment leads to a kind of formalism in which one can only claim to be present, without offering any proof. There is a line from e. e. cummings that tells the consequence of that kind of detachment:

since feeling is first
who pays attention
to the syntax of things
will never wholly kiss you;

Over the years my goal has been to be aware of the syntax of things without “paying attention” to it. I want to be in the moment without being “of” it, I suppose. I heard a chaplain at Dartmouth College examine “moral imagination” in a way that suits me. He said moral imagination is not just the ability to understand another’s point of view or even feel another’s pain, one of which is reachable logically and the other is observable. For me, the trick is to imagine the other’s moral conflict, the contradictions he feels when caught between his ideals and necessity, between justice and mercy. One cannot do this if one gives over wholly to the kiss. The best way is to keep one’s weight on one’s elbows, a slight remove, enough to be able to see into the other’s center, with care.

I have not always been able to do this, of course; once when I did not should be talked about later. I have, however, always tried and always been aware when I have failed. The failures, in some instances, meant more to me than to the others, who felt the weight but that is to be expected. It is hard to give a useful answer at three in the morning to the question, “What are you doing up there on your elbows?” At that moment I always wonder, myself.

[Tomorrow my wife and I start a three-week trip to Hong Kong and Vietnam and I am not sure how often I can post to this spot. I was last in Vietnam during the Southeast Asian War and I assume I will have some feelings about this return. If I can, I will write.]

Wednesday, March 14, 2012

March 14, 2012

There are not so many drive-in movie “theaters” around these days, but when Darlene and I were just awakening to sex (well, I was just awakening; I think Darlene had been up several hours before me), they were very important because those darkened pastures furrowed with alleyways which were in turn spiked every few yards with speaker stands were just about the only place a couple of kids could go with even a modicum of expectation of the privacy necessary to grow up.

Here’s how drive-ins worked: A huge movie screen fitted in a sturdy wooden or tin frame stood with its back to a road or highway but removed from the sound of traffic by several hundred yards. You turned off the road onto a long driveway of sorts that led to a ticket booth. You paid, not much, and drove through the symbolic gate (it couldn’t have physically stopped you from cruising right through it), past the screen and into the field where row after row of metal poles with square speakers attached, one to each side of a pole, were arranged in a very slightly curved semi-circle in front of the screen. From front to back of the field, from just in front of the screen to the fence at the rear were maybe thirty rows of these speakers. You would turn, usually left, into one of those rows and find a spot that suited you, as much toward the middle as you could, and then turn, again left, into place beside the pole with the speakers attached, the speaker for you being right there by the driver’s window when you stopped the car on the slight incline that elevated the nose of the car ever so slightly to match the angle of your vision to the height of the screen. You rolled down your window on the driver’s side and hooked the square speaker over the top of the three or so inches of glass you left above the car door frame by the wire or plastic hook on its back. A knob on the front of the speaker controlled the volume. You were set to watch the movie.

That is, if you went by yourself. But if you had a date, you drove directly to the back of the lot, found a slot on one end of the row or the other, turned up the volume of the speaker but left it on the stand, and waited not for the movie to start, but for night to fall. I always thought it was funny that you left the speaker on the stand (how did we learn these things?). I realize why it was that way—the deal was that when you started to “make out” with your date, you rolled the window up for privacy. Now, windows being what they are, rolling one up doesn’t give you much privacy, unless you assume that whatever sounds you make over the course of the next two hours or so will interfere with the dialogue from the movie as it is being enjoyed by the older, married couple with two kids in the back seat whom, you hope anyway, have not pulled up into the slot next to yours.

In any case, two young folks determined to find the intersection of desire and automobile design were all set soon enough. The car was important. This all took place before bucket seats were standard in American automobiles; most cars had bench type front and back seats, which were, as you are now guessing, very inviting. Most of what went on in the front seat was pleasant if a bit awkward, given the presence of the steering wheel, the gear shift, and the transmission hump that ran the length of the car floor from engine to rear axle. When I applied to join the Air Force years later, one form to be filled out asked if I had ever been denied employment because of an inability to assume certain positions; I immediately thought of the front seat of my 1948 Plymouth, my first car, and many a summer night at the Joy Drive-in. Not employment but certainly fulfillment had been denied.

But that was not to be the case the night I lost my virginity, if not my innocence. (These are different things, as I am sure you understand. Read Shakespeare’s Measure for Measure, to see how that argument goes.) Luckily for me, my father had, a couple of years earlier, suffered one of his rare lapses in taste and bought a Rambler station wagon.

As you can see, this is not a classically handsome car, but as we were planning a move to California, ill-fated in some ways but exciting for me, and we were going to do it in one trip hauling everything we owned, something boxy and solid seemed called for. The Rambler got us there and back and a couple of years later I discovered the Rambler’s contingent appeal: the back seats laid down flat into the cargo area and created the drive-in equivalent of a double bed. Whereas with a standard sedan a couple could crawl over the seatbacks from the front onto the narrow but unobstructed back seat (for reasons of delicacy, we never wanted to be seen opening the doors of the front seat, emerging, and reentering the car in the back; that was like signaling to the world our intentions), with the Rambler, you just slid into the expanse of the cargo bay which the young man of the duo had already prepared with such amenities as he could muster with arousing his mother’s suspicion.

It was at the Sunset Drive-in, in the beloved Rambler, that Darlene let me know that we were about to push past the observed limits of going steady. I’ll skip the details but will say that it was a warm night, Darlene knew what she was doing, and because we had the windows rolled up as I have explained already one would do, it had got a bit steamy in the car. Now when we had parked next to our speaker stand, we were the only car on that row and it was already dark. I have no idea what the movie was or how long we had been there, but my memory is that it wasn’t long, Darlene being propelled by a sort of urgency that most men pray to encounter at least once in their careers, before the game was afoot. Actually, given what happened, it is probably more accurate to say the game was a rear.

Warm late spring Saturday night, sex, clothes get in the way for any number of reasons. There was just enough light from the distant movie screen through the steamed up windows of the car for me to make out the contours of Darlene’s bare rear end as she lay there beside me, leaning on her elbows (ironic, that, no?) and gazing into my eyes as if to ask, “So, what do you think of that?” I reached across her back to roll down the window as it was more than a little close in there at the moment and as the window came down I found myself looking into the face of a middle-aged woman who had apparently just arrived because she was reaching out of her open car window for the speaker, her shoulders and head halfway out of her own car and her hand about to grab it. At first she just looked at me but then, attracted I am sure by the effect of white light on bare skin, looked directly into the frame of Darlene’s considerable charms positioned perfectly in the rectangle of our own car window. This was not the movie for which the lady had paid. I have to admire her discipline though. She simply, and slowly, drew back her hand, her arm, her shoulders, and rolled up her window. I was transfixed. She started her car and backed out, then drove away.

Darlene seemed unmoved by the experience but I was certain that Missus Lady was headed straight for the outdoor concession stand in the middle of the lot, where we would be reported to some sort of agency of control. After a bit of pleading I got Darlene back into her jeans and we sped off into the night, Darlene’s mission accomplished but without much time to reflect or savor. But then again, as I was to discover, most teen-aged sex, of whatever degree, left one with little time or even reason to savor or reflect.

Friday, March 9, 2012

March 9, 2012

To this day I don’t know that I could say just what prompted Orlando to offer this heartwarming gesture to a lonely boy; Louise was very polite but she also made it very clear that she had not stepped out onto the patio to see if I needed more ice water. I wish I could tell you that I sized this up immediately, but I was still thinking of the bunch at the bar as secretaries on break. I didn’t really understand, until later after talking with Dad about the evening, the differences between prostitutes and call girls, and it was into this latter category that Louise and the other regulars at Orlando’s haven placed themselves. Now, for many folks, we may be talking about a distinction without a difference, but the status worth of that distinction was important to these young women. In passing, I might note that of a weekend, from time to time, one could spot Mr. Lynn, who ran a modeling agency in Shreveport, Mr. Lynn’s International Models, as he often frequented the Shreve’s Landing Club with those of his models who were of age. On those occasions, the bar was quite a pleasant place to find oneself, what with Mr. Lynn’s girls and Orlando’s aggregation all at work, and there was much coming and going out of and into the night.

Back on the patio, I was flummoxed. I wanted to take Louise up on what I finally understand was her suggestion that I finish my dinner and then come with her to her apartment from which she would deliver me safe and sound, perhaps sounder, to my folks’ house in the morning, before they got home. There was just one problem; I was scared to death. Even now I cringe trying to imagine what I finally managed to say to her that got me out of the spot I was in.  Don’t ask me if I now wish I had just let Louise call the shots that night; of course I do. I’m not really sure what it was that I was afraid of, but it was something like “unintended consequences.” Not venereal disease; I hardly knew what that was (those were?). No, it was that which we were all acculturated to fear the most, pregnancy. I know, I know; this lady was a professional, or at least a ranked amateur, but that certainly wasn’t clear to me at that very moment. All I could think of was my visit home the previous Thanksgiving and the present my old girlfriend Charlotte offered me.

Charlotte was one of the two Mormon girls with whom I had “gone steady” the first half of my senior year in high school. If you are very young, you might not know about going steady. Like a lot of social ritual among adolescents in the 1950s, it was child’s enactment of an adult’s privilege. In this case, the ritual aped marriage. I say “aped” not just because going steady tried to imitate the domesticity of the households we saw around us, with that placid intimacy’s promise of passion sometime later, dear, but because we boys were not much less brutish than our primate cousins, truth be told. If we had only known about the Bonobos, maybe we wouldn’t have been so desperately male about it all. The deal was that the boy would give his girl a ring, which she would wear on a chain around her neck or, and this seemed to be favored by girls who went with athletes, she would wrap tape around the narrower part of the band and wear it on her marriage finger. This sign meant “keep away,” “watch your language around her,” ““we can make out whenever we want to,” and everyone wanted to believe it stood for the kind of long-term commitment that was only a prologue to marriage and real sex.

Real sex was at a premium in the 50s in Shreveport. This was before the pill, before the second wave of the feminist movement, before the sexual revolution, just on the emerging cusp of rock ‘n’ roll’s tsunami (I started high school the year Bill Haley released “Rock Around the Clock”). As far as I could tell, most of the boys wanted to have sex and none of the girls did, with one or two exceptions. These exceptional girls had a hard row to hoe because while they “had” what all the boys wanted, none of the boys were supposed to want it from them. The whole point of our adolescence was a sort of involuntary but rigidly enforced delayed gratification, words that appeared on no vocabulary test we had ever taken but which stood for adult assumptions which were making our lives miserable. So, we pined and moaned over the sex we weren’t having with the girls who only wanted to go steady with us and were at a loss, in that 4 AM of the soul, to understand why we weren’t going to have it with the girls that seemed willing to share. But every now and then the miraculous happened and one of the girls who only wanted to go steady would change her mind. That’s what happened to me.

Monday, March 5, 2012

March 5, 2012

I can’t recreate the argument that ensued when Mom found out that Dad had spent my college clothes money on a silk suit and that wasn’t even the worst part. I mean, the suit was bad enough, but the shoes were what she kept coming back to, time and again. You have to hand it to him, really; the suit was gorgeous but the shoes were extraordinary. I don’t mean they were bizarre or a funny color. Their extraordinary-ness lay in the very fact that he had bought them. They were just so unnecessary and so obviously a purchase the only reason for the existence of which was gratification. You didn’t need these shoes just to walk around in. It was the first inkling I got of what luxury might mean from a negative perspective.

Here’s what I have come to understand about the shoes and the suit. The suit was its own explanation; for the years that Dad kept it, it looked wonderful on him. When he wore it, he became another person, physically. You would want to stop and watch him walk by, that suit looked that good.  Dad was a stickler about tailoring. He had the jacket collar lowered a good half an inch so that the right amount of shirt collar would show and the jacket would never ride up so that the shirt collar might disappear as if down his back. He had the sleeves shortened so that 3/8 of an inch of French cuff would show, just enough to give you a glimpse of his cuff links. His shirts, by the way, had no pockets. A shirt with a breast pocket was a day-time shirt, one you wore to work; a man dressed for the evening had no need to put anything in a shirt pocket. When he wore that suit, Dad never carried a wallet; he had a money clip so nothing would break the line from shoulder to the point where the trouser leg touched the top of the shoe.

The shoe. Those shoes were what were called “Italian” slip-ons. They were absolutely seamless from toe to heel and the cut away over the arch revealed just a hint of the stocking. Such shoes, in a soft black leather, were very popular in the late 1950s; some cool boys wore them with Levi’s and white socks. But a soft black leather was not what Dad was after, and he would never wear white socks with anything but his work shoes, the ones with the steel toes. So this is where conjecture enters the game. I think Dad’s vanity forced him (allowed him?) to make a virtue out of necessity. My father had very small feet. I’d say, almost dainty. I couldn’t get into his shoes and I just have your average size nines. I think Dad knew that this suit was going to attract a lot of  attention  and he needed something to prevent his little feet from disappearing into the floor and throwing the whole presentation out of whack. It was a Fred Astaire problem, in reverse. The slightly tapered trouser legs helped, just like the lowered jacket collar kept the starched white shirt collar visible against Dad’s tanned neck; they didn’t help enough. Dad needed you to see his feet so the proportions would work and there were only two ways to do that. One was to buy a pair of shoes at least a size too big and hope no one would notice, as if you were a short guy with lifts in your shoes or big heels. The other was to wear a pair of shoes that in and of themselves would justify the suit, a pair of shoes not dependent on the feet in them, shoes that drew your mind from the foot to the marvelous thing the foot was making possible. Dad went for option number two.

Option number two. The Italian slip on. Lined in doeskin, uppers made of deerskin, but—and get this, because this is what made the shoes—the deerskin uppers were covered by a layer of shantung silk that just missed matching exactly the color of the shantung silk suit. Of course, that was Dad’s decision; the silk exterior of the shoe signaled its affinity with the suit but the slightly dark grey-shading-toward-black pearl reminded you that this moment was not just about the suit but about the man who wore it, the man who could think to buy such shoes the same day he bought such a suit.

I think you can tell from this account that I’m not angry about this. I can’t even say, “Anymore,” because I don’t think I was mad at him then. I might have been hurt, but that was just as likely to have been the consequence of having my mother tell me over and over what a betrayal that suit and those shoes represented. I have to say I don’t think I felt it that way. My memory was that I was so excited about going to college that nothing bothered me. Besides, by that time I had come to realize how many slips there were likely to be ‘twixt the cup and the lip for my father. It was awkward, I admit, negotiating a much abbreviated shopping trip with my mother for what we could scrounge together. And I am certain that it was she who was truly betrayed. Whatever her failings, my mother was excited for me. Well, actually, Mom was a thorough-going narcissist and so my going off to college was really about her. Dad’s betrayal, it seems, was a crime against her sense of herself. Besides, she had saved that money on her own. She had a lot invested, accidentally or not, in that suit and that pair of silk shoes.

So there I was, three years later, on the patio at the Shreve’s Landing Club, not much more sophisticated than I had been that summer I left, wearing pretty much the same sort of college boy beiges and plaids that Mom and I had bought on credit at Penney’s, not at Selber’s, where Mr. Aaron’s son outclassed me in every way. I wanted to be classy; I had, the luck of the draw, enough of Dad’s sense of style to make me presentable to folks. And like him, I could get along with almost anyone, tell stories, dance. I wasn’t even a virgin, thanks to a high-school classmate, one of two Mormon girls I went steady with at the same time (another story, I’m afraid), but I wouldn’t say I was experienced. In fact, let’s say I was inexperienced, as became evident soon enough when one of the women from the bar strolled onto the patio, caught my eye, and walked over. Standing there, she said,
“Hi. I’m Louise. Orlando sent me.”