I had students on the Persian Gulf named Muhammad, Saleh, and Fatso. Today. I had students in Houston Gardens named Keisha, Sabrina, and Dante. I had students in Japan named Yuka, Yuki, and Yuko. Muhammad and Saleh ended up at the University of Maryland getting graduate degrees in computer science.  Fatso is a bank manager in Jeddah. Keisha and Sabrina got knocked up before 16 and may be grandmothers before 30. Dante got shot in the face. Yuka, Yuki, and Yuko are all working as clerks somewhere in Tokyo. Yuka graduated from college but failed to get her stewardess license. She still lives at home. Yuki got his degree in engineering and sells car parts at a shop near Narita Airport. He made $23,000 last year. Yuko went to Australia to study English. When he returns to Japan, he hopes to be a store manager position at 7Eleven. He wants to live with a female robot that gives handjobs. He’s not even 25 but is worrying about his retirement. I don’t know what it means.

I have no idea if we were ever as happy as my Saudi students seemed to be. We played jacks. We played tic-tac-toe. We laughed ‘til dawn. We watched reruns of Flash Gordon. We went to the zoo. We laughed at first at the kangaroo, but cried when we saw the miserable roadrunner in the cage built for parakeets. Why? Why did we care? Where did we get that? My favorite meal was canned ravioli. For lunch, I had peanut butter and jelly. Dots and licorice sticks clogged my teeth but I didn’t smoke. We made nasty sounds and laughed. My friend’s dad passed a black man crossing the street and cried, “Run, nigger, run.” I knew that was wrong. Why? Who said so? Who says so?

Life in America was about to change.

I liked hiding under the bed with my little ten-year-old friend, Ellen. I liked staying up late to watch The Man from U.N.C.L.E. and Get Smart. There was little on my mind beyond Peter, Paul, and Mary. We envied the girls picked up at the curb by Elvis in his Pink Cadillac. We watched Orson Welles, Marlon, and Truman Capote on late TV. I used to hum the Alka Seltzer jingle, “Plop, Plop, Fizz, Fizz, Oh, What a Relief it Is.”

In the late spring one year, some of the kids skipped two to three days of school due to their having contracted pinkeye at somebody’s pool over the weekend. We wanted to stay home, too, of course; we hoped to get that pass, but our mothers knew how to cure pinkeye. “Get your ass in that car or I’ll wake your father.” Sure enough, our eyesight was as good as new. We never stayed home from school. Mother pulled the blankets from our beds. “I used to walk three miles to a one-room schoolhouse. The least you can do is get into that car. Now move!” It didn’t matter what was the matter. Sick? “Move!” No child in America had an allergy until I was in college. Then it started. No vegetarian meal was served on an airplane until I was in my twenties. “You’ll eat it and like it” was what my father used to say. No alterations of the daily menu, ever. But my students in Houston were finicky. They were taught to have favorites and to refuse things they didn’t like. Not us. “Eat.”

We are drawn back in adult life to scenes of childhood unhappiness, says the noted biographer. Harold Pinter took his wives to Cornwall to see where he had spent the blitz. Thomas Bernhard, a favorite, picks at his wartime memories like a scab, but for me was childhood a source of such everlasting pain? I wonder. I remember so much, but especially hiding in the gigantic tractor tires at the Firestone warehouse. Was that so bad? Or scrounging for tossed paper cups on the floor of the grandstands at Tobey Park so we could refill them with free Coke. We washed them out in the public restrooms like good little boys. The smell of fresh urine made us work fast.

Pinter is said to have had a “Lord of the Flies” childhood surrounded by cruel children. The ones I grew up with could have been cast in “Platoon,” that brutal depiction of Americans at war, sadists having a ball killing babies in Vietnam. Those guys could have come from my neighborhood in Memphis, each and every last one of them. They’d put a cigarette out in your eye. They loved a good punch-up—“meet me after school.” The neighborhood consisted of whites who feared the opposite sex as much as they despised the opposite race. We were black or white in those days. The only Mexican restaurant was 50 miles away across the river. We stayed to ourselves. It’s hard to say who was more dangerous, but if black I’d have stayed off the streets on our side of town.

But unlike Pinter the playwright and Bernhard the Austrian, we were not driven out by Allied or Axis strafing. Our neighborhoods were safe. There may been bombings but not over Memphis. This was the 1960’s, but in my house, it was still the Great Depression, prolonged by a father who missed it. We used to sit with the lights out to save electricity and ketchup bottles were tipped to catch the very last drop. There were no allowances: “Get a job.” We threw newspapers at eleven and cut grass for a living. I stole quarters from my mother’s purse and did a lot of lying. Our father’s fake poverty was an act he’d perfected. He missed being deprived and wanted us to experience it. We were cut off in a period of unprecedented affluence. We were locked in the basement during the masked balls upstairs, a bit of Cinderella in 1969. “Don’t you dare take a bite. That’s for our guests.”

We hid in our rooms as the parties unfolded. From time to time, a family friend might wander in and catch us with our pants down. She’d grasp her pearls and let out a cry. The door would close and we’d hide under our beds. In the morning, we’d find hundreds of cocktail glasses in the sink. The refrigerator door would be left wide open. My parents would sleep all day and we’d be told to go to the neighbors when we got hungry. We were not invited to our parents’ parties. They told people we hadn’t been born. Sometimes I wished I hadn’t. I dreamed of being taken away. But as phony as this baloney was, I’m not sure that it made me unhappy. We watched I Love Lucy and saved Beatles cards stolen from the five-and-dime. The starship Enterprise was there on the horizon and so was “The Man from U.N.C.L.E.” When I look back now, I’d say, it wasn’t so bad. I might even say we never had it so good.

This was the country we called America the Beautiful.

Tonight, I’ll find Paris Hilton or Madonna on TV, discussing their recent trips to Darfur. They’ll tell us what Darth Vader is like in bed. They’ll warn us about AIDS in Zimbabwe. This is what passes now as TV. Women have taken over, but men are still blamed. Oprah, Ellen, and Whoopi make their millions asking other women about their sex lives. Male guests strip off their clothes as the audience howls. This is America’s university. We all learn about what’s important from billionaires with product lines.

And we continue to decline without Walter Cronkite. What happened to Eric Sevareid and Harry Reasoner? Men are sickened by the collapse. Women are afraid we’re going down the drain. Together next year, we’ll watch a screening of the First Family using the toilet. Is there any hope? There’s some in the new ketchup bottle designed by Heinz. There’s consolation in the maple syrup-flavored coffee served at Starbucks. It adds confidence to the American people to know one can fly direct now from Kennedy to New Delhi.

Those Baroque cherubs with bare asses cling to the cathedral’s ceiling, plucking golden harps, as they tug at human hearts. They hang like bats from the ceiling, chubby tots, babies, not even toddlers. Gazing down, they denounce vanity but celebrate the divine. In the courtyard lies the monastery’s beer hall, a haven for families and alcoholics. The once sacred place has been turned into an attraction; St. Jerome as another Mickey Mouse, a sacred Donald Duck. The gargoyles are mere decorations, There, for our amusement, there as ghouls and goblins meant to rile or to tickle.

Did the Soviets have it right? Kill off the Christians and rebuild the churches. Bring in the tourists! Against all warnings, written and spoken, tourists snap selfies, dick pics in the pews. Husband climbs the ladder while wife plays lookout. To break off the cherub’s tiny prick. That’s where we’re at. Next, she’ll ask the priest for his autograph.

If such sights were never meant to be uplifting but only for distracting or merely for haunting, meant not to preoccupy, not to impart wisdom, but only to amuse, like taking in a motion picture, riding a roller coaster or visiting a brothel, then churches were built for fools. They’ve become destinations like park benches and beaches, Like restaurants with patios. The priest sucks strawberries and cruises cute waiters. He orders the tilapia with a side of organic honey. Who is he kidding? No wonder we imagine priests, like everyone else, with hard-ons. Who ever thought priests not strong enough to resist what all men know is sordid? Masturbation, say what you will, is not a celebration; whatever the elaboration, it is never more than a consolation. But without faith, how can one be expected to see a priest as any different?

I’ve seen a lot of churches. That lovely Greek Orthodox on New York’s Upper West Side, its interior powder blue and white. Oh, wow. And in Rome, my God, the Santa Maria della Vittoria, and on any street in San Miguel de Allende, Mexico, or take Landau Island between Macau and Hong Kong; churches are everywhere but not here. They’ve been abandoned like sharecropper shacks not long ago on the way to Little Rock or down to New Orleans. The wind blows through them, they’re used in desperation, to protect one from the weather, for crude copulations, or for defecating in the cold. They come in handy.

To get protection from the cold, some privacy for a long-postponed urination. Is that all churches are good for? Water closets for the poor? Such folly, such desperation; was it once called desiccation? Warring factions such as believers and non-believers share a bathroom. Blasphemy is lonely.

Are churches meant as cold storage? Nothing more than closets for Christian artifacts, bins for Renaissance rubbish? A filing cabinet for foolishness, a site for buried knights, retarded kings and perverse priests, with postcards: two for a dollar.

What an end to human charity.

To be closed off and boarded up like an old vaudeville house, like theatres on the Keith/Albee circuit, silent movie houses of the soul, demonstrations of human folly and a little devil worship, like LA’s Ambassador Hotel, where Robert Kennedy bled to death, right next to the Coconut Grove. Nothing more than mommy dearest, episodes of human anguish, dramatizations of belief and superstition; a house full of Halloween masks, a closet of soiled kimono, a toilet with no plumbing.

I asked my students in Jeddah how they could live without all that is forbidden. No alcohol, no tobacco, no sex. Was life really worth living? How could they continue? My students said, mister, I don’t feel that I miss anything. These things are not things to be missed. These are things to be free of. I am not denied them. I am free to take what I like, whenever I wish. I have learned not to want them, not to feel something has been taken away.

My dad was a big man in my life, that’s for sure. I’ve tried to feel sorry for not being there, but I don’t. People have to move on; I’m real big on that. He’d gotten out from under a household of seven kids. Those who stayed never recovered. They acted like kids at 40. My father had a full life and I am glad for him. Everyone deserves one. The circle of doom is drawn around us, it lies in wait and then pounces, like a bobcat on Mulholland Drive, a coyote howling in a play by Sam Shepard. Not even stolen toasters can take one’s mind off the inevitability, the sweet doctor’s bad news: one’s sugar is too high.

My best friend’s planning a picnic in the sun, a ten-foot table placed in the garden, where the children and grandkids can run. She plans to be there for the rest of her life. She hopes to be there forever. Who, pray tell, just tell me, plans to leave, sets the table knowing it will be their last? We lie about the coughing. We say we’re fine. We head for the hospital intending to see our friends, him and his partner, or whomever, but we always get there too late, haven you noticed? We hope to see each other later. That’s our dream and that’s how we speak. We even plan, we say, to see each other in heaven; we plan to meet tomorrow in the land of no tomorrows.

The circle of doom is a trap, iron teeth set on the floor of the forest, right next to the picnic table, right beneath the bed. We step in it when we are not looking; it grabs us by the throat, pulls us by the ankle. We piss ourselves. I’ve been there. Our friends tell us not to worry. Our doctor reminds us to get our things in order. Death is a cold bitch. Why don’t you leave? We’ve done it, haven’t we? Isn’t it time? You don’t want to? Oh? That’s disappointing. Don’t you have enough money? Didn’t you plan ahead? You should have thought about that. You should have saved. You’re not ready, are you? You’ve managed even to fuck up your own death.