It was my generation, after all, that had brought this about. It was we who were the food and sex addicts. My parents’ generation didn’t snack. They weren’t allowed to. My father’s mother had a padlock on the refrigerator door. She’d knock the boys over the head with an iron skillet if they tried to sneak into the kitchen between meals. There was no spending money, no afterschool shopping, no bags of penny candies in the classrooms, no cans of soda or anything like it. We were the ones who watched TV all day and compared notes by telephone at night.

I’d clearly been asking for it. I’d helped train the kids. I would bring a bag of penny candies to the classroom and keep it locked away in the cabinet until Rewards Day, when I offered Tootsie Rolls to my top students for work well done. Naturally, word got out; no doubt the kids told their friends and many who were not included felt left out. One day after school, at about 3PM, a group of neighborhood toughs came to my classroom door demanding their share. There were about twelve boys, I’d say 14 to 18 years of age, bored drop-outs and gangster wannabes looking for a handout and maybe a little trouble. I had stepped out of my door and was standing on the paved walkway leading to the car park. The boys surrounded me. One said, “give us some of that candy, motherfucker.” I was not at all ready for this sort of thing and had no idea how to respond. There was no one to call, nowhere to go, really. The campus cleared out daily right after school precisely because of this sort of thing, but I had been a bit delayed. “There’s nothing left. I gave it all away. I’m sorry, but…” I replied. “Shut up” was what I heard in response. I figured that a kid who could say that to a teacher could just about say or do anything. I realized now that I was in trouble and began to wonder how the whole thing would end.

Just then, little Willy, one of my 9th graders, showed up. He came over and stood beside me. I don’t remember saying anything to him, nor do I remember exactly how I felt upon seeing him. Was he part of this? I didn’t know. Then I heard him say: “Get back in the room.” I hadn’t seen his mouth move at all, but I recognized his voice. I followed his advice and closed the door behind me. We had no cell phones in those days and the classroom had no phone. I stayed in the darkened room for about 30 minutes, just standing there with my briefcase in my hand. I was afraid to reopen the door, but when I did, the coast was clear and I walked quickly to my car and drove away, out beyond the eight-foot-high fence that surrounded the school grounds, down past the seedy housing project where Willy and his friends lived. When I stopped at the red light, I lay my head on the steering wheel.

I decided that day to stop offering kids little rewards. I had helped train these thugs and would do so no longer.

I look into the mirror and whisper quietly to myself, getting increasingly louder, and hear myself declare that anyone who could vote in an election is a shit, that Hamilton is a piece of multicultural garbage and that people who gush over Game of Thrones are virtual cocksuckers. I’m not confident of my aesthetics, but I like hearing my new voice. Behind it all, I wonder why my friends have become such saps. When people start to think that musicals on Broadway represent cutting edge theatre, it is truly the end. It’s like believing the evening news is news. They might hear the plop-plop fizz-fizz of Alka Seltzer and believe their troubles are over, but I’m not buying it. Throughout this diatribe, I can sense that I am finally becoming free of my lifelong addiction. After years of wondering what I can buy, I am finally beginning to think of things I can sell.

Thereabouts, I discovered literature. I mean, cherry snow cones worked wonders and had a lot to do with why I was so happy throughout much of my childhood, and that hasn’t changed, but as I have gotten older, it is books that have given me the most pleasure.

Saul Bellow knew a thing or two. He was a jack of all trades. But he belonged to a different world, even though he was at the height of his powers in 1971.

Back then, Adrian, Michigan was the capital of America. Motown. If you were rich, like Saul Bellow’s brother, you had a Packard and a driver. People kept the radio on as they made love. Sears and Roebucks was the shit. The aroma of hot cashew nuts and Chanel No. 5 hit you as you walked through the front door. It was nice to leave home back in 1965. It was before women started lifting weights, back before men started checking out each other’s buns. “My, he has a nice ass.” That sort of language was unheard of back then. People ran porn movies in the back of their minds, not in shop windows.

Women lost weight easily. It wasn’t cool at all to look like Ethel Waters or Aunt Jemima. Aisle-blockers were shamed, as were their shamelessly sexy sisters. Shame was the name of the game. We were all raised to be ashamed of ourselves. I know I was. I was ashamed of everyone I knew.

I was ashamed to be alive. I was ashamed of my mother who never combed her hair. I was ashamed of my father who sported a beard. I was ashamed of myself for losing a wrestling match and for being an incompetent baseball player. Had I been Jewish, I would have been ashamed of getting B’s.

Memphis is on the Mississippi, but nobody knew how to leave town, unlike Bellow, who hit the road and wrote about going to Mexico. The horizon was on the other side of the river, but nobody dared to cross that bridge. We were stay-at-home types, little chickens. Everything in Memphis was thought the best. I believed the art gallery in Overton Park was bigger and better than the Met. Second rate was not only good enough, it was described as fine. “Who do you think you are?” We ate chow mein from a can. We put butter on our white rice. We thought sliced bread was a thing of wonder. We salted our watermelon. Some of us were racists.

My best friend Matt was accused of having combed his pubes and the boys at school almost drove him to suicide. I was told at a middle school party to stand up and kiss my so-called girlfriend on the lips, but that year at age 13, I didn’t know how or why. I stood in the middle of the room and died. One day I was singing the lyrics to the Stones’ “Satisfaction” as I entered class. One of the girls sniffed, “How would you know?” If you were not a stud, you were a dud. I felt surrounded by wolves. It’s a miracle I survived, or maybe I didn’t. I still can’t sleep at night. I still wet my bed.

And yet, when I look back, I wonder how I ever left. I left so much behind. I gave up all that for this. I gave up Faulkner for Vogue. I gave up the blues for rap. Shit, I gave up barbeque for tacos. I gave up everything I knew for the unknown. It is still unknown. It will always be so. I will always be lost. I will never find my way home.

But in all honesty, something tells me international relations haven’t played much of a role in creating American despair. I want to get back to the way people talk to each other. Back then, you went to buy something and you’d be greeted by a smile and a kind word. My favorite was said to me by a black waitress of not more than 23, who took one look at me and said, “Bless your heart.” She could see I was sick. Now I rarely hear a kind word. Nobody knows my name and I don’t know theirs. “Can I have a pack of Marlboro’s?” “That’ll be $6.99.” That’s it. Not a thank you to be found, not even on the floor. They pass you an open bag if you’re lucky. Now you have to pay for it. Do they want you to come back? Who the hell knows? The fact is, they are sorry you came. They’d just as soon you hadn’t been born. This is how one is treated. You get this treatment day in and day out; no wonder people develop agoraphobia. People are afraid to leave home.

If people aren’t happy—and perhaps they never were—why can’t they just pretend? That’s what I’ve always done. 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 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 across from East High. 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 Brit 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 that I hadn’t. And 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.

When the moon is down, one depends on morning alone to light the way. Mosquitos fly in silhouette and are made vulnerable. The map of the world is still being drawn. I check it daily to find my way. Arguably, one has a chance to bring in the harvest. That’s what buckets are for. One cheers all the hand-holding and deep kissing. People are becoming friendlier. Set out the lawn chairs for the passing parade.

We blocked the road with snow mounds before pelting drivers with balls of ice. We threw corn nuts on to the roads to attract mockingbirds and crows. My friends accepted dares to remove Christmas lights from our neighbors’ front doors and windows, but we always left their wreaths alone. In those days, we called it fun.

The elevators at the Century Building on Poplar were open by day. We ran in hoping for a ride to the top of the world, but the secretaries chased us out into the bright sun. We then headed over to Krystal’s for a ten-cent burger; a chocolate shake was just a dime more.

The bridge was too far, so we stayed where we were, just east of the Mississippi in Shelby, stuck forever between the zoo and Beale. When we got bored, which was every other day, we went out in the yard with daggers. We burned each other’s toes and plotted trips to the dogs. Prime Minister, the English bulldog, humped our legs while the Afghans ran in circles. We ate potato chips at midnight and cried ourselves to sleep: let’s go back tomorrow.

Sunday school was just a racket; we could see through it all with their chintzy donuts and stale coffee. What we wanted was adventure, racing off to leer at drawings of women in the drain tunnels under Chickasaw Gardens, throwing Fourth of July firecrackers in November, and then heading for the worm factory under the viaduct. After dark, we hunted for smashed cola cups at the ball park and clung in the parking lot to the hoods of passing cars.

I, for one, feel sorry that it’s been taken away for no good reason. All the memories have gone. We’re required instead to dance to the threat of revolution. Hip hop is now the music of indoctrination; we preferred rock or soul or even the blues; Furry Lewis got our attention when he came to town. The Old Forest full of heavy growth lures us back, but all we find is an empty lot, a ghost town called invention.

***

For all installments of “Why We Can’t Have Nice Things,” click here.

Previous installments:

  1. Part 1
  2. Part 2