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A White Boy on the Road

June 5, 2014

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(This is an excerpt from my book The Education of a White Boy: An Honest Discussion on Race, which recounts how my hitchhiking adventures shaped my racial attitudes.)

 

I left West Palm Beach in February 1980 to hitchhike to New Orleans and onward to California. During the next three years, I thumbed it a total of eighteen-thousand miles, suffered the claustrophobia of two continental bus trips and boarded two one-way airline flights to Denver. My travels developed into a predictable pattern: I would reach a destination after a grueling ordeal, obtain low wage employment (be it as a 7-Eleven clerk in Denver, a short-order cook in a bar in Cocoa Beach, Florida, an ink-mixer at the Palm Beach Times, a trash-man in New Orleans), then get the urge to recite my latest adventure to my audience back home, whereupon I would walk out to the nearest on-ramp and somehow make it back to Levittown to recharge for the next foray into the unknown.

Once upon a time, whenever a young American man, or kid, became committed to a drifter lifestyle, to throwing himself into the Great Wide Open, to exploring the “highways and byways” of America, the reason could usually be traced back to Jack Kerouac and his book, On the Road. A Kerouac wannabe – or, Jack-abee — was a book-reader and aspiring writer alienated from his uptight parents, as well as from his small and big business-centric home community, but not enough to convince the Jack-abee to refuse having his college tuition paid in full by the same Babbitt-esque parents. He sat at the feet of counter-cultural professors bemoaning, in the abstract, the Levittownization of America. He became obsessed with the idea of Nirvana, of achieving a higher state of consciousness, of separating himself from the competitive marketplace. He was the first person to see, to really see, man, the emptiness of the American Dream. On the Road came to him as an inspiration in his darkest hour, which usually coincided with the realization that he may have to get a real job. The rambling Beat novel served as his Bible, as a template for living independent of adult responsibility. He would, like, spread himself out over this crazy continent, get his kicks alongside all the beautiful outcasts, the same people whom mom and dad instructed him to scorn as bums. Once done with college, he would go slumming on the highways of America. Hitchhiking was a passive way for him to gain literary experience. The only requirement was that he stand idle on an on-ramp and wait for a ride, wait for the narrative to find him, which, in his self-important mind, was bound to assume an epic cast, with him as the hero – or anti-hero, the latter being the more romantic protagonist.

My own situation was the reverse of this purposeful slumming as outlined by an underground author from Lowell, Massachusetts. I struck out on the road for non-literary reasons. I had never heard of Jack Kerouac, much less struggled with his hallucinatory prose, and it was only after my road adventures that I began to understand the literary possibilities of my own narrative. Also, I was from Levittown, the actual place, not the mythical representation of American blandness – and, fuck it, I liked Levittown.

It was not until eight years later that I read On the Road. I was a literary novice at the time, and so was tentative about making judgments on Melville, Conrad and Dickens, or any other author for that matter – except when it came to Kerouac. He may have bamboozled the educated young members of the Baby Boomers, but that was not going to happen with me, not on my turf. Kerouac rhapsodized over a lifestyle that I knew was more hardship and loneliness than, to use his term, kicks. Kerouac was so full of poetic conceit — and drugs and booze — going into the adventure, and even more addled on looking backward during the composition, that he may have actually believed the run-on sentences he two-fingered typed on paper. Also, he only dabbled at being a hobo, whereas to be an actual hobo was nothing to write home — or to a publishing house — about. I knew he was full of shit upon reading the following passage from On The Road:

 

At lilac evening I walked with every muscle aching among the lights of 27th and Welton in the Denver colored section, wishing I were a Negro, feeling that the best the white world had offered was not enough ecstasy for me, not enough life, joy, kicks, darkness, music, not enough night. I wished I were a Denver Mexican, or even a poor overworked Jap, anything but what I so drearily was, a “white man” disillusioned. All my life I’d had white ambitions…I passed the dark porches of Mexican and Negro homes; soft voices were there, occasionally the dusky knee of the men behind rose arbors. Little children sat like sages in ancient rocking chairs.

               

Pah-leeze! It may have been impossible for the Beat author to have altered his DNA so he could assume the biological identity of an authentic Mexican or Japanese, but there was nothing to prevent him from obtaining a factory job and becoming a “poor” and “overworked” drone. Kerouac could have easily got over his man-crush on Neal Cassidy; or said no to playing tom-toms while Ginsberg preached against material greed in the poem “Howl” that would someday make the bearded poet a lot of cash; or stopped writing books that brought fame in the form of  barefooted teenagers arriving at his porch – yes, he could have sidestepped all these “white” activities and clocked in at a GM factory, rented a home in a black neighborhood and, just like that, achieved his dream of working class destitution. But that would have blunted the romance, and hence no On The Road.

                                                       ……………….

 

                Why, then, did I set out for the road, if not to pay homage to the great Jack Kerouac? The reasons are manifold and no less half-baked than those that prompted college kids to choose On the Road over The New England Medical Journal as a career guide. Where better to start than with my dad and his mentor, Jesus Christ.

Gore Vidal, a true writer, would expound on Ronald Reagan and his close alliance with Born Again Christians. Born Agains, or as Vidal called them, First Christers, believed in something called the Rapture. This was an event in which those who have accepted Jesus as the one true God will be carried away from Earth in one mass celestial migration – and lucky for them. Those left behind will suffer through World War III that will culminate in the fight “at Armageddon, fifty-five miles north of Tel Aviv,” with Gog and Magog (Russia) on one side, led by the Antichrist (the Communist Premier of the moment) and the U.S. nuclear arsenal on the other. What will follow is seven years of plague to be capped off with the Second Coming of Christ and the inauguration of an international prayer meeting lasting a millennium. This led Vidal to editorialize: “Just why Jesus’ Dad should have chosen nuclear war as a means of universal peace is as rare and impenetrable a mystery as the Trinity itself.” His point was that Reagan and his people were stepping up the arms race, not because the USSR was a threat, but rather to honor our part in fulfilling the prophesy of Armageddon.

To the average reader, Gore Vidal may have been the crackpot, instead of the Republican leaders whom he had lopped in the same category as Islamic suicide bombers. But I knew only too well how accurate he was in his descriptions of otherwise responsible adult men and women embracing such lunacy. There was Jesus’ Dad, Yahweh, and then there was my own dad, Bob Johnson, who, when I was thirteen, became a zealous believer in the Rapture – and Jesus and I were, if anything, good sons willing to do the bidding of our fathers. To this day, Bob still carries with him little three-by-five-inch booklets explaining why the End is Near and how one can get off the plague-ridden hook by falling down to one’s knees and accepting Jesus into one’s heart. They are written in easy to read comic book form, designed to win over the semi-literate mass of sinners. In high school, I devoured them at the expense of real books containing big words and uncomfortable facts. One of these tracts held that the Rapture would happen before 1988. A Biblical generation consists of forty years. It had been prophesied that the Rapture would occur sometime within the generation following the rebirth, in 1948, of the Israeli nation. When an empty, gullible mind is filled with one particular brand of lunacy, a lunatic is born. I came to believe in the Rapture, and that it would happen by 1988.

Like the Reagan gang, who dismissed Social Security as irrelevant in lieu of “the fact” that there would be no United States after 1988, I, too, saw no reason to plan on a distant future, as I would not be living, at least by mortal standards, beyond the tender age of twenty-eight. This gave me a convenient excuse not to pursue college. I could rest on the remedial laurels of my Delhaas diploma. My dad had no argument with that, and so encouraged me to become a printer.

My dad once took me to see two evangelists, Nicky Cruz and Mike Warnke. The testaments of both men were one-tenth praising the Lord and nine-tenths describing what bad boys they had been prior to their conversion. Their supposed motive was to warn against the life of a hardcore sinner, though all they did for me was to make sinning an attractive enterprise. The war stories of Cruz and Warnke underscored the dullness of my own life. Sure I wanted to get on board the Rapture train when it chugged off to Heaven, but I also wanted a shady past to brag about to my fellow passengers, like an AA meeting on ascendant rails. That was not going to happen by remaining in Levittown and becoming a member of my dad’s church. The plan, then, was modified: I would strike out on the road and not shrink from any vice so long as it someday provided entertainment to an auditorium full of lost souls seeking my evangelical guidance. Meanwhile, I would keep a spiritual ear out for any signs of the impending Rapture. Once the angels began warming up the trumpets, I would stop sinning and tell Jesus what a great and lovable guy He was and for Him to please include me in the exodus. The trick was to sneak into Heaven at the eleventh hour laden with tall, dark-sided tales.

Then there was the matter of my special-ness. I still believed that greatness would come to me without any effort or planning or even talent. The world, as one, would simply turn to me and recognize the true center of the Universe. Imagine my disappointment, two years after high school graduation, on finding that being the star of my own movie had not translated into being the star of a Hollywood movie. Record companies had not divined the rock lyrics I had kept hidden in a box and come knocking at my door in Levittown with a limo parked at the curb.

More frustrating was the example of Sylvester Stallone, a regular guy from the Philly area, who, penniless, had written a screenplay entitled Rocky and then played the leading role. The working class dialogue in Rocky seemed within my range, much how I had found it simple to emulate the words to the songs of The Rolling Stones and Foreigner. But jotting down cute little rhymes on bar napkins took less work than structuring a long narrative, no matter how vernacular the language. Of course, I did nothing realistic toward achieving this goal, for example reading books on screenwriting or mounting the stage in an amateur theatre. That would have entailed study and getting over my fear of public-speaking, and I had no time for that, what with all the sinning left undone and with so little time left before the Rapture.

What I had to do was go on the road. Then, after many crazy adventures, I would enter Hollywood emitting an aura of shining magnetism and be recognized in an instant as the real deal. Producers and directors would call me into their office and extract, telepathically, the screenplay floating around somewhere in my substance-abused head. That I often got tongue-tied in a strange environment would now become a thing of the past. I would flourish as an actor, having only needed other people to believe in my special-ness. To crown my rags-to-riches story, Victoria Principal and I would get married and walk into the sunset, just like in, well, the movies. All I had to do to set these events in motion was to stand, like a passive Jack-abee, on the highway, with thumb extended, and await my glorious destiny.

`               This film that flickered between my ears needed a soundtrack. I had grown up in the Seventies when there was no shortage of road anthems, all of which made life as a starving, befuddled vagrant sound like a fun and effortless spa treatment. Lynyrd Skynyrd claimed that “They call me the breeze/’Cause I keep blowing down the road…” The Eagles spun it as paradisiacal: “Well, I’m a runnin’ down the road tryin’ to loosen my load/I got seven women on my mind/Three that wanna stone me/Two that wanna own me/One she’s a friend of mine…Take it eeeasy…” And Led Zeppelin fueled the image of California as a place where any loser can become bigger than life: “Made up my mind, gonna make a new start/Goin’ to California with an aching in my heart…Standin’ on a hill in my mountain of dreams/Tellin’ myself it’s not as hard at it seems.” Such tunes jazzed up my delusions.

The final inducement to heed the call of the wild was an actual flesh and blood person, and that role fell to Jason, my African-American co-worker at the New Jersey State House. He had said that I was the one guy in the shop whom he envisioned as a fellow traveler, the one who belonged out in the wider world taking chances and not limited by a paltry job in the bowels of Trenton, New Jersey. He never spoke of Hollywood fame nor of “seven women on my mind.” Instead, he described how the hardship and variety of the road would hammer me into a better man. This was the best reason of all to put myself at the mercy of the world.

Three years later, when I thumbed my last mile, it was Jason who had been the true prophet. The road did end up cleansing a lot of the pop culture-induced crap from my head. Most of the therapy was accomplished on the first leg of the journey. On leaving West Palm Beach, I already understood too well the gulf between fantasy and the real world. I had seen too much poverty and too many broken souls to ever again believe in the Hollywood mantra that “if you dream, anything is possible.”

The Rapture business took a little longer to fade into the loony bin from whence it had come to me; and when it did recede into a personal footnote marked “cautionary,” I reacted with my usual extremism – there was NO God. I was especially harsh on January 1, 1989. I had wasted a crucial part of my youth over a false prophecy and was to pay for it the rest of my life. My lack of formal education and time spent in professional circumstances ended up relegating the economic me to Kerouac’s dream existence of being a “poor and overworked” slug – and, trust me, none of it has ever involved “ecstasy…joy, kicks.”

As for the Eagles and that stinkin’ song “Take it Easy,” I would like to question the boys on that one. Either there was something wrong with how I looked or Jackson Browne, who wrote the lyrics, knew the right entrance ramps, For the only people that ever pulled over for me were predatory homosexuals. The “seven women on my mind,” should have been altered to read: “…Three that wanna stone me (with rocks)/Two that wanna own me (to sell later as body parts)/One she’s a friend of mine (Jim, I think you’re a nice guy, but…) Take it eeeasy!”

                                     ………………….

 

I did eventually reach Hollywood, but by then I was not expecting a red carpet that stretched from I-10 to the podium at the Oscar ceremony. It had been a weary and unwashed trip from West Palm to New Orleans (where I drank for ten days during Mardi Gras) and then across the 800 miles of wasteland called Texas followed by a hitchhiker’s sprint over the deserts of New Mexico, Arizona and the Baja. It was at the arid Arizona/California border that I was picked up by a guy nicknamed Rebel, a wild biker stationed as a Marine in the area. Why, I asked, would a nonconformist join the Marine Corp of all things? “Brother,” he turned to me, smiling, “my motto is that if it ain’t hard getting, then it ain’t worth having.” This was a pithy line loaded with the common man’s wisdom, and it justified my own hard trip and added to the thrill of reaching, that night, the Pacific Ocean, whereupon I rented a room for two days and slept like a prison warden.

The real Hollywood had nothing to do with glamour and red carpet; rather it was seedy, chaotic and dangerous in the way of a creepy Jamie Lee-Curtis-pre-True-Lies-low-budget-movie. Later, I would compare New York City to Los Angeles by saying that both were scary towns, but with a difference. In New York, they robbed you because they wanted your money, and if you were killed in the process, it was with a quick bullet between the eyes. In L.A., they robbed you as a mere afterthought to the true business at hand – committing unspeakable acts upon your flesh before torturing you to death. To state the obvious, I did not achieve movie stardom, nor win the heart and breasts of Victoria Principal; nay, all that I got in Hollywood was a Rolling Stones tongue tattooed on my right arm and a sexual encounter in the bushes with an overweight girl plagued by a staggering case of halitosis. If you dream, anything is possible.

I was set straight in Hollywood through a chance encounter with the usual suspect, an old black guy. He was a hefty fellow, with a beard a few spots short of gray. I was starting to think that someone had organized a network of black men all around the country to help keep me in line. Jason had seen me off, while Harry awaited my arrival in Florida, and now this bewhiskered fellow had taken up the watch. I could imagine each guide communicating with the previous one. Yeah, Harry, I see the fool you call Macho. He just stepped out onto Hollywood and Vine. I got a lock on him. To be precise, I was tottering on the curb of Sunset Boulevard in the early morning. I had been sleeping on the streets for a week. The previous night had witnessed my tryst with the toxic-waste-breathing siren. I was dirty, exhausted and more spaced out than a Hollywood astrologist, whereupon I noticed my latest black guide sitting in a car studying me and shaking his head in the manner of a parent who cannot believe that his teenaged son has made the ill-advised attempt to grow sideburns. He signaled for me to come over.

“Exactly what are you doing?” he asked.

I shrugged.

“That’s what I thought.” He exhibited a high degree of impatience that indicated that I had better not further test him. During the last half year, I had met a lot of older homosexuals wanting to pay me for sex, or, if possible, to get it from me for nothing other than the attraction of their wrinkled and sagging good looks. As a result, I had developed an accurate inner gay-dar. They could come in the guise of a stale businessman or a rough and hardy working class hero, and still I could detect their true preference before they uttered one word of proposition. I leveled my gay-dar, from pointblank range, at this old black guy, but there was no bleep, not even the hint of a guy without kids of his own who tries to convince himself that he attends high school boys’ soccer games because of his love for the sport. Therefore, when he told me to get in the car and that he would buy me breakfast, I obeyed, albeit with my guard up against any other kind of L.A. weirdness.

At a restaurant on Hollywood Boulevard, we got a table by the window. He told me to order anything on the menu and in multiple portions. He sat bolt upright and shifted his eyes back and forth between my plate, or plates, and the view outside the glass.

“Philadelphia,” he said after the preliminaries. “What are those MOVE brothers up to anyway?”

MOVE was the African-American revolutionary group whose notoriety popped up now and then in the Philly local news, usually after their latest confrontation with the cops. In one recent skirmish, MOVE had killed a policeman. (This was long before the black Mayor Wilson Goode ordered the cops to drop a bomb on their headquarters.)

“All I know is they don’t believe in washing themselves,” I said, while shoveling an omelet into my mouth.

“Kinda like you.”

“I wash myself.”

“When? Where?”

“In sinks at public restrooms.”

He laughed, then said: “Do you climb in naked with a rubber ducky?”

“No…I don’t have a rubber ducky.”

“Why did they kill that cop?” he asked

“I don’t know.”

“That’s wrong. People shouldn’t go around killing the police.”

“Really?” I had not suspected a black man to shed a single tear over the Man, especially one so far away.

“Yes, really.” He was indignant. “Didn’t that bother you?”

I stopped to consider, and replied: “Not really.”

He censured me with a look that served as a slap across the face. Then he returned to gazing out the window. “What’s this world coming to?” he sighed. “Well, boy, that’s neither here nor there. I take it you probably came out here with high expectations.”

“A few, I guess. Not now, though.”

“You were gonna be famous, right?”

I was embarrassed to answer, which was my answer.

“That’s all right. Everyone comes to Hollyweird to become rich and famous, and all of them end up like this guy.” The failure in question was outside the window dressed in army pants and a pink, silver-studded shirt, and sported a Mohawk that included every other color omitted from the rest of his attire. He was smoking a cigar and wielding a cricket stick. “I bet he thought he would make it as the Second Coming of Mick Jagger. Only what he got was the Second Coming of Bianca Jagger after a sex change. I peg you for a Sylvester Stallone wannabe.”

He was making it hard for me to enjoy my food.

“Boy,” he said, “this isn’t the town of dreams. This is Sodom and Gomorrah. Look at all the scum.” He waved his hand toward the street. “They’re all still coked up from last night.” He shook his head in disgust, then checked up on my meal. “Do you have a girlfriend back home?”

“Nah.”

“Why not?”

Here we go again, I thought. Another black guy was about to offer me the standard advice that what I needed was to get some pussy. But this time I was poised with a retort, and could not wait to let it rip. It would be short and sweet, as in: Guess what, bro? – got laid last night. So whaddaya think about that? You’re not so smart after all, hah, tough guy? Of course, I would omit how, with one exhalation, my hefty paramour could have backed down a rhino just lifting its head from a vat of garlic. But, as luck would have it, he was leaning in the opposite direction, toward morality, the bastard.

 “Go home,” he said, “or somewhere not here and find a good girl and settle down and raise a family.”

“That sounds boring. Plus, if I did that, I’d just end up getting divorced. That’s what happened to all the parents in my neighborhood. They all broke up because they got married too young. Now they’re doing things they missed – going out to bars and getting laid. They’re sowing their oats. I wanna sow my oats while I’m young.”

“Well, boy, if this is what they missed,” – he gestured again toward the rabble – “then they didn’t miss much. Cheap sex is exactly what it says – cheap. Wouldn’t you be happier in a nice house right now, with a nice wife, dressed in clean clothes and with your hair washed? Christ, look at you. You’re a mess. Is this what you call sowing your oats? Seems to me, all you’re doing is walking around in a daze looking like a goddamn male prostitute, and a pretty scruffy one at that.” He paused and allowed me some brief eye contact before returning his attention to the streets. “You seem like a good kid, just stupid is all. I’m gonna tell you something I want you to promise me you’ll never forget. Do you promise?”

“Yeah,” I groaned while bracing for yet another sermon from The Old Black Guy.

“Dreams, little brother, are for losers. All these lost souls here started out as dreamers. Oh yeah, all starry-eyed and full of themselves. They stormed off from home, like you, telling all the folks how they were gonna be big stars, just you wait and see. But dreamers don’t become stars. Smart and talented and, most important of all, ruthless people become stars. Barbra Streisand may sing sentimental songs, but the woman is driven and hard as nails and would never let sentimentality get in the way of her career. Dreamers play the lottery. Stars go to work. But fame, too, is bullshit. It seems all these celebrities wind up wanting the same stuff they used to make fun of their old neighborhood friends for wanting, a good marriage and home life. Even Barbra talks that shit. Why not just skip the useless striving and cut right to the domestic chase? Who you trying to impress? Once you get back to Philly and finish bragging to everyone about your adventures, how long do you think it will take before they forget your stories and go on with their own business? A minute, that’s how long. Then what? You should go to college.”

“College ain’t for me.” I refused to add that the Rapture played a huge part in my decision not to pursue the standard American Dream. Who knows how this angry old pragmatist would have taken such news. A backhand to my cheek seemed like a good start.

“I get it,” he said in irritation. “Going to class each day is not risky and romantic enough. Not extreme enough.”

“College kids don’t know nothing about the real world,” I interjected.

“And you do, Mr. Globetrotter?”

I nodded out toward the street. “More than a college kid.”

“Is that right? Do you know more about science? About politics? Business? How ‘bout the English language? That stuff is also Life. In fact, the educated world is more real than drinking and sleeping on sidewalks and hanging out with scum. This cesspool is not the real world. Just because you’ve flitted around a little in the underworld, doesn’t make you an authority on Life.” He pounded his fist on the table. He now looked me in the eye and stayed zeroed in. “Now here’s part two of what I want you to remember. You’re gonna get old, real old.”

“I ain’t getting old. I’ll die young. I just know it.”

“Oh God!” He seemed ready to blow a gasket. “All you self-absorbed punks say that, and it’s all derived from your oversized, immature egos. Give me a fuckin’ – no, make that a motherfuckin’ – break. I got some news, James Dean. You will get old. Know what else? You’ll act old, too. Trust me. And when that happens, all your idiotic slumming is gonna come back to haunt you. Slumming as a young stud is one thing, but slumming as a worn out old man is no joke. No joke! It’s hard and painful and lonely. And get this – all those war stories you’re gonna tell the folks back home – tell the same stories when you’re old, and no one’s gonna listen. That’s how dreamers end up, except they dream about how the past could’ve been different – college, the wife, the house, the kids.”

Afterward, we stood on the sidewalk surveying all the garish hedonism. He snorted with contempt, then reached into his pocket and pulled out a wad of cash. He peeled off a twenty and handed it to me.

“Thanks,” I said.

“Just remember what you promised.”

“I will.”

We parted there on Hollywood Boulevard, where the stars are etched onto the pavement. If all I had just heard was true, then the rock song I should have used as a personal anthem on leaving Levittown was not “Take it Easy” by the Eagles, but rather “Celluloid Heroes” by The Kinks. As I walked down Hollywood Boulevard, I tried to remember the words:

 

Everybody’s a dreamer and everybody’s a star

And everybody’s in movies, it doesn’t matter who you are

There are stars in every city

In every house and on every street

And if you walk down Hollywood Boulevard

Their names are written in concrete

 

You can see all the stars as you walk down Hollywood Boulevard

Some that you recognize, some that you’ve hardly even heard of

People who worked and suffered and struggled for fame

Some who succeeded and some who suffered in vain

 

Everybody’s a dreamer and everybody’s a star

And everybody’s in show biz, it doesn’t matter who you are

And those who are successful: be always on your guard

Success walks hand in hand with failure along Hollywood Boulevard

                                          …………….

 

The old man in Hollywood was right: a drifter knows little about the big picture, and, yes, I should have gone to college. I spent so much of my impressionable youth looking at society from the lowest angle that I came to distrust middle-class America. If, on graduating high school, I was not college material, then now, while on the road, I spat at the very idea of the ivy covered walls of academia out of loyalty to my fellow street people and rage against the privileged, educated people who blew past us on the sidewalks. My permanent worldview was being formed on pure resentment.

Once, in New Orleans, I was lying on the grass trying to sleep off a wild drinking binge. I heard voices above me and could tell that they were well-to-do college kids. They began to comment on this poor, homeless kid. Are they talking about me? I wondered. Then one of them, a girl, said: “It’s so sad.” I sat up, mad (in both senses of the word), and said: “Fuck off!” They scurried away, no doubt sadder over my plight.

It was their smugness that so infuriated me. I had learned firsthand that homelessness and poverty were no abstract conditions; that we were all capable of falling down and never rising again to self-sufficiency, thanks to friends who would want nothing to do with a friend in need; and that there were millions of people who had simply been born ill-equipped, or the wrong color, to deal with the world and its harsh realities. White people seemed to have no concept of the slippery slope of human existence. They believed that the comfort and advantages they enjoyed were their birthright, not supreme good luck. It would make me nuts to see a businessman strutting by, briefcase in hand, so confident in his position high up on the economic ladder; or the suburban mother in impeccable dress and makeup, so entitled to her fairyland of linoleum and station wagons (later it would be minivans and SUVs); or my favorite whipping boy, the college kid, so relaxed and sure of a bright, moneyed future. They had no clue that just outside the boardroom, the white picket fence and the frat-house was a chaos just as indifferent to them as they were to the less fortunate. All it took was a company downsizing, a missed mortgage payment or expulsion from school due to one incident in the coed dorm for the sunny mirage of the American Dream to vanish in the desert air of Fate. I wanted to grab and shake them and scream: “You people don’t get it, do you? This is not your doing. This is luck, pure, motherfucking luck!”

More irksome were the white Christians who ignored the teachings of Jesus for the sake of convenience and personal comfort. Christians liked to talk, to convert, but when it came down to relieving someone’s immediate duress, they would defer that responsibility to God, a nonexistent benefactor. (To this day, I have never once witnessed God pick up a dinner tab.) I must have been on the listening end of at least three hundred sermons from middle class evangelicals, only ten of which offered material assistance, as they afterward drove off in their new cars to their new homes.

One guy preached to me for an hour while giving me a ride through Nevada. Then he stopped at a Wendy’s and ate right in front of me without so much as pushing a single french-fry across the table. To pile on the hypocrisy, he continued telling me of God’s love as my stomach growled and my mouth watered as if I were a dog salivating over a steak. Whatever happened to bribing people with food as a conversion technique?

Another guy talked for hours about Christ and the benefits of being Born Again as we drove through Central Florida toward the Panhandle. Then, on a dime, he started bragging about how many women he had slept with in his life – seventy-five. At dusk, he stopped to fill up on gas. The attendant was a girl with whom he began to flirt as if he were a disco-king in Brooklyn. We resumed heading down the highway when it started to rain in Biblical proportions had the Bible had been written in Bangladesh. Meanwhile, John the Baptist kept speaking of how cute that little girl was and that maybe he should have pressed further and asked if she wanted to get a room. Now it was dark and I knew he was angling to reverse direction so he could go screw the gas attendant. He turned to me, with puppy-dog eyes, and said he would have to let me out of the car. I asked if he could at least be a good Christian and drop me off under an overpass, as the rain had intensified to a monsoon. Sure, sure, he said. I’ll do that for you, as he gunned it for the next bridge. Still, I went on believing for five more years that Jesus Christ was God. It was humanity that needed some work.

For a religion that had been conceived to give hope to oppressed people, to slaves, the crippled and the destitute, the Christians that kept cornering me, when not waving food in my face or banging out gas attendants, spoke a lot about money. On my return trips to Levittown, my dad would watch the televangelists, Pat Robertson, Jim Bakker and Jerry Falwell. They, too, dedicated much of their programs to the subject of God, as in the message on the back of a dollar bill – “In God We Trust.” Here I was organizing my life around the premise that the Rapture would happen sometime before 1988 – that is, not planning for a terrestrial future – and here were the very people promoting this The End is Near news investing long-term in the American Dream.

Christianity was a capitalist principle based on self-interest. St. Paul, the original marketing executive, designed history’s most ambitious incentive program in which the more converts one wins over to the True Way – i.e., increased sales – the greater the rewards (bonuses) received at the end of the quarter (death) from that appreciative CEO in the sky. This meant that prophets – or profits – like Jerry Falwell and Pat Robertson, would spend the Hereafter in a setting so luxurious as to match, in Earthly terms, the lifestyles of the rich and famous – for instance, Jerry Falwell and Pat Robertson.

Much of my fury against white America came from having shared in the complacency during my first nineteen years. I was a former insider now turned witness to the prosecution, Joe Valaci to white suburbia’s Mafia. I knew that for the average Caucasian, hunger meant being denied that fourth scoop of ice-cream (except in the Johnson household where Father Bob would not allow comfort food); that their idea of suffering was cuddling on the sofa with the thermostat at a freezing sixty-eight; and that their understanding of homelessness was voiced by their blowhard dad holding forth that any bum who refused to get a job deserved to starve in a ditch. Such convictions were nurtured by uninformed minds and then manifested with arrogance.

What the white blowhards did not get was that being a street bum is hard work. If getting a decent night’s sleep on a mattress with a bad spring is difficult for the suburban warrior, then try falling into a therapeutic slumber on a cold pavement with a step for a pillow. If spending eight hours a day at a repetitious job is a chore, then try walking for the same amount of time through a city in search of food. If it is rare to find a room in the house away from the wife and kids so to enjoy some quiet time, then try relaxing in a park full of strangers and pigeon shit. All those pompous businessmen, well-groomed housewives and optimistic college kids would not have lasted a day in the shoes of a street bum, though the experience may have cured the blowhard of his ignorance.

                                   …………….

 

Kerouac viewed the people he met on the road, in particular Dean Moriarty (Neal Cassidy), as ecstatic spirits that would forever burn with the brightness of a jobless sun. I came to see them as lost, broken souls, marked for a tragic life.

Many were born weak and unstable and never had a chance, for example the schizophrenic girl at the Kenmore Hotel in Denver, where I stayed during the summer of ’82. One day she told me of her two kids, the existence of which came as news to me, as she spent most of her days alone between four bare walls. Would I want to see a picture? All right. She handed me a sheet of paper featuring two drawn stick figures. Then she leaned into me and gushed: “Aren’t they beautiful?” My polite response was that, yes, they were beautiful – very beautiful…I guess. The next day, I saw her prancing around downtown in a leather jacket kickboxing lampposts. This crazy girl should have been in an institution, but Reagan’s social service cuts had thrown such people at the mercy of the world, there to swim a few strokes before sinking fast to the bottom of the Free Market Ocean. Reagan was a big proponent of people deserving what they got – and after his presidency, he got Alzheimer’s.

Some people seemed okay until tragedy hit, whereupon they, too, lost their minds. In West Palm Beach, there was the Dixie Witch. No matter how hot the temperature, this woman of sixty wore a long green coat. Her hair was so matted that only a clean shave to the scalp would have restored follicle order. She prowled the streets and alleys each day to what must have amounted to a total distance of ten miles. It turned out that her incessant walking had a purpose. She had been a newlywed in the early Nineteen-Forties when her husband went off to war, with the promise that he would come back home, and that she should keep a sharp lookout, and that they would live happily ever after. He died in the war, and she was never able to accept the news. For the next forty years, she searched every nook and cranny of West Palm Beach for her war hero and eternal husband.

There were the tough and resourceful ones who nonetheless were beaten down in the end. My first morning in West Palm Beach, I was nervous about the twenty dollars in my pocket that stood between the abyss and me. There was a job listed in the Palm Beach Times for a hardware store clerk, not that I knew a roofing nail from a hang-nail, but, hell, it could not be all that difficult to help a customer by pointing down an aisle toward the screwdrivers. Except I had no idea as to the location of the hardware store, nor of my own location for that matter. I approached a woman sitting on a bus bench and, showing her the ad, wondered if she could guide me in the right direction. It was nine AM and she was drinking beer. She ordered me to pull up a seat, then ripped off a can from her already broken six-pack and thrust it into my paw. She inquired about my situation. Nineteen years old? Hell, she had a son not three years younger than me. I explained my fear of not making it down here in Florida, hence the need to get a job today. She launched into a rousing speech about how she never gave up, and that I would do the same – she could see that in me. Life goes up and down and you have to ride out the down time if you want to appreciate the high time. No, she always found a way to survive. She stood up and walked to the curb and drained the rest of her beverage. Then she announced that if ever worse ever came to worse, she just stuck out her thumb. I was two weeks removed from Levittown, and so I asked her what that had to do with survival. She flashed me a smile, and said: “Honey, I wasn’t born a woman for nothing.” She extended her thumb, and right away a van pulled over driven by some glassy-eyed man. Oh, I said. She grabbed what was left of her six-pack and told me to take care, and off she went with the strange suitor. Wow, I said aloud. I found the hardware store, but noticed that across the street was the Palm Beach Times, workplace of Harry, George and Roy. The Inspirational Hooker, as I was to call her, got me so fired up that the next day I was being shown around the pressroom, as a new employee, by Harry.

Toward the end of my Florida sojourn, I again saw the Inspirational Hooker. She was leaning against a wall smoking and seemed a lot thinner, if not skeletal. I looked into her hallowed out eyes and got no response, not even a flicker that a human being was inside that skull. Her speech that morning on the bus bench had been a resounding performance, but now I realized that there comes a point in everybody’s life when the downtime can no longer be ridden out, not even by the toughest of fighters.

Even when one was strong, smart and planned ahead, there was still old age. I lived in an old-folks home in West Palm Beach, and that experience coupled with my residence at the Kenmore Hotel in Denver taught me early on of life’s inherent tragedy. At both places, I saw people that had done all right in life, only to lose a step to younger, more ruthless professionals. They had lost their earning power and were now reduced to a marginal existence, locked away in their little shit-hole rooms, forgotten, lost, cooking paltry meals on a hotplate. Every week, medics wheeled another corpse down the hallway. This was a complete shock to someone who had grown up witnessing senior citizens enjoying their golden years in a paid off, albeit cheap, Levittown house with regular visits from dozens of loving grandchildren, while the Phillies played on the tube and the smell of spaghetti sauce perfumed the air. Even if the Rapture was a sham, I began to wonder at the sense of creating goals that would only be undone by biological decay. Would I, too, end up in a barren room with a hotplate? The thought haunted me not unlike a vain middle-aged Hollywood starlet being haunted by a wrinkled future. The Eskimos did not bother with Kenmore Hotels. Once pops or granny lost that crucial step, the next step was for the kids to put their husk of an ancestor onto a sheet of ice and wish them bon voyage.

The most tragic of the lost souls was Donald, since I may have helped contribute to his downfall. He grew up across the street from me in Levittown and was three years younger. He had a severe stuttering problem and a terrible home life. His alcoholic, blowhard stepfather made the Great Santini look like Mother Cabrini. At one point, Donald asked if he could come along with me on my next cross-country adventure. All of us in the neighborhood had been worried that either Donald or his stepfather would someday perish at the hands of the other, and so perhaps I thought that, yes, it would be a good idea to remove the kid from the house, if not the state. It turned out to be a big mistake. On our first day out, Donald was robbed and it never got any better for him. Worse, I was in full nomadic swing and would fill his ear with bad advice about never letting anyone tell you what to do and that if circumstances worsened in one town, then all you had to do was pick up and thumb it to the next town.

At the beginning my quest for literacy, at the age of twenty-two, the very first book I read was entitled A Man by Oriana Fallaci. There is a passage in it that I would often recite to Donald: The narrator asks the main character: “What does it mean to be a man?” To which he answers: “To struggle and to win.” But the struggles and hardships of the road were too much for Donald. He was not strong or resourceful enough to, one, overcome them, and, two, to learn valuable lessons that would sharpen his survival instincts to be used during the next trial. Soon, he resorted more and more to drugs and alcohol. He was the one kid who should have played it safe and remained in Levittown and pursued a trade with the goal of owning his own home. He needed structure, not to peer into the void that was the open road.

There were smaller breakdowns leading up to his final one. Donald and I were in New Orleans. Things were fine until he – of course! — got arrested for peeing in front of two senior citizens. It took all of our money and some panhandling on my part to bail him out. The next morning we applied at the labor pool. They put us on the back of a garbage truck. The driver was a dumpy middle-aged black guy eager to apply the lash to his two white slaves. Once we had heaved one set of maggot-filled barrels into the compressor, he would gun the truck to the next house, whereupon we were forced to run to catch up so to heave another load of filth. It was mid-June with the temperature over one hundred and six degrees and the humidity as high as it could go without the air becoming a cruddy fish tank. Three hours later, Donald began to falter and stagger after the always forward-moving truck. I yelled that he had better not quit, since it was his idiocy that had landed us in this predicament. Then I tried a gentler approach. “Come on, buddy. One day, that’s all. If we do this, I’ll buy you a cold pitcher.” But, as Midwestern philosophers like to say, it was not to be. Donald crawled up onto a lawn and lay flat on his back, his arms outward like Christ. I stood over him begging that he rise like said Jesus, only I was a far cry from Lazarus. I was ready to kick him in the ribs, when the driver came over, looked down, and said: “He’s done.” On the way back to headquarters, Donald apologized and promised that he would use the rest of the day to find a steady job. Now I felt bad for screaming at him, and said not to worry – I would make it through the day and we would still have that pitcher.

At headquarters, another sucker was enlisted as my partner. He was a large biker guy and told me that this would be no sweat for a guy his size. Oh, but there would be sweat, my Easy Rider friend, now that it was noon and the sun was flaying us alive. Three hours must have been the breaking point for this sort of activity, for it was at this same threshold that he, too, crawled up onto the lawn, though he did refrain from the enacting the Crucifixion. He sat with his forearms resting on his knees, and stared straight ahead toward some undefined point in space and time, as if he had seen God and been told that the official motorcycle in Heaven and Hell was Kawasaki. The driver trekked up beside him, and said: “He’s done.” We went and got another body.

That night it rained a Mississippi Delta rain, the kind of rain that informed the songs of the great old blues artists, Robert Johnson and Son House. The next morning, I returned to Sanitation Headquarters via the labor pool. My partner this time was a black guy who was more maniac than manual worker. He buzzed with hyperactivity. He teased me about how he would leave me in the dust, that there was no way I would last the duration. “Ah, white boy, I feel sorry for you. This is gonna be tough, real tough, and you don’t look very tough.” Our driver was a young jet-black guy built like a world-class sprinter. He was reticent and wore a permanent scowl. He surveyed me with utter contempt, as if to say: “I give this cracker two hours.” The Maniac sidled up to him and voiced his own reservations, but the driver silenced him with a forbidding glare. The weather was a repeat of the previous day, only now the trashcans were filled with rainwater. There would have been little difference had we been ordered to shot-put wood stoves. The driver kept his foot on the accelerator even as we dumped the cans. The Maniac continued his playful banter, asking every half block if I was ready to give up. I had arrived that morning with a queasy stomach and little sleep. But I wanted to shut this fucker up. I had in mind my dad who had been challenged in the army by the black Sergeant Johnson and had met that challenge; and this is how I perceived our grim, no nonsense driver. I did not want to corroborate his first impression of me as a soft white boy.

For nine hours, this death march of a workday went on, as the Maniac eventually morphed into a zombie-walking deaf-mute. Yet the driver did not slow the pace. Every so often, I looked at his rearview mirror and saw him, granite-faced, staring right back at me. In the tenth hour, my partner began to stumble like a dehydrated marathon runner at the twenty-fifth mile. The driver would wait for him and then gun the truck. At last, the now tranquilized Maniac made the pilgrimage up to the lawn and there lay on his stomach in the position of a murder victim. The driver dismounted from the truck and sneered at the beaten man. I stood wobbling, delirious, not wanting to elicit the same contempt. The driver motioned for me to stand idle while he made the magnanimous gesture of heaving the last few cans. When done, he turned to me, and nodded, which I translated to mean: “You done good, white boy.”

 The last time Donald and I were together was in Bakersfield, California, where it rains once a year. It was early morning and, of course, there was a torrent. At this juncture, Donald had lost a lot of brain cells and his judgment had become less reliable than a shopping addict being dropped from a helicopter into Macy’s on Black Friday. I felt responsible for him, but, in the end, his dementia was pulling him down like an anchor, and I did not want to be pulled down with him into chaotic destitution. We were to go our separate ways, with him hitchhiking to Florida, to his mother’s new home, and me going back to Levittown. By now, I had realized the harm I had done the poor kid. I was hoping his mother would be a good nurse. We shook hands and began walking in opposite directions. Then I heard him shout: “Hey!” I turned to see him thirty yards away standing with his arms to his side and his feet spread apart, his backpack on the ground. I nodded, What? He piped up: “What does it mean to be a man?” It was enough to break my goddamn heart, as tears welled up in my eyes. I yelled back: “To struggle and to win!”

I heard that Donald would return to California and wind up in jail. On his release, he came back to Levittown and within a week got a D.U.I. Then he faded away never to be heard from again, not that I ever made the attempt to learn of his ultimate fate, preferring not to reawaken my guilt.

I have my own version of Kerouac’s paragraph on strolling through the black section of Denver, wishing I were a Negro, feeling that the best the white world had offered was not enough ecstasy for me, not enough life, joy, kicks, darkness, music, not enough night. It was my second morning on the road since leaving Levittown. I was full of hope and delusion, which may be the twin forms of optimism, or at least related outlooks rooted in the same brain mechanism. The first two nights it had poured tankards of rain, beginning what was to become a tradition of getting caught in floods. I was outside Petersburg, Virginia, trying to get to the main route that would lead me to Virginia Beach. I ambled down a country road that was redolent of the Jim Crow South. The sky hung low and gray. I was surrounded by ramshackle homes centered on small, muddy farms. On each property, ancient black people, with rounded shoulders, tended to various chores. They all looked up as I trudged past them, none of whom issued a smile. A few of them gave me a neighborly nod, while the rest elicited no sign of recognition. I would like to say that there arose from the fields the songs of Son House and Mississippi John Hurt, but all I heard was dead silence. Unlike Mr. Kerouac, I sensed no ecstasy, joy, kicks and music. The only message being conveyed, and on only my second day out in the world, was that life was tragic, our little white brother, so you may as well stop right now all that nonsense about getting to Hollywood and becoming a star. If life and the world doesn’t knock you out soon, just wait till the next day when you will be a little bit more broken in mind and body. Life has all the time in the world, while your life is finite.

The ecstatic Jack Kerouac died sad and alone of alcoholism at forty-seven at his mother’s home in Florida.

                                          ……………….

 

Let us time-travel outside the temporal parameters of this narrative, into the post-1988 future, the year, mind you, when it turned out that there was no such thing as a Christian Rapture, and hence Jesus was not the Son of God but rather a more impressive mortal who bucked the Ancient Roman version of the American Dream. It was also the year when my immersion in African American Studies and Literature was reaching its peak intensity – translation: at the time, I loved all black people and hated all white people.

That was in 1988. On March 3, 1991, Rodney King was beaten by a gang of L.A. cops, which caused me to become enraged at yet another example of The Man being a tough guy only when holding a technological and numerical advantage, as these same cops, if they had ever found themselves alone wearing no badge or police uniform in a black neighborhood, would have been whimpering with terror at the prospect of fighting just one Rodney King. Then, a year later, in the aftermath of the acquittal of these blue-shielded cowards, when angry African Americans set the torch to Los Angeles, a few black kids pulled an innocent, white man, Reginald Denny, from his truck and proceeded to cave in his skull with a brick. This was followed by the even more sickening part of these sadists looking up to the helicopter that was filming the whole episode and celebrating their gruesome deed as if they were NFL players gloating in the end zone after a touchdown. On the other hand, it was a group of black Good Samaritans that pulled Denny out from the chaos and saved his life. To me, it was a wash, as I was now beginning to emerge from my adolescent mindset of black-white morality and to realize that people really are all the same; and if you put anyone, no matter their race, gender or spiritual belief, in a position of power, they will nine-times-out of-ten cave in the head of those with less power. As to Rodney’s question of Why can’t we all just get along? – the answer was simple: we will never all just get along, never have and never will, and that, my friends, is that.

Then came O.J., the black man whom my generation had viewed with colorblind eyes, who had killed his white wife so that now we saw color in every act and motive. Who cannot forget the trial of O.J. Simpson? In the early part of the court proceedings, it really was difficult to know if he was guilty or innocent, but toward the end, it was obvious to any objective person that the once likable, engaging football star and commercial actor was in fact a crazed, knife-wielding psychopathic killer. Then came the day of his televised acquittal and the ensuing mass celebration of black people all over the country. An entire American demographic was ecstatic that a guy who had never once made a sacrifice for his own people (this same demographic), and who in fact had married the All-American girl (blonde, white and athletic) as another example of snubbing his nose at his African American brethren – this same betrayed race of humans were now having a party over the news that the betrayer, O.J., had murdered two blameless human beings and had now been cleared of those two homicides. And that was the day I washed my hands of the whole racial mess in this country. I was officially done harboring guilt over the plight of the African slaves of yore as well as the continued racism directed at their black and mixed descendants. To be blunt to the point of sounding like a Republican, if I never saw another African-American again, that was fine with me.

My hitchhiking ended at twenty-two, but the wandering continued in less drastic form until, in 1995, I got custody of my son, Josh, then eight, and moved to a town called Chelmsford in the far suburbs of Boston. Soon thereafter, the O.J. trial kicked into dramatic motion. Chelmsford was a place where the majority of the citizens were conservative homeowners, all white and of the professional class. I no longer felt obligated to sweat and suffer alongside the downtrodden, whether black or white. I now wanted the American Dream — the money, the house, the chair that matched the sofa, the car unblemished by paint primer and, above all, the slim, beautiful educated wife known as the All-American girl.

 

(The All-American girl!

Everything thing we do, not just me, we do for HER!

And here we arrive at the heart of the argument, whether that argument be what this beautiful, blonde-haired, wholesome, god-fearing girl represents to the African-American male (read The Autobiography of Malcolm X and Native Son); or to the Jewish male (look up the word shiksa or read American Pastoral by Philip Roth); or to the black man trying to be a card-carrying member of privileged white society and ending up ostracized from this same society for committing the ultimate sin of murdering the pinnacle of its Womanhood, the All-American girl (witness O.J. Simpson); or to any man wanting to clinch his alpha male status by marrying the All-American girl, who, even after five kids and thirty years of domesticity, will still maintain her sunny beauty and slim figure (see Mitt Romney and his wife, Ann); or to any under-achieving oddball guy who sees in the All-American girl a way of cheating the American Dream by gaining the end-result without having to, first, endure the soulless reprogramming necessary to become an Organization Man (see the author of this book). The All-American girl represents the highest form of White Girl, the Queen of the dominant race. She is the crowning jewel to the big house on the hill.

The All-American girl would be mythical if she was not so often seen in the flesh as the most popular girl in high school, or the girlfriend of the college quarterback, or the bride at an overwrought wedding reception at a prestigious country club in Ohio, or the gorgeous (always smiling) mom standing on the sidelines at her star kids’ sporting events coached by her police officer husband. In Chelmsford and other such societal bubbles, I have witnessed this woman – call her Val, or Gail, or Julie – always surrounded by a creeping host of male admirers. Many of these sycophants are married men whose wives have shoulders and thighs with the accumulated girth of a linebacker on a poor diet. These women, unlike the shimmering All-American girl, have paid the realistic anatomical penalty of age and childbirth. The husbands to these women look with an aching heart and a tragic longing at the All-American girl, now the ideal mom still blessed with a twenty-inch waist and a sunny disposition, though these men will refer to her as a “friend,” no really, and they may very well believe this lie if only to keep their sanity. Meanwhile, their fleshy wives cannot bring themselves to hate Val, or Gail, or Julie, because she really is so damn nice, always so approachable, always ready to bless them with her radiant smile – and, yes, since high school never does end, these ladies have never stopped aspiring, sometimes against their own will, to be the best friend of Val, or Gail, or Julie, regardless of how their husbands continue to avoid their conjugal duties because they would rather hide in the bathroom and masturbate to their “friend” Val, or Gail or Julie.

The All-American girl is above all the ultimate conformist. She not only symbolizes the apotheosis of the American Dream; she also believes and practices the rules of Babbitt America from the rule that she dye her blonde if it is actually red or brown to never uttering a phrase that has not already been hammered into a burnished cliché. Only the pressures of unattractiveness force people toward eccentric thought and action, whereas our girl has never had reason to venture “outside the box,” and thus she becomes more and more entrenched inside the smiling box painted by Norman Rockwell. This means that she also follows protocol in the choice of mate: he is always, tall, handsome and successful, or a cop, a guy whose job it is to penalize people for not following the rules. He is the Man, the alpha white man, which explains the black man, in the movie, Undercover Brother, calling her, in this case the lovely Denise Richards, Black Man’s Kryptonite. That leaves the rest of us, the young Malcom X, the young Philip Roth, all the oddball men, to say nothing of the millions of men who adhere to the rules of the American Dream but who are not quite good enough at the game, or who, let’s face it, have been the unlucky victim of bad genes that have left them with less than movie star good looks – yes, that leaves the rest of us guys to pine away when seeing the All-American girl on the arm of the Mitt Romneys of the world – i.e., The Man. At the same time, we cannot hate her for rejecting us because, again, she really is nice and will in fact give us the time of day if we make the effort to approach her in a public place. She will smile her generic smile and repeat a few feel-good clichés – “good for you” is one of her favorites — which, to our eternal stupidity, we will misinterpret as a sign, however slim, that we still have a chance.

Yet there is also something mythical about the All-American girl. That is because only a few of us will ever mate, and share a life, with her, while the rest of us are forced to use our imagination, which is the first step toward the idealization of the All-American girl and thence to bowing to what we have convinced ourselves is a Goddess. Not only that, but there is a non-corporeal quality to this lady, as her eternal sunniness blurs her image, and her forever fit body defies the Laws of Thermodynamics, and her personality is the cliché-for-cliché product of a template drawn up in the Heartland, as evidenced by how the numbers of real Julies increase the closer you get to Kansas, the very epicenter of disembodied blandness. Vanna White is the most visible All-American girl, though she is from South Carolina, which may as well be Kansas with trees.

Yes, everything we men do we do for HER, the All-American girl. Malcolm X went to jail for HER, O.J. Simpson killed for HER while killing the actual HER, Mitt Romney ran for President for HER, and I may have written this book for HER. Black men have been whipped and hung for HER. Less than handsome and talented men have been relegated to court courtiers along the Little League sidelines for HER. Young men have gone off to war to impress HER, have killed Vietnamese, Iraqis and Afghans for HER. And before Val, or Gail, or Julie, the All-American girl was Helen of Troy, the face that launched a thousand ships; and when she is a contemporary non-American, she is Lara in Dr. Zhivago, the Blonde Myth/Goddess at the heart of the bloody Russian Revolution. Everything we do we do for HER.

To this day, my heart and mind will still become unhinged when I see HER at my gym, or on the streets, or at the supermarket pushing a cart full of healthy food. This, of course, makes no sense in that she represents everything I have grown to distain: cliché, conformity and condescension that has not been earned through suffering, hard work and original thought. Yet there she is, nearing menopause, still sunny, beautiful, lithe and athletic – and, yes, still mythic — and I fall in love with her all over again.)

 

At first, in the affluent suburb of Chelmsford, MA, I experienced massive culture shock. Every kid wore a helmet whenever in motion, in a car, on a bike, or, get this, playing baseball – in the outfield! No one cursed or spoke ill of the police. The women were more at home in an actual home than on a barstool. They had clean teeth and did not reek of cigarettes. Most of their waking moments coincided with the daylight hours, which were put to effective use, exercising, running errands and chaperoning kids. There were times when I thought these ladies dealt in a foreign tongue before it dawned on me that they were talking about gardening, a subject that, until then, I had always believed conversation-proof. They also clapped a lot while telling any kid in earshot: “Good job!”

I should have known something was up that first summer when the wives launched a petition to ban a new strip-club from town limits. They expressed concern for their teenage boys, who, though the club had blackened the windows, were still in danger of being corrupted by evil spirits emanating from the vents and flying over the surrounding homes. I had walked in from the road and into a witch-hunt. Thus I deemed it wise to forgo telling the good wives that, at fifteen, I had worked as a dishwasher in a topless bar in Levittown. To offer this information and then say, “And look at me. I turned out all right,” would have been counterproductive.

Grown men in Chelmsford wore shoes during their leisure hours. This blew me away. In Levittown and all over the Philly area, we boys schemed to stay out of church and away from official events so to avoid having our feet encased in hard leather, or p-leather, depending on one’s home finances. And once in our late teens, with mom and dad now at arm’s length, we remained in our sneakers or combat boots no matter what the occasion. The bride looks so beautiful, and the groom’s tux goes great with those high-top Cons. Imagine, then, my surprise at seeing boys now men, able to make their own fashion calls, standing in line at an ice cream stand in a spanking new pair of Cole-Haans. Some people whispered to me that sneakers were so American, meaning that Europeans wore shoes. But it got worse, my dear reader. I was a guy whose wardrobe varied only in the color of his sweatpants, gym shorts and T-shirts, and now I noticed that all my peers chose to parade about in heavy and restricting designer jeans, Dockers and khakis, garments that demanded a second item, a belt.

Hardest of all to fathom was how at ease everyone was with themselves and with everyone else – and without drinking. What weirdoes, I thought. I would attend a function or a picnic in Chelmsford and everyone was content to sip a soda and engage in small talk. The words Good for you would echo throughout the gathering like the rustling of leaves in a forest. The response to someone describing a two-car garage was Good for you. What passed as a bawdy anecdote was someone’s description of their last trip to the Home Depot. Others would then rush in with their own tales of misadventures among the wacky crew in the orange bibs. When it came my turn, I had to confess that I had not the slightest idea about what to do with a substance called mulch. In all my past experience, when folks got together, the keg came before the folks. Now everything was Good for you.

Then came the part when the guy with the shoes would give me a hardy handshake and boom: Hi! Ed McAllister! I do systems analysis. What do you do? I would answer that I was a prhhhhhhhah, while rubbing the back of my hand over my mouth. What was that, Jim? Whereupon I would take a deep breath, look my tormentor in the eye, and say: “I’m a printer. I operate a printing press.” Then Ed would go into condescending mode, and say: That sounds interesting. “Well, Ed, it’s not.” To add to my discomfort, another guy would approach. Hey, if it isn’t Ed McAllister. How the heck is business?… Oh, can’t complain, Pete. You know how fast high tech is growing… Don’t I know it…I would try hard to take an interest as the conversation traveled higher and higher up the American Dream spectrum. The words most used were “impact” (the verb), “high yield,” “product” and “solutions.” The last seemed to be a part of every company name – Business Solutions and Software Solutions – or the hub around which its motto revolved – Paternity Genetics: Finding Solutions to Your Cuckold Problems. I would grow red and frustrated at my inability to derive any pleasure from these grownup conversations. And when the talk got around to investments, well, that was my cue to skidaddle while I still had left a smidgen of dignity. No wonder I’m a printer, I would brood.

I had been reading and studying in a vacuum for the last fifteen years. There had been few, if any, in my social orbit of printing and sports bars willing, or able, to share in my latest intellectual passion. Thus I kept my reading life separate from my functioning life, much how Jeffery Dahmer must have kept the cable guy away from his refrigerator. I now assumed that this affluent suburb of Ed McAllisters would provide me with educated, cultured neighbors. I could at last enjoy some intellectual pyrotechnics, and release all those years of pent-up thought and burgeoning vocabulary. But whenever I mentioned a book or a recent article from The New Yorker, I received the same look that must have greeted Jesus the first time he informed his mom that he was God. Not one of these polished individuals read literary fiction or cultural history or even simple-to-grasp modern fiction like Kurt Vonnegut. At first, I was flummoxed by this unexpected development. It took a while before I realized that those who attain the American Dream do so because they understand that highfalutin intellectual pursuits are a detriment to the good life. Home Depot is of more practical use than Homer the poet. These people got degrees that would help them learn a specialty, like computer science, that would guarantee them an excellent income right on through middle-age.

During that first year in Chelmsford, I would get all superior over the ignorance of these co-called educated elitists; but then I would subside into humble reticence. After all, they had everything, while my son and I rented a shit-hole apartment. The men possessed emotional security, or, as they phrased it, they were comfortable in their own skin, while my skin felt like wet burlap. They were married to bright, pleasant women, a few of whom were Val, or Gail, or Julie, who clapped Good job! or beamed the words Good for you!, while I could not break the vicious cycle of bipolar waitresses, bipolar nymphomaniacs, bipolar widows, bipolar lady cops, bipolar graphic designers, bipolar and bisexual travel agents moonlighting as high priced call-girls and chunky bank executives who cried a lot because I was bipolar. How to fit these gals into the seven women on my mind format would have stretched the talents of even Jackson Browne. So what if I knew a little about history and literature. Where had it gotten me?

 I had only myself to blame for my failure to achieve the American Dream. It was now embarrassing to recall my road days when I had attributed high drama and wisdom to people who, on sober reflection, had been losers. What an idiot to have planned my future around the belief that because a Jewish carpenter got executed two thousand years ago, it followed that the end of the world was nigh, with the deadline at 1988. And what an absolute retard to have hitchhiked to Hollywood fully expecting to become the next Sylvester Stallone by virtue of simply being me, Jim Johnson from Levittown, PA. Throughout my twenties and early thirties, I would regale the taverns and print shops with my road adventures. Now I avoided even thinking about them, much less boasting of their importance. The old black guy in Hollywood had called it right – Life was not the sole province of the underworld. Ed McAllister had exposed me as a fraud.

Soon, my tail curled so far between my legs that I even arrived at a tolerant view of middle class Christianity. I still believed, more than ever, that the New Testament was a load of wistful crap, especially in lieu of how it had aided in my own downfall. The difference now was that I understood that affluent white churchgoers approached Jesus as intelligent, levelheaded adults, not as Born-Again lunatics incubated in the sloppy pool of white trash culture. Moderation was the key to their success. Their children would not sink into apathy because they had been indoctrinated into thinking the end was nigh. To them, Jesus was not the sword-bearing killer at Armageddon; rather he was a pink-faced deity who sat at picnics and said: “Good for you.”

  My youthful paranoia of ending up in the equivalent of the Kenmore Hotel was becoming a genuine possibility. I still did not own a home in which to build equity and I had always been contemptuous of IRA and 401(K) accounts. These bad decisions now left me looking down the barrel of hot-plate dinners cooked between four walls of chipped plaster. The literary route was supposed to have been my hedge against a marginalized old age, my entrance into the American Dream, which, boy, now seemed more of a miscalculation than engineering a flight to the moon only to steer the ship into the toxic heat of Venus.

Again, let us time-travel, in this instance backward to the exact sequence of how I went from visions of becoming a rock lyricist and movie star to the undeviating pursuit of literary greatness. I was twenty-two and back in Levittown working at Purex, a soap factory in Bristol. There would be one more hitchhiking odyssey within the next year, the one that culminated with Donald and me parting in Bakersfield, California. I had been assigned to the bleach department. The outcast of the crew was an ultra-quiet guy who never removed a pair of mirror sunglasses from his swarthy face, though the factory was a dark and dingy environment untouched by the rays of Helios. On breaks, he would sit off by himself and read…actual books. Get a load of this guy, we would joke. One volume that held his interest, as evidenced by how he sat with it even further away than usual from the rest of us illiterate factory drones, was entitled A Man by Oriana Fallaci. Someone had once told me that one way to improve one’s dating prospects was to read books, as the constant perusal of sound grammar would etch good language onto the brain until it became ready to employ when chatting up a nose-in-the-air girl.

A few months later, while laid off from Purex, idle and having no money to go out boozing, I decided this would be a good time to take a crack at literacy. I had no clue as to where to start this journey. Therefore, I picked up the one title still fresh in my mind, A Man. It was the story, as mentioned earlier, of a Greek man of honor who stands up to the corrupt government, serves a long prison sentence during which he endures torture, and is released with the success of the revolution. Hence the quote that stayed with me, What does it mean to be a man?…To struggle and to win.

This tale struck an immediate chord. It glorified and poeticized struggle and hardship, which was, to me, a vindication of my decision to have forgone college. I could now look upon my past three years of lowlife drifting as a positive endeavor, as the first step to building strong character. Most important – all important – was that the Literary Voice and I had at last come face to face and the recognition was so instantaneous that we fell into each other’s arms. I would no longer avoid the narrative impulse that had stalked me during my early youth and had led to my mental breakdown at twelve. No more would I expect to gain some measure of creative achievement through miracles, or by writing easy-to-compose rock lyrics. I would become a voracious reader, with a dictionary at my side, to help me memorize all those big words, like “voracious.” I would lose myself in hundreds of well-crafted narratives, and thereby never again lose my mind. The art of writing would come to me by the sheer weight of literary exposure. I would plunge right into the big names – Shakespeare and Hemingway and all the others I would soon learn of – till they became as accessible to me as Seventies rock lyrics. Then I would turn my struggles and road adventures to account in a full-length saga. The story would be that much more dramatic in that I would remain a working class hero, a revolutionary, the anti-college kid. I would become a literary celebrity, and that would be my own personal Rapture.

Two years later, I wrote a book on my first hitchhiking journey that was an absolute hack job. It made the self-important On The Road read like the Torah. I was still afflicted by delusions of grandeur, now manifested in thinking that whatever I put to paper would stand as a finished work of genius, and all because it had issued from my mind. I’m special, so special…At twenty-eight, the idea mutated into this book. What followed was more reading and more drifting about the country, of getting twice married and unmarried, until I produced a complete draft of The Education of a White Boy. A month later, I looked it over with a detached eye and it was clear that it was the work of a megalomaniac. The trick, I was beginning to see, was to remain cool and lucid regardless of how frenzied the creative process. But it was heartening to know how far I had come since the soap factory. It was now all a matter of endurance, of continuing the autodidactic race against the daily loss of brain cells from the printing trade, of not climbing onto that creative lawn where some literary driver would stand over me, and say: “He’s done.”

My old delusion of achieving fame and fortune in the movies that in time would be modified to becoming a renowned published author now took one last step toward reality, though Sylvester Stallone remained my inspiration. But it was not Sly the actor and screenwriter who rose from nothing to have his star etched on Hollywood Boulevard who served as my guide; rather it was the lead character and story he created in the first Rocky. When Rocky Balboa, the local Philly loser, on the night before the big fight, lies next to Adrian, he says he knows he can’t beat Apollo Creed, but if he can go the distance, then he will have nonetheless won the fight. The same with me: No more pipe dreams of a literary career. The goal now was to go the distance and complete the tale – that was all. To have gone from an ignorant, deluded white boy to writing an intelligent and sometimes witty account of the transformation would be a victory in itself and a lot more ambitious than earning a certificate in systems analysis or getting into regional sales.

The key was to heed certain advice I had picked up on the road. Yes, Harry, I had to learn to be a good long distance runner. Yes, Rebel, if it ain’t hard getting, then it ain’t worth having. And yes, Oriana, What does it mean to be a man?

To struggle and to win!

And so I said to all those lost and broken souls – my old greasy-haired buddy, Donald, the girl with two stick drawings for children, the Inspirational Hooker and every other sap to have told me their tale – to arise from that lawn and hop on my back. We would continue the journey. I would carry them to a sort of immortality where, on the written page, they would at last be safe from this harsh, uncaring world.

(To purchase a copy of The Education of a White Boy, go to http://www.amazon.com/-/e/B008GBMBD4)

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