May 19, 2008

Ripples of Injustice

I was nearly in bed when that slimy, overrated hypocrit Woodrow Wilson stole into my brain. Or maybe I heard him hollering from hell. It's the kind of thing that keeps me awake.
One day recently, after a full eight hours of productive labor painting a house that was hardly worth painting, I did an exhaustive makeover of my van stowage, re-arranging everything--tools, clothes, books, buckets, brooms, etc.--for easier access and more comfort. It's a work-in-progress. Then I went on an almost-hallucinatory shopping trip in Lowes for an hour, ending up with two plastic sawhorses and two doorbells. Unable to decide on which of my three haunts to haunt, I stopped by the Rue de la Course coffeehouse on Carrollton Avenue for coffee. The young woman behind the counter with the ring in her lip gave me the nose-in-the-air routine, as if I were trying to put the make on her by being friendly. I left a very low tip and turned around to see a truly lovely woman in a cream-colored dress and high white heels standing there like Venus, accompanied by a dumb-looking colorless stiff-faced guy looking bored. She made my day. I sat outside and watched the beauties, uglies, and phonies walking by. The gays trying to look straight, the straights trying to look busy and intelligent, the women trying to be noticed without seeming to, and the sharpsters, hustlers and truly down-and-outers and other heartbreakers passing in a stream that seems to have started in Sumerian times and goes onward to who-knows-where. It seems like the same crowd I've been seeing in different garbs all of my life. You know when you are getting old? When everybody looks familiar.
Now, I'm an old man by some peoples' reckoning, but I don't feel old. I have all my hair but it's snow-white and not curly the way it was before the chemotherapy. I'm five-foot-ten with a belly flat as a pancake. I wear nice clothes when I'm not working, and weigh the same as I did in Mrs. Thompson's 10th grade General Science class: 145. I don't think I look bad, in fact I think I look pretty good for my age. It's ironic that I should think this, because for most of my life I felt ugly. Maybe because my mom used to tell me, "You're so ugly when you're angry." I think it sank into my subconscious. I was angry for more than 50 years, and felt ugly most of the time. The women must have thought so, too. But I'm not angry anymore. Anger is a luxury I can't afford. Still, the women, just as they did when I was young, and really on-the-make, pass me by with hardly a glance, at least not one that I often catch. Don't get me wrong, I don't leer at them or stare; I'm subtle about it, but I still like to watch women. Other than any human infant, they are the loveliest creatures in the human universe. Every now and then one might give me a look, a kindly look because maybe I remind them of their grandfather. And now women of all ages call me "honey," "dear," "sweetheart," and even "darling." This to me is a subtle form of torture, more than a term of endearment, because I know that what they are really saying is, "You're old now." (And safe.) All I can do is accept it good-naturedly, though I don't like it, because sometimes it stings. I can still stand straight and put my forehead on my knees (thanks to yoga,) and all day I haul a 28-foot insulated ladder around houses on broken ground littered with construction debris, and I spend a lot of time 25 feet in the air pushing sandpaper, dragging a scraper, caulking seams, or swinging a paintbrush. I know guys 25 years younger than me who are exhausted by noon, but I seem to gain energy as the day wanes. Maybe I'm obsessive-compulsive. I find myself thinking (in response to those who treat me as if I were an oversexed old man,) "Dear, you would have to be a composite of Nicole Kidman, Cher, and Shirley MacLaine to arouse me." Not that my equipment is out-of-whack (no pun,) but I am woman-shy. Years of rejection made me so. A man can take just so much of it, and he either keeps making an idiot of himself or saws off his horns. Why Shirley MacLaine? I know she's older than me, but she's sexy! She has a great personality, and what an actor. All this is by way of saying that I agree with Dylan: "I'm staying away from the women/I'm givin' 'em lots of room..." And there are a lot of phonies around, a lot of people acting-out. I know because I used to be one of them.
Have patience. I'm getting to it. What was it? I forgot. Oh, leaving Louisiana, and what it meant in my journey through hell, or at least purgatory. I've been leaving Louisiana since 1957. If I am fortunately buried somewhere else, my epitaph ought to read: "He Finally Got Out of Louisiana." But if anyone else has ever tried it for the same reasons I did, that person should know that it's one thing for him to get out of Louisiana, and another thing entirely to get Louisiana out of him.
I won't start with the first time I left this place, but with the third time, for reasons that will become apparent if I live long enough.
In the autumn of 1963, I was renting a room in a house in Harahan (in Jefferson Parish right next to New Orleans,) and managing the Putt-Putt Golf Course on Causeway Blvd. in Metairie. A bedridden blind woman with chronic arthritis owned the house and was atttended by an 80-year old English nurse, who had come over from England in 1918 to fight the flu epidemic that they say had started among soldiers in the foetid war trenches of France, and stayed on. The franchise for the miniature golf course belonged to Steve Jenkins, a native New Orleanian who said "Uh," a lot. He owned four other franchises in Houston and Beaumont, Texas. I had managed the one on Old Spanish Trail in Houston for about six months, when he transferred me to Metairie, where I had spent some of my teenage years. Steve was a former marine lieutenant with the habit of command, and I was a former marine private with the habit of obedience. In Houston, I'd slept in the tool house of the course on a Marine Corps cot that Steve had provided, because even back then I hated paying rent. The fartherest thing from my mind was settling into one job for life, getting married, buying a house, and having kids. It looked like prison to me. I wanted more than that. I wanted to travel, and I wanted to write.
Every night after closing the course I made a beeline for Bourbon Street in the French Quarter. The Quarter was not so clogged with tourists and cheap souvenir shops then. One could actually find a parking place on a Friday or Saturday night, and a night in a bar wasn't enough to put you into receivership. The only times the city blocked the streets were during Mardis Gras parades, and the music that came out the doors were from live instruments playing Dixieland jazz. Today it is boom boxes turned up loud enough to break your ears, and impossibly loud rock-and-roll bands, or white people trying to play the blues--and "street entertainers," who would have been run out of town in the early Sixties. My favorite place was Basin Street East about 10 blocks from Canal Street. Mona the bartender was friendly and talkative, and the place was seldom crowded. I would sit at the bar and write in a notebook (as now,) drink mixed drinks or beer, and play Frank Sinatra on the jukebox. One song I played over and over was, "A New Kind of Love." I was always looking for a woman to make love with, but I only found one. I was 22, and all my experience with women had been with prostitutes who seemed to be everywhere the marines went.
I must have been out-of-control, as I see it now, because one night on my way back to Harahan I went to sleep at the wheel and the car challenged one of those concrete light poles on Claiborne Avenue. I woke on the floor of the passenger side, unhurt. I couldn't put Steve's station wagon in reverse, because earlier in the night I had broken the gearshift, so I kept punching the gas and bouncing off the pole until I had enough room to turn the wheel and get home before the cops arrived. The nick in that pole is still there after 45 years.
On the 22nd of November within minutes of it happening, the old nurse came to my door and knocked. "Mr. Havenar! Mr. Havenar! We've just heard on the radio that the President and the Governor of Dallas have been shot!" I roused myself wondering who was the governor of Dallas. I dressed, listened to the radio, commisserated with the nurse who was crying, then gathered my dirty laundry and went to a laundromat on nearby Jefferson Highway to watch it on television. With about 20 others I watched the incredible scene unfold in near-total silence. Nobody said much. It was simply disbelief. When my clothes were dry, I drove to the Putt-Putt and opened up, as I did seven days a week, but no one came to play. I realized that everyone was somewhere watching the drama, and closed the course. When I started Steve's repaired car, a hot wave of grief like a sudden wind, palpable as sand, swept through me, and I gave in to a fit of weeping. Then I drove to Jimmy V's house and watched the unbelievable scene with him and his wife. Jimmy was a regular on the course and knew Steve well. We had only recently met, however. I was overexcited and like a kid I made some stupid and facetious remarks about it. I must have been actually practicing insensitivity then. They looked at me curiously. They must have thought I was sick in the head--and I was--so I excused myself and went on about my business. But I never forgot--none of us who lived through it ever forgot--where I was and how I reacted to the death of the President. It was, as I came to realize later, one of those "liminal moments" that altered the course of my life. Oh well, everything that happens or does not happen alters the course of one's life, doesn't it?
The next day I was playing a round of 54 holes with Jimmy and a friend of his and a famous jockey I won't name, who played the course often. We were putting slowly and talking about the assassination, when Jimmy told me, "Mike, I didn't have anything against Kennedy, except that he was a Catholic. I'm a Mason."`
Until then, I didn't know a thing about Masons (and still don't,) but now I knew that they were against the Catholics. I was raised a Baptist, and I didn't have anything against the Catholics. In fact, I didn't really have anything against anyone except the stupid people. So I didn't say anything to Jimmy about it. Then his friend piped up: "I didn't like Kennedy because he was for the niggers."
Now I didn't have anything against them, either, and really never had. Until I went in the Marine Corps, the only black people I had known were the women ("girls," my mother called them,) who came once a month to help her iron the family's clothes. For four years in the marines, I had slept beside them, worked beside them, showered and shat beside them, gone on liberty with them, and occassionally fought with them. Whatever racism had been in me in that time had been ameliorated, weakened, softened, challenged, lectured, threatened and even beaten out of me. One black guy from Detroit had told it to me straight: "If we ever have to go into combat, you gonna have to depend on me to watch your back." That had made me think, because it was true.
In 1963, the Civil Rights movement was in full throttle. There were demonstrations at department stores, restaurants, bus stations and government offices all over the South. Like most everyone else, I was a mere spectator with an opinion, and my opinion didn't jibe with most of the whites I knew. To my simple mind, it was a simple matter of justice to right a historic wrong. I knew in my heart that they were right and the whites were wrong, and, without understanding the implications of it, I was for integration. I knew something about injustice and felt for them. A black man named James Mayberry (I wonder what happened to him) worked the course with me, mowing the lawn, painting the baseboards, and such, and we had had some talks about the situation. So I sort of challenged this guy's statement, and told him that even Eisenhower had sent the Airborne to Little Rock to enforce the decision to integrate by the Supreme Court.
"I don't care!" he spat. "They ought to stay in their place!"
What place was that, I inquired.
"Below us!"
So there it was. When he said it flat out and in the open like that (not unusual then or now,) I realized, not for the first time, that I had to get out of the South. It was suffocating to be somewhere where my opinion could get me hurt. I didn't argue much with him, because he also was a regular customer, and I knew it wouldn't do any good, anyway. So I let it drop.
A week or so later I met Cindy, a teacher from New Jersey, in Basin Street East, and fell in love. Actually, the love came much later in this epic. Then, I just wanted what I wanted--physical love--and got some of it. But she was in New Orleans for a convention, and was soon gone. Just before Christmas, I closed the course when winter set up shop, and drove Steve's Rambler back to Houston. He was waiting for me in the parking lot of the Westheimer course (where they eventually built the gigantic Westheimer shopping mall.) Steve greeted me with, "Why did you call me a son-of-a-bitch on the telephone, Mike?"
I had. Steve was sort of an old New Orleans aristocrat to me, and I guess I was an enlisted man to him, and he was not accustomed to being cursed by enlisted men, or at all, probably. I was used to being cursed by just about everybody, so it had slipped out.
"Because you are always late sending my check, Steve. How do you expect me to pay my rent?"
Steve wheeled toward his office at the back of the course and bade me follow him. "Let's go sever our relationship," he said.
"Fine with me," I said.
Steve had failed to send my check on time (a measley $110) four times running. It wasn't because he was strapped for money that he was late with the pay, because the Westheimer course brought in $46,000 a year, the OST course about $40,000, and the New Orleans course, $54,000. It was simply that he was busy, absent-minded, and insensitive to my situation. It wasn't like I made enough to start a bank account. And I was not the kind to take the money out of the cash register, which he knew. Managers had pilfered extra income from the till since he first started buying franchises and building courses, and he was naturally suspicious. Once, he had given all the managers lie-detector tests (by Truth Verification Services,) and had told me that I was the only one who had passed. Every now and then I would pay for a hamburger out of the register, but he knew about it, and didn't mind. So he was firing his best manager, as I saw it. But it was okay. I accepted it without argument or heat. But then he changed his mind.
"Uh, Mike," he said. "Uh, I can't, uh, fire a man, uh, just before Christmas. Uh, I'll tell you what. Uh, I won't fire you, if you, uh, go see my psychiatrist." There it was, the chance I didn't see and should have taken, an opportunity to find out something objective and maybe even scientific about myself. I might have avoided some of the dysfunction that came later. But at the time there was nothing more outrageous to me than that I might have a mental problem.
"Let's sever our relationship," I said.
He wrote out two checks for $150 and had me sign one. Then he took it back, laid it on his standup desk, and handed me the other. "That's what you owe me for wrecking my car."
"Fine," I said.
"Merry Christmas," he said, walking out to his car. I watched him drive off to his plush house in the River Oaks section, then looked at the check still laying on the desk. Had he left it hoping that I would take it so he wouldn't feel like such a rat just before Christmas? All I had to do was cash it. It was made out to me and there was nothing illegal about it. I thought about it for a few seconds and left it there. He wasn't going to turn me into a thief. I walked to a nearby place and cashed the other check, retrieved my bag from his car, and walked to Highway 90 (good old Highway 90, scene of my many hejiras,) and followed the thumb pointing west. I hit a snowstorm in San Antonio and took a ride north to Amarillo with an older black man, who, when we stopped for burgers, explained to me that he had to go around back to be served. It made me ashamed and I told him so. We had a nice talk, and he let me out in Amarillo soon after midnight. It was bitterly cold and windy. I took refuge in the only restaurant open and drank coffee and ate pie and wrote in a notebook until the sun came up. Then I got a ride to the New Mexico line. The wind cut like a razor through my coat and my nose was numb. A couple of prospectors looking as evil as sin finally stopped, and I piled into the back atop a heap of clothes, blankets, pots, pans, shovels, picks, candy wrappers, half-eaten cans of dog food, and empty whiskey bottles. The whiskered fellow in the passenger's seat half-turned and never took his eyes off me for fifty miles. He chewed tobacco and spat in a paper cup. A little brown dog leaped constantly back and forth from the front to the back seat, and the driver, a huge man whose hands made the steering wheel look small, kept looking at me in the mirror. I felt nervous and was wondering what I'd gotten into. Everything I had said had been received in silence, so I shut up and watched the road. Finally, after about 20 miles, the big man spoke in a deep, rasping voice.
"I'll tell you what," he growled.
"What?" I said.
"You buy me some gas, and I'll take you all the way to Arizona." I nearly sighed with relief, because the situation and their ominous silence, the unblinking eyes of the dirty old tobacco-chewer, the filth and the frantic little dog, had made me tense. They looked like a couple of murderers. But I begged off at the first large town, gave them five dollars, and said I was going to stay awhile and get something to eat. They drove on, and when they were gone, I stuck out my thumb again. The next guy who came along had driven his 1953 Plymouth down from North Dakota. He was about my age. We talked and the day wore on into night, and it got colder and colder. Fifty miles from Flagstaff, the blizzard began. The Plymouth had no windshield wipers, no heater, and one back window was stuck halfway open. We took turns freezing our hands by wiping the ice off the windshield with newspapers. We passed through Flagstaff without seeing it. The climb into the mountains was steady, and the guy had no chains, but he was an expert driver in snow, he kept telling me, because this snow was normal for him back home. Somewhere in our slow slipping and sliding uphill, we saw a Thunderbird slip off the road and plunge down a long slope into darkness, rolling as it went. There were no seat belts then, and we knew that the people had to be dead, so we didn't even stop. All night we drove like this. In the morning we were at a very high place and the snow stopped and the sun broke from the horizon behind us like a sudden fire. It was a beautiful, cloudless day, but it was so cold it could bite your nose off. We had a hot tasty breakfast at the top, then began the long descent to Hoover Dam. We got there at night and crossed over, and for the first but not the last time I saw the lights of Las Vegas twinkling like stars over the broad empty-seeming desert. It was past midnight when he let me out downtown and waved goodbye on his first trip to California. I wonder if he is still alive, and if he remembers me and that hellacious trip the way I do.
My friend Dave Denaro from the Marine Corps lived in Vegas. In fact, when he'd gotten out of the Corps, he had come to New Orleans to see me and we had briefly shared an apartment. But Dave couldn't find a job, and I had moved into that rented room. The day that Kennedy was shot he called me from Dallas, where he had a brief layover on a bus bound for his home in Las Vegas. Now here I was in his town, and I decided to give him a call. But it was too late to call. I had $16 dollars left. I decided to go into the biggest casino on Fremont Street, and though I seldom had gambled, try to win some money at blackjack. Fifteen minutes later, I was back on the street with a dollar in my pocket. I walked the streets all night waiting for it to be six o'clock so I could call Dave. I remember thinking, "At least I'm not in Louisiana."
So, reader, perhaps you're wondering at this point what all this has to do with anything. Maybe you're even wondering what Woodrow Wilson, slimey hypocrit, has to do with anything in this writing, this meandering memoir; because that's all it is, you know--a memoir that is not quite a perfect reflection in a funhouse mirror of the writer: chaotic, disconnected, awkward, meandering, confused, perhaps even banal to you. It's anecdotal. That's what my life is: a bunch of seemingly meaningless and disconnected anecdotes. It's all those things, because I'm all those things, but it's not pointless. You'll see. Stick with me here. I'll get there, wherever it is.
When I think about injustice, I somehow think about that murdering, fundamentalist Presbyterian racist hypocrit Wilson, because that's what he was, and I cannot imagine that anyone still can admire that monster; because that is what the poor man was, a monster. He was the son-of-a-bitch who ran on a ticket swearing that he would not involve the United States in the European war, then planned and carried out policies and trade with England that made our ships targets for the Germans. His "neutrality" was a sham. He was the one who sent millions of our men to be swatted like bugs in storms of fire, bullets, bombs, and chemical gas. He was the bastard who got my grandfather shot twice in the space of two months--once in the shoulder, once in the liver, then mustard-gassed--and he was the one who made my dear sweet old grandmother sad for all her life, a sadness that infected our family down to even my son's generation. And he was the guy--get this--who was chosen to draft the treaty that would end the war he had helped to make, to fix the peace that he had helped to break. And, while this pompous and pretentious "intellectual" and "idealist" was proclaiming "self-determination for all nations," he was sending the marines and the navy to invade sovereign countries in Latin America and the Caribbean. Ask them what they think of "the Great Liberal." Look it up. I did. You want to know what this president was like? Read the book, "Woodrow Wilson's Psychology," by Sigmund Freud. He got it right. Wilson couldn't wipe his butt without consulting with his father, whom he obviously thought was God. He could not bear for long the company of men, and surrounded himself with sympathetic women, who stroked and consoled and admired him. I can't believe there is actually a thing named, "The Woodrow Wilson School of International Studies," or that anyone would even attend. But I'm sure that most of the alumni are probably in government, and if they are, it's no wonder that the United States of America is spiraling down the toilet of imperialism.
Sometimes these things just flash into my head without warning or provocation, and rob my sleep. Just as I'm getting in my sleeping bag, here comes somebody like Woodrow Wilson, and the next thing I know, I'm thinking about Nicaragua--do they have a legal beef!--or Honduras, or Haiti, or Vietnam--we'll never finish paying for that one--and then it's off on a nightmare trip to Iraq, Afghanistan, El Salvador, Chile, Laos, Cambodia, Angola, Mozambique, and dozens of other poor places around the globe, where the bodies are buried, or being buried. So, that's why I started this piece this way, with Woodrow Wilson, because I wanted to talk about injustice and to tell you the truth. I'm going to tell you every relevant thing I can remember that made any sense or difference to me. I know I'm not a teacher and don't have any kind of degree, and what I actually know probably won't fill a bucket, but I don't think I've lived for nothing, and I don't think these 45 library cards represent ignorance or futility. Don't get me wrong. This isn't a personal gripe, and I'm not blaming Woodrow Wilson or anyone else for whatever troubles I have or any of the mistakes I've made. I take full responsibility, as the saying goes. I don't actually have many personal troubles. But I won't ignore the world I live in and say the way things are had nothing to do with it. I haven't lived in a vaccum tube. Wilson and his gang, and a thousand others I can (and might) name had something to do with making this planet Mars. (Did I tell you I think that Earth is misnamed?) I'm telling you about a lifetime of leaving Louisiana and why and what it meant and what it means and what I am doing back in this lunatic place, maybe so you can learn something, something that might give you a different perspective. Come on, admit it, before I wrote this, you probably thought that Wilson was some kind of a hero, a great intellectual, a great President, " a great humanitarian," even. One of the usual icons. You'd never heard anything different. I'm here to tell you that he is one of the usual suspects. Check it out.
One more thing, and this is not generally known: When Woodrow Wilson was in Versailles, France, posturing about in his silly silk hat and writing the treaty that produced World War Two and the monstrous military machine that resulted from that, which is sucking our blood and treasure into the maelstrom now, a little Asian man walked up to the big marines who were guarding the monster's palatial lair, and asked to see the great man. What for? they asked. This little guy said that his country, Vietnam, was a colony of France, and he wanted to ask the president, who was daily intoning "self-determination for all nations" and lecturing everybody about democracy, to please ask France to let Vietnam be represented in its parliament. The marines picked him up and tossed him into the street.
That was Ho Chi Minh.
It's a perfect example of how everything, as I see it, is connected. The ripples, waves and shocks of every act travel in concentric circles from the pavement of Versailles to the heaps of dead people in Southeast Asia. From the miniature golf course in New Orleans to the mental health clinics of Los Angeles.
I had to leave Louisiana and wade through a swamp full of leeches, moccasins and alligators to learn that, and I'm giving it to you for free.

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