July 16, 2008

Departure

So, another day of probing delicately at the shapeless mass of my seething past, ephemeral and unreal at this distance, as if it were the past of a character who no longer exists, or perhaps never existed at all. It all seems a dream. Some years ago, I was watching a video about Martin Luther King. The scene was a demonstration, all blacks, somewhere in the South. Suddenly a young white man walked past the camera’s field. It was me! I was stunned. How was it possible that I had no memory of it? I ran it back and watched it over and over. For a mere two seconds of every run there I was striding past a camera lens I couldn’t have known was there. I looked about 25. (I was in my 50’s watching it.) There was no doubt that it was me. But, where? When? I had absolutely no memory of it. I racked my brain for a long time, then forgot about it and went on living my absurd life. Every now and then something reminded me of the mystery. Then one day a file in my mind opened and I recalled the event. It was 1968. I had come down from New Jersey for Mardis Gras. In crowded Pat O’Brien’s, two black guys I had invited in for a drink had walked off with the money in my wallet, after I drunkenly left it on the bar to go to the bathroom. (This was about 10 years after Terry Brahney had heroically busted heads protecting a black boy caught walking in the French Quarter.) I’d raced out and miraculously found one of them waiting for a bus on Canal Street. He said the other guy had taken it. What was I going to do, wrestle him and count his money? It wasn’t in me to attack him, and there wasn’t a cop in sight of course. I had to hitch to Alexandria, broke, and bum $50 from my friend Jim. Looking stupid was not on my agenda, then, so I lied and told Jim my pocket had been picked. Jane Saladof wired $170 after I called and told her the situation, and I had enough to fly back to Jersey and my job at The Record. I had been walking into the bus station in Alexandria for a bus to New Orleans to catch a flight, and a demonstration had been in progress. I remembered it, because at the door an FBI agent in a brown suit had shown his badge and asked for identification. I had a beard then, too (only it was a nice auburn color.) Probably it was the beard. (My grandmother hadn’t liked it, either.) They were looking for draft-dodgers. I still had my Geneva Convention card, which is a prisoner-of-war i.d., from marine days, and my expired military i.d., (imagine, five years after discharge,) and a driver’s license, of course. The agent was surprised I’d been in the Marine Corps, and sent me on. I’d forgotten the whole thing for 25 years, at least. The film made me recover the memory. The more I thought about it, the more I remembered. I recalled the street scene, the fleet of cop cars, wooden sawhorse barricades, and the measured chant of the demonstrators. Or perhaps I have it all mixed up with other demonstrations in other places. Anyway, after thinking about it from every which way, the thing that stuck with me is how good I looked. Ha ha. It’s the truth. I looked good as a young man. Muscular, lean, clean-cut, flat-bellied, eyes alert, graceful, intent, focused; that’s how I looked to myself in the film. Sigh. If I had only known I looked like a movie star, perhaps I would have been more successful with women. I remember how I felt. I moved through the world alertly, because I was waiting for someone to attack me. The early years of bullying and the Marine Corps years of fighting had sculpted my stance. I looked confident, but, it was bravado. I could fight, if necessary, but, what I knew about anything wouldn’t have filled a pamphlet. When I walked through that demonstration, it didn’t even cross my mind to join it. But with the rapidity of a river and the stunning Whitehall Antidraft Demonstrations a few months later, I reached that level. When I did become conscious of my duty to oppose the Vietnam War, attaining a level of involvement and personal responsibility, which one needs in order to demonstrate for someone else’s rights, I underwent changes mental and physical that I never could have foreseen. If I had seen it, I might not have made such foolish choices. Barely a year after my first demonstrations, I was sitting on the floor of the Calcasieu Parish Jail facing years in prison for possession of two joints (a felony then,) and 82 tablets of lsd (a misdemeanor then.) The newspaper career went out the window while I sat on the floor watching. When I got out of that place 18 months later, I was bent on revolution. You see the whole political-religious-capitalist freak show from a solitary confinement cell. I went here and there but never connected with the revolution. There wasn't one. Here and there are pockets of more or less conscious people who want change, even revolution, but they all disagree and many are doing what I was doing: acting out my personal problems and solutions through what I thought was revolutionary activity. Now I shudder to imagine a revolution in the United States. History shows it would be a bloodbath. Too many weapons, too many violent people, habits of selfishness and scapegoating, rule of the mob, military response, a country full of liars, hypocrits and lynchers--any revolution here will come from the Right and establish military rule. It would make the Soviet Revolution look like fun. No thanks. I'm a reformist now. This crazy and unjust System is strangely and infinitely reformable, unless there is systematic violence. I see my mistakes: selfishness and adventurism, bravado substituting for courage, taking everyone's inventory but my own, all the seven deadly boring personality disorders, alcoholism and drug-abuse, pseudo-intellectualism, a shallow, fashionable atheism, and low self esteem masquerading as confidence. Is that about it, Doc? On the other hand, without all those calamities I wouldn’t be sitting here writing this, on this hot but windy afternoon in the Half-Moon Bar on St. Mary Street in New Orleans, Louisiana, July 16, 2008, feeling as good as I feel. Elvis is singing “A Fool Such As I,” and I have a cold Coke, an American Spirit cigarette, and feel like dancing. That demonstration was 40 years ago.

It's a new world. All aboard.

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