This is the first chapter of my attempt at the Great American Anti-Novel (still more to follow; forgot to mention 'Song of Myself' as another part of mash-up):
CHAPTER 1 Loomings1
Call me . Some years ago- never mind how long precisely- having little or no money in my purse, and nothing particular to interest me, when I couldn’t stand it no longer, I lit out. I got into my
old rags and my sugar-hoghead again, and was free and satisfied. To dwell a while in every city and town, pass through Kanada, the vast valley of the Mississippi, and the Southern States, confer on equal terms with each of the States.
But I often found myself regretting my own existence, and wishing myself dead; and but for the hope of being free, I have no doubt but that I should have killed myself, or done something for which I should have been killed.
So I was full of trouble, full as I could be; and didn’t know what to do. At last I had an idea: I would head north, I thought I would sail about a little and see the watery part of the world.
Should you ever be athirst in the great American desert, try this: say, you are in a country; in some high land of lakes. Take almost any path you please, and ten to one it carries you down in a dale, and leaves you there by a pool in the stream. Let the most absent-minded of men be plunged in his deepest reveries- stand that man on his legs, set his feet a-going, and he will infallibly lead you to water, if water there be in all that region.
There is magic in it; no home like a raft, after all. Other places do seem so cramped up and smothery, but a raft don’t. You feel mighty free and easy and comfortable on a raft.
But now forget all for a moment. You must plainly see the truth of what I started with: sometimes we’d have that whole river all to ourselves for the longest time. Yonder was the banks and islands, across the water; and maybe a spark- which was a candle in a cabin window- and sometimes on the water you could see a spark or two- on a raft or a scow, you know; and maybe you could hear a fiddle or a song coming over from one of them crafts. It’s lovely to live on a raft. We had the sky, up there, all speckled with stars, and we used to lay on our back and look up at them, and discuss whether they was made, or only just happened.
The only water worth anything in the north is that ocean. My Mississippi; cherish very nearly the same feelings towards the ocean with me. A whaling ship, from Nantucket, via New Bedford- New Bedford would be my immediate destiny.
There is no life in me, now, except that rocking life imparted by a gently rolling ship; by her, borrowed from the sea; by the sea, from the inscrutable tides of God. But while this sleep, this dream is on you, move your foot or hand an inch, slip your hold at all; and your identity comes back in horror.
1. New York Times 4/28/15: ‘Violent Clashes Rock Baltimore2 After Funeral: National Guard Called; Officers Injured; Curfew is Set as Protests Turn Chaotic: Gov. Larry Hogan activated the National Guard on Monday and the city of Baltimore announced a curfew for all residents as a turbulent day that began with the funeral of 25-year-old Freddie Gray, the nation’s latest symbol of police brutality, ending with rioting by rock-throwing youths, widespread looting and at least 15 officers injured.
2. I lived in Baltimore for eight years. When I moved there for college, I had never spent more than a few days in a city (mostly day trips to New York City, as a kid, with my Mom or Aunt Joanie, who always reminded us to roll up the windows and lock the doors as we crossed over in the Lincoln Tunnel, and forced visions of gangs armed with baseball bats and appropriated wrenches approaching our car, but nothing ever happened). I had no black friends, a couple of very distant black acquaintances at best, and came from a boarding school where the president of the African-American society was white (really).
The first year I lived on campus, and spent most of my days on the relatively bucolic campus or the nearby suburbs- the ‘better part of town’. My sophomore year my friends and I rented a row house in a ‘borderline’ neighborhood. It was great fun, walking distance from the Charles Theater, which showed foreign and independent film, and we had our share of crime
(broken into four times the first year). I suppose this was my first exposure to living in the city. The closest I ever came to violence was when an old drunk black guy crashed his car in our back alley, and he came out waving a knife. But he was drunk, and old, and the whole thing was tragicomic.
I liked Baltimore. And it wasn’t because of the revitalized Inner Harbor, which was too far for us to spend any time at, and was really only for tourists. Things felt a bit more real, more cool in the city than the tonier parts of town anyway. There were funky areas like Fells Point, where we’d go to get drunk and listen to live music and make desperate attempts to pick up women. There was the Big ‘B’ grocery store, with things like pig ears and pig’s feet that I had never seen sold before. There was the weird artsy crowd, including John Walters (who I saw on occasion at the Charles Theater, and who did the best non-smoking public service announcement ever (all the time puffing on a cigarette, and gleefully blowing out a smoke ring at the end while he told you not to smoke during the show)). You could go to a Jesse Jackson rally (he showed up almost two hours late), head to DC for the day, buy really cheap vodka with no worry of being carded.
But, again, I really didn’t know any black people. People were generally friendly, and usually said hello as you passed, but we were in our little white row house. My first encounter of any sort was when I volunteered to tutor at the City Jail, and spent time with one of the inmates, going over math for his high school equivalency diploma. I don’t remember his name, but he was in the half-way house, and seemed glad to be doing something besides watching TV. He was in for some drug-related offense, and had track marks all over his arms, which impressed me to no end.
The only time I felt like I stood out as a WHITE PERSON was when my girlfriend and I decided to see ‘Trading Places’ at the Hippodrome in Baltimore, which was packed, and we were the only two white people in the place. I remember being terrified going to the bathroom as this skinny white guy walking down the unlit stairwell. Everyone in line looking at me like ‘WTF are you doing here?’. The audience was a lot better than any white audience (who just usually sit there, or where one annoying asshole eats his popcorn for the entire movie) instead calling out and responding to the screen. When the old white guys in the film used the word ‘nigger’, there was a lot of calling out. And when Jamie Lee Curtis took off her top to reveal her breasts to get in bed with an ailing Dan Akroyd, someone stool up and yelled out ‘She’s gonna heal him’, which got a big laugh.
One of the minor things I did in college but which I am the most curiously proud of was getting arrested for protesting in front of the South African embassy, when students everywhere were doing their small part to help end apartheid. The whole thing was highly organized. A bunch of us students got on a van in Baltimore and went to DC, where we were brought to the basement of a black Baptist church, and these great and dignified Civil Rights activists from the glory days got up and told us how to protest, what non-violence resistance was all about. We were then brought to the South African embassy on a big Greyhound-like bus, crossed over into the illegal no-go zone (a space of something like fifty feet that no one is supposed to cross), linked arms and sang ‘We Shall Overcome’; I can’t sing, and that part felt a little funny, but then, the Civil Rights activists told us that sometimes you feel very funny protesting. The police were waiting and expecting this to happen, and very politely put us in plastic handcuffs and a paddy wagon. We were brought to a DC jail, fingerprinted, got mug shots (God- I would love to see my photo now), and brought, half-disappointingly, not to a barren cell with hard timers, but a plush carpeted conference room where a civil rights lawyer got us out in less than an hour. I just remember a white college student with designer glasses mentioning something how we were putting ourselves on the line, and even in my naivety knowing we were doing nothing of the kind.
But all these years later, I am still kind of proud of that one little afternoon.
The only two people I got to know in any depth in the ‘inner city’ was in medical school, when my girlfriend at the time and I lived in an area called ‘Ridgely’s Delight’, near Babe Ruth’s birthplace, before Camden Yards was built, and was in the process of being partly yuppified. The neighborhood was literally half-black, half-white, right across the street from Martin Luther King Boulevard. I imagine it’s all yuppified at this point. We befriended two kids in the neighborhood, Tinetia and Dwon. Tinetia was about ten, her brother seven or eight. Dwon was lead-poisoned, with this great happy affect, but could only say rudimentary sounds, like ‘Ka’. He was also a brilliant mimic, and would stand in front of my TV and perfectly mime the weatherman’s gestures. Tinetia had the double (and triple) duty of keeping an eye on Dwon, and also running errands for her mother, who, as far as I knew, rarely left the house. Tinetia would run to McDonald’s or the really cheap Chinese place with the bullet-proof glass at the counter, and scrounge up dinner. I assume Tinetia’s mother had alcohol or substance problems, but I had no way of knowing. My girlfriend was a social work student, and I think took it as a mission in life to drop hints to Tinetia about going to school and not ending up a teen mom. Baltimore had the highest teen pregnancy rate at the time (the city’s motto, other than Charm City, was ‘The City that Reads’, an effort on the part of mayor Kurt Schmoke to promote literacy, but park benches with the slogan were often defaced to ‘The City that BReaeds’.) I don’t know if we were just two white people weakly trying to ‘impose’ white culture, two people just trying to offer good advice, or two do-gooders who may not have done much. But we all really liked each other, Dwon was a riot, Tinetia a good kid, and I hope to hell they’re doing OK. Wherever they are now.