Thursday, December 10, 2009

DO YOU, MR. JONES? by Mel Rosenthal

Something is happening, and you
Don't know what it i-i-is,
Do you, Mr. Jones?

This old Bob Dylan song, dating from sometime in the sixties, is one I haven't thought of for lo, these many years. I don't recall it getting all that much play or attention even when it first appeared, but, at least in retrospect, it could well be considered a sort of counter-cultural anthem, the expression of a distinctive conflict between generations. While nothing is said explicitly about Mr. Jones's age or stage of life, as an embodiment of the archetypal square he is clearly middle-aged, like the parents of the young and hip whose words and actions so mystify him. And for myself at the time (and since), a key question was: Where exactly did I stand in relation to this generational conflict? And the truthful answer: somewhere in the middle. In spirit I could say, or at least tell myself, I was on the side of the hip young, sharing in their amused scorn for someone so clueless, so irredeemably lacking in awareness. In terms of how I actually lived, however -- working at a 9-to-5 job in an office cubicle for one or another publishing firm, living alone in a small studio apartment, spending many weekends visiting my father in the arch-middle-class suburbia of northern New Jersey, and, perhaps most unhiply, suffering from social awkwardness and sexual inhibitions -- I was forced to concede that I had far more in common with Mr. Jones.

A small incident: I was returning to the City after one of my periodic weekends in New Jersey with my father, wearing a suit and carrying an attache case, and a young guy, presumptively hip, yelled at me from the window of a passing car, "White-collar fascist!" (True, he said it with a smile.) As it happened, the attache case contained chiefly soiled underwear from my weekend visit.

THE FOOL by Dermot McGuigan

Once again, I wake from the nightmare of being trapped in a vortex of water emptying down a black hole - I strain away but cannot escape. I want so much to be back under the sheltering tree, to see again the stars and feel the breeze on my face ... and that dream has gone.

Mother has brought me to the entrance to the schoolyard, framed on three sides by the red brick school and on the fourth side by a long concrete lean-to shed. It is cold, austere. Next to me a boy stands crying, clinging to his mother. I cross the empty yard alone and enter the school for the first time.

I know none of the other boys. My friends go to a different school. These boys speak with a different accent. We must sit still at our desks, all day. At our break we march in columns in the courtyard as teacher shouts “left, right; left, right” in Irish. I ask teacher questions, he is angry, saying: “You do not ask questions, I ask - you answer.”

Teacher has a strap made of stitched layers of leather. The first time teacher uses his leather he takes the small hand in his and unrolls the boys’ fingers with his thumb. The boys’ eyes are wide and watery. Teacher slaps the opened palm. Above teacher, high on the front classroom wall stands the Virgin Mary in a glass case. She looks serenely out over the class. Under her heel, the Virgin crushes the neck of a snake; the jaws of the snake are open, its fangs are white, its mouth bright red. The Virgin is oblivious to the pain of the snake she is crushing.

We chant our times tables. Teacher writes on his blackboard, and every now and again he silently swirls around flinging the chalk stick into the class of fifty boys. He says we must pay attention. Tiring of the chalk he flings the duster until a boy’s forehead is cut open on the wooden block, blood runs down the boys face from above his eye.

Long days, hypnotic with stultification, broken by the sing-song of other classes reciting alphabets and tables, and the echoing lashes down the long corridors as an infuriated teacher works his leather on an open hand. I count the lashes, six, twelve, on each hand.

I ask mother “Can I go to the school my friends go to, I don’t like this school.” Her response, when I ask again is no, adding that father also went to a Christian Brother’s school and I am to stay there, that it is a good school. Months pass. One day teacher calls me to the head of the classroom saying he has a task for me to do. He chooses me out of all the other boys in the class. I am excited and fearful. Teacher says it is a very important task.

He tells me to go to another classroom and ask for the round square for drawing triangles, saying to be sure to remember the correct order of the words. The words are meaningless and difficult to remember.

In the long corridor there are tall doors to one side, high windows on the other. I knock on the classroom door. A teacher opens the door and listens to my request. The boys in his classroom are older. He tells me to come in and to say out loud what I have come for. I ask for the round square for triangles.

A few of the boys giggle, others laugh. I don’t know why they laugh? He tells me to say out louder what I have come for. More boys laugh. The teacher shakes his head and says he does not have it, that I should go back to my class.

I return empty handed. Teacher tells me to go to another class and ask again. In one of the classes I hear the word ‘fool’. And so it went, class by class, not all the classes in the school but many.

Walking alone in the long corridors I feel hopeless. I am not special, I am a failure. At one point teacher has me repeat what I am asking for and boys in my class laugh, something has changed, something about me must be wrong.

Finally, teacher dismisses me, sends me back to my seat. Nothing further is said about the instrument, and he does not ask another boy to get it. I have failed. Each day I wait, expecting teacher to ask another boy to go for the important instrument. I wait for three weeks as resistance settles in me. I speak of my failure to no one, not at school, not to mother or father. I must hide that I am a fool.

Teacher marches us in the concrete schoolyard, shouting “left, right.” To his ‘left’ I step to the right. I fear and hate him. I give him nothing, I stop doing homework; I roll my eyeballs at him in contempt. And then the lashes begin, red-faced and angry. As the thick strap hits the open palm the shock ricochets within. I do not give him tears, I show him nothing of the pain. Afterwards both hands are numb, then a throbbing pain begins and slowly moves out.

The days pass with my barest compliance so as to avoid being sent to the reform school. Teacher tells us of reform school, where the disobedient and the truant are sent. I daydream that the headmaster announces that we have five minutes to destroy the school. Over and over I imagine myself smashing the windows and in my fantasy I smash the most, I have a plan.

Nine years later the annual school report suggests I be removed from the school, that I will not pass the intermediate exam.

More than four decades later sitting with mother, I finally tell her what happened that day and that, with hindsight, I assume it was April 1st., when I was six. Mother, once again, tells of how she nearly lost a finger when she was a child and that in those days there was privation and pain, real pain.

Another day I tell father the story. He knew nothing of it, he is saddened and says: “That was cruel!”


The subway. A group of friends. Front of the first car, behind the cab where the engineer sits. I’m carrying sheaves of papers. I lay them on the floor and sing to a little boy who stands among us—something sweet and instructive like “Tommy Lad” or “Danny Boy”. Not my son, but the son of a friend. When I leave, passengers clap, and I collect my papers from the floor, but incoming passengers flood the car as the door opens, treading on my sheaves of papers. They know nothing of me.

I totter to the bathroom trying to focus and clear my eyes of sleep. After reading, I return to our darkened bed and strive to drift again toward trance and dream and the unpleasantness of sleep. I wonder whether I’ll lie awake as sometimes I do thinking of Elizabeth’s departure, Arthur’s cruelties. Wondering is mother to the thought. Besides a prayer, I know only to call my senses to attention upon the moment, scanning our environment for simple sounds of traffic and machines that might distract, smells of sleep and night air that’s been filtered through the air conditioner, eyes shut awareness of our dark room, and the soft pressure of latex through wool pad and pillow cover and of cotton in sheet and coverlet.

I reach into space and touch Dee, who stirs after a moment. We closed our eyes at bedtime touching each other. After a few minutes, I felt her withdraw her hand and turn. Later, I woke. Last night’s “Bachelorette” episode comes to mind, and my still near-dreaming thoughts are about love. I remember from the Bachelorette episode an enamored, infatuated look that this bachelorette gave somber Wes, who sang country songs to her, accompanying himself with a guitar—but we viewers suspect him to be a quiet and reserved bad boy, a type to which she’s said she’s vulnerable. We suspect there’s something that he’s not telling her. I touch Dee and take her hand, and a wave of utter grief and sorrow, shame and guilt sweeps over and through me for all the dreams and loves that I have lost, stopped pursuing, or failed to win—from an engineering degree to the women I’ve courted. No one shared the dreams. They flower alone. Thought returns of one great culminated passion—my eight-year marriage with Elizabeth. Of how, many times, she looked enamored, infatuated into Arthur’s eyes—as numerous times before she had into mine before meandering away, fickle in a hard time, from me to him. I force my mind to return to Dee and fall asleep.

“More powerful than a Google search, friendlier than a wiki, and the best natural language processor on the market.” This is how Erica Olsen, the founder of Librarian Avengers, has characterized librarians. The words cross my mind. Another day calls this librarian avenger to move mountains and accomplish the impossible, which with interruptions takes a little longer than immediately. Grim smile at this humor that has flickered through myself. A hook, upon which to hang grit, with which to climb from bed.

I am standing, late at night again, under fluorescent light on the subway platform at 34th Street. Trains shriek as they brake and start. I have just done the dangerous thing that I regularly have done and maybe shouldn’t—scanned my surroundings to ascertain that I am by myself, planted my feet, and gingerly leaned over the track to see whether a train is approaching. Not yet. On the platform people hover; they walk, talk, stand at the booth that recently after a couple of years was re-opened, where a man sells newspapers, candy, and glaring popular magazines that display pictures of shapely pumped, barely clad flesh and muscles and contain articles about how to change one’s image and attract lovers.

I acknowledge what I have and don’t of muscles and attraction; and the thought comes that I am to love faithfully regardless. I embrace the thought, committing determinedly to it; and for doing so I feel calmer and more present to these lights, this platform, this moment. I pray silently.