REPORT FROM THE INTERIOR
In the beginning, everything was alive. The smallest objects were endowed with beating hearts, and even the clouds had names. Scissors could walk, telephones and teapots were first cousins, eyes and eyeglasses were brothers. The face of the clock was a human face, each pea in your bowl had a different personality, and the grille on the front of your parents’ car was a grinning mouth with many teeth. Pens were airships. Coins were flying saucers. The branches of trees were arms. Stones could think, and God was everywhere.
There was no problem in believing that the man in the moon was an actual man. You could see his face looking down at you from the night sky, and without question it was the face of a man. Little matter that this man had no body—he was still a man as far as you were concerned, and the possibility that there might be a contradiction in all this never once entered your thoughts. At the same time, it seemed perfectly credible that a cow could jump over the moon. And that a dish could run away with a spoon.
Your earliest thoughts, remnants of how you lived inside yourself as a small boy. You can remember only some of it, isolated bits and pieces, brief flashes of recognition that surge up in you unexpectedly at random moments—brought on by the smell of something, or the touch of something, or the way the light falls on something in the here and now of adulthood. At least you think you can remember, you believe you remember, but perhaps you are not remembering at all, or remembering only a later remembrance of what you think you thought in that distant time which is all but lost to you now.
January 3, 2012, exactly one year to the day after you started composing your last book, your now-finished winter journal. It was one thing to write about your body, to catalogue the manifold knocks and pleasures experienced by your physical self, but exploring your mind as you remember it from childhood will no doubt be a more difficult task—perhaps an impossible one. Still, you feel compelled to give it a try. Not because you find yourself a rare or exceptional object of study, but precisely because you don’t, because you think of yourself as anyone, as everyone.
The only proof you have that your memories are not entirely deceptive is the fact that you still occasionally fall into the old ways of thinking. Vestiges have lingered well into your sixties, the animism of early childhood has not been fully purged from your mind, and each summer, as you lie on your back in the grass, you look up at the drifting clouds and watch them turn into faces, into birds and animals, into states and countries and imaginary kingdoms. The grilles of cars still make you think of teeth, and the corkscrew is still a dancing ballerina. In spite of the outward evidence, you are still who you were, even if you are no longer the same person.
In thinking about where you want to go with this, you have decided not to cross the boundary of twelve, for after the age of twelve you were no longer a child, adolescence was looming, glimmers of adulthood had already begun to flicker in your brain, and you were transformed into a different kind of being from the small person whose life was a constant plunge into the new, who every day did something for the first time, even several things, or many things, and it is this slow progress from ignorance toward something less than ignorance that concerns you now. Who were you, little man? How did you become a person who could think, and if you could think, where did your thoughts take you? Dig up the old stories, scratch around for whatever you can find, then hold up the shards to the light and have a look at them. Do that. Try to do that.
The world was of course flat. When someone tried to explain to you that the earth was a sphere, a planet orbiting the sun with eight other planets in something called a solar system, you couldn’t grasp what the older boy was saying. If the earth was round, then everyone below the equator would fall off, since it was inconceivable that a person could live his life upside down. The older boy tried to explain the concept of gravity to you, but that was beyond your grasp as well. You imagined millions of people plunging headlong through the darkness of an infinite, all-devouring night. If the earth was indeed round, you said to yourself, then the only safe place to be was the North Pole.
No doubt influenced by the cartoons you loved to watch, you thought there was a pole jutting out from the North Pole. Similar to one of those striped, revolving columns that stood in front of barbershops.
Stars, on the other hand, were inexplicable. Not holes in the sky, not candles, not electric lights, not anything that resembled what you knew. The immensity of the black air overhead, the vastness of the space that stood between you and those small luminosities, was something that resisted all understanding. Benign and beautiful presences hovering in the night, there because they were there and for no other reason. The work of God’s hand, yes, but what in the world had he been thinking?
Your circumstances at the time were as follows: midcentury America; mother and father; tricycles, bicycles, and wagons; radios and black-and-white televisions; standard-shift cars; two small apartments and then a house in the suburbs; fragile health early on, then normal boyhood strength; public school; a family from the striving middle class; a town of fifteen thousand populated by Protestants, Catholics, and Jews, all white except for a smattering of black people, but no Buddhists, Hindus, or Muslims; a little sister and eight first cousins; comic books; Rootie Kazootie and Pinky Lee; “I Saw Mommy Kissing Santa Claus”; Campbell’s soup, Wonder bread, and canned peas; souped-up cars (hot rods) and cigarettes for twenty-three cents a pack; a little world inside the big world, which was the entire world for you back then, since the big world was not yet visible.
Armed with a pitchfork, an angry Farmer Gray runs across a cornfield in pursuit of Felix the Cat. Neither one of them can talk, but their actions are accompanied by a steady clang of jaunty, high-speed music, and as you watch the two of them engage in yet another battle of their never-ending war, you are convinced they are real, that these raggedly drawn black-and-white figures are no less alive than you are. They appear every afternoon on a television program called Junior Frolics, hosted by a man named Fred Sayles, who is known to you simply as Uncle Fred, the silver-haired gatekeeper to this land of marvels, and because you understand nothing about the production of animated films, cannot even begin to fathom the process by which drawings are made to move, you figure there must be some sort of alternate universe in which characters like Farmer Gray and Felix the Cat can exist—not as pen scratches dancing across a television screen, but as fully embodied, three-dimensional creatures as large as adults. Logic demands that they be large, since the people who appear on television are always larger than their images on-screen, and logic also demands that they belong to an alternate universe, since the universe you live in is not populated by cartoon characters, much as you might wish it was. One day when you are five years old, your mother announces that she will be taking you and your friend Billy to the studio in Newark where Junior Frolics is broadcast. You will get to see Uncle Fred in person, she tells you, and be a part of the show. All this is exciting to you, inordinately exciting, but even more exciting is the thought that finally, after months of speculation, you will be able to set eyes on Farmer Gray and Felix the Cat. At long last you will discover what they really look like. In your mind, you see the action unfolding on an enormous stage, a stage the size of a football field, as the crotchety old farmer and the wily black cat chase each other back and forth in one of their epic skirmishes. On the appointed day, however, none of it happens as you thought it would. The studio is small, Uncle Fred has makeup on his face, and after you are given a bag of mints to keep you company during the show, you take your seat in the grandstand with Billy and the other children. You look down at what should be a stage, but which in fact is nothing more than the concrete floor of the studio, and what you see there is a television set. Not even a special television set, but one no bigger or smaller than the set you have at home. The farmer and the cat are nowhere in the vicinity. After Uncle Fred welcomes the audience to the show, he introduces the first cartoon. The television comes on, and there are Farmer Gray and Felix the Cat, bouncing around in the same way they always have, still trapped inside the box, still as small as they ever were. You are thoroughly confused. What error have you made? you ask yourself. Where has your thinking gone wrong? The real is so defiantly at odds with the imagined, you can’t help feeling that a nasty trick has been played on you. Stunned with disappointment, you can barely bring yourself to look at the show. Afterward, walking back to the car with Billy and your mother, you toss away the mints in disgust.
Grass and trees, insects and birds, small animals, and the sounds of those animals as their invisible bodies thrashed through the surrounding bushes. You were five and a half when your family left the cramped garden apartment in Union and installed itself in the old white house on Irving Avenue in South Orange. Not a big house, but the first house your parents had ever lived in, which made it your first house as well, and even though the interior was not spacious, the yard behind the house seemed vast to you, for in fact it was two yards, the first one a small grassy area directly behind the house, bordered by your mother’s crescent-shaped flower garden, and then, because a white wooden garage stood just beyond the flowers, bisecting the property into independent terrains, there was a second yard behind it, the back backyard, which was wilder and bigger than the front backyard, a secluded realm in which you conducted your most intense investigations into the flora and fauna of your new kingdom. The only sign of man back there was your father’s vegetable garden, which was essentially a tomato garden, planted not long after your family moved into the house in 1952, and every year for the twenty-six and a half years that remained of his life, your father spent his summers cultivating tomatoes, the reddest, plumpest New Jersey tomatoes anyone had ever seen, baskets overflowing with tomatoes every August, so many tomatoes that he would have to give them away before they went bad. Your father’s garden, running along a side of the garage in the back backyard. His patch of ground, but your world—and there you lived until you were twelve.
Robins, finches, blue jays, orioles, scarlet tanagers, crows, sparrows, wrens, cardinals, blackbirds, and an occasional bluebird. Birds were no less strange to you than stars, and because their true home was in the air, you felt that birds and stars belonged to the same family. The incomprehensible gift of being able to fly, not to mention the multitude of bright and dull colors, fit subjects for study and observation, but what intrigued you most about them were the sounds they made, a different language spoken by each kind of bird, whether tuneful songs or harsh, abrasive cries, and early on you were convinced that they were talking to one another, that these sounds were articulated words of a special bird language, and just as there were human beings of different colors who spoke an infinite number of languages, so too with the airborne creatures who sometimes hopped around on the grass in your back backyard, each robin talking to his fellow robins in a language with its own vocabulary and grammatical rules, as comprehensible to them as English was to you.
In the summer: splitting a blade of grass down the middle and whistling through it; capturing fireflies at night and walking around with your magic, glowing jar. In the fall: sticking the pods that fell from the maple trees onto your nose; picking up acorns from the ground and throwing them as far as you could—deep into the bushes and out of sight. Acorns were delicacies coveted by the squirrels, and since squirrels were the animals you admired most—their speed! their death-defying jumps through the branches of the oaks overhead!—you watched them carefully as they dug little holes and buried acorns in the ground. Your mother told you they were saving the acorns for the lean months of winter, but the truth was that not once did you ever see a squirrel dig up an acorn in winter. You concluded that they dug holes for the pure pleasure of digging, that they were mad for digging and simply couldn’t stop themselves.
Until you were five or six, perhaps even seven, you thought the words human being were pronounced human bean. You found it mystifying that humanity should be represented by such a small, common vegetable, but somehow, twisting around your thoughts to accommodate this misunderstanding, you decided that the very smallness of the bean was what made it significant, that we all start out in our mother’s womb no larger than a bean, and therefore the bean was the truest, most powerful symbol of life itself.
The God who was everywhere and reigned over everything was not a force of goodness or love but of fear. God was guilt. God was the commander of the celestial mind police, the unseen, all-powerful one who could invade your head and listen to your thoughts, who could hear you talking to yourself and translate the silence into words. God was always watching, always listening, and therefore you had to be on your best behavior at all times. If not, horrendous punishments would come blasting down upon you, unspeakable torments, incarceration in the darkest dungeon, condemned to live on bread and water for the rest of your days. By the time you were old enough to go to school, you learned that any act of rebellion would be crushed. You watched your friends undermine the rules with cunning and brilliance, invent new and ever more devious forms of mayhem behind the backs of the teachers and continually get away with it, whereas you, whenever you succumbed to temptation and participated in these antics, were always caught and punished. Without fail. No talent for mischief, alas, and as you imagined your angry God mocking you with a burst of contemptuous laughter, you realized that you had to be good—or else.
Six years old. Standing in your room one Saturday morning, having just dressed yourself and tied your shoes (such a big boy now, such a capable boy), all ready for action, about to go downstairs and begin the day, and as you stood there in the light of the early spring morning, you were engulfed by a feeling of happiness, an ecstatic, unbridled sense of well-being and joy, and an instant later you said to yourself: There is nothing better than being six years old, six is far and away the best age anyone can be. You remember thinking this as clearly as you remember what you did three seconds ago, it is still blazing inside you fifty-nine years after that morning, undiminished in its clarity, as bright as any one of the thousands or millions or tens of millions of memories you have managed to retain. What had happened to cause such an overpowering feeling? Impossible to know, but you suspect it had something to do with the birth of self-consciousness, that thing that happens to children at around the age of six, when the inner voice awakens and the ability to think a thought and tell yourself you are thinking that thought begins. Our lives enter a new dimension at that point, for that is the moment when we acquire the ability to tell our stories to ourselves, to begin the uninterrupted narrative that continues until the day we die. Until that morning, you just were. Now you knew that you were. You could think about being alive, and once you could do that, you could fully savor the fact of your own existence, which is to say, you could tell yourself how good it was to be alive.
1953. Still six years old, some days or weeks after that transcendent illumination, another turning point in your inner progress, which happened to take place in a movie theater somewhere in New Jersey. You had been to the movies just two or three times before that, in each case an animated film for children (Pinocchio and Cinderella spring to mind), but films with real people in them had been available to you only on television, principally low-budget Westerns from the thirties and forties, Hopalong Cassidy, Gabby Hayes, Buster Crabbe, and Al “Fuzzy” St. John, clunky old shoot-’em-ups in which the heroes wore white hats and the villains had black mustaches, all of which you thoroughly enjoyed and believed in with fervent conviction. Then, at some point during the year you turned six, you were taken by someone to a film that was shown at night—no doubt your parents, although you have no memory of them being there. It was your first movie experience that was not a Saturday matinee, not a Disney cartoon, not an antique black-and-white Western—but a new film in color that had been made for grown-ups. You remember the immensity of the crowded theater, the spookiness of sitting in the dark when the lights went out, a feeling of anticipation and unease, as if you were both there and not there at the same time, no longer inside your own body, in the way one disappears from oneself in the grip of a dream. The film was The War of the Worlds, based on the novel by H. G. Wells, lauded at the time as a breakthrough work in the realm of special effects—more elaborate, more convincing, more advanced than any film that had come before it. So you have read in recent years, but you knew nothing about that in 1953, you were merely a six-year-old boy watching a battalion of Martians invade the earth, and with the largest of large screens looming before you, the colors felt more vivid than any colors you had seen before, so lustrous, so clear, so intense that your eyes ached. Stone-round metal spaceships landed out of the night sky, one by one the lids of these flying machines would open, and slowly a Martian would emerge from within, a preternaturally tall insect-like figure with stick arms and eerily long fingers. The Martian would fix his gaze on an earthling, zero in on him with his grotesque, bulbous eyes, and an instant later there would be a flash of light. Seconds after that, the earthling would be gone. Obliterated, dematerialized, reduced to a shadow on the ground, and then the shadow would vanish as well, as if that person had never been there, had never even been alive. Oddly enough, you don’t remember being scared. Transfixed is probably the word that best captures what was happening to you, a sense of awe, as if the spectacle had hypnotized you into a state of numbed rapture. Then something terrible happened, something far more terrible than the deaths or obliterations of the soldiers who had tried to kill the Martians with their useless weapons. Perhaps these military men had been wrong to assume the invaders had come with hostile intentions, perhaps the Martians were simply defending themselves as any other creatures would if they found themselves under attack. You were willing to grant them the benefit of the doubt, in any case, for it seemed wrong to you that the humans should have allowed their fear of the unknown to turn so quickly into violence. Then came the man of peace. He was the father of the leading lady, the young and beautiful girlfriend or wife of the leading man, and this father was a pastor or minister of some kind, a man of God, and in a calm and soothing voice he counseled those around him to approach the aliens with kindness and friendship, to come to them with a love of God in their hearts. To prove his point, the brave pastor-father started walking toward one of the ships, holding up a Bible in one hand and a cross in the other, telling the Martians they had nothing to fear, that we of the earth wanted to live in harmony with everyone in the universe. His mouth was trembling with emotion, his eyes were lit up with the power of his faith, and then, as he came within a few feet of the ship, the lid opened, a stick-like Martian appeared, and before the pastor-father could take another step, there was a flash of light, and the bearer of the holy word was turned into a shadow. Soon after that, not even a shadow—turned into nothing at all. God, the all-powerful one, had no power. In the face of evil, God was as helpless as the most helpless man, and those who believed in him were doomed. Such was the lesson you learned that night from The War of the Worlds. It was a jolt you have never fully recovered from.
Forgive others, always forgive others—but never yourself. Say please and thank you. Don’t put your elbows on the table. Don’t brag. Never say unkind things about a person behind his back. Remember to put your dirty clothes in the hamper. Turn out the lights before you leave a room. Look people in the eye when you talk to them. Don’t talk back to your parents. Wash your hands with soap and make sure to scrub under your nails. Never tell lies, never steal, never hit your little sister. Shake hands firmly. Be home by five o’clock. Brush your teeth before going to bed. And above all remember: don’t walk under ladders, avoid black cats, and never let your feet touch the cracks in sidewalks.
You worried about the unfortunate ones, the downtrodden, the poor, and even though you were too young to understand anything about politics or the economy, to comprehend how crushing the forces of capitalism can be on the ones who have little or nothing, you had only to lift your head and look around you to realize that the world was unjust, that some people suffered more than others, that the word equal was in fact a relative term. It probably had something to do with your early exposure to the black slums of Newark and Jersey City, the Friday evenings when you would make the rounds with your father as he collected the rent from his tenants, the rare middle-class boy who had a chance to enter the apartments of the poor and desperately poor, to see and smell the conditions of poverty, the tired women and their children with only an occasional man in sight, and because your father’s black tenants were always exceedingly kind to you, you wondered why these good people had to live with so little, so much less than you had, you so snug in your cozy suburban house, and they in their barren rooms with broken furniture or barely any furniture at all. It wasn’t a question of race for you, at least not then it wasn’t, since you felt comfortable among your father’s black tenants and didn’t care whether their skin was black or white, it all came down to a question of money, of not having enough money, of not having the kind of work to earn them enough money to live in a house like yours. Later on, when you were a bit older and started reading American history, at a moment in American history that happened to coincide with the flowering of the civil rights movement, you were able to understand a good deal more about what you had witnessed as a child of six and seven, but back then, in the obscure days of your dawning consciousness, you understood nothing. Life was kind to some and cruel to others, and your heart ached because of it.
Then, too, there were the starving children of India. This was more abstract to you, more difficult to grasp because more distant and alien, but nevertheless it exerted a powerful influence over your imagination. Half-naked children without enough to eat, emaciated limbs as thin as flutes, shoeless, dressed in rags, wandering through vast, crowded cities begging for crusts of bread. That was the vision you saw every time your mother talked about those children, which never happened anywhere except at the dinner table, for that was the standard ploy of all American mothers in the 1950s, who incessantly referred to the malnourished, destitute children of India in order to shame their own children into cleaning their plates, and how often you wished you could invite an Indian child to your house to share your dinner with you, for the truth was that you were a picky eater when you were small, no doubt the result of a faulty digestive system that afflicted you up to the age of three and a half or four, and there were certain foods that you couldn’t abide, that made you ill just to look at them, and each time you failed to finish off what had been served to you, you would think about the boys and girls of India and feel riven with guilt.
You can’t remember being read to, nor can you remember learning how to read. At most, you can recall talking to your mother about some of the characters you were fond of, characters from books, books she therefore must have read to you, but you have no memory of holding those books in your hands, no memory of sitting beside your mother or lying beside her as she pointed to the illustrations and read the words of the stories out loud to you. You cannot hear her voice, you cannot feel her body next to yours. If you strain hard enough, however, closing your eyes long enough to put yourself in a kind of semi-trance, you can just barely manage to summon up the impact certain fairy tales had on you, in particular “Hansel and Gretel,” which was the one that frightened you most, but also “Rumpelstiltskin” and “Rapunzel,” along with dim recollections of looking at pictures of Dumbo, Winnie the Pooh, and a little dalmatian named Peewee. But the story you cared about most, the one you still know more or less by heart, which means that it must have been read to you many dozens of times, was Peter Rabbit, the tale of poor naughty Peter, the wayward son of old Mrs. Rabbit, and his misadventures in Mr. McGregor’s vegetable patch. As you flip through a copy of the book now, you are astonished by how familiar it is to you, every detail of every painting, nearly every word of the text, especially the chilling words from old Mrs. Rabbit on the second page: “You may go into the fields or down the lane, but don’t go into Mr. McGregor’s garden: your Father had an accident there; he was put in a pie by Mrs. McGregor.” No wonder the story had such an effect on you. Charming and bucolic as the setting might be, Peter has not gone off on some lighthearted afternoon romp. By sneaking into Mr. McGregor’s garden, he is boldly risking his own death, stupidly risking his own death, and as you study the contents of the book now, you can imagine how intensely you must have feared for Peter’s life—and how deeply you rejoiced at his escape. A memory that is not a memory, and yet it still lives on in you. When your daughter was born twenty-four years ago, one of the presents she received was a china cup decorated with two illustrations from Beatrix Potter books. The cup somehow managed to survive the perils of her infancy and childhood, and for the past fifteen years you have been using it to drink your tea in the morning. Just one month short of your sixty-fifth birthday, and every morning you drink from a cup designed for children, a Peter Rabbit cup. You tell yourself that you prefer this cup to all other cups in the house because of its perfect size. Smaller than a mug, larger than a traditional teacup, with a pleasing curve around the lip at the top, which feels comfortable against your own lips and allows the tea to go down your throat without spilling. A practical cup, then, an essential cup, but at the same time you would not be telling the truth if you claimed to be indifferent to the pictures that adorn it. You enjoy beginning the day with Peter Rabbit, your old friend from earliest childhood, from a time so distant that no conscious memories belong to it, and you live in dread of the morning when the cup will slip out of your hand and break.
At some point in your adolescence, your mother told you that you could identify the letters of the alphabet by the time you were three or four. You don’t know if this assertion can be believed, since your mother tended to exaggerate whenever she talked about your youthful accomplishments, and the fact that you were put in the middle reading group when you started the first grade would seem to suggest that you were not as precocious as your mother thought you were. See Dick run. See Jane run. You were six years old, and your most vivid memory from that time places you at a desk that was set apart from the other children, a single desk at the back of the room, where you had been temporarily exiled for misbehaving in class (either talking to someone when you were supposed to be silent or as a result of one of the many punishments you received because of your ineptitude at making mischief), and as you sat at your solitary desk paging through a book that must have been printed in the 1920s (the boys in the illustrations were wearing knickers), your teacher came over to you, a kind young woman with thick, freckled arms named Miss Dorsey, or Dorsi, or perhaps Mrs. Dorsey or Dorsi, and put her hand on your shoulder, touching you gently, even tenderly, which surprised you at first but felt ever so good, and then she bent down and whispered in your ear, telling you that she was encouraged by the progress you had been making, that your work had improved dramatically, and therefore she had decided to shift you over to the top reading group. You must have been getting better, then. Whatever difficulties you had encountered in the early weeks of the school year were behind you now, and yet, when you retrieve the only other clear memory you have held on to from those days of learning how to read and write, you can do little more than shake your head in bafflement. You don’t know if this incident took place before or after your promotion to the highest reading group, but you distinctly recall that you came to school a bit late that morning because of a doctor’s appointment and that the first lesson of the day was already in progress. You slipped into your regular seat beside Malcolm Franklin, a large, hulking boy with exceptionally broad shoulders who was supposedly related to Benjamin Franklin, a fact or non-fact that always impressed you. Miss or Mrs. Dorsey-Dorsi was standing at the blackboard in front of the room, instructing the class on how to print the letter w. Each pupil, hunched over his or her desk with a pencil in hand, was carefully imitating her by writing out a row of w’s. When you looked to your left to see how Benjamin Franklin’s relative was faring with the assignment, you were amused to discover that your classmate wasn’t pausing to separate his w’s (wwww) but was linking them all together (wwww). You were intrigued by how bold and interesting this elongated letter looked on the page, and even though you knew perfectly well that a real w had only four strokes, you rashly decided that you preferred Malcolm’s version, and so, rather than do the assignment correctly, you copied your friend’s example, willfully sabotaging the exercise and proving, once and for all, that in spite of the progress you had made, you were still a world-class dunderhead.
There was a time in your life, perhaps before six or after six—the chronology has blurred—when you believed the alphabet contained two extra letters, two secret letters that were known only to you. A backwards L: . And an upside-down A: .
The best thing about the grammar school you attended, which lasted from kindergarten to the end of the sixth grade, was that no homework was ever assigned. The administrators who ran the local board of education were followers of John Dewey, the philosopher who had changed American teaching methods with his liberal, human approach to childhood development, and you were the beneficiary of Dewey’s wisdom, a boy who was allowed to run free the moment the final bell sounded and school was done for the day, free to play with your friends, free to go home and read, free to do nothing. You are immensely grateful to those unknown gentlemen for keeping your boyhood intact, for not burdening you with unnecessary busywork, for having the intelligence to understand that children can take just so much, and then they must be left to their own devices. They proved that everything that needs to be learned can be learned within the confines of school, for you and your classmates received good primary educations under that system, not always with the most inventive teachers, perhaps, but competent for all that, and they drilled the three R’s into you with indelible results, and when you think about your own two children, who grew up in an age of confusion and anxiety about pedagogical matters, you remember how they were subjected to grinding, unbearably tedious homework obligations night after night, often needing their parents’ help in order to finish their assignments, and year after year, as you watched their bodies droop and their eyes begin to shut, you felt sorry for them, saddened that so many hours of their young lives were being thrown away in the service of a bankrupt idea.
There were few books in your house. The formal educations of both your parents had stopped at the end of high school, and neither one of them had any interest in reading. There was a decent public library in the town where you lived, however, and you went there often, checking out two or three or four books a week. By the time you were eight, you had acquired the habit of reading novels, for the most part mediocre ones, stories written and published for young people in the early fifties, countless volumes in the Hardy Boys series, for example, which you later learned had been created by someone who lived in Maplewood, the town next to yours, but the ones you liked best were novels about sports, in particular Clair Bee’s Chip Hilton series, which followed the high school adventures of heroic Chip and his friend Biggie Cohen as they triumphed in one closely fought contest after another, games that always ended with a last-second touchdown pass, a half-court shot at the final buzzer, or a walk-off home run in the bottom of the eleventh inning. You also remember a gripping novel called Flying Spikes, about an aging, over-the-hill ex–major leaguer trying for one last shot at glory in the low minor leagues, as well as numerous nonfiction works about your favorite sport, such as My Greatest Day in Baseball and books about Babe Ruth, Lou Gehrig, Jackie Robinson, and the young Willie Mays. Biographies gave you almost as much pleasure as novels did, and you read them with passionate curiosity, especially the lives of people from the distant past, Abraham Lincoln, Joan of Arc, Louis Pasteur, and that man of multiple talents, the ancestor or not-ancestor of your former classmate, Benjamin Franklin. Landmark Books—you remember those well, your grammar school library was filled with them—but even more engaging were the hardcover books from Bobbs-Merrill with the orange boards and spines, a vast collection of biographies with stark black silhouette illustrations interspersed among the pages of text. You read dozens of them, if not scores. And then there was the book your mother’s mother gave you as a present, which soon became one of your most cherished possessions, a thick volume with the title Of Courage and Valor (written by an author named Strong and published by the Hart Book Company in 1955), a compendium of over fifty short biographies of the gallant, virtuous dead, including David (defeating Goliath), Queen Esther, Horatius at the bridge, Androcles and the lion, William Tell, John Smith and Pocahontas, Sir Walter Raleigh, Nathan Hale, Sacajawea, Simón Bolívar, Florence Nightingale, Harriet Tubman, Susan B. Anthony, Booker T. Washington, and Emma Lazarus. For your eighth birthday, that same beloved grandmother gave you a multi-volume edition of the works of Robert Louis Stevenson. The language of Kidnapped and Treasure Island was too difficult for you at that age (you remember, for example, stumbling over the word fatigue the first time you encountered it in print and pronouncing it to yourself as fat-a-gew), but you manfully struggled through the less bulky Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde, even if most of it went sailing clear over your head as well. You adored the much simpler A Child’s Garden of Verses, however, and because you knew that Stevenson was a grown man when those poems were written, you were impressed by how deftly and persuasively he employed the first person throughout the book, pretending to write from the point of view of a small child, and you understand now, suddenly, that this was your first glimpse into the hidden wheelworks of literary creation, the mystifying process by which a person can leap into a mind that is not his own. The following year, you wrote your first poem, directly inspired by Stevenson, since he was the only poet you had read, a wretched piece of dried-out snot that began with the couplet: Spring is here, / Give a cheer! Thankfully, you have forgotten the rest, but what you do remember is the happiness that rushed through you as you composed what was, and undoubtedly still is, the worst poem ever written, for the time of year was indeed early spring, and as you walked alone across the newly resurgent grass in Grove Park and felt the warmth of the sun upon your face, you were in an exultant mood, and you felt the need to express that exaltation in words, in written, rhyming words. A pity that your rhymes were so impoverished, but no matter, what counted then was the impulse, the effort, the heightened sense of who you were and how deeply you felt you belonged to the world around you as your pencil inched across the page and you eked out your miserable verses. That same spring, for the first time in your life, you bought a book with your own money. You had had your eye on it for some weeks or months before that, but it took a while for you to save up the necessary cash ($3.95 is the figure that comes back to you now) in order to walk home with the gigantic Modern Library edition of Edgar Allan Poe’s complete poems and stories. Poe was too difficult for you as well, too florid and complex a writer for your nine-year-old brain to grasp, but even if you understood only a small fraction of what you were reading, you loved the sound of the words in your head, the thickness of the language, the exotic gloom that permeated Poe’s long, baroque sentences. Within a year, most of the difficulties had vanished, and by the time you were ten, you had made your next important discovery: Sherlock Holmes. Holmes and Watson, the dear companions of your solitary hours, that strange pair of Dr. Dull Common Sense and Mr. Eccentric Mastermind, and although you followed the ins and outs of their numerous cases with avid attention, what delighted you most were their conversations, the invigorating back-and-forth of opposing sensibilities, in particular one exchange that so startled you, so vehemently overturned everything you had been taught to think about the world, that the revelation went on troubling you and challenging you for years to come. Watson, the practical man of science, tells Holmes about the solar system—the same solar system you had struggled so hard to comprehend when you were younger—explaining that the earth and the other planets revolve around the sun in a precise and orderly fashion, and Holmes, the arrogant and unpredictable Mr. Know-It-All, promptly tells Watson that he has no interest in learning these things, that such knowledge is an utter waste of time and he will do everything in his power to forget what he has just been told. You were a ten-year-old fourth grader when you read that passage, perhaps an eleven-year-old fifth grader, and until then you had never heard anyone argue against the pursuit of learning, especially someone of Holmes’s stature, a man who was recognized as one of the great thinkers of the century, and here he was telling his friend that he didn’t care. In your world, you were supposed to care, you were supposed to show an interest in all realms of human knowledge, to study math as well as penmanship, music as well as science, and your much-admired Holmes was saying no, some things were more important than others, and the unimportant things should be tossed away and forgotten, since they served no purpose except to clutter one’s mind with useless bits of nothing. Some years later, when you found yourself losing interest in science and math, you recalled Holmes’s words—and used them to defend your indifference to those subjects. An idiotic position, no doubt, but you nevertheless embraced it. Further proof, perhaps, that fiction can indeed poison the mind.
The most celebrated figure from your part of the world was Thomas Edison, who had been dead for just sixteen years when you were born. Edison’s laboratory was in West Orange, not far from your house in adjacent South Orange, and because it had been turned into a museum after the inventor’s death, a national landmark, you visited it several times on school trips when you were a child, reverently paying homage to the Wizard of Menlo Park, who was responsible for more than a thousand inventions, including the incandescent lightbulb, the phonograph, and the movies, which to your mind made Edison one of the most important men who had ever lived, the number one scientist in human history. After a tour of the lab, visitors would be taken outside to a building called the Black Maria, a large tar-paper shack that had been the first film studio in the world, and there you and your classmates would watch a projection of The Great Train Robbery, the first feature film ever made. You felt that you had entered the innermost sanctum of genius, a holy shrine. Yes, Sherlock Holmes was your favorite thinker back then, a fearless exemplar of intellectual probity, the one who unveiled to you the miracle and the power of systematic, rational deduction, but Holmes was no more than a figment, an imaginary being who existed only in words, whereas Edison had been real, a flesh-and-blood man, and because his inventions had been created so close to where you lived, almost within shouting distance of your house, you felt a special connection to Edison, a singular intensity of admiration, if not whole-hog, out-and-out worship. You read at least two biographies of your hero before you were ten (a Landmark book first, then one of those orange books with the silhouette illustrations), saw television broadcasts of the two films that had been made about him—Young Tom Edison (with Mickey Rooney), Edison the Man (with Spencer Tracy)—and for some reason (it strikes you as preposterous now), you imagined there was something significant about the fact that both your birthday and Edison’s birthday fell in early February and, even more significant, that you had been born exactly one hundred years after Edison (minus a week). But best of all, most important of all, the thing that solidified your bond with Edison to the point of profoundest kinship, was the discovery that the man who cut your hair had once been Edison’s personal barber. His name was Rocco, a short, not-so-young man who wielded his comb and scissors in a shop just beyond the edge of the Seton Hall College campus, which was only a few blocks from your house. This was the mid-fifties, the late fifties, the era of the flattop and the crew cut, of white bucks and white socks and saddle shoes, of Keds sneakers and stiff, stiff jeans, and since you wore your hair short in the same way nearly every other boy did at the time, visits to the barbershop were frequent, on average twice a month, which meant that every other week throughout your childhood you sat in Rocco’s chair looking at a large reproduction of a portrait of Edison that hung on the wall just to the left of the mirror, a picture with a handwritten note stuck into the lower right-hand corner of the frame that read: To my friend Rocco: Genius is 1% inspiration, 99% perspiration—Thomas A. Edison. Rocco was the link that tied you directly to Edison, for the hands that had once touched the inventor’s head were now touching your head, and who was to say that the thoughts inside Edison’s head had not traveled into Rocco’s fingers, and because those fingers were now touching you, was it not reasonable to assume that some of those thoughts might now be sinking into your head? You didn’t believe any of this, of course, but you liked to pretend you did, and each time you sat in Rocco’s chair, you enjoyed playing this game of magical thought transference, as if you, who were destined to invent nothing, who would demonstrate not the smallest aptitude for things mechanical in years to come, were the legitimate heir of Edison’s mind. Then, to your astonishment, your father quietly informed you one day that he had worked in Edison’s lab after graduating from high school. Nineteen twenty-nine, his first full-time job, one of the many young men who had toiled under the master at Menlo Park. Nothing more than that. Perhaps he was trying to spare your feelings by not telling you the rest of the story, but the mere fact that Edison had been a part of your family’s history, which meant that he was now a part of your history as well, quickly trumped Rocco’s fingers as the most important link to the great man. You were immensely proud of your father. Surely this was the most vital piece of information he had ever shared about himself, and you never tired of passing that information on to your friends. My father worked for Edison. Meaning, you would now suppose, that your remote and uncommunicative father was no longer a complete cipher to you, that he was really someone, after all, a person who had made a contribution to the fundamental business of bettering the world. It wasn’t until you were fourteen that your father told you the second half of the story. The job with Edison had lasted only a few days, you now learned—not because your father hadn’t been doing well, but because Edison had found out he was Jewish, and since no Jews were allowed in the sacred precincts of Menlo Park, the old man summoned your father to his office and fired him on the spot. Your idol turned out to have been a rabid, hate-filled anti-Semite, a well-known fact that had not been included in any of the books you read about him.
Nevertheless, living heroes held far more sway over you than dead ones, even such exalted figures as Edison, Lincoln, and the young shepherd David, who slew the mighty Goliath with a single stone. Like all small boys, you wanted your father to be a hero, but your notion of heroism was too narrowly defined back then to grant your father a place in the pantheon. In your mind, heroism had to do with courage in battle, it was a question of how a person conducted himself in the midst of war, and your father was excluded from consideration because he hadn’t fought in the war, the war being the Second World War, which had ended just eighteen months before you were born. The fathers of most of your friends had been soldiers, they had served the cause in one way or another, and when the little gang you belonged to gathered to stage mock battles in your suburban backyards, pretending to be fighting in Europe (against the Nazis) or on some island in the Pacific (against the Japanese), your friends often showed up with various pieces of military equipment that had been given to them by their fathers (helmets, canteens, metal cups, cartridge belts, binoculars) in order to make the games feel more authentic. You, however, always came empty-handed. Later on, you learned that your father had been exempted from military service because he was in the wire business, which the government had deemed essential to the war effort. That always felt a bit lame to you, but the truth was that your father was older than the other fathers, already thirty when America entered the war, which meant he might not have been drafted in any case. You were just five and six and seven when you played soldier with your friends, much too young to understand anything about your father’s wartime situation, and so you began to question him about why he had no equipment to lend you for your games, perhaps even to pester him, and because your father could not bring himself to tell you that he hadn’t served in the army (was he ashamed—or was it simply that he felt you would be disappointed?), he concocted a ruse to satisfy your wishes—and also, perhaps, to elevate himself in your eyes, to be seen as a hero—but the trick backfired on him and wound up disappointing you, just as your father had feared the truth would disappoint you. One night, he stole into your room after you had been put to bed. He thought you were asleep, but you weren’t, your eyes were still open, and without saying a word you watched your father put two or three objects on your desk and then tiptoe out of the room. In the morning, you discovered that the objects were worn-out specimens of military gear—only one of which you can still see with any certainty: a tin canteen encased in thick green canvas. At breakfast, your father told you that he had dug up some of his old stuff from the war, but you weren’t fooled, you knew in your heart that those things had never belonged to him, that he had bought them the previous afternoon in an army surplus store, and although you said nothing, pretending to be happy with your gifts, you hated your father for lying to you like that. Now, all these years later, you feel only pity.
By contrast, there was the counselor at the day camp you attended during the summer when you were five, a young man named Lenny, no more than twenty-three or twenty-four years old, much liked by all the boys in his charge, slight of build, funny, warm, strongly opposed to harsh discipline, who had recently come home to New Jersey after serving as a soldier in Korea. You knew that a war was being fought over there, but the details were entirely obscure to you, and as far as you can remember, Lenny never talked about his experiences in combat. It was your mother who told you about them, she only twenty-seven at the time and therefore a contemporary of Lenny’s, and one afternoon when she came to fetch you, the two of them had a talk while you were gathering up your things, and when you and your mother were driving home in the car together, you could see how upset she was, more shaken than at any time you could remember (which surely accounts for why the incident has stayed with you all these years). She began telling you about frostbite, the intolerable cold of the Korean winters and the inadequate boots worn by the American soldiers, the badly designed boots that could do nothing to protect the feet of the infantrymen, causing frostbite, which blackened the toes and often led to amputation. Lenny, she said, poor Lenny had gone through all that, and now that your mother was explaining this to you, you realized that Lenny’s hands had also suffered from the cold, for you had noticed there was something wrong with the top joints of his fingers, that they were harder and more wrinkled than normal adult fingers, and what you had assumed to be a genetic defect of some kind you now understood was the result of war. Much as you had always liked him, Lenny now rose in your estimation to the rank of exalted person.
If your father wasn’t a hero to you, couldn’t be a hero to you, that didn’t mean you gave up searching for heroes elsewhere. Buster Crabbe and other movie cowboys served as early models, establishing a code of masculine honor to be studied and emulated, the man of few words who never looked for trouble but who would respond with daring and cunning whenever trouble found him, the man who upheld justice with quiet, self-effacing dignity and was willing to risk his life in the struggle between good and evil. Women could be heroic, too, at times even more courageous than men, but women were never your models for the simple reason that you were a boy, not a girl, and it was your destiny to grow up to become a man. By the time you were seven, the cowboys had given way to athletes, primarily baseball and football players, and while it puzzles you now that you should have thought that excelling at ball games could have taught you anything about how to live your life, there it was, for by now you had become a passionate young sportsman yourself, a boy who had turned these pastimes into the very center of his existence, and when you saw how the great ones performed under the pressure of do-or-die moments in stadiums thronged with fifty or sixty thousand people, you felt they were the incontestable heroes of your world. From courage under fire to skill under fire, the ability to thread a bullet pass through heavy coverage into the hands of a receiver or to lash a double to right-center field when the hit-and-run is on, physical prowess now instead of moral grandeur, or perhaps physical virtues translated into moral grandeur, but again, there it was, and you nurtured these admirations of yours all through the middle years of your childhood. Before you turned eight, you had already written your first fan letter, inviting Cleveland Browns quarterback Otto Graham, the top professional football player of the day, to attend your upcoming birthday party in New Jersey. To your everlasting surprise, Graham wrote back to you, sending a short, typewritten letter on official Cleveland Browns stationery. Needless to say, he declined the invitation, telling you that he had other obligations that morning, but the graciousness of his response mitigated the sting of disappointment—for even though you’d known it was a long shot, a part of you had thought he might actually come, and you had played out the scene of his arrival a hundred times in your head. Then, some months after that, you wrote to Bobby S., the captain and quarterback of the local high school football team, telling him what a magnificent player you thought he was, and because you were such a runt back then, which meant that your letter must have bordered on the ridiculous, filled with spelling errors and inane malapropisms, Bobby S. took the trouble to write back to you, no doubt touched to learn that he had such a young fan, and now that the football season had come to an end, he invited you to a basketball game as his guest (he played football in the autumn, basketball in the winter, and baseball in the spring—a three-sport superstar), instructing you to come down to the floor during warm-ups to identify yourself, which you did, and then Bobby S. found a spot for you on the bench, where you watched the game with the team. Bobby S. was all of seventeen or eighteen at the time, no more than an adolescent, but to you he was a full-grown man, a giant, as were all the other players on the squad. You watched the game in a blur of happiness, sitting in that old high school gym that had been built in the 1920s, both jangled and inspirited by the noise of the crowd around you, awed by the beauty of the cheerleaders who came prancing onto the floor during time-outs, rooting for your man Bobby S., who had made all this possible for you, but of the game itself you remember nothing, not a single shot, rebound, or stolen pass—only the fact that you were there, overjoyed to be sitting on the bench with the high school team, feeling as if you had stepped into the pages of a Chip Hilton novel.
A friend of your parents’, Roy B., had played third base for the Newark Bears, the legendary minor league team that had once been part of the New York Yankees system. Nicknamed Whoops—for shouting out that word whenever he made an error in the field—he never made it to the major leagues, but he had played with and against any number of future all-stars, and since everyone liked the fast-talking, effervescent Whoops, a squat fireplug of a man who owned a men’s discount clothing store out on Route 22, he was still in touch with many of his old ballplayer friends. He and his wife, Dolly, had three children, all girls, none of whom had any interest in baseball, and because he knew how much you cared about the game, both as a player and as a fan, he took you under his wing as a kind of surrogate son or nephew, a boy in any case, to share his baseball past with. One weekday night in the spring of 1956, just as you were about to go to bed, the telephone rang and, lo and behold, there was Phil Rizzuto on the other end of the line, the one and only Scooter, the Yankees’ shortstop from 1941 until his retirement earlier that month, asking if you were Paul, Whoops’s young friend. I’ve heard you’re a terrific infielder, he said, speaking in that famously jovial voice of his, and I just wanted to say hello and tell you to keep up the good work. You had been caught off guard, you barely knew what to say, you were too flummoxed and tongue-tied to give more than one-syllable answers to Rizzuto’s questions, but this was your first conversation with a legitimate hero, and even though it lasted no more than a couple of minutes, you nevertheless felt honored by that unexpected call, ennobled by your brush with the great man. Then, a week or two later, a postcard arrived in the mail. On the front, a color photograph of the interior of Whoops’s clothing store: rack after rack of men’s suits under the glare of fluorescent lights, ghost-like suits with no bodies in them, an army of the missing. On the back, a handwritten message: “Dear Paul, Hurry and grow up. The Cards can use a good third baseman. Yours, Stan Musial.” Phil Rizzuto had been one thing, an excellent player whose career was now behind him, but Musial was one of the immortals, a .330 lifetime hitter who ranked as the National League equivalent of Ted Williams, a player still in his prime, Stan the Man, the left-handed slugger with the curved stance and lightning-quick bat, and you imagined him strolling into Whoops’s store one afternoon to say hello to his old friend and the ever-vigilant Whoops asking Musial to write a few words to his little protégé, a short message for the kid, and now those words were sitting in your hands, which made you feel as if a god had reached out and touched you on the forehead. There was more, however, at least one more act of kindness from the good-hearted Whoops, a final display of generosity that surpassed all the other gifts he had bestowed on you. How would you like to meet Whitey Ford? he asked you one day. It was still 1956, but mid-October by then, not long after the end of the World Series. Of course you would like to meet Whitey Ford, you answered, you would love to meet Whitey Ford, who was the ace pitcher of the champion Yankees, the pitcher with the highest winning percentage in the history of the game, the short, brilliant lefty who had just completed his finest season. What person in his right mind would not want to meet Whitey Ford? And so it was arranged: Whoops and Whitey would stop by your house one afternoon next week, sometime between three-thirty and four, late enough to be certain you would be back from school. You had no idea what to expect, but you hoped the visit would be a long one, with Whoops and Whitey sitting around the living room with you for several hours talking baseball, during which Whitey would divulge the subtlest, most hidden secrets about the art of pitching, for in looking at you he would see straight into your soul and understand that, young as you might have been, you were someone worthy of being entrusted with that forbidden knowledge. On the appointed day, you rushed home from school, which was just a short distance from your house, and waited, waited for what must have been an hour and a half but felt as if it were a week, fretfully pacing around the rooms on the ground floor, all alone with your thoughts, your mother and father both off at work, your five-year-old sister God knows where, alone in the little clapboard house on Irving Avenue, growing more and more nervous about the supreme encounter, wondering if Whoops and Whitey would actually show up, fearing they had forgotten the rendezvous, or had been delayed by unforeseen circumstances, or had been killed in a car crash, and then, finally, when you were beginning to despair that Whitey Ford would ever set foot in your house, the doorbell rang. You opened the door, and there on the front steps was the five-foot-six-inch Whoops and the five-foot-ten-inch Yankee pitcher. A big smile from Whoops, followed by a terse but friendly handshake from the maestro. You invited them in, but Whoops or Whitey (impossible to remember which one) said they were running late and had only dropped by for a quick hello. You did your best to hide your disappointment, understanding that Whitey Ford would not in fact be setting foot in your house and that no secret knowledge would be imparted to you that day. The three of you stood there talking for what amounted to four minutes at most, which should have been enough to satisfy you, and surely would have been enough if you had not begun to suspect that the Whitey Ford standing on the front steps of your house was not the real Whitey Ford. He was the right size, his voice had the proper Queens accent, but something about his face looked different from the pictures you had seen of him, less handsome somehow, the round cheeks less round than they should have been, and even though his hair was blond, as Whitey’s hair was, it was cut in a severe flattop, whereas in all the photos you had seen of Whitey his hair was longer, combed back in a kind of modified pompadour. You wondered if the real Whitey Ford had backed out of the visit and that Whoops, not wanting to let you down, had produced this more or less reasonable facsimile of Whitey as a substitute. To quiet your doubts, you began asking Whitey or not-Whitey questions about his record of the past season. Nineteen and six, he said, which was the correct answer. Two point four seven, which was also the correct answer, but still you couldn’t shake the thought that a not–Whitey Ford might have done some homework before the visit so as not to be tripped up by a wiseass nine-year-old kid, and when he thrust out his right arm to shake your hand good-bye, you weren’t sure if you were shaking Whitey Ford’s hand or the hand of someone else. You still don’t know. For the first time in your life, an experience had led you into a zone of absolute ambiguity. A question had been raised, and it could not be answered.
Boredom must not be overlooked as a source of contemplation and reverie, the hundreds of hours of your early childhood when you found yourself alone, uninspired, at loose ends, too listless or distracted to want to play with your little trucks and cars, to take the trouble to set up your miniature cowboys and Indians, the green and red plastic figures you would spread out on the floor of your room in order to send them into imaginary assaults and ambushes, or to start building something with your Lincoln Logs or your Erector set (which you never liked anyway, no doubt because of your ineptitude with mechanical things), feeling no impulse to draw (at which you were also painfully inept and derived little pleasure from) or search for your crayons to fill in another page of one of your stupid coloring books, and because it was raining outside or too cold to leave the house, you would languish in a mopey, ill-humored torpor, still too young to read, still too young to call up someone on the telephone, pining for a friend or a playmate to keep you company, most often sitting by the window and watching the rain slide down the glass, wishing you owned a horse, preferably a palomino with an ornate Western saddle, or if not a horse then a dog, a highly intelligent dog who could be trained to understand every nuance of human speech and would trot along beside you as you set out on your dangerous missions to save children in distress, and when you weren’t dreaming about how you wished your life could be different, you tended to muse on eternal questions, questions you still ask yourself today and have never been able to answer, such as how did the world come into being and why do we exist, such as where do people go after they die, and even at that exceedingly young age you would speculate that perhaps the entire world was enclosed in a glass jar that sat on a shelf next to dozens of other jar-worlds in the pantry of a giant’s house, or else, even more dizzying and yet logically irrefutable, you would tell yourself that if Adam and Eve were the first people in the world, then everyone was necessarily related to everyone else. Dreaded boredom, long and lonely hours of blankness and silence, entire mornings and afternoons when the world stopped spinning around you, and yet that barren ground proved to be more important than most of the gardens you played in, for that was where you taught yourself how to be alone, and only when a person is alone can his mind run free.
Every now and then, for no apparent reason, you would suddenly lose track of who you were. It was as if the being who inhabited your body had turned into an impostor, or, more precisely, into no one at all, and as you felt your selfhood dribble out of you, you would walk around in a state of stunned dissociation, not sure if it was yesterday or tomorrow, not sure if the world in front of you was real or a figment of someone else’s imagination. This happened often enough during your childhood for you to give these mental fugues a name. Daze, you said to yourself, I’m in a daze, and even though these dream-like interludes were transitory, rarely lasting more than three or four minutes, the strangeness of feeling hollowed out like that would linger for hours afterward. It wasn’t a good feeling, but neither did it scare you or disturb you, and as far as you could tell there was no identifiable cause, not fatigue, for example, or physical exhaustion, and no pattern to the comings and goings of these spells, since they occurred both when you were alone and when you were with other people. An uncanny sense of having fallen asleep with your eyes open, but at the same time knowing you were fully awake, conscious of where you were, and yet not there at all somehow, floating outside yourself, a phantom without weight or substance, an uninhabited shell of flesh and bone, a nonperson. The dazes continued throughout your childhood and well into your adolescence, coming over you once every month or two, sometimes a bit more often, sometimes a bit less, and even now, at your advanced age, the feeling still comes back once every four or five years, lasting for just fifteen or twenty seconds, which means that you have never completely outgrown this tendency to vanish from your own consciousness. Mysterious and unaccountable, but an essential part of who you were then and occasionally still are now. As if you were slipping into another dimension, a new configuration of time and space, looking at your own life with blank, indifferent eyes—or else rehearsing your death, learning what happens to you when you disappear.
Your family must be brought into this as well, your mother, father, and sister, with special attention paid to your parents’ wretched marriage, for even though your purpose is to chart the workings of your young mind, to look at yourself in isolation and explore the internal geography of your boyhood, the fact is that you didn’t live in isolation, you were part of a family, a strange family, and without question that strangeness had much to do with who you were as a child, perhaps everything to do with it. You have no horror stories to tell, no dramatic accounts of beatings or abuse, but instead a constant, underlying feeling of sadness, which you did your best to ignore, since by temperament you were not a sad or overtly miserable child, but once you were old enough to compare your situation to that of the other children you knew, you understood that your family was a broken family, that your parents had no idea what they were doing, that the fortress most couples try to build for their children was no more than a tumbledown shack, and therefore you felt exposed to the elements, unprotected, vulnerable—which meant that in order to survive it was essential that you toughen up and figure out a way to fend for yourself. They had no business being married, you realized, and once your mother began working when you were six, they rarely intersected, rarely seemed to have anything to talk about, coexisting in a chill of mutual indifference. No storms or fights, no shouting matches, no apparent hostility—simply a lack of passion on both sides, cellmates thrown together by chance and serving out their sentences in grim silence. You loved both of them, of course, you fervently wished that things could be better between them, but as the years went on you began to lose hope. They were both out most of the time, both working long into the evenings, and the house seemed permanently empty, with few family dinners, few chances for the four of you to be together, and after you were seven or eight you and your little sister were mostly fed by the housekeeper, a black woman named Catherine who entered the scene when you were five and remained a part of your life for many years, continuing to work for your mother after your parents divorced and your mother remarried, and you were still in touch with her well into her dotage, when the two of you exchanged letters after your father’s death in 1979, but Catherine was hardly a maternal figure, she was an eccentric character from the backwoods of Maryland, several times married and several times divorced, a cackling jokester who drank on the sly and flicked the ashes of her Kool cigarettes into her open palm, more of a pal than a substitute mother, and therefore you and your sister were often alone together, your anxious, fragile sister, who would stand by the window waiting for your mother to return at some appointed hour, and if the car did not pull into the driveway at the precise minute it was expected, your sister would break down in tears, convinced that your mother was dead, and as the minutes rolled on, the tears would devolve into violent weeping and tantrums, and you, just eight and nine and ten years old, would do everything you could to reassure her and comfort her, but seldom to any avail, your poor sister, who finally cracked up in her early twenties and spent years spinning off into madness, held together today by doctors and psychopharmacological drugs, far more a victim of your strange family than you ever were. You know now how deeply unhappy your mother was, and you also know that in his own fumbling way your father loved her, that is, to the extent he was capable of loving anyone, but they made a botch of it, and to be a part of that disaster when you were a boy no doubt drove you inward, turning you into a man who has spent the better part of his life sitting alone in a room.
It took you a while to understand that not everyone thought the way you did, that there were angry, competitive boys who actively wished you ill, that even when you told the truth, there were those who would refuse to believe you, simply as a matter of principle. You were trusting and openhearted, you always began by assuming the best about others, and more often than not those attitudes were reciprocated by others, which led to many warm friendships when you were a child, and therefore it was especially hard on you when you crossed paths with the occasional mean-spirited boy, a person who rejected the rules of fair-mindedness that you and your friends lived by, who took pleasure in discord and conflict for their own sake. You are talking about ethical conduct here, not just good manners or the social benefits of polite behavior, but something more fundamental than that, the moral bedrock on which everything stands—and without which everything falls. To your mind, there was no greater injustice than to be doubted when you had told the truth, to be called a liar when you hadn’t lied, for there was no recourse then, no way to defend your integrity in the face of your accuser, and the frustration caused by such a moral injury would burn deep into you, continue to burn into you, becoming a fire that could never be extinguished. Your first run-in with that sort of frustration occurred when you were five, during the summer of the heroic Lenny, the smallest of small disputes with another boy at the day camp you attended, so small as to qualify as ridiculously small, but you were a small boy then and the world you lived in was by definition small, and why else would you remember this incident if it hadn’t felt large to you at the time, enormous in its impact, and by that you are referring not to the dispute itself, which was inconsequential, but to the outrage you felt afterward, the sense of betrayal that overwhelmed you when you told the truth and were not believed. The circumstances, such as you remember them—and you remember them well—were as follows: the boys in your group were making preparations for some kind of Indian pageant that was to be staged on the last day of the summer camp session, and among the things you were all supposed to do was construct a ceremonial rattle for the occasion, which consisted of ornamenting a can of Calumet baking powder with several colors of paint, filling the can with dried beans or pebbles, and pushing a stick through a hole in the bottom of the can to serve as a handle. The Calumet can was red, you recall, with a splendid portrait of an Indian chief in profile dominating the front, and you worked diligently on your project, you who had never excelled at art, but this time the results surpassed your expectations, your painted decorations were neat and precise and beautiful, and you felt proud of what you had accomplished. Of all the ceremonial rattles produced by the boys that day, yours was one of the best, if not the very best, but time ran out before anyone could put the finishing touches on the job, which meant that the work would have to be picked up again first thing the following morning. You missed the next day of camp because of a cold, however, and perhaps the day after that as well, and when you finally returned it was the last day, the morning of the pageant. You searched high and low for your masterpiece, but you couldn’t find it, slowly understanding as you sifted through the pile that one of the boys had filched it in your absence. A counselor (not Lenny) pulled another rattle out of the box and told you to use that one instead, which needless to say disappointed you, for this substitute rattle had been done poorly and sloppily, it couldn’t compare with the one you had made, but now you were stuck with this embarrassing piece of work, which everyone would assume you had decorated yourself, and as you marched off to take part in the pageant, you found yourself walking beside a boy named Michael, who was a year older than you were and had been subtly taunting you for the entire summer, treating you as a know-nothing dunce, a five-year-old incompetent, and when you held up the ugly rattle and showed it to Michael, explaining that it wasn’t yours, that you had made a much better one, Michael laughed at you and said, Sure, a likely story, and when you defended yourself by saying no, this one really wasn’t yours, Michael called you a liar and turned his back on you. A trivial matter, perhaps, but how you burned then, and how vast was your frustration to have been wronged in this way, not just because you had been wronged, but because you understood the wrong could never be made right.
Another episode from those early years concerns someone named Dennis, who moved to another town when you were seven or eight and subsequently disappeared from your life for good. With so many events from that time now erased from your memory, you find it interesting that this story, too, should revolve around a question of justice, of fairness, of trying to right a wrong. You believe you were six. Dennis was in your first-grade class, and before long the two of you became close friends. You remember your classmate as a quiet person, good-natured, quick to laugh, but somewhat withdrawn, pensive, as if he were carrying around some secret burden, and yet you admired him for his composure and what struck you as an uncommon air of dignity in someone still so young. Dennis came from a large Catholic family, one of several children, perhaps many children, and because there wasn’t enough money to go around, his parents dressed him in shabby, hand-me-down clothes, ill-fitting shirts and pants inherited from his older brothers. Not a poor family exactly, but a struggling family, occupants of an enormous house that seemed to contain an infinite number of dank, sparsely furnished rooms, and each time you went there for lunch, the food was prepared by Dennis’s father, a kind and amiable man, whose job or profession was unknown to you, but Dennis’s mother was rarely to be seen. She spent her days alone in a downstairs room, and the few times she did make an appearance while you were visiting, she was always in her bathrobe and slippers, hair disheveled, chain-smoking, ornery, with dark circles under her eyes, a scary, witch-like character, you felt, and because you were so young, you had no idea what her problem was, whether she was an alcoholic, for example, or ill, or suffering from some mental or emotional trouble. You felt sorry for Dennis in any case, aggrieved that your friend had been saddled with such a woman for a mother, but of course Dennis never said a word about it, for small children never complain about their parents, not even the worst parents, they simply accept what they have been given and carry on from there. One Saturday, you and Dennis were invited to the birthday party of one of the boys in your class, which probably means that you were seven by then, or about to turn seven. Following the protocol for such occasions, your conscientious mother had supplied you with a present for the birthday boy, a prettily done-up package with bright wrapping paper and colorful ribbons. You and Dennis set out for the party together on foot, but all was not well, for your friend had no present of his own, his parents had neglected to buy him one, and when you saw Dennis studying the package under your arm, you understood how wretched he felt, how ashamed he was to be going to the party empty-handed. The two of you must have talked about it, Dennis must have shared his feelings with you—the humiliation, the embarrassment—but you cannot recall a single word of that conversation. What you do remember is the pity and compassion you felt, the ache of misery that welled up in you when confronted by your friend’s misery, for you loved and admired this boy and couldn’t bear to see him suffer, and so, as much for your sake as for Dennis’s sake, you impulsively handed him your present, telling him that it was his now and that he should give it to the birthday boy when he walked into the house. But what about you? Dennis said. If I take this, then you’ll be the one with nothing to give. Don’t worry, you answered. I’ll tell them I left my present at home, that I forgot to take it with me.
For the most part, you were obedient and well-behaved. Aside from that spontaneous burst of altruism with your friend, you were by no means a saintly child, and you did not make a habit of giving away your belongings in selfless acts of commiseration. You strove to tell the truth at all times, but occasionally you lied to cover up your misdeeds, and if you did not cheat at games or steal from your friends, it wasn’t because you struggled to be good so much as that you never found yourself tempted to do those things. Every now and then, however, in fact only twice that you can recollect with any precision, a perverse impulse would take hold of you, an urge to destroy and mutilate, to sabotage, to smash things to bits, and you would turn around and do something fundamentally out of character, at odds with the self you had come to recognize as your own. In the first instance, which occurred when you were around five, you systematically dismantled the family radio, a large machine from the 1940s packed with glass tubes and six thousand wires, thinking at first that you would be able to put it back together, purposefully deceiving yourself by calling this exercise in vandalism a scientific experiment, but as you continued to extract the various parts from the innards of the machine, it soon became clear that rebuilding it was beyond your capacity as a scientist, and yet in spite of that you forged on, maniacally removing every bolt and wire housed within the box, doing it for the simple reason that you knew you weren’t supposed to be doing it, that behavior of this kind was absolutely forbidden. What possessed you to attack that old Philco, to eviscerate it and render it useless, to annihilate it? Were you angry at your parents? Were you striking back at them for some wrong you felt they had done to you, or were you merely in one of those fractious, rebellious moods that sometimes get the better of small children? You have no idea, but you remember that you were soundly punished for what you did, even as you continued to protest your innocence, sticking to the story that your crime had been committed in the pursuit of scientific knowledge. Even more mystifying to you is the episode of the tree, which occurred about a year after the radio rampage, which means you were approximately six at the time, and there you were alone again, grumpily wishing there was someone you could play with, out of sorts, restless, wandering around in the yard behind your house, when it suddenly occurred to you what a good idea it would be to chop down the little fruit tree that stood near the flower bed, the new tree, a poor, scrawny sapling with a trunk so slender you could encircle it with your two hands. Such a small tree wouldn’t pose much of a problem, you thought, and so you went into the garage to hunt for your father’s axe, which turned out to be ancient, no doubt the oldest surviving axe in the Western Hemisphere, with a handle so long it was almost as tall as you were, and a blade so dull, so thick, and so rusted that it probably would have been hard-pressed to dent a stick of butter. On top of that, the axe was heavy, not too heavy to carry into the backyard, perhaps, but once you were in front of the tree, heavy enough to make it difficult to lift above your head, and far too heavy to swing with any force—not the baseball bat you had imagined it would be, but seven bats, twenty bats, and therefore you had trouble keeping it parallel to the ground, couldn’t orient it in a straight line because your wrists and arms were wobbling as you drove the dull blade into the tree, and after six or seven whacks you were so exhausted that you had to give up. You had managed to pierce the bark in a few places, bits of the gray membrane were curled upward to show the fresh green underside and a hint of bare blond wood below, but nothing more than that, your plan to fell the tree had been a total failure, and even the wounds you had inflicted on it would heal in time. Again, the question was: why did you do it? You can’t remember your motive—simply the desire to do it, the need to do it—but you suspect it might have been connected to the story about George Washington and the cherry tree, the essential American myth of your childhood, that inexplicable, confounding tale of young George chopping down the tree for no reason, doing it because he wanted to do it, because it struck him as a good idea, which was precisely what you had felt when you decided to cut down your tree, as if every boy at some point in his childhood were destined to cut down a tree for the pure pleasure of cutting down a tree, but then, of course, George Washington was the father of his country, of your country, and therefore he stood tall and confessed his misdeed to his own father—I cannot tell a lie—thus proving himself to be an honest boy, a boy of commendable virtue and moral strength, but you are the father of no country, and therefore you sometimes lied when you were a boy, lied because, unlike George Washington, you could tell a lie when the situation demanded you tell one, even if you knew that God would eventually punish you for it. But better God, you thought, than your parents.
Noble and august, unimpeachable in his honor, venerated by all Americans, Washington had fought a number of important battles on New Jersey ground during the Revolutionary War, and every year your class made a pilgrimage to the general’s headquarters in Morristown, a shrine considered even more holy than the one dedicated to Edison in Menlo Park. The lightbulb and the phonograph were wondrous artifacts, but this white colonial mansion was the heart of America itself, the very seat of Columbia’s glory, and in those early years of your childhood, you were taught to believe that everything about America was good. No country could compare to the paradise you lived in, your teachers told you, for this was the land of freedom, the land of opportunity, and every little boy could dream of growing up to become president. The courageous Pilgrims had crossed the ocean to found a nation out of raw wilderness, and the hordes of settlers who’d followed them had spread the American Eden across an entire continent, from the Atlantic to the Pacific, from Canada to Mexico, for Americans were industrious and clever, the most inventive people on earth, and every little boy could dream of growing up to become a rich and successful man. It was true that slavery had been a bad idea, but Lincoln had freed the slaves, and by now that unfortunate error was a thing of the past. America was perfect. America had won the war and was in charge of the world, and the only bad person it had ever produced was Benedict Arnold, the villainous traitor who had turned against his country and whose name was reviled by all patriots. Every other historical figure was wise and good and just. Every day brought further progress, and extraordinary as the American past had been, the future held even more promise. Never forget how lucky you are. To be an American is to take part in the greatest human enterprise since the creation of man.
Never a word about the poor black people in your father’s buildings, of course, and never a word about the boots worn by the soldiers in Korea, but long after the summer had ended, you went on thinking about Lenny, and again and again you were haunted by the image of blackened, amputated toes, tens of thousands of discarded stumps, a mountain of digits severed from the feet of shivering, frostbitten soldiers: charred cigarette butts overflowing an ashtray as tall and wide as a house.
In the fall of that year, 1952, you experienced your first presidential campaign, Eisenhower versus Stevenson. Your parents were Democrats, which meant that you were pulling for the Democrat from Illinois as well, but being pro-Stevenson put you at odds with the squat, round-faced girl you had a crush on, Patty F., who wore her hair in braids, two identical and alluring braids that hung halfway down her back until, suddenly, the allure turned to disenchantment, for one morning, as you sat next to her on the front steps of your school, waiting for the doors to open so your kindergarten teacher could usher you inside to begin the day, you were appalled to hear her chanting a pro-Republican ditty, an aggressive bit of name-calling that shocked you with its vehemence: Stevenson’s a jerk, Stevenson’s a jerk, Eisenhower has more power, Stevenson’s a jerk! How was it possible that you and your adored one did not see eye to eye on who should be the next president? Politics was a nasty sport, you now realized, a free-for-all of bitter, unending conflict, and it pained you that something as abstract and remote as a presidential election could cause a rift between you and plump little Patty, who turned out to be a ferocious partisan for the other side. What about the myth of a unified, harmonious America, you asked yourself, the idea that everyone should be pulling together for the common good? To call someone a jerk was a serious accusation. It destroyed the bonds of civility that supposedly prevailed in this most perfect of lands and proved not only that Americans were divided, but that those divisions were often inflamed by ugly passions and slanderous insults. The Cold War was in full bloom then, the Red Scare had entered its most poisonous phase, but you were too young to understand any of that, and as your childhood crept along through the early fifties, the only noise from the zeitgeist loud enough for you to hear was the bass drum sounding the alarm that the Communists were out to destroy America. No doubt all countries had enemies, you told yourself. That was why wars were fought, after all, but now that America had won the Second World War and had demonstrated its superiority over all other countries on earth, why would the Communists feel that America was bad, a country so bad that it was worthy of destruction? Were they stupid, you wondered, or did their animosity toward the United States suggest that people in other parts of the world had different ideas about how to live, un-American ideas, and if so, did that not further suggest that the greatness of America, which was self-evident to all Americans, was far from evident to those other people? And if they couldn’t see what we saw, who was to say that what we saw was truly there?
Nothing about the boots—but scarcely a word about the Indians either. You knew they had been here first, that they had occupied the land now called America for two thousand years before white Europeans started coming to these shores, but when your teachers talked about America, the Indians were seldom part of the story. They were the natives, our aboriginal predecessors, the indigenous people who had once reigned over this part of the world, and two starkly opposing views about them prevailed in midcentury America, each one an absolute contradiction of the other, and yet they both stood as equals, each one pretending to have a valid claim on the truth. In the black-and-white Westerns you watched on television, the red men were invariably portrayed as ruthless killers, enemies of civilization, plundering demons who attacked white homesteaders out of pure, sadistic pleasure. On the other hand, there was the kingly portrait of the Indian chief on the can of Calumet baking powder, the same can you decorated for the ceremonial rattle when you were five, and the Indian pageant you took part in was not about the brutality of the Indians but their wisdom, their deeper understanding of nature than the white man’s, their communion with the eternal forces of the universe, and the Great Spirit they believed in struck you as a warm and welcoming deity, unlike the vengeful God of your imagination, who ruled through terror and agonizing punishments. Later on, when you were cast in the role of Governor William Bradford for a play mounted by your second- or third-grade class, you presided over a reenactment of the first Thanksgiving with the munificent Squanto and Massasoit, knowing that the Indians were a good and kind people, and without their generosity and constant help, without their bountiful gifts of food and learned instruction about the ways of the land, the early Pilgrim settlers would not have survived their first winter in the New World. Such was the conflicting evidence: devils and angels both, violent primitives and noble savages, two irreconcilable visions of the same reality, and yet somewhere in this confusion there was a third term, a phrase that had fed the most secret part of your inner world for as long as you could remember: wild Indian. Those were the words your mother used whenever you misbehaved, when your normally subdued conduct turned to rambunctiousness and anarchy, for the truth was that there was a place in you that wanted to be wild, and that urge was expressed by imagining yourself to be an Indian, a boy who could run half-naked through gigantic pine forests with his bow and arrow, spend whole days galloping across the plains on his palomino stallion, and hunt buffalo with the warriors of his tribe. Wild Indian represented everything that was sensual, liberating, and unfettered, it was the id giving vent to its libidinous desires as opposed to the superego of cowboy heroes in white hats, the oppressive world of uncomfortable shoes and alarm clocks and airless, overheated classrooms. You had never met an Indian, of course, had never seen one except in films and photographs, but Kafka never set eyes on an Indian either, which did not stop him from composing a one-paragraph story entitled “The Wish to Be a Red Indian”: “If only one were an Indian, instantly alert, and on a racing horse, leaning against the wind…,” a single run-on sentence that fully captures the desire to throw off restraints, to let go, to flee the stultifying conventions of Western culture. By the time you were in the third or fourth grade, this is what you had absorbed: the whites who came here in the 1620s were so few in number that they had no choice but to make peace with the surrounding tribes, but once their numbers swelled, once the invasion of English immigrants began to grow, and then continued to grow, the situation was reversed, and bit by bit the Indians were pushed out, dispossessed, slaughtered. The word genocide was unknown to you, but when you saw the Indians and whites going at each other in the old Westerns on TV, you knew there was more to the story than those stories ever told. The only Indian treated with any respect was Tonto, the faithful sidekick of the Lone Ranger, played by the actor Jay Silverheels, whom you admired for his courage, intelligence, and long, thoughtful silences. By the time you were in the fifth grade, that is, when you were ten and eleven years old, you had become an enthusiastic reader of Mad magazine, and in the now-famous parody of The Lone Ranger that appeared in one of its issues, the masked avenger of wrongs and his loyal comrade find themselves confronted by a band of hostile Indian warriors. The Lone Ranger turns to his friend and says: “Well, Tonto, it looks like we’re surrounded.” To which the Indian replies: “What do you mean we?” You got the joke, which was a superb and deeply funny joke, you felt, for the precise reason that in the end it wasn’t a joke at all.
The Diary of Anne Frank. India becomes an independent country. Henry Ford dies. Thor Heyerdahl sails on a raft from Peru to Polynesia in 101 days. All My Sons, by Arthur Miller. A Streetcar Named Desire, by Tennessee Williams. The Dead Sea scrolls are discovered. Somewhere over a desert in the western United States, an American jet breaks the sound barrier. Truman appoints George C. Marshall secretary of state, and the Marshall Plan begins. Giacometti’s sculpture Man Pointing. The Plague, by Albert Camus. The U.N. announces a plan for the partition of Palestine. The Actors Studio is founded in New York. André Gide wins the Nobel Prize. Pablo Casals vows not to perform in public as long as Franco is in power. Al Capone dies. Sugar rationing in the U.S. ends after five years. Jackie Robinson becomes the first black baseball player in the major leagues. Truman signs Executive Order 9835, requiring a loyalty oath from all government employees, and becomes the first president to address the American people on television. I, the Jury, by Mickey Spillane. Doktor Faustus, by Thomas Mann. HUAC opens its investigation into Communist influence in the movie industry. Monsieur Verdoux, by Charlie Chaplin. The Yankees beat the Dodgers in the World Series. Maria Callas makes her debut. More than twenty-eight inches of snow falls on New York, the largest blizzard in the city’s history. Out of the Past, directed by Jacques Tourneur—as well as Body and Soul, Brute Force, Crossfire, Born to Kill, Dead Reckoning, Desperate, Framed, Kiss of Death, Lady in the Lake, Nightmare Alley, Possessed, Railroaded, Dark Passage, and They Won’t Believe Me. Random, unrelated events, connected only by the fact that they all occurred in the year of your birth, 1947.
You remember the planes, the supersonic jets roaring across the blue skies of summer, cutting through the firmament at such exalted speeds that they were scarcely visible, a flash of silver glinting briefly in the light, and then, not long after they had vanished over the horizon, the thunderous boom that would follow, resounding for miles in all directions, the great detonation of blasting air that signified the sound barrier had been broken yet again. You and your friends were thunderstruck by the power of those planes, which always arrived without warning, announcing themselves as a furious clamor in the far distance, and within seconds they were directly overhead, and whatever game you and your friends might have been playing at that moment, you all stopped in mid-gesture to look up, to watch, to wait as those howling machines sped past you. It was the era of aviation miracles, of ever faster and faster, of ever higher and higher, of planes without torsos, planes that looked more like exotic fish than birds, and so prominent were those postwar flying machines in the imaginations of America’s children that trading cards of the new planes were widely distributed, much like baseball cards or football cards, in packages of five or six with a slab of pink bubble gum inside, and on the front of each card there was a photograph of a plane instead of a ballplayer, with information about that plane printed on the back. You and your friends collected these cards, you were five and six years old and obsessed with the planes, dazzled by the planes, and you can remember now (suddenly, it is all so clear to you) sitting on the floor with your classmates in a school hallway during an air-raid drill, which in no way resembled the fire drills you were also subjected to, those impromptu exits into the warmth or the cold and imagining the school as it burned to the ground in front of your eyes, for an air-raid drill kept the children indoors, not in the classroom but the hallway, presumably to protect them against an attack from the air, missiles, rockets, bombs dropped from high-flying Communist planes, and it was during that drill that you saw the airplane cards for the first time, sitting on the floor with your back against the wall, silent, with no intention of breaking that silence, for talking was not allowed during these solemn exercises, these useless preparations against possible death and destruction, but one of the boys had a pack of those airplane cards with him that morning, and he was showing them to the other boys, surreptitiously passing them down the line of silent, seated bodies, and when your turn came to hold one of the cards in your hands, you were astonished by the design of the plane, its strangeness and unexpected beauty, all wing, all flight, a metal beast born in the empyrean, in a realm of pure, everlasting fire, and not once did you consider that the air-raid drill you were taking part in was supposed to teach you how to protect yourself from an attack by just such a plane, that is, a plane similar to the one on the card that had been built by your country’s enemies. No fear. You never worried that bombs or rockets would fall on you, and if you welcomed the alarms that signaled the start of air-raid drills, it was only because they allowed you to leave the classroom for a few minutes and escape the drudgery of whatever lesson you were being taught.
In 1952, the year you turned five, which included the summer of Lenny, the beginning of your formal education, and the Eisenhower-Stevenson campaign, a polio epidemic broke out across America, striking 57,626 people, most of them children, killing 3,300 and permanently crippling untold numbers of others. That was fear. Not bombs or a nuclear attack, but polio. Roaming through the streets of your neighborhood that summer, you often came upon clusters of women talking to one another in doleful whispers, women pushing baby carriages or walking their dogs, women with dread in their eyes, dread in the hushed timbre of their voices, and the talk was always about polio, the invisible scourge that was spreading everywhere, that could invade the body of any man, woman, or child at any moment of the day or night. Worse still, there was the young man dying in the house across the street from where your closest friend lived, a Harvard student whose first name was Franklin, a brilliant person, according to your mother, someone destined to accomplish great things in life, and now he was wasting away with cancer, immobilized, doomed, and every time you visited your friend Billy, Billy’s mother would instruct you to keep your voices down when you went outdoors so as not to disturb Franklin. You would look across the street at Franklin’s white house, the shades drawn in every window, an eerily silent house where no one seemed to live anymore, and you would imagine the tall and handsome Franklin, whom you had seen several times in the past, stretched out on a white bed in his upstairs bedroom, waiting to die his slow and painful death. For all the fear caused by the polio epidemic, you never knew anyone who contracted the disease, but Franklin eventually died, just as your mother had told you he would. You saw the black cars lined up in front of the house on the day of the funeral. Sixty years later, you can still see the black cars and the white house. In your mind, they are still the quintessential emblems of grief.
You can’t remember the precise moment when you understood that you were a Jew. It seems to you that it came sometime after you were old enough to identify yourself as an American, but you could be wrong, it could be that it was a part of you from the very beginning. Neither one of your parents came from a religious family. There were no rituals practiced in the household, no Sabbath meals on Friday night, no lighting of candles, no trips to the synagogue on the high holy days, let alone on any Friday night or Saturday morning of the year, and not a single word of Hebrew was uttered in your presence. A couple of desultory Passover seders in the company of relatives, Hanukkah gifts every December to offset the absence of Christmas, and just one serious rite that you took part in, which occurred when you were eight days old, far too early for you to remember anything about it, the standard circumcision ceremony, or bris, when the foreskin of your penis was lopped off by a fastidiously sharpened knife in order to seal the covenant between your newborn self and the God of your ancestors. For all their indifference to the particulars of their faith, your parents nevertheless considered themselves Jews, called themselves Jews, were comfortable with that fact and never sought to hide it, unlike countless other Jews over the centuries who did everything in their power to disappear into the Christian world that surrounded them, changing their names, converting to Catholicism or one of the Protestant sects, turning away from themselves and quietly obliterating their pasts. No, your parents stood firm and never questioned who they were, but in the early years of your childhood they had nothing to offer you on the subject of your religion or background. They were simply Americans who happened to be Jews, thoroughly assimilated after the struggles of their own immigrant parents, and therefore in your mind the notion of Judaism was above all associated with foreignness, as embodied in your grandmother, for example, your father’s mother, an alien presence who still spoke and read mostly in Yiddish, whose English was nearly incomprehensible to you because of her heavy accent, and then there was the man who turned up occasionally at your mother’s parents’ apartment in New York, a relative of some kind by the name of Joseph Stavsky, an elegant figure who dressed in finely tailored three-piece suits and smoked with a long black cigarette holder, a sophisticated cosmopolitan whose Polish-accented English was perfectly understandable to you, and when you were old enough to understand such things (at seven? at eight? at nine?), your mother told you that cousin Joseph had come to America after the war with help from her parents, that back in Poland he had been married and the father of twin girls, but his wife and daughters had all been murdered in Auschwitz, and he alone had survived, once a prosperous lawyer in Warsaw, now scraping by as a button salesman in New York. The war had been over for some years by then, but the war was still present, still hovering around you and everyone you knew, manifested not only in the war games you played with your friends but in the words spoken in the households of your family, and if your first encounters with the Nazis took place as an imaginary GI in various backyards of your small New Jersey town, it wasn’t long before you understood what the Nazis had done to the Jews, to Joseph Stavsky’s wife and daughters, for instance, to members of your own family for the sole reason that they were Jews, and now that you had fully grasped the fact that you yourself were a Jew, the Nazis were no longer just the enemy of the American army, they were the incarnation of a monstrous evil, an anti-human force of global destruction, and even though the Nazis had been defeated, wiped off the face of the earth, they lived on in your imagination, lurking inside you as an all-powerful legion of death, demonic and insidious, forever on the attack, and from that moment on, that is, from the moment you understood that you were not only an American but a Jew, your dreams were populated by gangs of Nazi infantrymen, night after night you found yourself running from them, desperately running for your life, chased through open fields and dim, maze-like forests by packs of armed Nazis, faceless German soldiers who were bent on shooting you, on tearing off your arms and legs, on burning you at the stake and turning you into a pile of ashes.
By the time you were seven or eight, you were beginning to catch on. Jews were invisible, they had no part to play in American life, and they never appeared as heroes in books or films or television shows. Gentleman’s Agreement notwithstanding, which won the Academy Award for best picture the year you were born, there were no cowboys called Bernstein or Schwartz, no private eyes called Greenberg or Cohen, and no presidential candidates whose parents had emigrated from the shtetls of eastern Poland and Russia. True, there were some boxers who had done well in the thirties and forties, there was the quarterback Sid Luckman and the three notables from the land of baseball (Hank Greenberg, Al Rosen, and Sandy Koufax, who broke in with the Dodgers in 1955), but they were such flagrant exceptions to the norm that they qualified as demographic flukes, mere statistical aberrations. Jews could play the violin and the piano, they could sometimes conduct symphony orchestras, but the popular singers and musicians were all Italian or black or hillbillies from the South. Vaudevillians, yes, funnymen, yes (the Marx Brothers, George Burns), but no movie stars, and even when the actors had been born Jewish, they invariably changed their names. George Burns had been Nathan Birnbaum. Emanuel Goldenberg was transformed into Edward G. Robinson. Issur Danielovitch became Kirk Douglas, and Hedwig Kiesler was reborn as Hedy Lamarr. Tepid as Gentleman’s Agreement might have been, with its contrived plot and sanctimonious positions (a non-Jewish journalist pretends to be Jewish in order to expose prejudices against the Jews), it is instructive to look at that film now as a snapshot of where Jews stood in American society in 1947. That was the world you entered as an infant, and while it was logical to assume that the German defeat in 1945 should have, or could have, snuffed out anti-Semitism for good, not much had changed on the home front. College admission quotas for Jews were still in force, clubs and other organizations were still restricted, kike jokes still got the boys laughing at the weekly poker game, and Shylock still reigned as the principal representative of his people. Even in the New Jersey town where you grew up, there were invisible barriers, impediments you were still too young to understand or notice, but when your best friend, Billy, moved away with his family in 1955, and your other good friend, Peter, vanished the following year—wrenching departures that both puzzled and saddened you—your mother explained that too many Jews were quitting Newark for the suburbs, that they too wanted their patch of grass, just like everyone else, and therefore the old guard was decamping, running away from this sudden influx of non-Christian home owners. Did she use the word anti-Semitic? You can’t remember, but the implication was nevertheless clear: to be a Jew was to be different from everyone else, to stand apart, to be looked upon as an outsider. And you, who until then had seen yourself as thoroughly American, as American as any Mayflower blue blood, now understood that there were those who felt you didn’t belong, that even in the place you called home, you were not fully at home.
To be a part of things and yet not a part of things. To be accepted by most and yet eyed with suspicion by others. After embracing the triumphal narrative of American exceptionalism as a little boy, you began to exclude yourself from the story, to understand that you belonged to another world besides the one you lived in, that your past was anchored in a somewhere else of remote settlements in Eastern Europe, and that if your grandparents on your father’s side and your great-grandparents on your mother’s side had not had the intelligence to leave that part of the world when they did, almost none of you would have survived, nearly every one of you would have been murdered during the war. Life was precarious. The ground under your feet could give way at any moment, and now that your family had landed in America, had been saved by America, that didn’t mean you should expect America to make you feel welcome. Your sympathies turned toward the outcasts, the despised and mistreated ones, the Indians who had been chased off their lands and massacred, the Africans who had been shipped over here in chains, and even if you did not renounce your attachment to America, could not renounce it because in the end it was still your place, your country, you began to live in it with a new sense of wariness and unease. There were few opportunities in your little world to take a stand, but you did what you could do whenever an occasion presented itself, you fought back when the tough older boys in town called you Jewboy and Jew shit, and you refused to take part in Christmas celebrations at school, to sing Christmas carols at the annual holiday assembly, and therefore the teachers allowed you to stay alone in the room when the rest of the class tromped off to the auditorium to rehearse with the other classes in your grade. The sudden silence that surrounded you as you sat at your desk, the click of the minute hand on the old mechanical clock with the Roman numerals as you read your Poe and Stevenson and Conan Doyle, a self-declared outcast, stubbornly holding your ground, but proud, nevertheless proud in your stubbornness, in your refusal to pretend to be someone you were not.
In your mind, it had little or nothing to do with religion. You were aligning yourself with the forces of powerlessness, hoping to find some moral or intellectual strength by acknowledging your difference from others, but Jew signified a category of people rather than a theological system, a history of struggle and exclusion that had culminated in the disasters of World War II, and that history was all that concerned you. When you were nine, however, your parents joined one of the local synagogues. Needless to say, it was a Reform congregation, for that simplified, watered-down brand of Judaism best served the interests of people like them: the indifferent, unreligious, non-practicing American Jews who sought to reaffirm their bond with the traditions of their forebears. Bluntly put—but without question entirely true—Hitler was responsible. The resurgence of Jewish life in postwar America was a direct result of the death camps, and the engine that drove people like your parents to join up was guilt, a fear that unless their children were taught to become Jews, the very concept of Judaism in America would fade away to nothing. Your father had not studied Hebrew as a boy, had not gone through the rigors of preparing for his Bar Mitzvah, and your mother, who was the daughter of a socialist, had never once set foot in a synagogue, but together they conspired to force you into doing what they themselves had never done, and so, in the same September you entered the fourth grade, you also entered Hebrew school, which meant going to the synagogue to attend classes every Tuesday and Thursday afternoon from four o’clock to five-thirty as well as every Saturday morning from nine-thirty to noon. There were a thousand other things you would rather have been doing, but three times a week over the course of four long years you reluctantly dragged yourself into that penitentiary of boredom, hating every moment of your imprisonment, slowly learning the rudiments of Hebrew, studying the principal stories of the Old Testament, most of which horrified you to the core, in particular Cain’s murder of Abel (why had God rejected Cain’s offering?), Noah and the Flood (why would God want to destroy the world He had created?), Abraham’s near sacrifice of Isaac (what kind of God would ask a man to kill his son?), and Jacob’s theft of his father’s birthright from Esau (why would God bless a cheater, a man with no conscience?), all of which confirmed your low opinion of God, who by turns came across to you as an angry and demented psychopath, a petulant child, and a wrathful, murdering criminal—a figure even more frightening and dangerous than the God of your earliest imaginings. To make matters worse, you were stuck in a class made up entirely of boys, most of whom had even less interest in being there than you did, who looked upon this forced extra schooling as unjust punishment for the sin of merely being alive, fifteen or twenty Jewish boys with ants in their pants and an insurrectionist contempt for every word spoken by the teacher, an assistant rabbi with the unfortunate name of Fish, a short, bulky man with a large face and a high forehead who spent most of his time in class dodging spitballs, yelling at the boys to shut up, and pounding his fist on the table. Poor Rabbi Fish. He had been thrown into a room with a pack of wild Indians, and three times a week he was scalped.
You left your parents for the first time when you were eight. It was your idea, you were the one who begged them to let you go, since you wanted to be with Billy again, your closest friend since the age of five, and now that he and his family had moved to another town, far away from where the two of you had spent the past three years together, your only chance to see him would be to go to the summer camp he attended with his older brother in New Hampshire, a sleepaway camp that lasted for eight weeks, from the beginning of July until the end of August, a long stretch for a little boy who had never been away from home for more than a single night. Your mother was hesitant, fearing the long separation might be difficult for you to handle, but in the end, not wanting to disappoint you (or perhaps not knowing how else you should spend the summer), she and your father gave their consent. North-central New Hampshire, the area known as the White Mountains, was an exceedingly long car trip from New Jersey in 1955, since there were no interstate highways back then, at least not in that part of the country, and you remember the interminable drive with your parents, sitting in the backseat for ten, eleven, perhaps even twelve hours, and you wonder now if the journey wasn’t stretched out over two days, with a pause for sleep in some inn or motel at the midpoint of your northward trek. Impossible to remember that detail, just as you cannot remember saying good-bye to your parents when they left you at the camp and drove away, which means that whatever you were thinking or feeling at that moment is inaccessible to you now—sorrow or joy, trepidation or excitement, second thoughts or proud resolve, you simply don’t know. What you remember best about those eight weeks are the smells, the ever-present aroma of the surrounding pine forests, the dry scent of the afternoon sun cooking the dust on the heavily trodden footpath between your cabin and the mess hall, and the odor of the latrine, a primitive wooden structure with a long pissing trough and a row of toilet stalls with no doors on them, the stench of urine whenever you walked in there, like a whiff of ammonia burning up the insides of your nostrils, acrid and intense, never forgotten. Chilly nights under green woolen blankets, pseudo-Indian campfires extolling the wonders of nature and the beneficence of the Great Spirit, all the boys wearing headbands with gray feathers protruding from them, baseball, horseback riding, archery, firing .22 rifles at the shooting range, swimming in the lake, skinny-dipping. You felt far from everything there, farther away from what was familiar to you than at any time in your life, as if the long drive in the car had taken you to the edge of the world. Oddly, you don’t remember much about Billy or the other boys, the continual newness that was thrust upon you every day seems to have blotted out almost all particulars, and only two events stand out for you with any clarity. The first was an unannounced, altogether unexpected visit from your grandfather, your mother’s father, who stopped by on his way to Maine for his annual weeklong vacation with his male cronies, their principal daytime activity being “lobster fishing,” which was something of a misnomer, since one doesn’t “fish” for lobster, what one does is drop wooden cages into the water and hope the lobsters will crawl in, all the while sitting in a rowboat, which sounded like a tedious pastime to you, but “lobster fishing” also probably meant drinking and smoking and playing poker and telling dirty jokes, not to speak of some rustic hanky-panky, for your grandfather was a great one for jokes and cavorting with women he wasn’t married to, the life of the party he was, and you loved him dearly. On the day of his visit, he arrived just as you were in the middle of the post-lunch rest period, a one-hour interregnum that came before the start of afternoon activities, and on that particular day, instead of reading or writing letters as you usually did, you fell asleep, and since as a child you were someone who slept as if you were in a coma, so profoundly unconscious that little or nothing could rouse you from your slumbers, neither hail nor thunder, neither swarming mosquitoes nor the loudest marching band, and therefore, on the day of your grandfather’s visit, when one of your counselors finally managed to jostle you awake, you emerged from your nap with a groggy head, still half-asleep, barely understanding who you were, or even if you were, and stumbled outdoors to find your grandfather, who was waiting for you at the office near the main entrance to the camp. You were of course happy to see him, but because you were not quite yourself yet, still struggling to shake free of the blur and confusion inside you, you found it difficult to speak, to answer his questions with sentences longer than one or two words, and all through your brief conversation with him you wondered if you were still asleep and only imagining he was there, for this was the first time you had seen him without his suit and tie and white shirt, how curious your bald and portly grandfather looked in that bright short-sleeved shirt with the open collar, and before you could settle into one of your free-flowing talks about baseball, a sport he followed as closely as you did, your grandfather was slapping his knees, standing up, and saying that he had to be moving along. There for an instant—and then gone, like an unholy apparition. You were disgusted with yourself for not having done better, for having behaved like a moronic lump of flesh, but some days or weeks later you were even more disgusted with yourself when you woke up one morning to discover that you had wet your bed. This problem had plagued you throughout your childhood, it was the curse you carried around with you far longer than was seemly for a boy of your age, past five, past six, and year after year the humiliation of the rubber sheet stretched out below you to protect the mattress, not the result of some psychological trouble or frailty of the bladder, your mother said (who knows if she was right or wrong?), but quite simply because you slept too soundly, because the arms of Morpheus not only enfolded you in his embrace but crushed you, smothered you, and how often during those early years did your mother tiptoe into your room in the dead of night to wake you up and lead you to the toilet, how often did she struggle to pull you from the land of dreams and fail? By the time you were six or seven, you had largely overcome this disability, the shame of your nocturnal incontinence was no longer a constant torture to you, but every now and then you would fall back into your old ways, once every month or two it would happen again, and to wake to the sickening feeling of cold, wet sheets at that point in your life was so demoralizing, so outrageously juvenile and idiotic, that you sometimes wondered if you would ever grow up. Now, at the advanced age of eight, you had done it again. Not in the sanctuary of your family’s house, where everyone was aware of your condition and never said a word about it, but in the public space of a summer-camp cabin inhabited by seven other boys and a counselor in his early twenties. Fortunately, it happened to be a Sunday, the one day of the week when reveille sounded later than usual, when breakfast was extended over an hour and a half rather than thirty or forty-five minutes, and so you waited until the other boys had left the cabin for the mess hall before you climbed out of bed, took off your clammy pajamas, and shoved them into your laundry bag. When you joined the others at the breakfast table, you sat there in an ever-mounting panic, wondering what to do next. Peeing in your bed had been bad enough, an insult to your pride and boyish dignity, but much worse was the fear of being found out, of being ridiculed by the other boys and forever branded as a baby, a fool, a person beneath contempt. Time was growing short, in another fifteen or twenty minutes everyone would be returning to the cabin, and because you didn’t know who else to turn to, you decided you would have to risk talking to your counselor, a young man named George, a quiet, serious person who until then had always treated you with kindness, but how could you know he wouldn’t laugh at you when you made your confession? And yet who else but George had the authority to release you from the mess hall and let you rush back to the cabin? There was no choice, you would have to talk to him and hope for the best, and so you stood up and walked over to George, who was sitting at the head of the table, and whispered into his ear that you had had an accident and would he please let you go now so you could wash out your sheet and hang it up to dry on the clothesline behind the cabin? George nodded and told you to go ahead. Just like that—an unanticipated miracle of compassion and understanding, but not so strange in the end, for later that morning he confided to you that he had suffered from similar lapses himself when he was your age. A fellow member of the secret fraternity of anguished, guilty bed wetters! Off you ran, then, sprinting back to the cabin, stripping the bottom sheet from your bed, the white sheet with its incriminating yellow stain, which looked something like a map of France, and then rushed over to the latrine, the foul-smelling piss house with its corrosive, all-engulfing reek of urine, and scrubbed out the stain in one of the sinks. You were never caught. George’s mercy had protected you from the ultimate embarrassment, the mortifying shame of discovery, but it was a close call, a matter of minutes or even seconds, and your pounding heart was proof of just how scared you had been.
Why hark back to this story now, this ancient scrape with fear that turned out rather well for you in the end, so well, in fact, that you walked away from it without suffering any of the consequences you had anticipated with such dread? Because, finally, there were consequences, even if they were not the ones that made your heart beat so fast when you were afraid. You had a secret. There was a flaw in you that had to be kept hidden from the world, and because merely to think about being discovered filled you with a wretchedness beyond all imagining, you were forced to dissemble, to present a face to the world that was not your true face. Later that morning, when George made his confession to you, revealing that he too had once lived with that same secret himself, it occurred to you that most people had secrets of their own, perhaps all people, an entire universe of people treading the earth with thorns of guilt and shame stabbing their hearts, all of them forced to dissemble, to present a face to the world that was not their true face. What did this mean about the world? That everyone in it was more or less hidden, and because we were all other than what we appeared to be, it was next to impossible to know who anyone was. You wonder now if that sense of not knowing wasn’t responsible for making you so passionate about books—because the secrets of the characters who lived inside novels were always, in the end, made known.
It would be an exaggeration to say you were homesick that summer. You didn’t long for your parents, you didn’t write letters complaining about your situation or feel any desire to be rescued, no, you were reasonably content throughout that long sojourn in the pine woods of New Hampshire, but at the same time not quite up to par, a bit depleted and lonely, and when the next year rolled around and your mother asked you if you wanted to return to the camp, you said no, you would prefer to stay at home and spend the summer playing baseball with your friends. Not the wisest decision, as it turned out, for even though you played ball for three or four hours a day, there were the other hours to be filled when you weren’t playing, not to speak of the rain-drenched mornings when there was no playing at all, which meant you had too much time on your hands, you were idle for long stretches without knowing what to do with yourself, and even if those solitary periods were in fact nourishing to you in the end, back in the summer of 1956 you felt rather lost. You still had your first bicycle, the old orange two-wheeler with the foot brakes and the fat tires that your parents had bought for you when you were six (the following year, you would graduate to a larger one to accommodate your growing body—sleek and black, with hand brakes and thin tires), and every morning you would mount that too-small bike and peddle over to your friend Peter J.’s house, about a quarter of a mile away. The baseball field was in Peter’s backyard, not a regulation field, of course, but an open area of worn-out grass and dirt that felt abundant to you at the time, or at least sufficient for games played by nine-year-olds, with stones for bases and a triangle etched into the bare ground for home plate, and on a typical morning there would be eight or ten of you in that yard with your gloves and bats and balls, dividing up into two teams, with the members of each team taking turns fielding various positions because everyone wanted a chance to pitch at least one inning per game, and there were many games, a double-header every day, sometimes even triple-headers, and you all took the games seriously, playing hard, with everyone keeping track of the number of home runs he hit (a fly ball into the bushes beyond left field), and so passed the most engaging hours of that summer, playing on a makeshift field in your friend’s backyard, swatting fifty home runs, a hundred home runs, five hundred home runs into the bushes.
You liked Peter more than any other boy in your class, he had replaced the now-absent Billy as your closest friend, but within a year he too would be gone, departing to another town and disappearing from your life forever. You don’t know why his family left, so you will not attribute it to the fact that too many Jews were settling in the neighborhood, which was how your mother tended to read all such departures, but there was no question that your friend’s family looked upon you as someone from a different world, especially his Swedish grandfather, an old man with white hair and heavily accented English who, in an outburst of anger against you one afternoon, banished you from the house and forbade you ever to set foot in there again. It must have been sometime after the summer of backyard baseball, early September perhaps, about a month before you met the real or not-real Whitey Ford, and one day after school had been let out you and Peter went back to his house, and because it was raining that afternoon, the two of you stayed inside, eventually going downstairs to explore the cellar. Among the packing crates and spiderwebs and discarded pieces of furniture, you found an old set of golf clubs, which struck you both as an important discovery, since neither one of you had ever held a golf club in your hands, and so for the next little while you took turns swinging a seven-iron in the dampness of that subterranean room, taking turns because the cellar was crowded and there wasn’t enough space for both of you to swing at the same time. At one point, without your knowledge, just as you were about to launch into another practice swing, Peter crept up behind you to have a better look, crept up too close to you, entering the area that encompassed the arc of your backswing, and because you hadn’t heard him and couldn’t see him, you flung your fully extended arms backward with the club in your two hands, not expecting to meet any resistance, confident that your backswing would fly unencumbered through the empty air, but because Peter had crossed the invisible threshold of what should have been all air and nothing else, the backswing of your club was interrupted in midflight when it struck something solid, and an instant after your backswing was stopped, you heard a scream, a sudden, all-out scream blasting against the walls of the cellar. The tip of the iron had gone straight into Peter’s forehead, it had pierced the skin, blood was flowing from the wound, and your friend was shrieking in pain. You felt horrified, sick with fear, guiltless and yet filled with guilt, but before you could do anything to help, Peter’s grandfather was charging down the stairs to the cellar, shoving you aside, and commanding you to leave the house. Even then, you understood why he should have been so angry, it seemed altogether natural for him to lose his temper at that moment, for there was his grandson, weeping and bleeding after a golf club had cracked him in the head, and whether it was your fault or not, you were responsible for injuring his beloved boy, so he let you have it. Understandable as that anger was to you, however, it must be said that you had rarely witnessed anger on that scale—perhaps never. It was a monumental anger, an outburst of rage worthy of the God of the Old Testament, the vengeful, homicidal Yahweh of your darkest dreams, and as you listened to the old man shout at you, it soon became apparent that not only was he sending you home, he was barring you from his house forever, telling you that you were no good, a wicked boy, and that we have no use for your kind. You staggered out of there feeling pummeled and shaken, miserable about what you had done to Peter, but worst of all were the old man’s words ringing in your head. What had he meant by your kind? you wondered. The kind of boy who hits his friends with golf clubs and makes them bleed—or something even more sinister, some stain on your soul that could never be rubbed out? Was your kind simply another way of calling you a dirty Jew? Perhaps. And then again, perhaps not. That evening, when you told your mother about the seven-iron, the blood, and your friend’s grandfather, the word perhaps did not once cross her lips.
The following summer, you went back to the sleepaway camp in New Hampshire. The experiment in unstructured time had been no more than a partial success, that is, largely a failure, so once again you asked to go up north for July and August, and your parents, who were neither rich nor poor but well enough off to spring for the several hundred dollars it would cost to send you there, gave their consent. Bed-wetting was a thing of the past now, but beyond that dubious if necessary accomplishment, nearly everything about you was different as well. The gap between eight and ten was more than just a distance of two years, it was a chasm of decades, an enormous leap from one period of your life into another, equal to the distance you would eventually cover, say, from twenty to forty, and now that it was 1957, you were a bigger, stronger, smarter person than you had been in 1955, vastly more competent in negotiating all aspects of your life, an ever more independent boy who could march away from his parents without the slightest twinge of anxiety or regret. For the next two months you lived in the country of baseball, it was the moment of your greatest, most fanatical attachment to the sport, and you played it every day, not just during the regular activity periods in the morning and afternoon but during free time in the after-dinner hours as well, working conscientiously to become a better shortstop, a more disciplined hitter, but such was your enthusiasm for the game that you often volunteered to stand in as catcher, savoring the challenge of that unfamiliar position, and little by little the counselors who were in charge of coaching baseball began to notice how quickly you were improving, the strides you had made in just a few short weeks, and by the middle of the summer you were promoted to the big boys’ team, the twelve-, thirteen-, and fourteen-year-olds who traveled around the state playing teams from other camps, and though you struggled in the beginning to adjust to the new size of the infield (ninety feet between bases instead of sixty, sixty feet, six inches from the mound to home plate instead of forty-five feet, the standard measurements of all professional diamonds), the coaches stuck with you, you were the shortstop and leadoff hitter, the smallest player on the team, but you managed to hold your own, and so intent were you on doing well that you pushed all thoughts of failure from your mind, punishing yourself for every throwing error and strikeout you made, and even if you didn’t stand out among the older boys, you didn’t disgrace yourself either. Then came the final banquet, the big ceremonial meal that signaled the end of summer, the awards dinner at which various trophies were handed out to the boys who had been selected as the best swimmer, the best horseman, the best citizen, the best all-around camper, and so on, and suddenly you heard your name being called out by the head counselor, announcing that you had won the trophy for baseball. You weren’t sure you had heard him correctly, for it wasn’t possible that you could have won, you were too young, and you knew full well that you weren’t the best baseball player in the camp—the best for your age, perhaps, but that was a far cry from being the best of all. Nevertheless, the head counselor was summoning you to the podium, they were giving you the trophy, and since it was the first award you had ever won, you felt proud to be up there shaking the head counselor’s hand, if also a trifle embarrassed. A few minutes later, you ducked out of the mess hall to go to the latrine, that rank, stinking place that will never be expunged from your memory, and there, standing around and talking among themselves, were four or five of your older teammates, all of them eyeing you with animosity and revulsion, and as you emptied your bladder into the trough, they told you that you didn’t deserve to win the trophy, that it should have gone to one of them, and because you were nothing more than a ten-year-old punk, maybe they should beat you up to put you in your place, or else smash your trophy, or, even better, smash the trophy and then smash you. You were beginning to feel a little intimidated by these threats, but the only response you could come up with was the truth: you hadn’t asked for the award, you said, you hadn’t expected to win, and even if you agreed with them that you shouldn’t have won, what could you do about it now? Then you walked out of the latrine and returned to the dinner. Between that night and your departure from the camp two days later, no one beat you up and no one smashed your trophy.
You were inching toward the end of your childhood. The years between ten and twelve sent you on a journey no less gargantuan than the one between eight and ten, but day by day you never had the sense that you were moving quickly, hurtling forward to the brink of your adolescence, for the years passed slowly then, unlike now, when you have only to blink your eyes to discover that tomorrow is your birthday again. By eleven, you were mutating into a creature of the herd, struggling through that grotesque period of prepubescent dislocation when everyone is thrust into the microcosm of a closed society, when gangs and cliques begin to form, when some people are in and some people are out, when the word popular becomes a synonym for desire, when the childhood wars between girls and boys come to an end and fascination with the opposite sex begins, a period of extreme self-consciousness, when you are constantly looking at yourself from the outside, wondering and often fretting about how others perceive you, which necessarily makes it a time of much tumult and silliness, when the rift between one’s inner self and the self one presents to the world is never wider, when soul and body are most drastically at odds. In your own case, you found yourself becoming preoccupied with how you looked, worrying about whether you had the right haircut, the right shoes, the right pants, the right shirts and sweaters, never in your life have you been so concerned with clothes as you were at eleven and twelve, participating in the game of who was in and who was out with a desperate longing to be in, and at the Friday- and Saturday-night girl-boy parties that began sometime in the fifth grade, you always wanted to look your best for the girls, the young girls who were living through their own upheavals and torments, with their training bras stretched over flat chests or barely swollen nipples, decked out in their party dresses with the stiff crinolines and whooshing silk slips, wearing garter belts and stockings for the first time, and now, so many years later, you remember the pathos of seeing those stockings sag and droop on their scrawny legs as the evening wore on, even if you can also remember breathing in the scents of their perfume as you held them in your arms and danced with them. Rock and roll had suddenly become interesting and exciting to you. Chuck Berry, Buddy Holly, and the Everly Brothers were the musicians you liked best, and you started collecting their records so you could listen to them alone in your upstairs bedroom, stacking the little 45s on their fat spindle and blasting up the volume when no one was around, and on days when you had nothing to do after school, you would rush home and turn on the television to watch American Bandstand, that spectacle of the new rock-and-roll universe injected daily into the country’s living rooms, but it was more than music that attracted you to the show, it was the sight of a roomful of teenagers dancing to the music that kept you watching, for that was what you aspired to most now, to become a teenager, and you studied those kids on the screen as a way to learn something about the next, impending step of your life. Last year it had been the Three Stooges; now it was Dick Clark and his gang of youthful rockers. The era of pimples and braces had begun. Mercifully, those days come only once.
Still, you went on reading your books and writing your little stories and poems, not at all suspecting that you would end up doing those things for the rest of your life, doing them at that early age simply because you enjoyed doing them. At eleven, you made your second major purchase of a Modern Library book, the selected stories of O. Henry, and for a time you reveled in those brittle, ingenious tales with their surprise endings and narrative jolts (in much the same way that you fell for the early episodes of The Twilight Zone the following year, since Rod Serling’s imagination was nothing if not a midcentury version of O. Henry’s), but at bottom you knew there was something cheap about those stories, something far below what you considered to be literature of the first rank. In 1958, when Boris Pasternak won the Nobel Prize, his situation was prominently reported in the news, article after article told of how the Soviet police state had blocked the genius writer from going to Stockholm to accept his award, and now that Doctor Zhivago had been translated into English, you went out and bought a copy for yourself (your next major purchase), eager to read the great man’s work, confident that this was most assuredly literature of the first rank, but how could an eleven-year-old absorb the complexities of a Russian symbolist novel, how could a boy with no true literary foundation read such a long and nuanced work? You couldn’t. You tried with the best will in the world, you doggedly read passages three and four and five times, but the book was beyond your capacity to understand a tenth part of what was in it, and after untold hours of struggle and mounting frustration, you reluctantly accepted defeat and put the book aside. It wasn’t until you were fourteen that you were ready to tackle the masters, but back when you were eleven and twelve the books you could handle were considerably less challenging. A. J. Cronin’s The Citadel, for example, which temporarily made you want to become a doctor, as well as Green Mansions, by W. H. Hudson, which teased your gonads with its exotic, jungle sensuality—those were two of your favorites at the time, the ones you remember best. As for your own juvenile efforts at scribbling, you were still under the sway of Stevenson, and most of your stories began with immortal sentences like this one: “In the year of our Lord, 1751, I found myself staggering around blindly in a raging snowstorm, trying to make my way back to my ancestral home.” How you loved that lofty claptrap when you were eleven, but at twelve you happened to read a couple of detective novels (you forget which ones) and you understood that you would be better served by using a simpler, less bombastic kind of prose, and in your first attempt to turn out something in this new style, you sat down and wrote your own detective novel. It couldn’t have come to more than twenty or thirty handwritten pages, but it felt so long to you, so much longer than anything you had written in the past, that you called it a novel. You can’t remember the title or much about the story (something to do with two pairs of identical twins, you think, and a stolen pearl necklace stashed away in the cylinder of a typewriter), but you remember showing it to your sixth-grade teacher, the first male teacher you had ever had, and when he professed to like it, you felt heartened by his encouragement. That would have been enough, but then he went on to suggest that you read your little book to the class in installments, five or ten minutes at the end of each day, until the final bell rang at three o’clock, and so there you were, suddenly thrust into the role of writer, standing up in front of your classmates and reading your words out loud to them. The critics were kind. Everyone seemed to enjoy what you had written—if only as an escape from the monotony of the standard routine—but that was as far as it went, and several years would go by before you attempted to write anything that long again. Still, even if that youthful effort didn’t seem important at the time, when you look back on it now, how not to think of it as a beginning, a first step?
In June 1959, four months after your twelfth birthday, you and your sixth-grade classmates graduated from the small grammar school you had been attending since kindergarten. After the summer, you started junior high, a three-year school with thirteen hundred students, the assembled population of children who had gone to the various neighborhood grammar schools scattered across your town. Everything was different there: no longer did you sit in a single classroom all day, there was not one teacher now but several, one for each of the subjects you took, and when the bell rang after each forty-six-minute period, you would leave the room and walk through the hallways to another room for your next class. Homework became a fact of life, daily assignments in all your academic subjects (English, math, science, history, and French), but there was also gym class, with its boisterous locker room, regulation jock straps, and communal showers, as well as shop class, taught by a half-bald, dandruff-ridden old-timer named Mr. Biddlecombe, a Dickensian throwback not only in name but in manner, who referred to his young charges as twerps and rapscallions and punished the unruly by locking them up in the storage closet. The best thing about the school was also the worst thing about it. A rigid tracking system was in force, meaning that each student was a member of a particular group, designated by a random letter of the alphabet—to disguise the fact that there was a hierarchy embedded in these groupings—but only the blind and deaf were unaware of what those letters stood for: fast track, medium track, and slow track. Pedagogically, there were definite advantages to this system—the progress of the bright students wasn’t thwarted by the presence of dull students in the class, the plodders weren’t cowed by the sprinters, each student could advance at his or her own speed—but socially it was something of a disaster, creating a community of preordained winners and losers, the ones who were destined to succeed and the ones who were destined to fail, and because everyone understood what the groupings meant, there was an element of snobbery or disdain among the fast toward the slow, and an element of resentment or animosity among the slow toward the fast, a subtle form of class warfare that occasionally erupted into actual fighting, and if not for the neutral territories of gym, shop, and home economics, where members of all groups were thrown together, the school would have resembled chopped-up Berlin after the war: Slow Zone, Medium Zone, Fast Zone. Such was the institution you entered in the waning months of the 1950s, a newly built pink-brick building with the latest in educational facilities and equipment, the pride of your hometown, and so excited were you to be going there, to be moving up in the world, that you set your alarm clock for exactly seven A.M. the night before the first day of school, and when you opened your eyes in the morning—before the alarm had sounded—you saw that it was exactly seven A.M., that the second hand was sweeping past the nine on its way to the twelve, meaning that you had woken up ten seconds before you had to, and you, who had always slept so soundly, who could never wake up without the blasting bell of an alarm, had woken to silence for the first time in memory, as if you had been counting down the seconds in your dreams.
There were many new faces, hundreds of new faces, but the one that intrigued you the most belonged to a girl named Karen, a fellow member of your fast-track brigade. It was unquestionably a pretty face, perhaps even a beautiful face, but Karen had a sharp mind as well, she was filled with confidence and humor, all lit up and alive to the world, and within days of meeting her you were smitten. A week or two into the school year, a dance was held for the seventh graders, a Friday-night dance in the gym, and you went, as did nearly everyone else, about three or four hundred of you in all, and you made it your business to dance with Karen as often as you could. Toward the end of the evening, the principal announced that there was going to be a competition, a dance contest, and couples who wished to participate should go to the center of the floor. Karen wanted to give it a try, and since you were happy to do whatever she wanted to do, you became her partner. It was the first dance contest of your life, the only dance contest of your life, and even if you weren’t much of a dancer, you weren’t entirely hopeless, and because Karen was good, in fact very good, with quick toes and an innate feel for the music, you understood that you had to put yourself out for her, give it everything you had. Early rock-and-roll dancing was still touch-dancing. The Twist was a year or two off in the future, the revolution of isolate partners had not yet caught on, and the dancers of 1959 were not unlike the jitterbuggers of the forties, although by then the name of the dance had changed to the Lindy. Couples held on to each other, there was much spinning and twirling, and feet were more important than hips: fast footwork was all. When you and Karen went to the center of the floor, you both decided to dance as fast as you could, to go two or three times faster than normal, hoping to keep it up long enough to impress the judges. Yes, Karen was a spirited girl, a person ready for any challenge, and so the two of you launched into your crazy routine, flying around the floor like a pair of monkeys in a speeded-up silent film, both of you secretly laughing at the excessiveness of your performance, the hilarity of your performance, tireless in your twelve-year-old bodies, and what you remember best was how tightly she held on to your hand, never losing her grip as you flung her out from you and then pulled her back in one wild turn after another, and because no other couple could keep up with you—or would even want to keep up with you—and because you were both half out of your minds, you won the contest. An absurd but memorable flash from your early life. The principal gave each of you a trophy, and when the dance was over you held hands with Karen as you walked to the ice cream shop in the middle of town, gloria, gloria, the rapture of holding hands with Karen on the night of the dance when you were twelve, and then, a block or two from the ice cream shop, Karen’s trophy slipped out of her free hand and shattered on the sidewalk. You could see how upset she was—a small devastation because of its suddenness, because of the sudden sound, the unexpected crash of the trophy as it hit the pavement and splintered to pieces, and because it could never be mended, and because winning a dance trophy was of no importance to you (baseball was another matter), you handed her your trophy and told her to keep it. By the following year, you didn’t see much of Karen anymore. You traveled in different circles, you were no longer in the same classes together, she was nearly a woman now and you were still a boy, and from then until you both graduated from high school in 1965, you barely spoke to each other. When you attended your twentieth high school reunion, however, a full twenty-six years after the night of the shattered trophy, Karen was there, a young widow of thirty-eight, and you danced with her again, a slow dance this time, and she told you that she remembered everything about that night when you were twelve, remembered it, she said, as if it were yesterday.
Your seventh-grade English teacher, Mr. S., wanted to encourage the students to read as many books as possible. A noble aim, but the system he devised to achieve that goal was not without its flaws, since he was more interested in quantity than quality, and a mediocre book of one hundred pages was worth just as much to him as a good book of three hundred. Even more troubling, he framed this project in the form of a competition, setting up a large pegboard on the back wall of the classroom and assigning each student a column, a vertical pathway in that grid of circular holes. The students were given pegs, which they were instructed to fashion into something that resembled rocket ships (these were the early years of the space race between America and the Soviet Union), and then Mr. S. told the children to stick the pegs into the bottom holes of their columns. Every time you read a book, you were supposed to move your peg up one notch. He wanted to keep the game going for two months, and then he would examine the results and see where everyone stood. You knew it was a bad idea, but this was the beginning of the first semester in your new school, and you wanted to do well, to stand out in some way, so you played along, diligently reading as many books as you could, which wasn’t a problem, since you were already a committed reader of books, nor were you averse to the principle of competition, for the years you had spent playing baseball, football, and various other sports had turned you into a competitive boy, and not only were you going to do well, you decided, you were going to win. The two months passed, and every second or third day you would advance your peg another notch. Before long, you were ahead of the others, and as more time passed you were far ahead, running away from the field. When the morning came for Mr. S. to examine the results, he was flabbergasted by the great distance that separated you from the others. He walked back from the pegboard to the front of the class, looked you in the eye (you were fairly close to him, sitting in the second row of desks), and, with a hostile, belligerent expression on his face, accused you of cheating. It wasn’t possible for anyone to read so many books, he said, it defied all logic, all sense, and you were an idiot if you thought you could get away with a stunt like that. It was an insult to his intelligence, an insult to the hard work of the other students, and in all his years of teaching you were the most brazen liar who had ever set foot in his classroom. His words felt like bullets to you, he was machine-gunning you to death in front of the other children, publicly accusing you of being a fraud, a criminal, you had never been so brutally attacked by anyone, you who had been so conscientious, so hungry to prove that you were a good student, and even as you tried to answer his accusations, telling him that he was wrong, that you had read the books, had read every page of every book, the magnitude of his anger was too much for you, and suddenly you began to cry. The bell rang, sparing you from further humiliation, but as the other students filed out of the classroom, Mr. S. told you to stay, he wanted to talk to you, and a moment later you were standing face to face with him beside his desk, hiccupping forth an avalanche of tears, insisting through broken, throttled breaths that you had been telling the truth, that you weren’t a cheat or a liar, and if he wanted to see the list of books you had read, you would give it to him the next morning, your innocence would be proved, and bit by bit Mr. S. began to back down, slowly understanding that perhaps he had been wrong. He took his handkerchief out of his pocket and handed it to you. As you brought it to your face to blow your nose and wipe away your tears, you breathed in the smell of that freshly laundered handkerchief, and even though the fabric was clean, there was something sour and sickening about that smell, the smell of failure, the smell of something that had been used once too often, and every time you think about what happened to you that morning more than half a century ago, you are holding that handkerchief again and pressing it into your face. You were twelve years old. It was the last time you broke down and cried in front of an adult.
Copyright © 2013 by Paul Auster