Every October as a kid, some time about midway through the month, on a Saturday, my parents would announce it was time to go to Tice’s Farms and pick a pumpkin. Our mouths would water and our eyes would form wide euphoric circles. Forget Halloween. For my brother Paul and I, Tice’s Farms was the event of the season. Vast patches of pumpkins great and small just off the main road in Woodcliff, New Jersey, guarded by sentries of scarecrows with painted face pumpkin heads, gilded with American country charm (which is extra challenging in New Jersey), exuding the olfactory sensations of fermented apple, warm dough, cinnamon and sugar, and rivalled only by the almost-as-good Van Riper’s Farm across the way, Tice’s Farms, or Tice Farms to give it it’s proper name, still embodies the beauty of the fall in America for me. For at Tice Farms we glutted ourselves on Autumn itself. We began the day paying 25 cents for a small refillable paper cup which we would fill from the spigot of one of several large aged wooden barrels full of cider (non-alcoholic of course). We would then use the same cups to return to the same barrels to water ourselves throughout the day until our young mouths were glazed and sticky with the sour/sweet taste of Red Delicious. We paid another quarter to fill our bellies with warm donuts hung from metal hooks behind glass displays and coated simply in cinnamon or sugar, having watched, like Pavlov’s dogs, the ring shaped pieces of dough dipped in the fryer to be transferred to aforesaid hooks for the few seconds before purchase and consumption. This process of eating and drink would repeat itself with a hayride and a haunted house thrown in at random intervals for good measure until we returned home, splayed out in the back of our parents’ sedan, a great globe of orange carefully selected and waiting in the trunk to be carved and personified, signifying to all our willingness to participate in the rituals of the season. Now, with a son of my own, and wishing, albeit a little late, to recreate some Halloween magic for him, I cast around for places further afield from our urban environment to pick our own pumpkin and rosy our cheeks in the winds of autumn. After asking Twitter and googling, I have to admit, it was tough finding much, but Crockford Bridge Farm in Surrey did come up. With a web flyer that promised “spooky fun,” “apple bobbing,” “and more…,” we dutifully headed out to Surrey and were pleasantly elated by what we found there. Not only was there a vast and plentiful pumpkin patch, Grimm’s Scary Storytelling in the Woods, and surprisingly tasty hot chocolate (you leave London, you’re never sure what you’ll get, ya know?), but there was also a full stand set up for Bird and Animal Rescue with owls. Owls I tell you. And zipwire. Zipwire!
Alright. It didn’t have endless cups of cloudy apple juice. Economics have changed since I was a kid and even the hot chocolate was on the pricey side. The scary walk in the woods was entertaining but a bit hammy. The drive via the North Circular, as anyone who lives in London and drives knows, was hell on asphalt, the North Circular being the single most unpleasant highway ever constructed. Ever. But it did, as I think is evident, create a sense of innocent wonder and glee that is the closest thing on this side of the pond to embodying the spirit of All Hallow’s Eve. Heartbreakingly, Tice’s Farms and Van Riper’s both closed in the 90s, replaced by an A & P and a strip mall, but it’s nice to know there are some ways of still carrying on the tradition. Happy Halloween!
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Our first stop is Bay Head. To shore ourselves up for the journey (the pun is entirely unintentional).
Before we had touched down in Newark for our annual summer sojourn to reconnect with the homeland, my cousin Samm — who lives in Ocean County, in the middle of where Sandy made landfall last year — and I had notionally talked about taking a drive down “The Barrier Island Route,” that stretch of road that traverses at least half of the narrow twenty mile long Barnegat Barrier Peninsula separating the bay from the Atlantic Ocean. Wikipedia calls it a “summer colony.” As a child, I only ever referred to it as Normandy Beach (one of the communities along the coastal line of the island) or more often, “Nana’s house.”
It felt like something I should do, something meaningful. I felt like I had lived a lot of important childhood moments there, a lot of growing up, a lot of sandcastle building, swinging, tag playing with waves, sitting by my Nana’s side for beach card games (they use elastic bands to make the cards stay in place. trust me. it works), secret passage exploring and boogie-boarding, ice-cream cone eating and crabbing, running against the wind of the sea with carefree, reckless abandon. I had not seen this place around which so many innocent and misty eyed memories were centered since the previous summer, before it had been ravaged by Superstorm Sandy.
It felt like something that would illuminate for me this cloudy shroud of mystery that obscured a significant part of the world for me, that I’d only seen in news reports or in photo albums on Facebook by those determined that people should see and know. Having not been there and having felt powerless and remote, I wanted to hear the echoes of the past, as close to when and where they happened as possible. I suppose I wanted things to have changed as little as possible. I wanted the stories of men and women who worked for emergency services, army engineers, firefighters, paramedics who had risked their lives, people whose homes had been literally shaken to the ground and whose lives and community has been rent into shreds; I think I wanted those stories to be the exception and perhaps even a slight exaggeration.
I suppose I wanted some sense of closure.
But now that it came to it, now that we were in Mueller’s Bakery in Bay Head, about to embark on our journey, I must confess, I’m feeling a little nervous. Unsure of what lies ahead, I see that Mueller’s has put up photos, one of the town of Bay Head, completely submerged. So. No exaggeration. No sensationalism in the disaster movie-like footage from Sandy. This was real.
Nothing prepares me for the island though. We pass plot after plot, some with gaping holes, some half-way in the process of reconstruction, some with warning tape stretching round them, some with barely skeletal foundations and a “for sale” sign added with bitter irony. A stunning landscape in which pieces have fallen away, as from a jigsaw, leaving gaping holes in my memory and the horizon. Where once it felt thriving and joyful, as we pass Mantoloking and Chadwick, finally slowing in Normandy Beach, things seem desolate and abandoned. We come to a stop on fifth avenue, a minute away from the bay where a swingset has succumbed to being tossed forever into the depths and the roads have recently been flooded. The place seems strangely calm. Houses seemed oddly together. Things have been reconstructed. Just. We sit with the engine idling in front of what used to be my grandmother’s house, sold years ago, and yet, still the psychological space of all those precious moments, still the heart of this area for me. My cousin and I pass commentary here and there on little differences, adjustments the current owners have made. The car settles into reflective silence. I turn to my son, sitting in the back and say, “Do you see that? That’s the house where your great-grandmother used to live.”
I think he tries to accept this knowledge with gravity before sighing heavily and saying, “Can we go to a park now?”
I laugh. We laugh. Gladly. If Jersey is reconstructing, it is to preserve that childlike innocence and joy of life, and to create space for new memories, new precious moments, new joys. In our Jerseyan “Spirit of the Blitz”, our steely eyed determination to rebuild, we rebuild so that our children can once again associate the shore with the kind of memories that make us treasure it so dearly in our hearts.
There are still many suffering the after effects of reconstruction or the inability to make efforts towards it. I rounded up a few stories about it here, an invitation here, and something here about the frustration individuals still feel in rebuilding, including the lovely and generous lady who provided the photographs for this post, Diane Hoffman, my grandmother’s neighbour for all those years when I was a slip of a youth, enjoying the seaside, and who only this week, a year after their storm savaged house blew away, are getting occupancy certificates.
And a special thank you to my cousin Samm, who I have mentioned before in connection with helping the recovery effort through Backpacks for Brick, for putting the APB out for photos.
On a suggestion from my cousin Samm, who was in the middle of Sandy’s landfall when it happened, who was without power for weeks, whose sons missed days and days of school and ended up being some of the lucky ones given that some are still without homes, and who, perhaps most importantly of all did some fantastic work in setting up a non-profit called Backpacks for Brick, I’m reblogging this post from last year that I wrote as a sort of helpless feeling response to the utterly heartbreaking and destructive events I watched unfold by remote on my computer screen. It seems fitting given the imminent one year anniversary and the battening down of hatches we’ve been doing in the storm that swept over London and the Southeast last night. I hope it gives some pause for thought.
I feel confident in saying I grew up on the Jersey Shore. I don’t mean that in the way that many would nor do I mean to offend proper Jerseyans. Anyone who has read this blog much at all knows that I am a de facto Pennsylvanian.
But most and the best of my summer childhood memories are rooted firmly in that area of America. I was born in Northern New Jersey and spent my childhood there. My mother used to take us down to the shore for a couple weeks every summer, leaving my father alone with his annual fortnight of peace to do the tax returns. So we’d stay with my grandmother in an affluent (I perceived it as affluent then and still do) little town called Normandy Beach with a sweet little bay not more than two minutes away and a vast expanse of beach just three…
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“How can you be American and have got away this long without seeing Seven Brides for Seven Brothers?”
We are in the pub for the Great British tradition of The Sunday Roast. My friend S is incredulous. She has certain criteria that must be met by her Americans.
“Well, he’s not really American, is he?” My friend P “wittily” retorts.
Oh, touché. I do my best to stretch my face into indignation. It’s no good. I’m used to my muddled accent and my “Europeanism” attracting similar commentary. I’m a mutt by lifestyle now as well as birthright.
S is technically correct. Earlier in the week, I had been to see Seven Brides in The New Wimbledon Theatre in order to review it for The American Magazine. I had never heard of it, despite its unflinching, cliché-embracing Americanness. I had received the email from my editor, seen “press tickets” in the body of the missive, thought: opportunity, and replied in the affirmative.
I didn’t think it was going to be a musical. I thought it was possibly some mythical magical realist piece (seven repeated in the title?) or some Kung Fu romance (there is a lot of avant garde theater in London).
I was right about the mythologism, well, half-right. It is based on the Roman story of “The Sabine Women,” in which the early Romans abduct women from the neighboring tribe, the Sabines in order to marry them and propagate the species. The story was rewritten as a Twain-esque parody called “The Sobbin’ Women” by Stephen Vincent Benet. From there, it was made by MGM into a movie musical in the heyday of movie musicals, fated to become one of the most beloved films of its kind of all time.
Except by me of course, since I’d never heard of it. That, and I tend to hate musicals.
I can’t stress this last point enough. In order to give you some sense of scale, I hated Billy Elliott. With a passion. I despised it for two hours while my wife and our friend, A, sat spellbound in a West End Theatre marvelling from expensive seats, open-mouthed with amazement at the gravity-defying feats of acrobatic excellence taking place on stage while I kept thinking: this is Elton John’s way of getting us all under one roof to say, “Aw, look at the cutesy wootsy working cwass! They’re soooo adawable! The way they dance away their pwoblems with idiotic gwins! I love love love it! Le Sigh.” Pass. The. Bucket. I think the film was a masterpiece, but the stage show does its best to trivialise the struggles of the miners and the main character himself, captured with such beautiful conviction in the film.
So, not generally a musical guy. Which is why Seven Brides took some getting used to.
Because once you realised that Adam Pontipee was an unreconstructed Davy Crockett lookalike with a barely post magnon attitude towards women, who was only slightly more well-rounded and modified by curtain call, and further realised that the denouement of the whole narrative involves Adam’s “sassy” wife Milly finding his overt sexism really rather charming (bless his beautiful hide), you begin to wonder what there is to like about these rustic types. Suffice to say the two principle characters were not what held my interest in the end. No, I ended up enjoying myself in spite of myself and them.
Why? Because it is with the entrance of the seven brothers of the title that this big musical comes alive and is injected with some much needed vim. For it is their civilising, their reformation, and the edges that are left of them after that process of transformation that generates real interest in this story; the brothers on stage form a solid rousing chorus of toe-tapping unity, solidarity and at times, lament, that feels attractive, that envelopes you and lifts you along on a tide of rhythm and country charm.
And this brings me nicely and perhaps metaphorically back to national types. As I watched the brothers, I wasn’t convinced by their accents — which were inconsistent and sometimes pure Punch Magazine caricature — but by the flavo(u)r of their sentiments. I realised that the directors had made no attempt at authenticity or nuance in depicting America. This dancing, leaping pinwheel of colo(u)r is not really what the British think we are. This is what the world is nostalgic for and really want us to be: swaggering, confident, sometimes foolish, unerringly optimistic and larger than life in vibrant technicolo(u)r.
I stress, the West is not part of who I am as an ill traveled tristate boy, but this show made me wish that it was. There is still a mythical hold the American West has over the imagination, a place where one can still go to seize some space of one’s own, whether real or of the mind, and reinvent oneself as a prospecting, prosperous go getter, a rugged individualist with initiative, with getup and with gumption!
I’ve seen Seven Brides now. I can tick it off my cultural heritage list. And there are many beyond our shores who know enough to look past the stereotypes, and know that we are a diverse people full of cultural richness and intellectual depth. Although I’m critical of my country, it is because I love where I am from. Unlike Michael Moore, it personally annoys me when Americans blithely dismiss their compatriots in favour of a misty-eyed romanticisation of Europeans as though they are somehow innately better (just more civilised, that’s all). Nothing could be more false.
I will confess that I don’t always, as a Canadian friend recently put it, “give good American.” Upon my first meeting with my late grandmother-in-law in Dublin, her first comment to my wife-to-be once I’d left the room was, “Very quiet… for an American. Very quiet.” And it is probably important to bear in mind after the humbling last few weeks in which we’ve become the stereotypical belligerently drunk American frat boy at war with ourselves and unable to do anything productive or function stumbling around in our own corrosive bitterness exposing the very worst of ourselves, our partisanship, our literal mindedness, our refusal to see the wood from the trees, our insularity, that of the national stereotypes there is to choose from — Hollywood’s walk-on English baddie (preferably Alan Rickman), the stage Irish drunk, the humourless German hun, the snooty Frenchman — you could do worse than the uncouth American frontiersman, staring down the elements and adversity, still offering something to the stage that is the world and open to new possibilities and to change.
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‘Go West/ Paradise is there/ You’ll have all that you can eat/ Of milk and honey over there.’ Natalie Merchant, ‘San Andreas Fault’
Traveled out West on Thursday, West London that is. Leafy, clean and well-heeled, W postcodes are like a different country. People do things differently there. They bring dogs to pubs, they make contact when they kiss on both cheeks and they have comedy theatres with fairly famous comedians.
This last bit is what drove my wagon out West on The District Line to The Tabard Theatre in Turnham Green to see The Code Of The West by New York/London playwright Mark Giesser.
The play has at its centre the incredible historical figure of Joshua Abraham Norton, the eccentric, Englishman who became the self-proclaimed emperor of the United States, treated with all the fawning deference that one might afford any sovereign monarch, at least within the city limits of San Fransisco. I liked the concept of this story, partly because of the wonderfully quixotic nature of Norton’s story. It says a lot about our secret love of monarchy (oh we very much like to talk about our contempt for the irrelevance of an antiquated and pointless institution, but I saw the crowds gathered in front of big screens to watch Will ands Kate’s big day and if we want to talk about antiquated and irrelevant, what about the GOP, huh? Eh?), the ability for us as Americans to bluster through to great success and status based on immense confidence — a shoeshine and a handshake, as Arthur Miller put it in Death of a Salesman — without being questioned along the way, and our ability to make up the rules as we go along.
The code of the title is a seemingly random set of rules governing the conduct between two parties who seem to be at all sorts of impasses. Say what you will about a written constitution vs a constantly evolving one, there is something charming and wonderfully Californian about invoking a particular set of fictional, unwritten but strictly acknowledged rules that seem to allow characters to circumvent various imminent dangers and come out on top of very sticky situations involving other characters.
The nineteenth century American West is presented, in all its swinging door, stogie-smoking, player piano, patterned wallpaper splendor, as a place where anything is possible and an individual can set their bags down and reinvent themselves, with no judgement and no disadvantage, just as Joshua Norton did after his finances in the UK went belly up and just as a certain two ladies who claim to be connected to the house of Romanov do when they show up proposing a match for Norton.
It’s a fun night of theatre with some great lines that hold currency today. We laugh at an incredulously delivered, “What, borrow money from the Chinese?” and chortle knowingly at the casual declaration by an emissary of an alleged Russian noblewoman, “Oh we get no intelligence from Washington.”
I have to say though, despite his stage chops, David Janson’s Norton didn’t do much more than wander around winking slyly and making imperious declarations and negotiations. He certainly wasn’t the larger than Gordon Bennett presence that I expected and I felt like, marvelous though the historical character of Norton sounded, Giesser seemed to use him as a piece to play off of and a frame on which to hang the narrative and other more compelling scenes. No, the real stars of the show were Stephen Cavanagh as mischievous newspaper publisher Frank Tremont and Zoe Teverson as Claire Greenleaf, the supposed Russian Countess’ supposed emissary and general lady-in-waiting. That these two actors have performed together before is obvious from the chemistry between them that provides a sparkling frisson of energy whenever the two of the meet on stage. Their sparring is a delight to watch, culminating in a deliciously tense strip-poker scene (all a lot more chaste than it sounds). Cavanagh steals the show with a swagger and a magnetic charisma that makes us revel in his crackly, whiskeyed delivery.
The West is not part of the heritage of this ill traveled Northeastern boy who’s never seen the banks of the Mississippi, but I very much enjoyed this portrayal of it and have no doubt that it captures an atmosphere rich with renewal and grit and one that would well worth seeing especially if you’ve become as interested in American cultural identity as I have.
Go west. Good comedy is there.
The Code of The West is at The Tabard Theatre until 9 November to book: www.tabardweb.co.uk
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“Do ya ever see any of those Muslims in London?”
We are sitting on my parents’ back deck. We have settled in for a warm and pleasant evening of beer, nibbles, and mildly racist banter by the pungent flicker of the citronella candle.
I know my father too well to think he is joking, but I am still blindsided by the brick bluntness of his solid granite wall of insularity that you would be hard pushed to surmount. He says “Muslims” like Jaques Cousteau would if he were talking about some rare multicellular organism found only in the deepest and most uninhabitable depths. I imagine the nature programs in my Dad’s head run as follows: “And here we have the rare and vicious Muslimus Britannicus Arabius Londinius, commonly referred to as the English Brown Muslim; not to be confused with its American cousin even though both depend on a parasitic relationship with other mammals in their environment.”
“Um…” I begin. How does one answer a question such as this? Have I ever seen any Muslims in the great and sprawling metropolitan capital of England and seat of governance of Great Britain? Do you ever see any Christians, Hindus, Jews, Sikhs, Scientologists, Hardcore Zionists, Liberation Theologists, Dawkinsists, Seventh Day Adventists, Seventh Seal the movie fan clubbists, card-carrying Communists, frustrated Agnostics, Gnostic Christians, Coptic Christians, Eastern Orthodox mystics, Papal Cannibals, austere Protestant, tee totalling Northern Calvinists? Why not? Why not, damn it? Why can’t they all walk around with neon signs atop their heads and big brands burned into their foreheads from when they were all branded like sheep into their respective pens?
“Well…” I begin. “I’ve worked with Muslims. I’ve worked for Muslims and I’ve taught Muslims. In fact, one of my best students is called Hamza.” Thought my parents would like that last one in particular given all the trouble-making, freedom-hating, headline-hogging Hamzas that always seem to make it into the news here in the UK.
Plus, it’s just like saying, “I don’t roll like that, man. I’ve got plenty of Muslim friends.”
My Mom sees my liberal positioning and raises me a casual-racism, “well, I guess if he’s studying he can’t be making bombs at night.”
My face must look a bit like I’ve been handbagged by the old one-two from Ma and Pa American Londoner because my mother – not widely known for her awareness of the jarring abnormality of her worldview shrugs as if to say, “What’s your problem, mister? I’m just proclaiming the gospel of Regressive Thinkers of America and saying out loud what every other American is afraid to say.”
And it is possible (just possible) that my father’s question and my mother’s ponderous observation are entirely innocent. It is possible that I’ve been spoiled by the tolerant melting pot that is London. It is entirely possible that you can live atop a mountain with nothing but Fox to watch, pretzels and chips to eat, and racist neighbo(u)rs with which to “exchange views” to quite innocently hate Muslims. In the same way you might hate really evil aliens. Or zombies (though what with zombie chic I don’t see how you could) that are hungry for brains.
I should disclaim at this point that my father is a generous man, my mother a kind and nurturing woman. These thoughts seem to happily settle themselves and thrive like fungus in amongst the sweetest and sunniest of dispositions. My Dad is as innocent and sometimes as unintentionally funny as Archie Bunker (British Translation = Alf Garnet).
And let’s face it. Before 9/11, my parents probably didn’t know what a Muslim was beyond some vague notions of a hate figure in Iran. In fact, they probably couldn’t rightly tell you what a Muslim is now (I have called my father out for insisting he’d seen “them” running around town “in their turbans”). No more than I could have told you what a Communist was when I was seven and taught to hate them. No more than children can stand up and swear allegiance to a
piece of cloth (oh alright) symbol before they know what “allegiance” means.
It’s a simple thing to hate something you know little about and that doesn’t enter your sphere of existence from day to day. Pennsylvania has often been ranked number one for hate groups even with a low population of racial minorities. Draw what you may from that.
I’m not sure I can call my parents, as one kind reader wrote to me this week, “friendly racists… who mean no harm,” as they do seem to mean harm to all those who “hate freedom”, whatever that means. I’ve not met such an individual after nearly a decade in London. But what does scare me is that they are not harmless. They’ve got great big weapons: one vote a piece and plenty who think like them.
Beware America. Beware.
We are in Friendly’s, an American institution that provides serviceably mediocre food and miraculously pleasure-inducing concoctions called Fribbles. I am immensely content. I am on my annual summer pilgrimage back to the homeland and my younger brother, Paul has come out to dinner. The atmosphere is jovial, even though my parents are also out.
I usually know what subjects to avoid with Mom and Dad, such as politics, on which my father and I stand on violently different ends of the opinion spectrum on most issues, but I am relaxed, my guard is down, and it is July. The Trayvon Martin case is still fresh in the national consciousness, open and raw as a wound. I forget myself and marvel aloud, “Whew. That Trayvon Martin case. Pretty horrible stuff, huh?”
My Dad’s eyes widen in what I mistake for agreement, ‘Absolutely. Such a terrible case. I feel sorry for his family.’ I am touched by his uncharacteristic compassion until he continues, “I mean, if I was in his situation, I would’ve killed a black guy too.” I hear a record suddenly screech and come to a halt in my head. My brother’s fork drops from his hand to his plate with a loud clang.
My father looks around at all of us to make sure his assertion has had its intended effect, hooking his audience. There are several black families in close proximity to our table, some in clear throttling distance of my father. He continues chewing his rubbery steak vigorously and continues asserting with equal vigour. “Yeah. I’d have killed a black guy too in that situation. I definitely would have killed the black guy if I were Robert Zimmerman,” and then as an afterthought, perhaps registering slightly the collective horror on our faces, adds, “Or a white guy,” making no attempt to lower his voice.
Most people would look around and lower their volume. Most would know better than to say something like that out loud anyway. My father is not most people. He could not care less whether he is in the comfort of his own home where none of the public at large can spew racist bile even in context never mind utterances taken out of context. I am inclined to think that even people who agree with Dad know better than to say so out loud, in public. For I feel most would have the wherewithal to fear for their safety after exhibiting such behaviour. Frankly, I think even David Duke would know better than to say such things out loud.
But not my father. Oh no.
He is at the point in his life, his mid 70s, where he is both aware of his own impunity due to age (“Mommy, who is that racist firebrand in the corner?” “Oh, leave him alone dear. He’s from a different generation. Don’t stare now.”) and feels duty bound, utterly convinced of his own rightness, to “spread the word”. Ed Lawler, truth-teller, Christian soldier, saviour of the universe.
Likely as not, none of the other customers really care about what my father says as he launches into a tirade — before Paul or I can get over our collective shock and construct any kind of coherent response — about how much Trayvon Martin had it coming to him, how he was a gang member who bragged on video about how many people he had killed, about how he sold drugs and about how he was “high on drugs” that infamous night in Florida. In a furious internal race for a response, I discard the idea of reminding my father about that part in 12 Angry Men where Jack Lemmon proves to the rest of the jury that just because you talk about killing people doesn’t mean you are going to or have done the deed. Instead, I opt for a gentler, socratic method.
“But Dad, he would have had to have been high on PCP to act as ragingly violent as you say he did, wouldn’t he?”
Without missing even a half-beat, “That’s the least he was high on according to reports!” He’s worked up a righteous sanctimony at this point. What drugs, I wonder, that my Dad actually knows about, are worse than PCP for turning human beings into raging lunatics? Amanita Muscaria? Sure, my Dad has worked as a social worker with disadvantaged youth, but a narcotics squad consultant he is not.
As my blood pressure rises, I try a different tack. “But the emergency services told him not to approach the kid, didn’t they?” I think I manage a pretty reasonable tone.
“No! No they told him not to let the kid get away because the police were looking for him! He might have gone on to kill someone that night. He was into all sorts of gangs.” Should I mention that loyalty in sticking to one primary gang is generally valued as important in gang culture? Nah. Besides, facts are no longer germane to Dad’s argument.
Even as he makes this last comment, my mother, the June to my father’s Ward Cleaver (my parents’ relationship started in the early 60s and has worked its way backwards ever since), the woman who has most adeptly mastered the Nancy Reagan gaze of unquestioning adoration, even my mother is shaking her head in disagreement, “No Eddie. I think Pete’s right. The police…”
“No, let me finish,” Dad barks as we waves away my mother’s words with his fork, wielding it like an imperial sceptre.
He is in his irrational stride and has struck upon another favorite of the right wing debate playbook: emotional blackmail.
“Think about Paul! The guys who attacked him were black. They targeted Paul. If anyone’s guilty of racial profiling, it’s them. Paul could’ve sued them for discrimination.” Ah yes, from the sublime to the ridiculous in one short leap. The dogmatic AK 47 rifle of the conservative arsenal — reverse racism. My brother looks less than impressed that his experience of a few years before of being beaten to the point of hospitalisation being moved out as a pawn in our father’s great oratorical onslaught. Then comes the proverbial smoking sidearm.
“If Paul had a gun, he wouldn’t have ended up in the hospital. They would.”
“Actually,” Paul pipes up, “I’m glad I didn’t have a gun because frankly, I think I’d be dead by now if I had since they probably would have used it. On me.”
This neutralises Dad’s attack, momentarily, but long enough for me to seize the momentum and redirect the course of the conversation, “Well done!” I exclaim in my son’s direction. “You’ve eaten all your vegetables!” The boy beams with pride and my mother, rallying without hesitation, says, “I think someone deserves an ice cream.”
And with that, hostilities temporarily subside, but this conversation is not over. And I know it.
That evening, I find myself driven by rage to the internet, desperate to find cold, hard fact, verifiable, documented, evidential weaponry with which to penetrate my father’s impregnable fortress of fiction founded on hoodie wearing youths, brains addled with a toxic combination of THC and PCP, knives and guns drawn, rampaging through the streets looking to slaughter innocent white and Hispanic neighborhood watchers concealing weapons.
I search out my father’s insular illusions first, entering the search terms, “Trayvon Martin was high on PCP,” only to find that he has gorged himself on the gluttony of a steady diet of Fox, Glenn Beck, Sean Hannity, Greg Gutfeld, and others derivatively drawing on this guest list for the party to take America back for the stuffy, rich and white. Sifting past, I finally find what I’m looking for, print out my research, study it, and tuck myself into bad with a sense of excitement and smugness.
I don’t have to wait long the next morning before My father somehow manages, in the uncannily circuitous way he has, to bring the topic of the conversation back to his own myopic vision. Like me, he has trouble letting go. Over breakfast:
“That’s why I say, this guy was on drugs. He represented a clear danger to society.”
I waste no time.
“Actually Dad, according to the toxicology report from the trial records, there were only trace amounts of THC in his system that could have been at best, three days old and therefore would not affected his behaviour at all. Plus, since it was THC, not PCP, it would have made him anything but aggressive.”
This gives him pause. But not long pause. Here peers down at me as he helps himself to more coffee, with obvious patience and a bit of condescension. Suddenly I am 11years old again. He is teaching me chess and I have just fallen into the trap of the devil’s crossroads, again. Oh Pete, his eyes seem to say, will you ever learn?
“Well, a toxicologist is not a psychologist. I worked with a psychologist for years who said that anyone on drugs would kill their own mother for their next hit. Believe me. Being on drugs affected Trayvon Martin and he had no morals.” Believe me. Hmmm. With this pronouncement, he shrugs and walks back into the kitchen to fetch the maple syrup,
“But did you know that Zimmerman rang the police 40 some odd times in the last couple years to alert them to his suspicions of random black people around him?” I call futilely after him, to which his response is another shrug, as though calling the cops every day to express suspicions about racial minorities is a daily occurrence in his life. Surely, we should all have a quota of calls to make to the police expressing some anxiety about random strangers of a different skin color?
His defences are back up. My attack of reason has failed. My father retired from New Jersey to the backwoods of Pennsylavania to isolate himself from the challenge of the outside world and his mind has remained comfortably, sitting, defensibly, atop the peaks of his mountain.
But then, I consider, perhaps if a position is unassailable by logic and refuses to give account for itself through vigorous interrogations, then perhaps it is not a position any rational, reasonable person would take anyway.
Cold comfort, as I sip my coffee and look over at my son, carelessly popping Cheerios into his mouth and I wonder about his cultural inheritance, and the world into which he is growing.