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Posted on Jun 9, 2011
By Mr. Fish
It was my habit during school dances to never stop walking. For hours I would circle the dance floor and act as if I were scanning the crowd in search of somebody. “Booth!” a classmate might yell, hoping to head me off, oftentimes with a clotheslined-arm-offering punch, and I’d hold up my index finger and push past him, craning my neck this way and that, my brow furrowed, my eyes looking everywhere in an insane pantomime of deep concentration and reconnaissance. Inevitably, the news of my solitary bug-eyed schlep around the gymnasium would be reported back to my mother, usually by my twin sister, and the assumption would be made that I was afraid of girls. I’d shrug off the simplicity of the deduction and return to my room and practice not giving a shit about what people thought, feeling like Ichabod Crane charging toward the covered bridge of my high school graduation, beyond which the Headless Horseman of Manahawkin, N.J., had no dominion over my soul.
Inside my third-grade social studies book was a map of pre-Civil War America that showed the Mason-Dixon Line in red. I used to stare at that line and imagine it as a great bloody gash set in the body of the country by sober and learned Northerners hoping to amputate the vicious and cross-eyed hillbillies in the South from our national identity. What worried me was the irregularity of the line once it hit Delaware. Moving east with the surgical precision of a straight line along the southern border of Pennsylvania, the incision seemed to suddenly hit a bone and be redirected downward, erratically tracing around the Union’s First State and dead-ending into the sea. Anyone could see, looking at the map, that had the line been allowed to move uninterrupted it would’ve sliced through New Jersey just north of where I lived, thereby implicating me as a heehawing redneck.
Of course, had Rand McNally suddenly decided to reclassify my hometown as part of the South, little evidence would be available for me to prove otherwise. For example, the one and only black kid at my school had absolutely no friends to speak of. And while this might’ve had less to do with the color of his skin and more to do with his penchant for having seizures and wearing velour, the effect of isolation was the same. And then there were the Jackson, Miss.-like summers, which had a way of attracting prophetic significance beginning in mid-May and ending in late October, as if God were using the whole of South Jersey to rehearse an End of Days scenario for more densely populated, potentially more repentant, parts of the country.
The signs would appear overnight when one day it would be springtime, with the scent of mud and dandelions and freshly mowed grass stirring something like swarming bees inside everybody’s guts. There would be the almost audible explosion of yellow azaleas in everybody’s yard and the storybook appearance of new rabbits and butterflies and birds. Then, the next day, you’d step outside and feel as if you’d just walked down into somebody’s flooded basement. The air, heavy with pinesap, would be filled with dragonflies, grasshoppers and wasps. Green flies, as loud as incensed vibrators and as durable as seeds, would bite you through your shirt and on your face and the sun would no longer rise; instead, it would suddenly materialize at the center of the sky, swollen to the size of Jupiter, and radiate an impossible heat that seemed as unnatural as an electrical fire. At dusk, flatbed trucks would chug through the neighborhood at 5 miles per hour, lugging what appeared to be a jet engine that had been stripped of its alloy skin, revealing a deep-fried skeleton of black metal harnessed to a giant fan which belched out a great wet cloud of pesticides aimed at controlling the mosquito population by making everyone’s blood taste less like tomato juice and more like paint thinner. Midnight would bring the temperature down to 91 degrees, and moths, driven mad by the sound of a trillion chirping crickets, would trampoline their furry bodies repeatedly against your screens until daybreak, when the cycle would repeat itself.
Certainly, it is under such extreme and relentless conditions that a lifetime can be stripped of nuance and reduced to a preposterous simplicity. Often it is precisely because of those daily bombardments of discomfort and disquiet that a person will typically develop a strong reliance on the crude shorthand of prejudice and paranoia and deep rage to help explain the pain inherent is his or her victimization. Specifically, when self-preservation is made the top priority in any given situation, there is seldom room for the sort of charitable selflessness that allows a person to enjoy any peace of mind whatsoever, and without any peace of mind whatsoever a person will tend toward an active retaliation against existence itself. Consider, as a parallel, those made to endure inside prolonged cycles of poverty and war, or even those made to persevere through long prison sentences or through monotonous jobs or marriages for decades at a time.
When badgered relentlessly by exterior forces contemptuous of either personal contemplation or any opportunity for blissful complacency, a human being will seek a certain numbing comfort by shunning optimism. He will eliminate the expectation that the situation will ever improve by excising the want for it to improve if only to minimize the torture that comes with the crushing belief that his desires are inconsequential. He will then deflect blame for his situation away from himself and scapegoat others, for only a comic book character would ever assume that he alone had the power to conjure such vast and debilitating hardship. He will then do his best to champion the mediocrity of his life, typically inflating every act of non-acquiescence to complete self-annihilation into a self-delusion capable of sustaining his pride and re-imagining his existential suffocation as the hard breathing that accompanies the difficult, though heroic, job of slaying dragons.
All of this came flooding back to me, rather circuitously, during a recent trip to New York, where I had taken an assignment to interview famed altruistic hippie-clown, self-titled psychedelic relic and professional self-parody Wavy Gravy during his 75th birthday celebration at the Beacon Theatre on Broadway. Promoted as a fundraiser for the Seva Foundation, an international nonprofit health organization started in 1978 by Gravy’s best friend and former executive director of Google.org, Larry Brilliant, the concert featured David Crosby, Graham Nash, Jackson Browne, Buffy Sainte-Marie, Dr. John and Jorma Kaukonen, among others. Having been promised access to the artists backstage, many of whom were as famous for their social consciousness and commitment to compassionate hell-raising as they were for their music, I took the gig and spent the week leading up to the show trying to devise a line of questioning that might garner new insights and prompt fresh answers from these 1960s and ’70s superstars whose combined 400 years of experience in talking to reporters made me feel as if I were facing down the impossible task of looking for a suite of new notes on a grand piano without touching the keys.
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