World Gone Wrong
I’m looking at a picture of myself from around 1966. I must have been fourteen years old. The photographer, my uncle, demanded that I smile and then fussed incessantly with his light meter and tripod while I tried out variations of what might be an acceptable expression. All I could muster was a sort of grimace. I’m wearing the red polo shirt I hated so much, which made my chest look puny and my arms long and thin. My hair is extremely short, a recent development—and one that took place against my will. It’s almost a crew cut, with just a little longer length left on top. I had attempted to plaster it back with Vitalis and had only succeeded in making it look spiky and peculiar, a look that might have been cool today, but back then only drew attention to my protruding ears and prominent Russian nose. I remember my uncle badgering me to sit up straight and to watch the camera lens as my attention was drawn to the frantic activity of my brother and cousins playing games on the periphery of my uncle’s makeshift outdoor photo shoot. He was taking his last readings and berating me for not cutting my hair sooner.
“Now you look good,” he said, as if I had been confused about which hairstyle I preferred. “That mop of yours looked awful.” He walked over to me and brushed the backs of his thick fingers over my forehead and up to the top of my greasy attempts at a pompadour. When his fingers reached my hair, his unnecessary forcefulness, which my mother describes as “Russian exuberance,” snapped my head back and presented my forehead for his inspection. “See, all your pimples are cleared up. That long hair would make your hair fall out when you reach my age.”
When I look at the resulting picture I see the sullenness my mother says was my dominant mode of expression from that era. And, at the risk of hyperbole, to my eyes I have the hangdog look of those French collaborators who, after being exposed at the end of WWII, had their heads shaved and clothes torn off and were forced to parade in front of everyone and expose their shame and mortification to the world.
I page through the album of family pictures and see a loose chronology, photographically preserved, of my adolescence. The same grimace, which was all I could manage when expected to smile, is there in many of the pictures. It is a withholding, sour expression—my head held at awkward angles and wary, hooded eyes giving me a sense that I was looking not just at the photographer but the picture’s viewer as well. “Here I am,” I hear that kid say. “Piece of shit. Receptacle for the world’s just contempt.”
When the ’60s youth culture movement took root in America, everything started to change. Long hair meant so much to me. It seems silly in 2011 to remember how hair length became emblematic of the cultural break that was about to happen, but it was a time when the parameters for individual expression were set with paranoid narrowness, and my parents epitomized the zealotry of the conventional and the tyranny of the straight and narrow path.
My school was a factory-like building set squat and sprawling, like prison grounds, on the top of a little hill overlooking Indian Lakes, New Jersey. In its halls I led a constricted and, I hoped, invisible existence. At Indian Hills Regional High School I developed a pattern of underachievement in my schoolwork and a subterranean and marginal social life. I plowed obliviously through turbulent waters I churned up even more with my reticence and my passive-aggression. My younger brother rode easily in my wake. His orderliness and academic responsibility turned into a club in my mother’s hands, one which she used regularly so that I did not suffer any illusions about being any different from my “fucking father” and how much I was disappointing her.
One day it became possible to change all that. It’s hard to communicate accurately the intensity of hope and the expansion I felt as my world went from constriction to possibility.
I was getting dressed for school in the hallway between the kitchen and the steps from our upstairs bedrooms. My brother was eyeing me malevolently from the back room, his progress to breakfast blocked by my flailing around with t-shirts, socks and underwear. He began complaining bitterly to his mother, yelling over me and into the kitchen, whining about my innate disorderliness. I didn’t care. The hallway was the warmest spot in the house because when I opened the linen closet door, heat from the floor duct poured out of the closet and enveloped me. It felt like a personal bubble of warmth in an otherwise dank and cold house.
My mother looked around the kitchen door and curled her lip in sympathy with my brother’s sniveling and then ducked back into the kitchen. My brother tried to rush past me, and he pushed up against me like a defensive lineman, attempting to knock me off balance up against the bookshelf. I planted an outstretched hand over the whole of his face and pushed him down to his knees. An eruption of crying and snuffling coated my hand with various disgusting substances, and I quickly pulled it away and wiped it down the back of his clean shirt. My mother witnessed this and came charging out of the kitchen, a wooden spoon waving threateningly above her head. After she had extracted a sufficient amount of cowering and flinching from me she retreated again to the kitchen, and my brother marched triumphantly past me.
As he entered the kitchen, he turned and said, “Jamie can’t do a single thing right, and everybody knows it.” He looked behind the door to his mother for support. “Right, Mom? Jamie’s the only kid flunking his freshman year at Indian Lakes Regional High School, only the easiest school in all of northern New Jersey. He’s so dumb they stuck him in with the Vocational kids.”
I made a run for the kitchen door, and my brother cowered behind his mother’s legs. She bared her teeth and with exaggerated drama pretended to grab her wooden spoon out of the drawer again, as if I were a dog whose behavior could be controlled by feigning punishment.
When I came home from school that fall afternoon my mother was sitting quietly at the kitchen table with her friend from next door, drinking coffee, the smoke from their cigarettes floating lazily on a shaft of sunlight that shot through the darkening kitchen above her left shoulder. I walked into the kitchen and neither of them looked up at me, continuing to talk in low murmuring tones that I could not decipher. I dropped my heavy school books onto the chair in the corner like I always did, and the resulting whack had my mother leaping out of her chair and in my face before I had even fully turned to face her.
“Goddamn you to hell,” she screamed at me her arms literally waving above her head, an intimidation as much as a demonstration of her exasperation. “What the hell is wrong with you coming into a quiet house and slamming your books down like that?”
“I, uhhh … I don’t know,” I said, looking over at her friend Sylvia, hoping she would come to my rescue. Sylvia’s eyes narrowed, and she began searching through her hand bag for another cigarette.
“I don’t know what’s wrong with me,” I said tears suddenly welling up in my eyes. I turned, not wanting my mother to see me breaking down. She caught me by the arm as I was about to flee, and I thought for a moment that it would be all right and that she would apologize and perhaps even hug me to her.
“You’re goddamn right there’s something wrong with you,” she said and jerked my arm hard to make me face her. “You’ve got to change, Buster, and the sooner the better.”
I was blubbering a little with frustration and noticed my mother looking at me intently, not with the sympathy I had hoped for, but more like pity and an appalled dismay for my deficiencies. “Bad grades, bad behavior, lazy …” her voice was getting shrill and increasing in volume, “you never want to help me out around the house—how many times have I told you I need your help because your father left us?” She was screaming at me now, waving a long thin index finger in my face, “Nothing. You don’t lift a finger to help me, just like your goddamn father!”
Sylvia looked at my mother and began to get up, saying that the two of us should calm down. My mother released the grip she had on my arm. “What is it that Jamie wants?” Sylvia asked, and she sat back down after a minute and looked at the two of us imploringly.
My mother’s anger began to boil over again. “Don’t pull that grad-school psychobabble crap on me! I should feel bad because I want my own flesh and blood to not humiliate me at every opportunity in front of every nosy Indian Lakes neighbor? All of Indian Lakes wants to see the divorcee go down in flames and he,” and she pointed at me like Yahweh on the day of the Last Judgment, “wants nothing more than to abet and assist the enemy.”
I hung my head and inspected the linoleum floor. “I don’t want to assist anybody,” I said at last. “I just want to be treated like someone cares about me and wants the best for me and respects me for the way that I am and doesn’t try to make me into someone that I’m not.” I was breathing a little heavily after blurting this out in front of my mother and Sylvia, not because I was crying, but amazingly enough I found myself exhilarated, excited about something that had just happened although I wasn’t yet sure of what it was.
I didn’t have anything else to say after that, and Sylvia and my mother were silent also. Finally, in soft and melodramatically weary tones my mother said, “What is it you want from me, Jaime?”
I suddenly saw great opportunity here in the kitchen in front of Sylvia who as an objective witness would negate my mother’s tendencies to historical revisionism. Wisely, I had no hope for emotional reconciliation and family peace, a prospect as remote as world peace.
“I want you to leave me alone about how long I grow my hair and how I dress and what music I listen to and who my friends are,” I said.
“And what,” she said.
“I’ll get good grades and help around the house.”
I don’t know if I ever expected that this deal had more than a snowball’s chance in hell of being accepted by my mother. My father was no longer part of the decision-making process for his children. He had divorced my mother seven years earlier and moved to Albany, New York. She was the final arbiter in a decision that to my fourteen-year-old understanding had momentous consequences. It felt to me as though it were an opportunity to own my life again.
“OK,” she said and got up from the kitchen table to put the kettle on for coffee. Sylvia winked at me once my mother had turned her back.
This may have seemed to be a contract that had only one committed signatory, but to me, with Sylvia’s witness, it had a substantial and permanent feel. The world began to make sense and seemed to come into focus in a way I had not experienced in a long time. I got good grades. I made the Honor Roll, and it was easy and did not require the extremes of self-deprivation that I feared. It was curious how resources I had never drawn on seemed to materialize, and the means of achieving goals, something that previously had been impossibly convoluted and arcane, seemed as natural and easy as a bright spring morning. My hair grew over my ears and started to achieve the John Lennonish look that I desired. I noticed my brother no longer watching me critically, looking to take me to task for complaints that would score points with his mother. There was a shifting of alliances in our house that inspired my brother to begin growing his hair and listen to my Dylan albums for the “poetry” I had breathlessly gone on and on about at every dinner since Highway 61 Revisited came out. My mother took a step back and mutely watched the blossoming of her children. I felt I had stepped temporarily outside the bounds of her power and that the shell separating me from the outside world was dissolving. There seemed to be a curious and diverse world out there that was calling me and required my full exploration.
At Christmas, my mother shipped us off to Albany to spend a week with our father. I remember a premonitory anxiety as the plane circled the city, gusts of snow obliterating our view, the airport runway looking like artic tundra without even a patch of asphalt in sight. The plane skidded to a fishtailing landing, and my brother and I and the other passengers got up shakily to remove our luggage from overhead. My father was sitting in the waiting area as we trundled off the gangway. We halted in front of him, and he did not rise, or even speak, but sat looking at us with a souring expression. He stretched his long legs out in front of him, sat back, and looked us over with displeasure. Before he spoke he pursed his lips and folded his hands in his lap like a priest or perhaps a politician.
“Your hair, Jamie,” he said. “Your mother accepts that you should look like this?” His German accent seemed to deepen the accusation implicit in this question.
He paused, waiting for the explanation as to why I had again for the hundredth, or thousandth, or even millionth time put a landmine in the path of his pursuit of a happy and productive life. I could feel a trapdoor underneath me starting to shift and go a little ajar. I couldn’t answer. My mouth opened and the enormity of an intelligible defense left me utterly mute.
I looked down at my bell bottom jeans and the suede boots I had fallen in love with the first time I saw them being worn by Bob Dylan. My father wore his usual assemblage of mismatched and tawdry clothing: a light blue ski jacket, frayed at the sleeves with holes along the zipper where he had dropped hot ash from his cigar, stained khaki pants and dirty, mismatched white socks. It was a late Saturday morning, and he was unwashed and unshaven from a Friday night carousing with his buddies. He smelled faintly of sausage.
My brother and I stood before him feeling embarrassed by his slovenliness and his booming intrusive voice which being no respecter of public privacy, seemed constructed to encroach and disrupt, a trait he found masculine and sometimes playful. Although raised in an aristocratic German/Jewish family in Berlin and highly educated, he had a belligerent lack of concern with how he was perceived and how he impacted others. I had an epiphany standing there waiting for this psychodrama to unravel. I had made myself as different from my father as I possibly could: where he let nothing in, I was a walking wound.
My father was speaking again in the slow deliberate tones he used when he was laying down the law. He leveled a massive and bony index finger at us as he spoke.
“… Your mother may allow this, but I will not be party to it. I will not allow my sons to become hippies as long as I am their father. I don’t think that I have to give you an explanation of my feelings about this. I will not let you succumb to a lifestyle of indolence and selfishness. If you children want to have a relationship with your father you will have to your hair cut to an acceptable length right now in this airport before I will allow you to be seen in public with me again.”
He got up and stood swaying menacingly above us. “You either get haircuts now or take the next plane back to your mother.”
“We’ll go home,” my brother and I blurted out in unison.
We found a pay phone and called home collect since my father, standing just outside of any space that might connect him to us, had his hands in his pockets and seemed unlikely to cough up any change for the phone.
“Mom, my Dad wants to give us haircuts before he’ll let us come back to his apartment. We don’t want to get haircuts. We want to come home.”
There was a long silence on the other end of the phone.
“Mom, we’re in the airport still. Tell him, tell him … about the deal we made, you know, that I did it. I got good grades. If he’s gonna make us get haircuts then I want to just come home.” My voice began to choke, and I pulled the receiver away so that my mother would not hear my distress. “Mom?” I asked the dead sounding receiver.
After a few seconds she said haltingly, “Impossible, Jaime. You can’t come home now.”
“But, Mom,” I whined, “you said … about the deal. You said …”
She cut me off angrily. “Jamie, I made plans that I can’t change, and it is impossible for you to come home now. You will have to deal with your father as best you can.”
“Can you talk to him?” I sniveled.
“You’ll just have to do the best that you can with your father,” she said, and hung up.
In the airport barbershop my father gave instructions as to the proper length of our haircuts. I suppose the barber sensed something when in my shell-shocked state I stumbled into his chair and passively, with my head hung down so that I could not see my reflection in the mirror, let him drape his sheet around me.
“Rather than use another mirror so that you can see the back, I’ll just spin the chair around really fast,” the barber said with an impish grin. “You watch the mirror in the front,” he said as he reached over to the arm of the chair with both hands as though he was going to whirl it like a merry-go-round.
“Uhhh, yeah, OK,” was all I could get out.
He gave me a concerned look. “You don’t really think that’s possible?” he asked. “Do you?”
My father had erased all signs of rebellion and dangerous individuality from his children, and after not talking to us for the rest of the afternoon he suddenly became friendly, even agreeable that evening. He offered to take us to dinner, and I told him my stomach hurt and that I thought I should take a nap. I used the same excuse for the succession of movies, bowling, and fast-food meals over the next few days that comprised his idea of how you spend time with your kids. Finally, he left me to watch TV in his apartment while he and my brother went out together.
After his initial resistance, my brother seemed unfazed by the crew cut, which replaced the Beatlesish mop he had sported on arrival. Every time he ran his hands over the stubble he made sounds like Curly in The Three Stooges, and it further sickened me and strengthened my resolve to never be seen in public again. I didn’t just feel embarrassed —I felt debased. Like something in me had been stamped out, something supremely personal and even sacred, something that deserved to be respected and was instead denied its validity and pulled out by the roots as thoughtlessly as one might pull weeds along the driveway.
When my mother picked us up at the airport she did not acknowledge the changes in our appearance, which to me were as glaring and traumatic as if I had been shaved, beaten and deloused for admittance to a concentration camp. Something important which I could only grasp for myself by diverging from my parent’s tyrannical straight and narrow path had been taken from me. I did not interpret my mother’s lack of acknowledgement as the guilty submission of an abused wife to her victimizer husband, or, as the unconsciousness of a childishly narcissistic parent, although there is truth in both of those views. I saw it as another form of aggression. When I heard the lyric from Bob Marley years later, I had the chill of recognition run up my backbone that comes from a storm of feelings being suddenly and precisely articulated: “Every time I plant a seed, he say kill it before it grows.”
I didn’t speak to my father for many years after that. He remarried and started a new family, perhaps hoping that he had gotten a do-over from the divine source and that all of his energy should be applied to this opportunity. After my shearing I grew my hair again, this time long and wild, well past my shoulders and not so much as an aesthetic choice but more as a reaction to the values of my parents, which could no longer regulate me.
Although it happened a year or so later, I remember sitting in front of the Indian Lakes Deli, stoned and waiting for my druggie friends almost as though it were an integral scene from the Jamie-visits-his-Dad-in-Albany narrative. The owners had asked me to move along a couple of times, and soon a police cruiser pulled up alongside of me and the patrolman who always called me by my last name inquired as to what the hell my problem was. I didn’t say anything. I just walked over to the basketball courts in the park that abutted the Deli property. A ferocious game of hoops had erupted. Forty-something weekend warriors were galloping thunderously from one end of the court to the other. The men were swearing and spitting and sweating, and I sat back and smugly enjoyed the aggression and hostility so nakedly revealed. It was further confirmation to me of a world that insisted on its beneficence and yet continually forgot itself and showed its fangs.
A little kid, no more than eight, was standing alongside the park bench I was slumped in. He was holding a basketball and trying to dribble it in the dirt and grass just off the court. The ball hit a stone and shot out onto the asphalt rolling straight toward center court. The boy ran after the ball just as a pack of rabid stockbrokers and lawyers came stampeding up court. The boy’s father had been engaged in conversation with the pretty young wife of one of the basketball players, and seeing out of the corner of his eye, his son run on court, vaulted the park bench and ran to his son with his hands raised and shouting good naturedly, “Time out, time out.”
The pack skidded to a cartoonish stop, the lead men inches from father and son.
The player dribbling the ball took a step toward the father and said, “Fuck you and your little brat, and fuck your time out!” He stopped dribbling and stood waiting for a reaction. The boy’s father scooped up his son and perched him on his shoulder. His son was now holding the errant ball. He smiled, at once sorry for the anger and hostility that filled the man standing in front of him and also with the fun of being with his son and doing what he was about to do. He raised an index finger and then turned and went running up field dribbling a phantom basketball and dodging phantom opponents.
“OK, be ready now,” he said to his son. “When I say shoot…” and he reached the net and with one arm steadying his son who was holding the ball up over his head, jumped and yelled, “Shoot.”
In sync with his father, the boy let the ball go and it rolled around the rim a couple of times and then fell through the net.
“Yahhhh!” said the father and set his son down, looked, smiled and waved at the pack standing at center court. The two of them walked slowly toward me. The tepid applause of the basketball players followed them.
They sat on the bench next to me, and the son jumped into his father’s lap and threw his arms around him and told his father how great that was and how he wanted to do it again and again. He looked over at me curiously and regarded me for several seconds before burying his face in his father’s neck and sighing deeply.
I got up, but suddenly did not know where to go or what to do. I felt like crying; I felt like yelling. I cut through the woods to a stream in back of the Deli and sat on the old stone footbridge that was built when Indian Lakes was an estate owned by one of those turn-of-the-century robber barons. I watched the algae-green water gurgling past and an occasional fish that nosed its way up to the surface. I felt all right after awhile and walked down to my friend Scotty’s house. We turned on the TV and smoked some of his hash and watched, with all of the lights out, the evening’s sunset slowly emblazon his bedroom wall with brilliant shades of red and purple.