[This is the final of three installments of this incomplete essay.]
Of course the real problem, the root of all evil, is that each and every day of my life, I commit the Unforgiveable Sin of modern American life: I am content.
I’m not even sure why. I read a book or write while riding the bus to work, I watch people, I drink coffee, I can do some research or writing if there’s down-time, I socialize with the folks in the lunch room who are also support-staff bohemian barnacles like me, and when the weekend comes and I have a little cash, I may as well be Aristotle Onassis. I’m a free agent in a city with a thousand different cool things to do, most of which don’t cost that much.
Advertisers and manufacturers hate people like me. I don’t buy anything. When my CD boom box started skipping a few years ago, I put in some phone calls to engineer friends, took a few notes, and just fixed the damned thing myself. I’m still using it today, 12 years after purchase. I was supposed to throw it out and get a new one, then throw that out when I got an iPod.
My guess is that there are legions of people like me in the world; we’re just invisible and voiceless because we’re not a significant marketing demographic in a culture and political system based on marketing demographics. We don’t buy, therefore we’re not.
I don’t own a car or a television, and though rising fuel and energy prices have recently shifted the tide, most of my family still seem to think that doing without either of these items amounts to some masochistic, self-righteous sacrifice for the greater good, rather than a decadent lifestyle improvement. Riding the transit system gives me the luxury of extra time and energy; I don’t need a television because I have a picture window that looks out on Golden Gate Park, the massive weather systems sweeping in from the Pacific Ocean, an Orthodox Jewish pre-school teeming with squirrelly whimsical children, and public basketball courts bustling with tough kids playing games of pick-up. This is my television. I feel it informs me far more effectively than a sixty-dollar-a-month cable subscription.
But there is no shorthand to explain all this to the wedding guests, who are now being assailed by DJ Smooth Operator announcing the first dance of the lovely bride and groom.
Really, I should go down and at least try again to circulate among them; for the thousandth time of my life I think it all through, and there’s no rational reason for me to feel as uncomfortable as I do around these people.
For one thing, I look like them. I bear the genetic imprint not just of my family but of my social class of origin: tall, high-cheekboned, Nordic, strong-framed, upright. I rode a hotel elevator with a whole herd of us this morning – strangers I could have been related to, the by-products of country-club eugenics, their features and bearing tightened with defensive pride.
When I am in downtown San Francisco and desperately need to use a restroom, I make for the lobby of the St. Francis or the Palace Hotel. Even when poorly dressed or disheveled, I am never stopped, never questioned, never asked in that incriminating tone whether I can be helped. The doormen and the concierges have all been told – and I know because I’ve done temp gigs in these places and I’ve talked to these guys – to watch for anyone who looks as though they don’t belong.
In jeans and a t-shirt, making a beeline for the toilets, I look as though I belong. It’s not just the tallness and the blondness, the middle-class jawline; I radiate entitlement. It’s clear that at some point in my life at least, I was used to being in these places. My line of sight and my gait are steady. I know exactly the open, benign apathy with which to fix my face as I wander the halls. The uniformed guardians of the establishment clock me as I pass with the same open, benign apathy.
The beautiful toilets of the world are mine, all mine.
Not so for everyone.
And how long did it take me to realize that?
And what of this bathroom here, with the coffee table Picasso retrospective I just finished? Oh, why can’t I just go out there and be a wedding guest?! Is it really so difficult?
Certainly my attire is not the problem. When it comes to dressing for occasions, I can out-Republican the Republicans. You think you know high-heeled shoes? You think your clutch bag is subtle and understated? Step aside, ladies. My chignon is piled higher than yours. My button-pearl earrings are smaller and more finicky than yours. My little black dress is littler and blacker and dressier. My heels can stop bullets, and my saturated red lipstick is more Eisenhower-era than your lousy lavender lipgloss. You may make me feel like an underachieving peasant, but I make you look like slobs.
This is my one silent form of protest, of social theatre, of camp aggression. If there’s one thing I’ve learned from decades of befriending, working with, reporting to, and voting for flaming homosexuals, it’s how to don the uniform of those who suffocate you, give it your own slight twist, and throw it back in the face of your oppressors – hopefully in such an underhanded way that they don’t even get it. They welcome you with open arms even as you undermine the exclusionary conditions on which they base their welcome.
But if my get-up is the armor with which I protect myself in battle it is also the costume in which I perform my desperate plea for love and acceptance: See me! Look at my face! Observe my warm, human neuroses! I apologize for none of them! Observe that my choices have been valid ones! I have nothing but my eyes with which to say this!
The wine has made me raw and combative, on the brink. I don’t trust myself. I might say something, something too big to be said. If I say anything longer than “Yes,” “No,” or “Goodbye,” it will take all night and I will say it to anyone.
Do I hate these people? Do I hate the way they talk, act, look? Do I hate the grey-templed men who barrel their chests out of their camel blazers and back-slap and HAW-HAW-HAW over their shot glasses, their mouths yawping out of their Scotch-reddened faces? Do I hate the leathery-faced tennis club babes in the blonde newscaster coifs who gaze unsmilingly through the festivities like zoo lionesses jabbed with tranquilizer? Do I hate the Beautiful Children in their Beautiful Children clothes who already know the part they’re playing?
Do I hate the ones who truly believe nobody ever helped them, whose mental bio-pics of themselves conveniently write out of the script the inheritance, the annuity, the paid-for college education? Do I hate the ones who will never admit they can’t stand learning anything, that they’re too weak and frightened to examine those things over which they have no control?
Do I hate the odd few who really did claw their way to the top unaided, and now feel the need to mention this every five minutes in conversation? Who think that hard work is some sort of spiritual charge account on which they can rack up six digits’ worth of self-centered beliefs that the rest of us will end up paying for?
Yes. I hate them. I hate them. I hate being in their houses, I hate smiling for their photos, I hate the language they speak, the rewarded narcissism, the cheerful oblivion.
Why? What have they done to me?
Well, nothing really, they just offend me.
Wait. They did do something to me.
They acted as lightning rods for my family’s insecurities about themselves. They made us feel like shit. Of course, we let them, but it was a small town. There was nothing else to do. There was no clear path by which we could choose immunity to their games and demonstrate that openly without suffering consequences.
I hate them because they were in our house without physically being there, like dirty ghosts.
If in their presence I live up their scowling expectations of me, it’s because of my deep, inherent knowledge that I have no place in their world – less of a place than a total stranger would have. They could assume a total stranger would want to emulate and be like them.
They can make no such assumption about me. I have had every opportunity, have been groomed in every aspect of my education and points of reference to – figuratively speaking – drive the Lexus.
I am not driving the Lexus. It is now clear, at my age, that I will never drive the Lexus. My family’s friends know where I live, they know how I work; I keep the details of my day-to-day life on the down-low and they accordingly imagine the worst. I am among them, but I am not of them, and nothing has really equipped them to deal with that.
Exactly why don’t I drive the Lexus? Because I can’t, or because I choose not to? This question plagues me, and every family gathering sends me into bouts of mental acrobatics trying to answer it.