“I Just Wanna Be Average” by Mike Rose
Mike Rose is a teacher and scholar who, for more than two decades, has argued quite effectively for the real potential of students often neglected and undervalued by society. “I Just Wanna Be Average” is a chapter from Rose’s award-winning book, Lives on the Boundary (1989), about the challenges to and potential of underprepared students. Rose, himself the child of working-class Italian immigrants, argues for the unrealized abilities of many students not well served by our society. Having overcome in high school his own inadequate preparation and intellectual neglect, Rose gives us insight into the lives of nontraditional students (often working class and minority students, ones who have been labelled “remedial”) and helps us reconsider our assumptions about them.
It took two buses to get to Our Lady of Mercy. The first started deep in South Los Angeles and caught me at midpoint. The second drifted through neighborhoods with trees, parks, big lawns, and lots of flowers. The rides were long but were livened up by a group of South L.A. veterans whose parents also thought that Hope had set up shop in the west end of the county. There was Christy Biggars, who, at sixteen, was dealing and was, according to rumor, a pimp as well. There were Bill Cobb and Johnny Gonzales, grease-pencil artists extraordinaire, who left Nembutal-enhanced swirls of “Cobb” and “Johnny” on the corrugated walls of the bus. And then there was Tyrrell Wilson. Tyrrell was the coolest kid I knew. He ran the dozens1 like a metric halfback, laid down a rap that outrhymed and outpointed Cobb, whose rap was good but not great-the curse of a moderately soulful kid trapped in white skin. But it was Cobb who would sneak a radio onto the bus, and thus underwrote his patter with Little Richard, Fats Domino, Chuck Berry, the Coasters, and Ernie K. Doe’s mother-in-law, an awful woman who was “sent from down below.” And so it was that Christy and Cobb and Johnny G. and Tyrrell and I and assorted others picked up along the way passed our days in the back of the bus, a funny mix brought together by geography and parental desire.
Entrance to school brings with it forms and releases and assessments. Mercy relied on a series of tests…for placement, and somehow the results of my tests got confused with those of another student named Rose. The other Rose apparently didn’t do very well, for I was placed in the vocational track, a euphemism for the bottom level. Neither I nor my parents realized what this meant. We had no sense that Business Math, Typing, and English-Level D were dead ends. The current spate of reports on the schools criticizes parents for not involving themselves in the education of their children. But how would someone like Tommy Rose, with his two years of Italian schooling, know what to ask? And what sort of pressure could an exhausted waitress apply? The error went undetected, and I remained in the vocational track for two years. What a place.
My homeroom was supervised by Brother Dill, a troubled and unstable man who also taught freshman English. When his class drifted away from him, which was often, his voice would rise in paranoid accusations, and occasionally he would lose control and shake or smack us. I hadn’t been there two months when one of his brisk, face-turning slaps had my glasses sliding down the aisle. Physical education was also pretty harsh. Our teacher was a stubby ex-lineman who had played old-time pro ball in the Midwest. He routinely had us grabbing our ankles to receive his stinging paddle across our butts. He did that, he said, to make men of us. “Rose,” he bellowed on our first encounter; me standing geeky in line in my baggy shorts. “‘Rose’ ? What the hell kind of name is that?”
“Italian, sir,” I squeaked.
“Italian! Ho. Rose, do you know the sound a bag of shit makes when it
hits the wall?”
Sophomore English was taught by Mr. Mitropetros. He was a large, bejeweled man who managed the parking lot at the Shrine Auditorium. He would crow and preen and list for us the stars he’d brushed against. We’d ask questions and glance knowingly and snicker, and all that fueled the poor guy to brag some more. Parking cars was his night job. He had little training in English, so his lesson plan for his day work had us reading the district’s required text, Julius Caesar, aloud for the semester. We’d finished the play way before the twenty weeks was up, so he’d have us switch parts again and again and start again: Dave Snyder, the fastest guy at Mercy, muscling through Caesar to the breathless squeals of Calpurnia, as interpreted by Steve Fusco, a surfer who owned the school’s most envied paneled wagon. Week ten and Dave and Steve would take on new roles, as would we all, and render a water-logged Cassius and a Brutus that are beyond my powers of description.
Spanish I – taken in the second year – fell into the hands of a new recruit. Mr. Montez was a tiny man, slight, five foot six at the most, soft-spoken and delicate. Spanish was a particularly rowdy class, and Mr. Montez was as prepared for it as a doily maker at a hammer throw. He would tap his pencil to a room in which Steve Fusco was propelling spitballs from his heavy lips, in which Mike Dweetz was taunting Billy Hawk, a half-Indian, half-Spanish, reed-thin, quietly explosive boy. The vocational track at Our Lady of Mercy mixed kids traveling in from South L.A. with South Bay surfers and a few Slavs and Chicanos from the harbors of San Pedro. This was a dangerous miscellany: surfers and hodads and South-Central blacks all ablaze to the metronomic tapping of Hector Montez’s pencil.
One day Billy lost it. Out of the comer of my eye I saw him strike out with his right arm and catch Dweetz across the neck. Quick as a spasm, Dweetz was out of his seat, scattering desks, cracking Billy on the side of the head, right behind the eye. Snyder and Fusco and others broke it up, but the room felt hot and close and naked. Mr. Montez’s tenuous authority was finally ripped to shreds, and I think everyone felt a little strange about that. The charade was over, and when it came down to it, I don’t think any of the kids really wanted it to end this way. They had pushed and pushed and bullied their way into a freedom that both scared and embarrassed them.
Students willl float to the mark you set. I and the others in the vocational classes were bobbing in pretty shallow water. Vocational education has aimed at increasing the economic opportunities of students who do not do well in our schools. Some serious programs succeed in doing that, and through exceptional teachers…students learn to develop hypotheses and troubleshoot, reason through a problem, and communicate effectively – the true job skills. The vocational track, however, is most often a place for those who are just not making it, a dumping ground for the disaffected. There were a few teachers who worked hard at education; young Brother Slattery, for example, combined a stern voice with weekly quizzes to try to pass along to us a skeletal outline of world history. But mostly the teachers had no idea of how to engage the imaginations of us kids who were scuttling along at the bottom of the pond.
And the teachers would have needed some inventiveness, for none of us was groomed for the classroom. It wasn’t just that I didn’t know things – didn’t know how to simplify algebraic fractions, couldn’t identify different kinds of clauses, bungled Spanish translations – but that I had developed various faulty and inadequate ways of doing algebra and making sense of Spanish. Worse yet, the years of defensive tuning out in elementary school had given me a way to escape quickly while seeming at least half alert. During my time in Voc. Ed., I developed further into a mediocre student and a somnambulant problem solver, and that affected the subjects I did have the wherewithal to handle: I detested Shakespeare; I got bored with history. My attention flitted here and there. I fooled around in class and read my books indifferently – the intellectual equivalent of playing with your food. I did what I had to do to get by, and I did it with half a mind.
But I did learn things about people and eventually came into my own socially. I liked the guys in Voc. Ed. Growing up where I did, I understood and admired physical prowess, and there was an abundance of muscle here. There was Dave Snyder, a sprinter and halfback of true quality. Dave’s ability and his quick wit gave him a natural appeal, and he was welcome in any clique, though he always kept a little independent. He enjoyed acting the fool and could care less about studies, but he possessed a certain maturity and never caused the faculty much trouble. It was a testament to his independence that he included me among his friends – I eventually went out for track, but I was no jock. Owing to the Latin alphabet and a dearth of Rs and Ss, Snyder sat behind Rose, and we started exchanging one-liners and became friends.
There was Ted Richard, a much-touted Little League pitcher. He was chunky and had a baby face and came to Our Lady of Mercy as a seasoned street fighter. Ted was quick to laugh and he had a loud, jolly laugh, but when he got angry he’d smile a little smile, the kind that simply raises the comer of the mouth a quarter of an inch. For those who knew, it was an eerie signal. Those who didn’t found themselves in big trouble, for Ted was very quick. He loved to carry on what we would come to call philosophical discussions: What is courage? Does God exist? He also loved words, enjoyed picking up big ones like salubrious and equivocal and using them in our conversations -laughing at himself as the word hit a chuckhole rolling off his tongue. Ted didn’t do all that well in school- baseball and parties and testing the courage he’d speculated about took up his time. His textbooks were Argosy and Field and Stream, whatever newspapers he’d find on the bus stop – from the Daily Worker to pornography – conversations with uncles or hobos or businessmen he’d meet in a coffee shop, The Old Man and the Sea. With hindsight, I can see that Ted was developing into one of those rough-hewn intellectuals whose sources are a mix of the learned and the apocryphal, whose discussions are both assured and sad.
And then there was Ken Harvey. Ken was good-looking in a puffy way and had a full and oily ducktail and was a car enthusiast. . . a hodad. One day in religion class, he said the sentence that turned out to be one of the most memorable of the hundreds of thousands I heard in those Voc. Ed. years. We were talking about the parable of the talents, about achievement, working hard, doing the best you can do, blah-blah-blah, when the teacher called on the restive Ken Harvey for an opinion. Ken thought about it, but just for a second, and said (with studied, minimal affect), “I just wanna be average.” That woke me up. Average? Who wants to be average? Then the athletes chimed in with the cliches that make you want to laryngectomize them, and the exchange became a platitudinous melee. At the time, I thought Ken’s assertion was stupid, and I wrote him off. But his sentence has stayed with me all these years, and I think I am finally coming to understand it.
Ken Harvey was gasping for air. School can be a tremendously disorienting place. No matter how bad the school, you’re going to encounter notions that don’t fit with the assumptions and beliefs that you grew up with – maybe you’ll hear these dissonant notions from teachers, maybe from the other students, and maybe you’ll read them. You’ll also be thrown in with all kinds of kids from all kinds of backgrounds, and that can be unsettling – this is especially true in places of rich ethnic and linguistic mix, like the L.A. basin. You’ll see a handful of students far excel you in courses that sound exotic and that are only in the curriculum of the elite: French, physics, trigonometry. And all this is happening while you’re trying to shape an identity, your body is changing, and your emotions are running wild. If you’re a working-class kid in the vocational track, the options you’ll have to deal with this will be constrained in certain ways: you’re defined by your school as “slow”; you’re placed in a curriculum that isn’t designed to liberate you but to occupy you, or, if you’re lucky, train you, though the training is for work the society does not esteem; other students are picking up the cues from your school and your curriculum and interacting with you in particular ways. If you’re a kid like Ted Richard, you turn your back on all this and let your mind roam where it may. But youngsters like Ted are rare. What Ken and so many others do is protect themselves from such suffocating madness by taking on with a vengeance the identity implied in the vocational track. Reject the confusion and frustration by openly defining yourself as the Common Joe. Champion the average. Rely on your own good sense. Fuck this bullshit. Bullshit, of course, is everything you – and the others – fear is beyond you: books, essays, tests, academic scrambling, complexity, scientific reasoning, philosophical inquiry.
The tragedy is that you have to twist the knife in your own gray matter to make this defense work. You’ll have to shut down, have to reject intellectual stimuli or diffuse them with sarcasm, have to cultivate stupidity, have to convert boredom from a malady into a way of confronting the world. Keep your vocabulary simple, act stoned when you’re not or act more stoned than you are, flaunt ignorance, materialize your dreams. It is a powerful and effective defense – it neutralizes the insult and the frustration of being a vocational kid and, when perfected, it drives teachers up the wall, a delightful secondary effect. But like all strong magic, it exacts a price.
My own deliverance from the Voc. Ed. world began with sophomore biology. Every student, college prep to vocational, had to take biology, and unlike the other courses, the same person taught all sections. When teaching the vocational group, Brother Clint probably slowed down a bit or omitted a little of the fundamental biochemistry, but he used the same book and more or less the same syllabus across the board. If one class got tough, he could get tougher. He was young and powerful and very handsome, and looks and physical strength were high currency. No one gave him any trouble.
I was pretty bad at the dissecting table, but the lectures and the textbook were interesting: plastic overlays that, with each turned page, peeled away skin, then veins and muscle, then organs, down to the very bones that Brother Clint, pointer in hand, would tap out on our hanging skeleton. Dave Snyder was in big trouble, for the study of life – versus the living of it-was sticking in his craw. We worked out a code for our multiple-choice exams. He’d poke me in the back: once for the answer under A, twice for B, and so on; and when he’d hit the right one, I’d look up to the ceiling as though I were lost in thought. Poke: cytoplasm. Poke, poke: methane. Poke, poke, poke: William Harvey. Poke, poke, poke, poke: islets of Langerhans. This didn’t work out perfectly, but Dave passed the course, and I mastered the dreamy look of a guy on a record jacket. And something else happened. Brother Clint puzzled over this Voc. Ed. kid who was racking up 98s and 99s on his tests. He checked the school’s records and discovered the error. He recommended that I begin my junior year in the College Prep program. According to all I’ve read since, such a shift, as one report put it, is virtually impossible. Kids at that level rarely cross tracks. The telling thing is how chancy both my placement into and exit from Voc. Ed. was; neither I nor my parents had anything to do with it. I lived in one world during spring semester, and when I came back to school in the fall, I was living in another.
Switching to College Prep was a mixed blessing. I was an erratic student. I was undisciplined. And I hadn’t caught onto the rules of the game: why work hard in a class that didn’t grab my fancy? I was also hopelessly behind in math. Chemistry was hard; toying with my chemistry set years before hadn’t prepared me for the chemist’s equations. Fortunately, the priest who taught both chemistry and second-year algebra was also the school’s athletic director. Membership on the track team covered me; I knew I wouldn’t get lower than a C. U.S. history was taught pretty well, and I did okay. But civics was taken over by a football coach who had trouble reading the textbook aloud – and reading aloud was the centerpiece of his pedagogy. College Prep at Mercy was certainly an improvement over the vocational program – at least it carried some status – but the social science curriculum was weak, and the mathematics and physical sciences were simply beyond me. I had a miserable quantitative background and ended up copying some assignments and finessing the rest as best I could. Let me try to explain how it feels to see again and again material you should once have learned but didn’t.
You are given a problem. It requires you to simplify algebraic fractions or to multiply expressions containing square roots. You know this is pretty basic material because you’ve seen it for years. Once a teacher took some time with you, and you learned how to carry out these operations. Simple versions, anyway. But that was a year or two or more in the past, and these are more complex versions, and now you’re not sure. And this, you keep telling yourself, is ninth- or even eighth-grade stuff.
Next it’s a word problem. This is also old hat. The basic elements are as familiar as story characters: trains speeding so many miles per hour or shadows of buildings angling so many degrees. Maybe you know enough, have sat through enough explanations, to be able to begin setting up the problem: “If one train is going this fast. . .” or “This shadow is really one line of a triangle…” Then: “Let’s see…” “How did Jones do this?” “Hmmmm.” “No.” “No, that won’t work.” Your attention wavers. You wonder about other things: a football game, a dance, that cute new checker at the market. You try to focus on the problem again. You scribble on paper for a while, but the tension wins out and your attention flits elsewhere. You crumple the paper and begin daydreaming to ease the frustration.
The particulars will vary, but in essence this is what a number of students go through, especially those in so-called remedial classes. They open their textbooks and see once again the familiar and impenetrable formulas and diagrams and terms that have stumped them for years. There is no excitement here. No excitement. Regardless of what the teacher says, this is not a new challenge. There is, rather, embarrassment and frustration and, not surprisingly, some anger in being reminded once again of long-standing inadequacies. No wonder so many students finally attribute their difficulties to something inborn, organic: ‘That part of my brain just doesn’t work.” Given the troubling histories many of these students have, it’s miraculous that any of them can lift the shroud of hopelessness sufficiently to make deliverance from these classes possible.
Through this entire period, my father’s health was deteriorating with cruel momentum. His arteriosclerosis progressed to the point where a simple nick on his shin wouldn’t heal. Eventually it ulcerated and widened. Lou Minton would come by daily to change the dressing. We tried renting an oscillating bed – which we placed in the front room – to force blood through the constricted arteries in my father’s legs. The bed hummed through the night, moving in place to ward off the inevitable. The ulcer continued to spread, and the doctors finally had to amputate. My grandfather had lost his leg in a stockyard accident. Now my father too was crippled. His convalescence was slow but steady, and the doctors placed him in the Santa Monica Rehabilitation Center, a sun-bleached building that opened out onto the warm spray of the Pacific. The place gave him some strength and some color and some training in walking with an artificial leg. He did pretty well for a year or so until he slipped and broke his hip. He was confined to a wheelchair after that, and the confinement contributed to the diminishing of his body and spirit.
I am holding a picture of him. He is sitting in his wheelchair and smiling at the camera. The smile appears forced, unsteady, seems to quaver, though it is frozen in silver nitrate. He is in his mid-sixties and looks eighty. Late in my junior year, he had a stroke and never came out of the resulting coma. After that, I would see him only in dreams, and to this day that is how I join him. Sometimes the dreams are sad and grisly and primal: my father lying in a bed soaked with his suppuration, holding me, rocking me. But sometimes the dreams bring him back to me healthy: him talking to me on an empty street, or buying some pictures to decorate our old house, or transformed somehow into someone strong and adept with tools and the physical.
Jack MacFarland couldn’t have come into my life at a better time. My father was dead, and I had logged up too many years of scholastic indifference. Mr. MacFarland had a master’s degree from Columbia and decided, at twenty-six, to find a little school and teach his heart out. He never took any credentialing courses, couldn’t bear to, he said, so he had to find employment in a private system. He ended up at Our Lady of Mercy teaching five sections of senior English. He was a beatnik who was born too late. His teeth were stained, he tucked his sorry tie in between the third and fourth buttons of his shirt, and his pants were chronically wrinkled. At first, we couldn’t believe this guy, thought he slept in his car. But within no time, he had us so startled with work that we didn’t much worry about where he slept or if he slept at all. We wrote three or four essays a month. We read a book every two to three weeks, starting with the Iliad and ending up with Hemingway. He gave us a quiz on the reading every other day. He brought a prep school curriculum to Mercy High.
MacFarland’s lectures were crafted, and as he delivered them he would pace the room jiggling a piece of chalk in his cupped hand, using it to scribble on the board the names of all the writers and philosophers and plays and novels he was weaving into his discussion. He asked questions often, raised everything from Zeno’s paradox to the repeated last line of Frost’s “Stopping by Woods on a Snowy Evening.” He slowly and carefully built up our knowledge of Western intellectual history-with facts, with connections, with speculations. We learned about Greek philosophy, about Dante, the Elizabethan world view, the Age of Reason, existentialism. He analyzed poems with us, had us reading sections from John Ciardi’s How Does a Poem Mean?, making a potentially difficult book accessible with his own explanations. We gave oral reports on poems Ciardi didn’t cover. We imitated the styles of Conrad, Hemingway, and Time magazine. We wrote and talked, wrote and talked. The man immersed us in language.
Even MacFarland’s barbs were literary. If Jim Fitzsimmons, hung over and irritable, tried to smart-ass him, he’d rejoin with a flourish that would spark the indomitable Skip Madison – who’d lost his front teeth in a hapless tackle – to flick his tongue through the gap and opine, “good chop,” drawing out the single “0″ in stinging indictment. Jack MacFarland, this tobacco-stained intellectual, brandished linguistic weapons of a kind I hadn’t encountered before. Here was this egghead, for God’s sake, keeping some pretty difficult people in line. And from what I heard, Mike Dweetz and Steve Fusco and all the notorious Voc. Ed. crowd settled down as well when MacFarland took the podium. Though a lot of guys groused in the schoolyard, it just seemed that giving trouble to this particular teacher was a silly thing to do. Tomfoolery, not to mention assault, had no place in the world he was trying to create for us, and instinctively everyone knew that. If nothing else, we all recognized MacFarland’s considerable intelligence and respected the hours he put into his work. It came to this: the troublemaker would look foolish rather than daring. Even Jim Fitzsimmons was reading On the Road and turning his incipient alcoholism to literary ends.
There were some lives that were already beyond Jack MacFarland’s ministrations, but mine was not. I started reading again as I hadn’t since elementary school. I would go into our gloomy little bedroom or sit at the dinner table while, on the television, Danny McShane was paralyzing Mr. Mota with the atomic drop, and work slowly back through Heart of Darkness, trying to catch the words in Conrad’s sentences. I certainly was not MacFarland’s best student; most of the other guys in College Prep, even my fellow slackers, had better backgrounds than I did. But I worked very hard, for MacFarland had hooked me. He tapped myoId interest in reading and creating stories. He gave me a way to feel special by using my mind. And he provided a role model that wasn’t shaped on physical prowess alone, and something inside me that I wasn’t quite aware of responded to that. Jack MacFarland established a literacy club, to borrow a phrase of Frank Smith’s, and invited me – invited all of us – to join.
There’s been a good deal of research and speculation suggesting that the acknowledgment of school performance with extrinsic rewards – smiling faces, stars, numbers, grades – diminishes the intrinsic satisfaction children experience by engaging in reading or writing or problem solving. While it’s certainly true that we’ve created an educational system that encourages our best and brightest to become cynical grade collectors and, in general, have developed an obsession with evaluation and assessment, I must tell you that venal though it may have been, I loved getting good grades from MacFarland. I now know how subjective grades can be, but then they came tucked in the back of essays like bits of scientific data, some sort of spectroscopic readout that said, objectively and publicly, that I had made something of value. I suppose I’d been mediocre for too long and enjoyed a public redefinition. And I suppose the workings of my mind, such as they were, had been private for too long. My linguistic play moved into the world; . . . these papers with their circled, red B-pluses and A-minuses linked my mind to something outside it. I carried them around like a club emblem.
One day in the December of my senior year, Mr. MacFarland asked me where I was going to go to college. I hadn’t thought much about it. Many of the students I teach today spent their last year in high school with a physics text in one hand and the Stanford catalog in the other, but I wasn’t even aware of what “entrance requirements” were. My folks would say that they wanted me to go to college and be a doctor, but I don’t know how seriously I ever took that; it seemed a sweet thing to say, a bit of supportive family chatter, like telling a gangly daughter she’s graceful. The reality of higher education wasn’t in my scheme of things: no one in the family had gone to college; only two of my uncles had completed high school. I figured I’d get a night job and go to the local junior college because I knew that Snyder and Company were going there to play ball. But I hadn’t even prepared for that. When I finally said, “I don’t know,” MacFarland looked down at me – I was seated in his office – and said, “Listen, you can write.”
My grades stank. I had A’s in biology and a handful of B’s in a few English and social science classes. All the rest were C’s – or worse. MacFarland said I would do well in his class and laid down the law about doing well in the others. Still, the record for my first three years wouldn’t have been acceptable to any four-year school. To nobody’s surprise, I was turned down flat by USC and UCLA. But Jack MacFarland was on the case. He had received his bachelor’s degree from Loyola University, so he made calls to old professors and talked to somebody in admissions and wrote me a strong letter. Loyola finally accepted me as a probationary student. I would be on trial for the first year, and if I did okay, I would be granted regular status. MacFarland also intervened to get me a loan, for I could never have afforded a private college without it. Four more years of religion classes and four more years of boys at one school, girls at another. But at least I was going to college. Amazing.
In my last semester of high school, I elected a special English course fashioned by Mr. MacFarland, and it was through this elective that there arose at Mercy a fledgling literati. Art Mitz, the editor of the school newspaper and a very smart guy, was the kingpin. He was joined by me and by Mark Dever, a quiet boy who wrote beautifully and who would die before he was forty. MacFarland occasionally invited us to his apartment, and those visits became the high point of our apprenticeship: we’d clamp on our training wheels and drive to his salon.
He lived in a cramped and cluttered place near the airport, tucked away in the kind of building that architectural critic Reyner Banham calls a dingbat. Books were allover: stacked, piled, tossed, and crated, underlined and dog eared, well worn and new. Cigarette ashes crusted with coffee in saucers or spilling over the sides of motel ashtrays. The little bedroom had, along two of its walls, bricks and boards loaded with notes, magazines, and oversized books. The kitchen joined the living room, and there was a stack of German newspapers under the sink. I had never seen anything like it: a great flophouse of language furnished by City Lights and Cafe Ie Metro. I read every title. I flipped through paperbacks and scanned jackets and memorized names: Gogol, Finnegans Wake, Djuna Barnes, Jackson Pollock, A Coney Island of the Mind, F. O. Matthiessen’s American Renaissance, all sorts of Freud, Troubled Sleep, Man Ray, The Education of Henry Adams, Richard Wright, Film as Art, William Butler Yeats, Marguerite Duras, Redburn, A Season in Hell, Kapital. On the cover of Alain-Fournier’s The Wanderer was an Edward Gorey drawing of a young man on a road winding into dark trees. By the hotplate sat a strange Kafka novel called Amerika, in which an adolescent hero crosses the Atlantic to find the Nature Theater of Oklahoma. Art and Mark would be talking about a movie or the school newspaper, and I would be consuming my English teacher’s library. It was heady stuff. I felt like a Pop Warner athlete on steroids.
Art, Mark, and I would buy stogies and triangulate from MacFarland’s apartment to the Cinema, which now shows X-rated films but was then L.A.’s premier art theater, and then to the musty Cherokee Bookstore in Hollywood to hobnob with beatnik homosexuals – smoking, drinking bourbon and coffee, and trying out awkward phrases we’d gleaned from our mentor’s bookshelves. I was happy and precocious and a little scared as well, for Hollywood Boulevard was thick with a kind of decadence that was foreign to the South Side. After the Cherokee, we would head back to the security of MacFarland’s apartment, slaphappy with hipness.
Let me be the first to admit that there was a good deal of adolescent passion in this embrace of the avant-garde: self-absorption, sexually charged pedantry, an elevation of the odd and abandoned. Still it was a time during which I absorbed an awful lot of information: long lists of titles, images from expressionist paintings, new wave shibboleths, snippets of philosophy, and names that read like Steve Fusco’s misspellings – Goethe, Nietzsche, Kierkegaard. Now this is hardly the stuff of deep understanding. But it was an introduction, a phrase book, a [travel guide] to a vocabulary of ideas, and it felt good at the time to know all these words. With hindsight I realize how layered and important that knowledge was.
It enabled me to do things in the world. I could browse bohemian bookstores in far-off, mysterious Hollywood; I could go to the Cinema and see events through the lenses of European directors; and, most of all, I could share an evening, talk that talk, with Jack MacFarland, the man I most admired at the time. Knowledge was becoming a bonding agent. Within a year or two, the persona of the disaffected hipster would prove too cynical, too alienated to last. But for a time it was new and exciting: it provided a critical perspective on society, and it allowed me to act as though I were living beyond the limiting boundaries of South Vermont.