Dear Gentleman at the Bus Stop:
First off, I want to thank you. You see, I’ve been experiencing a bit of writer’s block lately, and I’ve been looking for inspiration. Our ninety-second interaction encapsulated so much of what is wrong with society that I now have writing fodder for days.
And because you don’t know what was going on before our unfortunate encounter — not that you bothered to ask — I thought that I’d fill you in (on the snowball’s chance that you happen upon this post).
I missed a bus. By thirty seconds. That was to take me to an appointment that I have been waiting on for two months. I needed to contact the clinic to let them know I was running late and to see if there was any way they could accommodate me. But I didn’t have the clinic’s phone number. You see — as I’m 99% certain you noticed — I don’t have a smartphone. Because I can’t afford one. I get my phone through the LifeLine program, and it offers no internet capacity.
So I was stuck trying to figure out how to get their number. I tried calling someone who I figured would have the number, but we had multiple issues in getting the correct number to me. And in the middle of all that, I thought to contact directory assistance. If you haven’t used it lately, it’s all automated, and you have to say things very clearly, like “MIN-NE-A-PO-LIS MIN-NE-SO-TA” and “MED-I-CAL CLIN-IC”. And as clearly as you’re talking, over the din of the downtown of a major metropolitan area, you can barely understand a word the computerized voice is telling you. You’re just looking like and idiot saying “MIN-NE-A-PO-LIS”.
And as I’m doing all this, I’m pacing about. I know, this is verboten in Minneapolis. At a bus stop, you’re supposed to stand still. Well, when it’s below zero out, I move, because moving keeps you warm. And all that pacing may make you look like an idiot. But — unlike everyone else in this town — I don’t complain about the cold.
So, in the middle of all this, the lady standing next to you asked me if I was okay. And I replied — in the foolishly honest manner that I have — that I missed my bus to go to the clinic and that I was having trouble getting their phone number.
And at this point, you engaged me. You told me that my shoe was untied. And I thanked you, but said that I needed to focus on something else right now. Because it was more important that I get hold of the clinic in a timely manner than that I tie my shoe. And, quite frankly, in forty years on this planet, I have never once tripped on my shoelaces.
And then you noticed my coat. And you decided it was not a winter coat. I hate to break it to you, but I was actually warm underneath my coat, probably warmer than you . It has a fitter cut than the enormous parka you were wearing, and so at first glance might appear more appropriate to spring or autumn, but I’m baffled that you didn’t notice how ridiculously thick the fabric is.
And that’s when you told me that I wasn’t dressed for winter. I forget the exact wording, because shortly after this statement, your reasoning spiraled so far out of control that to take down an exact quote from you for this blog was not the first thing on my mind.
Now, here, sir, was your first mistake. Because one would think that if a human being observed another human being underdressed for below-zero weather, and they were engaged in conversation about this very fact, the first thing you should have done was to inquire whether there was anything you or anyone could do to ensure I was more warmly dressed.
(And yes, I said “should”, despite all that liberal-arts public education I’ve had that has told me the word “should” is a bad word. But — and I hate to break it to the academy — this damn relativism has produced an I-can-do-whatever-I-want mentality that is, frankly, screwing society over. I only hope it’s not irrevocably so.)
Now, inexplicably, you decided that my supposedly thin coat made me “crazy”. And that the clinic I was going to must be the “crazy clinic”.
And so, sir, you might have felt quite proud of yourself for your quick-witted jibe. But you know what? Your snide statement only further contributed to the stigmatization of mental illness in our culture — and that stigma leads to people killing themselves, because words like yours make it harder and harder for them to seek the help they need. So, if you notice an infinitesimal smudge of red on your hands tonight, you know where it comes from. Words have consequences.
Now, sir, I don’t know what you thought I was going to do next. Since you had deemed me “crazy”, you might have thought that I would punch you, or rant about the aliens that live under my tinfoil hat. But you seemed to enjoy what I did next.
I’m about to get to the point where I question your upbringing. But, you see, you said “thank you” as I walked off to the next bus stop. You thanked me for removing my allegedly “crazy” self from your almighty presence. And because you have the capacity to say “thank you”, I know that somewhere rattling inside you is some modicum of decency.
So why did you not use that decency at any point within our interaction? You seemed quite proud of your capacity to bully an emotionally distraught person. You’re going to be hard-pressed to find anyone other than yourself to give you an accolade for doing so. Did you honestly think I was going to just stand there and continue to listen to your insults? No, sir, because that would be “crazy”.
I honestly have no idea what your story is — because, from the outset, you ensured that we would never have a chance to exchange stories. Oftentimes, when people act as you did today, when they have the hopelessly wrong notion that some human beings are ontologically superior to other human beings (and of course, they usually see themselves in the former group), I assume that their parents must have somehow inculcated that idea in their heads early on.
This is, of course, a drastic oversimplification (but you were in the mood for oversimplification today, weren’t you?). The majority parents do the best they can, there are societal pressures that undermine good parenting, and some kids just grow up in defiance of their good upbringing.
And yet, I’ve also seen bad parenting in action. See, one of the great many things you don’t know about me is that I spent several years of my career working with families, and I saw all the good attitudes and the bad attitudes that parents pass on to their children. And, frankly, it’s the kids who are being brought up with the bad attitudes that make me nervous for humanity’s continued survival.
But regardless of where nature and nurture fall in this equation, at some point, we all grow up. We become adults. And, for the vast majority of us — with the possible exception of those whom you might erase with the word “crazy” — we become responsible for ourselves. We have to take stock in our lives, and if there was some poor nurturing, whatever the source, that wove its way into our history, we have to take responsibility to unweave it.
You looked to be about fifty. About time you grew up.
I hope that I just caught you on a really bad day. When I was working with families, I was taught to always assume that bad behavior was merely indicative of a “bad day” and not of a larger pattern — even when I saw the same bad behavior from the same people day after day. I hope that whatever got stuck in your craw worked its way out and that you had a good day.
If this is not the case, if your behavior today is the norm for you, then I hope that you’re not a parent. I hope that you haven’t raised your children to believe that your behavior — so utterly lacking in grace, compassion, and the most rudimentary elements of humanity — is somehow socially acceptable. And if that is how they were raised, then, by all that is good and just, I hope that they have taken up the responsibility to undo those lessons.
You see, I don’t get the privilege to be a parent. The best I can hope for is to admonish every person I come across to raise their children to be loving and kind and compassionate. See, I’m committed to making the world a better place, and that means doing everything I can to undo the consequences of the sort of behavior I saw in you today.
You were astonished at my behavior today, though I fail to see how I did much of anything that was beyond the pale, other than that I didn’t exhibit the icy unflappability that is considered the greatest Minnesota virtue.
Well, guess what? When I crossed Hennepin Avenue, getting hold of my acquaintance once again to finally get the correct phone number, I shared my amazement and befuddlement at how a grown man saw fit to run off another man from a bus stop.
Some would say your actions were “crazy”. But I’m not going to erase you with that word. I’m just going to hope for good things for you.
You surprised me, because somewhere in my head, I have this notion rattling around to assume good things of people.
And I guess we’re not yet to the point where I can make those assumptions about everyone.
But, I tell you, I’m going to do my damnedest to work for a world where we can one day.
Peace to you,
PS Since you didn’t ask exactly where I was going, and only assumed: I was going to a dental clinic, not a “crazy clinic”. And they were able to fit me in when another patient didn’t show. And now I have a nice smile — one that you can never take away.
My Christmas gift to you.
It was really my fault for inviting Carl Anderson onto the committee. We would have been so much better off if I had asked instead the church janitor. Or a mop. But we were caught short. Our music director, a quiet young man named Fred Swensen, had been summarily dismissed just before Thanksgiving. The board gave no reason why, though there were rumors that young Mr. Swensen had been caught in a compromising position in a men’s lavatory down in the Warehouse District. Nevertheless, St. Brigit Lutheran Church had gone caroling through the streets of North Minneapolis for over forty years—which had always been organized by the music director—and I foolishly thought I could be the one to save Christmas that year.
I thought I had all the right pieces in place for the ad hoc committee—the pastor, the organist, and the leaders of each of the choir sections (I led the tenors)—anyone who was remotely connected to a leadership role in our church’s ministry of music. It helped that Carl both led the basses and headed up the church board.
But I should have been able to tell we were in trouble when the meeting convened, because we all fell into our predictable roles. Our pastor, George Svaan, was gracious and accommodating and generally a milquetoast. The organist, Edna Tschida, asked everyone to repeat everything two or three times and muttered about the batteries in her hearing aid going dead. The section leader for the sopranos, Juanita Miller, steered the conversation toward her solo at the Christmas Eve service, while the alto lead, Florence Olsen, rambled on about her son Timothy’s streak of three shutouts as goalie for the Minneapolis North High hockey team. And Carl and I butted heads.
I assumed that we would do things the same way we always did at St. Brigit: assemble in the church parking lot at 6:00 p.m. on the Saturday before Christmas, and keep to the same route we’d used for at least two decades. After all, I figured, we were a part of many of these families’ Christmas tradition. But Carl said we should think bigger, that the church wasn’t just about us, that we should envision how to minister the gospel in a grander way, worthy of the baby boy whose birth we were celebrating. He told us he had a big plan, and that he would take care of everything, just leave it to him.
And I acquiesced. My big mistake.
But, on a certain level, I can’t entirely blame myself for wanting someone else to take charge. My Anna had died that June. She was running errands downtown when she was struck by a car as she crossed Nicollet Avenue. And now, suddenly, I was both father and mother to Becky, my little firecracker. After the summer break, she started acting up at school—back-talking her teacher, failing to turn in schoolwork—and I was at my wit’s end trying to both discipline her and give her space to grieve. I figured, if all of this was too much for a thirty-five-year-old widower, how much worse for a seven-year-old girl.
And so I handed everything over to Carl. The snake.
It was not an easy drive over to St. Brigit. Becky was fussing: she was cold, she was tired, she didn’t want to go caroling. I promised her that if she could just do her best this evening, she could open one of her presents that night instead of waiting the three days until Christmas. This seemed to do the trick.
When I pulled into the parking lot at St. Brigit, it was nearly two-thirds full. I had to give some credit to Carl; he was a go-getter. I got out of the car and helped Becky out. Just then Juanita rushed over to me with a stack of mimeographs. “It’s the map of the route,” in a tone indicating she doubted my ability to read.
We had never used a map before, and for good reason. Like I said, we’d used the same route forever. We kept close to the church. One glance at this map, and I knew we were in trouble.
Instead of a nice little loop-the-loop in the environs of St. Brigit, Carl had us marching nearly a mile down Sixteenth Avenue over to my neighborhood, and then up Sheridan Avenue.
This was 1962, in the Willard-Hay neighborhood of Minneapolis. The Jewish folks hadn’t yet moved out of the neighborhood over to the suburb of St. Louis Park, and the black folks hadn’t moved into the neighborhood yet. Mine was one of only two Gentile households on the block. What on earth was Carl thinking? I scanned the crowd for the towering Swede so I could find out.
I shoved the map in Carl’s face. “What’s the meaning of this?”
He looked down at me with guileless blue eyes, smiled, and replied, “I don’t know what you’re talking about.”
“I mean this. You have us—” I traced my finger along the route “—schlepping halfway across town in the cold, and for what?”
“I took into account where our parishioners lived. I thought you’d want to drop out early and put that little one to bed.”
Then why didn’t we stick to this neighborhood, where the majority of the parishioners lived, I didn’t say.
“But Carl,” I said, “what’s the point of caroling in a Jewish neighborhood?”
Carl stared off to the fingernail snip of a moon on the western horizon. “They’re His people too, you know.”
But they don’t go barging into your neighborhood with their religion, they keep to themselves and let me live in peace, I didn’t say.
“I really think this is a bad idea,” I said.
“Well,” he beamed with infinite grace, “you should have put yourself in charge.”
Becky struggled with the walk down Sixteenth. Though it was a cold day with a biting wind, she thwarted my attempts to keep her bundled up, peeling off scarf and mittens, saying that she was too hot. I reminded her that if she kept it up, she wouldn’t get to open a present that night, so she whined and bundled herself back up.
How this was going to expand our ministry, I had no idea, because Carl had us sing at maybe a half-dozen houses down Sixteenth. My dread grew with every block. Oliver Avenue. Penn Avenue. Queen. Russell. Sheridan.
My house was the second one in. The house at the corner belonged to Murray Hendelman, a sexagenarian who had never done anything to me beyond nodding hello to me on the sidewalk. We had the mutual tacit respect and minding-of-one’s-own-business that I had always valued in a neighbor.
Dear God, I prayed, please don’t let us bother poor Mr. Hendelman.
Carl turned around to face us carolers. He demonstrably cleared his throat and intoned, “Look around you. These are Jews. These are Jesus’s people! And tonight, we’re going to sing to them of the miracle of his birth.”
I don’t know what got into me, but somewhere, in the deepest recesses of my heart, I shook off all of my Minnesota-born reticence. I squared my shoulders, and with as booming a voice as I could muster, I said, “No, Carl.”
Carl turned to me. “Excuse me, Peter, did you say something?” I guess I didn’t boom as much as I had thought.
“I said, no, Carl. We’re not going to do this.”
“Peter—” Carl made a grand, sweeping gesture “—we have the opportunity to minister to God’s own people.”
“Did it ever occur to you that maybe they don’t need ministered to? That they’re doing just fine? That maybe they’re even doing what God wants them to?”
Murmurs arose from the crowd of carolers. I was violating the first rule of being a Minnesotan: don’t make a fuss.
“Need I remind you that we all need the love of Jesus, that we all need to hear His Word?”
“And do I need to remind you that you don’t always need to be stroking your damn ego?” Now I was booming.
And just at that moment, Mr. Hendelman stepped onto his porch. “What is all this?” he asked.
I had to speak before Carl opened his fat mouth. “Mr. Hendelman, it’s me, your neighbor, Peter Hansen. Don’t mind us, we’re just going to be on our way.”
“Oh, Peter,” Carl cut in, “come now. Let’s give Mr. Hendelman his gift.”
“A gift?” Mr. Hendelman asked.
“Mr. Hendleman,” I said, “it’s nothing. I’m sorry we disturbed you.”
Carl glowered at me. “You are not going to deny us this opportunity, Peter.”
“What opportunity?” asked Mr. Hendelman.
“Carl, what the hell do you think was going to come of this? That you were going to convert this whole neighborhood to a bunch of good Lutherans all in one night? That you were going to put some big fat star in your crown by making all the Jews into good little Christians? Just how big is your ego?”
“I was simply—“
“And another thing. Do you honestly think that you were going to get away with this, that the board wouldn’t find out, that Pastor Svaan—“
“Pastor Svaan is a sniveling old man! I’ve got him wrapped around my finger!”
It got so quiet, you could hear the snowflakes fall.
One by one, from the back of the crowd to the front, the carolers dispersed back down Sixteenth Avenue. Juanita was one of the last to head back to St. Brigit. She shot me a look that I don’t think I have since seen on a human face, an admixture of befuddlement, awe, pity, embarrassment, and resignation.
It was four of us: me, Becky, Carl, and Mr. Hendelman. Carl stared me down. “May God have mercy on your soul,” he said. And then he glanced over at Mr. Hendelman and said, “And on yours, too.”
Then he lumbered back towards St. Brigit, and (I am not exaggerating) sang at the top of his lungs, “God rest ye merry, gentlemen/May nothing you dismay”—and then practically shouted, “Remember Christ our Savior/Was born on Christmas Day…”
I took Becky’s hand. Through all this, she hadn’t uttered a peep. I was mortified. I didn’t appreciate my daughter having seen me blow my stack like that, and, to the best of my recollection, she had never heard me swear before that night.
“Come,” I heard. I turned to Mr. Hendelman. “It is a cold night. I will make you some chocolate, that would be nice, no?” It was clear this was not a question.
We followed Mr. Hendelman into his house. Ten years we had lived here, ever since Anna and I were newlyweds, and I had never been in his house.
His furnishings were modest but well-kept. And upon the mantle stood a menorah. Becky noticed it immediately, pointed to it, and asked, “What’s that?”
“Becky, now, it’s not polite to—“
“Oh, it’s a menorah,” Mr. Hendelman interrupted. “You see, tonight is the first night of Hanukkah.”
“What’s Hakka— Hanka—”
“Hanukkah. It is a holiday that my people celebrate.”
“Well,” he reached to touch the menorah, “not exactly. Christmas is one day, but Hanukkah is eight days.”
“Eight days! That’s a lot more fun!”
Mr. Hendelman chuckled, “I suppose you could say that. You see, at Hanukkah, my people remember when our enemies seized our city of Jerusalem—”
“Jerusalem? Isn’t that where Jesus lived, Daddy?”
“Well, some of his life,” I replied, “but let Mr. Hendelman continue his story.”
“The armies laid siege to the city for eight days, but there was only enough oil for the lamps for one day. So, do you know what happened?”
“What?” Becky was Mr. Hendelman’s newest fan.
“God was able to make the oil last eight days. And then God helped my people defeat our enemies.”
“That’s a neat story, huh, Daddy?”
“Yes, honey, it is. I don’t think I’ve had it explained to me like that before. Thank you, Mr. Hendelman.”
“Now,” he cleared his throat, “I have two matters to take care of. First, understand, Hanukkah is more a holiday for the children. I do not have children. Not now. I put up the menorah to remind me of my daughter Rebecca—”
“That’s my name!” cried Becky.
“Sh, honey, let Mr. Hendelman speak.”
“My daughter, she has married and moved away. California. She says that is where the future is. Myself, this city has always treated me well.”
“Until tonight,” I muttered.
“Let me explain something to you, Mr. Hansen.”
“Please, call me Peter.”
“And you may call me Murray. Short for Moritz. Now, where was I… Yes, you must understand, Peter, my Ruth and me, we moved to America in 1928. I think you know your history. Ruth and me, we were very lucky.”
“Indeed.” I swallowed a lump in my throat.
“I have always been grateful for this country. I have lived here in this house, what now, thirty years. I raised my Rebecca here. And my Ruth, we made a good home here. I lost Ruth last year, you know.”
“I know, I’m sorry.” In all honesty, I only half-knew. I was mortified that I knew so little of my neighbor of the past decade.
“Oh, I keep getting sidetracked,” Murray sighed. “There were two things I need to do. First, Hanukkah is a holiday for the children. I put out the menorah to remind me of my Rebecca. The children, they get a present every night of Hanukkah.”
“That’s—” Becky counted on her fingers “—that’s eight presents!”
“You have a smart girl there, Peter. Now, what can I give—”
“Murray, I must decline, especially after all we put you through tonight.”
“Is this a matter for you, Peter? This is between me and your daughter. Now, what would make a good present for Hanukkah…” He rummaged through a knickknack shelf to the left of his fireplace. “I think this would make a good gift.” He pulled out a lace doily, obviously handmade, most likely by his late wife. “It looks like a snowflake, no?”
“Oh, Daddy, it’s so pretty! I can use it as a tablecloth for my dollies!”
“What do you say?”
“Thank you, Mr. Hendelman!”
“It is my pleasure. Now, there was one other matter… I promised you chocolate, no? I hope that Ovaltine will do.”
“I love Ovaltine!” said Becky.
And so the three of us settled into hot mugs of Ovaltine. I imagine Becky thought herself the luckiest girl in the world, because she was celebrating two holidays, Christmas and Hanukkah.
Murray was in that house another ten years. I found in him both a wise elder and a comrade as we navigated widowerhood together, and Becky thought of him as a long-lost relative she was happy to find. I even got to know his daughter Rebecca and her husband Michael when they would make the occasional trip from California. I would have invited Murray to Becky’s high school graduation had he not died during her senior year. When Rebecca and Michael flew in to make arrangements, she confided to me that Murray thought of me almost like a son, and she thanked me for looking out for him in his later years.
I am so grateful that Murray was in Becky’s life. He opened her up to a new world, igniting her imagination and developing within her a deep appreciation of other cultures. Becky entered the Peace Corps after graduating from Berkeley (where she lived not twenty minutes from Rebecca and Michael). After that, she entered a career in education administration and dedicated herself to desegregation efforts.
I never remarried. I developed a certain gratitude for what I had in my life. I was, indeed, a rich man.
Oh, it might interest you to know that I never darkened the door of St. Brigit after that night. It wasn’t so much that I was against the church in general, as it was that I didn’t want to be around Carl, and I didn’t want to subject Becky to him, either.
I went to this church and that over the years, and even made a visit or two to a synagogue. But I’m an old man now. I don’t have the energy to get out like I used to. I prefer to stick around this house and maintain my friendships with my neighbors. I’m the only white man on my block. There’s this young couple living next to me right now. They have the brightest little girl.
Yes, I have much to be thankful for.
And all because Carl Anderson made an ass of himself.
For a while, I have been describing myself as “very single”. I haven’t been in any sort of relationship in 2 1/2 years, and in that time, I’ve only dated a handful of times with no serious outcome. And I know some of my friends get exasperated with my conversations about why I am single, why it is so hard to find anyone to go out on a date with, why, when I do go on a date, a second date rarely follows but not because I don’t want one.
And I’ve been puzzling through this. I went to a party on Saturday and got in a wonderful conversation with a new acquaintance on the subject of dating in general. We both agreed that OkCupid seemed to be the best way to meet men in the Twin Cities, but that “best” is not very good at all. We both lamented the fact that the gay culture in the Twin Cities is so heavily focused on bars (it doesn’t interest me at all).
But then he asked me, “What’s your type?” And I fumbled around with this. “Compassionate… intelligent… ” But he said, “No, what’s your type? What kind of guy are you attracted to?” And I couldn’t really answer beyond what I’d said.
I thought about this conversation after I got home. I wondered if the problem was that everyone was playing Monopoly, and I was trying to get in the game, too, but was using the rules for Scrabble. I don’t know about other cultures in the US, but the gay male culture, when it comes to dating, is deeply segmented according to physical traits and romantic and sexual proclivities. And, in all seriousness, those things don’t matter to me. Most men have some trait I find physically attractive. I don’t need to date an Adonis, I just need to have enough physical attraction to sustain the relationship. It’s about being realistic–there has to be some attraction, but the Adonises are very few and far between. I haven’t made sexual compatibility a factor in dating, either (though not doing so actually ended one relationship I was in).
My primary goal isn’t romance (which is great) or sex (which is also great) but companionship. And for me to know if a guy is going to be a good companion, we have to be around each other awhile. Unfortunately, the amount of time I need to determine this is much longer than most men (who may be more focused on romance) are willing to give me.
For the longest time, I figured there was something horribly wrong with me. All these wonderful guys (and I assumed they were all wonderful since they left before I had a chance to find out anything bad about them) left me; therefore, I assumed I was bad, wrong, damaged. And I had to work really hard on my self-esteem and self-image to get beyond the idea that my value and sense of self-worth depended on others’ opinions of me.
I got to the point where I started being happy about myself and my life. But still, though I thought myself a good guy now, I was still single. And as I saw all the happy couples around me, as my closest friends settled down and I saw them less and less, the idea was sinking in that I would always be single. I’m no spring chicken, and I came out relatively late (by today’s standards, anyway) , so I’ve felt like I’ve been in this massive game of catch-up. And I’ve wondered if it’s too late for me to catch up enough.
At the party, my acquaintance said, “If you want to date, then there will be someone to date.” But that hadn’t been my experience at all. Or had it?
Today a friend of mine posted an article from Cracked (an aptly named website if ever there was one, it is so addictive). It highlights the reasons why someone might not be having success with online dating. And I read through the article, and realized I’ve had one or two of these issues at various points. There was a time when I was terribly needy and lonely, and not fostering good mental and emotional habits. I think (most days, anyway) that is all behind me.
But it was reason #4 that really stuck out to me. My acquaintance said Saturday that if I wanted to date, there would be someone to date. And the article states that some people can’t land dates because they present themselves as having lives so full that there is no room for anyone else.
And you know what? There’s not! I spend a lot of time on school, extracurricular activities, and the chorus I sing in. I don’t have much time. Plus, I have absolutely no idea where I’m going to be in a year–that is up to the grad-school gods to decide. And the application season is heating up, and that is only going to take more of my time. I would feel sorry for any guy who tried to enter my life for a long-term relationship right now. He would find himself suffocated by my trying to get my career off the ground, and stuck with the uncertainty of whether to follow me around the continent for the next little while.
And you know what else? That’s not a bad thing. I’m going to school for a reason. I’m writing for a reason. And those reasons are all good. Just because there isn’t the sort of space and stability for a relationship right now doesn’t mean it will always be that way. And even if it doesn’t happen, even if I’m always single, there are certainly greater tragedies in the world, and I can still lead a rich and fulfilling life.
I think part of the challenge lately has been the drive for same-sex marriage in Minnesota. It has been almost the sole focus for the gay community in Minnesota for over two years, first to turn down an amendment to ban it, then to support a law to endorse it. Those of us who are not presently engaged in relationships sometimes feel totally left out of the picture–I know I’m not the first to express this sentiment.
And so, I’ve felt that if I’m not at least maintaining a pretense of wanting a relationship, even if I’m not really looking, then I’m somehow defective. And again I’m placing my self-perception in the hands of others.
But it took a random conversation at a party and random article from a comedy website for me to realize there’s nothing wrong with me. I’m the happiest I’ve been in a long time, and I see myself getting happier by the day. My future is quite bright at the moment. And if I’m happy and working on good things, isn’t that all that matters? I know that singlehood can’t possibly negate someone’s attempts to make the world better, and that’s what I’m trying to do.
So, if you are reading this and are single, ask yourself why. And if there are good reasons why, then rejoice!
I have issues with my appetite. It’s not apparent from my waistline, but that comes from my lack of exercise. I get hungry but don’t feel like eating. It’s difficult to manage. When I do get the urge to eat, I do whatever I can to make sure I eat something.
So I’m out running errands this morning when I need to eat. Having just checked my bank account, I know there’s only one option for me close by: Taco Bell. I know, I know–they use bits and parts and call it ground beef, but it’s cheap, and that’s often my number-one measure of the desirability of food.
So I go to the Taco Bell in Minneapolis’s downtown skyway system. I come in at the very beginning of the lunch rush. The cashier, a friendly African American woman, takes my order. I get my cup for water, since I try to avoid soda–the cashier said she wished she could have some water–and await my order. The manager, a middle-aged white man, barks out the names of the line staff. I’ve been to this Taco Bell enough to know that I only know of one other white person to work on the line. As I await my meal, the manager hands me a soda cup. He says I get a free soda because his staff is “annoying” him.
I was in shock. I’ve worked enough in the public sector to know that his behavior was thoroughly unacceptable. When I worked at Minnesota Children’s Museum, we talked about “on-stage” and “off-stage” behavior–when working in clear sight of the public, you are “on stage.” What this manager did was abysmal on-stage behavior, and pretty lousy for off-stage behavior, as well. Finally, one of the line staff–a young African American man–calls out my order number.
I am not a confrontational person. When I am put into the position to speak up, my right leg shakes, my heart pounds, and I struggle to get my voice above a whisper. But I told the manager, “I’m not taking my meal, you don’t treat your employees very well,” and rushed out before he could say a word to me and I turned into a quivering mass of passivity on the floor. He made me lose my appetite, anyway.
All of this came on the heels of my catching a story in today’s Minneapolis Star-Tribune (front-page in the print edition, buried in the online): Minnesota has the widest racial gap in home ownership in the United States.
This divide in housing does not surprise me at all. I’ve lived in a number of neighborhoods across the Twin Cities. Most of our neighborhoods are divided by race. I don’t have my picture posted on my blog, so you don’t necessarily know until I tell you that I’m white. (Technically, I’m white-skinned–my racial background takes more explaining than I wish to do here. But society treats me as white, and that’s what matters as far as the line of reasoning I’m developing here is concerned.) And I’ve felt far more comfortable in neighborhoods where people who look like me are a minority. I often say that I blame it all on Sesame Street, that the show taught me that living in a racially diverse community is an inherently good thing. And I think that’s part of it. But I also think that I’m not often comfortable in large groups of white people because I associate being white with having money, which I can’t relate to.
Earlier this week, a most remarkable thing happened. A man named Charles Ramsey rescued three women who had been kidnapped a decade ago. (I’m not going to link the great many reports of the incident here. If you don’t know about this, Google it.) It was simple as noticing something wasn’t right and calling the police, but it’s the sort of thing a lot of people don’t do. When there’s drama in our neighborhoods, many of us tend to look the other way, not wanting to get involved. As the product of an abusive household, I am well aware of the phenomenon. Mr. Ramsey’s quick thinking saved these women’s lives.
Rightfully, the press hailed him as a hero. Unfortunately, the attention didn’t stop there. People were quick to mock Mr. Ramsey’s working-class values and African American vernacular. Out rolled the stills from the TV interviews, with sophomoric jokes dutifully typed out in Impact font.
Not everyone was in on the joke. Some have pointed out the layers of privilege and racism that have been uncovered this week, most notably in this spectacular blog post. Mr. Ramsey’s statement that a white woman rushing into the arms of a black man can only mean trouble is an ugly truth we in America ignore. Or, rather, we whites in America ignore. Because perhaps the ugliest thing about privilege is that if you have it, you never have to think about it in order to successfully navigate life. Mr. Ramsey pointed out that America really hasn’t progressed since the days of Emmett Till, as much as we whites would like to pat ourselves on the back and convince ourselves otherwise.
Mr. Ramsey has revealed the tiniest bit of his Story in interviews, only to have it mocked by people who weren’t raised to have empathy. It is only by earnestly listening to each other that we have any hope as a species.
Edited to add (I meant to say this originally and forgot): I think it so funny that, from what we know, Charles Ramsey could probably be the best neighbor someone could have: hardworking, amiable, watchful. And yet how many of my fellow white Minneapolites would avoid living next to him.
I realised a couple of days ago that, for the first time, I am blogging and have at least a small handful of people reading my writing who do not actually know me face-to-face. This is of course a good problem to have. But it does leave me feeling like I should impart a bit of my autobiography to aid those who are coming into my my blog and the life it revolves around in media res.
I was born and grew up in Southern Indiana. I have three siblings younger than me who all came in quick succession. I was a bright but awkward child, the latter aided by the fact that my father was an abuser, and abusers use social isolation to hide abuse. Thus, I did not really grow up around any children my own age.
When I turned eight, my mother escaped with us and filed for divorce. After a fiasco of my father having temporary custody during the divorce, my mother won custody. However, owing to the abuse, my mother suffered permanent disabilities. Added to the fact that my father did not payand my mother could not get the courts to get him to do so, I grew up quite poor, in a community with a very sharp class divide. This experience made me very aware of class-consciousness.
Once we escaped my father, I took an interest in going to church, in part because it was one of the things he forbade. I ended up in a congregation in the Christian Churches and Churches of Christ, and then attended one of their Bible colleges in St. Louis.
During this entire process, I was slowly coming to the realisation that I was “not like other boys”–because I liked other boys. Not knowing what to do, I turned to the authorities in my life–the college authorities–and the short version of the story is that I was required to attend ex-gay “therapy” in order to remain in school. I remained in the “therapy” much longer than I remained in the school, which I had to leave for financial and health reasons.
I relocated to my hometown of, Indiana, and transferred to Indiana University, where I majored in philosophy. This was a misguided choice of major for a few reasons, chief of them being was that I wanted to go into creative writing for at least a chunk of my career. It took me awhile to realise that the Jean-Paul Sartres and Ursula LeGuins are by far the exception in the world of philosophy.
But you don’t make every decision in life. Some decisions get made for you, quite unexpectedly. In May 2004 I received two letters from the. One informed me that I would lose my medical insurance, which I needed for the treatment of disabilities, and the second stated that there would be major cuts to my school funding.
One month later, I boarded a Greyhound for, sight unseen. I only knew two people here, both online–one remains a dear friend. But I had heard great recommendations for the city, and as I researched it, it had everything I was looking for: progressive and gay-friendly (offering me my first realistic chance of coming out), with a large arts community, a stable economy, and good health-care and transit services. It was one of the best decisions I ever made.
I got a job in customer service at Minnesota Children’s Museum, which I held for four years until the museum was hit in the first wave of recession cuts in November 2008, when I was laid off.
I was adrift for a while after the layoff, and I got really depressed. Changes in student-loan laws opened up the opportunity for me to return to college, which I did in January 2012 at Metropolitan State University, this time majoring in Creative Writing where I belonged.
In the midst of all this was a sea change spiritually. After having to leave the evangelical Church for entertaining the idea of living a celibate but openly gay life (which takes more explaining than this format allows), I ended up in the Evangelical Lutheran Church of America, where I found a safe space to ask the questions innate to my sceptical nature. And those questions led me right out of Christianity. And it was okay. I spent a while with a small Quaker group, and more recently have sporadically attended a Unitarian-Universalist church. I mostly see myself as a pilgrim, always journeying, as one friend put it, “always an emigrant, never an immigrant.” I pick up something valuable wherever I go that I keep.
My day-to-day life now is focussed on school, which I attend year-round. In my free time, I sing with Twin Cities Gay Men’s Chorus and serve on Metropolitan State’s arts-and-literature editorial staff. I half-joke that I am terminally single. I do, however, live with a bicycle named Wilbur.
This morning was my second at First Universalist Church in Minneapolis, MN. It would have been my third in a row had I not been out of town last week. There is a lot about the congregation I like, and I will keep visiting to determine if indeed it is a good fit for me. This much I know: the service at this particular Unitarian-Universalist (UU) congregation, in structure, much more closely resembles an evangelical Christian service than a mainline Christian service. It feels familiar. It “feels like church”, more so than a mainline service, and far more so than an unprogrammed Quaker service.
Until two weeks ago, I hadn’t attended a religious service in about 1 1/2 years, which, I say, is like most people not having gone to church for 15 years. In evangelical Christianity, the general expectation is that you go to worship services three times a week: Sunday morning, Sunday evening, and Wednesday evening. As such, it cannot help but be a very large part of one’s life. One of the challenges as I transitioned into liberal Christianity was that there was not that huge presence on my weekly calendar. Especially in the smaller mainline congregations, much of the church’s life begins and ends Sunday morning. Though I understand the reasons why each branch of the Christian religion does what it does, it is the former that makes the more sense to me, because of familiarity if for no other reason.
I say that I left evangelical Christianity for personal reasons, but left Christianity overall for theological reasons. I am, I think, a doubter by nature, and I appreciate it when I’m given space to think through ideas, rather than to just accept them wholesale. I am at a place where I will not make any definitive statements regarding the nature of God, or God’s connexion with the universe and with humankind. I have thus been leery of engaging in any religious services lately.
However, an acquaintance recently challenged me. He said that, even if I might very much want to chuck God and faith and all the rest, that I myself am, for whatever reason, a religious person, and that it will only do me good to find some way to “scratch that itch”. I’m hoping the good people at First Universalist may help me in that regard.
I had planned all week to post yesterday regarding the one-week anniversary of OccupyMN. But all week, I have been fighting issues related to my hypernychthemeral disorder, which always leaves me with having to choose either to let my sleep cycles run naturally, in which case it would take a few weeks to return to a diurnal schedule, or to take matters into my own hands by staying up a total of 36 hours or so and exhausting myself into an extra-long night of sleep, followed up by a “short” day and early bedtime, to help me get back to a diurnal schedule. It’s a no-brainer. I do not want to wait several weeks to live like everyone else. I am glad, though, to have sat with this article in my head an extra day, because various seemingly unrelated events over the course of the week have unfolded to shape and reshape what I am wanting to say here.
I got back into town after my chorus’s retreat last Sunday, and one of the first things I did was to head down to Government Plaza in downtown Minneapolis. This plaza, outside our county government building, has been renamed People’s Plaza by the protesters. The scene looked much like what you see in New York City right now, and in many cities across the country. There were a few hundred people present, a heartening number, but the first thought that crossed my mind was, how is this going to look when it is -30F out? The numbers have already dramatically dwindled as our night temps near 40F. I got to talk to some of the organisers and other protesters. One was a lovely young man named Osha Karow, who was inspired by Occupy Wall Street to purchase the domain name occupymn.org and get the ball rolling here. If you saw him casually, you would assume he fits the caricature with which the Occupy movements’ opponents paint the protesters: white, middle-class, and lazy. But to hear his story firsthand broke all such assumptions, a young man whose life fell apart because health issues well outside his control usurped his education, his job, and (ironically) his health insurance to treat his very serious medical situation. And, as I believe very much in the power of personal narrative, I believe that, behind each of these protesters that some are wont to dismiss, is a compelling personal story that has driven them to such actions as the protests.
There were some things about the protest I found truly inspirational. I saw it pulling together diverse ideologies and perspectives. I heard socialists and libertarians coming together for what they had in common, then taking the opportunity to engage each other in civil and meaningful discourse regarding their differences. Those who claim that this movement is a mishmash of nebulous and unfocussed anger forget that the civil rights movements was a coalescence of different causes, different frustrations, different people. I believe that this new movement can, in time and in much the same way, coalesce into something more focussed and more powerful.
But there is also cause for concern. Though the protest is drawing participants and supporting passers-by from many walks of life, those in their 20s by and large are driving the movement. They are committed to being “leaderless” and anarchic, but I wonder how much experience they’ve had working in anarchic situations. There is such a fear of anyone taking charge of anything that even the most minor decisions are brought before the daily “general assembly”. They do not understand the need to prioritise decision-making–that it is better for something small and minor to simply get done by someone, and that if every minor decision is brought to the general assembly, then there will be no time, and thus no chance to focus on, the major, long-term decisions. This, I believe, is why the protests appear unfocussed to outsiders, and this lack of focus could lead to the premature demise of the movement.
When people do step up to take care of minor tasks around People’s Plaza, they are chastised for trying to be “leaders”. These young people do not understand the difference between someone taking leadership by force, and someone rising to a place of leadership simply by being themselves. The latter are chastised at the movement’s peril. I cannot think of any significant social movement in history that succeeded without someone coming to the fore as, at minimum, a figurehead, if not a leader. These historical leaders often rose to prominence despite their own personal desire not to do so. But if those who are leaders by instinct are prevented from accomplishing even minor tasks, then this movement will sink in a mire of managing the mundane.
I am also concerned about the process of othering that has taken place. Othering is the social force of determining “us” from “them”, insiders from outsiders. The protesters feel justified in distinguishing “the 99” from the top 1% of earners, who control over 40% of the wealth in the United States, and thus, in many ways, control our day-to-day lives. They see “the 99” as the biggest umbrella term they can imagine, that pretty much anyone who they come across can relate to being in the bottom 99%. But in creating this “other”, this 1%, they first distance themselves from some of those who sympathise with their plight, from high-profile billionaires who are quite vocal in wanting Congress to restructure our economy to benefit the 99%, to protesters who themselves come from the 1% and want to work with the movement hands-on.
Some critics of the movement claim that this othering process both smacks of sanctimony–the 99% are pure of motive, the 1% are inherently evil–and allows the 99% to abdicate their own responsibility in helping the economy to decline by, for example, building up untenable lifestyles through purchasing needless luxuries via “easy” credit, and staking claims and “rights” to a “middle-class” existence that is detrimental to the environment and to global economic development. I am in full agreement with both these critiques. I feel like the Occupy movement wants to build solidarity through a message of equality across races, religions, and (most) classes, etc, but they undercut their message of equality by stating, overtly and otherwise, that the 1% are ontologicallly, innately different. This is why my participation in the protests has mostly been confined to a message of “love the 100%”. I chant, “I have seven billion brothers and sisters,” and rattle off who all that includes, including those the left love to vilify. I perform my song, “Love The Way You Hate Me”. I challenge the notion that the 1% are fundamentally different at every opportunity. I plant the seed, I get people to think. And if “we are in this together,” then that means we must take responsibility for our mistakes, both individually and collectively, as well as seek to become part of the solution.
However, my personal belief that no-one is fundamentally evil takes a beating sometimes. One friend of mine points out that my telling the 1% (or homophobes, or what have you) that I love them is like standing in a field with a raging bull charging me, and me offering to talk with the bull and give it a big hug. (I say the analogy falls apart because I am a bull, too.) But late Thursday night, I took pause.
My neighbours in my building enjoy watching what passes for investigative journalism today (think truTV, for example). When I go to the TV room in my building, I can’t just change the channel, so if I choose to be in there, I choose to watch what my neighbours have on until I can change the channel per our community rules. I’m glad they didn’t change the channel Thursday night. They showed a recreation of the Jaycee Dugard abduction, imprisonment, and rescue. To see all that Phillip Garrido did, the layers of deceit and evasion, the unfathomable abuse he laid upon an innocent child, to see how he built his entire life around this cruelty, it becomes almost impossible to separate the man from the acts.
Am I lumping the wealthiest amongst us in with Phillip Garrido? No; my point is that my belief that anyone could be ontologically, fundamentally evil has been shaken, and thus leads me to question whether my belief that othering is in all cases wrong. I discussed my principle with someone the other day. He said that, a few nights prior, he saw a man surrounded by about a half-dozen scantily clad women whom he ordered away from him to go “do their thing” and to be sure that “he got his cut”. Clearly, the man was a pimp. My acquaintance remarked that, if he had passed by that man right after the incident, and the man tripped on the sidewalk and bloodied himself, my acquaintance would not have lent him a hand up.
Because I am processing the nature of evil, I am having to confront my own belief in the process of othering, and how it relates to the 99%/1% dichotomy. I will say this: I have often compared money to alcohol–good and enjoyable in reasonable doses, but addictive, controlling, and destructive in excess.
There are those who say the protesters are spoiled. In the Minneapolis Star-Tribune a couple of days ago, a commentator, a Tibetan immigrant to the Twin Cities, argued that Americans have the best standard of living anywhere, and that it was unpatriotic to argue otherwise. She related her own harrowing personal story of what it was like for her family to escape from China to India, of how she was placed in an Indian boarding school with no idea of if or when she’d see her family again. I will not argue that even the poorest Americans fare better than the average citizen in many countries, and I cannot disregard the woman’s story for a moment, as it has been relived countless times by immigrants to America over the century. But (speaking as someone who last had ancestors come to America over 200 years ago–some by force), I cannot understand how it is unpatriotic to say that one’s country has the ability, resources, and potential to improve itself, to have faith that it can do so. Those who chant the mantra that “the United States is the best country in the world” stand against quantifiable data: in terms of education, health care, and physical and technological infrastructure, amongst other arenas, the United States is not #1, or even in the top ten. And the bottom 10% in a number of countries fare significantly better than the bottom 10% in the United States. The United States can do better. Some of us have faith that it can.
Will the protests effect change? One friend believes that not only will they be ignored by those in power, that the gap between rich and poor will continue to grow, until mass homelessness and starvation lead to civil war. I told him simply that I am going to fight against that eventuality. I fully believe that the era of the American Empire, like all empires throughout history, is ending. The difference will be whether the empire will go out in a fizzle or a bang. A fizzle would mean a cutting back of military and world economic dominance, resulting in a refocussing of those resources into education, health care, and infrastructure–in short, an acceptance that there are much worse things than being #2. A bang would be my friend’s scenario: chaos, destruction, and war. I daresay almost any of us would prefer the fizzle to the bang.
So I will back the protests, though still in my contrarian way, because I believe it is unhealthy and unwise to “stand against” the 1%, for they too are my brothers and sisters, I want good for them, as for the protesters, as for anyone. What of my epiphany regarding the problem of evil? My views, like the protests, are sure to evolve over time, and it is too soon to tell what they will evolve into.
I originally posted this story to I’m From Driftwood in May 2010. It seemed an appropriate follow-up to yesterday’s stories.
This is hard for me to write. I risk incriminating people with whom I am making peace. I now recognize that they, as well as I, were operating out of ignorance. Yet I must tell my story on behalf of those with similar stories. Many of them are unable to speak for themselves, either because they live in fear, or because they have already lost their lives.
I realized I “had homosexual temptations” during my senior year of high school. I had no one to turn to with it. I felt uncomfortable discussing it with church leaders, and the other youth group members spoke gleefully of “flamers” going to hell. My last week of church camp before heading off to Bible college, I opened up to one of counselors. He recommended I let the authorities at my college know about my “issue” so they could help me through it, so I could grow closer to God and be a witness to others, so that they might not go to hell.
I did so almost immediately after arrival. They said I’d best not let other students know about my temptation, as I might upset them, and they strongly recommended counseling to help me overcome my attractions. However, I convinced myself I could conquer my temptations on my own. I’d read that I was probably just going through a phase. God had the power to conquer any sin, and I was a Christian, a child of God. This would ultimately be as simple as staying close to God.
However, it burdened me to hear other students speak of their own issues with sex, alcohol, and so on, whilst I was to remain silent. I decided to confide in a few students I deeply trusted, for advice and spiritual support. I fell in love with one of them. Try as I might to guard that information, it leaked to the authorities. They informed me that if I was to remain in school, I must attend regular counseling to overcome my “issue”.
The first two counselors claimed their technique could conquer any “sin issue” in six to eight weeks. This proved to be wildly optimistic. Making simple behavioral changes did not alter what went on in my mind and my heart. It didn’t change my thoughts, desires, and hopes. It didn’t change the dread I awoke with whenever I dreamt of holding hands with a man.
I then met for about two years with a counselor who had previously held a position of authority over me and with whom I still had some connections outside counseling. In secular practice, this is forbidden. The counselor is to approach the client with a clean slate, and influence outside the office taints the delicate nature of the counseling relationship. However, in the church, authority figures routinely counsel those under them.
Those sessions proved difficult for me. Despite my following my counselor’s advice to the letter, I still thought about men. I wanted to hold hands with them, to kiss them. I would fantasize about sharing my home with a man for the rest of my life. Interestingly, thoughts of sex with men were rare. I tried to shut down my sexual drive in order to avoid the inevitable guilt and shame.
All the while, my mental health spiraled out of control. My lifelong depressive state began alternating with rapid, uncontrollable thoughts—paranoia, terror, self-destruction. I felt that my evil homosexual desires were destined to be known regardless of what I did, that my Christian witness would collapse and I would cause people to go to hell.
One night, a random comment from an acquaintance tipped the scales. I realized that I was a Christian, but I was also gay. I had always been told that Christians go to heaven and gays go to hell. I was thus a contradiction, and in my whirlwind mind, contradictions couldn’t exist. I had to do something. I had to end the contradiction.
I almost did it. I almost flattened myself from a leap off an overpass. But at the last minute, I called a suicide prevention line.
I spent ten days in the hospital. They determined what others had suspected, that I had bipolar disorder. I struggled to put my life together after my stay, but ultimately, it was best for me to move back to my hometown to recuperate.
Once home, I thumbed through the Yellow Pages and discovered an ad for a counselor who promised to deliver clients from homosexuality. I leapt at the opportunity. Here was a specialist, someone who would understand exactly what I was going through, someone who had helped others overcome their temptations. Perhaps now I could conquer my shame. Perhaps I could one day walk down the streets without strangers yelling, “Hey, faggot!” at me. Perhaps now I would not cause someone to go to hell.
For two years, I got the same message. “You have homosexual temptations because your father was distant and your mother was smothering.” But my mother was pretty lenient. Also, why didn’t my brothers have this issue? “Well, it wasn’t that your father was distant and your mother was smothering, you just perceived it that way, and your brothers perceived it differently.” We argued a lot. If I was doing what he told me to do—stay devoted to the Bible and pray—and it didn’t have the desired result, he would tell me I just wasn’t doing it right or doing it enough. If I fell away from the practice, he berated me for not staying close to God, that I clearly wasn’t serious about being healed of homosexual temptation. He began demanding that I attend the same church as he, since his was the only local congregation who had ascribed to his therapeutic practices. In the end, he closed his practice owing to finances.
Looking back over my journals from that time, I see I was already expressing doubts about these treatments. I had had no results in nearly eight years. But the message of the counselors and churches remained—I simply needed to work harder. Until the point that I had no doubts that I was in fact a heterosexual, I would not have a close relationship to God, I could hold no position that even looked like a leadership role in the church, and I would be a “stumbling block” to others—I risked causing others to go to hell.
Two more years I continued with counseling from different leaders at church. They told me nothing I hadn’t already heard. Any doubts I had were quashed by the proclamation that I was not right with God. Yet one reality grew clearer to me: the more I tried to draw close to God in the way these counselors had told me, the further from God I grew. It is said that the definition of insanity is to do the same thing repeatedly expecting different results. By this definition, I was insane.
I approached one of the counselors. I told him it was clear to me that what he was telling me to do was actually pulling me further from God, not drawing me closer. What if I were to remain in the congregation admitting that I was a homosexual—that I was gay—and that that was okay? I didn’t even bring up whether I thought it would be okay to date or have sex or anything—I hadn’t reached those conclusions yet. He told me that I would always be welcome in the congregation, but because they loved me, they would constantly warn me of the error of my ways. I decided I could not live in that kind of unbalanced relationship. That was the last day I attended that church.
It has been quite a journey since then. I moved to Minneapolis, “The San Francisco of the Midwest.” I have affiliated with religious groups who audaciously claim that God loves me—and everyone else—just as I am. I am not beholden to mere human opinion. My relationship with God is much closer than it was in my younger days, though its shape is much different from what I expected a close relationship with God would look like. God is replacing bitterness with grace, resentment with reconciliation, and despair with hope. Perhaps one day I will build a home with another man—or perhaps I will be single the rest of my life. Regardless, I know that the love and acceptance I sought in God’s representatives, I have found in God.
Interestingly, in the 1 1/2 years since I wrote this, I’ve grown increasingly agnostic.
Some of my posts will be older writings which can be found elsewhere on the internet. I figure it would be smart to collect all my best writings in one place. It also, well, lets me be lazy on occasion, and it is a cold, rainy, dreary day in Minneapolis.
The following story was originally published to I’m From Driftwood in April 2009. I have made here a couple of minor edits. This account illustrates my sense of humour (I claim to have no sense of humour but some friends claim otherwise). I can’t try to be funny, my jokes fall flat, but funny things happen to me, and I can relate them.
I checked for the source of the sound, and felt a small hole in the crotch of my jeans. “Fifteen hours,” I assured myself. “Fifteen hours, and I can unpack my bags and change pants.” I consoled my mom for the millionth time, telling her I would be fine, as we both fought back the tears and my brother prepared to drive me to the Greyhound station.
The previous three weeks had been a whirlwind. I had received notice that the funding for my philosophy degree at Indiana University had been cut sharply, and that my state insurance had been eliminated. When you live in a small town in a conservative state and have a serious medical condition, you don’t mess around—you move. Spending several sleepless nights on campus computers, I talked with friends about where to move. Toledo? It had an intriguing opportunity for me to advance my art career, but it was too small for my taste. Chicago? I loved to visit, but it was too big for me to live in. Seattle? Nice, but too far for moving on a budget. Minneapolis…
I pulled out the ticket. Bloomington to Indianapolis to Chicago to Minneapolis. I had packed as many of my belongings as I could into the Greyhound maximum of four bags— two to go below and two carry-ons. (More of my possessions would follow thanks to friends visiting Minnesota, and the rest would go in a landfill.) Surely, my two smallest bags would fit into the overhead compartments. Unfortunately, my memory of the size of Greyhound buses proved very optimistic. “You can’t fit those on here, they’re too big, they’re gonna have to stay off,” called out the driver gruffly. “But, I’m moving, I don’t have a choice!” I begged. He relented. I stuffed the smallest bag underneath my seat, and straddled the other carry-on…
Behind me lay most of the world I knew. Sure, I’d studied awhile in St. Louis and interned in England. And sure, I was born in a different town, but Bloomington was the map of my heart. Bloomington was where I started coming out—and felt stifled in expressing it. Bloomington was where I had made most of my friends—and lost most of them as I came out. Bloomington was where I got my education—and had it taken away. Bloomington was where my art career budded—and smothered under a lack of opportunity.
What was I losing, really? My relationships with family were always awkward; perhaps they would benefit from distance. The economy would be far better outside my college town, where a Bachelor’s degree would get you $6.50 an hour and cup of coffee—and I didn’t even have the Bachelor’s degree. I was sure I would thrive where I could live out and proud. The past was behind me; a bright future lay before me. And my present?
We pulled into the downtown Chicago station for a 2 1/2-hour layover. I knew one of the little shops in the station would have a travel sewing kit. My plan was to safety-pin together the ever-growing tear. I figured it worked for my punk friends, so why not me? Frazzled from a severe lack of sleep, I gingerly slipped six safety pins along the course of the rip. After all, it only had to hold eight more hours, right?
We stopped at the McDonald’s in Tomah, Wisconsin at the cusp of night and day. If Greyhound weren’t contracted to stop at McDonald’s, and were I not starving, I would have avoided that grease trap and tried to at least get a nap. Sleeping with a huge duffel bag squeezing me into a seat proved to be impossible. I blearily ordered a caramel sundae and an apple pie, hoping to God that no one in the restaurant noticed my deteriorating jeans, the rip now down to my knee. I had yet to learn Upper-Midwestern passive-aggressive behavior, to learn that they wouldn’t say anything until after I was gone. At least, I thought, I’m wearing boxers.
Minneapolis at last! I was crazy, I thought, moving to this city without ever visiting. But crazier things had been done. I just had to call my friend Chris to pick me up, and I could finally get rid of these jeans. Except… “Sir, I understand your situation, but there are families with young children in here, and I’m going to have to ask you to step outside the station.” Great, I’m in a strange city, half-naked, being kicked outside where I could get arrested. I crossed my fingers, hoping that Chris would hurry up. Indeed, a few minutes later, my chariot arrived, and the first thing we did was to go to his place for me to change my pants.
It is coincidence that I am posting this story on the anniversary of the death of Matthew Shepard. You catch a glimpse of homophobia in my life in this story. Shepard’s death affected me profoundly, and I will write more about how so later.