At the age of fourteen I started bussing tables and washing dishes in Portland restaurants. I did that every summer for three years, from 1978-80. In 1981 I graduated from high school in Beaverton with a solid three point something grade average – my grades were mediocre beyond belief. My SAT score was literally in the middle of my class – an equal number above and below me. What can I say? I loved learning, I hated structure. Upon graduation my parents took me out to a nice restaurant in town; they handed me a Bible for my graduation present and gave me some advice. Pump gas or join the army.
I was glad and grateful for everything at the time. It was what they could do, what they could offer. But I didn’t want to pump gas and I knew enough about myself to know I had neither the temper for that nor the army. And the hard truth is that they should have known better. They had a kid who had read all of Shakespeare by the age of 16. I was reading voraciously as a teenager. Everything from Sophokles to Clausewitz. Pump gas? How about college?
But then again, I remember how hard my parents worked to make a go of it for a big family – four children, plus, in later years, grandchildren. They helped with the grandkids a lot – shoes, dinners out (usually at pizza joints), presents for all of those birthdays and Christmases. They lived at a time when a modest income allowed them to have several cars, a few televisions, and two mortgages; and once they went to Europe, in 1972, to visit my mother’s family in Denmark and Norway. They grew up in the era of the GI bill and figured the army was how a young person made it to college.
Yet I was glad at the time to have the advice and the Bible (which is still at the side of my elbow as I write), and since I was around people who were provincial and narrow in their outlook, and frankly in the possibilities for their children, I had little expectations of myself. But I intuitively knew I could do better, knew there were things I wanted to do and could do. So I spent the summer floating in a pool on an air matress at my parents’ condo, drank prodigious quantities of beer and assorted liquor, and in late August sobered up, hit the streets of Portland, and got a job processing claims (inputting info into what at the time was a state of the art CRT computer) at Oregon Physicians Service, that later merged with Blue Cross Blue Shield of Oregon.
I had no car. I had no girlfriend. I lived with my parents, and paid them a pretty substantial rent, but everything else I socked away or spent on used books and beer. I had no social life, except for my good and dear friend at the time, Kelly Loomer. But books were my primary source of pleasure. I adored them, and read every night from the time I got home, sometimes until one in the morning. I spent my spare time in Powell’s Books and old record stores in Portland from 1981-83 searching for books and learning about fine music from an old peculiar looking man who owned a hole in the wall record store on Yamhill Street.
During that time, and even before, I learned how unpleasant and grueling repetitive tasks were. I learned that a life of manual labor or white collar paper-pushing would kill me, physically and spiritually. I was not temperamentally configured to live in that environment. That is what individuality is about, no? The world needs truck drivers, men who spread gravel on small county roads, fishermen, meat packers. But it also needs scholars, guardians of our past, of our languages, of the collective wisdom of our species. It needs both – the state trooper and the Latinist. One thought began to haunt me: escape. It was a searing experience, but all the more searing, if not more so, was my family’s hostility to aspiration. Read and we will mock you. Express a desire to explore the world and we will shake our head and tell you no, you can’t do that.
I have no idea how people who know about my experience in Europe in 1983 think I lived, but let me tell them. I slept in rat holes. I slept on the street. I slept on trains. And yes, sometimes I got lucky and found, as I did at the Austrian village where I met my future wife, a beautiful $7/night B&B with a view of the Alps – but that was usually just dumb luck. I ate bread and cheese. I drank extraordinary amounts of beer for calories.
When I returned, I had enough money to put myself through a year of school at OSU, but then when the money ran out in June 1984 went back to work. I recall in my places of employment how tough most people had it. It resulted sometimes in stress and bad behavior – towards their employers, towards one another, towards their families. I recall enormous amounts of drug and alcohol abuse both on and off the job – perhaps because that is what cubicled, repetitive, meaningless work drives people to seek for escape.
In 1985 I left Oregon and moved in with my then girlfriend and later wife in Boston Mass. For about six months I worked in a factory where I built garage doors. Once I started at the University of Mass./Boston I worked in work study during the school year and summer. I pushed meaningless paper for the university and for insurance companies in Mass. My wife worked odd jobs and did work study while we both worked to put me and her through graduate and law school. We lived in illegal basement apartments. We lived with sparse furnishings. We ate spaghetti nightly. We did our laundry in town. We rarely went out. This went on for eleven years. We moved from place to place as our circumstances changed and as we had to re-jigger our living circumstances to get by. In Boston – and this is no grandfather’s story but absolutely true – I walked a mile in a foot of snow to be blasted by bitter winds from over the ice off the harbor to catch the blue line to transfer on the purple line to transfer on the orange line to transfer on the red line to transfer to a bus to get to my university across the harbor by eight. And all of this for my wife to study law and for me to learn Greek and Latin.
Think about this: we started living together in 1985, but could not afford even so much as a townhouse until 1996. That year we got a town house in Maryland, but three years later I got sucked in to assisting my parents who were on the verge of bankruptcy. But that is another story.
All of this is by way of saying that I damn well known hard scrabble. Harder srabble than my siblings who took an easy track to security – but also to a dread ennui. Harder scrabble than my siblings, all of whom got help from my parents, while I not only got nothing, but actively sacrificed and helped them. I did that because my father instilled in me a love of reading – which is perhaps the greatest of all gifts. For from it comes all knowledge: Of cooking. Of Greek. Of travel. Of Africa. Of the ant. Of Math. Of God. Of a rich rich life – it is a passion that looks not to material security, but to that of the mind, of the spirit, of experiences that give wealth far beyond what is even possible to communicate. To be given a love of reading is to be embraced by the Universe, and to be given the key to embracing it, fearlessly, in turn. The challenges and experiences it proffers are endless: I have heard the call to prayer at Ebla, the crie de coeur of the imam, the vast stillness of a city dead for five thousand years. Have you heard such a sound – of emptiness, of simultaneously profound despair and joy?
I have been through and suffered more, and above all, remembered it, more than most would care to acknowledge or admit. I see and understand this now. The deplorables do not have a monopoly on reality, on hard-scrabble, and in fact may disdain those who have sacrificed and achieved (and who have been successful in spite of it), disdainful for the very fact of their escape. Yet they would do well to remember that I am on their side. I think they should get the Social Security into which they’ve paid, or the Medicare, or the Medicaid. But I’ll be damned if I’ll cede my hard experiences to their bullshit that I’ve some how forgotten how difficult life is and what people who have not had as much success in life need. That I “don’t know what it’s like”, that I’m not a real American and they are – because isn’t the American story my story? To pull yourself out of your situation and have some decent, admirable success? Maybe you’re the one who doesn’t know “what it’s like” – because I’ve been in rural PA, and Omaha, and rural Oregon, but also in Boston, in Chicago, in DC, in Portland. Have you? I refuse to apologize for being driven, for being a reader, for enjoying the finer and higher things of life.
Rather on the contrary, I would say it is the deplorables who have forgotten themselves. For they are the ones who no longer are interested in allying with those of us who have their best interest at heart due to – and I must be blunt – their own envy. I’m sorry but I do not live in a bubble – it’s all of you who live in the bubble, it’s only that the bubble is no longer a bubble anymore, it’s a temple, and you decided on Black Tuesday to pull its walls about the ears of all of us. And that was unforgivably stupid.
And I will remember that, every bit as much as the first table I bussed in Portland when I was just a kid. Dirty plates, scraps of food, chapped hands due to processing mail, and the concerns of those around me: I remember all of that, and yet I apologize to no one for the privilege of treading so many paths on this Earth. Someone who overcame the odds and made something of himself. Isn’t that what this country is about? Or are those just words, and its realization to be resented?