I fucked up, to begin with. I went to this conference in Las Vegas this past week, and for once in my life I got my shit together to buy the tickets early enough that I could fly for cheap. But when my itinerary came a few days before I traveled, my return flight home was for a month after it was supposed to be. I called the discount airline website I had used to find the tickets, knowing precisely how everything would go, despite their aggressively chipper advertising. And so it went. The fees to change by themselves obliterated the price of my return ticket and the difference in price for a new ticket was more money than I had.
When I started the phone call, I was sure that their system had screwed up, and then during the course of it, that thing happened where you stop being convinced that you're right while in the middle of angrily arguing with someone that you are. I'm not saying the screwup really was mine. I just don't know.
I still had my flight there. The return ticket just had to burn itself off. I was presenting at the conference and I couldn't let the three other guys I was rooming with in the lurch. So I got a Greyhound bus ticket home to Indiana from Vegas. Much cheaper than any of the return flights. Went Nevada-Utah-Colorado-Kansas-Missouri-Illinois-Indiana. Got on the bus at 3:00 PM Saturday, got off in Indianapolis at 9:30 Monday. From there, a cab ride to the airport and the shuttle home to school.
The trip was fine. I've never seen that part of the country from the highway before. There just were a few incidents on my way home that chipped away at my resistance. I really do try to remember how incredibly fortunate I am. I really do. I just can get worn down.
The truth is also that knowing about your own privilege and working to remember it aren't a reliable shield about being alive to the things that aren't working for you. Like a lot of people who come from a socially liberal, academic culture, I have taken a defensive posture against expressions of my own bad luck. That's a good thing. Look at this conference: for all you care to say about academic pathologies, I heard very straightforward, jargon-free discussion of what it means to be among the disfavored, and to adjust your understanding of your own situation accordingly. I heard, yet again, from instructors who felt they could not get their students to respect them the way an instructor should be respected, to be taken seriously by them. That's a problem I simply can't identify with; my students typically listen to me as if I'm the voice of god-- because I'm a dude, and I'm white, and I'm tall, and I happen to look the way their culture says a professor looks.
But when I was scrambling around, trying to figure out how to get home without running through my meager bankroll for the trip, I confess that all of that seemed distant. And the truth is that I made $18,000 last year, and while I have cataloged all the ways in which my life is materially better than people who make twice that, could tell you with statistical precision all the ways in which I am fortunate, until I found a cheap bus ticket, I felt deeply alone. And the truth is that I am so tired of being poor. I am so tired of being poor. I know everything that's wrong with saying that, I know I shouldn't say it. But I am so tired of being poor.
I won't go into the various aspects of Las Vegas that are hard on the human psyche. You've read them before, by considerably more talented writers than me. It'll suffice to say that my walk to the bus station from my casino hotel cast a different shadow on the already-unpleasant gaudiness of the strip. On the walk, two old homeless men were fighting in a parking lot. They knocked over one of those metal containers that you can take free newspapers out of. There was a crowd gathered around, and they were cheering. Some of them had emerged from one of the scuzzier casinos, drinking from those neon-colored tubes filled with alcoholic slushie. The fight made me feel bad but the cheering section, who unlike the two men fighting likely did not suffer from mental illness or addiction, made me feel worse. A woman said that the cops had been called. But I still could have tried to stop it, and I didn't.
The bus ride was okay, aside from the expected physical discomforts, and a couple of guys on the bus. They were young, one in his early twenties, the other probably still a teenager. And they had one of those American bro downs, where they talked exclusively in ways that projected whatever strangled definition of manhood has implanted itself in their brains. They talked about all the girls they got and the kids they had and the laws they'd broken and they days they'd spent in prison and how good they were at high school football (despite failures to grasp even rudimentary football vocabulary) and how many girls they'd fucked and how many knives they owned and how many drugs they'd taken and how wasted they'd been and how many gruesome injuries they'd withstood and always, always, always about the fights they'd won, about whichever asshole said whichever thing at whichever time and then it was on. Again and again. The thing is that they just didn't stop. They got on, I think, in Denver, and they started peacocking in that way there and were still doing it when I crawled off the bus in Indianapolis. They went on for hours and hours. I'd finally fall asleep and when I woke up again they'd still be at it.
At the St. Louis bus terminal someone disrespected the younger one's girlfriend. It was not entirely clear to me what the story was, but the story is generally not important in these events. Supposedly a black man had said "fuck you white bitch" to her as he walked by in the terminal, unprovoked, which seemed about as plausible to me as the claim that the 5'10 older guy had been "300 pounds of solid muscle" during high school football season. But real or fake, it caused their conversation to devolve into the expected racism, not a half hour after they had been talking about their love of hip hop and fetish for black women. In any event, the ritual began, one that will be familiar to just about every guy, the choreographed expression of offense, the hyperbolic discussion of one's own fighting prowess, the insistence on the rights of women to not be disrespected by men who had moments before been talking about them as brainless babymakers, and the painfully obvious reality that no one would fight anyone but that everyone would have to stake out a certain claim to projected manliness. It was important that the older one was older and that the younger one had to justify all of his extended riffing on his own fighting ability and cred. So they did the dance, and eventually we got on the bus.
I wondered if they knew how quickly they might become a couple of spotty old alcoholics, impotently throwing punches at each other in the parking lot of a circus-themed casino, while frat boys on spring break hooted in between sips from yards of margaritas. I try to tell myself that masculinity has improved within my own memory, but it just isn't true. Then and now, for so many masculinity's value has been indistinguishable from its capacity to commit violence.
My seatmate for a long while was a man named
In Kansas City, they wouldn't let him get back on the bus. He had missed a transfer somewhere. It seemed easy enough to do; I worried about it the whole time. I loaded up while he talked to them. It became clear that they wouldn't let him back on. His leather coat was in the storage space above our seats. I grabbed it and came to get off the bus to give it to him. The Greyhound employees wouldn't let me off the bus. They said if I got off the bus I wouldn't be able to get back on, and I'd have to purchase a new ticket for the bus that left the next afternoon. I said to the guy, here, this is that guy's leather jacket, he's 25 feet away, can you bring it to him. But they wouldn't. They just wouldn't. I wanted nothing more than to just walk out past them and hand it to him. But I didn't have enough money in my bank account to buy another ticket, and my suitcase was stored in the bus, and I was so tired. So I got back on and put his jacket back up in the storage. Then I had nothing to do but sit and think about it.
My politics exists to understand the difference between him and me, between both of us and the people who will never worry about how to get home. It is political. Perhaps if he were me, if he were white and spoke the English that power speaks like I do, he would have been able to get back on that bus, or to talk them into letting him have his leather jacket. But it's not just political. It's the way that human beings can help others, simply, at no costs to themselves, and don't, every day, every day. You cross active cruelty out of the equation, just don't think about it, and still, there's so many times every day when someone could punch a button on a computer or look the other way, and don't, and in so doing contribute to human misery. This is part of what libertarians always talk about. But you can get crushed up in the machinery of industry just as well as the machinery of government. Greyhound bus can fuck you just as well as the DMV. I don't know how anyone who has ever talked to Bank of America customer service remains a libertarian. What scares me is that, even past politics, after victory, there will be something in humans that compel them to do harm when they could as easily help.
The conference was nice. It's so good to be among my people; I need it. I got to see the mountains in Nevada as the highway snaked between them. Listening to the Hold Steady in the Las Vegas bus depot was something. And I'm home, now. Coming home to my dog after a long trip never gets old.
On the drive, I listened to David Foster Wallace's commencement address. I tried to do what he said we were tasked to do-- to expand my empathy in the way I ask that the employees at Greyhound or Priceline expand theirs, to think about all the reasons that the employees might have felt it necessary to keep me on that bus, to remember that they were also tired. I tried to imagine how those boys, performing manhood for each other, came to get it so wrong. I tried to think that there was some mitigating circumstances that would compel adult human beings to root on two desperately broken people as they tried to hurt each other in a casino parking lot. I tried to remember that this is water.
But I failed, I'm not strong enough. I could see myself in them, but I don't. Just like I could have gotten in between those two homeless men, just like I could have stepped off the bus and given that guy his jacket. I just didn't.
When I write like this, I am accused, of sanctimony or pretense. Somebody will make fun of this post. I could posit, against all sense and history, that some new computer chip will end human misery, and join a chorus of thousands who make that claim. I could insist on the moral necessity of committing violence against some disfavored group, and earn a career in doing so. What I am asking for is the right to reserve a space for human despair. All I ask of my detractors, who meticulously curate their online identities, so much effort invested in appearing so dry, that they recognize something in themselves that feels the same impulse, that necessitates their defensive posture. And I ask that they let me occupy the same space, just free of the relentless ironizing, just to speak it plainly. I only ask for the right to say that I don't know how to exist in a world where people do the things that they do to each other. I ask for the right to say that I don't know how to live with myself when I let go the things I let go.
I lost my earbuds, this morning, the nice ones my sister gave me for Christmas. I had kept track of them obsessively and then, somehow, they were gone. It will please my detractors to see that here, this nice white whine, this feeling sorry for myself. I can only confess that I feel the loss of those earbuds as keenly as I've felt everything else I've talked about here. I know I have worked so hard to understand the difference, I just came from a conference where people talked about it endlessly. But right now it's as hard to grasp as the purpose of my political anger. I can't remember what it's all been for.